As expected there were loads of Cheltenham pointers over the weekend although a couple of performances merely clouded the waters for the biggest race at next month’s jamboree.
Native River was cut for the Gold Cup by the bookmakers after winning what was a very uncompetitive Denman Chase at Newbury, but did this victory really enhance his prospects of winning the big race next month?
The tactics on Bristol De Mai, who was heavily backed into favouritism for the three-runner race on Saturday, were baffling as all the grey’s best performances have come when he’s been allowed to stride on and find his own rhythm.
With his stamina confirmed after winning at Haydock last month, it was surprising connections would choose to give Native River a solo up front, with some sort of vague plan to attack in the straight.
But having been allowed to make his own pace, Native River never looked like being passed, certainly not by Bristol De Mai who had been constantly reined back by Daryl Jacob despite his usual fluent jumping.
Native River rightly has his supporters for Cheltenham in what is looking quite an open contest, but those likening the chestnut to previous Welsh National winners to have gone on to Gold Cup glory, namely Masters Oats and Synchronised, might keep in mind that that pair beat notably weak fields at Cheltenham.
Not only will stablemates Thistlecrack and Cue Card be tough nuts to crack, but another Irish hope in the shape of Empire Of Dirt emerged as a possible contender when finishing second to Sizing John in Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup.
As I noted in the Friday preview, Empire Of Dirt was expected to go well in this first shot at a Grade One event and he might have won had things fallen slightly differently.
Despite the efforts of the one-paced Don Poli they didn’t go that quick over the last mile of the race, with half a dozen in with a chance at the final fence.
Sizing John, carrying his two-mile speed up in trip for the first time, readily outpaced his stamina-laden opponents on the run-in, holding off the renewed challenge of Empire Of Dirt close home.
“Empire Of Dirt appears to have loads of untapped stamina to call upon and that could see him hit the frame at the very least next month.”
However, I’d be confident positions would be reversed should they re-oppose at Cheltenham where a stronger pace looks assured. Empire Of Dirt appears to have loads of untapped stamina to call upon and that could see him hit the frame at the very least next month.
Back at Newbury and Ballyandy’s first venture into handicap company proved to be a successful one when he landed the featured Betfair Hurdle from what now looks a generous mark of 135.
He showed plenty of pace over the minimum trip to see-off fellow novice Movewiththetimes with Clyne giving the form a solid look six lengths back in third. Neither of the principles will look out of place in the opening Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Festival.
Altior confirmed himself a novice of the highest order by defeated more experienced rivals in the Game Spirit Chase, while over at Warwick Flying Angel, a stable companion of Ballyandy, returned to form to land the Kingmaker Novices Chase and looks to be coming to form at the right time. Whichever race he turns up in at Cheltenham he will be worth backing.