Paul Nicholls had a successful Friday at Ascot, landing the two graded races on the card as part of a treble on the day, just 24 hours after achieving the same feat at Exeter. Topofthegame (118P) won the opener by a short head from the 117-rated Criq Rock, a performance that puts him on the ‘one to keep on the right side of’ list, while Capitaine (up 6 lb to 141p) benefitted from a fine front-running ride in the Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle. He was giving weight away to all but one of his five rivals and though his performance not in the same class as Yanworth's in the race last season, it was of a similar standard to other recent winners. Runner-up Captain Forez was ridden much more patiently than had been the case on his previous start at Newbury and that probably didn't show him to best advantage – he’s up 4 lb to 129p. The style of Politologue's win in the novices’ chase was rather more exciting than the substance, with his jumping looking a considerable asset. He stays on 141p, but he is sure to progress further and win more races. Runner-up Rock The Kasbah (down 2 lb to 140) confirmed himself a useful young chaser, though a blunder at the eleventh didn’t help his cause.
The fog that enveloped the country on Saturday certainly didn’t help viewing – both on screen and live at the tracks – with the final race at Haydock run in a real pea-souper; even the commentator didn’t know who was involved in the finish, let alone who had won! The graduation chase at Ascot went the way of Top Notch (up 3 lb to 148p) who completed a hat-trick over fences, on the face of it against stronger opposition than previously; the Scilly Isles could be his next port of call. Sizing Codeloco (now 148?) seemingly bounced back after just a week off, on just his third start for Colin Tizzard, with a switch to forcing tactics probably a factor, though there have been false dawns with him before. Also at Haydock, Yala Enki (presumably) ran them ragged from the front in the Tommy Whittle. He has some really solid handicap hurdle form and improved on that switched to fences for the first time in Britain. It's worth reaffirming that Yala Enki (now 148+) should be suited by three miles and may have more to offer over fences. Runner-up Vieux Lille (up 7 lb to 134) looks on a fair mark, certainly on the pick of his hurdles form, and seemed to run his best race yet over fences making a rather belated handicap debut.
The JLT Long Walk looked a strong renewal of this Grade 1 staying hurdle, a field with depth and quality, the winner Unowhatimeanharry (unchanged on 165) again leaving his mark on the division, likely to have won convincingly, even if Ballyoptic had stood up at the last. Harry Fry’s stable star continues to sweep all before him, his path to the World Hurdle likely to be made more difficult only by the presence of one of Willie Mullins' army of top hurdlers. Ballyoptic (up to 163 from 158+) would have run creditably had he completed, a ride making more use of his stamina than at Newbury looking to help, though he probably wouldn't have beaten the winner had he stood up even so (rated as finishing alongside second). He's had an unfortunate campaign, but remains a contender for races like the Cleeve Hurdle, even if more is needed at the very highest level. The novice West Approach would likely have finished ahead of the third had he completed (he also departed unluckily at the last), a return to more positive tactics surely the key for one all about stamina.
Eventual runner-up Lil Rockerfeller (160) ran right up to his best, his third cracking effort in defeat this season, the return to this trip in his favour. Un Temps Pour Tout (162) was again below form, only getting third by default, effectively well out of contention before the straight; his standout run over hurdles came at Auteuil, so it's surprising he's not been back there since. Ptit Zig (162) was below form on his return to Britain, while French raider Alex de Larredya (160) looked to have leading claims on his form at Auteuil last time, when he'd been a ready winner from Ptit Zig, but he couldn't reproduce that effort, seeming not to see the trip out so well as expected from that effort, though it's also possible that very soft ground shows him to best advantage. Three-time Long Walk winner Reve de Sivola (161) is at his best when able to dominate and he paid the price for matching strides with Ballyoptic.
Ascot’s card also included two competitive handicaps – the listed Silver Cup over fences and the Grade 3 Wessex Youth Trust hurdle, a race formerly known as the Ladbroke. Regal Encore (up 4 lb to 148) was the choice of Barry Geraghty in the Silver Cup and the partership swooped late to collar a pair that had gone hammer and tongs up-front. He hasn't been the easiest to predict so far over fences (though clearly with an excuse last time) and whether he'll be in the same form next time is far from certain. Minella Daddy (up 5 lb to 144) and Tenor Nivernais (up 3 lb to 152) filled the places, ahead of Another Hero (now 136+) who looked as if he might be the one to pick off the leaders until the late swoop of his owner's other runner.
Brain Power (up 11 lb to 158p) ran to a high-class level in scoring most decisively in the Ladbroke, with quite a few of those in his wake also likely to be of interest again. Nicky Henderson’s charge was impressive enough to justify a campaign aimed at the Champion Hurdle. There’s no reason, given his effectiveness in this type of race, why he couldn't use the Betfair Hurdle as his trial, as opposed to a much less valuable graded race. Runner-up Consul de Thaix (unchanged on 136p) ran well, even though he was beaten further by the winner than he had been at Sandown. He just didn’t have the speed to deal with the winner and a step up in trip is likely to be on the cards before long, though softer ground will also help if his owner has an eye on the Betfair Hurdle (won it in 2010 and 2013). Fergall (up 2 lb to 137) progressed again in first-time cheekpieces in third, particularly with a prominent position not quite the advantage it was last time, while Golden Spear (down to 125p) edged a three-way Tony Martin-trained photograph for fourth. He was possibly a bit too far out of his ground (though hard to be sure in the fog) and is still with potential after just three starts over hurdles for this yard.