Matchbook Racing Ambassador Tom Stanley reviews the weekend’s racing action in his exclusive column.
A clash we thought we’d have to wait until March to see came rather earlier than expected on Saturday at Newcastle. The reigning and dual Champion Hurdle winner against two Cheltenham novice hurdle winners meant a Fighting Fifth for the ages. These three before Christmas? The racing gods were being very kind.
Nicky Henderson was at Newbury and had just seen Champ (very impressive, novice hurdle division watch out) win a handicap hurdle. Telling the Newbury MC that his wife would collect the trophy and all Champ interviews had to be finished in good time before flag down at Newcastle, he was understandably on edge about the race to unfold on the Newbury big screen. Samcro had been backed into favouritism. Buveur D’Air was facing, on paper, one of his biggest challenges to date.
What we saw was a perfect execution of jumping eight hurdles in Grade 1 company over two miles and ninety-eight yards.
He even afforded to kick the ninth full in the face. Sleek, efficient, virtually no momentum lost at any obstacle, the novices in behind had something of a schooling from the old(er) master.
The winner, for the thirteenth time in fourteen goes over obstacles, is just starting to get the credit he deserves. Perhaps the main reason he hasn’t to date is because he tried to jump a fence. Had he been campaigned solely as a hurdler, he’d probably be considered more of a champion. The fact that his first Champion Hurdle was something of an afterthought that year? God forbid. And then there’s his only just seeing off Melon in the race last season. Not quite the makings of a superstar. But I’d take the view he wasn’t 100% that day and still managed to win. Isn’t that the mark of a champion?
I’m not saying he’s one of the all-time greats just yet, but he’s easily the best out there and has been an under-appreciated best at that.
And so to Samcro. The equine second coming. The only thing second coming about him this year has been him coming second. As has been said aplenty, jumps like a chaser, bred to be a chaser, still hurdling.
He actually jumped pretty well on Saturday, just not in the manner required to beat a Buveur D’Air.
It appears they went down the Champion Hurdle route because they’ve plenty of other novice chasers and they don’t [Apple’s Jade] have another contender [Apple’s Jade] for the [Apple’s Jade] Champion Hurdle. Do they? And connections are adamant they’ll keep going down said route. After all, you don’t want to change a plan mid-season (this time two years ago Buveur D’Air was jumping fences on the way to winning his first Champion Hurdle but shhhhhh).
It’s a tricky one at this stage. But for Buveur, Samcro may well win a Champion Hurdle (unless another Gigginstown horse were to run in the race, but they don’t have anything do they?) and there are races in Ireland he’ll likely win on the way. There again, why wait another year before allowing him to do what he’s meant to. It’s only the start of December! I’d love to see him over a fence as soon as possible, else he’ll be a nine-year-old at the business end of his second season chasing. And plenty of novice chasers are yet to or only just making their debuts over fences.
But it won’t happen this year. Connections have a plan and are entitled to stick to it.
Elsewhere on Saturday, we saw ‘Team Tizzard’ (Colin always keen to point out that whilst it’s his name on the license, it’s very much a family run operation in equal measure) saddle a 1-2 in the Ladbrokes Trophy.
I was left a little underwhelmed in some ways by the feature.
Just twelve lining up and a rising 11-year-old winning it, perhaps not one for the ages. We can’t have a subsequent Gold Cup candidate winning it every year, however, and we might well see a rematch between the first two home in the Welsh National. The winner, looking to follow in the footsteps of the yard’s 2016 winner Native River by completing that double (oh wait, he did go on to win a Gold Cup too didn’t he?), looks to have all the credentials for that race on paper. He didn’t seem to get home over a national trip at the back end of last season though and I’d far rather have Elegant Escape on-side at Chepstow. Still just a 6-year-old, he was giving the winner seven pounds on Saturday and does nothing quickly.
He looks a future Grand National prospect to me.
I’ll bring this in here as she hails from the Ladbrokes Trophy.
Ms Parfois was disappointing on the face of it at Newbury. Speaking to Anthony Honeyball after the race I know just how gutted he was.
Immediate reflections led us to thinking she needed the run more than he’d anticipated. She’s a big girl and, for all she looked fit in the paddock, a race like that will find you out before the business end if not 100%.
I remember Alan King trying to win the race with a fresh Smad Place a few years back and saying he’d never again go there with a horse without a run. Back came Smad the following year with said run behind him and the rest is history. Willie Mullins was another to tow that line after Djakadam failed to win on first start of the season. He made sure to give Total Recall a start twelve months ago.
As for Ms Parfois, she’s in the Welsh National but that isn’t far away (unless it gets abandoned) and, after a pretty tough outing on Saturday I’d love her to go for the Classic Chase in January. She’s unbeaten in two starts at Warwick and won at the same meeting last year. Too soon to give up hope this season certainly and I know the Classic Chase is on her trainer’s mind, for all the draw of the Welsh national may prove too strong.
Other impressive mares over fences section
La Bague Au Roi. Wow. She’s very good. And the apple of Warren Greatrex’s eye. I remember doing a feature with him a few years back where he said she was special and he’s been proved right! After racing on Friday he said she really has an effect on him, perhaps more than many. And it’s risky with a valuable mare sending her over a fence but she can’t half jump. She’ll be well suited by the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase on Boxing Day.
Interesting Warren also mentioned he feels she’s best served by a flat track. Cheltenham ante post voucher holders take note.
Lady Buttons made it a worthwhile trip down south for Phil Kirby in the last at Newbury on Saturday and I mention her as much for her dominant win as for her trainer. Up at 4.45am on the day of racing to give her a feed, he then drove her himself to the races, did a pre-race interview with me rug in hand before driving her home again (I’d say a very happy man). It doesn’t necessarily make her a more deserving winner but it’s nice when the hands-on types are well rewarded in this game.
A top man is Phil, and very good trainer.
Last word is saved for Barters Hill. I’ll never forget his race at Doncaster when just seeing off Ballydine.
I don’t normally shout during a race and I wasn’t financially involved in said contest but the way he did it that day.
Heart on sleeve, lungs bursting, giving everything he had. My throat was raw after that. What a shame we never saw the best of him. For he’d surely have achieved most over a fence. He put his trainer Ben Pauling on the map and the affection everyone at that yard have for the horse is what portrays racing in its best light. He bowed out on Saturday at Newbury, the scene of perhaps his most impressive win. A horse who should have made a staying chaser winning a bumper over two miles back in 2015. Beating two champions in the process. The current Champion Case winner, Altior, and the horse we started this waffling with, Buveur D’Air.
Happy retirement champ.
Remember to tune in to hear Tom Stanley host the Matchbook Betting Podcast this Friday where he will be joined by industry experts to preview this weekend’s racing action. Subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or search for the ‘Matchbook Betting Podcast’ on your preferred podcast app.