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Christmas Festival review

A wholly enthralling Christmas Festival at Leopardstown was governed by key decisions.

Paul Nicholls’s decision – instigated by Ruby Walsh – to allow Tidal Bay run in Friday’s Lexus Chase was one. It was a good one, as it turned out, with Graham Wylie’s horse getting home by a head and a half a length from First Lieutenant and Flemenstar. It is on such slender margins that verdicts are decided, decision vindicated, victory and defeat the only determining imposters. This game is Machiavellian in the extreme.

Victory for the British horse in the Lexus Chase – a sixth British victory in the race in seven years – was bad news for this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup challenge from Ireland. Responsibility for the delivery of a first Irish Gold Cup win since War Of Attrition’s in 2006 rested jointly on the shoulders of Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs and, before Friday’s race, hopes were high. The implications of victory for either were discussed in-depth during the preamble, while the potential ramifications of defeat for both were not widely available.

Then Ruby Walsh conjured a run from Tidal Bay that took him from sixth place as they started the turn for home, to an improbable fourth jumping the final fence, to wend his way between horses and stick his nosebanded head in front right on the line.

In truth, Tidal Bay’s victory shouldn’t have been that surprising. He wasn’t missed by the market and he has never lacked talent, even if that talent came with a large dollop of character. Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh between them seem to have found the key to him, however, and his performance in finishing second in a red-hot Hennessy on his previous run under 11st 12lb was one of the staying chasing performances of the early part of this season.

The Lexus result does muddy the Gold Cup picture, mind you. Tidal Bay has entered the fray now, but it is surely too much to expect him to win a Gold Cup at the age of 12, given that no horse aged older than 10 has won the race since What A Myth prevailed in 1969. He also has the option of the World Hurdle, now that his stable companion Big Buck’s is out for the season.

Flemenstar simply looked like a non-stayer over three miles. He travelled like the best horse in the race for two miles and seven furlongs, until he betrayed his tiredness by putting in a short stride at the final fence instead of jumping out over it. Surely the right thing to do with him now is to revert to two and a half miles, a trip at which his rider can be as aggressive as he likes, and at which the potency of his fluent jumping can by maximised, instead of riding him with restraint and trying to stretch his stamina out over three miles.

Sir Des Champs didn’t enhance his Gold Cup claims, but he is not a forlorn hope. He didn’t jump as well as he can on Friday out of the soft ground, and he should be much happier back on better ground and stepped up to the Gold Cup trip of an extended three and a quarter miles. A dual Cheltenham Festival winner, he is still in the Gold Cup picture.

Henry de Bromhead’s decision to keep Sizing Europe at home and not send him to Kempton to contest the King George was the correct one, given how soft the ground had gone at the Sunbury track, and how gruelling the race turned out to be. Alan Potts’s horse wasn’t hugely impressive in beating Rubi Light in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase on Thursday, but Rubi Light is a high-class horse on soft ground, and the pair of them came clear of their rivals.

An Arkle winner and a Champion Chase winner, it may be that Sizing Europe will be at his best now over two and a half miles. He will be 11 years old on Tuesday and, so impressive in winning the Clonmel Oil Chase on his previous run, it may be that the Ryanair Chase over an extended two and a half miles will be the race for him at Cheltenham this season instead of the Champion Chase.

Noel Meade’s decision to allow Monksland run in the Christmas Hurdle over three miles on Friday, instead of in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle over two, was another good one. The son of Beneficial stayed on strongly to turn a two-and-a-half-length defeat to Zaidpour in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in early December into a two-and-a-half-length victory over Willie Mullins’s horse on Friday.

Monksland is only five, he has raced just six times over hurdles in his life, and he still has scope for further progression. With Big Buck’s now on the easy list and set to sit out the rest of the season, there is a vacancy for a new staying hurdling champion this season and, third in the Neptune Hurdle at Cheltenham last March, Monksland could be the one to fill it.

In Thursday’s Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle, the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki did what Hurricane Fly did in the same race four years ago when he sprinted clear of some high-class rivals on the run from the second last flight to the winning line, and he is a worthy Supreme Novices’ Hurdle favourite.

Willie Mullins was typically dominant. Arvika Ligeonniere gained the Grade 1 win that his talent deserves when he beat Oscars Well in the Racing Post Chase on Wednesday, while Back In Focus and Aupcharlie provided the trainer with a 1-2 in the Grade 1 Topaz Chase on Friday, the pair of them clear of their rivals.

Either one of them would be a leading RSA Chase contender, although their trainer will probably want to keep the pair of them, and Boston Bob, apart at Cheltenham. The Jewson could be the race for Aupcharlie, while the four-mile National Hunt Chase is a realistic option for both Graham Wylie horses.

More decisions to be made.

© The Sunday Times, 30th December 2012