Good fortune had desserted Midnight Shadow for the majority of 2019 but Sue Smith's stable star enjoyed a change of fortunes on the first day of 2020 when taking advantage of Champs's fall at the second last in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham. The former Scottish Champion Hurdle winner looked booked for the runners-up berth once again when left in front at the penultimate fence. Despite idling on the run-in, Danny Cook's mount found enough to prevail by a length and a quarter and register his second Grade 2 win at the track in the space of twelve months having won the Relkeel Hurdle on the same day last year. A return to Cheltenham in March is likely to be on his agenda and it will be interesting to see if he is entered in the Arkle Trophy as well as the JLT Novices' Chase. His jumping was excellent and he has the speed to drop back to two miles, if connections decide to go down the shorter route.
As regards Champ, Nicky Henderson now faces a dilemma whether to run his Grade 1 winning novice hurdler again now before the Festival. The original plan was for him to head straight to Cheltenham in March for the RSA Chase but I can't imagine he is keen to send the gelding there on the back of a fall. The Reynoldstown Novices' Chase at Ascot in mid February is an option and so is the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase (1st February) at Sandown.
King Roland provided the Top 40 with another winner at Exeter. Unfortunately, due to the fog, we were unable to see much of the action at the West Country venue but Harry Fry's dual bumper winner annihilated his rivals in the two miles two maiden hurdle. Held up by Sean Bowen, the former English pointer took charge rounding the final bend and stretched clear to win by nineteen lengths. The Stowaway gelding looks ready for a step up in class with something like the Listed Sidney Banks Memorial Novices Hurdle over two miles three at Huntingdon (6th February) a possibility. He promises to be even better over further with the Ballymore Properties Hurdle at Cheltenham his likely target. Provided he settles in his races, King Roland has the potential to go a long way over hurdles and fences.
The biggest disappointment of the day was the performance of Emitom in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle. Having his first start for 271 days having incurred a setback in October, Warren Greatrex's gelding didn't jump with any fluency and never looked like getting involved. Last of six and beaten nearly twenty lengths, it was a lacklustre return to action to say the least. The Stayers' Hurdle was his intended target but he needs to step forward markedly on his next start to even line up, yet alone be competitive.
It was a frustrating day for followers of the Christmas Special. Ashington (3rd), Cheb De Kerviniou (2nd) and Grand Roi (4th) all ran well and the trio all looked like winning at some stage in their respective races. Ashington appeared to be cantering in the home straight but found disappointingly little of the bridle. Perhaps the 'dead' ground at Musselburgh caught him out because he travelled like a well handicapped horse. One can imagine John Quinn targeting him at Aintree in April and perhaps the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock in May. With hindsight, Nico De Boinville ought to have made more use of Grand Roi in the Listed bumper at Cheltenham. Ironically, the ex-French gelding had beaten the winner by fifteen lengths last time the pair met at Wincanton. Significantly though, that race was over a furlong and a half further.
Talking of Musselburgh, I was very impressed with Never Do Nothing's hurdling debut in the opening juvenile hurdle. Highlighted as a horse to follow in the November Update, John McConnell's new recruit jumped well before staying on strongly to win by five and a half lengths. Previously trained on the Flat by Andrew Balding, he was rated 91 and won three times before being sent through the sales ring in late October for 135,000gns. One can envisage him returning to the Scottish track early next month for the Listed Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial (2nd February). A son of Casamento, he looks a smart hurdling prospect for his shrewd new outfit.
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