Newbury’s two-day winter meeting has always been one of the highlights of the Jumps season outside Cheltenham, and last weekend’s edition was no exception.
The revamped Ladbrokes Winter Carnival yielded some of the most competitive and informative action so far this term, with little more informative than the striking displays of the Nicky Henderson novices, SANTINI and CHAMP, on their seasonal bows.
And even if its £250,000 centrepiece, the Ladbrokes Trophy (formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup) was a decidedly sub-standard affair, it still produced a most authoritative winner in SIZING TENNESSEE.
Colin Tizzard’s ten-year-old was older than your average winner of the race. Indeed the oldest since way back in 1981 when Diamond Edge triumphed for the legendary trainer Fulke Walwyn, after whom, pleasingly, a race is still loosely named at this meeting.
But he ticked several other boxes, most importantly in that he is the kind of ‘rhythm horse’ so suited to the demands of a contest invariably run at a searching, relentless gallop, whatever the ground.
His tremendous performance in the four-miler at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, when worn down only at the last, underlined that he’s a proper, willing galloper who likes to travel prominently and jump from fence to fence.
Although rising 11, he had low mileage on the clock because he suffered leg problems before joining Colin Tizzard from Irish handler Henry De Bromhead. And as a novice last term, he had solid form in the book, not least fine placed efforts behind the likes of Yanworth at graded level and subsequent Festival winner Mister Whitaker, both over inadequate trips.
Saturday’s ludicrously aggressive early gallop set by champion jockey Richard Johnson on THOMAS PATRICK was too much for some, and it was no surprise when Tom Lacey’s 6yo himself cried enough some way out. But it didn’t upset the rhythm of Sizing Tennessee, and once he’d taken it up three out, jockey Tom Scudamore was looking round for non-existent dangers.
His victory triggered a remarkably coincidental bout of poignancy. Not only did it come a year after the death of owner Alan Potts, whose wife, Ann, had also passed away three months earlier. It also came only days after the death of Scudamore’s grandfather, John Kington, whose funeral had been the previous day, and it coincided with the death, at the age of 21, of Sizing Tennessee’s own sire, the mighty Robin Des Champs, whose other progeny have included Vautour and Quevega.
Saturday’s win was also yet another feather in the staying-chase cap of trainer Tizzard, who saddled the runner-up, ELEGANT ESCAPE, and fifth, WEST APPROACH as well. Expect to see at least two of them again in the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow over Christmas when just a 4lb penalty will raise Sizing Tennessee’s mark to 152, 3lbs lower than that carried to victory in the race by stablemate Native River two years ago.
It must be said, however, that, in general, the Welsh National is very rarely won by horses who contested the Hennessy/Ladbrokes Trophy. Indeed Native River was the first do so since Playschool in 1987. I’m not too sure either that Sizing Tennessee would be suited by an extended slog through the mud, which Chepstow invariably provides at the time of year.
It would be a shame if his season was left behind in Wales when his progression suggests he could run a big race in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, particularly as he has already proven his liking for Prestbury Park’s undulations, running there ten times and making the first three on six occasions.
If there WAS a Welsh National winner in the Newbury race, it just might be MS PARFOIS, who actually beat Sizing Tennessee in that aforementioned Festival four-miler. At the cross fence, it seemed inconceivable that Anthony Honeyball’s mare would not be at least placed, so strongly was she travelling. But she went from hero to zero in a matter of strides and palpably blew up, in need of her first outing since April. She’s a tasty and tempting 14/1 best price for the Chepstow marathon.
Tizzard’s Newbury delight made up for what I perceived as disappointing runs the previous week in Haydock’s Betfair Chase from his stable’s two big guns, NATIVE RIVER and THISTLECRACK. The Gold Cup winner came under a ride far too early for my liking, while Thistlecrack’s jumping was far from fluent and, if he were mine, the injury-plagued ten-year-old would be returning to timber to land a second Stayers’ Hurdle, rather than to Kempton to land a second King George.
With evens favourite MIGHT BITE an even bigger flop, I felt the race rather dropped into the lap of BRISTOL DE MAI. As much as I admire Nigel Twiston-Davies’s powerhouse grey, his win owed as much to below-par efforts from his three main rivals than his own talent. I’m going to stick my controversial neck out and say that none of the quintet who contested the Betfair Chase will win the 2019 Gold Cup.
The Champion Hurdle picture, on the other hand, looks more cut and dried after the eclipse of SAMCRO (surely now the Coming Second, rather than the Second Coming) by BUVEUR D’AIR in Newcastle’s BetVictor Fighting Fifth Hurdle on Saturday. I was one of those who believed Gigginstown were doing the right thing by aiming the great Irish hope at the Champion, rather than sending him chasing. But although he ran with enormous credit at Newcastle, considering he had to make his own running, and jumped with particular aplomb, Gordon Elliott’s charge is beginning to look, on the evidence of two efforts now this term, a horse very much needing a trip further than 2m, whether that be over hurdles or fences.
In contrast, Buveur D’Air is an imperious two-mile timber-topper and one beginning, at last, to get the credit he deserves among punters and pundits as he strides towards a Champion Hurdle hat-trick. I have one eye on Harry Fry’s classy improver IF THE CAP FITS but, at this stage, I would say only one horse is capable of beating Henderson and JP McManus’s 7yo at Cheltenham in March, and that’s the one who almost managed it last March. Willie Mullins’s MELON is sure to have matured and improved even more with an extra year on his back, and his return to action is eagerly anticipated.