Column of Fire
Last season’s final flight faller in the Martin Pipe is a horse with plenty of mileage in his current mark of 145. Column of Fire looked to be staying on strongly up the hill before taking a tumble and he’s set to stay over hurdles which is potentially a clue. Gordon may feel there’s unfinished business over the smaller obstacles, especially given Gigginstown’s tendency to send their horses chasing. His career to date is littered with high class form, finishing close to Commander of Fleet (second in an Albert Bartlett) in a bumper and running very respectable races against the likes of Longhouse Poet and Elixir D’ainay, both of whom have form tied in with Envoi Allen. Column of Fire’s prep run for the Martin Pipe also catches the eye. The horses either side of him, The Jam Man and Tout Est Permis, have since gone on to run big races. Tout Est Permis went on to finish third in the Pertemps behind Sire Du Berlais and The Jam Man went on to finish 9th in the Stayers before some extremely good runs on the flat and a facile success over fences in the Troytown. I believe Column of Fire has the potential to be a graded horse in a handicap. Watch out for him at the big spring festivals from two and a half to three miles. The Pertemps could be his festival target.
De Name Evades Me
De Name Evades Me looks a dour stayer and he could be a dark horse over stamina sapping trips. After numerous respectable efforts over hurdles, De Name Evades Me was sent novice chasing in October 2019. Running over just under 3 miles, he jumped well and ran all the way to the line. He was unable to quicken with the leading pair and finished a seven length third. The leading pair that day were Ardlethen and eventual Stayers Hurdle winner Lisnigar Oscar. Welsh Grand National runner up Truckers Lodge was 23 lengths back in fourth so you’d have to think it was a strong novice chase. De Name Evades me went on to run over 3 miles at Exeter where he ran another race full of promise, storming home to just be denied, again suggesting a marathon trip could really suit. An official chase rating of 135 could well underestimate his staying ability and should he retain his ability after a slight setback I expect him to go close in some big staying handicaps over 3 miles plus.
Not often will a Willie Mullins trained and Rich Ricci owned horse appear in a Dark Horses to follow list but I have a feeling this fella could sneak in under the radar. Imported from France, Five O’Clock had a couple of placed efforts to his name at Auteuil over hurdles and was subsequently sent off a 1/4 favourite for his Irish debut. To the amazement of most punters he was turned over, finishing second but putting his odds aside it was an encouraging first run for Willie. Dropped in trip and sent to Limerick for his second start, Five O’clock landed the odds before going on dismantle a high-class field at Thurles over two and a half miles on soft ground. This race would look particularly strong on paper now. The second, Front View, is now a 136-rated chaser. The third, Assemble, has notched up a chasing win and finished second (RPR of 150) in the Grade 1 Drinmore Novices Chase, eight lengths behind the superstar Envoi Allen. Finally, the fourth horse, French Dynamite is now a 149-rated hurdler having run dual Pertemps winner Sire Du Berlais to half a length over two and a half miles at Navan. Five O’Clock last appeared at the Cheltenham Festival where he was an eye catching seventh in the Martin Pipe. A terrible mistake at the fourth put him on the back foot and from there he was unable to get involved despite making late headway and flying up the hill. Given this fella’s large chasing physique I would expect him to improve for a fence and think he could be a dark horse for some graded chases late in the season. Cheltenham may come too soon for him as we are yet to see him this season but watch out for him come Punchestown.
Officially rated 76 on the level, Her Indoors looks a winner in waiting over hurdles. Sent to Aintree for a two-mile hurdle race on soft ground, Her Indoors was seemingly unfancied and was sent off an 18/1 outsider. She outran her odds and went on to finish a seven and a half-length second to the 132 rated Thinking About You. After such an encouraging hurdles debut, Her Indoors was well backed into favouritism for a class 2 juvenile hurdle at Kempton, once again over two miles on soft ground. She was no match for the eventual winner Heross Du Seauil (now 20/1 in places for Triumph hurdle) but she really caught the eye staying on into second, all be it a fortunate one due to a faller at the last. Her Indoors jumped well in the main but was badly outpaced down the back straight and coming into the home straight was miles back. She plunged on well though and seemed to do her best work at the end of the two miles suggesting a step up in trip may see her to best effects. Watch out for her going up to two and half miles or when she visits a track with a greater emphasis on stamina like Cheltenham or Sandown.
Champagne Platinum has always struck me as a classy individual and his career to date has shown glimpses of what I believe he is capable of. He disappointed in his first two novice chases before being an eye catching third in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles. Sent to the Kim Muir at Cheltenham, Champagne Platinum travelled well for a very long way before ultimately failing to see out the three miles and two furlongs trip. Dropped back to two miles and five furlongs over hurdles at Newbury, Champagne Platinum caught the eye once again. He raced very keenly and made some early jumping errors but came absolutely swinging into contention two from home. He finished his race off well but paid the price for running keenly throughout to eventually finish third. If Henderson can get this talented grey to settle, there’s certainly a valuable price in him over an intermediate trip. Something like the Coral Cup at Cheltenham could be the long-term plan.
Golan Fortune has been star for connections running seventeen times over hurdles, winning four times and placing on another five occasions. Given his success over hurdles and the fact he’d still been running big races off his current mark (third at Cheltenham on his last hurdles start) I was somewhat surprised to see him sent novice chasing in early December 2020. Running over close to three miles, Golan Fortune delivered a chase debut success and in doing so beat the useful Champagne Well by eight and a half lengths. A very bright start to life over fences and he was subsequently thrown in at the deep end when upped to Grade 1 company in the Kauto Star Novices Chase over three miles at Kempton. Sent off the 40/1 outsider of seven, Golan Fortune ran a blinder and just faded to be fourth late on. He finished half a length behind the 160 rated If The Cap Fits and only seven lengths behind the winner Shan Blue. On both chase starts he’s made niggly errors and I don’t believe three miles around Kempton would have suited him. Lots of his best runs have come at Cheltenham in the past which poses quite a different test Kempton. As a result, I believe we can mark up this effort and a chasing mark of 141 looks extremely inviting. Connections can now look at some of the valuable staying handicap chases or stick to novice company where the stamina sapping National Hunt Chase at the festival could suit.
Ben Pauling’s four-year-old novice hurdler, Optimise Prime, looks like a horse who could be ahead of his current handicap mark of 128. Subject to quite a gamble on debut in a bumper, Optimise Prime didn’t live up to market expectations running a disappointing eighth. He bounced back in style though and more than made amends when winning at 50/1 on hurdles debut over two miles three furlongs on soft ground at Hereford. Winners at 50/1 can often be deemed a fluke but Optimise Prime notched up another win when quite well supported over the same course and distance. His jumping has impressed me on both hurdle starts and he won a shade cosily last time out. He physically screams chaser in the making to me but this improving novice hurdler can continue to run well in some decent little contests from now until the end of the season.
Next on my list of Dark horses to follow is the fragile son of Gold Well, Dickie Diver. A twenty-length winner of a three-mile Point to Point on heavy ground, it was no surprise to see Dickie fetch £210,000 in the sales ring. The lucky buyer that day, Mr JP McManus. Sent straight over hurdles in January 2019, Dickie Diver ran the 2020 Stayers Hurdle winner Lisnigar Oscar to a short head before bolting up back at Chepstow a month later. Sent off a 14/1 shot for the 2019 Albert Bartlett, he outran his odds and finished an extremely promising fourth to Minella Indo who has franked the form numerous times since. A tall, lengthy individual on looks many punters including myself couldn’t wait to see Dickie Diver over a fence but small, niggling injuries kept him off track for over 20 months until he recently appeared in a Novices Handicap Chase at Newbury over two miles six furlongs. Ridden cold out the back, Dickie jumped beautifully and stayed on strongly to finish second to the useful Paint The Dream giving him weight. Given his lengthy time on the side lines this was a hugely encouraging comeback run which must open plenty of doors going forward. Officially rated 143 over hurdles, Dickie Diver will surely find himself on a lovely chasing mark in the mid-140s which given how well he jumped is surely a mark he can win some big spring festivals off given he gets some cut in the ground. He also has the option of staying in novice company and races like the National Hunt Chase at the festival could be right up his street.
2018 Triumph Hurdle winner, Farclas, is a horse who struggled in his four/five-year-old season like so many of the top Juveniles do when entering open company. However, at the back end of the 2019 season he was sent chasing and recorded a hattrick of wins over the larger obstacle’s. Chasing seemed to spark him back to life somewhat but you could still argue his wasn’t running to his Triumph Hurdle winning form. Unfortunately, a setback kept him off track for roughly 18 months but he reappeared in a hot handicap chase over two miles three furlongs at Punchestown. Jumping well throughout, Farclas looked a little outpaced three from home but made eye catching late headway to finish fifth. The form of this handicap looks particularly strong. Tornando Flyer, second on the day, went on to give Min a proper race in the John Durkan and the third horse, Castlebawn West, went on to win the Paddy Power Chase over Christmas. A race in which he beat my highlighted horse, Farclas. Farclas jumped soundly throughout but pulled hard through the early stages of the race. He appeared to have every chance coming into the straight but was unable to quicken with Castlebawn West but kept on well to finish third. Given the below standard form of the Gordon Elliott stable over Christmas and how hard Farclas pulled, I believe we can mark this performance up a fair bit and he’s surely worth following off a mark of 142 in the big staying handicap chases. We know he eats up the Cheltenham hill so something like the Ultima Handicap Chase on the first day of the festival could be his spring target.
Lock’s Corner looks to be a horse on a steep upward curve having won five of his last six races. Mixing it over both fences and hurdles, Lock’s Corner has seen both his hurdle and chase ratings rise considerably. Now rated 139 over fences and 138 over hurdles, I believe connections may stick to fences for now and look to preserve that hurdle mark with one of the big spring handicap hurdles in mind. Lock’s Corner has won his last three chase starts so it was interesting to see connections drop him into a Pertemps qualifier at Cheltenham in November. Unfancied at 20/1 Lock’s Corner ran a blinder finishing second, four lengths behind Honest Vic. As a result, Locks Corner subsequently qualified for the Pertemps at Cheltenham and moved up to a mark of 138 which could see him sneak in at the bottom of the weights. Honest Vic has since come out and run a big race against the best stayers around to frank the form. Interestingly, Lock’s Corner was sent to Ireland for The Paddy Power Chase over Christmas and went off a well supported 11/2 favourite. Things didn’t go to plan and jumping errors at a crucial time, two out and three out, forced Mark Walsh to pull him up. Nevertheless, the way he was supported suggests connections think there’s a big handicap in him. Trained by Jonjo O’Neill and owned by JP McManus, I’m hoping Locks Corner could be a classic JP plot job. He’s one to watch out for.
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