The two-day Ladbrokes Winter Carnival kicked off on Friday and it saw the return of the 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle winner Paisley Park (remains on 166p), who extended his winning sequence to six when beating Thistlecrack by a length in the Long Distance Hurdle, conceding the runner-up 6 lb. Paisley Park didn’t have to be at his best after nine months off, the race not fully testing his stamina, but he still produced the best performance since Celestial Halo’s 17-length romp in 2013, and Paisley Park will be a warm favourite to defend his crown in the Long Walk at Ascot later this month. Thistlecrack, on the other hand, will likely revert to fences and head to the King George next, a race he won as a novice in 2016 and in which he was runner-up to Clan des Obeaux last season.
Thirty-five minutes earlier Champ (up 1 lb to 149p) enhanced his reputation over fences when winning the Berkshire Novices’ Chase by one and a half lengths from Black Op. The complexion of the race changed with the departure of the front-running Dashel Drasher at the first, the pace much steadier than it might otherwise have been, developing into something of a cat-and-mouse affair. Champ did very well in the circumstances, particularly as he almost took the wrong course after the last, his performance well up to standard for a race with a rich history. For all Champ clearly doesn’t lack any gears, 3m is ultimately going to be his trip, already favourite for the RSA Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. The average winner of that race in the last five years ran to a Timeform figure of 157, so Champ is well on his way to that, and deserves his place at the head of the market.
The Amy Murphy-trained Kalashnikov (up 3 lb to 161p) has started his second season over fences with back-to-back handicap defeats, yet the quality of those performances (runner-up both times), especially this one, were those of a youngster whose time in such races is coming to a close, everything about him screaming bona fide open graded chaser. The winner Oldgrangewood (141 from 136) went without his usual cheekpieces/tongue strap combination yet ended his losing run in the very race he'd landed last (back in 2017), benefiting from a brilliant Harry Skelton ride; he was essentially seen to maximum effect for all drop in the weights may suggest he can take his revival up another notch.
Thriller!— Racing TV (@RacingTV) November 29, 2019
Fourth jumping the second-last, Oldgrangewood absolutely flies home to nab Kalashnikov for a £50,000 prize at @NewburyRacing.
Cracking ride, @harryskelton89 👏 @DSkeltonRacing pic.twitter.com/N0OlmmasIF
It was the first maximum field for the Ladbrokes Trophy since Be My Royal passed the post first ahead of Gingembre in 2002 and De Rasher Counter (up 7 lb to 154p) stepped forward significantly after his return over hurdles to land this very valuable prize under a good conditional. He was one of the least experienced in the field, but most progressive, successful now in his last three starts in handicap chases. A 155 timefigure gives his performance extra substance, and further top-end handicaps and perhaps even good conditions races are likely to be on the agenda moving forward.
The Nicky Henderson-trained Epatante (146p from 134p) got her career back on track in no uncertain terms after nine months off when winning the listed handicap hurdle that has a habit of throwing up further graded winners, with last year’s winner Global Citizen a prime example. It looks a strong renewal, too, with Epatante putting up the best performance in the race since L’Ami Serge in 2014. The pace was a bit slower to the third last than in the listed mares novice which opened the card, but Epatante came home fast and recorded a slightly faster overall time than Floressa. The emphasis on speed really played to her strengths, but she is potentially very smart, and looks one to keep on the right side.
It didn't go to plan for Buveur D'Air at Newcastle, but Nicky Henderson trains the 1-2-3 in the Listed Intermediate Hurdle @NewburyRacing— Racing TV (@RacingTV) November 30, 2019
🥈 French Crusader
🥉 Elusive Belle
The impressive Epatante becomes the third winner today at the track for @sevenbarrows pic.twitter.com/NhCHBr5vYx
A typically small field went to post for the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, and the tactical element that normally brings with it played a big part in deciding the outcome, Buveur d'Air's bid for a third successive win in the race foiled by a superb ride on the winner Cornerstone Lad (154 from 149) who took full advantage of an easy lead. It was reported after the race that Buveur d’Air (159 from 163) finished lame, a piece of wood from one of the hurdles puncturing his hoof, and he may not be seen out again this season, leaving a very murky Champion Hurdle picture. Take nothing away from Cornerstone Lad, a splendidly tough and genuine sort, but this upsetting of the previous dual winner doesn't suddenly mean he's a Champion Hurdle candidate, and he will likely find life much harder from now on.
There was a bumper card at Fairyhouse on Sunday and Envoi Allen (148P from 142P) didn’t disappoint on his stiffest test over hurdles to date, taking the leap from maiden to Grade 1 company in his stride, producing the best performance by a novice hurdler in Ireland this season to beat stablemate Abacadabras (146p from 141P) by one and a half lengths. Envoi Allen travelled and jumped fluently, was asked to go on from two out and typically responded well for pressure, having too many gears for the runner-up. A potential top-notcher, connections intimated he’ll be kept to novice company for the time being, despite single-figure quotes for the Champion Hurdle on the back of this success. Envoi Allen recorded a timefigure of 152, which matches that of Klassical Dream in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last season, and he will continue to take all the beating.
Jump Racing - A special game producing the latest batch of superstars on a stellar day @Fairyhouse— Racing TV (@RacingTV) December 1, 2019
🏆 Envoi Allen - G1 Royal Bond Novice Hurdle
🏆 Fakir D'oudairies - G1 Drinmore Novice Chase
🏆 Honeysuckle - G1 Hatton's Grace Hurdle
👑 Three serious talents! pic.twitter.com/XSYDXxQIaJ
It was an intriguing renewal of the Drinmore Novices’ Chase that was building to a crescendo only for Samcro (157p from 146P) to fall when going best upsides the bold-jumping Fakir d’Oudairies (up 4 lb 147p) at the second last, the pair having drawn a long way clear of the remainder from three out. The winner already looks better over fences than hurdles, though he was arguably fortunate to maintain his unbeaten record in this sphere given the ominous ease with which Samcro appeared to be travelling prior to his departure. An exuberant and exciting jumper, Fakir d’Oudairies is likely to prove just as effective back at 2m in this sphere and looks sure to take high rank amongst this season’s novice chasers.
Samcro remains a top-class prospect over fences, his jumping not as polished as some, but there is no doubting he retains all his ability from his novice season over hurdles, still having the winner in his crosshairs despite losing ground at each fence. He remains open to significant improvement in this sphere and will remain of plenty of interest, assuming he's none the worse for this experience.
It was a smart if less than vintage renewal of the Hatton’s Grace that signalled both the end of an era and the dawning of a new one, with the unbeaten Honeysuckle (154p from 146p) routing her rivals in the style of one looking sure to achieve more top-level successes over the coming months/seasons, whilst also adding to the recent success that mares have enjoyed in this particular race (five wins from the last nine renewals). She took her form to a new level, putting up a performance in keeping with recent renewals, surpassing the level Apple’s Jade ran to 12 months ago, but not quite reaching the level of her peak win in 2017 or Jezki’s win in 2013. However, Honeysuckle is clearly a very smart mare, and will continue to prove hard to beat, connections reportedly keen to test her effectiveness on a left-handed track before the Cheltenham Festival. She is already at a level to win an average renewal of the Mares’ Hurdle (143), and you wouldn’t blame connections if they had the Champion Hurdle at the back of their minds given how open the race looks at this season.