A quick cup of tea, or metaphorical suck on an orange segment, as we change ends - or courses - for the second half of the Festival: it's out with the Old Course and in with the New for Thursday and Friday.
Thursday's highlight is the Stayers' Hurdle, supported by the Ryanair Chase, and it is a tough punting card. We commence proceedings with a novice chase, the...
This intermediate trip novices' chase has rather diluted the fields for the shorter Arkle and the longer RSA, but is beginning to establish itself as a quality race in its own right. Inaugurated as recently as 2011, the Irish have so far claimed five of the first six renewals and again have a strong hand.
Their main hope will be 2016 Neptune winner, Yorkhill, who bids to give Willie Mullins a third straight win and a fourth in all. Yorkhill was a very good hurdler, as shown not just by that G1 Neptune score but also by victory in the G1 Mersey Novices' Hurdle at the Aintree Festival. Over the top (that is, had too many hard races) when beaten at Punchestown he has returned this season with back-to-back novice chase wins, most recently in a Grade 3.
A record of eight from nine and an undefeated chase CV is impressive, but it doesn't quite tell the full story. You see, Yorkhill has a bit of a problem: he's not a very natural jumper. Clearly he's effective, as attested to by his record, but this will be a big step up into Grade 1 chasing territory. At odds around 6/4, I'm keen to take him on mindful that if he jumps proficiently he will probably win.
Top Notch is apparently not very big but he is well named as evidenced by a Grade 1 win on his most recent start in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown over this sort of trip. Fifth in last year's Champion Hurdle was the pinnacle of a very good hurdling career, and he's now unbeaten in his last four over fences. With a versatile run style and, to date, an efficient jumping style he looks very hard to keep out of the frame granted a clear run.
Paul Nicholls' Politologue has the same chase rating, 152, as Top Notch. But whereas the latter has yet to 'grow into' his hurdle peak of 158, the former has already surpassed his timber-topping figure. Preference is for Top Notch.
Ireland's second choice, according to the market at least, is Noel Meade's Disko. His Grade 1 Flogas Chase win is high class form and probably makes him the highest rated chaser in the field. I say 'probably' because he doesn't have a published Irish mark despite being rated 151 going into that contest. If he handles good ground as well as he does the soft turf on which he's been plying his trade, he has a very strong place chance at least.
Flying Angel swerved the Arkle in favour of this but the form of the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard - just one win from 57 runners in the past 30 days - is a real concern.
If N T-D is in poor form, Nicky Henderson is bouncing after an excellent start to his Cheltenham. In such context, Kilcrea Vale can be expected to run at least to form. Outpaced in a three horse race at Fontwell over two miles he stayed on well to see off the questionable resolution of As De Mee. But it is his December defeat of Zamdy Man, by 19 lengths, that catches the eye. That horse has gone on to score twice more since, having also won his prior start so, while Zamdy Man may have run out of stamina (all wins at two miles, defeat at half a mile further), it is still a solid piece of form.
In truth, it's a stone or so below that of the best of these so it is more the price that makes him of interest. He's currently around a 25/1 chance. But five of the six winners of this race have come from the top four in the betting and I'd expect that 'trend' to continue this year.
Selection against Yorkhill:
Disko e/w 5/1 general
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A huge field of handicappers, most of whom will step forward today for one reason or another. Yikes. I'll not pretend I know what's going to happen except to say that Gordon Elliott is in great form and has a strong team.
Jury Duty may be the pick of the Elliott runners. He contested the Chepstow qualifier, where he was well enough beaten to only rise two pounds in the handicap. He was second in a similar race at the Punchestown Festival last April and, though 25 pounds higher now, he's obviously progressive and more will be expected here than the last day.
Debra Hamer's wonderful Tobefair heads the market. He comes here on a remarkable EIGHT-timer, having stormed up the weights from 81 to 143. And if you saw the way he fought back when challenged last time you'd be reckless to dismiss him. It's a terrific story and the romantic in me hopes he wins again. The hard-nosed punter in me cannot get involved at 7/1.
Second in the Exeter qualifier, and in his last three starts - and five of his last seven - was Rocklander. That's consistent form if not a great win record, and his handicap mark has predictably suffered as a result. At the start of the septet of ones and twos, Tom George's runner was rated 113. He is now rated 140. He is clearly still improving and travelling strongly off a quick pace might allow him to finally get his neck in front again. 16/1 is interesting.
Golden Doyen was value for more than the head by which he beat For Good Measure in the Cheltenham qualifier, showing his ability to handle track, trip and ground in the process. Still only six, this former Cheltenham Grade 2 winner should go well again.
And last year's winning connections bid to repeat the feat with Presenting Percy. I backed this a while back at 10/1, which is barely more than the price he's currently available at. His win last time was highly impressive, sauntering clear on heavy ground. Before that he'd run fourth in the Punchestown qualifier, but he's been shoved up sixteen pounds by the handicapper since. That's a lot and might just do for him in spite of a probable preference for the faster conditions he'll encounter here and a progressive profile.
Loads more to consider, as always.
Hopeful pair at prices against the field:
Rocklander 16/1 e/w
Golden Doyen 16/1 e/w
The 'dead eight' for this intermediate Grade 1. Un De Sceaux has long been favoured, but while the expected fast ground will be less of a challenge to his stamina, the expected fast ground will not suit him as well as softer. In truth, though he may win, he is crying out to be taken on. (I know I've said that a lot but seriously, this is not the Williefest it normally is. Hmm, that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean..!)
I quite like Uxizandre as a horse with a versatile run style and a former winner, but I don't like a top offer of 4/1 with questions to answer about how much ability he retains after almost two years off the track. He ran well to pick up the pieces last time behind Un De Sceaux but whether he's flattered by that, or whether the form is as good as first glance, or whether he will 'bounce' are imponderables not sufficiently factored into his price.
Between the pair in the market is the highly likeable Empire Of Dirt. Winner of the Festival Plate last term, he's stepped up into Grade 1 company since when a staying on second in the Irish Gold Cup. That was over three miles but was very much a sprint finish after they lolloped around for two and three quarters miles. The stiffer test here, on a circuit he knows and loves, ought to be perfect and I'm not concerned about the drop back in trip even though I would have loved him to take his chance in the Gold Cup itself.
I think a lot of the grief Josses Hill gets for his jumping is a little harsh. It's true that in his novice season he generally deserved his 'snooker table' monicker, but he still managed to finish third in the Arkle. Disappointing in two of his three starts last season, he's looked back to his best this term winning twice at around this range. Even his fifth of five last time is a fair effort, given that his stamina in that race - the King George over three miles at Kempton - ran out, and he was only beaten seven lengths.
Whilst I don't want to back him, I also don't think he's the wrong price. He has a decent chance of making the frame.
Sub Lieutenant is a key collateral player in the Gold Cup picture. He's beaten Outlander, and finished close up to both Djakadam and Sizing John in his last three starts. Effective on good ground, he'll stay all right but his liking for the track is an unknown. This will be only the second time Henry de Bromhead's 8yo has left Ireland, having finished fourth in a Grade 1 at Aintree two years ago.
The other three have plenty to prove just now.
Empire Of Dirt 10/3 general
I previewed this a week or so ago, and those thoughts - including trends, pace and tips - can be found here:
The Plate is the race that refuses to be pigeonholed. Winners have been aged from five to eleven in the last 20 years, and from the top of the weights to out of the handicap. Most notable, perhaps, is that ten winners this century were returned at 16/1 or bigger and only one since 1999 was returned in single figures. Don't be afraid to have a swipe at a price, and tread carefully if you want to get stuck into a shortie. After that, I'm afraid I have little further to offer.
The one they're expected to come for is Gordon Elliott's Diamond King. A winner at the Festival over hurdles last year, he's been novice chasing this campaign including in Grade 1 company. With 158-rated Village Vic in the line up, and anchoring the weights, Diamond King has a 'racing weight' of 11-04 and will relish the fast ground. But he'll need luck in running and to progress to his hurdle mark to prevail again. He's a short price but probably not the wrong price.
Venetia Williams is a trainer to keep an eye on in this. She's won it three times since Idole First notched a 12/1 success a decade again, with the other two scorers being extremely punter-friendly prices (33/1 and 50/1). Venetia is doubly represented this time around, with a pair of French imports, Tango De Juilley and Cold March.
The former added further lustre to La Williams' Plate palmarès when running a game second last year (at 33/1) behind Empire Of Dirt. The winner there heads for the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase, for which he is second favourite, but Tango has not been sighted since. Only a pound higher than a year ago, he has an obvious chance of making the frame given reservations about the long absence are mitigated by his eleven month hiatus before that silver last term.
Cold March loves fast ground, and comes here off the back of a win at this sort of range in a Class 2 Musselburgh handicap chase. That flat right-handed track is nothing like Cheltenham's undulating left-leaner and, on the face of it at least, there is little in Cold March's form to suggest he'll be better suited to this test. Indeed, three prior visits to the Cotswolds have produced a form string of P65.
As unpromising as that might appear, he's actually stayed on well the last twice over two miles. The extended range then is very much in his favour and he might be worth a small chance at a big price.
Last year's winner was the first for a very long time - more than 25 years - to be trained in Ireland, so it may pay to remain apprehensive when considering one from that side of the Sea, particularly at shorter prices. Empire Of Dirt at least had the safety net of a 16/1 quote, a similar price to Road To Respect, in the same ownership. Still only six, Noel Meade's son of Gamut seems to have been around for a long time, and has contested a couple of Grade 1 chases this season.
Fourth to Coney Island and third to Min, beaten less than ten lengths both times, reads well enough in the context of a handicap from a mark of 145 and at 20/1. This will be his first trip outside Ireland, which is a question mark, and I'm also not completely sure he wants fast ground, but the price justifies the penny play.
The Pipes, father Martin and son David, have a peerless record in this - Martin won it four times and David has already scored thrice - so obviously anything they run must be respected. What is surprising is that only two of their collective septet were strongly fancied: 7/4 Majadou and 9/2 Salut Flo supported by winners at 25/1, 20/1, 18/1, 14/1, and 12/1. To this year, and Pipe Jr. saddles Starchitect, a lightly raced novice having only his fourth spin over fences.
He won his last hurdle race, a handicap, off his Plate perch of 143, and he looks capable of stepping forward on that. Ground and trip will be fine for a fellow that finisher fifth and fourth in handicaps at the last two Festivals, and he seems sure to go well granted luck in running. The team already have a handicap chase on the board this week, courtesy of repeat Ultima hero, Un Temps Pour Tout.
Many, many more with chances...
One from the top:
Starchitect 8/1 general
Two from anywhere else:
Tango De Juilley 20/1 general
Road To Respect 20/1 general
The newest and, perhaps, least welcome race at the Festival, this for many will be an excuse to get a beer or a bun. It's not my thing, as you may have gathered, but I might change my mind if I can find the winner. That man Mullins won the inaugural running last year with Mares' Hurdle third, Limini, and he again has a strong hand. Pick of his three entries looks to be the very talented Let's Dance, as reflected by a market price of 6/4.
She has a perfectly progressive profile, with wins in maiden, Listed, Grade 3 and most recently Grade 2 company, and comes here the choice of Ruby Walsh. He very rarely makes the wrong call, which is as much a vote of confidence for this mare as it is a negative for stable mates, Airlie Beach and Asthuria.
Let's Dance gets the extended two mile trip well - stays further in fact - and has form on top of the ground. She's been impressive the last twice and it will take a good one to beat her.
Airlie Beach has run up her own sequence of seven straight wins in an unbeaten start to her career. That magnificent seven is headlined by her most recent victory, against the boys in the Grade 1 Royal Bond. She's proven on good ground and will probably try to make all, something that will require her shaking off the early attentions of a couple of other habitual trailblazers. That's a knock against her otherwise very sound place credentials.
The trio is completed by Asthuria, who might just have had the better of a protracted battle with Shattered Love (ran poorly in Wednesday's Neptune) when taking a nasty looking fall at the final flight last time. That was a second fall in a row and, talented though she unquestionably is, her propensity to impersonate Eden Hazard when getting any sort of pressure 'inside the box' - or at the business end of a race if you prefer - is sub-optimal in the cauldron of a Festival heat.
Forge Meadow was 13 lengths behind Shattered Love in the above race so, while her jumping is better, you'd have to question whether she has as much raw talent even if she did pick up an average-looking Grade 2 last time.
The best of the home team might be Warren Greatrex's La Bague Au Roi. She's won six of her seven races to date, and is proven on fast ground and going left-handed. It's simply whether she's good enough. Actually, there is a second question: she likes to get on with things which, as previously mentioned, is a trait seen in a number of her rivals. It could be pretty quick on the front end.
Gordy's Barra has some interesting form, including an eight length fifth of ten in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novices' Hurdle. Racing against the boys there, she showed plenty before weakening out of things from the back of the last. The quicker turf and furlong shorter trip are in her favour, and we know her trainer is in great form.
Let's Dance 6/4 general
Each way at a price:
Barra 16/1 Hills, BetVictor
We close day three with an amateur riders' handicap chase over three and a quarter miles. The usual comments apply about siding with an experienced jockey: Jamie Codd has won four of the last eight Kim Muir's (!), as well as yesterday's Cross Country Chase against the pro's, and only two claiming jockeys have won since 2005.
Last year's Pertemps Final winner, Mall Dini, will find this much more to his liking than the two and a half mile heats he's contested, and his trainer looks to have set him up with every chance off a mark just four pounds higher than that big Festival handicap victory twelve months ago.
Another that was 'jobbed up' last year is Squouateur (almost as difficult to type as to pronounce). He was sent off at the preposterous odds of 9/4 in last year's Martin Pipe in a field of 24. Trouble in running means his final position of seventh can be marked up a bit, but shame on you if you backed him at that price.
He's been brought to the boil quietly again this term and gets the first time services of that man, the Codd-father. A patient ride looks assured with his current price affording some cushion against poor luck in running.
At (much) bigger prices, Ian Williams' Forgotten Gold ticks plenty of boxes. A lover of rattling conditions - he won on firm last time - he's been second on three of his four visits to the course, including twice over course and distance. Sure he has plenty of weight, and yes, he's not hidden himself from the handicapper. But he's 33/1 and ought to run his race again for a trainer, Tom George, in great nick.
This is another race in which the Pipes have looked to get a gamble landed, and they have hit their mark enough times to pay for the losers. In 2003, 2004, 2011, and 2015, a Pipe-trained horse prevailed, the first two at huge prices. This time they're triple-handed with La Vaticane, Father Edward and Doctor Harper. The good Doctor was sent off 4/1 favourite last year but showed little before decanting his pilot two out. He's returned a couple of times since, including when second on New Year's Day, and is five pounds higher now than then. Crack amateur, Lisa O'Neill, who was seen to impressive effect when guiding Tiger Roll home earlier in the week, gets the leg up.
Father Edward is a conundrum: a winner on his stable debut four starts ago he has shown zero since. Clearly capable in the right circumstances I can't even bring myself to back him at 40/1.
The lightly raced mare, La Vaticane, is the third string to the Pipe bow. She's also good on her day, and less bad than Father Edward when it's not her day, but she does have a lot of weight to carry.
The local plot in the race is surely Neil Mulholland's Southfield Royale. Fourth in last year's National Hunt Chase when already awarded a rating of 147, he gets in here off just 141. This has been the target all along so, while he has to prove his fitness after just one (poor) run since last April, he is likely to go close.
Loads of others doubtless lined up for this day...
One from the top:
Squouateur 7/1 Skybet, Coral
Two bigger prices:
Doctor Harper 16/1 Coral
Forgotten Gold 33/1 general
Three down, and just one to go after this hopefully lucky seven races. It's Gold Cup day next!
p.s. what are your Day 3 fancies? Leave a comment below and share your wisdom