The first day of the Cheltenham Festival is often the best of the meeting and that certainly appears to be the case this year. Allmankind's impressive success in the rearranged Kingmaker Novices' Chase at Warwick last Monday took his unbeaten start over fences to three and saw his Timeform rating improve to 159 (from 155p). That would be good enough to go close in a typical renewal of the Sporting Life Arkle, but this is an outstanding edition thanks to the presence of Shishkin (165P) and Energumene (163p).
We've long since known that this season's novice chasers are an exceptional crop, but a pleasing recent development has been the spice added to the two-mile hurdling scene. Honeysuckle showed she will be a force to be reckoned with when winning the Irish Champion Hurdle for a second year, while Goshen (163 from 153) proved his wellbeing with a thumping 22-length success in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on Saturday.
He wasn't left with much to beat in the Kingwell as Song For Someone always appeared to be labouring, but it was still pleasing to see Goshen travel so powerfully, and he is clearly over the physical issues that had derailed his progress in the second half of 2020 (he was found to have a fibrillating heart after flopping in the International Hurdle). In addition to taking the eye with how well he travelled, Goshen clocked a time that was significantly faster than either division of the novice hurdle earlier on the card, despite conditions easing in the intervening period.
The visual impression and the evidence provided by the clock shows that Goshen not only bounced back to form but proved better than ever. His rating of 163 is the highest in the hurdles division, though he will need to raise his game further in the Champion Hurdle as he must give 7 lb to the mares Honeysuckle (160) and Epatante (157).
Monmiral (143p from 130p) also propelled himself to the top of his division with a seven-and-a-half-length success over Nassalam at Haydock on Saturday. Monmiral does not hold an entry in the Triumph Hurdle but he sits alongside Quilixios at the top of the juvenile pecking order and looks tailor-made for the Grade 1 Anniversary Hurdle at Aintree. Nassalam brought stronger form to the table on Saturday having finished runner-up in the Grade 1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle on his previous start, but Monmiral had been winning with plenty to spare and added some substance to the style when extending his unbeaten record to four.
Monmiral – a smashing long-term prospect – provided the highlight on a testing afternoon for Paul Nicholls, whose Cyrname (166$ from 169) was bitterly disappointing when pulled up in the Ascot Chase won by Dashel Drasher (162 from 158).
Cyrname had followed a disappointing effort in the King George with a worse one in the Ascot Chase last year and it was the same story again. It was disconcerting how quickly Cyrname – the 5/4 favourite – capitulated when headed and Nicholls later pointed to a breathing issue. He now has big questions to answer and the Timeform squiggle has been added to his rating, denoting concerns about his reliability.
Cyrname may not be a horse you can rely on when required to dig deep, but toughness is one of Dashel Drasher's best attributes and he showed plenty of resolution to make the Grade 1 breakthrough. His rating of 162 is lower than you would expect for a Grade 1 winner, reflecting how Saturday's contest was a weak affair, but he deserves plenty of credit for how gamely he stuck to his task to repel Master Tommytucker. Matt Griffiths, riding his first Grade 1 winner, also deserves credit for ensuring the emphasis was placed on stamina and desire by serving it up to Cyrname at the half-way mark.
The Reynoldstown was the chief supporting race on the Ascot card and Remastered (148 from 141p) demonstrated some likeable attributes to extend his unbeaten record over fences to three. He has plenty of options at the Festival but the National Hunt Chase may provide the most suitable test for a horse who is a sound jumper and strong stayer. He will be one to consider at a big price if taking his chance in that three-and-three-quarter-mile event, for all more improvement will be required against the likes of Galvin (154p) and Royale Pagaille (163p).
Racing fans were served a treat on Sunday thanks to the decision to reschedule Newbury's Betfair Hurdle card, which had fallen to the weather the previous weekend. The biggest clue with the Cheltenham Festival in mind came in the Game Spirit Chase, which is usually a stepping stone to the Champion Chase, but this year provided a Cheltenham Gold Cup pointer. Sceau Royal (164 from 162) is a specialist two-miler and it showed in a race largely contested by horses with form over further. He ran out a two-length winner, going one better than when runner-up to Altior last year, but the story of the race was the encouraging performance produced by Champ (remains on 166p) on his belated seasonal reappearance. Champ had shown plenty of stamina when surging up the Cheltenham hill to win the three-mile RSA Chase last season, so it is to his credit that he proved so competitive over two miles. He is entitled to come on for the run and, having shown his wellbeing, looks to have a better chance in the Gold Cup now than he did before the weekend.
The other Grade 2 on Newbury's card was the Denman Chase and that legendary stayer's trainer Paul Nicholls dominated, saddling the one-two. It wasn't in the order the market had predicted, however, as Secret Investor (161) showed good resolution under a fine front-running ride from Bryony Frost to fend off dual King George winner Clan des Obeaux (165) in a rousing finish. Secret Investor didn't need to improve on the form he had shown in a Chepstow handicap in the autumn to make the most of a 6 lb weight concession.
That race is unlikely to have a significant bearing on the Cheltenham Festival – the first two are not entered in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – but the Betfair Hurdle could well do.
It was an excellent renewal of the most valuable handicap hurdle in Britain and plenty of the field will have claims in the County Hurdle or Coral Cup at the Festival. The winner, Soaring Glory (140p from 129), might even have the Supreme Novices' Hurdle on his agenda, so impressive was he against a host of unexposed hurdlers arriving on a sharp upward curve. Soaring Glory, who had notably beaten Bravemansgame on his hurdling debut at Chepstow, glided into contention and quickened well after the last to win by three lengths with a bit in hand. That entitles him to have a crack at the Supreme, for which he was cut to 12/1 from 40/1, and the likes of Get Me Out of Here, My Tent or Yours and Kalashnikov have all gone close in the Festival opener after winning the Betfair Hurdle. They had achieved more at Newbury, however, and Soaring Glory is still some way behind the standard-setter Appreciate It (148p).
Gowel Road (137p from 132p) could also have the Supreme on his agenda after defying a penalty in the opener, while Good Risk At All (116 from 103) certainly wouldn't be out of place in the Champion Bumper after winning a typically strong edition of Newbury's listed bumper. Good Risk It All, penalised for a listed success at Cheltenham, took another significant step forward and is behind only Kilcruit (124p) and Sir Gerhard (118p) in the pecking order in the bumper division.
The pick of the action at Navan on Sunday was the Boyne Hurdle but its worth as a piece of form was impacted by a slow pace. Beacon Edge (remains on 151) did well to reel in Fury Road (151 from 147) who was allowed to dawdle in the lead, and trainer Noel Meade has suggested the winner could take his chance in the Stayers' Hurdle. He'll need to raise his game in the region of 10 lb against the likes of Paisley Park (161), but he is completely unexposed over three miles and has a largely positive profile so is not one to dismiss.
The Boyne was also notable for the participation of Tiger Roll but he offered only limited encouragement on his return from three months off. He travelled well but they crawled along and he was quickly left behind when the tempo picked up in the straight. He has an extraordinary CV and will be remembered as a great of the sport, but there are clearly significant doubts about what level he is still capable of achieving.
It's worth highlighting Chantry House's (148p from 144p) cosy three-and-a-quarter-length success in a novice chase at Wetherby earlier in the week. He had disappointed on his previous start but got back on track here, comfortably drawing clear of a useful rival, and it will be interesting to see which route connections opt to go. He is entered in the Marsh, but it would be little surprise were connections to swerve a clash with Envoi Allen in favour of a tilt at the Paddy Power Plate – a handicap – for which he was cut to favourite.
Going back to Warwick on Monday, there was a fascinating runner in the listed Mares' Hurdle in the shape of Paul's Saga (162? from 162), whose French Champion Hurdle win identified her as one of the leading hurdlers in training. She was well below her best on her first outing since November, though, and had to settle for second behind the improving Molly Ollys Wishes (138 from 129). She was one of 12 winners in the week for Dan Skelton.
The focus may very much be on the jumps season at the moment but there were some high-class horses from Britain and America in action in Saudi Arabia. The second running of the feature Saudi Cup was won by the John Gosden-trained Mishriff (131 from 124+), who underlined his versatility by producing a career-best effort on dirt. He had taken well to the surface when runner-up in the Saudi Derby at the meeting last year and his length-victory over the progressive Charlatan on Saturday, with the pair clear, suggests he is going to be a force in the major middle-distance prizes in Europe this season after a possible Dubai World Cup bid. He was given a good ride by David Egan to win the world's richest race.