What should be a weekend of significant pointers for Cheltenham and, hence, a very important one for the stable begins at Ascot this afternoon where we have two runners: Un De Sceaux and Vroum Vroum Mag.
Before the fall at Leopardstown I felt Un De Sceaux had the measure of Simply Ned, and expect him to prove so in the Clarence House Chase.
Traffic Fluide has to improve, Vibrato Valtat was a long way behind us in the Arkle and so Sire De Grugy is the one we have most to fear from.
He is a former Champion Chaser, did well to win the Tingle Creek last month, and is currently third favourite for the Champion Chase.
But, I worked Un De Sceaux the other day and he was very good, and jumped really well.
He has travelled over to Ascot without any problems, and the track, which is a good jumping course, should suit him.
We know he handles soft ground, we’re very happy with him and hopefully he can get his season back on track with a win today.
That would set him up nicely for a tilt at the Champion Chase.
How Vroum Vroum Mag fares in the mares’ hurdle should also give us a good idea where we stand going to Cheltenham.
She remains unbeaten for us but this opposition is as good as she has faced, and if she could beat them it would open up plenty of options.
She has won over two-mile-six and this is almost three miles, but that shouldn’t be a problem as we have always viewed her as a stayer – if anything, she surprised us with the pace she showed over two miles.
Her jumping was very slick at Clonmel last time out, which was very pleasing for a horse coming back from chasing.
There are plenty of runners in this race to ensure it’s an honest pace from the outset and that should help.
Vroum Vroum Mag goes there in great shape, and hopefully can extend her winning sequence.
Over at Navan, Willie runs Noble Inn in what looks a very tight hurdle.
Bright New Dawn was a bit disappointing over fences last time, but Sizing Tennessee should step up on his recent run, which was his first for a very long time.
There’s also Prussian Eagle, from the stable of Chares O’Brien, who won the big handicap hurdle last weekend, with Henry Higgins.
I think Prussian Eagle was a better juvenile hurdler than Henry Higgins and have to respect him.
Noble Inn was disappointing at Ascot but impressed at Clonmel on his previous start, and two miles around Navan should suit. I expect him to run a big race.
Willie runs Faugheen, Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire in tomorrow’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown as all the owners were keen to run, and the horses are in good form.
If I’m honest, this is the race I expected to see on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival.
Faugheen is the reigning Champion Hurdler but has only a length and a half to spare over Arctic Fire on their Cheltenham run.
Nichols Canyon beat him on his return, at Punchestown, but they’ve all run since and things look a little different now.
Nichols Canyon had a very hard race to beat Identity Thief at Leopardstown, while Arctic Fire was never going in the three-mile race at the same track and wouldn’t have won at any trip.
Faugheen went to Kempton and ran out an impressive winner of the Christmas Hurdle and the bonus of that is that the ground he raced on wasn’t as testing as that which the others ran on at Leopardstown.
All three are working well, but they never work together. On ratings Faugheen should win and Arctic Fire finish second, but Nichols Canyon has a habit of winning.
I may have underestimated him at Punchestown, but I won’t be doing that again.
It’s a Grade 1 and you can’t be too confident but Faugheen is in very good form and should take beating. King Of The Picts and Plinth look to be making up the numbers.
I’m on Beau Mome in the opening maiden hurdle.
If he brings his home work to the track he will win, but he’s already had two chances and failed to deliver.
I ride Cardinal Palace for James Nash, in the Grade 2 Novice Hurdle and he’s going to need a career-best to win.
Willie’s runner, A Toi Phil, won well last time, goes well at home, and may be the one to beat, though Woodland Opera should improve for the step up in trip.
Douvan will be a very short price to win the Arkle, as he holds Domesday Book on previous form over hurdles, and Velvet Maker on recent chasing form.
He has schooled well since his win at this track, and I’ll be looking for an impressive display of jumping to put him right on course for Cheltenham.
Willie runs Village Mystic in the bumper and he’s a strange one for us insofar as he has British point to point form.
It’s fair to say we haven’t been as prolific in bumpers as in previous seasons, but he’s a gorgeous-looking horse, certainly one of our better ones, and we’re very hopeful he’ll win.
The second race at Navan this afternoon is called the Follow Navan on Facebook Rated Hurdle but it’s not really a rated hurdle, it’s more like a limited handicap. It’s for horses rated 140 or less, but if a horse is rated below 130 it is wrong at the weights.
In rated races there should also be a mares’ allowance, but there is no allowance in this race.
If a horse won a race in the last four days it would get a 4lb penalty but if it won a race and this was a handicap it would also get a mandatory 4lb penalty, which means it is, effectively, being run under handicap rules.
Really, this should be a winners’ race or called what it is – a limited handicap.
This sort of race is creeping into the programme more and more, and I just can’t understand why they’re not called what they are.
The novice hurdle on the card isn’t far behind it. You would think, looking at the card, there are two conditions races but, effectively, there are four handicaps to go along with the two maiden hurdles and the beginners chase.
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