Andy Gibson's big race review: What next for contenders of the Relkeel Hurdle?

Racing analyst Andy Gibson looks back at Cheltenham's Relkeel Hurdle on New Year's Day, in which he felt there were a few contenders with stamina still to prove for the extended intermediate trip.

Despite racing in an overly keen manner for much of the race, Marie's Rock found plenty from the last to the line to run away with this grade two contest. She is a high-class mare who has now brought some consistency into her performances, with four successes in a row.

She will next head for Cheltenham in March, when it will take a very good Irish-trained mare to beat her.

The possible flip-side to the quality of this performance might be that if a few of her rivals failed to stay this intermediate trip, then she may not have had to achieve as much as it appeared to prevail.

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I thought this performance over hurdles was a big improvement on Dashel Drasher's seasonal debut effort, when he narrowly got the better of an inferior rival at Aintree, and perhaps he benefited from having a few rivals in opposition with stamina to prove.

He earned himself a relatively solo lead and maintained that advantage until after the final hurdle, and although he was no match for the winning mare, he managed to renew his challenge to retake second position on the line.

Two horses stepping up in trip

The horse he beat into third place was First Street, who was having his first try over this longer distance, and one would have to conclude that the jury is still out.

In the Racing Post comments, post-race his trainer could offer no explanation for the poor form shown, but describing this performance as poor form seems quite strange, given he was only beaten on the nod for second place and was also stepping up in trip.

That said, if the others did not stay then he did not finish in front of much, and likewise with the Paul Nicholls-trained Knappers Hill, who had won the Elite Hurdle over two miles round a speed track on officially good to firm ground last time out.

This stern test over an extended two and a half miles on softer ground represented a completely different challenge, and I would suggest there are a few possible explanations for this heavy defeat.

He may not have stayed the trip, he may be best on a flat track, or he may not be as good as he looked last time out. For now, I will remain open minded…

This was a much stronger renewal compared to the 2022 version which Brewin'upastorm may have won but for coming down at the final hurdle.

It is more than possible that he only just gets this trip and consequently paid a price for trying to go with the stayer in front (Dashel Drasher) from the second last hurdle. Conversely, it is difficult to be categorical with any conclusions when dealing with such an inconsistent horse.

Change of tactics may have made the difference

After being backed down to favourite for this Grade 2 contest, I Like To Move It was a beaten horse from the second last hurdle. This was too early in the race to be blaming the extra distance, and consequently, I am happy to see this as a below-par performance rather than a clear sign that he did not stay the two miles and five furlongs.

At the same time, I would not be in a hurry to support him over a similar trip until he shows something different. He is normally ridden prominently and never really seemed happy when asked to race in behind horses here.

Perhaps, this change of tactics was a more crucial variable for him compared with the step up in trip, but either way, I suspect we will see a return to more positive tactics with him next time out.

A strange performance

Botox Has began to drop away quickly from the third last hurdle and looked set to be tailed off from the next obstacle. His was a strange performance as he then consented to close the gap on the field and passed two horses from the approach to the final hurdle to the winning line.

I don't know why he lost his pitch as if something was wrong, but I don't think it had anything whatsoever to do with the drop in distance.

He has been most consistent of late and so I am happy to put this run down more as a blip rather than as a sign of things to come. If he did something similar the next time we see him, it might be time to take another view.

Two who may be better on another day

The two horses finishing in the final two places may be seen to better effect when competing off their ratings in a competitive handicap further down the line.

Langer Dan was given a considerate ride out the back on his way to whatever spring targets his connections have in mind for him, with the Coral Cup or the Martin Pipe looking the most obvious candidates at the moment.

If nothing else, this run will have given him more experience of the Cheltenham track prior to March.

As for Tritonic, he was also held up out the back and never got into contention. His trainer alluded to this being a prep run before having a go at one of the big two-mile handicap hurdle races coming up in the next few weeks.

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