There is a theory gaining credence that the cavalry of novice steeplechasers introduced by Nicky Henderson this winter signifies a genuine shift in the sport's balance of power. Sooner or later, after all, even Kauto Star and Denman will have to lay down their cudgels, and betting on "the novices' Gold Cup" at Cheltenham transparently discloses a stronger hand for Henderson than for Paul Nicholls. Both the RSA Chase favourites, Long Run and Punchestowns, are housed at Seven Barrows. But while there is no danger of Henderson himself getting carried away, anyone disposed to do so should have joined him here yesterday.
Yes, inevitably, he won the novice chase. But his odds-on favourite for the valuable Sidney Banks Novice Hurdle was unceremoniously dispatched by The Minack, Nicholls' only runner of the day. And while it seems a bit rich, three weeks before the 2010 running, The Minack is being viewed as a likely type for the 2011 RSA Chase.
After winning both his previous starts over timber, at Sandown and Newbury, Master Of The Hall started 8-13 to see off just four rivals. But he was trying a new trip and, having raced a little too exuberantly through the muddy ground, found the extra half-mile a bridge too far. The Minack, true to his long-term billing, meanwhile kept himself involved with a series of aggressive jumps, and the one remaining challenge evaporated when Sarando all but lost his footing over the last.
Well handled by the season's leading conditional, Nick Scholfield, The Minack was driven out to win by a length, the pair well clear. He has now won three of his four hurdle starts but Harry Fry, pupil assistant to Nicholls, confirmed that the horse is also pursuing an apprenticeship.
"He's running for experience at the moment," Fry said. "He'll definitely make an exciting novice chaser next season. In 12 months' time, the RSA Chase could well be his sort of race. He made a bad mistake at the top of the hill, travelling well, when he was beaten at Cheltenham, which ended his chance that day, but he's a great jumper and that's what won it for him today. He stays all day and he'd be one for the notebook."
Sarando's trainer, Paul Webber, wondered whether his horse's loss of momentum at the last might have been a blessing in disguise. "I suspect he might have ended up having a hard race and still finished second," he said.
For Henderson, the journey home could still be abbreviated by yet another profitable novice chase. The need to qualify both Tanks For That and You're The Top for Festival handicaps required him to account for half the four-runner field, and it was the latter who came out comfortably on top after Tanks For That got the last wrong.
"They hated the ground, but I had to get a third run into them before Sunday," Henderson said. "The two-mile horse beat the two-and-a-half-mile horse, and that's the way they'll probably go at Cheltenham – Tanks For That to the Jewson, and You're The Top to Dad's race [the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase]."
With Sandown called off today, Henderson is likely to be a curious observer of a decent novice chase at Thurles, where Western Leader yesterday enjoyed a runaway success from a field of useful young hurdlers. His trainer, John Hanlon, is likely to send him over for a race at Aintree in April.
An intriguing development off the track in Ireland saw Kieren Fallon pick up the mount on Old McDonald in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. Previously runner-up to Tavern Times at Fairyhouse, Old McDonald landed heavy support at Ludlow in December. Noel Glynn, his trainer, goes back a long way with the six-times champion Flat jockey. "We are from the same parish in Co Clare and Kieren was a neighbour of mine," Glynn said, "so I decided to get him booked. This is a good horse and he won nicely at Ludlow, and at Fairyhouse he was maybe a bit unlucky. Tavern Times is one of the favourites for the Champion Bumper and I'd like to think we'll be wherever he is."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Sir Geoffrey (6.10 Wolverhampton) Faded over a sixth furlong on his return from a break at Kempton last time but showed enough speed to suggest he can profit from a lenient rating now he returns to the minimum trip.
Court In Motion (2.10 Warwick) Meets an accomplished rival in Peveril but the concession of 10lb could turn luck his way, having fallen at the last after coasting clear on his debut.
One to watch
Mous Of Men (D E Pipe) remains lightly raced since changing stable and closed nicely from the rear at Southwell on Tuesday, before fading into fourth behind Honest John on what was his first run after a break since early December.
Where the money's going
The Betchworth Kid is 10-1 from 12-1 with Paddy Power for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham next month.Reuse content