The New Year gets underway with Cheltenham’s traditional New Year’s Day card featuring some quality action.
The Grade 2 BetBright #Realfansonly Novices’ Chase is better known as The Dipper Novices’ Chase over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 166 yards and often throws up a few clues for the Cheltenham Festival.
Blaklion was a smart novice hurdler last season, winning a Grade 2 contest at this meeting, but disappointing in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained year old ran a fair race on his chasing debut to finish 4 lengths fourth of 7 to the vastly more experienced Cocktails At Dawn at Chepstow in October. The following month he headed to Cheltenham for a hot looking contest and was still in contention when falling racing down the hill for the final time, in a race won by Vicente. He gained ample compensation at the December meeting though, jumping well and beating Onenightinvienna by 2 ½ lengths with an impressive display.
Le Mercurey was a hugely promising young horse in France, winning his two completed starts. The Paul Nicholls trained 6 year old failed to make too much mark in 3 starts over hurdles last season though, running his best race when 6 ¼ lengths third of 8 to Baradari in a Grade 2 contest at Ascot in January. However, he looked a very different proposition when making his chasing debut at Plumpton in mid-November, beating the useful Violet Dancer by 6 lengths. He made it two from two when benefitting from the last fence blunder of Amore Alato, going on to beat Thomas Brown by 6 lengths in the Grade 2 Mitie Novices’ Chase at Ascot just before Christmas.
After winning a point to point contest, Three Musketeers proved a very accomplished novice hurdler last season, with victories at Wetherby and then a Grade 2 contest at Warwick, where he defeated Ballagh by ¾ of a length in January in soft ground. The Dan Skelton trained 6 year old then ran well to finish 11 ½ lengths third of 12 to Nichols Canyon in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in April. He made his novice chasing introduction at Huntingdon in early November, finishing 4 ½ lengths third to Sametegal. He met that rival on 7 pounds better terms in the Grade 2 Berkshire Novices’ Chase at Newbury in late November and was full value for his 4 ½ lengths defeat of Activial, looking a smart prospect, as his old rival unseated his rider.
Seeyouatmidnight is an intriguing runner here. This top class hurdler has just his third start over fences and is thrown into top competition against seasoned chasers by Sandy Thomson. The 8 year old won 4 consecutive hurdles races two seasons ago and last term contested the World Hurdle, finishing 7th to Cole Harden. He made a promising start over fences when 6 ½ lengths third of 6 to Silsol at Carlisle in early November and the following month gained his revenge, beating that horse by 13 lengths in a novice chase at Kelso. He now steps up in grade but looks exciting.
Aubusson was a very smart staying hurdler who landed the valuable Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle at Haydock Park in November 2014. The Nick Williams trained 7 year old ran another fine race at Auteuil in November, when he finished a nose second of 10 to Thousand Stars in the Grade 1 Grand Prix d’Automne. He then made his debut over fences at Uttoxeter in early December, impressing as he defeated Dig Deeper by 4 ½ lengths.
Minella Rocco will attract plenty of attention as he makes his second start over fences. This beautiful looking Jonjo O’Neill trained 6 year old won a point to point in March 2014 and won his two starts over hurdles by wide margins last winter. He made his chasing debut at Haydock Park in late November and ran a little flat, but was still only beaten 2 lengths when last of 3 behind Silsol. In early December he ran in a novice chase at Cheltenham but was never travelling and was pulled up at a relatively early stage. He has some big questions to answer just now.
Volnay De Thaix proved a very useful hurdler and last season was locking horns with the likes of Rock On Ruby, Aux Ptits Soins and Jezki, finishing fifth in the Coral Cup and third in the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle. The Nicky Henderson trained 7 year old made a winning debut over fences when working hard but eventually getting on top as he beat Pine Creek by 2 lengths at Doncaster in December.
The other big race on the card is the Grade 2 Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle over 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 56 yards, moved from the December meeting.
Current World Hurdle winner Cole Harden returns to the scene of his triumph last March as he takes another step towards defending his crown. The Warren Greatrex trained 7 year old was a smart novice hurdler but improved significantly following a wind operations. He won on his seasonal return at Wetherby in early November 2014, beating Medinas by 8 lengths; but that rival reversed form with a 7 lengths defeat of Cole Harden at Newbury at the end of that month. Cole Harden ran another fine race at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day over an arguably inadequate trip, eventually finishing 2 ¾ lengths third to former Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby. He ran poorly at the end of January in the Cleeve Hurdle when 16 lengths fourth to Saphir Du Rheu and that prompted a wind operation. He was a completely different horse in the World Hurdle setting off at the head of affairs and quite simply never coming back to his rivals, skipping over the last flight and bounding up the Cheltenham Hill to record a 3 ¼ lengths victory over Saphir Du Rheu. He ran another solid race the following month, but was perhaps feelings the effects of his World Hurdle run when 3 ½ lengths second of 9 to Whisper in the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree. Cole Harden returned to action in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in late November but was perhaps in need of the run as he finished 6 ½ lengths third of 5 to Thistlecrack.
Whisper proved a very smart handicap hurdler a couple of seasons ago, landing the 2014 Coral Cup before going on to Grade 1 glory when beating At Fishers Cross by a length in the Liverpool Hurdle. The Nicky Henderson trained 8 year old did not reappear until early January when he contested a novice chase at Exeter. He jumped carefully but not spectacularly and finished 3 ¼ lengths second to Ceasar Milan. After that run Henderson focussed Whisper on an attempt at the World Hurdle and he ran well to finish 10 ½ lengths fifth to Cole Harden. That seemed to bring him on and he underlined his love of Aintree by beating Cole Harden by 3 ½ lengths to make it back to back victories in the Liverpool Hurdle, confirming his credentials as a staying hurdler of the highest order. However, there appeared to be a cloud hanging over Whisper as he ran a lifeless race in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in late November, eventually finishing 31 lengths last of 5 behind Thistlecrack and he will need huge improvement here.
Former Hennessy Gold Cup and Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Bobs Worth remains unbeaten over hurdles and returns to this discipline with a possible tilt at the World Hurdle on the cards. The Nicky Henderson trained 11 year old ran 4 lengths fifth to Lord Windermere in the 2014 Cheltenham Gold Cup and seemed out of sorts last season, running a disappointing 8th to Road To Riches in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and then pulling up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He had one more start in the bet365 Gold Cup at Sandown Park in late April but was a tailed off 11th of 20 to Just A Par. Bobs Worth made his return to action over hurdles at Aintree in early November and seemed to be rejuvenated, cutting out much of the running and repelling the challenge of his keen stable mate Simonsig, who appeared to be cantering over him at one stage. However, Bobs Worth dug in deep and beat his rival by 1 ½ lengths to maintain his record over hurdles. He seemed tapped for toe as Smad Place set a relentless gallop in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in late November, but eventually stayed on to finish 26 lengths sixth of 15.
Lil Rockerfeller continues to progress after a fabulous campaign last term, which yielded back to back victories in valuable juvenile handicap hurdles at Ascot in late March (beating Sternrubin by 6 lengths) and Sandown Park in late April (beating the same rival by 2 ¾ lengths). The Neil King trained 5 year old ran 2 ¼ lengths third of 8 to Devilment on his return at Cheltenham in October and was far from disgraced the following month when 2 lengths third of 7 to Bivouac at Huntingdon. He showed plenty of tenacity in early December to land a Sandown Park handicap hurdle, beating his old rival Devilment by 2 lengths. This is a step up in grade.
Top Notch very much lived up to his name last season and is a fascinating and exciting contender here. The Nicky Henderson trained 5 year old went into last season’s JCB Triumph Hurdle with a 5-race unbeaten record. He was successful on both starts in France before joining Henderson and impressed on his English debut at Newbury when beating Mick Jazz by 4 ½ lengths in late December. Top Notch confirmed himself a classy individual with a smooth 2 ¼ lengths defeat of Golden Doyen at Ascot in January and a month later recorded a facile victory over Medicine Hat, winning by 9 lengths at Haydock Park. In the Triumph he ran a mighty race in defeat, finishing ¼ of a length second of 16 to the outstanding Peace And Co. Top Notch returned to action at Haydock Park in November, running a fine race before being overhauled late on by Irving, eventually running 1 ¼ lengths second. A week later he contested the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, showing improvement but going down to a 1.4 of a length defeat at the hands of the progressive Identity Thief. He now steps up in trip.
Aurore D’Estruval has so far proved a very useful mare since arriving from France and makes her debut for Rebecca Curtis here, having been previously trained by John Quinn. The 5 year old was successful on her English debut at Wetherby in February 2014 and then ran ½ a length second to Abracadabra Sivola at Haydock Park race later in the month. She missed Cheltenham but at Aintree ran 9 ¾ lengths fifth to Guitar Pete, with Hawk High again behind her. Aurore D’Estruval made a winning reappearance at Wetherby in November 204, beating Emily Gray by an impressive 10 lengths in a mares’ only race. At the end of that month she was a fine 1 ¾ lengths second to Irving in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. In January 2015 she continued her fine run of form when beating the useful Dark Spirit by 2 lengths in a Listed mares race at Sandown Park. However, she has not raced for 363 days since that run.
Camping Ground remains a horse of untapped potential and returns to hurdling here. The Robert Walford trained 6 year old won his last 3 starts in France including 2 victories at Auteuil, before landing a Warwick handicap chase by 4 ½ lengths from Al Alfa on his English debut in early February 2014. He then contested the Grade 3 Imperial Cup Handicap Hurdle at Sandown Park in March, running a fine race to finish 2 lengths fourth of 23 to Ebony Dancer. He made his second start in the UK over fences in the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon in early December but unseated his rider early on and reverts to hurdles now.
The 7 year old Virgilio showed good potential in four starts in France, winning once over hurdles and having a spin over fences before joining Dan Skelton. He made an instant impact with two quick fire and comprehensive victories in handicap hurdles in May. Virgilio made his return in another handicap hurdle at Aintree in early December, impressively beating Un Ace by 8 lengths. He now takes a well earned step up in class.