THE FINAL FLIGHT NOTEBOOK christmas-review-2015-2016

by The Final Flight Team

3/8/2016 12:33:09 PM


“The Final Flight Publications LLP specialise in the production of paperback and digital National Hunt racing books.  ‘The Final Flight Jumps Guide’ is our annual ‘horses to follow’ book with the first edition being published in August 2015”.

“My weekly ‘notebook’ is designed to review the performances of horses that are included in ‘The Final Flight Jumps Guide 2015/16’ as well as having a brief look at the last 7 days racing”.

“I hope you enjoy this weekly feature and I wish you the best of luck for the season”

Grant Copson (@grantcopson1992), Author of ‘The Final Flight Jumps Guide’.

THE FINAL FLIGHT FESTIVE NOTEBOOK

With the exception of the 4 days at Cheltenham in March, the racing over Christmas is the most enthralling and is always certain to throw up big race winners in the future. For that reason, I decided to compile a ‘festive notebook’ rather than the usual weekly notebook. The layout will be identical to my weekly notebook that many of the regular readers will be familiar with. A huge thank you to everyone who continues to support me and I hope that you thoroughly enjoy this special feature.

Grant Copson   

The horses listed below are those that are included in ‘The Final Flight Jumps Guide 2015/2016 and subsequently ran over the festive period. Although there was only a select few runners, this year’s publication continued to produce winners with form figures of 11F3211 between Boxing Day and Wednesday 30th December.   

DOUVAN – TOP PROSPECT

A superstar hurdler last season captivating with a win in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Douvan made a smooth transition to the larger obstacles at Navan last month. He went a long way to proving that he is going to be an even better chaser when winning the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on the opening day of their four day meeting. He was facing his old foe Sizing John for a fourth time and by running out an easy 18 length winner, he recorded his widest margin success to date. He is currently trading at odds-on for the Racing Post Arkle in March and given the manner of this latest victory, I expect it will take a very good horse to get the better of this exceptional son of Walk In The Park.    

KING’S ODYSSEY – HANDICAPPER

After finishing third on his chasing debut at Southwell last month, it quickly transpired that this Evan Williams-trained gelding had suffered a broken blood vessel and for that reason, his slightly below-par effort could easily be forgiven. He was taking on the well-regarded Southfield Vic at Wincanton on Saturday and given his form over hurdles last term, his 3 ¼ length success was far from a surprise to me. After taking up the running at the 9th obstacle, jockey Adam Wedge never saw another rival as his mount galloped all the way to the line and won with a fair bit in hand. I expected this 6-year-old to be running in handicaps this season and assuming that the handicapper isn’t too harsh, he could remain well treated in novice handicap chases. 

WEST WIZARD – HANDICAPPER

It is no secret that Nicky Henderson thought the world of West Wizard and he would have been mortified to see him switched to Nigel Twiston-Davies in the summer. Although he was ultimately disappointing as a novice hurdler, he did bump into some useful sorts in that sphere and taking that into account, he was included in this year’s publication as a handicapper to follow. He made his chasing debut in the Novices’ Handicap Chase at Kempton on Saturday, where he was well-beaten when falling at the third last. This was obviously a poor return to action, but assuming that he none the worse for his fall, I have reason to believe that he can made amends in a similar event. Firstly, this was a warm race to make a seasonal reappearance in, with all of rivals having previous chasing experience as well as the benefit of a recent run. It is also understood that West Wizard has been struggling with his breathing and therefore, I expect him to be better suited to quicker ground conditions. It will be interesting if it transpires that West Wizard has had a wind operation prior to his next outing, especially given that this procedure has made the headlines for the right reasons in recent months.

PETIT MOUCHOIR – TOP PROSPECT

After making a winning start to his hurdling career last month, the connections of Petit Mouchoir decided to step this son of Al Namix up in grade to contest the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday. As Willie Mullins was well-represented in the race, Jacques Ricou took the ride and he travelled smoothly under the French jockey in mid-division before being ridden along entering the home straight. He made a mistake at the last obstacle which hindered his chances of getting to the leaders but I was particularly impressed with how this gelding stuck to the task, especially taking into account that he was rather keen in the early stages of the race. I have always thought of this 4-year-old as a horse that will appreciate a step-up in trip but given his freshness, I can understand why connections are pursuing the two-mile route at this stage. Gigginstown House Stud have aimed some of their better horses at the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle over the last few years (Sir Des Champs and Don Poli previous winners) and I would not be at all surprised if this is highlighted as the end of season target for this promising novice.     

MINELLA ARIS – POINT-TO-POINTER

After falling on his debut in a point-to-point at Dromahane in March, Minella Aris made amends at the same venue the following month and was subsequently sold for £200,000. His performance in his second point-to-point start was enough to warrant his inclusion in this year’s publication and he went a long way to justifying that on his hurdling debut at Leopardstown on Monday. Prominent throughout the contest, this son of Kings Theatre was ridden to lead at the final flight and the race looked at his mercy with less than 100 yards to race. However, he edged left under pressure on the run-in and was collared close home by the staying-on Chain Gang. Given that Road To Respect, who boasted some solid hurdle form coming into this contest, was back in third, I expect that the two hurdling debutants who finished ahead of him are pretty useful. The front trio were 24 lengths clear of the remainder and therefore, this was a more than encouraging hurdling debut for Minella Aris. His connections will no doubt attempt to win a maiden hurdle with this 4-year-old before looking at stepping him up in class. However, whatever he achieves over timber will be a bonus as he has bags of scope to make-up into a lovely chaser when the time comes. 

BARTERS HILL – TOP PROSPECT

Unbeaten in four bumpers and a novice hurdle, Barters Hill was tackling Grade 1 Company for the first time on Tuesday in the Betfred ‘Goals Galore’ Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury and his demolition job of a small but select field certainly enhanced his reputation as one of the best novice hurdlers in Britain. The only major concern for his supporters was when he hung right on the paddock bend but David Bass coaxed him back to the rail and by employing his usual front-running tactics, this Ben Pauling-trained gelding was far too strong for his two rivals. Barters Hill is not a flashy type, he finds under pressure and that is the type of horse that I am particularly fond of. His two rivals were seemingly travelling better at the second last but he kept on galloping and both Politilogue and Label Des Obeaux failed to make inroads into his ever-extending lead. He drew well clear after jumping the last and he was 12 lengths clear at the line. He won with even more in hand than the winning distance suggests and I expect that this horse could well be the ‘real deal’. I suggest that any ante-post punters consider both the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle as his likely assignment at the 2016 festival with the latter seemingly the most likely, in my opinion. There is one thing for sure, this son of Kalanisi has endless amounts of size and scope about him and is therefore going to be one of the hottest properties when switching to the novice chase ranks in the autumn.       

LUCKY PASS – POINT-TO-POINTER

This Gigginstown-owned 4-year-old made a winning debut under rules at Fairyhouse last month and was sent off the odds-on favourite to make it two from two in bumpers at Leopardstown on Tuesday. The 2m Ryanair-sponsored event looked a warm race on paper, including a number of other bumper winners and although Lucky Pass successfully landed the odds, there was no surprise that he had to be pushed out to get the better of First Figaro by 3 ¾ lengths. Ridden to lead with two furlongs to race, he perhaps idled upon hitting the front, but I was particularly impressed with the attitude he showed in the closing stages to fend off his nearest pursuers. The form of his debut effort has been franked with the runner-up Avellino winning at Down Royal on Boxing Day and he looks a very smart long-term prospect. In my opinion, he has shown enough ability in bumpers to have earned a crack at one of the championship bumpers in the spring, where the likely better ground is not certain to suit this mud-lover. Ultimately, he will make-up into a decent jumper; with the speed to be successful over hurdles as well as the size to make a chaser in the future.         

The festive period in brief

26th December

Unbeaten since switching to timber in the autumn, ALTIOR made it four wins in as many starts at Kempton with a smooth 13 length success in the opening novices’ hurdle. He was keen in the early stages of the race but that appeared to make little difference to his finishing effort as he led two out and bounded clear to win impressively. Although it is likely that the runner-up, Open Eagle, falls short of the best novice hurdlers that are trained by Willie Mullins, Altior has earned a crack at the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and the current odds of 9/1 is fair given what he has already achieved. There is no doubt that he has plenty of class, speed and is extremely tough but I feel that he may find one or two too good in what is shaping up to be an above-average renewal.   

I was impressed with the chasing debut of Tea For Two at Exeter at the beginning of December and I was absolutely delighted for Lizzie Kelly to record her first Grade 1 success aboard this classy recruit in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. Taking into account that his connections are adamant that he is best going right-handed, I expect that they will consider the Grade 2 Reynoldstown at Ascot in February as his next assignment. However, it was the Neil Mulholland-trained SOUTHFIELD ROYALE who I expect to be worth following after a good effort to finish 4 lengths behind the brilliant winner. Although he jumped slightly left at times, his jumping on the whole was superb and that is an important attribute, particularly when contesting staying chases. Given his tendency to jump left, I expect that he will be better going the other way around and the National Hunt Chase over 4m at the Cheltenham Festival is likely to be his spring target.

Faugheen was all the rage in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle and he duly obliged with plenty in hand. His 7 length success on this occasion set the record straight after his shock defeat in the Morgiana Hurdle and he justified his position at the head of the Champion Hurdle market. I was impressed with the performance of third-placed HARGAM who is certain to improve once he encounters better ground in the spring and in my opinion, he is the one to take out of the race. He has now posted two satisfactory efforts in graded-company this term on ground softer than ideal and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if his connections are looking at the Betfair Hurdle before a tilt at the County Hurdle at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.  

The Grade 1 William Hill King George VI Chase was billed as one of the best renewals in recent years, with a number of chasing heavyweights clashing in the three mile Christmas showpiece. Cue Card was chasing the second leg of the Jockey Club’s £1m Chase Triple Crown bonus and his emotional victory was a joy to see, especially after he had previously failed in his three attempts at winning one of the most prestigious prizes in jump-racing. With many happy to question the stamina of Cue Card in the past, Colin Tizzard’s 9-year-old proved all of his doubters wrong as he stayed on dourly to get the better of Vautour in the final stride.

Given that it was Vautour’s first try at three miles, it was inevitable that the stamina of the runner-up would be questioned post-race, but I have no doubt that he stayed the trip and he was simply out-stayed by the game winner. Another talking point was certain to be whether or not Don Cossack, who fell when still in contention at the second-last, would have won the race. Predicting the outcome of this is extremely difficult but it is not my style to sit on the fence and in my opinion, the Gordon Elliott-trained gelding would have got the better of Cue Card and Vautour on the run-in. When coming to grief at the second-last Don Cossack was starting to get the better of Cue Card and given that he subsequently got the better of Vautour, I think it is logical to assume that the highest-rated steeplechaser in Britain and Ireland would have recorded a success.

Looking to the future, I expect Cue Card and Don Cossack to take their chances in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March but I would be surprised if they were good enough to land the most coveted prize in jump-racing. The 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup is a completely different test to the King George and I predict that something will have more stamina in reserve than that pair. VAUTOUR is most definitely the horse to take out of the King George, in my opinion. With connections already holding a strong hand in the Gold Cup with last year’s runner-up Djakadam, I hope that Vautour will be dropped in trip and targeted at the Ryanair Chase, a race that I feel will suit him perfectly. There is no doubt in my mind that this gelding will be better on spring ground and going left-handed. I am also almost certain that Vautour will jump better in a race where he is guaranteed a stronger gallop. His performance over the same distance in the JLT Novices’ Chase was simply stunning and I hope that he is given the opportunity to repeat such an amazing display in next year’s Ryanair.             

APPLE’S JADE was making her British debut for Willie Mullins in the Grade 2 Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown and she made a winning start, getting the better of Jer’s Girl by a head. The winner took a fierce hold in the early stages and taking into account the soft ground conditions, it was very promising that she still had a finishing effort when asked a serious question between the final two flights of hurdles. It is likely that the joint-favourite Rashaan was not suited by the ground conditions on this occasion but there is no reason to take anything away from the winner who rates an exciting young filly. The Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle might be next on her agenda, a race that Willie Mullins and Gigginstown House Stud won with Petite Parisienne last season.       

A runner-up behind Lucky Pass on her debut, AVELLINO made amends at Down Royal when winning by a wide margin in the concluding bumper. Sent off the 2/1 joint favourite, this Dermot McLoughlin-trained filly was ridden to lead with three furlongs to race and when still travelling powerfully entering the final furlong, she stamped her authority on her rivals, powering clear to record a 13 length success. Following this success, I expect her attentions to be switched to hurdles and she can make her mark in novice hurdles against her own gender.

This time last year I was very taken by the debut of Onefitzall and it was another Mick Fitzgerald Racing Club-owned WESTEND STORY who caught my eye this time around. After falling in both of his two starts in point-to-points, I was not surprised to see Philip Hobbs select a bumper as the first assignment for this 4-year-old and I was impressed with his 6 length success in the last race at Huntingdon. This son of Westerner clearly has plenty of ability and based on his debut performance, he should be capable of winning a similar bumper under a penalty. However, there is no doubt that his future lies as a jumper and I wouldn’t be surprised if his connections opt to go hurdling sooner rather than later. 

27th December

Alan King has an excellent record with his juvenile hurdlers and he unleashed another bright prospect at Kempton, this time in the form of GIBRALFARO. I was very taken by his performance and I feel that there is plenty of reasons to believe that this horse is one to follow. Held up in the early stages of the race, this gelding was keen in the hands of Wayne Hutchinson and his jumping lacked fluency at times. Although he was still full of running turning into the straight, Gibralfaro still had plenty of ground to make-up and he was still 4 lengths down after making a mistake at the final obstacle. However, Hutchinson gathered up his mount and he rallied well under pressure to score by ½ a length from Duke Of Medina. He clearly has plenty of stamina and I hope that a stiffer track will suit this 3-year-old much better than the speed test that is Kempton. King intimated that either the Triumph or Fred Winter will be the spring target but if King has a better juvenile hurdler than this fellow then it will be a very good horse. 

Ar Mad made it three from four since switching to the larger obstacles this autumn and he gained the scalp of VANITEUX at Kempton in the Grade 2 Waywood Lad Novices’ Chase. Although there is no doubt that the winner was impressive, especially in the jumping department, I advise that the runner-up is not discounted based on this run and he remains a bright prospect in the novice chase ranks. Where Ar Mad put in some exquisite leaps on the way around; Vaniteux made a couple of significant errors which not only knocked his confidence, but also meant that he lost ground on the eventual winner at certain stages of the race. However, the Nicky Henderson-trained gelding was still travelled powerfully approaching two out and it was only the tenacity of the winner when asked a serious question by Joshua Moore that allowed him to battle back and record another graded success. I hope that connections give Vaniteux another chance in a novice chase before making a judgement on his target at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival as based on this evidence, I find it hard to see him getting close to Douvan in the Arkle. On the back of another run, connections may decide that a step-up in trip is in order, which would mean that the JLT Novices’ Chase would come into consideration.

After a pulsating finish in the King George VI Chase on the previous day, the Desert Orchid Chase had a lot to live up to, but it certainly did not disappoint. The race was billed as a match between two former Champion Chase winners in Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy and it was that pair who locked horns up the Kempton run-in, giving the onlookers a real treat. Both Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy were driven approaching the second-last and on the run to the final fence it appeared that the ‘street fighter’ Sire De Grugy had the upper-hand, but a superb leap swung the momentum back in Nicky Henderson’s geldings favour and Sprinter Sacre found more for Nico de Boinville to score by ¾ of a length. I have been known to question what Sprinter Sacre finds off the bridle but on this occasion he showed the guts and determination to match his undoubted class to get the better of his gallant rival. Whether either horse will be good enough to regain the Champion Chase crown in March remains to be seen but this race is one that will be cherished by National Hunt fans for many years and I was delighted to have witnessed it.    

Rated 105 on the level, I expected IVANOVICH GORBATOV to make a bold bid on his hurdling debut and given his exploits on the flat, I was slightly surprised to see him sent off the second favourite. Having said that, Willie Mullins/Ruby Walsh/Rich Ricci have proved a formidable combination over the last few seasons and probably on his connections’ reputation rather than what he had achieved, their Let’s Dance was sent off the 4/7 favourite. The Aidan O’Brien-trained winner left a lasting impression as he made smooth progress between the final two obstacles before keeping on strongly on the run-in, bounding clear of Let’s Dance. I was obviously not the only one impressed with Ivanovich Gorbatov’s debut performance as he charged to the head of the Triumph Hurdle market and with better ground likely to bring out more improvement, I predict that he will take high rank in the juvenile hurdle division. I expect that the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile will be his next target, a race that has been an excellent guide to the Triumph Hurdle in recent years and a win in that race will further enhance his Cheltenham Festival claims. The runner-up didn’t disgrace himself on his British debut and there are races to be won with him over timber.  

After stamping his authority on the two-mile novice chase division last season, all eyes were on UN DE SCEAUX when he made his seasonal reappearance in the Grade 1 chase at Leopardstown. Unfortunately, he once again began his campaign with a fall and this was particularly frustrating after his jumping had been satisfactory other than his sole fall last term. Although Willie Mullins made the post-race comment that he was not happy with Un De Sceaux’s jumping, I thought he jumped superbly in the main and it was a mere lack of concentration that caused him to tip up at the second-last. Understandably, the bookmakers reacted to this disappointing reappearance by pushing Un De Sceaux out to 7/4 for Champion Chase success at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival but I still rate him as the most likely winner of the race. After the festive period, there is only one horse who sits near the head of the betting who has yet to run this season and that is last season’s winner, Dodging Bullets. The Paul Nicholls-trained gelding is expected to reappear in the New Year and I hope that he can put up a dominant display, enhancing his chances of defending his crown and adding further depth to this intriguing division.      

28th December 

ZABANA was an excellent second behind the highly-regarded Aux Ptits Soins in the Coral Cup at the 2015 Cheltneham Festival and followed that effort up with a good third behind Jezki and Hurricane Fly in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival the following month. He made a smooth transition to the chasing ranks at Leopardstown in the 2m3f beginners’ chase when running out a 1 ¾ length winner over Blair Perrone. Given his exploits over hurdles, I anticipate that this 6-year-old appreciates a test of stamina. It appears that this gelding isn’t ground dependant but I imagine that he will be better suited to quicker ground conditions than he encountered on this occasion and for that reason, there is more to come from him. He is the apple of his trainer’s eye and in my opinion, he is certainly no forlorn hope for one of the novice events at the 2016 festival.   

One of the most taking performances of the entire festive period was in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown by the Gordon Elliott-trained PRINCE OF SCARS. He was taking on serious competition in Arctic Fire, Alpha Des Obeaux and Martello Tower but he brushed them aside with considerable ease to record a very easy 4 length victory. He settled well in the early stages, a critical attribute for a staying hurdler, and was still travelled smoothly approaching the last before powering clear up the run-in, leaving his rivals toiling in behind. It is easy to make excuses for Arctic Fire (new trip) and Martello Tower (seasonal reappearance) but I was captivated by this horses display and given that this was only his second start at three miles, this son of Flemensfirth is highly progressive and is one to follow in the staying hurdle division.

There were mixed feelings post-race but in my opinion, DON POLI once again enhanced his chance in the 2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup when winning the Grade 1 Lexus Chase on the same card. It is understandable that people question the form with First Lieutenant and Foxrock finishing so close to him on this occasion but Don Poli is a real grinder and I certainly get the impression that he is only ever going to do just enough in his races. I think that he is the perfect type for the stamina sapping contest that is the Cheltenham Gold Cup and at this stage, I struggle to imagine him finishing out of the first three. Two out of the last three Gold Cup winners won the previous season’s RSA Novices Chase, a race that Don Poli won in 2015 and that is another tick in the box for this Willie Mullins-trained gelding. It looks like Bryan Cooper will have a big decision to make in March with Don Cossack also in contention for the big race. I expect that Cooper will select Don Cossack but Davy Russell is a more than capable substitute and it definitely wouldn’t put me off backing him. 

29th December

I still can’t believe that NO MORE HEROES didn’t win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, but unfortunately that’s championship racing and I am delighted that he has made an effortless transition to the larger obstacles this season. His 9 length victory in the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown was his third success in as many attempts since switching to fences and I predict that he can continue to improve, proving himself as one of the best novice chasers either side of the Irish Sea. I have one major concern with his RSA Novices’ Chase bid at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival and that is whether he will cope with the likely quicker ground conditions. The majority of his best performances to date have come when there is cut in the ground and although I don’t think it’s essential to him, it clearly helps. Gordon Elliott has always thought the world of this 6-year-old son of Presenting and I hope that No More Heroes can land the RSA for his talented handler.

There was plenty of great racing over the four days at Leopardstown but it was the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle that I most enjoyed watching. A small but select field went to post for the final Grade 1 of the winter festival and we were treated to a fantastic battle between Morgiana Hurdle winner, Nichols Canyon and Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner, Identity Thief. After a ding dong battle up the run-in it was Willie Mullins’ gelding who got on top in the closing stages, eventually repelling the challenge of Identity Thief by 2 lengths. I was really taken by the battling qualities that Nichols Canyon displayed here and although he will more than likely need more to win the Champion Hurdle, he is a worthy second favourite behind Faugheen. Given that his stable already have a strong hand in the Champion Hurdle (Faugheen and more than likely Arctic Fire) and that he stayed well on the flat, it will be interesting to see if his connections re-route this talented gelding to the World Hurdle. Personally, I would run him in the two-mile showpiece as he is only rising six and there is plenty of time to pursue the staying hurdling route if he comes up short in the Champion Hurdle.   

After showing plenty of promise in France, FIXE LE KAP made a winning British debut for his new connections in the opening juvenile hurdle at Newbury. Although he raced lazily throughout and was pressed three out, Jeremiah McGrath always looked confident that he had plenty in the tank and this Nicky Henderson-trained 3-year-old won with a bit in hand at the line. It is important to note that the same trainer/owner won the race Top Notch last term and he subsequently went on to finish second in the Triumph Hurdle. This son of Kapgarde was trimmed to 14-1 following this success and although his connections might let him take his chance in the juvenile championship event, I expect that he is more of a long-term prospect.

PREMIER BOND gave Nicky Henderson a ninth win in the last ten renewals of the concluding introductory hurdle, posting a really likeable effort after making a bad blunder at the third-last, a mistake that could have easily ended his chances. He showed a really good attitude after the last and based on this performance, he looks one to follow when he is stepped-up in trip. Ultimately, his future lies over fences but he can make his presence felt over timber in the short-term.  

Thank you for reading and I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and prosperous 2016.