SATURDAY saw an expectant Betfair Chase crowd share in Henry de Bromhead’s disappointment as the returning A Plus Tard failed to repeat his brilliance both in last year’s renewal of the weekend’s marquee event and at Cheltenham in March.
However, maybe unknowingly at the time, the Haydock patrons still witnessed a performance of Gold Cup standard as Protektort (176+) announced himself as a pretender to the crown and a serious rival to Galopin Des Champs.
The first indication of the strong time figure is the comparison to the handicap chase over the same distance as the Skelton runner covered the ground 12.8secs or 64 lengths quicker than Fontaine Collonges.
The superior race time was founded on a strong pace set by three-time winner of the race Bristol De Mai (158) who, after winning the early battle with Frodon (158) for the lead, set the field a stern test courtesy of a typical round of sound jumping.
Uncharacteristically, even the normally assured Frodon was placed under pressure at his fences while the winner was foot perfect as he took lengths out of his rivals at times, affording his jockey the luxury of taking a pull at various stages of the contest.
In the same colours, Hitman (155+) was similarly good at his fences when winning the Graduation Chase, producing a performance which warrants his participation in the King George VI Chase on St Stephen’s Day.
Isolating the winners in a three-way comparison from the first fence jumped by Hitman provides the conclusive evidence of this being a top-class performance by Protektorat.
To measure the pace set by Bristol De Mai, my first check point was the last fence with a circuit to run, where the Betfair Chase winner took off 5.6secs or 28 lengths ahead of Hitman who arrived at the obstacle 10 lengths in advance of Fontaine Collonges.
As the gap widened between Hitman and Fontaine Collonges to 25 lengths at the last in the back straight, the conclusion must be Harry Cobden increased the pace in the Graduation Chase as the field covered the back straight.
What I found staggering is because of a succession of prodigious leaps Harry Skelton (on Protektorat) took aim at the same fence 7.3secs or 37 lengths ahead of Hitman.
The Paul Nicholls-trained chaser made inroads into the deficit in the home straight as you would expect having raced over the shorter distance.
However, upon taking a final check at the last fence, before both were eased to varying degrees, Protektorat still held an advantage of 4.9secs or almost 25 lengths over Hitman. Fontaine Collonges cleared the last fence 13.9secs behind the Grade 1 winner and 9.0secs behind Hitman.
Dan Skelton suggested either the Fleur De Lys Chase at Lingfield or Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham as the steppingstone to the Gold Cup.
There is no doubt in my mind the seven-year-old is an improved model this season with his improved jumping the biggest influence. A shade keen early in last year’s Gold Cup, he also rubbed a few on the final circuit when the pace quickened, however Saturday was the opposite as he settled well for Harry Skelton as well as gaining ground at his fences.
Elsewhere on the card, Stainsby Girl (141+) clocked the best time over hurdles on debut for Nick Alexander, who has made a fine start to the new season.
Ridden with confidence by the trainer’s son, the eight-year-old mare didn’t look back once taking up the running passing the stands with a circuit to cover and, despite a mistake at the third last, was always holding her field in posting 91.6secs from the last flight in the back straight.
The distinction of the fastest closing sectional went the way of Botox Has (120+), who stopped the clock at 88.8secs to prevail in a slowly run Betfair Exchanger Stayers Handicap Hurdle. There was also plenty to like about the finishing effort of Tahmuras (126+), as the novice was visually the strongest as he covered the same ground in 89.1secs.
My final observation on Haydock was the ground on the hurdles track being much quicker than the official description of soft, good to soft in places. Therefore, I would allow Good Risk At All (101+) another opportunity when returned to slower ground.
THE ground may have been the main topic of conversation at Ascot over the weekend, however there were also a notable performance by Thunder Rock (134+), Your Darling (147+) and Boothill (147+), who all impressed over fences.
Your Darling was value for more than his winning margin so could have rated even higher than the career best time figure he posted on Friday. Visibly eased in the last 100yds, Ben Pauling’s gelding still covered the last half mile 0.6secs (three lengths) quicker than Larry, who won the following handicap. The relevant data being 59.1secs and 59.7secs respectively.
Thunder Rock covered his closing sectional in 57.6secs to post a time figure not far short of Your Darling, in doing so Olly Murphy’s novice has put himself in line for a step up to graded company.
Boothill took full advantage of Edwardstone’s withdrawal to win the handicap chase on Saturday and his winning time figure also suggests he is worth his place in a graded contest on his next assignment. So Scottish gave valiant chase and was clear in second; he will remain well handicapped even after the rise in the handicap which is heading his way.