Newbury's Winter Carnival, as a whole, can sometimes be a bit of an anticlimax after Cheltenham's November meeting, but this year's fixture had strength in depth all the way through. Most of the handicaps were particularly strong, while there was a genuine champion on show in the shape of Paisley Park, victor of the Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham last March. Before getting to details, it is worth noting that the times over the two days suggested the ground was somewhere near good, much less testing than the official description of good to soft, soft in places.
Thistlecrack pushes Paisley Park all the way
Paisley Park made his return in the Long Distance Hurdle, against three previous winners of the race and The World's End, who had won the West Yorkshire Hurdle a month previously. Despite such smart opposition, Paisley Park was sent off at odds on, but he wasn't sure to be suited by a race that might well prove tactical. That he overcame that was all to his credit, that he was pushed as hard as he was by the veteran Thistlecrack meant he had a really good workout with further Grade 1 targets in mind.
Paisley Park had to give 6 lb to the runner-up and probably wasn't far off the level he showed in winning the Stayers', which obviously makes him the one to beat when he bids for a repeat success in the Long Walk at Ascot in December. He rightly remains a short price for the 2020 Stayers', though that could change, with second favourite If The Cap Fits likely to take him on at Ascot.
Thistlecrack may have been getting weight, but he was conceding four years to the winner and ran a fine trial for the King George VI Chase, a race he won in 2016 and was second in last season. This year's King George has a vintage feel to it at this stage and Thistlecrack would probably need to be better than ever to win the race, but he has been lightly raced for his age and is no forlorn hope to make the placings.
Champ survives late scare to enhance Festival claims
The graded novice chases at the Winter Carnival are always fascinating, even though they seldom attract many runners. This year, six were going to post for the Berkshire over two-and-a-half miles and just three lined up for the John Francome over three miles. The former is more straightforward to assess.
Champ came out on top in a tactical race, winning in what's becoming a trademark fashion, but with the added twist of disaster narrowly averted. Champ had briefly looked in trouble around two out but was coming to lead when his rider Barry Geraghty, with head down, only just avoided going straight on at the elbow around the water jump. Champ found so much after swerving to the right line that he was a length-and-three-quarters up on Black Op at the finish.
The complexion of the race had changed at the first fence, the departure of the expected front-running Dashel Drasher leaving Black Op to dictate. The runner-up, still relatively unexposed as a chaser, and the third Deyrann de Carjac, ditto, both acquitted themselves well, but of more interest for the future are the fourth and fifth, Mont des Avaloirs and Vision des Flos.
The smart hurdler Vision des Flos showed plenty of potential having a second try over fences, even though his chance was compromised by pulling too hard for too long (the early departure of Dashel Drasher no help in that regard). Even more noteworthy was Mont des Avaloirs. Also having a second shot at fences, he was dropped out and handled very sympathetically, in a poor position from which to get involved when the pace quickened but keeping on and having running left at the line. Mont des Avaloirs could well have big handicaps on the agenda before long (needs a third run to qualify).
Tank fails to fire as Danny makes winning debut
The John Francome featured the third chasing start of exciting prospect Reserve Tank. He was sent off at odds on but things didn't go to plan. Reserve Tank, asked to make the running, didn't jump with any fluency and was hanging left pretty well all the way, looking third best turning for home, to his credit that he stuck on as well as he did.
The chasing debutant Danny Whizzbang was the one to take advantage. A big, rangy sort and presumably not the easiest to train – he made just two starts over hurdles last season – he is every inch a chaser on physique and demeanour and probably ought not to be underestimated.
The form isn't the easiest to assess obviously, for although Reserve Tank seemed to be off his game and was reported by his rider to have run flat, in theory he may well have run to a similar level as when winning previously (he emerges the best horse at the weights, running under a penalty). The fence-sitters' option looks good – give Danny Whizzbang credit for his achievement, with clearly more to come, but expect Reserve Tank to show improvement once he's back on his game.
Fanion d'Estruval exciting on UK debut
Champ, Reserve Tank and Danny Whizzbang are likely to be aimed at either the RSA or possibly the JLT/Golden Miller at the Cheltenham Festival, but another runner from the meeting looks an Arkle prospect – Fanion d'Estruval, who landed the novice handicap chase in scintillating fashion.
The four-year-old Fanion d'Estruval, who was making his debut for Venetia Williams's yard, jumped like an old hand in defeating Sully d'Oc – who had shaped in eye-catching fashion at Ascot the time before – with the rest of the field well strung out behind. Weight for age in the Arkle is a thing of the past, rightly so, but Fanion d'Estruval showed form already good enough to make a serious impact in graded novice company and has more to offer.
Sully d'Oc was unlikely to run into one and will surely go one better before long.
Cornerstone Lad in Air upset
Away from Newbury, the main talking point of the weekend was Buveur d'Air's defeat in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. Sent off at 13/2-on for a third straight win in the race, he was touched off in a dramatic finish by the front-running Cornerstone Lad. The winner, very much at home in the mud, was given a peach of a ride by Henry Brooke, the tactics judged to perfection. In addition, Buveur d'Air was reportedly lame after picking up a splinter when he blundered two from home; that said, Buveur d'Air had to work to bridge the gap to the leader and couldn't get to the front after drawing alongside at the last. After the race, he was operated on successfully to remove the splinter.
Hopefully, his injury won't stop Buveur d'Air making a return before much longer. He perhaps isn't quite the horse he was two seasons ago – last season's form rather supports that view, on reflection – but he's still a major player, so far as the Champion Hurdle is concerned.
Yala Enki and Two Taffs worth noting among Trophy also-rans
The centrepiece at Newbury was the Ladbrokes Trophy, won as so often by an unexposed second-season chaser, in this instance De Rasher Counter, under the highly promising conditional Ben Jones. De Rasher Counter, who had a prep run over hurdles, has now landed his last three handicaps over fences and is very much on an upward curve.
In all, a miximum 24 lined up for the Ladbrokes Trophy, the joint-largest field in over 55 years, and the form looks sure to prove strong even though there were disappointments – On The Other Hand, for one, who having shaped well round the outside at Ascot, didn't fancy it round the inside at Newbury.
A couple to note from the race that finished well beaten would be Two Taffs and Yala Enki. Two Taffs had shown he retained his ability over hurdles early in November and went for a long way as if on a good mark over fences, but he didn't appear to stay after moving up threateningly on the run to the straight.
Yala Enki was having his first run for Paul Nicholls and went with a lot of zest on ground surely nowhere near soft enough for him, just tiring in the straight. Yala Enki was third in the Welsh National last season and may well make an impact if sent to Chepstow again after Christmas.
This post first appeared here