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Christmas review 

1. Story of the week

No contest here really.  The Hewick story started at Goresbridge sales in October 2017 when John ‘Shark’ Hanlon saw the two-year-old and liked the way that he walked.  Actually, the trainer wasn’t there to see Hewick at all, he was there to see another horse but, after going back home for a bite to eat, he went back to Goresbridge and bought the horse who would be named Hewick for €850.

And so followed a Bet365 Gold Cup and a Galway Plate and an Oaksey Chase and a trip to America to Far Hills in New Jersey to win the Grand National Hurdle Stakes.  And if the ball had hopped a little more kindly, he could have bagged a Kerry National as well, and he could have been placed in a Cheltenham Gold Cup.  

A King George was another step up on all of that, but Shark Hanlon travelled in hope.  Hopes had to have flickered even among the most optimistic as the runners raced down Kempton’s back straight, when Hewick was five lengths adrift and trading at 549/1 in-running, but they were rekindled as they raced to the home turn and the little terrier started to close, and they became a raging inferno when Shishkin unseated and Gavin Sheehan conjured that run from Hewick that took him a length and a half clear.  

A King George to go with everything else, a horse who cost €850.  That’s your story.

2. Standout performance of the week

No contest here either.  Not really.  Not if you were standing in the stands at Leopardstown as Galopin Des Champs came clear of his rivals in the Savills Chase under the rhythmic Paul Townend drive, and the buzz from the assembled masses all around you made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you gradually came to the realisation that you were probably witnessing something special.

There was a lot wrapped up in this performance.  There was the style of it for starters, the ease with which Willie Mullins’ horse came clear of his rivals, the strength with which he went to the line and beyond the line.  And that style was afforded credence by the solidity of the task.  Okay, so Fastorslow was a late scratching, and Janidil and Envoi Allen were both absent, but even so, common consensus was that this was the most highly-charged Savills Chase field that had been assembled for years.  And Galopin Des Champs defused it, with lots of time to spare.

There was a sense before the Savills too that the Timos gelding’s lustre was fading a little.  Brilliant Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in March when his star shone brightly, subsequent defeats in the Punchestown Gold Cup and in the John Durkan Chase saw his radiance dimmed somewhat.  But after Thursday’s performance, a performance of unequivocal pace and stamina and class, Galopin Des Champs’ reputation is whole again, his position at the top of the 2024 Cheltenham Gold Cup market secured again.

3. Now-you-can-exhale performance of the week

Marine Nationale, winning his beginners’ chase at Leopardstown on Wednesday.

We hadn’t seen Barry Connell’s horse in competitive action since Cheltenham in March, when he bounded up the hill to come over three lengths clear of Facile Vega in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  It was one of the standout performances by a novice hurdler last season, and confirmation that he would embark on his chasing career this season only fuelled the desire to see him race again.

He missed an engagement at Navan last month because of the heavy ground, but Wednesday’s beginners’ chase had been pencilled in for his chasing bow for a little while.  And just as an absence can fuel desire, it can also allow for doubts to creep in.  Could he really be as good over fences as he was over hurdles?  Barry Connell told us that his schooling over fences had gone as well as he could have hoped, that he could be even better over fences.

His performance on Wednesday was as good as you could have hoped for too.  Quickly into his racing rhythm under Michael O’Sullivan, his jumping was superb, efficient and accurate and effortless and, when he got in tight, he was fast and fluent and safe.  You couldn’t have hoped for any more.

Put in at 7/4 for the Arkle at Cheltenham before Wednesday’s race, the French Navy gelding is now no bigger than evens anywhere, and it is very difficult to argue with that assessment of his prospects in March.

 4. Options-opening performance of the week

Irish Point had never been beyond two and a half miles in his life before he lined up in the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown on Thursday.

We didn’t know that Gordon Elliott’s horse would stay the near-three-mile trip, but the signs were positive.  We knew that he stayed two and a half miles well, that he was a dual Grade 1 winner over two and a half miles, and you could argue the case on breeding.  Also, his trainer appeared to be very hopeful that he would stay, and the market appeared to be fairly confident.

Not only did the Robcour gelding stay the trip, he probably improved for it, he put up one of the best performances of his life over it.  Jack Kennedy was always happy on him, he joined the front rank, still travelling easily, at the top of the home straight, and he came away from his rivals on the run to the last, over the last and up the run-in, to win by 11 lengths.

This performance puts Irish Point – who, incidentally, beat Tuesday’s scintillating Kauto Star Chase winner Il Est Francais in an AQPS Grade 1 bumper at Saint-Cloud in 2021 – firmly in the Stayers’ Hurdle picture.  Of course, the complication is that owner and trainer also have Teahupoo, last season’s Stayers’ Hurdle third and impressive winner of the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle on his debut this season.  Options all over the place.

5. A few beaten horses to note from the week

Predators Gold ran a big race to finish second to Caldwell Potter in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on Wednesday over two miles and, winner of a two-mile-three-and-a-half-furlong maiden hurdle, he could be seen to even better effect when stepped up in trip again.  

Capodanno stayed on well to take third place behind his stable companion Galopin Des Champs in the Savills Chase, having been only sixth turning for home.  He had a truncated season last season, but he was a Grade 1 winner as a novice chaser.  His best form before this was at right-handed tracks, and his record at Punchestown reads 121.

Ashdale Bob made a mistake at the third last flight in the two-mile-three-furlong hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday, just as the pace was increasing and, widest of all as a consequence around the home turn, he did well to keep on as well as he did to take third place behind Sir Gerhard and Thedevilscoachman.  He was conceding race fitness to the first two home, this was his first run since June, so he should be able to build on this.  The Boyne Hurdle looks like a good target for him again, a race run over two miles and five furlongs, close to his optimum trip, and in which he was beaten a head by (the same) Thedevilscoachman last year. 

© Sporting Life, 1st Jan 2024