It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.
The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.
Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.
So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?
Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.
Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.
Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.
One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.
Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.
Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.
North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.
This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.
Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.