It's the last chance for Festival contenders to get valuable course experience prior to the mid-March jamboree and, though the forecast soft ground has scared off a few, there remains depth and quality within the relatively short fields.
Four races are covered on Channel 4 from the Gloucestershire venue, and below are a few thoughts that may assist the winner-finding quest...
1.50 Betbright Cup Chase (Grade 2) 3m 1 1/2f
The first telly race is a belter, featuring as it does four potential Gold Cup aspirants in its field of six. They include the current third favourite in some lists, Many Clouds; last year's winner of this race and Gold Cup third, The Giant Bolster; and RSA Chase 2nd, Smad Place. Oh, and the Ryanair Chase winner and perennial Grade 1 podium placer, Dynaste.
The trends are a bit wishy-washy, with winners coming from all age groups and finishing all over the show last time out, so don't pay too much heed to them. Far better to get stuck into the form with such a small and select group.
Looking first at how the race might pan out, it's instructive to note that there is no obvious front runner in the contest. Black Thunder has led in the past and, in lieu of any other pace maker, he may set the fractions.
If not, the prominent racers, The Giant Bolster and Smad Place - and perhaps even Many Clouds, for whom a stamina test is a plus - could share the duties.
Dynaste is a deserving favourite on the basis of both his rating - the highest in the field by three - and his track record, which includes a win and a second over intermediate distances at the Festival. The win was, as mentioned, in the Ryanair, and that hints at the concern here: stamina.
True, Dynaste has won over this distance, in the 2013 Mildmay Novices' Chase, and he's run some game races in defeat - most notably when a close second to Silviniaco Conti in the Betfred Bowl over the same Aintree strip.
But he has been found wanting by at least one rival more often than not at this range, and the combination of soft ground and Cheltenham's undulations could find him out again. I'm against him in the Gold Cup market because I don't think he'll stay, and I suspect this race will persuade connections to head to a defense of their Ryanair crown.
If I'm wrong, I won't be backing the winner of this event. If I'm right, there might be a smidge of value against the fav.
Smad Place and Many Clouds vie for second favouritism, with the former taking more early market support than the latter. They're rated eight pounds apart, but Smad Place receives that same allowance from Many Clouds (and indeed all bar Theatre Guide).
Having run a neck second to O'Faolain's Boy in the RSA - a race in which Many Clouds was brought down - Smad Place clearly acts on the track. That however was on good ground, and this is soft, and there is the small matter of twenty lengths to bridge between the pair on Hennessy running (Many Clouds having held a fitness edge that day).
On Smad Place's only other run on soft turf, he finished third in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow, but he's won and finished second on heavy, so there ought to be no grumbles about the ground.
It might just be that he's a touch one paced - albeit at a very high level - which is demonstrated in a record of just one win from eleven Graded race starts.
Many Clouds loves soft ground and is progressive this season, in quite a big way. He should be winning this if he's to be a serious Gold Cup contender, despite it being a furlong shorter trip and likely a less frenetic pace than the Blue Riband itself. The worry with him is that he's run two disappointing races here, ostensibly at least.
In actual fact, for as stout a stayer as he is, ninth in the Champion Bumper was far from a poor run; and being brought down in the RSA is hardly the fault of the horse. That does leave a doubt as to how well he'll handle the course, though the reservation is mitigated somewhat by the alacrity with which he took to the stiff finish at Carlisle earlier this term.
He looks the most progressive in the field, but has six pounds to find with Dynaste on official ratings.
The Giant Bolster should run his race. He's actually the second highest rated here, and his Cheltenham record is excellent. It includes a win in this last year, and a second, third and fourth in the Gold Cup itself. He's not quite so good on soft ground, though, and has been in no sort of form this season.
I'd be (pleasantly, apart from punting-wise) surprised if he's able to double up on last year's win, but if he does get beaten, he could be a very attractive place bet for the Gold Cup itself where, on quicker ground, he ought to be a different proposition entirely.
Paul Nicholls' Black Thunder could take them along, and he too has been progressive this season, though not as strikingly as Many Clouds. What is striking is that in two starts at this track, he's fallen both times. Still, trip and turf will be fine, and if he gets into a nice rhythm on the lead, his jumping may be put under less pressure than otherwise.
Nicholls continues in excellent form, and though Black Thunder has twelve pounds to find on ratings, he may just be best suited by the combination of conditions. 8/1 could offer a run for small money.
Theatre Guide won a graduation chase last time, but his best form - which leaves him with a stone and more to find - is either over shorter or on quicker.
A small bet on Black Thunder might be interesting.
2.25 Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 2m5f
An uncompetitive looking handicap - if there are any uncompetitive handicaps at Cheltenham - with plenty of course form on display. Most of it, it should be said, is uninspiring. Indeed, the field boasts just two course wins from 45 collective starts here.
One minor exception to that rule is Walkon, a horse that is normally best fresh, and who comes here off a trio of miserable efforts. Still, he was fifth in the Byrne Group Plate in the 2013 Festival, and has dropped five pounds below that mark.
Over the same course and distance, he should run well, though connections may have more than an eye to another Festival tilt. His strength or otherwise in the market should tell us more.
Paul Nicholls' Easter Day is favourite, on the basis of some very smart novice form last season, including a defeat of the subsequent RSA Chase winner. He would have needed the run last time when returning from a year off and, in the circumstances, did well enough to be a close up third of four, Walkon labouring behind.
With the likes of Annacotty, Sew On Target, and Little Jon in the field, Nick Scholfield may have to reign Easter Day back behind the early pace, but it looks as though that could suit optimally.
He's sure to step forward for that first run in a year, and is the runner likely to have the most still to come. As such, he's a fairly solid option, if not terribly exciting at around 3/1.
Soft ground and this sort of trip could be ideal for Annacotty, who is the other with most to offer as far as I'm concerned. He'll need to be careful not to get burnt out in a speed duel, but if he can rate his energies, he too has some progression and looks a fairly enticing backup play at around 8/1.
The rest look varying degrees of too old, too slow, or too old and too slow.
3.00 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 4 1/2f
A cracker of a heat, and one which is sure to shuffle the markets for both the race of the same name at the Festival, and the longer Albert Bartlett. (It's a beautifully classless arena where two staying races are named after an investment fund and a brand of potato, isn't it?!)
The bookies have Dan Skelton's Value At Risk as short as 6/4 favourite in a gathering of the form lines where unexposed stayers abound. Despite his undoubted class, Value At Risk has run neither a fast time (according to Peter May's figures) nor has he much experience of hurdling in public.
He can win, clearly, but he's no kind of bet at the price.
In a race where very small stakes are the order of the day, I'd be prepared to take a chance on Colin Tizzard's probable third string, Thistlecrack. An easy winner of a fairly ordinary novice hurdle in heavy ground a week ago, if he's over those exertions, the form of his fifth in a Listed bumper at Ascot is working out pretty well.
Both those runs were over a flat two miles, but this son of Kayf Tara, out of an Ardross mare, is bred to stay. Mike Legg, the yard's conditional, retains the ride and clearly knows how to get the best from Thistlecrack who, at 20/1, is more appealing for a throwaway wager than most of the others. He can be backed with quarter the odds place terms at bet365, so if each way is your game, they should receive your custom.
3.35 Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2) 3m
A race robbed of some of its lustre by the withdrawal of Beat That, it still looks a strong contest that will take some winning.
Failed chaser Saphir Du Rheu heads the market, wearing the same colours as another errant fencer did when he rocked up here in 2009. That lad was called Big Buck's, and he went on to win four World Hurdles and two Cleeve Hurdles.
It is, of course, expecting a lot of Saphir Du Rheu to win even one World Hurdle, let alone a sequence. But if he's to do that, he likely needs to bag this en route. His task has been made easier by the defection of Beat That, and the further absences of other Hendo horses such as Blue Fashion and Whisper, either of which could have run here. (I simply don't understand what Nicky Henderson's problem with actually running his horses in races is. It's quite bizarre and, as an owner, I wouldn't be standing for it no matter how good my horse was. Let them run, for .... 's sake!!)
Anyway, ranting aside, the remaining quintet comprise old stagers like Olofi and more pertinently Reve De Sivola; and young bucks such as Cole Harden and Un Temps Pour Tout.
Saphir first, though. He looked a stayer of some repute when claiming the Welsh Champion Hurdle - a limited handicap over two and a half miles - beating Whisper while spotting him six pounds. The exploits of the second have polished the form somewhat, but it should be kept in mind that Whisper has himself improved dramatically - from 147 to 164 - in the interim.
Saphir Du Rheu's post-Ffos Las rating of 165 looked inflated, even if a next time out defeat was more likely down to the race coming too soon than the quality of the opposition. Nevertheless, he was beaten as the 2/5 favourite that day and hasn't been seen over timber since.
Un Temps Pour Tout has had just three runs since his £400,000 (yes, four hundred thousand; no, he doesn't have any reproductive equipment) acquisition in late 2013. This will be his first run at three miles and sire stats suggest he should appreciate it.
He'll need to, because on form he has nine pounds to find with Saphir after weight allowances are accounted for.
Coming out on the same rating, allowing for weight concessions, is Reve De Sivola, as hardy a stayer as there is in training. He out-gutsed Zarkandar the last day to claim a third Long Walk Hurdle, and the five week break since should be fine for him.
Soft or preferably heavy ground is ideal, and he sets the standard on this strip despite a sub-par effort in the race last year. 6/1 probably understates his case without being too exciting as a wager.
Cole Harden was convincingly demolished by Un Temps Pour Tout in the Ascot mud a year ago, but distances can become quickly exaggerated in heavy ground, especially when the horse being distanced has made the running. Still, it is hard to foresee the hare beating the tortoise here either, notwithstanding that Cole Harden has - according to the official rater at least - improved 26 pounds in between times.
He'll lead, and Reve will follow, with the rest biding their time until the final mile, no doubt. This is a race for Saphir Du Rheu to lose according to the form book, and I'll be taking a watching brief. As I said, if there is a sliver of value, I suspect it is in the old boy running his race while the younger guns fail to match their hype.
That, in other words, means Reve De Sivola at 6/1.
Good luck with your wagers.
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