Cheltenham’s meeting on New Year’s Day is always very informative and this year’s was no different. There were two Grade 2s on the card, namely the Relkeel Hurdle and the Dipper Novices’ Chase, and both produced thrilling finishes. L’Ami Serge was sent off favourite for the Relkeel, despite the fact he was switching back to hurdles for the first time in seven starts. In the event, L’Ami Serge produced one of his best ever efforts over timber (h155 from h148+) but was still narrowly denied by last season’s Betfair Hurdle Agrapart. The combination of Agrapart’s stamina and attitude made the difference after the runner-up (who reportedly could now return to two miles for the Champion Hurdle) looked to have his measure for pretty much the length of the straight. Agrapart is likely to stay three miles and will presumably have a crack at the Stayers' Hurdle if underfoot conditions are deemed suitable (goes well on soft ground), especially given the uncertainty about the make-up of that field behind the favourite, the h165-rated Unowhatimeanharry. Well held in third, fourth and last of the five finishers were the 2015 World (Stayers’) Hurdle winner Cole Harden (h156), Lil Rockerfeller (h160) and Camping Ground (h156), with the first-named gelding at least showing he isn’t a complete back-number returned to hurdling and in first-time cheekpieces.
The Dipper featured an even smaller field than the Relkeel, with just four runners lining up, but both the front two of Whisper (c149p from c144p; has been 163 over hurdles) and Clan des Obeaux (c143p) produced very good performances and remain capable of even better over fences. Whisper has got to grips with chasing now and, while he made a couple of errors along the way, he was fluent when it mattered most. His strength at the finish was a reminder that he stays three miles and he has the option of the JLT or the RSA at the Festival (though no nine-year-old has won the former, and the last to win the latter was Miinnehoma—admittedly, a subsequent Grand National winner—in 1992). Clan des Obeaux ran well on form and might well have justified favouritism but for his sole scrappy jump two out. He has a completely different profile to Whisper, almost half his age, and likely has a big career ahead of him in this sphere (already a Grade 2 winner).
The Grade 3 handicap chase on the card went to Shantou Flyer (c155 from c147) for the Rebecca Curtis stable, whose association with talented young Irish jockey Jonathan Moore appears to have come to an end (Aidan Coleman rode Shantou Flyer). Shantou Flyer was a big price but proved better than ever to come out on top on his first outing since leaving Colin Bowe in Ireland after five months off. He was suited by the emphasis on stamina back down to 21 furlongs and was also seen to advantage under a patient ride. That said, he was still value for a decidedly smart effort. In second was the extremely likeable Village Vic (c161) who had won the corresponding race in 2016 and ran another cracker to make it three placed efforts in C&D handicaps this season. As usual he was given an attacking ride by Richard Johnson and jumped boldly before going down fighting. Top Gamble (c161) was narrowly top weight over Village Vic and he matched that gelding’s performance in ratings terms in third. Kerry Lee’s nine-year-old ran right up to his best form with his comeback behind him and back in a tongue strap, with the form shown every bit as good as that which saw him win graded races in 2015/16. It’s a concern that Henry Parry Morgan (c151) failed to complete (fell) for the third time in his last four starts, but he was in the process of running well (wearing a first-time visor back down in trip) when departing four out and remains well handicapped for when things go right.
Coo Star Sivola (h133) won the opening listed novice hurdle, though perhaps just as interesting as prospects for this season (and beyond) are the placed horses Report To Base (c132p) and Poetic Rhythm (h124p). Over at Tramore in Ireland, the listed chase was easily won by Champagne West (c153x) who got off the mark for the Henry de Bromhead stable (formerly with Philip Hobbs) at the second attempt after six weeks off. He seemed well suited by a return to more forceful tactics and his jumping was much more assured as a result. Runner-up Roi des Francs (c156) failed to run to quite the same level he had on his debut for Gordon Elliott and may continue to be difficult to place to victory (had to concede 7 lb to the winner here).
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There was also a high-quality card—albeit one not covered by terrestrial television—at Newbury on New Year’s Eve, with the feature race being the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle. It was won by Messire des Obeaux (remains rated h140) who became the first four-year-old to take the Challow since Reve de Sivola in 2010. Messire des Obeaux, who gave Alan King his first win in the race, took a further step up in grade in his stride and one of the novices at the Cheltenham Festival in March is a realistic target for him. Two lengths back in second—though in turn four lengths clear of the third—was Irish raider Baltazar d’Allier (h121p to h137p) who was much improved from his debut win upped to two and a half miles. He just lacked the pace of the winner, but he's very much a chaser on looks and is a smashing long-term prospect. Ami Desbois (stays on h132), who finished third to Barters Hill in a Doncaster Grade 2 novice last term, confirmed previous form though was put in his place once the principals made their move. It was a competitive Challow, even if the standard set by the best in the field was a little short of the level often required to win the race, though it would have been more interesting had the favourite Robin Roe (h135p from h140P) not fallen when still travelling well three out. He sustained an injury to his knee that is likely to keep him out for the remainder of the season.
*In case you missed it, you can read our Christmas Special Ratings Update by clicking HERE.