In a sport almost entirely dominated by the southern super stables of Nicholls, Henderson, Pipe, Hobbs, and O’Neill, the northern National Hunt circuit was in need of a shining light and on Saturday at Sandown it appeared.
Step forward Norton trainer John Quinn and the talented mare Aurore D’estruval.
Through the mud at Sandown sluiced a real glimmer of hope for Yorkshire racing as Aurore D’estruval laid down a firm marker with a comprehensive victory in the 32Red.com Mares listed hurdle to propel herself to near the head of the market for Grade 1 Mares Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
Despite being slightly easy in the betting and conceding 8lbs to nearly all of her rivals in treacherous conditions, Aurore D’estruval was sent off the 6/4 favourite for her first attempt at two miles and four furlongs.
With the champion jockey AP McCoy aboard, victory never looked in doubt as she travelled sweetly and jumped economically before the champ asked her for effort after the final flight, which she dually obliged to come clear by two lengths.
Dark Spirit wasin second and the well -backed and previous year’s runner-up Mischievous Milly a further 3-and-a-half lengths back in third.
Having previously finished second to Paul Nicholls’ main Champion Hurdle hope Irving in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle up at Newcastle linking with a victory at Wetherby, the North Yorkshire handler will now give his super-mare a nine-week break and bring her back fresh for the Festival.
He said: “She’s come out of the race fine, but she won’t have another run before Cheltenham. I don’t think she needs one in truth and it turned into a hard enough race in very gluey ground.
“It’s only nine weeks away anyway, so we’ll freshen her up for that. After Cheltenham, there are plenty of other nice races for her in the spring, too.”
With the Quinn stable still suffering from the unfortunate loss of two of its stars in the form of JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame and Scottish Champion Hurdle winner Cockney Sparrow in the months prior to Christmas, the racing community in North Yorkshire will be firmly aboard the Aurore D’estruval bandwagon as it steamrolls in with a realistic chance of claiming the crown to become Queen of Cheltenham.
That is especially with the six-time champion Quevega now retired. She is as short as 5-2 with one firm but 9-2 is still available.
With so much top-class racing over Christmas it was almost impossible to keep tabs on it all, but here’s a brief round-up of performances and perspective targets.
Silviniaco Conti won the King George VI doing handstands and will finally prove his critics wrong by landing the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Sprinter Sacre showed signs of his usual zest in a racecourse gallop and believe will win the Clarence House Chase at Ascot on January 17 before winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase in a canter.
Hurricane Fly claimed his 21st Grade 1 success at Leopardstown, but I feel he’ll again come up short in the Champion Hurdle as his stablemate Faugheen, who won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, will win in a tight finish.
Finally I feel that Rock On Ruby, who won his fourth race at Prestbury Park on New Year’s Day, will get the biggest cheer of the week when he just holds on to win the World Hurdle at his spiritual home.
If only it was that easy.
The feature race on Saturday at Kempton is the ever-tricky conundrum that is the Lanzarote Hurdle.
The one to take note of here is the Charlie Longsdon runner Kilcooley, who got within six lengths of the subsequent winner and well-touted L’ami Serge when running at Newbury two runs ago.
Kilcooley has since come out and bolted up by 23 lengths in a handicap at Haydock in his favoured wet conditions in which he is likely to encounter again on Saturday with the forecast rain.
Charlie Longsdon’s gelding is a rapidly improving horse and despite the steep rise in the handicap to a mark of 155 he should still improve beyond that.
Kilcooley - Lanzarote Hurdle, Kempton, Saturday 8/1.