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Newbury live

Some glittering performances on the track at Newbury yesterday contrasted sharply with the gloomy conditions, as Kalashnikov landed the Betfair Hurdle and Altior and Native River both shone.

Kalashnikov was one of the least experienced horses in the feature race, the richest handicap hurdle run on British soil, but he was primed for the stiffest test of his burgeoning career by trainer Amy Murphy. 

“He’s unbelievable,” said the trainer.  “He’s so tough.  He’s so professional, he trains himself.”

Settled in mid-division through the early stages of the race by rider Jack Quinlan, you couldn’t have called Kalashnikov as the most likely winner at the top of the home straight, and it didn’t help that he got in tight to the second last flight.  But he is tough.  He and Bleu Et Rouge came away from the rest of the field on the run to the final flight, and the Willie Mullins-trained horse ran a cracker under Barry Geraghty, but it was Amy Murphy’s horse who came away on the run-in to record a famous victory.

“He’s a superstar,” said Quinlan.  “But all credit has to go to Amy and the team.  We were worried about the soft ground, as he got bogged down on heavy ground at Sandown last time.  But he is maturing all the time.  He is only a five-year-old.  He improved from Sandown.”

It was a big day for trainer Amy Murphy, who was recording the biggest win of her career so far.

“He was never travelling,” said the trainer, “and he hated that ground.  He will be even better on better ground.  He could go for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham now.  He has proven here that he goes in a big field, and he has the class, so he deserves to go there.”

Bookmakers reacted by cutting the Kalanisi gelding’s odds to between 8/1 and 10/1 for the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser.

Speaking of Cheltenham, Altior consolidated his position at the top of the market for the Queen Mother Champion Chase with a performance in winning the Betfair Exchange Chase (the old Game Spirit Chase) that oozed class.

We hadn’t seen Nicky Henderson’s horse race in public since he won the Celebration Chase at Sandown last April.  In his absence, Politologue had manoeuvred his way into the foreground.  Paul Nicholls’ horse had taken his place among the higher echelons of the two-mile chasers’ ranks by winning the Haldon Gold Cup, the Tingle Creek Chase and the Desert Orchid Chase already this season, and it was the grey horse who led the three-strong field through the early stages of yesterday’s race.

Altior went into the race with a perfect record over obstacles, unbeaten in 11 races, five over hurdles and six over fences, and now he is unbeaten in 12.  He moved easily through his race under Nico de Boinville in Politologue’s slipstream, joined his main rival at the final fence and, when his rider gave him a squeeze, he easily came clear.

“That was exactly what we wanted,” said Henderson.  “He has so much pace.  That is not his ground, but he travelled very well, and he has so many gears.  He’s just got class, and he’s very very good.”

Native River’s return to the racetrack after an absence of 11 months because of ligament issues was also eagerly awaited and, like Altior, he didn’t disappoint in landing the Betfair Denman Chase. 

Colin Tizzard’s horse’s style is different to Altior’s, it is more sleeves-rolled-up and dig, but that doesn’t mean that it is not effective. 

Richard Johnson sent the Indian River gelding to the front from flagfall.  The rider niggled his horse along from early, but Native River is a willing galloper who continues to find and, by the time he landed over the second last fence, it was apparent that neither of his rivals were going to be able to get close to him.  He bounded over the last and galloped his way to a 12-length victory.

“He’s better when you’re aggressive on him,” said the winning rider.  “He answered every call and he did so with enthusiasm.” 

Bookmakers cut Native River’s odds to 6/1 generally for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a race in which he finished third last year.

© The Sunday Times, 11th February 2018