Cheltenham Trials

As we emerge from the depths of winter, trainers enter the home run through to The Festival with championship horses beginning to have their last outings ahead of their March challenge. It was an emotional day at the end of January for the last meeting at Cheltenham ahead of The Festival, Festival Trials Day honouring our lost friend and NH trainer Richard Woollacott. Beer Goggles, formerly trained by him to win the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, ran as intended in the Cleeve Hurdle, unfortunately the son of Oscar giving jockey Richard Johnson a challenge of strength and hanging badly; at one point the champion jockey had both hands on one rein to ensure his mount stayed on the track. Beer Goggles was still leading the field as they rounded the home straight, but the effort of pulling too hard on heavy ground paid its price and he dropped back through the field yet still managed to finish a highly honourable fifth.

Fittingly the staying race, a prep for the World Hurdle, was won by Agrapart, ridden by Lizzie Kelly and trained by her step-father Nick Williams, a West Country-based near neighbour of Woollacott. After victory Kelly paid tribute to her friend, recalling the fact that the only winner she has ridden that was trained outside of her family’s yard was for Woollacott. Agrapart is a dual Grade 2-winning son of Haras de Montaigu’s leading jumps stallion Martaline, who looked in fabulous order on January’s Route des Etalons, an annual open weekend of stud farms staged in Normandy organised by the French Racing and Breeders’ Committee. Montaigu’s owner Giles Forien announced that the 19-year-old son of Linamix is already fully booked several times over for this spring. He stands at a fee of €15,000 and with Coolmore’s Flemensfirth the pair are this year’s highest-priced NH / dual-purpose stallions standing in Europe for 2018. It is the second year in succession that Martaline has stood at the price.

Agrapart’s dam Afragha is an Aga Khan-bred daughter of the good broodmare sire Darshaan and is a half-sister to the dam of the wonderful cross-country performer Balthazar King. Afragha won a three-year-old maiden on the Flat over 1m2f for John Oxx and is a half-sister to Afarka, a Kahyasi Listed winner over hurdles and dam of a Grade 3-placed hurdler. Afragha’s first foal was a winner on the Flat, her third called Afrad, by Linamix, was a successful dual-purpose horse winning over hurdles at three, on the Flat and over hurdles at four, and over fences at five, also placing in the Rendlesham Hurdle (G2). Afragha’s 2002 foal has been her best to date. After winning on the Flat over distances up to 1m7f, Afsoun was sold by the Aga Khan’s team from the Alain de Royer-Dupre’s stable to the Million In Mind Partnership, to be trained by Nicky Henderson. The son of Kahyasi went on to win seven races over hurdles, including two Grade 2s. His best days came when finishing fine thirds in the Champion Hurdle behind Sublimity and in two Aintree Grade 1 hurdles to Detroit City in 2006 and to Al Eile in 2007.

In the interim the horse changed hands as per the Million In Minds’ partnership “lifetime” rule, selling for 270,000gns in 2006 and bought by Trevor Hemming’s Gleadhill House Stud. Afragha also changed hands in this period and her new owner Jean-Marc Lucas bred himself two winning daughters of Poliglote in 2008 and 2009, before Agrapart emerged in 2011, the son of Martaline being the mare’s last recorded foal. Agrapart’s first appearance on the track came under the training arm of Nick Williams being owned by The Gascoigne Brookes Partnership, his racing career starting off as a three-year-old on the Flat in France. He is now the winner of five races, his last two being Grade 2s, and he shows a marked preference for heavy and soft ground. He is a 16-1 chance for the Stayers’ Hurdle, though a supplementary entry needs to be made.

Festival Trials Day was dominated by the French-bred horses – Apple’s Shakira, the Saddler Maker half-sister to Apple’s Jade, winning the Triumph Trail Hurdle for trainer Nicky Henderson and jockey Barry Geraghty, and Frodon taking the Crest Nicholson Handicap Chase under another female West Country-based rider, this year’s conditional sensation Bryony Frost. Frodon holds an entry in the Ryanair Chase and is a 12-1 chance. He is the highest-rated so far by the former Grade 1-winning hurdler and Grade 1-placed chaser Nickname, also sire of the graded winners Yala Enki and Le Mercurey. Frodon also boasts a strong female French NH family being a first foal out of Miss Country, a Country Reel half-sister to the Grade 1 Scilly Isle Novice Chase winner Medermit (Medaaly). Frodon was bought as a foal by Agence FIPs from Haras de Grandcamp – a farm enjoying a strong time of things of late both Flat and NH racing – for €18,000. He ran in France to graded chase level for trainer Guillame Macaire before transferring to Paul Nicholls in 2016. A slick and accurate jumper Frodon is an hugely improving sort, but he will do well at The Festival to challenge fellow French-bred Un De Sceaux (Denham Red), winner of the Ryanair in 2017 and impressive in January’s Clarence House Chase (G1).

Definitly Red did his bit for Irish bloodstock on Festival Trials Day taking the Cotswold Chase (G2) with a gritty staying effort. Trainer Brian Ellison subsequently reported that the son of Definite Article is certainly the best he has trained and that the Gold Cup is the target. Before he ever got to a racecourse, the gelding had three appearances at Goffs NH sales as a foal, yearling and three-year-old, the last show being the most profitable when selling for €13,500. He was reconsigned by Ballynoe Stables a year later at the Cheltenham November Breeze Up when bought by owner PJ Martin for €110,000 for trainer Steve Gollings for whom he won a Listed bumper.  An admirably consistent horse, Definitly Red has won 12 of his 23 starts and, of his completed starts, has only finished out of the first three once when seventh in the Championship bumper. Definitly Red is the best jumper so far by Definite Article, who died in 2012 and sire of the four-time Irish St Leger winner Vinnie Roe.

With the picture for this year’s Gold Cup still looking very mixed, Definitly Red must have every chance of gaining that breakthrough top-level success at championship level in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

 

Author: Sally Duckett

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