1. The King is dead, long live the King
In contrast to other years, Alan King’s Cheltenham Festival string was one that consisted of outsiders rather than fancied runners. None of his 10-strong team were sent off shorter than 12/1.
Despite that, there were some positive performances, notably those of Sceau Royal – who threatened to spoil Altior’s party when travelling well in the Champion Chase before failing to get up the hill – and Lisp, who threatened for a long way in the County Hurdle and also raced on unfavoured ground.
Along with Azzerti and Praeceps, those horses are worth looking out for at Aintree next week, with King’s string currently in good form.
The yard has registered 81 wins at the time of writing (an 18 per cent strike rate), some way up on last year’s disappointing tally of 58, and the addition of young claiming jockey Oakley Brown to the Barbury Castle team is another positive as the Scottish trainer bids to get back to the glory years of My Way de Solzen, Voy Por Usedes, Katchit, Uxizandre et al.
2. Junior masters
Anything with ‘junior’ in it is normally quite annoying. Junior Masterchef. The chip and putt competition at the Masters. The Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot winner for David Pipe who refused to win when I backed him.
But the juniors certainly ruled at the weekend, with O’Neill Jnr and Bowen Jnr both impressing in the saddle in different ways. Jonjo O’Neill – son of trainer dad Jonjo – recorded his first double when guiding Chic Name and Annie Mc to victory at Newbury.
His calm and patient manner was shown to especially good effect on the latter, and he continued his good form on Monday when riding Deauville Dancer to success at Wincanton. He’s still claiming 5 lb but it won’t be for long (until 40 winners), and, with 36 victories to his name already, he’s a jockey to follow.
Peter Bowen’s progeny consists of Mickey (point to point trainer), Sean (jockey) and James (jockey), and the last-named was seen to good effect in the closing bumper at Carlisle on Sunday, making the 600-mile round trip worth it for all those connected to the yard’s Equus Dancer. James sent the winner into a clear lead entering the back straight, with the pair eventually running out 12-length winners, and now has 67 winners for the season. Both young riders look destined for the top.
The performance of the weekend came on the Flat at Naas on Sunday, as Karawaan ran away with an Irish Lincolnshire handicap that was, admittedly, rendered less competitive by a significant track bias. However, with the jumps season still in full swing and the Aintree and Punchestown festivals yet to come, it feels wrong to dwell on the Flat for too long.
Those in charge of the sport may consider that more clearly defined Flat and jumps seasons – ones that don’t swell into each other like oil and water – may make it easier for the general public to embrace the different codes without feeling like they’re cheating on one and not giving each their full attention.
While acknowledging that horses still need to be fed and watered when not racing, and that prize money often helps with that, all other major sports have a clearly defined seasonal break, giving players – and, as importantly, fans – a chance to recharge their batteries and look forward to the new season. Absence makes the heart grow fonder after all…
One to back next time
Stop The World was amateur-ridden for his handicap debut at Exeter on Sunday and ran creditably without finding the progress his opening mark demands. Despite being up in trip, the half-brother to Up For Review looked no pacier than he had at Wincanton, so a more positive ride is perhaps the way to get the best out of him. Given his pedigree (his dam is a half-sister to Turpin Green who stayed four miles), he’s one who should progress further when granted a truer test of stamina.