Thistlecrack fully deserved all the praise that was heaped on him after his impressive King George victory on Boxing Day, a remarkable performance given he had only made his debut over fences two months earlier. Combining bold and sometimes exuberant jumping with a powerful display of galloping which left his rivals toiling as soon as Tom Scudamore asked him to go on rounding the home turn, Thistlecrack’s performance was unmistakably very much that of a potential Gold Cup winner. Nailing down his performance to a figure that reflects that, though, is less straightforward. Cue Card, Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two fought out a tight finish for the places just over three lengths away, though that margin doesn’t reflect Thistlecrack’s superiority for much of the home straight before he was allowed to coast home up the run-in. Thistlecrack has therefore been given a rating of 180p to put him ahead of stable-companion Cue Card (master rating dropped to 179) who wasn’t at his best, having paid for trying to put pressure on Thistlecrack in the back straight. Former dual winner Silviniaco Conti seemed to match his best form of last season (164) in rallying for third, while Tea For Two’s apparent career-best effort (164) also needs treating with a little caution.
Colin Tizzard now looks likely to aim Cue Card at the Ryanair Chase, which he won in 2013, instead of another crack at the Gold Cup, after stable-companion Native River followed up his Hennessy Gold Cup win with another display of relentless galloping under top weight in the Welsh National at Chepstow. Running off the same mark as at Newbury, Native River didn’t need to improve his rating (166p) but underlined his own Gold Cup claims, even if not quite in the bracket of his star stablemates just yet. It wasn’t the attritional slog that the Welsh National often proves to be, but it was still a good test of stamina and only Irish-trained eleven-year-old Raz de Maree (145), last month’s Cork Grand National winner, was within hailing distance of the winner at the finish.
Leopardstown’s Lexus Chase had much more depth to it than the King George the day before and served up a fine finish with four in the air together at the last. The Gordon Elliott-trained Gigginstown pair Outlander (169) and last year’s winner Don Poli (167) fought it out ahead of favourite Djakadam (174) in third, with Valseur Lido (168), the apparent Gigginstown first string, completing the frame. Of those, only Outlander improved his rating, a step back up in trip and a patient ride helping turn the tables on Djakadam, who was shuffled back on the home turn, from the John Durkan Memorial earlier in the month. Outlander will reportedly be back at Leopardstown for the Irish Gold Cup in February, by which time stable-companion Don Cossack may have made his return from the setback which has sidelined him since winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The Jonjo O’Neill-trained pair Taquin du Seuil and More of That were fifth and sixth in the Lexus, the BetVictor Gold Cup winner running close to his best (161) and More of That running his best race over fences (158) albeit without suggesting there is much more to come. Gordon Elliott also won Leopardstown’s big three-mile handicap chase, the Paddy Power, with Noble Endeavor (improved to 154) who looked an Irish Grand National type in the longer term with a ready success, justifying strong support in the process.
Back in Britain, Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase attracted a good field, with a couple of the north’s best chasers, Definitly Red and Wakanda (both 152) seeing off the challenge of top weight Blaklion (154) in third. Other good performances in handicaps over fences over the Christmas period came from the Venetia Williams-trained Aso (up to 153) at Chepstow and from the Tom George-trained Double Shuffle (149) who showed improved form upped to three miles and wearing a hood for the first time when carrying top weight to victory at Kempton.
The big two-mile chases that took place had few consequences for the ratings of those involved. Douvan (180p) took his unbeaten record over fences to eight when barely having to come off the bridle to account for four inferior rivals in the Paddy Power Cashcard Chase at Leopardstown, not having to run close to his master figure. Old rival Sizing John (157) was best of the rest, running well on his first start for Jessie Harrington. Meanwhile at Kempton, Special Tiara (165?) won the Desert Orchid Chase for a second time but made heavy weather of landing the odds from Haldon Gold Cup winner Sir Valentino (160) from whom he was receiving weight. The runner-up confirmed the form he’d shown in the Tingle Creek, but there are doubts now (hence the query with his rating) about the winner being quite as good as he was. Sire de Grugy got no further than the second where he unseated.
Thistlecrack apart, the pick of the novice performances over fences came from old hurdling rivals Altior and Min who each took a step closer to another clash at the Festival, this time in the Arkle. A day after Min (156P) impressively made all in the Racing Post Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown (in which chief rival Identity Thief was pulled up lame), Altior (163p) likewise kept his unbeaten record over fences with the easiest of wins in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton. Both are likely to remain hard to beat on the way to Cheltenham.
Thistlecrack’s absence from the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase led to a rare double-figure field lining up but only four completed and 33/1 shot Royal Vacation (135) has to go down as a substandard, and very fortunate, winner for the Tizzard team after Might Bite (154p), who had jumped well in the main, came down at the last when the best part of twenty lengths clear. All being well, Might Bite looks up to gaining compensation in one of the top staying novice contests in the months ahead. Among those he might meet are the first two from Chepstow’s novices’ handicap chase over just short of three miles in which Pobbles Bay (147p), two from two over fences, and Ibis du Rheu (148), who’d come up against Thistlecrack the time before, put up smart performances.
Back in Ireland, where Willie Mullins notched up a total of seventeen wins over three days, a couple of Min’s stable-companions were smart winners in novice company. Bellshill (149p) looks one to follow after beating stablemate Haymount (146p) in the Grade 2 Shannon Airport Novices’ Chase at Limerick, while smart hurdler Bleu Et Rouge (146p) made a promising winning debut over fences at Leopardstown after being only fourth jumping the last.
In contrast to the chasers, the hurdlers haven’t really captured the imagination yet this season with the likes of Faugheen and Annie Power still to reappear, and that theme was maintained over the Christmas period. Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle was an all-British affair, and neither Yanworth nor The New One (runner-up in it for the third time) had to run to their high-class best to take the first two places, though Yanworth’s master rating has been raised to 168 to put him ahead of the runner-up (167x). Yanworth will need to jump better to win a Champion Hurdle, though two miles on good ground round Kempton probably wasn’t ideal for him. My Tent Or Yours (remains on 164) had excuses in fourth (asked to harry The New One from a long way out) and he might be worth a Betfair Hurdle entry given his falling handicap mark. Third-placed Ch’tibello (151) was the only one to improve his rating, but he could be harder to place now.
Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle over three miles was dominated by Willie Mullins, and it was another contest in which the principals didn’t need to run up to their best. Three miles is probably a bit further than ideal for Vroum Vroum Mag (157) but she got back to winning ways after her first defeat in Ireland in the Hatton’s Grace to beat stable-companion Clondaw Warrior (157) who’s rising ten but better than ever this term. Mullins might have had the first three had Shaneshill (158) not fallen heavily at the last having just been headed. Mullins was also responsible for the top novice hurdle performance of the week when Saturnas (148p) took the Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown, though it wasn’t a result to cause too many ripples in ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival.
On the other hand, the Christmas period did see a number of interesting performances from juvenile hurdlers who could easily be Triumph Hurdle bound. At Chepstow, the Philip Hobbs-trained Defi du Seuil strengthened his position as the best juvenile around at present (now rated 145p) with an easy win in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle, some scrappy jumps late on not a major concern. On the same day at Kempton, Nicky Henderson introduced a most promising French import in Charli Parcs (130P) who added to his debut success (bought for €250,000 subsequently) with an impressive win, though there must be a chance he’ll be kept apart from Defi du Seuil, both being in the ownership of J. P. McManus. Meanwhile, Willie Mullins won both of Leopardstown’s juvenile contests. Bapaume (137) dug deep to turn earlier form around with the previously unbeaten runner-up Landofhopeandglory (136). Mullins also got the better of a Joseph O’Brien/McManus representative in the following day’s maiden contest when the ex-French filly Meri Devie (127p) was backed into favouritism and duly beat the St Leger third Housesofparliament (127p) who was also making his hurdling debut. More should be heard of these two from a race that was won last year by subsequent Triumph winner Ivanovich Gorbatov.