From Thistlecrack to Redhotfillypeppers -- performances that lit up the Christmas and New Year holiday

Horses circling the paddock during the big Christmas meeting at Wetherby, one of many racecourses to stage thrilling action during the festive holiday.

Horses circling the paddock during the big Christmas meeting at Wetherby, one of many racecourses to stage thrilling action during the festive holiday.

As ITV takes over the reins for terrestrial TV racing coverage, it seems only right to start the first column of 2017 with reference to one of the favourite sayings of a key member of its new team.

Matt Chapman, who was characteristically irritating in the channel’s debut at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, is more than keen to bang on about racing being “a game of opinions”. Usually in an attempt to defend one of his own outrageous views.

In reality, the game is more about facts and figures, most of which can be found in the formbook, the pedigree pages or the massed ranks of statistical databases.

However, opinion was all the rage in the build-up to the 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day as the rising star, THISTLECRACK, took on the established giant CUE CARD. And I cannot hide from admitting, and announcing, that I got my particular opinion spectacularly wrong.

For those of you who missed my eve-of-Christmas rant, check it out and have a giggle, if you must. Cheer yourself up as you count down those long, dark, cold days till the Festival. But the gist of my argument was that the novice had far too little chasing experience in his armoury to hold a realistic chance of upsetting his stablemate.

It wasn’t an argument unique to my thought processes either. Several so-called experts were not afraid to trumpet much of the same, even as late as the morning of the race. What happened next laid our misjudgements bare.

It was a diet of humble pie, rather than turkey sandwiches, for me for the rest of the Christmas holiday. And quite frankly, I didn’t mind one bit if it meant being treated to a performance of such magnitude.

Only five runners there might have been, but Thistlecrack graced the Kempton stage with a stunning exhibition of galloping and jumping, of verve and vibrancy, that made it perfectly clear he is every ounce as good over fences as he was over hurdles.

OK, Cue Card might have preferred more give in the ground and is probably better going left-handed. But I do think those who crab the form and question whether he ran his race on the day because of the close proximity at the line of his other three rivals are barking up the wrong tree. In my view (here we go again), he only just held on to second because of the way the middle part of the contest unfolded down the back straight. When he served it up to Thistlecrack and eyeballed him in a captivating duel for supremacy.

I suspect jockey Paddy Brennan did it to try and put the younger horse’s jumping under pressure. But the tactics failed and only served to break Cue Card to such an extent that he was a beaten, labouring horse as early as the home turn, allowing the other trio to close. In the end, the 10yo, now turned 11, actually did well to hold on to that runners-up slot.

By which time, of course, Thistlecrack, named after a field on his owners’ farm, had already marched into the record books on only his fourth start over fences. And his pilot, Tom Scudamore, had long since eased down to wave to the Kempton crowd, thrilled to be emulating his grandfather, Michael, who had landed the King George spoils exactly 60 years earlier on Rose Park.

In the aftermath, I was astounded that some bashed the bookies for slashing Thistlecrack’s odds for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup to as short as 5/4. In my opinion (oh no, I still can’t stop), Colin Tizzard’s fantastic beast should be odds-on all round. If he stands up at Prestbury Park on Friday, March 17, nothing will live him and he will elevate himself to a status of one of the all-time greats.

Right, now I’ve got that off my chest (and it wasn’t easy, I can tell you!), let’s concentrate on the rest of the packed Christmas and New Year programme. Terrific action came thick and fast from a whole host of venues on both sides of the Irish Sea, and with all the festivities demanding so much of our time too, it wasn’t easy to keep track.

To help you look back, I’ve pieced together this potted guide to the best of the performances, division by division, from racing between Boxing Day and the New Year Bank Holiday inclusive:

GRADED CHASES

Aside from Thistlecrack, the best horse on view was DOUVAN, who extended his remarkable unbeaten run for Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci to 12 by strolling to victory at Leopardstown in his first Grade One race outside of novice company. It’s hard to see how he can be beaten in the Betway Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

Aside from the King George, the best race on view was a hotly contest renewal of the Grade One Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, in which Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud fielded three of the first four with horses they removed from the Mullins yard. Surprisingly, VALSEUR LIDO, failed to stay. Even more surprisingly, DON POLI returned to his best, minus all headgear, and is clearly no back number yet. But the winner was OUTLANDER, relishing his first try at 3m and posting each/way claims for the Gold Cup.

GRADED HURDLES

Having convinced myself of YANWORTH’S Champion Hurdle pretensions during the summer, I should be in clover after he followed up his re-appearance success with victory in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, particularly as the flat and easy 2m on decent ground was probably against him. But again it was hard work after an indifferent round of jumping, and he will have to improve considerably if big guns ANNIE POWER and FAUGHEEN turn up at the Festival. Even then, I’d be leaning more towards PETIT MOUCHOIR in search of an upset. The galloping Gigginstown grey has not stopped improving since Cheltenham last term and was undeniably impressive when making all to claim the notable scalp of multiple Grade One scorer NICHOLS CANYON at Leopardstown. Bryan Cooper’s mount vied for hurdling performance of the week with the redoubtable VROUM VROUM MAG, who regained the winning thread on a step-up to 3m. As a mare good enough to be aimed at absolutely any of the championship contests at Cheltenham, over hurdles or fences, I am struggling to remember a horse quite like her and the claim of connections that she simply remains a supersub for her stable’s leading lights is an insult to her astonishing class and versatility. What a shame it would be if her talent was wasted on dotting up at 1/10 in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.

HANDICAP CHASES

As Colin Tizzard continued to make hay the kind of which he could only have dreamed of a few short years ago, he followed up his success with Thistlecrack to take the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow 24 hours later with NATIVE RIVER. The 7yo was 8lbs well in because he couldn’t be re-assessed after his Hennessy Gold Cup triumph, and although he lumped top weight, he conceded no more than 16lbs to the bottom horse in the handicap. But once Richard Johnson had managed to drive him to the front, after some sketchy jumping early on, it was still another powerpacked performance. I will be surprised if he’s good enough to make his mark on the Gold Cup, but he’s clearly worth his place in the field.

Lower down the handicap, I was taken by the performances of three novices in Kerry Lee’s GINO TRAIL, 10yo but still lightly-raced, who gave the top-class BUVEUR D’AIR a fright at Warwick, Harry Fry’s SIR IVAN, who bounced back to form at Newbury and has the physique to make a very smart chaser, and Fergal O’Brien’s 8yo stayer VINNIE RED, who hacked up on his fencing debut at Market Rasen. Even lower down the handicap, James Eustace’s grey, SIR NOTE, jumped for fun on suitably quickish ground at Leicester.

With the Festival in mind, don’t desert David Pipe’s DOCTOR HARPER, who was a costly failure there last March but produced a performance at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day that suggests he will be primed for another crack in ten weeks’ time. Keep an eye too on a former Pipe inmate, BALTIMORE ROCK, who tanked through his seasonal fre-appearance at Ludlow and would surely have won but for being badly hampered.

HANDICAP HURDLES

Just two horses for the notebook from this division. Trainer Philip Hobbs has yet to exploit the handicap mark of novice NO COMMENT, but expect him to do so soon. The JP McManus-owned 6yo is progressing at a rate of knots and defied a whopping 10lb penalty with aplomb at Plumpton on New Year Bank Holiday Monday. He just might turn into my Diamond King of 2017 and the long-term fancy for the Festival, in either the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe.

Elsewhere, it was impossible not to be drawn to JP’s green and gold colours again at Kempton, where DRUMCLIFF was an unfortunate loser on his handicap debut. He has yet to fulfil his potential or justify his lofty home-reputation, but he’s way better than his opening mark of 124.

NOVICE CHASES

The cream rose to the top with ALTIOR and MIN readily continuing their education over fences en route to a repeat of their duel at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. Altior’s stablemate BUVEUR D’AIR might yet join them in the Arkle after overcoming interference on the turn for home to land the spoils at Warwick, but the longer distance of the JLT Chase looks the likely target for BLEU ET ROUGE, who quickened to fly home from a most unpromising position in a beginners’ race at Leopardstown and boasts a touch of class.

Just before the holiday, it was pleasing to see another Nicky Henderson novice, KILCREA VALE, pick up the pieces of a career that was threatening to derail with a nice win at Ludlow. Henderson should have saddled a further winner in MIGHT BITE, who led his rivals a merry dance from the front in a strong, competitive 3m Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. With the race sewn up, jockey Daryl Jacob opted to shake him up and fire him into the last, instead of popping it at his leisure, and he took a crashing fall. Amazingly, the scopy 8yo would have clocked a faster time than Thistlecrack in the King George an hour later.

Might Bite might end up Henderson’s flagbearer in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham, but stablemate WHISPER would surely be better suited to that race too, rather than his apparent target, the JLT, after he burst the bubble of the exciting CLAN DES OBEAUX in the Grade Two Dipper Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. The stamina of the Dai Walters-owned gelding is already proven after two victories in the Liverpool Hurdle earlier in his career.

Also in the staying department, I loved the winning display of one of Gordon Elliott’s new Gigginstown recruits, STONE HARD, at Limerick. Yes, it was a weak race, but he was flawless over a trip supposedly too short and as an expensive 215,000-euro buy as a 3yo, he has always been held in the highest regard. He looks ready to explode into the big time over the next couple of years.

Saving the best until last, by far the hottest novice chase of the holiday was the Grade One at Leopardstown, where the first three pulled clear and all belong in the highest bracket. OUR DUKE looked tailormade for the RSA with the way he defied one or two negatives to pull the race out of the fire. CONEY ISLAND travelled, jumped and battled like a class act, while Noel Meade’s grey, DISKO, fought like a solid, gritty stayer, sure to benefit from even stiffer stamina tests.

Finally, it’s impossible to let this division pass without reference to the chasing bow for Mullins and Ricci of French-bred mare BENIE DES DIEUX at Limerick. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the replay on the At The Races website.

NOVICE HURDLES

The fall three out of ROBIN ROE in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury last Saturday burnt a large hole in my Christmas and New Year finances. But even if Dan Skelton’s high-class prospect had stood up, he would have had to go some to beat the Alan King-trained beneficiary, MESSIRE DES OBEAUX, who turned in a dramatically improved performance that suggested the Neptune will be very much his Festival cup of tea. One of his opponents may well be Willie Mullins’s surprise package, SATURNAS, the winner of Leopardstown’s Grade One for novice hurdlers and very much an uncomplicated, galloping type sure to enjoy a step-up from the minimum trip.

Mullins also sent out PENHILL, a former Flat handicapper trained by Luca Cumani, to land a Grade Two over 3m at Limerick, where I was surprised his smooth performance did not earn more respect from observers. The Closutton maestro took the wraps of other young hurdlers over Christmas, most notably BACARDYS, one of last season’s leading Bumper horses, who bounced back from a fall on debut and defied twisting a shoe on his way to the track to coast home at Leopardstown, and BUNK OFF EARLY, who was only an ordinary horse on the level but looked far from that in taking a maiden at the same venue.

At Kempton, much was made of the flop of Nicky Henderson’s highly-touted JENKINS, who was a crazily short price for a novice who has yet to learn to jump at speed. But I preferred to concentrate on the performance of the winner, ELGIN, who is maturing into a classy sort for Alan King, although he still has to prove he’s not much better going right-handed.

Of the rest, it’s worth monitoring Henderson’s RIVER WYLDE, who made mincemeat of his rivals, under a fine ride by Daryl Jacob, on his timber debut at Ludlow, and Joseph O’Brien’s OUTSPOKEN, who was a smart horse on the Flat and will improve a ton for his first outing after a year’s absence at Leopardstown. It’s also worth mentioning a couple of mares from the best yards in the business -- LET’S DANCE, who is improving splendidly for Mullins and could yet be his banker for a Festival Mares’ Hurdle that he farms, and COILLTE LASS, whose progression seems to be taking Paul Nicholls by surprise.

JUVENILE HURDLES

After he had reversed form with LANDOFHOPEANDGLORY (whom I don’t think we should give up on just yet) in Leopardstown’s big Grade Two hurdle for 3yos on Boxing Day, Willie Mullins insisted BAPAUME was his best juvenile. But French recruit MERI DEVIE can’t be far behind given the potential she showed in thumping another of Joseph O’Brien’s high-class recruits from the Flat in a maiden the following day. The turn of foot she unleashed made it easy to understand why she tackled Group One company on the level.

But if Mullins is going to have a job sorting out his juvenile hurdlers, what about JP McManus, who owns a veritable posse of likely candidates for the JCB Triumph Hurdle? Top of the pecking order at the moment is DEFI DU SEUIL, whose engine went into overdrive to land the Grade One Finale at Chepstow, but whose erratic jumping over the last three flights once in front suggested he will need to be held on to much longer at Cheltenham. It may well be that, come March, Philip Hobbs’s charge will have been overtaken in the market by CHARLI PARCS, who looked well worth his 250,000-euro price tag when treating his rivals with disdain on his UK debut at Kempton. Trainer Nicky Henderson describes him as “a proper horse”.

BUMPERS

Now is the time of year when Willie Mullins begins to release his battalion of Bumper horses. And of the four big-name winners we saw over Christmas, I was more impressed by REDHOTFILLYPEPPERS and BALLYWARD than CARTER MCKAY, who travelled supremely well but didn’t find a lot when let down, and NEXT DESTINATION, who looked every inch a chaser in the making. Redhotfillypeppers, who fetched a record price (£200,000) for a point-winning mare, had stacks left in the tank when making all at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve. Ballyward looks set to become the latest in a line of Graham Wylie-owned stars, following in the hoofprints of Yorkshill, Bellshill and Shaneshill, who were all found by the same source.

Outside of Closutton, the talented MINELLA FAIR made his experience count in telling fashion for Noel Meade at Limerick and although WESTERN RYDER did not run over Christmas, trainer and Bumper specialist Warren Greatrex made the significant announcement that the 5yo will head straight for the Festival after his Ascot success and expects him to be fully suited to the rigours of the Cheltenham contest.