It was a fantastic period of racing over Christmas. The cards fell in various directions with some brilliant performances.
Master McShee provided trainer Paddy Corkery and jockey Ian Power with the biggest success of their careers when pipping Farouk D'alene in the BoyleSports Faugheen Novice Chase at Limerick. Given a brilliantly patient ride by Power, Master McShee pounced on the short-priced favourite after the last to get there in the final stride. Gordon Elliott's Farouk D'alene was never far from the pace, which in the very testing ground was not overly rapid. This was a good performance, in my opinion, if Paddy Corkery has the bursting under control for Master McShee he could take high rank among Irelands novcices. Gabynako was never far from the front but was not able to dominate or jump as well as he had in the Drinmore. I would say the ground was a huge factor in this. I won't be giving up on Gabynako just yet.
At Leopardstown, Ferny Hollow came out on top in a terrific battle with Riviere D'etel for the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown. Despite having made all in his beginners' chase at Punchestown, Gordon Elliott’s Riviere D’etel was expected to give Ferny Hollow something to aim at given she was getting 13lb as a four-year-old filly. Ferny Hollow, who only had one race over hurdles due to injury, had been something of a tearaway in his early bumpers and at one stage this threatened a return to those days as he set off at a very strong gallop under Paul Townend. Jack Kennedy seemed content to take a lead on Riviere D’etel after a couple of fences and the pair of them put in some great jumps on the way around. The field was forced to miss what would have been the final fence due to damage caused on the first circuit and with the aid of the rail, Ferny Hollow came away to win by two lengths. Ferny Hollow was cut to 6-4 from 2-1 for the Arkle at Cheltenham in March. This was as good as a novice chase as you will see two smart horses, two excellent jumpers. Ferny Hollow has massive Arkle credentials. I think Riviere D’etel might end up in the mares chase she would take the world of beating in that race if staying the extra distance.
At Kempton, the big race of the Christmas period. The King George took centre stage. Tornado Flyer sprang a surprise as he landed the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton. Trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Danny Mullins, the winner was sent off a 28-1 shot (longest priced winner of the Christmas highlight) - but made a mockery of that price as he came home clear in the Christmas feature. He looked to be travelling well turning in and so it proved as he came home clear of Clan Des Obeaux, as his trainer Paul Nicholls swept the place honours with Saint Calvados third and Frodon fourth. The winner's stablemate Asterion Forlonge would have made the frame had he not crashed out at the last, while Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Minella Indo disappointed for Rachael Blackmore and 3-1 favourite Chantry House was pulled up. I must admit Tornado Flyer has been underestimated in his career so far. I could see the Gold Cup angle I really can. I would imagine he will still be a double-figure price on the day. As for Asterion Forlonge, the Irish Grand National would look to be a good target to my eyes.
Bravemansgame produced a brilliant performance to get the better of Ahoy Senor in the Ladbrokes Kauto Star Novices' Chase. The duo had clashed over hurdles last season, with Ahoy Senor inflicting a shock defeat at Aintree as a 66-1 shot – but Bravemansgame comprehensively reversed that form over the bigger obstacles in what was a highly-anticipated clash. Ahoy Senor was the 11-10 favourite for trainer Lucinda Russell and jockey Derek Fox, and the market leader was sharply away, setting out to make all in the three-mile Grade One contest. In contrast, Harry Cobden was happy to adopt patient tactics on the 6-5 chance Bravemansgame, tracking the leader in second before really starting to line up his challenge with a handful of fences left to jump. A slightly lacklustre leap at the third-last from Ahoy Senor cost him valuable momentum and Cobden was perfectly placed to seize the advantage, kicking for home on Bravemansgame who quickly changed gear to streak away. Paul Nicholls’ horse was seven and a half lengths clear at the line, maintaining his perfect record of three wins from as many fencing starts. This was good no doubt however I am not convinced Bravemangame is a three-miler.
Former jockey Sam Thomas gained the biggest win of his burgeoning training career when Iwilldoit landed a gamble under Stan Sheppard in the Coral Welsh Grand National in a gruelling, stamina-sapping test at Chepstow. Backed into 13-2 from 12-1 on the morning of the race, the eight-year-old went to the front eight fences from home and ground down the opposition in the extended three-and-three-quarter-mile Grade Three marathon in which only five of the 20 starters finished. Owned by Diamond Racing, Iwilldoit opened his campaign with victory in the trial here over an extended two miles and seven furlongs earlier this month. His jumping proved foot-perfect throughout and only two horses really mattered three from home, with Iwilldoit jumping with aplomb and outstaying Highland Hunter and Cobden to record a nine-length success. I got a great kick out of this Iwilldoit was my best bet of The Christmas period. I was blown away by the manner of the performance of Iwilldoit in the Welsh National trial. I hope Sam Thomas goes for races like the Eider and Midlands national with this horse. Iwilldoit bolted up here in the Welsh National it was breathtaking. Native River, one of the most popular horses in training, has been retired after being pulled up in the Coral Welsh Grand National at Chepstow. The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner won 11 of his 24 chase starts, amassing over £1m in prize-money for his owners, Garth and Anne Broom, and giving the Colin Tizzard yard some of their greatest days to date. Native River was a real warrior go well old friend.
At Leopardstown, School Boy Hours took the three-mile Paddy Power Chase at 12-1 for Sean Flanagan and Noel Meade. A half-length winner, the eight-year-old was victorious for the first time since March 2019. It was a heartbreaker for me this race as I had backed Ben Dundee at 33/1 who was an excellent second. Envoi Allen returned to winning ways when taking the Grade One Paddy's Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown for Rachael Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead. The seven-year-old faced only two rivals as Chacun Pour Soi was a late injury-enforced absentee, leaving just Gordon Elliott’s Battleoverdoyen and Jessica Harrington’s Sizing Pottsie making up the three-horse field. Starting as the 2-5 favourite, Envoi Allen was coming back in trip after disappointing when sixth in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown earlier in the month. Shoulder to shoulder with Battleoverdoyen around the final bend, Envoi Allen produced a good jump over the last fence and was able to shake off the challenger and prevail by a workmanlike seven and a half lengths. Envoi Allen is always a horse I will look on fondly having landed my ante-post bet in the Ballymore in 2020. I just don't think he looks like the horse he did when he was younger. This may be due to the fact he was so good at a young age he has not trained on. I can't have him as a two-miler at all. It will be interesting to see what connections do next.
At Kempton, Shishkin quashed all worries about his well-being when running out a hugely impressive winner of the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park. Making a later than expected return to action, after eight months out, Nicky Henderson's seven-year-old stamped a huge claim to be crowned the best two-mile chaser in training. It was far from a penalty kick for Shishkin on paper, with Tingle Creek hero Greaneteen in the field as well as Grand Annual winner Sky Pirate. And while Shishkin did briefly need to be pushed along by Nico de Boinville just before the turn into the straight, he soon came back on the bridle. Bryony Frost made her bid on Greaneteen – but Shishkin breezed past the multiple Grade One winner as if he was stood still, albeit in receipt of 3lb. De Boinville kept the 4-9 favourite up to his work between the last two fences and he powered away to win by 10 lengths. Coral make Shishkin their 5-4 favourite (from 7-4) for the Champion Chase, with Betfair a fraction bigger at 6-4. This was very good from Shiskin, that said I still want to be with Energumene for the Champion Chase.
Also at Kempton, Edwardstone ran out a most impressive winner of the Ladbrokes Wayward Lad Novices' Chase, cementing his position in the betting for the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March. A Grade One winner last time out at Sandown, Alan King’s charge was dropping down in class for this contest at Grade Two level – and as a result was giving away 5lb to his three rivals. Bryony Frost sent Solo into an early lead and with some fluent jumping tried to stretch the field out. As Solo began to weaken, Do Your Job hit the front seemingly full of running with Edwardstone in behind. But as he had at Sandown, Edwardstone once again displayed a taking turn of foot and in a matter of strides the race was over. He flew the last and the 8-15 favourite was ridden out to come home a 10-length winner. I really liked this performance the 6/1 for the Arkle at Cheltenham looks very solid to me.
At Leopardstown, Galvin pounced in the dying strides to deny A Plus Tard back-to-back victories in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown. A Plus Tard held a narrow lead over Kemboy at the final fence but last month's impressive Betfair Chase victor could not ward off Galvin. Davy Russell produced the Gordon Elliott-trained seven-year-old with a terrific late charge to get up in the shadow of the post and land the prestigious prize at odds of 7-1 by a short head from the 8-11 favourite. Kemboy (11-1), the winner in 2018, was three-quarters of a length away in third after making most of the running. Galvin was cut to 8-1 from 16-1 for the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Coral and to 6-1 from 16s with Betfair. I backed Kemboy I was delighted with how he ran, however, this was Russell at his best. I half fancied Galvin before this but sided with Kemboy. I want to be with Galvin in the Gold Cup, he has the Cheltenham form, he will stay having won the National Hunt Chase over 3 miles 6 furlongs last season. To my eyes, he is the Gold Cup winner provided he gets there in one piece.
Galopin Des Champs looked like a potential superstar when annihilating his rivals on his fencing debut in the Ballymaloe Relish Beginners Chase at Leopardstown. The Willie Mullins-trained five-year-old looked a natural as he put in a superb round of jumping in the hands of Paul Townend over the two-mile-five-furlong trip. The 4-7 favourite did not give his supporters an anxious moment after quickly building up an eight-length lead. Galopin Des Champs, who was a winner over hurdles at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals in the spring, extended his advantage to 22 lengths at the line without seeing another rival. Ain't That A Shame was second with Floueur another 16 lengths away in third place. This was just astonishing, the jumping technique, the speed shown as well as the ease of victory.
At Limerick, Concertista handled the step up in trip to win the BoyleSports Irish EBF Dawn Run Mares Novice Chase at Limerick. A winner at the Cheltenham Festival in 2020, she was beaten in a photo finish back there in March and had her attentions switched to fences this season. Good enough to win a Grade Two event on her chasing debut at Cork, that came over two miles and she was stepping up to two and three-quarter miles on this occasion - and in very testing ground. There was no hanging about either, as Kitty Galore shot into an early lead, ensuring there was plenty of pace on. Concertista's main market rival Sayce Gold was an early faller and Sean O'Keeffe was content to give the leader plenty of rope. It proved a good decision as along with Darrens Hope, they reeled in Kitty Galore on the run to the last and the 1-2 favourite pulled four lengths clear at the post.
At Leopardstown, Fury Road led home stablemate Run Wild Fred to provide Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House Stud with a one-two in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The Cullentra handler had saddled four of the last six winners of the Grade One contest, with No More Heroes, Shattered Love, Delta Work and Battleoverdoyen all successful in the maroon and white silks. Troytown Chase winner Run Wild Fred appeared this year's chief hope for the Elliott-Gigginstown axis, but he was ultimately no match for his stablemate Fury Road. Jack Kennedy’s mount was a 7-1 shot off the back of finishing third in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse and the application of cheekpieces for the first time appeared to have the desired effect. Run Wild Fred gave chase from the home turn, but Fury Road was well on top as he passed the post with eight lengths in hand. This was a good performance I liked the way Fury Road went to the line. I think Run Wild Fred is a good prospect for The National Hunt Chase.
At Fairyhouse, Mount Ida got the better of Elimay in a thrilling finish to the John & Chich Fowler Memorial EBF Mares Chase at Fairyhouse. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell, Mount Ida looked set to kick on for victory approaching the penultimate obstacle as long-time leader Scarlet And Dove began to backpedal while Elimay was toiling in third. However, Mount Ida and Scarlet And Dove came together in the air, costing both valuable momentum and allowing Elimay to nudge back into contention. Mount Ida held a narrow advantage jumping the last and while Elimay gave everything on the run to the line, Russell's mount held on by half a length to score at 9-4. Champion Chase winner Put The Kettle On, stepping up in trip to an extended two miles and five furlongs, failed to sparkle, dropping right out to finish last of the five runners. In my view, Mount Ida and Elimay have good prospects in the Mares Chase. I would describe the display Put The Kettle On as alarming and I can't see her getting involved in a Champion Chase.
Al Boum Photo kicked off his Cheltenham Gold Cup preparations with a fourth successive victory in the Savills New Year's Day Chase at Tramore. Willie Mullins’ charge landed the Festival feature in 2019 and 2020, but he had to settle for third last year as Minella Indo scuppered his bid to join Golden Miller, Arkle, Best Mate, and Cottage Rake as a three-times winner of the race. Al Boum Photo went on to finish second behind Clan Des Obeaux at Punchestown in April and after Mullins opted to sidestep a couple of earlier options this term, the 10-year-old made his reappearance in this Grade Three heat for a fourth year running. Just four horses started the race – all of them trained by Mullins – with Al Boum Photo sent off the 1-6 favourite in the hands of Paul Townend. Acapella Bourgeois, who finished second in this race for the last two years, set out to make the gallop with Al Boum Photo sitting on his heels until he jumped into the lead at the eighth fence. As his stablemate quickly dropped away and was pulled up, Al Boum Photo galloped away in front and while Townend had to shake the reins a couple of fences from home as Burrows Saint tried to move upsides, the winner ultimately had his stablemate well covered. After clearing the last, Townend just had to keep him up to his work for a four-length verdict. We learned nothing new here, I think Al Boum Photo will run well in the Gold Cup.