Of all the various trials and tests for the Cheltenham Festival conducted yesterday no performance was more impressive than that by Kasbah Bliss at Haydock. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that any horse this season has laid down quite such ineluctable a set of championship credentials. After his eight-length cruise, the French-trained gelding is now as short as 11-10 for the World Hurdle, and it seems the word "banker" can, after all, be uttered without the risk of opprobrium.
Kasbah Bliss ran the now-retiredInglis Drever to a length for the stayers' crown 11 months ago, but his hurdling powder had remained dry after a Flat campaign that ended with a close fourth in the Prix du Cadran on Arc weekend. Yesterday was his first sight of obstacles in public since last March, on ground thought to be much softer than ideal, but those who backed him to odds-on had not a moment's concern.
A confident Christophe Pieux kept Kasbah Bliss at the back, tracking his chief market rival, Duc De Regniere. On the turn in, the trailblazing Hills Of Aran threatened to slip his field, but Pieux knew exactly what gears he had left, easing through some of them to join the leader at the last hurdle and sprint insouciantly away.
The effortless acceleration produced by Kasbah Bliss, under the care of François Doumen in Lower Normandy, is rare in a marathon type. The seven-year-old's improved Flat form indicates his upward mobility and, given that he will be even bettersuited by the faster ground and stronger pace he will surely encounter at Cheltenham, he looks highly likelyto follow the hoofprints of his brilliant former stablemate Baracouda.
As well as shortening Kasbah Bliss most bookmakers extended their prices for his market rivals, Punch-estowns and Big Buck's. Doumen said: "After Christophe got off he said he was far better than last year. He seems to handle soft ground better as he has got older and stronger, and even if it was soft at Cheltenham, while respecting the opposition and particularly Punchestowns, it will take a good one to beat him."
One of Voy Por Ustedes's misfortunes is to be a high-class horse racingin the same era as two slightly better ones, Kauto Star and Master Minded, but the eight-year-old has kept himself comfortably in oats and hay and yesterday notched his 13th victory, and his fourth at Grade One level, taking his earnings to over £800,000. The gelding outclassed his three rivalsin every department to take the Ascot Chase, jumping boldly and confidentlyfor Robert Thornton to power 14 lengths clear of Gwanako in the straight. His positive demeanour was in contrast to that of his trainer, Alan King, who had been self-confessedly walking his box in the build-up.
"It's been a tough couple of weeks," he said, "with the snow at home and not being able to work the horses properly, and wondering about the soft ground. The confidence was beginning to waver and thank goodness we talked ourselves round into running.
"We almost stayed at home, but he needed a run before Cheltenham and this was a nice prize to go for. He's the sort who maybe doesn't need as much work as some of the others, so we got away with it. But it is all a relief."
Voy Por Ustedes has been outsped by Master Minded over two miles and outstayed by Kauto Star over three, and is now favourite for the Ryanair Chase, like yesterday's contest over the intermediate distance. "We'll leave him in the Champion Chase just in case," added King, "but if Master Minded turns up there we'll be taking the Ryanair route."
An hour after the admirable Lough Derg failed by an on-the-nod head to concede 16lb to Serabad at Ascot, his David Pipe stablemate Ashkazar booked his place in the Champion Hurdle field by out-toughing Whiteoak and Punjabi in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Ashkazar, whose yard also houses the Champion Hurdle second favourite, Osana, flopped on his seasonal debut in December but is now 12-1 for the Festival's hurdling showpiece. "This was what we were expecting the last day," said his rider, Timmy Murphy. "He's getting a bit lazy, but he jumped well and kept picking up when the others came to him."
The road to Cheltenham continues today at Leopardstown, where the Gold Cup third, Neptune Collonges, bids to atone in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup for a fall there in December.