You had to know your Sceaux from your Sceau when analysing and assessing a weekend of racing action that warmed the cockles of even the coldest of hearts amid the ice and snow.
But at least UN DE SCEAUX and SCEAU ROYAL had plenty in common. They were both among the horses who delivered top-class performances in a parade headed by the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, SIZING JOHN.
The return to action of Jessica Harrington’s 7yo appeared no straightforward ask, dropping back in trip and on testing ground far from ideal, in the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown. Indeed connections had shunned similar ground for his intended seasonal bow in the Betfair Chase at Haydock the previous month. And although Willie Mullins had warned that DJAKADAM was not as sharp for his re-appearance as he had been in previous seasons, he was still a reliable, consistent yardstick, proven on the Heavy surface and readily preferred by punters in the market.
Not for the first time, however, punters were making things all too complicated. As so often happens, class will out and Sizing John underlined what a polished operator he has developed into, producing a performance of consummate mastery. After an early bone-shaker of a mistake, he jumped and travelled with aplomb and, on this evidence, he remains the one to beat at Cheltenham in March. I read in one of the many pre-season preview books that flood the market before each Jumps season these days that last term’s Blue Riband event “was no more than an ordinary Gold Cup”, so it’s an opportune time to remind ourselves that Sizing John had the likes of Native River, Bristol De Mai, Cue Card, Smad Place, More Of That and Outlander trailing in his wake that day.
I agree with jockey Robbie Power’s assertion after Sunday’s race that the son of Midnight Legend possesses all the qualities required to also win a King George. But Harrington has opted not to go to Kempton on Boxing Day, reasoning that such a potentially demanding race, coupled with the travelling from Ireland, might come a shade too soon, and who is to argue with her after the impeccable way she has handled the Potts-owned gelding over the past year?
The decision leaves the way open for FOX NORTON to carry the Potts colours in the Christmas showpiece after Saturday’s surprise defeat in the Grade One Betfair Tingle Creek Chase convinced trainer Colin Tizzard that he must go up in trip. It’s possibly worth a try, but the 7yo’s pedigree suggests he has no chance of staying the 3m of the King George, which is far more of a test than most realise, and his optimum distance is almost certainly something in between, which would make him a strong fancy for the Ryanair Chase in March, especially given his fine record at Cheltenham and on decent ground.
Fox Norton was one of seven beaten favourites at Sandown, which hardly fuelled the Christmas spirit among a bumper crowd. But after a telling mistake at the first, which left him playing catch-up, he still ran well. He just bumped into an impressive and improving winner in POLITOLOGUE, who should not be under-estimated come Queen Mother Champion Chase Day at the Festival. Considering the initial aim with the grey was to turn him into the Gold Cup contender that owner John Hales has always yearned for, the manner in which Nicholls has nurtured his development into a top two-mile has been utterly exemplary. The 6yo looked a picture on Saturday and never put a foot wrong. No wonder Nicholls was minded to compare him with two of his former Champion Chase winners, Call Equiname (199) and Dodging Bullets (2015), who found similarly rapid improvement at just the right time before their big days in the sun.
Nicholls fielded another striking grey, CAPITAINE, in a first-class renewal of the Grade One 2m chase for novices at Sandown, the Randox Health Henry VIII. But he was forced to join three other big names who bowed to the surprise superiority of Alan King’s Sceau Royal. The race rather fell apart around him and he was able to pick up the pieces after sailing through the contest and over his fences with ease but, on Goodish ground that me must have, Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s 5yo is a genuine force to be reckoned with. They say he’s small, but I was taken by his physical appearance on Saturday. They also say he doesn’t produce his best at Cheltenham, but he’s won twice there, including when absolutely hacking up at the start of last term, and it was no mean display to finish sixth in the Champion Hurdle five months later.
Having said all of that, there were genuine excuses for his main rivals in behind, most notably FINIAN’S OSCAR, who paid the price for the ludicrous decision to revert to the minimum trip. The huge step-up in grade, only 12 days after his successful chasing bow at Kempton, probably asked too much of BRAIN POWER. Trainer Nicky Henderson believes the 6yo needs holding up and jockey David Mullins seemed to have that in the back of his mind when reluctant to let his mount bowl along as he had at Kempton and, as a result, Brain Power didn’t have a proper cut at his fences. His problems were then exacerbated when he and NORTH HILL HARVEY took each other on down the back. Neither had much more left to give after the Pond Fence, inviting the smooth passage of the winner.
Talking of smooth passages, let’s move on to Un De Sceaux, a superstar of a racehorse if ever there was one. Because of the presence through his career of the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Douvan, Willie Mullins’s French-bred has never quite received the praise he deserves. But a characteristic all-the-way triumph on bottomless ground in Sunday’s Hilly Way Chase at Cork, giving weight to all, showed that, even as he approaches the age of ten, the seven-times Grade One winner is still at the top of his game. His victory in the Ryanair Chase was one of the highlights of last season’s Cheltenham Festival, and the stage is almost set for a mouthwatering return and a repeat of his subsequent duel with Fox Norton, who touched him off at Punchestown in April.
Mind you, UDS wasn’t the only superstar on show at the weekend. What about HIGHLAND REEL, global giant exatrordinaire who rounded off a glittering career that has trousered an amazing £7.5 million in prize money by landing the Hong Kong Vase? Over four seasons, Aidan O’Brien’s son of Galileo (who else?) has bagged seven wins at the highest level and not turned a hair in travelling to and from a multitude of countries. On fast ground over 12f, he was lethal and at the end of a season that has also yielded Enable and Cracksman, he is concrete proof that those who bemoan the supposed dearth of middle-distance talent do complain too much.
On a normal weekend, Highland Reel would have the last word. But given that we’re in the middle of the National Hunt campaign, I’m saving that for a little horse who pierced the gloom at Aintree with a display that shone like a beacon. Rarely have I seen a horse jump the track’s big spruce fences as smoothly as BLAKLION did in the Grand National back in April. On Saturday, he repeated the dose to take apart the Randox Health Becher Chase, despite having to lump 11-6 in Heavy ground. My view at the time of the National was that, even though he faded into fourth, he definitely did stay the trip and was well worth another crack at the race. This performance reinforced that view but because he’s been bumped up 8lbs by the handicapper to 161, a mark even higher than that defied by Many Clouds two years ago, connections just might want to have the Gold Cup on their minds as well.