Hold On – it's still too soon to jump to conclusions
When a horse can win any steeplechase despite, rather than because of, the way he jumped the fences, let alone a valuable Saturday contest at a Grade 1 track, you have to wonder what on earth he will do once he gets his technique together. In the case of Hold On Julio, who routed his rivals by nine lengths in yesterday's three-mile handicap at Sandown, that may be revealed at Cheltenham in March.
At the age of nine, the big, black gelding is a relative latecomer to the sharp end of the sport. Yesterday's victory was his sixth in a row, but the first four had come in the small pond of the northern point-to-point circuit last spring, after which he was headhunted by Alan King at auction for a modest £28,000 that now looks money wisely spent.
Hold On Julio had made a successful error-free debut for King in a lower-key contest at the track back in early November but yesterday Wayne Hutchinson had to sit tight more than a few times as his mount, experiencing the cut and thrust of good-class handicap company for the first time, hit several obstacles on the first circuit, including the first of the tricky, close-spaced fences alongside the mainline railway.
"This was a much better race than the last day and he was well out of his comfort zone early," said the rider. "He made mistakes, and when you hit the first of the railway fences, it can set the tone. So I had to let him just be a bit careful and pop away in his own time.
"Then as his stamina started to kick in he started to come on to the bridle coming out of the back straight for the last time and I was able to ask him to have a cut at the fences. He found a real gear from two out and sprinted up the hill to the line. If he'd jumped all the way, just how impressive would he have been? But he's learning all the time."
Hold On Julio carried bottom weight, rated more than two stone below the runner-up Neptune Collonges, a horse classy enough once to have been placed in two Gold Cups. The gallant 11-year-old stayed on to pass another lightweight, Qhilimar, after the final obstacle.
King was not unaware of Hold On Julio's potential, but the gelding's progress had to be put on temporary hold after he succumbed to the highly contagious equine skin complaint, ringworm. "He had it from head to toe," said the Wiltshire-based trainer, "and you can't ride them or let others near them. I'd been desperate to get another run into him; some of the work he's done in the past couple of weeks has been quite special. I haven't thought as far as a Cheltenham target yet but now we know he's a proper three-miler."
Hold On Julio, backed from around 5-1 in the morning to 5-2 favourite, was one for the punters, as was Hold Fast, runaway seven-length winner of the two-mile chase after support from 6-1 to 7-2. He, too, is upwardly mobile for new connections – he joined Paul Nicholls from warned-off Howard Johnson during the summer – and is also bound for the Festival, though whether he can follow his brilliant stablemate Master Minded, who took the same Sandown race four years ago, out of handicap company remains to be seen.
The market was not a guide, though, in the Tolworth Hurdle, taken by 9-1 shot Captain Conan, friendless after an opening offer of 7-1. And he probably owed his Grade 1 success on his first outing for Nicky Henderson since winning at Auteuil in June to the other drifter on the day. The 11-8 joint-favourite Colour Squadron, a reluctant trailblazer after the field walked through the start, led over the last flight but veered left-handed off a true line to the finish, allowing his rival to prevail by a short head.
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