Saturday’s Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham is often a source of pointers for the main event in March.
The opening Triumph Hurdle Trial went to Defi Du Seuil 12 months ago, and the Philip Hobbs-trained juvenile followed up in the festival’s four-year-old showpiece in impressive fashion. In 2015 the Trials Day opener went to Peace And Co. He too was successful at the festival, though Henderson’s talented hurdler failed to progress, much to everyone’s surprise.
Nicky Henderson is responsible for Saturday’s favourite. Apple’s Shakira has already won twice at the track and is one of the leading contenders for the main event in March. A daughter of Saddler Maker, she’s looked a future star and will have conditions to suit this weekend. She’ll take all the beating.
The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly Neptune) is another that’s likely to reveal leading festival contenders. Wholestone continued his Cheltenham love-affair when winning comfortably a year ago, before a cracking third place finish in the Albert Bartlett some six weeks later. He’s back on Saturday contesting the Cleeve Hurdle.
In 2016 it was Yanworth who romped to success in the trial, before meeting his match at the Festival when chasing home Yorkhill in the Neptune. Back in 2013 a stellar renewal was won by At Fishers Cross. He was chased home by The New One, with Coneygree back in third. Whisper was a distance back in fourth. At Fishers Cross went on to win the Albert Bartlett, whilst The New One landed the Neptune. A couple of years later it was Coneygree’s time to shine, when as a novice chaser he led all the way to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He too is back this weekend contesting the Cotswold Chase.
As for Saturday’s renewal, it’s the master of Seven Barrows that again appears to hold the aces. Henderson has three entered, though Santini and Pacific De Baune look most likely to line up. The former is priced-up as favourite having impressed at Newbury in December. He defeated stablemate Chef Des Obeaux on that occasion, and he has since romped home at Kempton.
The Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle is one of Saturday’s features, and is regularly a pointer to the Stayers’ at The Festival. Unowhatimeanharry was successful 12 months back, though could only manage third behind the ill-fated Nichols Canyon when returning in March. Thistlecrack made no mistake when taking the trial in 2016 before destroying the field in the main event several weeks later. In 2015 it was Saphir Du Rheu that landed the Cleeve, though he too came up just short in the ‘big one’ when runner-up to the surprise package Cole Harden.
None-other than Big Buck’s was twice successful in the Cleeve Hurdle during his dominant period as leading staying hurdler. Beer Goggles would prove an emotional winner this weekend, following the tragic loss of trainer Richard Woollacott. Cheltenham regular Wholestone is also fancied to go close. The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained seven-year-old comes to life at Prestbury Park.
Another intriguing contender is Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar. He’s back over hurdles after failing to impress over the larger obstacles. There’s no doubting he’s a talented racehorse, but he has plenty to prove, not only his ability to see-out this sort of trip.
The trainer’s son Joe Tizzard, said yesterday: “He's in real good form and runs in the Cleeve on Saturday. He hasn't really done a lot wrong over fences, but he's a young horse and there will be plenty of time to go back chasing with him.”
One race on Saturday that rarely proves insightful with the Festival on the horizon, is the Cotswold Chase. Many Clouds was a thrilling winner 12 months ago, only to collapse and tragically die moments after one of his most memorable victories.
Though competitive, it’s hard to imagine a Gold Cup winner coming from this latest renewal, despite one of the contenders being the highly rated Bristol De Mai. Ground conditions will be in his favour, and should he win well, there’s no doubting he’ll be back on many peoples fancied list for the ‘Blue Riband’ in March. Coneygree looks to get back on track, though punters faith in the ex-champ is shaky at best. The Last Samuri looks an intriguing proposition and receives weight from plenty of his opponents. The Grand National is the target, but he’ll likely run a huge race here.
It’s sure to be a cracking day, with pointers aplenty as The Festival draws ever near.