I was in Heraklion airport at about two o’clock when I decided I’d be off to Chepstow first thing the next morning. Having spent the last fortnight commuting from Leicester to London and back, with jaunts to Chepstow and Ascot in between, the long weekend away was blissful, but it was back to business.
I’ve only been twice, but already the charm of Chepstow has chiselled its way into my affections. It’s rare to see a lucky winner at the track. The fences are stiff and so too the inclines, and that great five-fence home straight is merciless. It is a truly titanic test for horses. I arrived just before the first, the mist closed in around the course, making it seem as if you were isolated in the middle of nowhere. In short, Chepstow does steeplechasing as it should be done. Here are some quick reflections on a memorable day in Monmouthshire.
1:30 – Frank Sutton Supporting Velindre “National Hunt” Maiden Hurdle (Div I) 2m3 1/2f
1. LAZER LIGHT 9/4 (DARYL JACOB, ALAN KING)
2. Rolling Dylan 5/4F (Richard Johnson, Phillip Hobbs)
3. Copain De Classe 6/1 (Nick Scholfield, Paul Nicholls)
Initial reactions were this was a good quality maiden hurdle, and the front three pulled well clear.
Amongst the paddock picks were David Pipe’s Citrus, who had form behind Cash Again in France, but as he has done before, faded tamely when push came to shove. The winner Lazer Light struck me as a dour stayer, as he didn’t seem to display the finesse of some of the others, but stuck on to win with something in hand. I’ll be watching him over even further, and I think he’ll be benefited by some cut in the ground. Copain De Classe traveled menacingly and looked as if he had the race won from some way out, but when asked he found little. Fitness isn’t usually an issue for Nicholls’s inmates, so if he doesn’t show improvement next time out a breathing operation or the application of a tongue strap will surely be in order. He’s promising, but comes with a warning. Rolling Dylan was very well supported beforehand and put in a bold display. He will be winning races.
But for me it was Oliver Greenall’s GO STEADY who is the dark horse to take out of the race, despite the fact he was beaten over 18 lengths into fourth. After finishing a nice second in his only start to date in a maiden point, unlike many of the protagonists here, he came from off the pace. He may not have troubled the leaders, but he made smooth headway and ran through the line well. He dwarfed most of the others in the paddock and looked as if he’ll come on leaps and bounds for the run. As the cliché goes, he’s only four and his future lies over fences, but he showed plenty and could have more scope than his compatriots. I get the impression connections rate him highly.
2:00 – Tom Prichard Contracting Chase (A Novices’ Limited Handicap) 3m2f
1. THEGREENDALEROCKET 8/1 (HARRY COBDEN, JIMMY FROST)
2. Iora Glas 6/1 (Paddy Brennan, Fergal O’Brien)
3. Highway Storm 7/2F (Tom Scudamore, Rebecca Curtis)
Thegreendalerocket was a fairly emphatic winner for last minute substitute Harry Cobden. It has been said already but Harry really is a capable young jockey. He doesn’t over complicate things and I hope he continues to get the support he deserves.
There were a few of these who stood out in the paddock. It was a shame to see Horsehill get pulled up as he was probably the pick of the bunch – he is a large-framed horse who had good form in point to points but unfortunately has failed to progress. Hopefully Oliver Sherwood can find the key to him soon. Highway Storm was a typical Rebecca Curtis chaser, he had plenty of size and scope and stuck on well after making most of the running. To only be beaten 4 1/2 lengths under 11-1 is testament to him and he put in some spectacular leaps along the way – he’s only a six year old and will be winning soon, perhaps over even further. Jonjo O’Neil’s Wait A Second was a similar type to look at and is also only six. Despite some mistakes, he improved into the race and momentarily looked as if he would have a hand in proceedings before fading. Jonjo isn’t synonymous for his early season strike rate and Wait A Second has been kept in relatively high company throughout his career. No doubt there will be a handicap with his name on it sometime soon. However, it is important to note he is by Scorpion, who hasn’t got a particularly shining reputation as a National Hunt sire. Iora Glas is diminutive but for the first time recaptured his hurdles form over the larger obstacles. He jumped really well on the whole and his attitude stood him in good stead but I’d worry he’ll look exposed as the season progresses.
My dark horse to follow from this race is CAILLEACH ANNIE. Jackie Du Plessis is a shrewd trainer who does very well with her small string, and there was plenty of encouragement to take from her mare’s performance here. For much of the race she jumped safely in the rear, coming on and off the bridle, and despite David Noonan losing his irons she finished fastest of all in fourth. She’s only had four runs under rules – including solid performances behind Vieux Lille and Jessber’s Dream – and will definitely be one to watch over marathon trips.
3:35 – Aspen Waite Complete Business Growth Service Novices’ Chase 2m7 1/2f
1. THISTLECRACK 1/6 (TOM SCUDAMORE, COLIN TIZZARD)
2. Aqalim 7/1 (Alan Johns, Tim Vaughan)
3. Saddlers Encore 11/2 (Richard Johnson, Phillip Hobbs)
People always talk of ‘their’ horses, the ones that captivated them like no other. I’ve had countless favourites up to now, but THISTLECRACK is simply in another universe.
Understandably this was just a five runner novice chase, with limited strength and depth, but everything about the event meant so much more. I have never been more nervous for a race in my life. I needn’t have been. Thistlecrack has so many attributes, but one of them is his temperament. He always knows his job, never pulls or shies, takes everything in his stride and always seems totally unfazed by everything before him. Even when I saw him in the hubbub of the pre-parade at Cheltenham he was the ultimate professional. He is tactically versatile and always relaxes supremely, yet his explosive power is devastating.
I would have paid my £60 train fare just to see him canter to the start. His enormous stride delicately strokes the turf, and every minute movement is fluid, easy and efficient. His head carriage is low and still, he is balanced, and he tackled Chepstow’s sharp left hand bend with ease. I’ve always felt more galloping tracks suit him, as he’s not slow, but is always at his best at the line. It will be interesting to see how he handles the sharp turns and unforgiving fences at Kempton when he goes for the Feltham, which pose a foreign test.
Early on he met every fence spot on. He was careful and gave them plenty of air, which for a novice, is what I like to see. His technique was good, as he was very fluid and really bought his knees up. The way he began to extend at the end of the back straight was a sight to behold – he loves his job and wants to please, but I thought Tom was wise in keeping him in hand, as no doubt jumping and accelerating would have been more difficult. Besides, it was educational for him to get in close to a few so he learnt to fiddle over. He stood off a mile from the open ditch, and as some people have pointed out, was reminiscent of the great Kauto Star. Thistlecrack knows he is good, he has confidence when he is jumping and I feel he’d come up off any stride you asked.
To his credit, the race-fit Aqalim hit his customary flat spot and plugged on to momentarily join the leader, but it was never really in doubt and Thistlecrack winged the last before powering away on the bridle. Saddlers Encore didn’t jump well enough and Neil Mulholland’s pair were merely out for a schooling gallop. The winner wasn’t blowing much in the aftermath, but he usually carries plenty of condition so he should come on from the run, even though it appeared a cakewalk.
I’ve heard numerous people complain about his price for the Gold Cup, and warn we shouldn’t get carried away, but isn’t that the point of sport? I feel too many people get too bogged down in analysis and critique. I have never been as excited by a horse before, we should embrace champions like him as they sell the sport for us. He is special, and I quote, “can do things other horses can only dream of” – he should be celebrated, as stories like his don’t come around every day. It was also lovely to see Tom, Colin, Joe, John and Heather as excited as the public were in the aftermath. The three mile novice on the Saturday of the Open meeting at Cheltenham is the next port of call, which should suit him down to the ground. Tuesday was a day I will never forget, and I’ve made no secret of the fact I think Thistlecrack will win the Gold Cup.
4:05 – Frank Sutton Supporting Velindre “National Hunt” Maiden Hurdle (Div II) 2m3 1/2f
1. ELEGANT ESCAPE 10/1 (TOM O’BRIEN, COLIN TIZZARD)
2. Persian Delight 3/1 (Nick Scholfield, Paul Nicholls)
3. Call To Order 11/4 (Aidan Coleman, Jonjo O’Neill)
I can comfortably say I think the second division of the maiden hurdle eclipsed the first. The race had plenty of depth beforehand and I am confident it will produce some quality winners.
The exuberant Just Joelliott led at an even gallop and hung in there for longer than I thought he could before tiring into seventh. The horse had plenty about him and should give his owners an awful lot of fun, and he will be getting his head in front before long. Rather boringly, this race speaks for itself. I saw Call To Order before he finished sixth behind Geordie Des Champs at the Silver Trophy meeting a few weeks earlier, and he had very much stripped fitter for that. He’s a bull of a horse and there should be more to come from him. The most imposing horse to look at was probably Belmont Park. David Bridgwater’s gelding was absolutely massive and didn’t run without promise so will be one to watch in the long term, he may well need time, a trip and fences to show more. Nick Scholfield had another classy horse on his hands with Persian Delight. The six year old stalked the leaders and hit the front travelling best at the last, and he rallied when joined but ultimately could not see off the challenge of the winner.
I met ELEGANT ESCAPE at Colin Tizzards open day at the end of August and there was already considerable hype surrounding his return. He struck me as a very raw horse, as you’d expect for a four year old, but in his sole point he showed lots of talent and gave Samcro, who has subsequently been bought by Gordon Elliot for £335,000, a good run for his money. Although Persian Delight breezed through the race, I always had an eye on Elegant Escape who may have drifted in the betting beforehand, but waited in his slipstream and wasn’t being asked for maximum effort by Tom O’Brien. He confirmed his ability to reach the leader, and managed to hang on by a narrow margin. I have no doubt he will be much better next time and he is without doubt one of the most promising horses of the meeting.
4:35 – Truck And Bus Wales And West Handicap Hurdle (Div I) 2m3 1/2f
1. LOOKSNOWTLIKEBRIAN 5/4F (RICHARD JOHNSON, TIM VAUGHAN)
2. Dropzone 33/1 (Brian Forsey, Conor O’Farrell)
3. Taroum 25/1 (John Flint, Rhys Flint)
Looksnowtlikebrian beat Earls Fort by a neck at Fontwell in October and this piece of form proved superior in the last two races of the day. Tim Vaughan and Richard Johnson are often an enviable partnership and despite some sloppy jumps Looksnowtlikebrian went on to win impressively by 14 lengths. His performance wasn’t a surprise considering he had been racing against the likes of Baoulet Delaroque and Ballyoptic last season. It may not have been a strong contest but you’d be silly to discount him for the hat-trick bid next time out.
5:10 – Truck And Bus Wales And West Handicap Hurdle (Div II) 2m3 1/2f
1. EARLS FORT 6/5F (SEAN CORBY, NEIL MULHOLLAND)
2. L Frank Baum 6/1 (Robert Williams, Bernard Llewellyn)
3. Avithos 22/1 (James Banks, Mark Gillard)
Earls Fort looked by far the best in the paddock and there was never really any doubt in the race as he cruised home under Sean Corby. Although there were notable non-runners (Blue April, Culm Counsellor and crucially Ronnie Lawson), the winner’s form was boosted in no uncertain fashion in the race before, and again, I think there is room for improvement. I don’t think it is beyond him to win, wherever he goes next. The only other one worth mentioning could be Kerry Lee’s Magic Mustard, who is just a five year old and stuck to his guns well to finish fourth. No doubt she’ll be getting a win out of him before too long.