The first three home in last year’s Betfair Chase all clash again on Saturday – but I think it’ll be a different result this time around.
Cue Card beat Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti but Paul Nicholls’ runner looks the most likely winner to me this time in a race that’s bound to shake up an open Cheltenham Gold Cup market.
The big difference is that ‘Conti’ was making his seasonal debut when third last season – but then improved to reverse the form with Cue Card in the King George at Kempton.
Gold Cup contenders are always under the microscope and Silviniaco Conti he got a bit of stick when well beaten at Wetherby in the Charlie Hall Chase on his reappearance earlier this month.
That race could have been over 2m 4f if the stories coming out about Wetherby’s distances are to be believed – but other factors indicate that he’s ready to run a big one at the weekend.
A combination of the quicker ground and Paul’s horses needing their first run of the season did for him at Wetherby. I expect to see a big improvement on softer ground at Haydock on Saturday.
Champagne Fever (above) put in his claim for a place at the top table with a smooth win at Clonmel over 2m 4f last week. The King George at Kempton on December 26 is an option and that will tell us a lot more about whether he’s in the frame for top honours this season.
The Grade 2 contest fell apart a bit as Sizing Europe never got into the race and Champagne Fever was allowed to dictate the pace up front.
He’s improving and the step up in trip to 3m should suit but he’d want to go very close at Kempton against some of Haydock’s Saturday’s field before he’s considered a major Cheltenham Gold Cup contender.
Ascot on Saturday
I’ll be at Ascot on Saturday for Faugheen’s seasonal debut in the Coral Hurdle over 2m 3f – a race won by Annie Power last year. His Champion Hurdle credentials are on the line after winning the Neptune Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham and then bolting in at Punchestown after that.
He has to justify the impression he made last season and improve again if he’s going to win the Champion Hurdle – but he’s unbeaten so far and I’ll be looking for a good performance again from him.
Am I in a dilemma over Faugheen and Hurricane Fly after his weekend win? At this stage of the season you hope to have two or three candidates for the Champion Hurdle and hope one of them makes it there.
England’s best hope of a Champion Hurdle winner, The New One, runs at Haydock half an hour earlier on Saturday, in what should be a penalty kick for him.
I was a bit surprised that Jezki was pushed out in the betting for the Champion Hurdle after Hurricane Fly’s victory on Sunday.
Jezki improved in the spring on the better ground last season to run his career best – and I wouldn’t be writing him off just yet.
There were some really good performances to look back on – but I’m not sure that all will be repeated at the Festival next March.
Caid Du Berlais was a good winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup and should improve on it. Lightly raced over fences, his fitness edge told over some of his rivals in that ground up Cleeve Hill.
The consensus seems to be that Johns Spirit run was the one to take from the race but I think Oscar Whisky’s was better.
Johnjo O’Neill’s runner had a prep race behind him while Oscar Whisky was making his seasonal debut. Stepping up to graded class is different gravy to a 2m 4f handicap where the pace of the race will be full on from half-way and harder to make up ground.
I’d expect Oscar Whisky to come out on top if they met at graded level.
Nicky Henderson’s Vaniteaux lost little in defeat off top weight in the Greatwood Hurdle – but still needs to show he’ Champion Hurdle class. The ground was very bad by Sunday and both the winner Le Garde Victoire and third Clondaw Castle were getting weight and had a race-fit advantage.
Kings Palace was a good winner for David Pipe but he might be just a winter horse. Seemed to love the ground and wants the trip but a fast-run RSA Chase on spring ground next March mightn’t suit. Was a tired faller in the Albert Bartlett last year on a quicker surface.
The cheek pieces brought Uxizandre back to life and he jumped like a buck. Both him and Simply Ned are better going left-handed and that could be Leopardstown’s gain over Christmas.
Good ground isn’t a problem to Alan King’s winner and if Sprinter Sacre or Sire de Grugy don’t turn up he could be a lively outsider for the Champion Chase if connections decide to go that route with him.
Incidentally I wouldn’t be worried that Nicky Henderson had only one winner at the Open meeting.
NJH usually targets his horses at the Hennessy Gold Cup meeting at Newbury at the end of this month so keep an extra close eye on his runners there next week.