Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting has long been a key pointer in the National Hunt Season.
The First true “festival” of the year, where the great and aspiring come to flex their muscles and showcase their talents. It is also perhaps the first opportunity for those horses with Cheltenham ambitions to come together to be measured and assessed.
Whilst the Festive period has only made some pictures murkier, the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle more so than ever, it has perhaps made other races clearer than before.
Perhaps most obvious is the Racing Post Arkle. Coming into Christmas, Fakir D’oudairies headed the market and was the standout Novice Chaser over 2 miles. Putting Samcro’s 2nd last fall to one side, he had been the most impressive jumper and had already delivered top level success in the Drinmore. However, on Boxing day came a mouth-watering match up with Laurina at Leopardstown. All the hype had been over the clash between the 2, with the market barely able to split them (Laurina 11/10, Fakir D’oudairies 11/8), but in this regard the race disappointed. Laurina ran well below her best and was tailed off. The eventual winner Notebook, who is now the 9/2 Ante-Post favourite for the Arkle in March, had been somewhat overlooked.
On the face of it, the form looks solid and he is worthy of his new place at the head of the market. Notebook jumped superbly and battled on bravely after the last to win by over a length. He is undoubtedly a 160+ chaser and I would not want to put anyone off backing him, however, he is now a little short at 9/2. Add to this the fact that Laurina performed well below par and Mark Walsh briefly lost an iron in the straight, which no doubt checked Fakir D’oudairies momentum, a few doubts could be raised.
Then there is the time, the race was run in 4:15:10, 6 seconds faster than a Handicap chase won by Drumconnor Lad (OR now 132) over C&D on the same day. A good pointer to the race being truly run, but, the following day, Melon won a Beginners Chase over C&D in 4:14:30 and was half a second faster than Notebook from 2 out to the line. Now the 2 races were different, a Grade 1 and a Beginners Chase do not bare comparison, Melon was also aided by City Island, his main rival, being overwhelmed by a 1st attempt over fences and perhaps letting the form down. However, these bare figures do raise some doubts over the actual form itself.
When looking at the current Ante-post market for the Arkle, Ireland has the strongest hand. Of those at the head of the Market, Notebook (9/2), Fakir D’oudairies (6/1) both look likely to turn up and be involved at the business end of the race. Of the British challengers, Brewinupastorm and Champ head the way, but both are surely more likely to run over further, leaving Global Citizen as the most likely challenger from Britain. Now he was impressive when winning the Wayward Lad at Kempton over Christmas, where he was able to dominate from the front and produced a good time. However, he has yet to prove his liking for a galloping track and may be more suited to a flat speed track like Kempton. Melon, currently a best-priced 16/1, may represent some each-way value, especially once the major firms offer the Non-Runner No Bet concession (he also has a JLT entry).
As we move full steam ahead into Cheltenham fever, many of the races are wide open, perhaps more so than ever, but the Arkle does not fall into that category. It will go to Ireland, in my opinion, to 1 of the 3 from Leopardstown and for that reason, Melon represents some serious value at 16/1 given his solid record at Cheltenham in recent years.