Published 11 February
With only two weeks of the qualification period for the Foxhunter left to go, the race is starting to take shape after some dramatic events. So far this season there has been a shock defeat for the reigning champion, a jockey got cramp on a leading contender and an owner bought a horse with Cheltenham as the target, but the horse is ineligible to run.
Last season’s winner Hazel Hill opened his campaign with a comfortable victory in a Mens Open at Sheriff Hutton, drawing clear from Rocklander after the last to win by fifteen lengths. However, things didn’t go to plan last time at Wetherby when he was beaten at 1-4 by Minella Rocco.
Hazel Hill’s jumping has always lacked a little fluency and he’s shown a tendency to edge to his right but after reaching for the fourth fence he started to jump markedly out to the right, something that he had done when scrambling home from Caryto Des Brosses at Cheltenham’s hunter chase meeting. Unlike on that occasion, he found one rival too good at Wetherby as Minella Rocco got on top after the last. Clearly, Hazel Hill is much better than he was able to show at Wetherby but it’s worrying that he will go into Cheltenham on the back of such a poor display of jumping.
Hazel Hill’s Wetherby conqueror, Minella Rocco, is currently 6-1 second favourite having won both of his starts in hunter chases. He looked to be racing quite idly at Warwick and momentarily looked in trouble turning the final bend when Kashmir Peak went on but ran on strongly under only light urging in the straight and after landing upsides at the last, he pulled clear on the run in. He travelled sweeter at Wetherby and Derek O’Connor always looked confident in the straight, just pushing him out to beat Hazel Hill by 1½ lengths. Although Minella Rocco has won both hunter chases quite comfortably, in both races the main danger either failed to complete or significantly underperformed so there’s a question over exactly what level Minella Rocco has been running to.
It should also be noted that both of these wins have been gained in very small fields. Minella Rocco looked uncomfortable in amongst horses in the early stages on his first start this season at Cheltenham and was then kept wide for the rest of the race, which were also the tactics used at Ascot on his most recent handicap run. He will encounter a much bigger field at Cheltenham and although he won a 20-runner National Hunt Chase in 2016, I’m not sure that scenario is ideal for him anymore.
Last season’s Cheltenham Foxhunter runner-up, Shantou Flyer, got this season off to a winning start in a Mens Open at Larkhill on his first run for Rose Loxton. Having survived a bad mistake at the third fence going away from the crowd, he made headway to be in a share of the lead as the field emerged from the dip. He maintained that position until Salvatore went on going to 2 out and Shantou Flyer briefly looked in trouble but he quickly recovered and despite idling on the run in, went on to win by 1½ lengths from the fast-finishing Green Winter.
He was receiving 5lb from his rivals due to Angus Cheleda’s claim, something that he won’t have in the Foxhunter, and has to improve significantly on this form to be competitive at Cheltenham but he wasn’t wearing the visor or blinkers that seemed to spark him up last season and he appeared to only be doing what was required to win the race. The current plans and riding arrangements for Shantou Flyer are currently unknown as he’s owned by David Maxwell who seems to be trying to get as many horses as possible qualified for Cheltenham, most notably Bob And Co who has been the centre of attention ever since Maxwell mentioned him in an interview in late November.
Bob And Co showed plenty of ability from an early age in France but also that he was a difficult ride, at times being uncontrollable and tearing off in front and at others having to be dropped in a detached last in an attempt to get him to settle. He was purchased by Maxwell with the Cheltenham Foxhunter in mind after finishing third in a Grade 3 chase at Auteuil in March last year and was sent to Paul Nicholls to target this race but his attempt at qualifying for the race hasn’t gone smoothly. At Warwick he showed his usual keenness but he was so keen that David Maxwell’s attempt to restrain him resulted in the owner-rider getting cramp in his right leg and he had to pull him up before the first fence in the row coming back towards the stands.
There was no repeat of this at Bangor on his most recent outing as with the hood that he wore on occasions in France reapplied, Bob And Co settled a bit better and after Swift Crusador unseated his rider early on the final circuit he was left to come home a long way clear of the only other finisher, Ballynagour. Bob And Co needs to finish first or second in another hunter chase to qualify for Cheltenham but even if he does that he may still have questions to answer, with the distance being the main one. Although he settled better at Bangor, Bob And Co went off quickly and finished very slowly over 2m4½f and when racing over 2m6f towards the end of his time in France he would often travel well before appearing to not quite see out the distance. It may turn out that the lesser competition in hunter chases gives him more of a chance to see out longer distances but his keenness remains a concern and the current evidence suggests he may be seen to better effect in the Aintree Foxhunter than at Cheltenham.
Maxwell also had Captain Cattistock and Diplomate Sivola entered in a hunter chase at Kelso this week, the latter taking advantage of the eligibility rules that allow horses to come back from handicaps to hunter chases at any time during the season, the suitability of that rule being highly questionable but a discussion for another time. Last year’s Horse And Hound Cup winner Wonderful Charm is another who could take advantage of that rule having been pulled up in the Edinburgh National but he’s looking trickier by the race.
One horse who could also make the switch back to hunter chases and seems to have endless enthusiasm is the thirteen-year-old and last season’s Aintree Foxhunter winner TOP WOOD, who is the first of two selections for the race at 16-1. He contested the same handicap chase at Ascot earlier in the season as Minella Rocco and Diplomate Sivola and finished a long way ahead of those rivals in second off a mark of 139.
He has since been beaten 29 lengths into sixth in the Tommy Whittle on heavy ground but he ran well for a long way and that race has worked out very well. Lord Du Mesnil went up 10lb for winning and then got raised another 10lb after winning the Last Fling next time out. Vintage Clouds was beaten twenty lengths in third and he’s since won the Peter Marsh by seven lengths over the same course and distance. Top Wood has been placed in the Cheltenham Foxhunter in the last two seasons, coming within a neck of winning the race in 2018, and his shrewd connections are likely to have spotted the opportunity to return for a third crack at the race, particularly given this season’s renewal hardly looks a vintage one at this stage.
Billaway is currently the shortest priced of the Irish challengers after victory at Naas and there could be more to come from this lightly-raced eight-year-old. In a slowly-run race at Naas, he burst through a gap shortly before 2 out and quickened away from his rivals on the run in to win by eight lengths. It may be that he is improving and will do so again at Cheltenham, but I think that steadily run race played to his strength and I’m not sure the 3m2½f of the Foxhunter is certain to do the same. His jumping was generally good at Naas but that hasn’t always been the case and it will be under severe pressure at Cheltenham so although he could be the main Irish hope in March, I can’t see any edge in his current price of 8-1.
Back in second at Naas was Staker Wallace, who looked a promising horse for this sphere back in 2017 and was making his first start in 1078 days. He is yet to qualify for Cheltenham but his stablemate Stand Up And Fight has done so. The Naas contest had been earmarked to be his first start since pulling up in the Punchestown Champion Hunter but he failed to appear. He is being given a lighter campaign this season after his form appeared to take a dip after the Down Royal win on Boxing Day last season but he still has to prove that he wants this much of a stamina test and retains the necessary class as even the Down Royal win is still some way from the level likely needed to win the race this season. If he has a prep before Cheltenham, that could give more clues as to his chance.
The other Irish-trained horse to have caused a stir this season won’t even be running in the race. Mighty Stowaway has won three of his four starts in point to points for Shark Hanlon and was purchased by Philip Reynolds prior to his latest one at Tinahely with Cheltenham in mind. However, Mighty Stowaway’s win in a handicap chase at Punchestown in November 2018 makes him ineligible for British hunter chases this season as this is the overseas equivalent of a class 2 and a horse can’t have won a class 2 chase within fifteen months of the start of the hunter chase season. Most bookmakers have correctly removed him from their antepost market but it would be helpful for the BHA to make an official announcement regarding Mighty Stowaway’s ineligibility so that all can take the correct course of action as he’s never been eligible to run in the race so all bets on him should be refunded accordingly.
Don Poli has attracted the most media attention this season of any of the likely runners but that’s due to his past achievements and connections rather than what he’s achieved in either victory at Alnwick. In the second of those wins, he had to work fairly hard to hold off the challenge of Killer Crow and he will have to improve plenty on that form to be competitive at Cheltenham.
A horse who has achieved a far higher level of form this season is last season’s Lady Dudley Cup winner, Wishing And Hoping. On his first start this season in very testing conditions at Ffos Las he set a good pace and ground his rivals into submission, finishing alone in the Mixed Open. He then won comfortably at Taunton despite jumping sharply out to the left at various stages, beating Bishops Road who is being aimed at Cheltenham. Immediately after the race, Philip Rowley suggested that he might wait until next season to run Wishing And Hoping in the Foxhunter but nothing was confirmed for definite and plenty has happened since that might encourage him to run the horse. He’s entered in the Walrus at Haydock on Saturday so more will be known after that.
Another Walrus entrant who could have Foxhunter aspirations is The Dellercheckout, whose trainer Caroline Robinson rode Eliogarty to Foxhunter success in 1983. The Dellercheckout didn’t quite live up to his £260,000 price tag during his time with Paul Nicholls but since being bought by Robinson he’s won all three starts. After winning Opens at Barbury Castle and Sheriff Hutton, he comfortably won a hunter chase at Ludlow, after which Immy Robinson was uncertain as to whether they would target the race with him this season or wait until next season as he’s only a seven-year-old. I thought the race at Ludlow didn’t turn out to be as strong as it appeared pre-race as Monbeg Gold didn’t seem to be travelling from an early stage and then slipped on landing at 2 out when coming to challenge, Dieu Vivant blatantly didn’t stay and Llancillo Lord unseated when challenging at 4 out so The Dellercheckout will face a much tougher task if they go to Cheltenham.
Virak could also line up in the Walrus after a wide-margin victory at Wincanton last time but I’m not sure he’s being aimed at the Foxhunter as the hustle and bustle of a big field doesn’t suit him. The likes of Alcala, Chef d’Equipe and Seeyouatmidnight all have a lot of work to do to qualify in time as they need to finish in the first two in two hunter chases in the next two weeks, while Art Mauresque was beaten at 4-11 on his most recent outing at Milborne St Andrew and the Aintree Foxhunters looks a more obvious target for him.
Last year’s John Corbet winner, Law Of Gold, has now won his last five starts having opened his campaign this season with a twelve-length victory in a Mens Open at Horseheath and the Foxhunter is a possibility for him. Caryto Des Brosses, beaten a neck by Hazel Hill at Cheltenham and Wonderful Charm at Stratford, was pulled up at 2-7 on his first run this season so now has questions to answer. And The Ex-Gigginstown owned Lord Scoundrel won on his first start since the 2018 Galway Plate when easily winning the Ladies Open at Cottenham last Saturday but future targets for him are unknown are this stage.
It’s another horse who is one from one in point to points this season who is my second and main selection for the race, but this one has already run twice in the Cheltenham Foxhunter. CAID DU BERLAIS was an unlucky fifth in the race in 2018 and was negatively affected by the impact that equine flu had on racing last season. It meant that his prep run for Cheltenham was delayed until only twelve days beforehand at Bishops Court and while he won in a canter, the ground that day was a complete bog and it took far more out of him than anticipated.
He seemed flat in the prelims at Cheltenham and showed none of his usual zest in the race, eventually pulling up. Given a seven-week break afterwards he was back to his best at Punchestown, pulverizing the field by 28 lengths. Keen to post, he raced with plenty of enthusiasm in the early stages and after being allowed to go to the front with just over a circuit to go, he didn’t see another horse after and went further and further clear of his rivals, following up his 21-length victory in the race the previous year. Caid Du Berlais’s prep for the Foxhunter this season has gone much smoother so far, with victory coming in a Mixed Open at Buckfastleigh last month.
Always travelling well, he moved up the inside to join Marcle Ridge at the end of the back straight and the pair quickly moved clear of the field. While Sam Jukes was hard at work on Marcle Ridge, Will Biddick was exuding confidence on Caid Du Berlais and after going a few lengths clear on the turn into the straight, Biddick pushed him out on the run in to win by five lengths. The ground at Buckfastleigh was softer than ideal for Caid Du Berlais and he was against a progressive hunter chase winner so this was a good prep run for him with Cheltenham in mind. The plan is for him to now head straight to Cheltenham where he will be the mount of the record-breaking champion and in a year where there are questions for many of his rivals to answer, Caid Du Berlais looks very good value at 14-1.
Recommended Bet (scale 1-5 points):
St. James's Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase
2pts win CAID DU BERLAIS (14-1 Betfred, Betfair Sportsbook, 12-1 general)
1pt win TOP WOOD (16-1 general)