Let us start with the big one, the Gold Cup. Royale Pagaille stormed into the reckoning for the festival’s blue-riband contest with a swashbuckling performance in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock.
This fast-improving novice sluiced clear under topweight to win what is normally a hotly-contested event hard on the bridle, earning Gold Cup ante post betting quotes around the 10/1 mark.
The handicapper has reacted by hiking him up to new mark of 166, which in theory puts him firmly in the Gold Cup mix (second favourite Minella Indo who has a rating of 165) although he is still 4lb inferior to last year’s runner-up Santini and 9lb shy of reigning champ Al Boum Photo.
Royale Pagaille’s three chase wins since joining Venetia Williams have all come on soft or heavy ground and there is no doubt that this horse revels in conditions that find other horses out. Under these circumstances he is a strong traveller and a sound jumper and, as on Saturday, he has the engine to grind his rivals into submission.
However, there can be no doubt that Saturday’s race fell apart to a large degree. A strong enough gallop in those testing conditions helped set the race up for the patiently-ridden winner while the second and third were both only mid 130 horses who were racing from out of the weights. We would have learned a good deal more about the strength of the form had Tommy Whittle winner Sam’s Adventure stayed on his feet.
So, while the visuals were undoubtedly impressive, there are reasons to be sceptical about Royale Pagaille’s ability to make the step up in grade, in the short term at least.
He might well be the next Kauto Star, but at this stage he has shown his best form on flat tracks (Haydock and Kempton) and I have a feeling that a strong gallop on spring ground in the Gold Cup could take him out of his comfort zone earlier than he’s used to. If he were mine, I would have no hesitation in running him in the National Hunt Chase instead.
The tempo of that race looks tailor-made for this strong traveller who would be allowed to pop round and get into a nice rhythm. He’ll be running off level weights against lesser-rated horses and he could easily go off one of the shortest-priced favourites of the entire meeting.
If he were to get beat in that, then connections can take solace in the fact that he would have most likely been stuffed out of sight in the Gold Cup.
First Flow went from winning a handicap chase off 154 to winning the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday in quite scintillating fashion.
An aggressive ride and some bold jumping had proven top level rivals by the home turn and this improving 9-year-old just kept on galloping all the way to the line. It was no mean feat to take Politologue on mid-race and turn him away at the business end.
This looks just about the best piece of 2m chase form on offer in Britain this season, just edging out Politologue’s Tingle Creek win so, on the face of it, Kim Bailey has a bona fide Champion Chase contender on his hands.
However, there are caveats. Like Royale Pagaille, First Flow looks in his element in testing ground, indeed the more testing the better, while he has no experience of the undulations of Prestbury Park. The other niggling doubt with First Flow is that his jumping isn’t always as fluent as it was at Ascot.
He could just get forced into going a stride quicker than ideal in the heat of a Champion Chase on spring ground and that could spell trouble over those stiff fences.
First Flow has undoubtedly earned his right to a crack at the big one but he can only be of serious interest of conditions were to come up on the testing side.
Funnily enough, I still prefer the chances of Politologue at the Cheltenham Festival. Sure, he was no match for First Flow at Ascot but Paul Nicholls’ star has nothing to prove in the heat of a Champion Chase and for my money he’s much more likely to run to his best than First Flow.
I was a little surprised to see the negative reaction to Buveur D’Air’s defeat at Haydock and it seems that I am inclined to be a lot more positive about his Champion Hurdle prospects than many others.
Even in a small field contest like that, it was asking a lot for Buveur D’Air to roar back into action having been off the track for so long and returning on such bad ground.
That combination proved too much but I thought he travelled and jumped like the champion of old for a long way before getting tired late on.
I wasn’t at all surprised by Nicky Henderson’s positive post-race comments and, in an open year, I can see this two-time champion playing a part in the festival showpiece.
That race should serve to be the perfect warm-up for his March target, where the combination of a strong gallop on better ground will suit him down to a tee and that will give him the perfect platform from which to launch his attack after the second-last.
Form is temporary but class is permanent and from what I saw at Haydock, that class is still very much intact despite such a serious injury. The 20/1 now available about him looks on the big side and I couldn’t put anyone off having a small interest at that price.