A deluge of rain could not prevent Cheltenham’s fabled November Meeting from delivering its usual blend of excitement, drama and entertainment at the weekend. The course was besieged by downpours throughout the week and Friday’s card had to be abandoned due to flooding. However, the rain finally eased off and clerk of the course Simon Claisse decided that racing could go ahead on Saturday and Sunday. The bulk of the action was condensed into two bumper days and a host of runners assembled to battle it out for glory on an extremely sloppy course. Here is what we learned over the course of the weekend:
Runners That Love the Mud
The going was classed as soft, heavy in places, on Saturday and Sunday, and a number of runners positively relished the challenge. The Grade 3 BetVictor Smartcards Handicap Chase was a real endurance test on Saturday and Colin Tizzard’’s West Approach passed with flying colours. Much of the focus was on joint favourite Ranses De Teillee, a proven mudlark, but he finished fourth as West Approach delivered a commanding performance to seize the win. It ended a losing streak that stretched back almost two years and saw him emerge as a potential Grand National contender.
The Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase on Sunday was another gruelling slog in the mud. The runners had to hang in there for 3m 6f 37y and it ultimately ended in a one-two for French trainer Emmanuel Clayeux, as Diesel D’Allier won from stablemate Urgent De Gregaine. The winner has great potential as a cross-country horse, while 11-year-old Urgent De Gregaine is being primed for one last hurrah at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
All of the winners at Cheltenham this weekend will be worthy of serious consideration when running on heavy ground in the future. The Met Office is forecasting a long, grim winter and we can expect many more gruelling races on sloppy courses, so these battled hardened victors will be on the radar of many punters whenever they appear throughout the rest of the season.
Defi Du Seuil Dazzles
A small but strong field lined up for the Grade 2 Shloer Chase on Sunday. It featured Paul Nicholls’ Politologue, a Grade 1 winner at Aintree last year, and former course winner Saint Calvados, along with Simply Ned, but they were no match for Defi Du Seuil. The six-year-old showed his potential with a thrilling victory in the Grade 1 JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, and he looked even stronger in overcoming tough conditions to beat the talented Politologue at the weekend.
Defi Du Seuil is fast becoming a course specialist, and he is now the outright favourite to win the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Some bookmakers are going as short as 4/1 on him, but others still have 7/1, and if you check out horse racing betting you can find attractive ante-post prices on Defi Du Seuil winning the big race. He is also the third favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and it will be interesting to see what direction Philip Hobbs steers him in.
“It was never going to be ideal when the pace is that slow, so I’m delighted he’s won,” said Hobbs. He obviously stays very well, but he has loads of pace. “We’ll take it race by race, but I’d imagine he will go the Tingle Creek. Sandown is stiffer than here, so it will probably suit him.”
The Happiest Diva in Town
Kerry Lee’s Happy Diva was not an overwhelmingly popular pick among punters to win the BetVictor Gold Cup this weekend. No mare had won the race since Lady Cricket in 2000, and she was brought down in the same race last year, so she flew under the radar in the build-up to the meeting. There was a great deal of hype surrounding favourite Slate House, but he started poorly. He rallied and was among a group of four challengers when he fell at the penultimate fence. It ultimately boiled down to a thrilling scrap between 14/1 shot Happy Diva and 20/1 hopeful Brelan D’as, and Happy Diva snatched victory by a neck.
It could prove to be a breakthrough win for 24-year-old jockey Richard Patrick. “It’s massive for me,” he said. “I’m coming to the end of my claim and you need to be seen on the big days winning these big races. I couldn’t have had a better run today.” It was his 20th run on Happy Diva and he praised the mare for her heart and determination. Lee called her “a gutsy mare”.
The Greatwood Handicap was arguably the most exciting race of the weekend. Lizzie Kelly, just back in action after breaking her arm at Exeter last month, made all the running aboard Monsieur Lecoq. The five-year-old began to tire and Hobbs’ 9/1 chance Gumball surged to the front of the field ahead of Quoi De Neuf with a terrific jump over the penultimate fence. Gumball was flying and he made a mockery of owner Terry Warner’s fears that he would not be suited to the heavy going, while Quoi De Neuf was also looking extremely strong.
Yet Kelly continued to drive Monsieur Lecoq on and it looked like developing into a three-horsed race, with 16/1 shot Harambe in back in fourth. A magnificent jump by Monsieur Lecoq over the final hurdle saw him regain the lead. Harambe made up a huge amount of ground as they soared up the hill, and Monsieur Lecoq was suddenly under immense pressure from three runners. They jostled for position and any one of the four could have won it. Monsieur Lecoq looked set to hold on, but Harambe agonisingly reeled him in and clinched it by a neck from Gumball and Monsieur Lecoq, with Quoi De Neuf a length and a quarter back in fourth. It was spine-tingling stuff.
Budding Stars Emerge
The November Meeting is the first big event of the National Hunt season and many punters cast an eagle eye over proceedings as they aim to identify superstars of the future. There were plenty of impressive performances on show in the Cheltenham bog. Allmankind secured an emphatic victory in the JCB Triumph Trial on Saturday, and Jatiluwih did well to score again for Hobbs in the BetVictor Intermediate Handicap Hurdle.
There was a surprise in the Arkle Trial on Sunday as Put The Kettle On got the better of favourite Al Dancer. She led from the front throughout the entire race and she delivered a really brave performance to see off the chasing pack. She jumped beautifully and finished strong to finish two and a half lengths clear of Al Dancer. “Forget the kettle, get the Champagne, she’s won at Cheltenham!” said the announcer.
Great Week for the O’Neills
Conditional jockey Jonjo O’Neill Junior rode the heavily backed Duc De Beauchene to a fine victory in the first race of the card on Sunday. Trainer David Pipe, owner JP McManus and Sir AP McCoy were among the first to congratulate him following the win. It came just a few days after brother Anthony secured his first ever victory as an amateur, while their famous father won at Uttoxeter this weekend. “It has been a good week,” said the rider. “We are happy and grateful Mr McManus for supporting us. I’m very happy with the way it’s going at the moment, I just don’t want to rest on my laurels and keep going.”