Grands Crus matures by engaging cruise control


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The Independent Online

Novice chases at this meeting tend to concern quality sooner than quantity, but even that does not imply any guarantees for the future. The past two winners of the one staged here yesterday, both trained by Paul Nicholls, have since beaten a total of three finishers between them yet are still able to return tomorrow as strong fancies for the Hennessy Gold Cup. Aiteen Thirtythree has maintained a progressive profile in small fields over the past year, whereas Michel Le Bon is audaciously given his first start since sustaining an injury in what remains his sole steeplechase two years ago. Sure enough, it might prove best to refrain from too much certainty over the future of Grands Crus, even if his performance yesterday consolidated his status as clear early favourite for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March.

Top-class over hurdles, the grey had beaten a stronger field on his chasing debut over that track a fortnight ago. And the way he jumped under Tom Scudamore in the GPG Novices' Chase, before readily seeing off the promising and persistent Sonofvic by two lengths permits no doubt that he is among the very best in what looks a classy crop overall. But he has never seemed the sort of brutish slogger that tends to thrive in the RSA, and connections could yet drop him back in trip come the Festival, with an option nowadays available over two and a half miles as well, in the Jewson.

Having said that, they seemed pleased yesterday primarily by his increasing tractability, and David Pipe will now ask Grands Crus to point the way forward in a Grade One over the sharp three miles at Kempton on Boxing Day. "I don't think he would have settled like that a year ago," Scudamore said. "He really winged a couple today and landed upsides, but I was always able to drop him back and take a lead again. He was foot-perfect, breathtaking on a couple of occasions. When Sonofvic came at us in the straight, it was the quickest he's been over fences – and what was so pleasing is that he jumped those ones better than any."

Albeit he was receiving 7lb, the runner-up may ultimately prove better suited by the very different demands of the RSA, certainly compared with this four-runner nursery lesson round a flat track. Nicholls was delighted by Sonofvic, and intends to give him a light campaign en route to the Festival.

Similarly, just four runners assemble for the Fuller's London Pride Novices' Chase on today's card, but the winner will definitely be entitled to square up to yesterday's protagonists somewhere down the line. Cue Card's intended showdown with Grands Crus at Cheltenham the other day never came off, after he discarded his jockey, and he must now give weight to two Festival winners trained by Nicky Henderson – albeit few envisaged Spirit Leader would still be a novice now, after lining up for his first chase in this race last year.

Oscar Time, runner-up in the John Smith's Grand National last season, began his journey back to Aintree with a spin over hurdles at Thurles. He dropped away into fourth behind a runaway winner in Zaidpour, who now looks ready to resume the exciting progress he was making in the first half of last season. With 16 winners since last Wednesday, it seems safe to say Willie Mullins is over his slow start to the campaign – though an honourable mention, in that context, is also owed to Emma Lavelle. Despite lesser resources, she made it five winners from her last five starters when Kentford Grey Lady landed the opener here.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Colour Squadron (3.50 Newbury) Past and subsequent winners were among those he annihilated in a Chepstow bumper.

Next best

Hold Fast (3.15 Newbury) Fairly handicapped on his best form for Howard Johnson and could be another to build on that now he is with the champion trainer.

One to watch

Quel Ballistic (John Wade) is handicapped to win once getting a stiffer test, to judge from his rally for second round Wetherby on Wednesday.

Where the money's going

French import Ranjaan is 12-1 from 16-1 with Paddy Power for the JCB Triumph Hurdle ahead of his appearance at Newbury today.