Though he keeps taking everyone back to the future, perhaps even Kauto Star will one day permit some young buck to justify the billing of the race that brought a handful of potential heirs here yesterday.
True, the horse that had appeared most competent to do so failed to take his cue in the paddypower.com Future Champions Novice Hurdle. But while an odds-on reverse for Sous Les Cieux may yet prove misleading, for now Cash And Go must receive due credit for extending his own progress through the ranks – not least because no less a trainer than Edward O'Grady seems perfectly satisfied with his eligibility for bigger tests to come.
Sous Les Cieux had made a deep impression in similar company at Fairyhouse on his previous start, but seemed to resent a change of tactics this time. Sent into the lead by Ruby Walsh, he was racing freely and jumping inattentively throughout. Sure enough, the fuel gauge shrank into the red between the last two flights, where Andrew Lynch sent Cash And Go past before seeing off a strong challenge from Dylan Ross by half a length. The pair opened up a gap of just over four lengths on Sous Les Cieux.
O'Grady certainly knows a Cheltenham novice when he sees one, and professed himself by no means surprised. "We were very hopeful," he said. "It's worked out a little bit as we hoped. He showed a lot of resolution, and the experience will have done him good. He's only four, and he's got to be looked after a little bit." To that end, O'Grady now intends to keep him fresh for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle on the opening day of the Festival in March. "You generally get the easiest ground on the Tuesday, and that will help him," he added. "He will go on fast, but I don't think he would be quite so effective."
Lynch was a late replacement for Paul Townend, who had taken a harrowing fall from Golden Silver – the horse would never rise to his feet, alas – in the Dial-A-Bet Chase. Townend, in turn, had only been hired as a substitute for Barry Geraghty, whose commitments at Kempton also cost him this prize with his old ally, Big Zeb.
Rather like Kauto Star, Big Zeb is reckoned by his trainer to be closer to his prime this season than last, and as such will again be keeping younger rivals honest in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Festival. One such, Noble Prince, briefly had him in trouble approaching the last but Robbie Power drove out the hot favourite to win by just over a length. "He's a different horse this year," Colm Murphy said. "He looks better, his coat's better, he's a healthier horse full stop. It was always going to be a sprint from the second last, and luckily he met them both spot on. He seems to have kept plenty of his old dash."
Murphy saddles Quito De La Roque in the Lexus Chase on today's card, where his rivals include a rising force in Rubi Light and a British raider in Synchronised. The day's other elite prize is the Topaz Fort Leney Novices' Chase, where First Lieutenant attempts to make amends for the blunder that stopped him in his tracks at Fairyhouse last time.
First Lieutenant was the horse who turned over Zaidpour – representing the same connections as Sous Les Cieux, and at still shorter odds – in the Future Champions Hurdle last year. Sent off 16-1 that day, First Lieutenant's success was widely received as something of an anticlimax. But he won at the Festival on his next start, and it might prove hasty not to heed that precedent. At the same time, Zaidpour has been restoring his reputation this season and Sous Les Cieux remains entitled to fidelity at big odds now for a very different test in any rematch with Cash And Go. Willie Mullins indicated that he hopes to run the horse again in the meantime, but the best may not be seen of Sous Les Cieux until he is covered up behind a strong pace at Cheltenham. As you would hope, given the race title, his best days may yet lie ahead.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Lightening Rod (2.20 Catterick) Avoided a pointlessly hard race against a top-class prospect last time but shaped well all the same.
Forty Five (2.30 Leicester) Has shown more in cheekpieces and will be suited by this shorter trip after failing to get home over farther.
One to watch
Though ultimately only a distant third, Cappa Bleu (Evan Williams) hinted at Chepstow yesterday that he would last longer given less of a slog.
Where the money's going
Hollow Tree is 14-1 from 16-1 with Ladbrokes for the JCB Triumph Hurdle after scoring at Chepstow yesterday.Reuse content