10th - 13th March

The Flip Side

Kevin Blake looks back at last weekend's action from Trials Day at Cheltenham, giving his verdict on Santini's victory in the Cotswold Chase.

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Santini advances his Gold Cup claims

We in racing love nothing more than getting one up on “the doubters.” Whether it is trainers, jockeys, owners or the racing public, many can’t wait to give a finger to the lips or a two-fingered salute to those that have slighted their horse by daring to doubt them. The inconvenient reality that such doubters often don’t exist in any great number is no deterrent to them being referred to afterwards, but hey ho, whatever stokes a person’s fire is their own business!

There was plenty of that sort of chat after Santini won the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday, with his supporters triumphantly strutting down I Told You So Avenue after he had advertised his Gold Cup claims in fine style. In fairness, those that had stuck with him after his seasonal reappearance at Sandown were entitled to feel pleased with themselves, as his performance at Sandown had raised plenty of doubts about Santini’s Gold Cup credentials.

 To be frank, I hadn’t been at all impressed by Santini that day. How could you be? He was horrendously workmanlike in trying to give 6lb to a rival officially rated 19lb his inferior. We can all appreciate that he is a bit slow and languid, but potential Gold Cup winners are rightly held to a higher standard and what he did at Sandown fell a long way short of that standard. There was even talk that cheekpieces or blinkers might be required to buck up his ideas.

That was back in November and it was just his first step towards a target that was four months away, but more was needed from him on Saturday to advance his claims. Having had a minor breathing operation in the meantime, he faced a proper test in Bristol De Mai. While so many still try to convince themselves Nige’s stable star is a Haydock specialist, he is a high-class horse around any track and he set the bar plenty high for Santini.

As it transpired, Santini came out well on top and I read it as being a very good performance from him. That he beat Bristol De Mai with plenty to spare was a big result in itself, but what was even more encouraging was that he raced with so much more spark than at Sandown. He may have needed the odd niggle to keep his mind on the job, but every time Nico de Boinville woke him up, Santini responded very quickly and was back in his hands. Getting left in front three out following the bad nod of Bristol De Mai is unlikely to have been what Nico wanted for Santini and it was his easing him into the second-last that resulted in the mistake he made. However, Santini never looked in serious danger and was very strong up the run-in.
 

Santini wins the Cotswold Chase
The improvement that Santini showed on Saturday in form terms suggests that he is a serious player in the Gold Cup.

As regards his Gold Cup prospects, Santini as a type isn’t going to appeal to everyone. Cliché alert, but he is a more old-fashioned sort of staying chaser for whom stamina and energy efficiency are his best traits. The Gold Cup is a uniquely strong test of stamina in the scheme of Grade 1 staying chases. While it can be won by pacey types that can stretch their brilliance as far the Gold Cup demands, it is strong stayers that consistently get into the mix.

Santini has the right tools for the race and the improvement that he showed on Saturday in form terms suggests that he is a serious player. With him always having been characterised by Nicky Henderson as one that takes work and racing to reach full fitness, one doesn’t need a wild imagination to see him finding a few more pounds of improvement on the day that matters most.

So, while not everyone might have been convinced, Santini very much converted me on Saturday. He is a serious contender for the Gold Cup.

 

King Roland crying out for a shorter trip

The Graded novice hurdles in Britain in recent weeks haven’t been the most inspiring in quality terms, but the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last Saturday produced a very interesting performance by King Roland.

Frankly, I was very surprised that his connections choose to step him up to two-and-a-half miles for this race. The six-year-old had put in a quite remarkable winning display over two-and-a-quarter miles at Exeter earlier in January, pulling very hard indeed despite Sean Bowen doing everything he could to get him to relax. He ended up tanking his way to the front after the fourth-last flight and had too much ability for his overmatched rivals, but such notably inefficient use of energy is difficult to overcome in deeper company.

Thus, the dangers of stepping him up in trip were obvious. In general, longer trips translate to a slower early pace and with him facing just seven rivals at Cheltenham, it was far from guaranteed that Sean Bowen would be able to find as much cover and get as much pace in front of him as he’d like to help get King Roland to relax.

Getting him settled was clearly weighing heavily on his connections’ minds, as he was ridden with exaggerated patience. In fact, the leader was already at least 12 lengths in front of King Roland by the time he passed the starter having been restrained into last position. Despite Sean Bowen’s best efforts to anchor him, he pulled and jumped his way into a more prominent position from the fourth-last flight. Bowen did his best to try and keep him under wraps from there, but he ended up circling the field five wide to power into a challenging position on the long run between the final two flights, quickening to the front approaching the final flight.

Meanwhile, the eventual winner, Harry Senior, was racing much more efficiently in behind the leader on the rail and having found open air approaching the final flight, he picked up well to take the lead. From there, the contrasting efficiency of their respective energy distributions through the race took their toll, with Harry Senior having too much on the run-in for King Roland. Considering how the race had gone for him, it is a testament to how much ability King Roland has that he kept galloping to secure second place.

While King Roland won a point-to-point earlier in his career, he is clearly crying out for the minimum trip over jumps. When running over longer trips his rivals don’t go anywhere near fast enough to satisfy his natural cruising speed and he will be much more comfortable with more pace in front of him. With him having already had a breathing operation, anything that helps him relax can only be a positive for him and with the hood he has worn since his racecourse debut making little impression on him, dropping in trip is an obvious move.

The entries for the Grade 1 novice hurdles at the Cheltenham closed last Tuesday and haven’t been made available to the public yet, but I really hope that King Roland’s connections entered him in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, as that appeals as being a far more suitable target for him than the Ballymore. With his official rating having risen to 141, he’d also be high enough to run in any of the valuable handicap hurdles over two miles later in the season and that too would be a fascinating prospect. Longer term, he appeals as being a two-mile chaser of notable promise.

 

Flipping back the pages

Accountability is very important in life and this column will be no different. After the various opinions and theories put forward in it are tested on the racecourse, I will use this space for a brief debrief to sum up what if anything we learned. With that in mind, the first edition of this column was tested in the last week or so and warrants some brief reflections.

No one wishes to take pleasure from such things, but the thought that it would be dangerous to assume that the wide-margin win of Apple’s Jade in the Frank Ward Memorial Hurdle indicated she was back to her best proved to be the case as she ran abysmally in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park. Who knows, there might be one last hurrah left in her, but one wouldn’t want to be taking an overly-short price about her producing one, particularly given she has proven to be better in the first half of the season than the second in recent campaigns.

The question of what step Allaho would take next was answered in somewhat unexpected style. His connections elected to run him in a maiden chase at Fairyhouse on January 25th rather than holding onto him for another week to retain his maiden status over fences until after the January 31st cut-off point for summer novice status. This option also promised to examine his ability to cope with a right-handed track over fences after he had exhibited a tendency to jump to his left on his chasing debut at Leopardstown.

Despite the latter concern, Allaho produced a very strong winning effort in beating the 138-rated Milan Native by 21 lengths. His jumping was low and neat in the main and while he did occasionally adjust to his left again, he didn’t do it to a detrimental extent. He is a similar price for the Marsh Novices' Chase and the RSA Insurance Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and while his connections opted to run him in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle last season, I would favour the shorter option of the Marsh with him in March. The return to a left-handed track can only help and he has a better chance for that race than his current best price of 12/1 suggests.
 

Allaho
Allaho took another step forward at the weekend and looks well-suited to the Marsh Novices' Chase.

Finally, Unexcepted is entered for the Ladbrokes Hurdle at Leopardstown on Saturday and it isn’t surprising to see him featuring amongst the market leaders. He looks likely to be very well suited by the drop back to two miles in a big-field handicap that should be run at a solid pace and offer him plenty of cover. While it is hard to be bullish about big-field handicaps such as this, the thought that Unexcepted could yet make up into a contender for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle remains intact. He is 25/1 for that race and having a few bob on him prior to this weekend might not be a bad shout.

The Flip Side

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