Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Four Preview, Tips

And so to the fourth quarter of a unique Cheltenham Festival, and Gold Cup day. The main event looks a cracker, Al Boum Photo facing a strong challenge in his bid for a Gold Cup hat-trick not seen since Best Mate in 2002 to 2004. But we start at the polar opposite end of the jumping spectrum with the four-year-old hurdlers in the...

1.20 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

Fields have been smaller for this race since the inception of the Fred Boodles but this Covid-19 behind closed doors chapter sees the smallest entry for many a long year - certainly since 1997. Like many races at the Festival, the Triumph represents a crossing of the Anglo-Irish swords and, this year, the evidence of Tuesday suggests that Ireland has the upper hand. Not only did their older novices run 1-2 (and would have been 3 but for a last flight unship) in the Supreme, more pertinently their four-year-olds ran 1-2 in the Boodles/Fred Winter.

On that, granted, limited evidence, then, it seems as if Irish horses might be favoured. A battle for market leadership since the Adonis between Tritonic, winner of that Kempton race, and Zanahiyr, long-term ante-post jolly, seems to have finally settled in favour of the latter, the punting pendulum having briefly swung in Tritonic's direction.

Zanahiyr, trained out of Cullentra House, has won his last four, beginning with a maiden victory on the flat and ending with a Grade 2 win on St Stephen's/Boxing Day (does nothing have a single identity any more?). Any concerns about the longish absence since Christmas are partially dispelled by the seventh and last placed runner from that race, Jeff Kidder, who hadn't raced since but still managed to win the Boodles.

But this lad, a son of Nathaniel, had already advertised his top table credentials with a scintillating performance on the clock when, according to Simon Rowlands in his ATR Sectional Spotlight piece, he ran close to ten seconds - around fifty, 5-0, lengths - faster than Ballyadam (second in the Supreme) over the same Fairyhouse course and distance. In case you think that may have been a function of Ballyadam's race being slow, there were two other events over the same trip that day: the £38k handicap was won by Advanced Virgo off a mark of 121 (carrying just 9-04 allowing for his rider's claim) seven seconds (about 35 lengths) slower and the next time out 13 length Grade 3 winner, Grand Paradis, won his maiden hurdle by nine lengths in a time 4.5 seconds (circa 22 lengths) slower than Zanahiyr.

If that is verbose, consider this: the second horse there was Saint Sam, beaten in the Boodles only by Jeff Kidder giving that one a stone. Saint Sam got closer in the Boxing Day Grade 2 but was still 7 1/2 lengths in debt to Zanahiyr whilst also getting three pounds.

Let me be more succinct: Zanahiyr is the best four-year-old novice in Ireland, and the Irish four-year-old novices appear to be a fair bit better than the British ones. He ought to win this all other things being equal.

The Brits were a ramshackle crew - relatively speaking of course, I'd love to own the worst of them! - until Tritonic dished up twice against Casa Loupi, latterly by ten lengths. Casa Loupi let the team down a bit when failing to win at Stratford earlier in the week as an odds on shot, his rider losing his irons when he had probably already lost the race.

Sometimes you have to take a view, and my view is that Zanahiyr is different league to Tritonic, for all that the latter has a good turn of foot. This looks like it will be run at a pretty honest pace in spite of the small field - both Quilixios and the rag Talking About You generally lead - and I expect that to suit the Irish challenger.

It's not a two horse race, though. Quilixios himself has won all four career starts, the first of which was in France before changing hands privately to Cheveley Park Stud. A recent stable switch to Henry de Bromhead won't check his momentum but he does have a tough task holding Zanahiyr at bay. Still, he should have first run on that one turning in.

Adagio ran a fine race when doing plenty in a pace meltdown affair before conceding to Duffle Coat, a stable mate of Zanahiyr and, formerly, Quilixios. He'd won once before and twice since, including in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow, and may be best of the home team.

Willie Mullins has Haut En Couleurs, a leftfield entry making his debut for the stable having won a big field Auteuil 3yo hurdle in early October. Not seen since, it's impossible to know what to expect though such races at the Paris track are not easily won.

The rest are unlikely to trouble the judge.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Talking About You will lead, Quilixios will follow, and Zanahiyr will win.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

Zanahiyr.

Suggestion: Back Zanahiyr at 6/4. He's a very good horse on any reading of times or collateral form.

*

1.55 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

This one is far too difficult for me. However, incredibly, three trainers have collectively won twelve of the last 17 County Hurdles! They are Willie Mullin and Dan Skelton (who have won the last six between them, 3-3) and Paul Nicholls. That, to me, is quite astonishing. Their horses comprise the shortlist!

They are Third Time Lucki (Skelton), Thyme White (Nicholls), and Buildmeupbuttercup, Ciel De Neige, Ganapathi, Getaway Gorgeous and Captain Kangaroo (all Mullins).

Third Time Lucki bids to be the fourth County Hurdle winner in the last six years for his trainer, and he had a proper claim in the Supreme before connections opted for this. His fourth behind Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It looks outstanding after the second routed the Supreme field; and his defeat to For Pleasure was franked when that one finished third at a massive price, also in the Supreme. This has obviously been the plan.

Thyme White's case is less clear cut and looks pace dependent: he doesn't seem to have much of a gear change but is a strong traveller. Happily for him, the field has bags of speed courtesy of the likes of Petit Mouchoir, Gowel Road and Mengli Khan. He cruised through the Betfair Hurdle before finding little and, if he can move through this crowd with similar facility, might hit the board.

Where to begin with the Mullins quintet? With the favourite, I guess. Ganapathi is a lightly raced novice who was second in a Grade 2 and then a non-staying fifth over two miles six in the Grade 1 Nathaniel Lacy. He's yet to race on quicker ground, which is a slight worry given how short he is in the market. Ciel De Neige is a third season novice, breaking his duck at the tenth time of asking in a Limerick maiden at Christmas. He was third in the Boodles two years ago, and down the field in this last year off a pound lower mark. He doesn't scream handicap plot having been sent off 6/1 twelve months ago.

Captain Kangaroo sneaks in at the bottom of the weights, which is not a place where County Hurdle winners are typically found; while Buildmeupbuttercup has been admirably busy and successful but has no secrets from Mr Capper. That leaves Getaway Gorgeous, who is a 33/1 shot. She's another at the wrong end of the handicap, though if this has been a plan she might run better than her form suggests.

If a different trainer is to get their name on the roll of honour, it might be Martin Brassil who saddles You Raised Me Up, a highly progressive novice that has won his last two having previously run third of 22 in the Grade B Ladbrokes Hurdle at last year's Dublin Racing Festival. Relatively old but still lightly raced, he handles big fields and better ground which is what he'll have here. Player.

County Hurdle Pace Map

There are enough runners to be virtually certain of a fast pace; but it might not be a meltdown. Mengli Khan, Gowel Road and Petit Mouchoir are the most forward-going and, with luck in running, every horse should have its chance.

County Hurdle Selection

Clearly tough. Third Time Lucki's form has been very well advertised this week and his trainer has a peerless record in the race. Less fashionably, You Raised Me Up may go close to notching his third win in a row.

Suggestion: Back 15/2 Third Time Lucki and/or You Raised Me Up 10/1 each with as many extra places as possible (8 places with Sky).

*

2.30 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

A race that has provided plenty of shocks, some of them more predictable than others. The reason, I've contended on these pages for many years, is that the nature of the Albert Bartlett - often a mad scramble from start to finish, is very different from the small field Graded dawdles which largely precede it through the season. When the race is run more evenly, the result better fits the form book. Pace is the kingmaker in 'the potato race'.

This year's race looks an even tempo affair and, as such, might align with what we know. Stattler, performing this season without Waldorf (I know, what a muppet!), was a little outpaced in a 2m6f Grade 1 last time, so this longer trip ought to suit. All of his form so far is on soft ground, however.

Torygraph, trained out of Cullentra House, looks a likely type for a strong stamina test, doing his best work at the end of his most recent pair of races, the only two at which he's raced around three miles. He has a good run on good ground also. From the same stable is Fakiera, well fancied but with a bit to prove, not least affection for terra firmer and stamina. On the latter point, he's finished his races at shorter as though he needs this extra distance, but he's a tight enough price having not yet demonstrated he actually does need it.

Pick of the domestic challenge, in a year where that challenge has often felt token at best, might be Adrimel. But he was all out to hold on at 2m5f (heavy), and has to improve again on sounder footing and at a longer trip. Alaphilippe has less to prove having already easily won a three mile Grade 2. That was on heavy and he too has yet to race on anything better than soft.

There's been some chat about the Paul Nicholls-trained Barbados Buck's, who does have form at three miles and on a sound surface... but novice hurdles at Southwell (twice) and Kempton don't very well answer the class element of the Bertie Bartlett equation. On the same team, Threeunderthrufive ticks a number of boxes but is twice the odds of his stablemate. He's won his last four - a bumper and three novice hurdles - coping with a variety of ranges and terrains, and has been strong at the finish in his races. It's a tad disconcerting that his mate is so much better fancied as I quite like the one with the golfing name.

Another of my errant ante post tickets has the name of N'Golo on it. I have him to win any race at the Festival and this would not have been the one I'd have chosen (Coral Cup since you ask). He's got loads to prove in this group.

And circumstances have conspired against The Cob, supplemented for this having won a bruising Grade 2 at Doncaster on soft. Only half of the dozen starters even finished there and if this became attritional he'd come into my reckoning; but I don't think it will.

The forgotten horse might be Streets Of Doyen. He's a fast ground horse who did all his winning in the autumn. A sequence of four wins, all at three miles, all with good in the going description, was ended by defeat in a two mile soft ground event that could only be considered a late sharpener (in late Feb) for this. His winning sequence included a five length verdict over Stayers' Hurdle third favourite, Flooring Porter, and a Class 2 novice win at this track in October. He's a 25/1 shot I'll be playing.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Stattler is likely to make a bold bid from the front; there are not many other standout pace horses, though a few led last time (Oscar Elite, Beatthebullet).

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

An interesting race not expected to be run at a fierce gallop. The top of the market looks fair enough, with perhaps Torygraph the pick of them. But I'm going to risk two proven on the expected quicker ground, Threeunderthrufive and Streets Of Doyen. Both are win machines and both may have more to offer yet.

Suggestion: Try 14/1 Threeunderthrufive or 25/1 Streets Of Doyen each way, four places better than three.

*

3.05 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

This year's Gold Cup is all about the threepeat (as they say across the pond)-seeking Al Boum Photo and his bid for a slightly larger spot in the history books. But he'll face a strong challenge from a variety of top class opposition: all as it should be.

In his two Gold Cup triumphs to date, Al Boum Photo has won off a searching gallop (2019) and he's won off a steady, tactical pace (2020). This year seems considerably more likely to be akin to the 2019 renewal pace wise with fast early horses like Native River, Frodon and Kemboy. ABP has had his by now traditionally quiet prep: he's run only six times in the past three years. That freshness, taken from the previous GC hat-trick hero Best Mate blueprint, has served connections well for all that us lusty race fans would have craved plenty more sightings of the star.

Since April 2018, then, and removing a defeat when over the top at Punchestown after his first Gold Cup, the pattern has been Tramore, Cheltenham, Tramore, Cheltenham, Tramore, Cheltenham, with victories written in the first five lines of that sexain. And so to line six. What do we know? As much as we did last year when the path was the same. Then, as now, we must judge him on his Cheltenham form because the Tramore races prove little more than he retains the same leg-in-each-corner physique as a table.

That Cheltenham form is obviously tiptop class; he does hit a few on the way round but doesn't generally look like coming down, and he handles quickish ground well. It could be good, rather than good to soft, this time which must be taken on trust but he clearly sets the standard for all that his price fully reflects that.

Last year's RSA winner, Champ, is the main danger. A drifter in the betting for much of a season where he was absent for one reason or another, he catapulted into second choice after an excellent second place in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase. That was over two miles, no sort of appropriate test for a stayer, and the way he travelled there was particularly taking. He will have come on fitness-wise for the run and matches Al Boum's one race preparation. He'll need another step forward to become the, erm, champ and, on his second start after a wind op, that's eminently plausible.

Henry runs A Plus Tard and if he is still in the mix for the Top Festival Trainer by then, I'll be giving this one the big one! His form is consistent for all that he was only third in the Ryanair last season; since then, he looked for all the world as though a good test was what he needed when only just getting up over three miles in the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Christmas. Not sighted since, he's another coming in off the fashionably light prep. As a seven-year-old versus two nine-year-olds mentioned already, A Plus Tard perhaps has more scope.

The other seven-year-old in the field, and a hard horse to fathom, is Royale Pagaille. A novice still, in spite of this being his twelfth chase start (six more than Champ, one more than A Plus Tard and only one less than Al Boum Photo), it won't be inexperience that beats him! But it might be the drying ground, his blitzkrieging barreling belligerence this season coming in hock deep mires. In fact, Royale Pagaille - who I backed to win this - has a lot to prove given he's never raced on faster than soft turf in a 15-race career and given this will be his first foray into Grade 1 company. In the most respectful way imaginable, he has something of a Bristol De Mai feel about him. Anyone want to buy a Gold Cup wager?

Minella Indo is flirting with a single figure price. Having hung tough until the shadow of the line, he was passed by the rallying Champ in last season's RSA, a race where Indo did a chunk of work early and just got very tired. He's generally on or close to the pace and that doesn't look a positive in what may be a searching gallop over a searching trip. Besides which his form just doesn't appear good enough this season. He's not for me here, as much as I am a fan generally.

Then come the populists: Frodon, Native River and to a lesser extent Santini. Frodon is younger than he seems, still nine, and in possession of an outstanding course record: he's won half of his twelve Cheltenham spins, including two Caspian Caviar Gold Cups (the second when carrying 11-12 off a mark of 164, crikey), a Cotswold Chase, that memorable Ryanair and a second handicap chase off 164 carrying 11-12. What's more he's done most of that wearing his heart on his sleeve from the front, and partnered by that faintly bonkers - but tactically excellent - Bryony Frost, whose eulogy to her partner after the 2019 Ryanair was a thing of PR beauty for a sport continually in need of such public validation.

That's the past for Frodon; what of his present? Sad to say I can't see it, as he'll likely need to be ridden forcefully and, while, he'll have the toe to usurp Native River on the speed it is quite hard to envisage him having the stamina to finish that off after the early skirmishes. All that said, there can't be too many horses to have proven so many people wrong as often as this partnership, and it would be absolute public relations manna from heaven for our beleaguered sport should he grab the whole pineapple. Hope he runs a stormer.

Native River is the veteran grinder, his own Gold Cup triumph immediately preceding the ABP era. Now eleven it won't be easier than it was then, but he looked in good form when wearing down the resilient Bristol De Mai in the Sandown redirect of the Cotswold Chase last month. He has won on good ground, in last year's Denman Chase, but I can't see him having the legs of some of these. Another story horse for the race, though.

The pantomime horse - metaphorically, not literally - is Santini. A gallant plodder in the eyes of many ("He's behind you? Oh no he isn't"), he just failed to reel in Topofthegame in the 2019 RSA and just failed to reel in Al Boum Photo in the 2020 Gold Cup. A goodly distance behind Native River in the Cotswold, this quicker ground and faster pace might actually be an optimum combination for the nine-year-old. I'm not especially excited about his chance in relation to those of the top three in the betting, but he could easily be fourth over the line, perhaps better if they went bananas up top in the first half of the race.

I'm not expecting a shock from the rest, though Kemboy deserves a mention as a horse within half a length of being a dual Grade 1 winner at three miles in his last two races (one of which he won). His problem is that Cheltenham really doesn't seem to be his track, his form figures being 54U7 at the last four Festivals.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Fast and furious. Frodon, Kemboy, Native River all go forward.

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A cracking Gold Cup in prospect, though not an easy one to unravel. The top three in the betting could fill the podium. And I think Santini will run well.

Suggestion: Back your own fancy!

*

3.40 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

Hard to peg many of these, and I won't spend too much time trying. Last year It Came To Pass won as an unheralded 66/1 chance, though shocks of that outlandish nature are fairly rare in recent times. That said, 25/1 (and 16/1) Pacha Du Polder, 33/1 Zemsky and Amicelli, and 20/1 Drombeag and Whyso Mayo have all won since 2006, so perhaps a swing at a price is not a terrible idea.

In the land of the more likely, Billaway heads the betting. Trained by... Willie Mullins?!... the nine-year-old got closest to It Came To Pass last year. Closest, yes, but still ten lengths behind that one. With last year's winner showing no form in two runs this season, his retained ability requires plenty of faith and, though dual scorers are common - Pacha Du Polder, On The Fringe and Salsify since 2012 - they typically arrived with more visible credentials. Billaway has a good chance of course but his best form is on softer ground.

The same comment applies to Bob And Co, who has traded the corinthian David Maxwell for the professional Sean Bowen in the plate. Moreover, after a wind op prior to his most recent run, he fair bolted up by 17 lengths in a Haydock Hunter Chase on his first run with Bowen steering. Bob And Co skipped the race last year when Maxwell opted to ride Shantou Flyer and it will be bittersweet for his owner/regular jockey if his horse scores during a time when Covid prevents amateurs from riding.

Staker Wallace has a little - two lengths - to find with Billaway on recent Naas running, but a bit more on last year's Foxhunters' form where he finished fourth. A very consistent horse, he may again make the frame especially if you can find four places.

Red Indian is harder to gauge. He's run in a couple of point to points this season, winning both naturally, and ran acceptably in midfield when last seen under Rules in the Peter Marsh of 2020. He looks like he wants mud on his hooves to perform best.

Stand Up And Fight, like Staker Wallace trained by Enda Bolger (of On The Fringe fame), has a three mile verdict over Billaway this season, though was soundly beaten by that one subsequently over two miles five furlongs. It could be that Bolger's horse is the stronger stayer - a prospect given further credence by his staying on close second to Jury Duty over 3m1f last time - in which case he may be overpriced.

An interesting British contender is Late Night Pass, who won the intermediate hunter chase over course and distance two years ago. Next seen under Rules when winning at Warwick last month, he handles this track, good to soft and stays well.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase  Pace Map

Lots who will want to be to the fore and out of trouble. Will be quick but perhaps not crazily so given these more experienced riders.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection

A few with chances but not all of them at the top of the lists. Bob And Co looks better value than Billaway and will nearly win if handling faster turf. But it might be worth swinging at either or both of Stand Up And Fight and/or Late Night Pass. Both stay well, the former is with the right man and the latter has going/track/trip form.

Suggestion: Back 9/2 Bob And Co to win, and/or 14/1 Stand Up And Fight or 20/1 Late Night Pass each way, extra places if you can find 'em.

*

4.15 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)

The new race, taking the place of the Novices' Handicap Chase. As ever, some are pleased about this, others not so much. Me? I wouldn't be getting excited about either though I can far more readily see the need for a race like this in the Festival programme than the one it's replaced.

A smallish field and a strongish favourite in Elimay. One of four Willie Mullins entries, she has only once been out of the first two in nine runs since moving from France. That was in the 2019 Mares' Hurdle where she was only sixth; and, if that's a niggle, so too is her propensity for nearly winning: six times first, six times second in 15 jumps races. That consistency might be considered an asset if she was 8/1, but it's a liability in my book about a 6/4 shot. (To prevent a detailed explanation in the comments about how 40% wins equates nicely to being a 6/4 shot - even if that faultless mathematical logic was appropriate when judging her second toughest gig to date, she is still only 'the right price' rather than a value price).

Not always when Mullins runs amok with a mob in a mares' race does his best fancied prevail. Think Eglantine Du Seuil (50/1) in the inaugural Dawn Run, Glens Melody (6/1) in the Mares' Hurdle and, though it was an open race, Relegate (25/1) in the Champion Bumper. Colreevy has little to find with Elimay on figures, and what she lacks in the ratings department she makes up for with her win record - three from three since going chasing this term. She was a fair fifth in the Dawn Run last season, and has won a Grade 1 and a Grade 2 in her most recent starts.

Colreevy may not quite enjoy quicker ground as much as Elimay - I'm not sure about that either way - but at twice the price of her stable mate she's better value as I don't believe she's half as likely to win. She races front rank which, in a field packed with pace pressers, is a reservation; on the flip side, her win two back was when tracking until five out so perhaps she's tractable enough.

The back class of the field is Shattered Love, now ten but a former JLT/Marsh winner who was only a 20/1 chance in the 2019 Gold Cup itself. She was a staying on second to Elimay over an inadequate two miles last month and this two-and-a-half-miler might have been ideal for her had the ground not dried out. It still may be ideal.

It's tougher to make cases for the rest. Magic Of Light wants further and probably softer, too; Salsaretta needs to raise her game though will have come on for what was effectively her first run of the season last time, this trip and ground being optimal; the rest not having (yet) displayed the requisite class for a gig like this.

Special mention for Really Super, a syndicate horse in which friend of geegeez.co.uk, Josh Wright, owns a nostril. She has a, well, a really super win record in all disciplines: since summer 2019, she's won over hurdles, fences (including the Summer Plate at Market Rasen), in a flat race on the all weather and in a jumpers' bumper. The figures say she's not nearly good enough for this, but she will relish quick ground where some others won't, and the trip is close to optimal. Fingers crossed she runs well and maybe sneaks into the frame.

Mares' Chase Pace Map

This looks like being fast with loads of confirmed front-runners taking each other on.

Mares' Chase Selection

Elimay is too short for me though she has strong enough claims. I backed Shattered Love ante post but it's dried up enough for her price to be only fair. That leaves Colreevy as a progressive frequent winner in the right class bracket to challenge the other two. But she may be compromised if trying to make all as she generally does. Salsaretta is better than her recent runs but will need to step up to win, less so to make the frame.

Suggestion: It's quite hard to find a value play in a race where the top of the market may dominate. If you really want a tepid suggestion, 18/1 Salsaretta could make the frame if wheeling back to her best, but I'll not be going in again here.

*

4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

Good luck with this project!

Gentleman De Mee is the Exhibit A of 'could be anything' and given that his trainer, Willie Mullins, has won this three times with fancied horses in its twelve year history, I'm not going to try any harder.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Gentleman De Mee shows as forward, but he's only had the one run in UK/Ireland, so he could be ridden differently. A good bit but not a huge amount of expected pace, so should be a nice even tempo.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

Most of us will know our fate by now, smashing out of trouble here the most ill-advised form of attempted recuperation. A small bet on Gentleman De Mee may at least stem some bleeding, though there'll be half a dozen jumping the last and finishing with a flourish.

Suggestion: Have a tickle on 5/1 Gentleman De Mee - win only, don't lose twice! - but don't go mad. The week's races have been run now, and we must accept whatever fate we have created for ourselves.

*

What a week. One of the best sporting events of the year, very likely the best racing event of the year. Never easy, always captivating, with bad beats galore; that's what keeps us coming back for more. I hope you've made a profit. Much more than that, I hope you've had a blast. Next year, it will be different. Better. But this year has still been amazing (and I'm writing this during Day 2!)

Be lucky.

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day 3 Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day 3 Preview, Tips

Day three, Thursday, at the Cheltenham Festival is the first half of the second half, or the third quarter, or just plain old Day 3. Those in good shape after the opening two days shouldn't get too far ahead of themselves, and there is plenty of time for those behind the eight ball to make a meaningful break. After all, there are still fourteen races to go!

1.20 Marsh Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

We start day three with the Marsh Chase, an intermediate distance novice event where those lacking the speed for the Arkle and with doubtful stamina for the Brown Advisory/RSA/Broadway can combine what they have of each of those commodities over two and a half miles. In spite of that vaguely insulting introduction, the roll of honour for the Marsh, registered as the Golden Miller (all very confusing with so many sponsorship changes), is impressive enough: the likes of Sir Des Champs, Vautour, Yorkhill, Defi Du Seuil and Samcro decorate its honours board.

But, tellingly perhaps, none of those winners - or any other Marsh/JLT/Gold Miller winner - has gone on to win one of either the Gold Cup or Champion Chase. Vautour did triumph in the Ryanair but, if you fancy Envoi Allen to double up in the Gold Cup next season, you might ask why he's not having a crack at Monkfish this time around. Anyway, I digress...

Envoi Allen is the big dog in this field. He is unbeaten in eleven Rules starts (and a point to point, where he had Appreciate It back in third) and he won the Ballymore (formerly the Neptune, registered as the Baring Bingham, sigh) last year and the Champion Bumper the year before. I was surprised - perhaps I shouldn't have been - to discover that the Marsh has been won by any number of previous Festival novice hurdle winners: Samcro, Defi Du Seuil, Yorkhill and Vautour had all won either the Triumph, Supreme or Ballymore, and Sir Des Champs won the Martin Pipe. When you consider there have only been ten renewals of the Marsh, that's a strong pointer and Envoi checks that box.

His chase form has been solid if unspectacular to this point although he has never faced a proper challenge. On the one hand, that's testament to his class but, on the other, one wonders whether he'll give as generously off the bridle as on it. Or, indeed, whether he will come off the snaff at all! If you're on at a fancy price, you'll be happy enough to accept your fate as it comes; but if you're toying with the odds on - as a single or part of a multiple - it is a possible fly in the ointment. And, being brutally honest, there are not many others I could find.

Envoi Allen seems to handle any ground, is fully effective at the trip, has bundles of Grade 1 winning form to demonstrate his class, has won at the track, and is tractable in terms of run style. He has very recently changed stables and maybe that's a tiny concern, but Henry de Bromhead is a master at readying one for this Festival (I've backed him as a bit of value to be top trainer) so I'm not at all concerned about that.

Who might give Envoi most to ponder? Shan Blue was impressive at Kempton in the Kauto Star (Feltham as was) at Christmas, his electric jumping a sumptuous feature of his win. And that athleticism will stand him in good stead here for all that Cheltenham is less about rhythm and more about stamina than Kempton. His defeat by Sporting John in the Scilly Isles was still good form: he led or disputed for most there at a fast pace and was softened up for the late run of Sporting John, himself ridden very quietly throughout.

Blackbow has a chequered history over fences thus far: after an easy beginners' win on chase debut he then fell when lobbed in deep in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Christmas. A distant third to Energumene in an ungraded (in name) novice chase next time, the stewards enquired as to the extreme waiting tactics deployed. The response was that he'd taken a heavy fall the time before, which I think was reasonable. Most recently, he again had a cut at Grade 1 company and again finished behind Energumene, but this time at a more creditable ten length distance.

This will be a first attempt at beyond 2m1f and, as a keen goer who wears a hood, it's not guaranteed he'll stay; but the slightly steadier tempo should put his jumping under less pressure, and he clearly has a touch of class.

Talking of Mullins novices with chequered histories, the chequered colours of yellow and black carried by Asterion Forlonge have twice hit the deck this season. He ran all right but not great at the Dublin Racing Festival behind Monkfish, but was errant in the extreme here in the Supreme last year. A talented horse, no doubt, he's a few quirks that make him as big a swerve as he did at most of the hurdles twelve months ago!

Chatham Street Lad rose to prominence with a course and distance romp in the Caspian Caviar Handicap Chase, blowing apart a 17-runner field by fully fifteen lengths. That was a massive effort and, while he didn't back it up next time over two miles in a Grade A handicap chase at Fairyhouse, the return to a proven track and trip is a plus. The problem for backers of this Lad is that he doesn't have another piece of form within ten pounds of the course and distance procession, leaving a doubt as to whether he can back it up. If he can, he'll get close to a concert pitch Envoi Allen; as a nine-year-old with 21 races under his belt, I'm far from convinced. It would however be a great story for trainer Michael Winters, who campaigned Rebel Fitz and Missunited so well a decade or so ago: he knows what to do with a good'un, that's for sure.

I had hoped that Fusil Raffles would go the Arkle route, having backed him for that race before I converted to Shishkinism. But this longer trip - and avoidance of Shishkin if not Envoi Allen (you can't dodge them all) - looks right based on a course and distance novice chase win in December. He had Lieutenant Rocco, very well fancied for the Ultima before handing in his sick note, and fellow Seven Barrows inmate Chantry House behind that day and the form looks robust. He was a Grade 1 winning juvenile hurdler and is three from four over fences. Interesting contender.

Chantry House re-opposes, having dotted up in a little race at Wetherby since the Cheltenham race. That was more experience for him and, on his Supreme third he has the class to again make the Festival frame. I have an inkling that he might win the Henderson match bet this time.

Last year's Champion Hurdle third, Darver Star, has not looked a natural over fences but his class got him into contention in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novices' Chase at Christmas. He was walloped by Energumene - and most of the rest of the field - in the Irish Arkle and comes here with plenty to prove.

Marsh Chase Pace Map

Envoi Allen may bid to make all, though Shan Blue and, when he stands up, Asterion Forlonge also go forward frequently. Could be pretty fast.

Marsh Chase Selection

Envoi Allen probably wins. But there are each way and without the favourite markets if that's not enough/appropriate for you. In those arenas, take your pick of Chantry House and Blackbow. If siding with the latter, look for a bookie that offers 'faller insurance'.

Suggestion: Back Chantry House and/or Blackbow each way or 'without the favourite'.

*

1.55 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

I'm not going to waste much of your or my time on this, it's simply too tricky for me. Saying that, eight of the last nine winners returned 14/1 or shorter so perhaps I'm being too lily-livered. Last time out winners have a good record - 10/103 in the last 23 years, +16 at SP - and the Irish have won the last five. During those last five years, only one of the 25 last day winners has prevailed... which probably means a UK-trained last day winner or an Irish-trained last day loser. Tying myself in knots already.

The Bosses Oscar got a tough trip in the Martin Pipe last year but still finished fifth there; representing the Elliott/Foster team he's an obvious player and looks sure to be thereabouts again though he is off a 13lb higher mark. Willie runs Dandy Mag, up a stone since beating The Bosses Oscar into second in the December Pertemps qualifier at Leopardstown. Dandy was then well beaten in another Leopardstown three mile handicap since: he might have too much weight now. Mrs Milner wasn't far behind Dandy and Oscar in the qualifier and this will have been the plan.

Brinkley has been going great guns on soft and heavy - three from four since a wind operation - for David Pipe and, if he can convert that progression to quicker turf, he'll have a chance of being involved. And Paul Nicholls' Storm Arising has stepped forward plenty this term and finishes off his races well; he's another player in an uber-competitive contest.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Likely to be a good test, with Bushypark a confirmed front runner and plenty of others who normally race up top.

Pertemps Final Selection

Use your lucky pin. The Bosses Oscar is a safe option to be in the first six and maybe the first one. Mrs Milner and Storm Arising are more risky but also offer more reward.

Suggestion: Good luck!

*

2.30 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

The oft-maligned Ryanair is the open Grade 1 version of the Marsh and, in my opinion, it is usually a very good race. Maybe not having the class of a Champion Chase or a Gold Cup but with a lot more depth and offering an appropriate top table seat for plenty of horses that, as in the Marsh, either don't get the longer Gold Cup trip or are not fast enough for the shorter Queen Mother. If you're happy not to hold that against them - and I am - then you have a legitimate race full of legitimate Grade 1 horses. And as good a betting race as there is at the meeting in my view, not that that makes it easy to solve, as 5/1 the field implies!

Where to start? With A is for Allaho, I guess. He's one of the plethora vying for favouritism and represents powerful connections in Willie Mullins and Cheveley Park Stud. Allaho's chase record is a racing curate's egg: good to soft, good in places. As a novice he thumped Milan Native en route to getting in that memorable/gut-wrenching* (*delete as applicable, Champ/Minella Indo backers - I was in the latter camp, sigh) photo for last year's RSA. Actually beaten two lengths, that was a stand up performance in a race where no quarter was sought or ceded.

Since then, a trio of chases this term have been largely underwhelming: defeats to Min and A Plus Tard look excusable on the face of it, but by 34 lengths and 20 lengths? Not so much. Redemption, to some degree, came in his most recent run, a Grade 2 score from Mares' Chase favourite Elimay. Elimay is 6/4 or so for that new Friday race but she'd be a double figure price in here. I'll let him beat me.

Min won this last year and is here again this time around. A Festival standing dish he ran second-second-fifth to Altior in the 2016/18/19 renewals of the Champion Chase before connections got the message and gallantly bagged last year's Ryanair. As it happened, with big guns dropping out left and right, he might have won the Champion Chase last year if he'd gone that way! This season has left his fans scratching their heads: it began with 'yay' as he beat all in the John Durkan, Grade 1; but was more recently 'nay' (or maybe 'neigh') with a big P - not a Timeform one, a non-completion one - in the Dublin Chase behind the imperious that day Chacun Pour Soi.

In Min's defence, the John Durkan is two and a half miles, and the Dublin Chase is two miles. He tried to make all, got into a speed duel, and basically did way too much way too soon. A line can easily be put through that effort. He's ten now and, while Albertas Run, Our Vic and Fondmort all won at that veteran stage in their careers, the most recent of that trio was ten years ago. It's only a minor niggle for me and I think he has definite prospects: certainly I prefer him to his aforementioned stablemate.

But I like another Mullins stablemate more than Min, although I don't think I'd back him to win. That one is Melon. The perma-bridesmaid has been more unlucky than canine and, for those who see him in the former light, his Festival efforts are heroic: second to Labaik in the 2017 Supreme, second to Buveur D'Air in the 2018 Champion Hurdle, second to Espoir D'Allen in the 2019 Champion Hurdle, and second to Samcro in the 2020 Marsh. This season he's run third-third-fifth, but he's had excuses. Yeah, yeah, I know, he's had a lot of excuses down the years. But hear me out.

A 22/1 shot when third to Min in the John Durkan, he was clearly a touch under-cooked that day. Thereafter connections upped him to three miles where he first ran third to A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Christmas, and then, on softer ground, he was a nine length last of five to Kemboy in the Irish Gold Cup. Here's the thing: he doesn't stay three miles. As much as I am a Melon fan - don't be messing with my Melon, man - he has won only three of 21 races since Mullins took him on, and only one of four on the flat for Nicolas Clement in France previously. He's a great place bet!

There is a spicy blend of British and Irish runners in this, and the home team's skipper might be Imperial Aura. Three-length winner of the novices' handicap chase at last year's Festival, he's stepped into Graded conditions company like an old hand this term. First was a comfy verdict in the Colin Parker at Carlisle, then a dominant win in the Grade 2 1865 Chase at Ascot, and then... ooh, fluffed lines in the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton where he horlicksed the second and bade adieu to David Bass. So there's that to overcome, but he did look progressive and is rated second best of the Brits.

Top of the British pops, on official figures, is Saint Calvados, a close second to Min in last year's race. Since then, he ran very well in the King George when just failing to see out the three miles before a fairly lamentable effort in the Sandown version of the Cotswold Chase: never really travelling he ended up dumping Gavin Sheehan into the very forgiving heavy turf. His numbers give him a squeak but his recent win record is not exciting and there's just something about him I don't really like from a betting angle. (Such unsubstantiated fluff should never be part of a preview like this, so apologies for any offence caused!)

And what about Mister Fisher? The Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old has a fine Cheltenham record, winning over course and distance 15 months ago and in the diverted Peterborough Chase over a similar course and distance here in December. Only fourth in the Marsh last season, he perhaps could have been a little closer to the sharp end a little sooner; he raced prominently in both the Peterborough and that course and distance win and I imagine he will do so again this time. If he does, he too has his chance.

Fakir D'Oudairies is yet another horse quoted at a single-figure price in an extremely well-contested race. Second in last year's Arkle, it might be fair to say that connections were unsure which way to go this season, an assertion whose supporting evidence includes runs over two miles and three miles in his last two starts. The three mile spin resulted in pulling up in the Grade 1 Savills Chase, where he probably just didn't get home. The two mile run was a fair second to Chacun Pour Soi in the Grade 1 Dublin Chase. This slot feels like acknowledging that two miles is his better trip while also conceding that he cannot beat CPS. Although he won the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase over two and a half last season in a small field, I'm not fully convinced he'll get the trip here. He's a player if he does, however.

Another of the many pace angles is Dashel Drasher, a Grade 1 winner at this trip last time at Ascot. That looked a fairly hollow G1 in truth, but he won it nevertheless, rounding out an upwardly mobile hat-trick this season in the process. As much as I'd love to see him win for his brilliant trainer, Jeremy Scott, I think trying to lead all the way against this crew will be a bridge too far.

The 25/1 about Chris's Dream will take some of my money. He was highly progressive last year before palpably failing to stay in the Gold Cup, where he ran a massive race until stamina gave out. This season he was a neck second to The Storyteller in a Grade 1 chase before disappointing in the John Durkan, another G1, at Punchestown last time. One has to be prepared to forgive that flop at a trip which ought to have suited but, in a race which might set up for a closer he's of some interest to me.

Real Steel is another who ran really well before stamina snapped in last season's Gold Cup; but he's done now't since. He was a Willie Mullins horse last term, but a Paul Nicholls horse this; that's been material in a number of cases with that particular trainer switch for whatever reason... Still, if he came back to that Gold Cup run, and on better ground at a shorter trip that's not impossible, he'd have a chance.

This time last year, Samcro was winning the Marsh, the novice equivalent of the Ryanair. We've not seen much of him since and, what we have seen has not been encouraging. It wouldn't be a shock if he won - almost no horse in this race would be a shock winner - but he's not for me. In that spirit, none of Kalashnikov, Tornado Flyer or Fanion D'Estruval can be entirely discounted.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Lots of speed or potential speed. Dashel Drasher and Min are very likely to go on, so too quite possibly Imperial Aura and maybe Melon or Allaho. Might set up for a more patiently ridden horse.

Ryanair Chase Selection

Probably the most difficult puzzle of the entire meeting. I think the projected pace sizzle will cook a few of the front-rankers, and I'd take a couple of closers against that perceived early heat. Chris's Dream could be a complete no show, but he's a good horse on his day and this setup might fit. The same comments exactly apply to Real Steel and he's a small each way for the same reason.

Suggestion: Bet any horse you like in this. Bookies should be paying eight places, so fiendish does it look! I'll speculate that either or both of Chris's Dream and Real Steel can wheel back to their excellent but non-staying 2020 Gold Cup runs and get involved over the shorter trip.

*

3.05 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

A race robbed of some of its appeal by the late withdrawal of Thyme Hill, who had been close to favouritism for some time. Further shorn of Roksana, who contested Tuesday's Mares' Hurdle, the main man is currently Paisley Park, the 2019 winner. The Emma Lavelle-trained, Andrew Gemmill-owned nine-year-old has a fantastic winning record and only saw his halo slip a year ago due to a fibrillating heart.

2021 seems to have dispelled any concerns about that medical blip, a good second in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury followed up with a battling success in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. His late run style, and famous 'flat spot' - a moment when he is changing gear but appears to be struggling - can't be good for his legion of supporters, or for his equally famous blind owner: he has to rely on the commentary which must make for very difficult listening sometimes, for all that it often ends in joy unbounded!

If Paisley seems back to his best, the numbers suggest he's been a few pounds shy of his 2019 pomp. Then, a pre-race Racing Post Rating of 172 was career-high, almost matched by a 170 in the Stayers' of that year. Last season, he was running low 160's before the March disappointment; and this season he's earned a couple of mid-160's to date. So, it is perfectly possible a) that he can step forward to high 160's and/or b) that a 165 might just about be enough to regain his crown.

Against him is a phalanx, headed by the Irish pair of Sire Du Berlais and Flooring Porter. Sire is a regular Festival fixture, having won the Pertemps Final for the past two seasons, most recently off a mark of 152. That official figure, which was upped to 158, compares with Paisley Park's OR of 165. Apologies for RPR/OR confusion - the two are not interchangeable - but it is worth saying that when Sire won his second Pertemps he recorded an RPR of 164. A small step forward from that, which he has not achieved in less satisfactory race setups twice since, would get him in the photo finish.

Flooring Porter is another Stayers' story horse: he was rated 95 when winning his maiden hurdle, at Bellewstown in August 2019. It's fair to say that nobody at that point expected him to be a Grade 1 winner and legitimate contender for a main Festival prize 18 months later. That's where we are, courtesy of a string of excellent handicap efforts - usually from the front - prior to that 'made all' six length stroll in the Christmas Hurdle. But he is unlikely to get things all his own way in front this time. Both Lil Rockefeller and Fury Road, stablemate of Sire Du Berlais, are habitual leaders. So, too, occasionally, the current Stayers' champ, Lisnagar Oscar.

Lisnagar Oscar was a shock winner last year, but had only been four lengths behind Paisley Park in their prep race, the Cleeve Hurdle. He's a strong stayer and probably needs soft ground; with the pace in the field it looks like being more of a test than is sometimes the case but the ground is drying out.

Fury Road is another who perhaps won't have his optimal conditions: soft is his forte and a soft lead if he can get it, too. He's unlikely to get either here and is not for me as a result. The second string to Gigginstown's bow is Beacon Edge, one of the more progressive in the field. Only seven, he beat Fury Road in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle last time, having previously got within a length of Honeysuckle in the Hatton's Grace, a Grade 1. That's top form but at two and a half miles, and this longer trip is a question mark for all that he's been finishing off his races well. If he improves a little for it, he'll have a chance at a huge price.

The most versatile horse in the field, for all that he probably won't be quite good enough, is The Storyteller. Now ten, he won the Festival Plate in 2018 and was second in the 2020 Pertemps, getting three pounds from the winner, Sire Du Berlais. Here, off levels, Sire is 9/2 while The Storyteller is 10/1. He's danced plenty of dances this year, winning at Galway, Punchestown and Down Royal (Grade 1 chase), and running second at Gowran and Leopardstown twice (both Grade 1 spins, one each hurdles and fences). He'll leave it late, a tactic suited to the projected run of the race, and should not be under-estimated.

I don't give the rest too much hope.

Stayers' Hurdle Pace Map

Flooring Porter is a pace presser. Lil Rockerfeller and Fury Road like to go on as well. This should be a truly run affair.

Stayers' Hurdle Selection

This feels like a race to take a swing at. Paisley Park was unexpectedly beaten last year and has been below his 2019 form since. Sire Du Berlais has a good chance, reflected in his price, but I want to have a crack at a couple each way, especially if I can get bonus places. They are The Storyteller, whose Festival form is excellent, has been in brilliant form and will be played late against wilting rivals; and Beacon Edge, who if improving a little for the longer range is the progressive horse in the line up.

Suggestion: An open race on my reading. Try The Storyteller and/or Beacon Edge each way with extra places if you can get them.

*

3.40 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The Plate, a race of many names in recent times, currently under Paddy Power's banner. It's a handicap chase and it has a lot of runners. As such, it is twicky, as Jonathan Ross might say.

Anyway, some numbers. Top five last time out, ran within 60 days, Pipe and Venetia positives. In truth, horses of all ages, positions in the weights and market, and from UK and Ireland have won this.

Mister Whitaker won the novices' handicap chase at the 2018 Festival, pulled up in the Ultima in 2019, was third in this last year and is now two pounds lower than that bronze medal. That'll do.

[Obviously, I could have written another thousand words but it wouldn't have helped me frame a more compelling case for a loser than the sentence above - so I've saved us both a bit of time!!]

Festival Plate Pace Map

Just an even gallop expected here.

Festival Plate Selection

This is for the wagering masochists.

Suggestion: 5p e/w Mister Whitaker with a firm paying twelve places.

*

4.15 Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

15 are due to post in the Dawn Run, and it's a foggy top of the market.

Four mares vie for favouritism as I write, just headed by Pat Fahey's Royal Kahala. She's been busy, running in a couple of bumpers and three hurdle races before this and winning the middle three races, most notably when beating Hook Up by five lengths at Fairyhouse. Her prep was a good second to Roseys Hollow in a Grade 3 on heavy ground over a slightly longer trip, and the first two winners of the Dawn Run were also beaten in their prep runs.

Roseys Hollow has won her last two, including that defeat of Royal Kahala, and comes here on the up. Indeed that Fairyhouse effort represented a stone increment on her Racing Post Ratings and she, like all in here, can go forward again. Gauloise was third there, closing well but given enough to do. It's very hard to choose between the three of them on that line of form.

The form of Hook Up was extremely well advertised on Tuesday; her fourth against the boys in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma already looked good, but after runners from that race finished 1-2 (and would have filled out the podium had Blue Lord not tipped up at the last) it looks the best piece of these if taken at face value. I say that because Hook Up closed from out back there and might have been flattered a touch; still, it was an excellent run. She was well beaten in last year's Triumph Hurdle, so we'll have to see which Hook Up shows.

There are a lot of others in here with chances but honestly I don't have much of a read on them. One that is probably a touch over-priced is Perfect Myth: she's better on good ground so would want it to dry out, but has strong handicap form off 136 and gets five pounds from the Graded winners. Harry Skelton will ride and I think 40/1 is a touch unfair.

Lots of others not mentioned with prospects.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This will be pretty quick but not searing is my guess.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

I've backed Hook Up on the strength of the Chanelle Pharma form because it's the best line in the field. I'm just not quite sure I believe it! If she can reproduce it here, she'll nearly win; on much of her other form she'll be off the ticket. Perfect Myth is playable in the each way extra markets as she's not a 40/1 chance, I don't think.

Suggestion: Pass. Or risk Hook Up or Perfect Myth.

*

4.50 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

11 of the last 23 winners of the Kim Muir, an amateur riders' race contested by professionals this year, finished in the first three last time. A further three winners were pulled up last time. Aged seven to nine is the sweet spot. More weight has typically been at least not a disadvantage and often a positive, as is a run in the same calendar year. Elliott/Foster, McCain, Henderson and Pipe are the trainers with the best records; Mullins and Nicholls are 0/29 combined.

Hold The Note was third in the novices' handicap chase last year and is now five pounds lower. He needs to prove he gets the trip but he is very attractively weighted if he does. And Mount Ida looks to have been crying out for this sort of distance: she was readily outpaced in the Dawn Run last year and was running on - never nearer, look after the mark - in a Grade 2 novice chase last time.

There are many other alternatives.

Kim Muir Pace Map

This will almost certainly be truly run, maybe overly fast as each of Hold The Note, Milanford and Morning Vicar perennially lead in their races; loads of others often do, so hold on to your hats!

Kim Muir Selection

Tricky but two with rock solid chances are Hold The Note and Mount Ida. They're not sexy prices but they might be hard to keep out of the frame, faller insurance a bonus if you can get it.

Suggestion: Back Hold The Note and/or Mount Ida each way a pleasure, sir.

*

The second half of the week is usually tougher than the first, but IF you can find a winner or two you'll have a good time of it. Hoping, though not really expecting, there will be a couple of nice priced successes in the above.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Day Two, Wednesday, at the Cheltenham Festival has a cast of stars, none bigger than last year's last minute absentee, Chacun Pour Soi, who, with Altior again an eleventh hour scratch, will have Champion Chase star billing to himself. Earlier on the card the ascendant star Monkfish will bid to enhance his stellar credentials in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase. We start, at the slightly earlier time of 1.20, with the Ballymore.

1.20 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

Small fields are again a feature of the novice divisions, just seven lining up for the opening Ballymore Novices' Hurdle; despite that there are a few with chances. The Irish have their traditionally strong representation - they've won six of the last seven - headed by Bob Olinger.

Trained by Henry de Bromhead, Bob's sole defeat in four Rules starts (and a point to point race) was when a length second to the sidelined Ferny Hollow in a maiden hurdle last November. Since then, he has won his maiden and then easily beat Blue Lord in the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas Hurdle. That was two and a half on heavy, this will be less testing; but he won there very easily indeed. He has made the running in the past, but that last day setup of tracking the leader before making his bid might be optimal. There are a couple in the field who led last time so he ought to get his way.

Another Irish Grade 1 winner is in opposition, Gaillard Du Mesnil, who took the Nathaniel Lacy at the Dublin Racing Festival in good fashion. What struck me there was his galloping style: it was a performance more about stamina than speed, whereas Bob Olinger looks to have gears. Crucially, it seems probable the Ballymore will be at least somewhat tactical. That may not play to Gaillard's strength, assuming I have him right (a dangerous assumption at best!).

One feature of both of the Irish contenders is that all of their form has been recorded on deep surfaces. Compare that with Bravemansgame, whose form has largely been achieved on good turf. A close second to Betfair Hurdle winner and Supreme contender Soaring Glory on hurdling debut was followed by easy novice wins at Exeter and Newbury, the latter over this trip. Faced with soft ground in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle last time, he routed the closest of his four rivals by ten lengths.

Bravemansgame led pretty much throughout that contest and he may bid to make all again; the form has worked out okay, with a couple of rivals running 1-2 in a Listed hurdle subsequently. The British handicapper has taken a very positive view of the Challow form, giving the winner a mark of 150, the same mark he's awarded Bob Olinger, the pair a pound behind Gaillard Du Mesnil on BHA ratings. He might be right but I feel that this Paul Nicholls runner, who is spoken of in glowing terms by the yard, is definitely more of a stayer than a speed horse - and the epitome of the proverbial "chaser in the making". He could set things up perfectly for Bob (or Gaillard).

Bear Ghylls heads the remainder, betting wise at least, and this raw talent has found obstacles only a minor irritant on his way from start to finish in a trio of ungraded novice hurdles. He's not the slickest but he sure has an engine, the form of his Ffos Las beating of Gowel Road being well advertised by the two subsequent wins of that one. Still, he looks to have a fair bit to find with the three already mentioned and, if he replicates his careless jumping it won't help him bridge the gap.

Does He Know was a course and distance Grade 2 winner of the Hyde Novices' Hurdle in November but then ran out in the Challow and has since been whacked in handicap company. He's plenty to prove in this grade.

At prices, the most interesting might be Keskonrisk. A very expensive (£370,000) sales purchase after winning a non-descript bumper in grand style, he then just got up to win a two mile maiden having been hampered when trying to make ground in a big field. That's all no better than promising in the context of a race like this, but his third to Appreciate It in the Christmas Grade 1 at Leopardstown reads much better. Not seen since, this longer trip could bring out improvement and so, where some of these are pegged at their level, Keskonrisk remains in the improver camp.

Optimise Prime looks out of his depth after an eleven-length third in the Listed Sidney Banks.

Ballymore Pace Map

Expect Bob Olinger to be on or close to the lead; likewise Bravemansgame. Don't expect it to be frenetic, though.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

A fascinating race which brings together as yet uncrossed form lines from both Britain and Ireland. As interestingly, it brings together relatively speedy types (Bob Olinger, Keskonrisk) with more stamina-laden types (Gaillard Du Mesnil, Bravemansgame). If they go at no faster than an even tempo, which must be the percentage projection, it ought to set up for speed. In that case, Bob Olinger looks the one. He's been impressive this season, jumps very well for a novice, and looks to have that crucial change of pace. It wouldn't surprise me if Keskonrisk was in the first three so he might be playable in extended place markets or without the favourite.

Suggestion: Back Bob Olinger to win; or have a look at Keskonrisk in the exotic markets.

*

1.55 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

Formerly the RSA and, before that, the Broadway Novices' Chase, apparently. Now it's the Brown Advisory (registered as the Broadway) Novices' Chase. But I might just stick with RSA for a bit...

Anyway, for a good while it has looked like a cakewalk for the mighty Monkfish, last year's Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle winner, and this year's superstar staying novice chaser (with the possible exception of Royale Pagaille, in the same ownership and headed to the Gold Cup). And that may be how it pans out for the horse famously referred to by Nicky Henderson as Fishcake (in a further ironic twist, Henderson now has Monkfish's sister in training, and she has been named Fishcake!).

Monkfish, trained by Willie Mullins, has won his last six races and all three of his chase starts, most recently a brace of Grade 1's. He jumps well, travels powerfully, and looks the clear pick of the Irish contingent. If there's a potential Achilles heel - and I'm not remotely convinced there is - it could be quicker ground.

Best of the British might be The Big Breakaway. Trained by Colin Tizzard, he was impressive in defeat in the Kauto Star (formerly Feltham) Novices' Chase at Kempton last time; impressive inasmuch as he absolutely ploughed through a number of the fences - including a howler at the last - and yet still finished second. That sort of a speed test was clearly not his bag and it remains the case that no winner of the Kempton Grade 1 has gone on to win the RSA/Brown Advisory/Broadway while a number of beaten horses from Kempton have gone on to score in this, including Bobs Worth, Might Bite and Topofthegame since 2012.

The Big Breakaway was fourth in Envoi Allen's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle last year, and then returned to Cheltenham to win on chasing debut in November. Since then he's been second twice, and jumped really poorly on both occasions. That's obviously a worry for a race like this but it is also an opportunity to step forward if he can correct the mistakes. He handled the quicker ground better than the quicker tempo at Kempton last time, so any drying of the turf ought not to be an issue for him.

Eklat De Rire is another from the powerful de Bromhead squad, his form hard to gauge as it has been achieved at ungraded level. Nevertheless, he's beaten the likes of Escaria Ten and Pencilfulloflead readily enough in the manner of a highly progressive type. He looks to have a lot to find to trouble the favourite though he is unexposed so it's not impossible. All form to date has been on heavy ground.

Sporting John put a limp effort in an Exeter Beginners' Chase behind him when cutting down Shan Blue late in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles play: he benefitted from a strong meter there, something that could be reprised here if Monkfish and Eklat De Rire take each other on early. He looks a stayer, with his best form on muddy turf in a truly run race, so these three miles - while unknown territory - ought to suit.

We haven't seen a lot of Dickie Diver since his good fourth to Minella Indo in the 2019 Albert Bartlett. In fact, we've seen him just once, when running up in a decent novices' handicap chase at Newbury in late December. He's a mature horse, at eight the oldest in this field, has low mileage and class, and wouldn't be a total shock winner for all that he's not especially for me wagering-wise.

Nor is Fiddlerontheroof, an expensive flop in last year's Supreme when the Tizzard horses weren't right. The problem is that, since then, they've often not been right, a one year strike rate of below 9% not really acceptable given how many very expensive purchases they accommodate. Fiddler's chase form of 21222 is a touch misleading, too, as it has been achieved in fields of 3-6-3-5-3. I wish the Tizzard team luck but I won't be backing many of theirs this week.

RSA Chase Pace Map

Likely to be run at an honest, though probably not all out, gallop. Eklat De Rire may take them along with Monkfish and Fiddlerontheroof close up. The Big Breakaway may track from midfield with the McManus pair likely to be produced late.

RSA Chase Selection

Monkfish is a very strong favourite and deserves to be. There are a couple - Eklat De Rire and Sporting John - who can be considered unexposed, and The Big Breakaway is a possible improver if his jumping holds together. But, barring accidents, the jolly should win.

Suggestion: Put Monkfish in a double with anything else you fancy to add 50% to your winnings! [Terms and conditions apply, the main one being caveat emptor 😉 ]

*

2.30 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

Oh heck. 26 runners in a handicap, many of the more fancied ones having at least partially hidden their best side in recent times. Even allowing for that sort of chicanery, four of the last ten Coral Cup winners also won their prior start and another two were second. And eight of the ten winners in that time shouldered 10-12 or more (seven lugged eleven stone-plus).

Incredibly, and highly satisfactorily for yours truly, that leaves just two: Grand Roi and Monte Cristo.

Grand Roi is the Elliott/Foster runner, the Cullentra House squad having won this in 2011 and 2016. Symmetrists will like this one for 2021, then, and his form chance is obvious. A very close fourth in a junior bumper at Cheltenham's New Year's Day 2020 fixture, he won a Grade 2 hurdle a year less two days later, and has peppered the target before and in one run since. Five-year-olds novices have a good record in the race, to which Grand Roi may add further.

Nicky Henderson will saddle Monte Cristo, bidding for his fifth Coral Cup triumph in total and third in a row. Have that, Gordie and co! Monte fair bolted up in a 15-runner Kempton handicap on Boxing Day, and has not run since. That 81-day layoff should be seen as a positive: Dame De Compagnie was off 88 days before her Coral Cup last year and William Henry absented for 77 days before winning the year before. This is the Henderson Coral Cup blueprint, and Monte Cristo is a box-ticker of the highest order.

Coral Cup Pace Map

A massive field but no out and out front runner. Grand Roi may be near the front, with most of the field not too far away in what could potentially be a muddling affair.

Coral Cup Suggestion: Obviously close to impossible, but Grand Roi and Monte Cristo represent the most established recent 'firms' in the race and both should go well. I will Count on Monte Cristo - see what I did there? 😀

*

3.05 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

Wednesday's headliner is the Champion Chase, a race that has crowned the likes of Moscow Flyer, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Altior in recent years. Last term, the day of race withdrawals of both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi left Defi Du Seuil with what appeared to be a penalty kick; alas for Defi backers, he skied his effort from twelve years (extended metaphorically speaking), trailing home fourth of five at odds of 2/5.

Here we are a year later and, lo, there is no Defi Du Seuil but both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi are on the team sheet. Or were, before Altior's late defection. Here, too, is Politologue, who won the race twelve months ago, and Put The Kettle On, who scored in last year's Arkle Chase. Throw in Rouge Vif, Nube Negra, Notebook, Cilaos Emery and First Flow and you have the makings of a great race. If they all get to the start line. Which they didn't last year.

The odds on favourite, deservedly so, is Chacun Pour Soi. A winner of six of his seven starts for Willie Mullins, the now nine-year-old has been a little flaky in seasons past but seems the real deal this time around. Easy scores in the Grade 2 Hilly Way, and then a brace of Grade 1's at Leopardstown, have rendered him the undisputed champion of Ireland. But now he must come to Blighty and race, a task he only partially managed last year. On form, he has little to answer: a few have questioned his ability to get up the hill but I have no such reservations. He does so much squeezing of throats in the middle part of his races that he's entitled to not barrel through the line - it has recently always been the case that those behind have finished considerably more limply.

But he will have to handle Cheltenham as well as he's handled Leopardstown. Both have a climb to the finish, but the Irish Grade 1 track is a lot less undulating and rhythm there more easily found. Pace wise, CPS is normally handy but not on the speed. In a field including trailblazers like Politologue, Put The Kettle On and maybe First Flow, he should be able to find a position just off the keenest of those and raise the tempo when he's ready. If he actually gets to the start line, and stands up in the race (no reason to believe he won't), I think he will win.

The second favourite was eleven-year-old Altior. But, for the second year in succession, he's a very late no show. It's a sad way to bow out if that is what transpires but, aged twelve next year, it's hard to see him getting competitive, especially against either or both of Chacun and Shishkin. He wouldn't have been for me from a betting stance anyway, but I'd have loved to see him in the race - as I'm sure would everybody.

Altior was readily passed last time by Nube Negra, a good horse - and one of promise - but not a great one, at Kempton. Nube Negra didn't quite run away in the Kempton race like his transit through suggested he would. Tellingly, his official chase rating, which had gone from 135 to 142 to 146 to 153 in his career to that point, then leapt almost a stone to 165 for his win there. I just don't believe it. It remains fair to say that Nube Negra is progressive and, only recently turned seven, probably has more to offer yet; but I'm betting he was flattered by that run. In any case, I'd have taken NN in a match against the old master who I couldn't easily see being in the trifecta. So who else might be on the podium in this deep deep deep QMCC?

A slightly overlooked horse is the reigning champ, Politologue. It may be fair to suggest he took advantage of absence last year but, if that is true, he did what Defi Du Seuil should have done and didn't. Moreover, the Paul Nicholls-trained ten-year-old has previous in the race and at the Festival: no better than a back marker in the 2016 Coral Cup, fences saw him improve to fourth in the 2017 JLT, fourth in the 2018 Champion Chase, second (less than two lengths behind a near top form Altior) in the 2019 Champion Chase, and then that memorable win in the 2020 Champion Chase. He's knocking on a little but he knows this road very well indeed.

I do worry whether he might have left his best finishing effort at Ascot in late January; there, he and First Flow had a rare old tussle from a good way out. It was a brilliant spectacle - probably my favourite race of the season to date - but it wasn't an easy race for either of them. First Flow did well to prevail but the softer turf there was in his corner.

Henry de Bromhead has brought Put The Kettle On over to Cheltenham three times, and they have gone home winners three times including, as mentioned, in last year's Arkle. Each win was on soft ground and she was either tapped for toe or outclassed by Chacun Pour Soi on yielding last time. Whichever interpretation you have on that defeat, it is hard to see her reversing form with the favourite.

Henry also runs Notebook, second then third to CPS, at widening margins, in consecutive Grade 1's in Ireland. Notebook was a multiple Grade 1-winning novice on better ground, and it might be that drying good to soft will narrow the gap. He has slightly more of a chance than the market gives him credit, without especially exciting as a wagering proposition.

The interesting one at a price might be Rouge Vif. True, I backed him ages ago and am thus predisposed to his chance; but allow me to share the case. He won in the manner of a progressive horse on his seasonal debut at this track carrying 11-07 in an open handicap, putting more than seven lengths between himself and the second to whom he gave a stone and a half. Stepping back a touch, last season he'd beaten Nube Negra by seven lengths at Warwick on good to soft in the Kingmaker before running a game third to Put The Kettle On in the Arkle on soft ground. He then ran third to Politologue in the Tingle Creek and fourth to Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid, both on soft.

I was surprised he ran in both of those races given his trainer stated straight after Cheltenham that the key to him is good ground and that he wouldn't run on softer. Regardless of what has happened in between he now gets better ground for the first time since and may resume his trajectory as a result.

First Flow deserves another column inch: he's won seven of eleven over fences, including his last six. Though, in contrast to Rouge Vif, his key seems to be very deep turf. The six timer was achieved on heavy, heavy, heavy, soft, heavy, soft. Indeed, he's not even raced on quicker than soft since running fourth in a bumper 17 starts ago!

Sceau Royal has been busy, mixing hurdling and chasing with a large degree of success. To that end, he accumulated more than a hundred 'bags' (of sand, grand) in prize money this term, courtesy of G2 pots at Wincanton (hurdle) and Newbury (chase) as well as a G1 second in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Betwixt and between he came down early in the Nube Negra-Altior race at Christmas. He'd be an incredible horse to own - versatile and sound - but is expected to come up a touch short in this quality field of specialist two mile chasers.

In the longer grass, Greaneteen looked a horse of great promise a year or so ago, and was fourth in last season's Grand Annual. Two fair runs in Grade 1 and 2 events since, behind a number of today's rivals, have either put him spot on or demonstrated his level, depending on your perspective. My view is in line with most people's: that he has a bit to find.

And that leaves Cilaos Emery to round out ten fascinating runners in a top class Champion Chase. He should have run in this last year - pocket talk - but instead, bizarrely, went for the Champion Hurdle in which he finished a good fourth. This season he's been second to Bachasson and danced away from Daly Tiger in a Grade 2 and a Grade 3 respectively. That most recent effort was eye-catching for all that it was at a significantly lower plane to this. He has sometimes struggled with his fencing, any such frailties likely to be thoroughly exposed here, but he's a very talented horse.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Every chance Politologue goes forward, a fair chance Put The Kettle On and First Flow follow him closely, and not impossible that either or both of Notebook and Rouge Vif seek a piece of the action, too. Chacun Pour Soi is expected to be played from midfield.

Champion Chase Selection

What a race. Having previously felt this would be an open and shut case for Chacun Pour Soi - and with various ante post positions supporting that contention - I now fear pretty much all of his nine rivals to one degree or another! There will be little margin for error, and almost any horse putting together a perfect performance could win this. That said, if Chacun puts in a 95% performance he should win. His Irish form this season is peerless for all that it was achieved in softer turf. He needs to handle Cheltenham, and potentially tacky ground, and he has to jump.

Finding an each way alternative is hard because of the depth to the race.

Suggestion: I hope Chacun Pour Soi underlines his form this season by winning here, but he's only about the right price. After him, it's not difficult to make place claims for most and, as such, it's every man and woman for themselves. Gun to head, Notebook might be the best value each way/ without the favourite option. Should be a brilliant watch.

*

3.40 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

Not for everyone is the Glenfarclas Chase, aka the Cross Country, but I'm a fan. It doesn't have quite the same predictability as in the good old Enda domination days but it remains a compelling spectacle and a welcome break from main course championship or big field handicap action. And it has advertised the claims of past Grand National winners (and maybe future Grand National winners) to boot.

The ante post market for the race has seen more shuffles than a Vegas black jack table with first the two French chevaux noirs and then the new Enda kid on the black, Shady Operator, skipping the gig this year. Meanwhile, at the head of affairs, Easysland and Tiger Roll, winners of the past three renewals between them, have been on the bookies' 'get' list as a combination of expected drying ground (Easysland) and bad juju vibes (Tiger Roll) have seemingly conspired against their optimal chances.

In spite of all that, Easysland is no bigger than 11/10 to record his own double in a race whose alumni includes three dual winners. When ambling away a year ago from a flailing Tiger Roll, 17 lengths in the French raider's debt, it looked as though David Cottin's then seven-year-old star was destined for a long reign over the kingdom inside the main tracks. He'd already emerged as a contender on his sole previous Cheltenham cross country run, and win, in December 2019.

But, on better ground and up a chunk in the weights, Easysland was unable to reduce much of the margin lent to pace-setters Kingswell Theatre and Beau Du Brizais here last November. That pair had enjoyed an unpestered time of it on the sharp end throughout and pressed on before the turn for home, catching a number of their pursuers a tad unawares. It was Potters Corner who got closest to smashing the cartel up front, but he had to settle for third. Meanwhile, Tiger Roll - never travelling - was pulled up.

All of these, bar Beau Du Brizais, will re-engage, the market predicting a notably different finishing order off level weights. But is that right? After all, the weight changes are often an irrelevance, or at least of diminished relevance, in the type of 'bimble then sprint' setup that characterizes most cross country races.

Easysland was sent off at 8/11 for the November handicap on this course. He closed quite well but never looked like reeling in the leaders. His trainer has expressly stated that the good ground was against him; so, if the forecast dry days manifest and given the fact that there is no capability to water the cross country track, he could be vulnerable. Add in an interrupted preparation, where he missed two intended engagements, and evens or so looks a potential opportunity to oppose. But with whom?

Tiger Roll is closest in the betting but, since winning this and the Grand National in that glorious 2019 pre-Covid spring, he's run 52P6. The '5' and the '6' were to some extent by design, both prep races in the last two Boyne Hurdles, the '2' was that 17L silver in this race last year, and the 'P' in the November handicap here. Are those runs forgivable in the context of the Tiger's overall form?

When he won this in 2019, he had finished a five length 4th of seven in the November handicap version and then won - albeit as a shock 25/1 shot - the Boyne Hurdle. When he won this in 2018, he'd been a well beaten (42L) fifth in the December handicap version and then trained up to the race. So the pattern in finishing position terms is the same, but he was pulled up never going in the November handicap and then 65L last of six in the Boyne Hurdle. His price requires a Grand Canyon-esque leap of faith off the back of recent efforts even when cognisant of the Tiger Roll blueprint. It is worth saying that, although 'only' eleven, he's danced a LOT of dances since winning the Triumph Hurdle in 2014.

A similar price is Potters Corner, who did best of the late runners in the November handicap. He is a Welsh National winner, on heavy ground, and all of his best runs do seem to be when it's hock deep and a test. This quicker ground and relative foot race probably isn't ideal for Christian Williams' stable star. Moreover, there is every likelihood his main target is the Aintree showpiece, for all that Tiger Roll has shown the two races are not mutually exclusive.

The December cross country handicap was won last year by Some Neck, who had preceded that victory with a third place in the Risk Of Thunder Chase on Punchestown's banks course. He'll handle the presumed quickish ground fine and has done well for a relatively inexperienced banks horse but this is a deeper and classier contest than either of his previous two for all that there are question marks against the top three in the wagering.

Balko Des Flos has not won since 2018. March 2018. In the Ryanair Chase. Since then, the ten-year-old has run occasionally with minor credit mainly in Grade 1 company. This is a big class drop, and it might be that the infield discipline rejuvenates him. The drying ground would also be in his favour but reservations are stamina - even in a typically tactical race such as this it's still most of four miles and 32 obstacles - and the dearth of encouraging efforts since the Ryanair.

A third Gigginstown wheel is provided by Alpha Des Obeaux, second in a Stayers' Hurdle and fourth in an RSA way back when. He's long in the tooth now so, while he has oodles of back class, he's probably too mature.

But there might be some interesting contenders in the long grass. Take Le Breuil, for instance: winner of that National Hunt Chase in 2019, he has twice been second in smaller field tactical affairs on good ground here. This looks a good race for him for all that he lacks cross country experience, and he ought to give his followers a run for their money as a prominent racer with more than a dash of grit and class.

Or what about the aforementioned Kingswell Theatre, twice a winner of handicaps over course and distance? He obviously handles conditions just fine, but a Glenfarclas record of 06P is less exciting. If it came up rattling quick (and I really hope it doesn't) he'd probably lead them a dance until at least the home turn but on good to soft or slower, he won't have the class.

And still there's one more I want to mention. Horses often get a sighter of the course in November or December prior to running much better in the March 'final'. Tiger Roll did it; Cause Of Causes did it; and, this season, both Potters Corner and Kings Temptation have done it.

The latter, in training with Ben 'Croco Bay' Case and wearing the same owner's silks as that late lamented Grand Annual legend, came home not far behind Potters and Easys in November having never been anywhere near the front rank throughout. He's won six of 18 chase starts, one on good to firm and the other five on good, so quick is how he rolls; and he rattled off a Uttoxeter hat-trick in that context last summer at between three and three and a quarter miles. Since the November sighter, he's had a spin in a jumpers' bumper and now here he is. I quite liked that quiet effort over course and distance and, though there's every likelihood he's simply nowhere near good enough, he looks very well suited to the conditions of the race.

I'm not much keen on the chances of the rest.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

Odds on that Kingswell Theatre will lead. Easysland will probably be played from midfield, though connections may be mindful not to get too far back after the November episode (de Giles replaces Plouganou in the saddle). Hopefully Kings Temptation will be ridden in a much more 'interested' position this time.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

Backers of Easysland do have a few things to take on trust, fitness and ground being soft enough (can wait until nearer the time) principally. At around evens, I'd rather bet each way against him or without the favourite. Potters Corner ought to show up well if connections don't have one and a half eyes on the Grand National and, at a mad price, I've had a quid or two each way on Kings Temptation at 50/1. If you follow me in, don't whine if he's never even mentioned!

Suggestion: Back 6/1 Potters Corner each way. Hail Mary players might risk a shilling win and place on Kings Temptation at 50/1.

*

4.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m)

Impossible stuff, and often attritional stuff, too, with the field tearing all guns blazing from the start. Mercifully, it looks on paper to be slightly less rapid early than is generally the case. This has been won by some massive prices including 66/1 shot Croco Bay two years ago, but that winner was sandwiched between 'obvious' 15/2 Le Prezien and 7/2 (!) Chosen Mate, both unexposed novice or second season chasers.

It makes sense to have a crack at a few against the field, and I'll take one novice and two more experienced. My first experienced guess is Us And Them, second in the 2019 Arkle and third in this race last year. He's been biding his time for the repeat bid and, for a few no shows, gets one pound back off the handicapper. This has been the plan, no question.

A second non-novice guess is Moonlighter for that shrewd Nick Williams team. Since 2017, the yard has had three winners from 15 Festival handicap runners - one a year from 2017 to 2019. Just two runners last year included the reigning champ, Siruh Du Lac, which fell two out when still in the lead. Moonlighter was fifth in the handicap on Scilly Isles day at Sandown responsible for five previous winners of the Grand Annual. Ibleo won that day and re-opposes on a stone worse terms. Ouch. It might not stop him of course, but it probably will.

Moonlighter followed up that fifth with a win over the same Sandown course and distance and has his first run at Cheltenham. He looks to have better than a 20/1 chance.

Of the unexposed novices at the top of the market, easily the most compelling to my eye is Embittered. The Joseph O'Brien-trained Gigginstown entry was third in the County Hurdle last season and has been running with credit in Grade 1 novice chases against the likes of Energumene and Franco De Port this time around. A mark of 146 should enable a bold showing granted the safe passage and luck in transit that all contestants will need.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Not as mad a gallop on the cards as is sometimes the case, though On The Slopes, Us And Them and Glen Forsa ought to be front rank from the start. Hopefully be a nice even tempo.

Grand Annual Selection

Your guess is very likely better than mine. I think each of Us And Them, Moonlighter and Embittered has its chance; but so, too, do 17 others!

Suggestion: Try 16/1 Us And Them, or 6/1 Embittered each way; and add in 20/1 Moonlighter if you are happy to take three against the field, with as many extra places as you can lay hands on. Then get the prayer mat out.

*

4.50 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

A great race in prospect, with many stars of the future in the field. But who knows which will further advertise their nascent ability against this particular examination? Not most people if the market is anything to go by. Mucklemeg, Liberman, Missed That, Moon Racer and Envoi Allen are the only five jollies to justify favouritism since the race was incepted in 1992. Crikey. Why do favourites have such a poor record? Simply because there are so many unexposed horses stepping into Grade 1 from lower level facile wins that nobody really knows which way to turn.

This year it's tight at the top between an established Mullins inmate and a recent arrival courtesy of the Cheveley Park axis of the Gordon Elliott fallout: by name, Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard.

Kilcruit is my pin up boy, the more so since he's been torched by some sections (word used advisedly) of the press. He's won his two races this year in impressive fashion, most recently in the Grade 2 Future Stars bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival. He was simply much too good for a field of theretofore upwardly mobile opponents that day. But they went hard and they walked home, say the timing boys. Well, guess what? They'll probably go hard here and walk home, relatively at least. More material may be that this is going to be run on a very different surface and Kilcruit's grinding style may be compromised by that. But he's a very high class grinder who deserves to be favourite on what he's achieved; whether that's a blessing or a curse given the history of the market leaders is moot.

Threatening to usurp Kilcruit atop the wagering tree is Sir Gerhard, whose winning Rules form was when trained by Elliott. His profile is quite different - more about style than substance at this point - but he, like all of this field, is doubtless capable of plenty more yet. That's the challenge in betting the Bumper: we have to project by how much each horse might improve. On the clock Sir Gerhard regressed from first to second bumper run, but the manner of his win knocked the eye out. Style or substance? You pays your money, your takes your choice.

This is never a two horse race, depth a perennial feature. Three Stripe Life lines up for Mrs Foster, Elliott's super sub, and he was an easy winner on heavy ground in his sole run. That form hasn't been especially well advertised but stable confidence is high, the same stable having recently claimed this prize with Envoi Allen and the sadly ill-fated Fayonagh.

Mr Mullins meanwhile also deploys Ramillies, who travelled like a high class horse in Kilcruit's race before failing to pick up in the very deep ground. It wouldn't be a huge shock if he turned tables on less punishing terrain.

It is harder to make cases for the rest, though the mare Elle Est Belle's form has been well advertised albeit at a relatively ordinary level in the frame of this Grade 1. And, though I don't like four-year-olds in the Champion Bumper, Super Six surprised at Chepstow last time, winning easily as an 11/2 chance. His sectionals reveal a very fast finish off a fair early pace that day so, if he can travel with these, he might have a little to offer at the business end. He'd perhaps need to be in the Cue Card ability range to prevail as a four-year-old, mind. Unlikely, perhaps, but not impossible. Little is, least of all at the Cheltenham Festival.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

Hard to know what might happen here. Based on recent form, Fine Casting might take them along, from the likes of Ramillies, Shearer and Sir Gerhard. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Champion Bumper selection

I'm into Kilcruit for a bit and, as time passes, I get more apprehensive. Usually there are any number of unexposed types in opposition, though this year - as with other races - it seems less deep. Still, the likes of Sir Gerhard and Three Stripe Life retain similar 'could be anything' potential, while Ramillies is worth another chance in a fascinating renewal.

Suggestion: The obvious pair are the class of Sir Gerhard and the relentlessness of Kilcruit, but at the available odds it could be worth chancing Three Stripe Life or Ramillies each way.

*

Some fantastic racing, most notably a vintage Champion Chase, bring us to the halfway stage. It's a long week, though, and we've still to do as much again before the weekend.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day One Preview, Tips

After what has been as non-standard a run-up to the Festival as any in history, we are here, finally, and it is time for the talking to end and the racing to begin. Hallelujah.

Whether the micro of the constant buzzing of trainers who have "never had him better" or the macro media onslaught in light of the Elliott saga, racing fans have endured a put upon few weeks. But we're not here to talk about that; no, we're here to ponder the prospects of a pod of perfectly pristine quadruPeds. So let's get to that, pronto!

1.20 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Nothing is usual in 2021, not even the start time for the first roarless Supreme ever. Tune in at 1.30 and you'll likely be watching socially distanced post-race interviews, so that's perhaps the best tip you'll find in the following several thousand words: be ready at twenty-past-one!

Just eight go to post and, as is often the case in recent years, we've a strong favourite from the Willie Mullins stable to kick the week off. This time it is the seven-year-old Appreciate It, bidding to get the perma-champ off to a winning start. What? Seven years old, you say? Too old according to the trends. Erm, not really, no. You see, of the 17 seven-year-olds to run in the race since 2008, only four were priced at 14/1 or shorter: they finished first (17/2), third (4/5), fourth (14/1), fifth (14/1). Not bad at all.

It won't be age that beats Appreciate It. But it might be quicker turf, a theme which will apply to many runners this week. His entire career to date has been conducted on yielding or softer so good to soft is taken somewhat on trust. In fairness, the son of Jeremy's more visually impressive performances have come when the ground was less testing so there's a case to be made that he'll be better for less mud. I certainly am not looking to make a ground-based case against Appreciate It, whose dual Grade 1 scores in Irish novice hurdles are supported by running up in last season's Champion Bumper here: he has a rock solid chance for all that his price tells as much far more succinctly than I have.

His win in the Chanelle Pharma is probably the best piece of form coming into this, and the second there, Ballyadam, is a player here, too. He travelled up to within a length of Appreciate It but was then outstayed by the winner having bungled the final flight; but the way he travelled into contention suggests a sounder surface will be a plus to his chance. Ignoring a below par effort at Christmas, he is already a Grade 1 winning hurdler having taken the Royal Bond in late November. He's one of the Cheveley Park runners inherited by Henry de Bromhead from the Elliott yard.

The third from that Leopardstown Grade 1, Blue Lord, also lines up with a plausible chance. He was ridden 'cold' that day, making up a fair bit of ground but under heavy pressure to do so. That felt more of a staying performance, or else one where an all guns blazing early tempo over two miles would suit; this may not be that, and the County might have been a better option. What is worth saying is that if the Chanelle Pharma form works out here, Hook Up (fourth) will be an interesting contender in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle on Thursday.

One place behind Hook Up, in fifth, was Irascible. Beaten nine lengths by Appreciate It both here and in his previous start, in the Christmas Grade 1 over the same Leopardstown course and distance, he'd need to improve for the sounder surface to turn tables with that one. It's not impossible, but it does look unlikely.

The best of the British, on known form at least, looks to be Harry Fry's Metier. An easy winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle on heavy ground, he'll bid to replicate Summerville Boy's 2018 Tolworth-Supreme double. But it was heavy at Cheltenham in 2018, and Metier has yet to race on anything this quick over hurdles. His flat form was good but the pick of that was also when the wet was rife. For all that he's won his three hurdle races by five lengths-plus each time in the manner of one capable of more, I'm not convinced by the strength of his form and want to take him on at the price.

The second UK runner in the betting, Soaring Glory, is perhaps the more ascendant form wise. He won the Betfair Hurdle, a competitive 23-runner affair, by three easy lengths last month, travelling smoothly from mid-division and scampering clear. A very decent bumper horse last season, he took his time to get his jumping together as a novice hurdler this term, but is improving and might be one that needs a strong pace to run at. Whether he gets that in this short field is unclear, though For Pleasure and possibly Appreciate It and/or Grumpy Charley may make it a fair test.

Grumpy Charley and For Pleasure are both worthy entries in this representing smaller owners and trainers, and I hope they run creditably. But I can't see them winning even though I did back the latter for this on Boxing Day. He was 50/1 then and will be that price on the day!

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

For Pleasure is the confirmed front runner in this field, but both Appreciate It and Grumpy Charley have led more often than not recently. It ought to be an even tempo given the smaller field and run style versatility of most participants.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

I don't especially rate the home challenge in this - and might well be proven wrong on that - so it's all about the Chanelle Pharma form for me. Appreciate It is the right favourite and, if handling the quicker ground, ought to win. But I'm backing Ballyadam each way. He's a stronger traveller than the jolly, something likely to be more of a factor on good to soft than soft to heavy and, though his jumping is a slight concern - as is what he finds off the bridle - he looks quite hard to keep out of the frame.

Suggestion: The Supreme is the 'load up' race where all bookies want you to deposit to your betting accounts and play with them. To that end, offers abound and you should take advantage of any and all of them. It's worth putting some time into it because, honestly, nobody able to access concessions should lose on the Supreme. Read the T's & C's, caveat emptor, et cetera.

A few of note are Skybet's £10 max stake money back as cash if you lose (first bet only), MansionBet's paying out as a winner if your horse is second (£10 max stake, £250 max return), and Hill's £10 max stake money back as cash if second (first bet only).

I'm backing 11/2 Ballyadam, and may have a tiny e/w on 25/1 Irascible who probably did too much on the front last time.

*

1.55 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The Supreme looks a fascinating and classy race, but the Arkle looks a blinding screamer, or a screaming blinder if you prefer. Or 'looked'. Shishkin, unbeaten in seven completed starts under Rules, versus Energumene, unbeaten in his last five, versus Allmankind, unbeaten in three over fences. Throw in cameos from the likes of Captain Guinness and Franco De Port and it's a race to truly savour. But... the withdrawal of Energumene due to a minor setback has robbed this Arkle of a major part of its lustre.

In the absence of the pick of the Irish novice speed chasers this season, it looks a more straightforward cat and mouse affair between the pace horse, Allmankind, and the class horse, Shishkin.

Allmankind has got one way of racing and that's hard on the front end; if another horse tries to lock horns with him, the balance of probabilities is that the other horse, or both duellers, will be spent before the final climb to the jam stick. It would have been fascinating to see how Energumene, also a confirmed front-runner, would have handled that sort of a challenge.

In the revised line up, where just six go to post, what is most compelling about is that, if Allmankind gets an 'easy' on the lead, he may be more of a danger to Shishkin than if Energumene had been present and had taken him on; in that latter scenario, which I think was most likely - to some degree at least - the dial moved in favour of Shishkin, who will bide his time behind whatever speed plays out in front of him. But now Allmankind may get his way a little more easily up top and, as a result, will likely get closer to the winning line before getting overhauled, if indeed he is overhauled.

But still, I feel this sets up perfectly for Shishkin, who has shown he can take a position wherever and outclass his opposition. True, his Grade 1 form is over hurdles, but that was here in last season's Supreme; and he's yet to face more than three runners in three chase starts. But his form got a reasonable boost when Tamaroc Du Mathan, 13 lengths in his debt at Kempton at Christmas, won a Grade 2 last month.

And what of the rest? Captain Guinness and Franco De Port both add depth.

Captain Guinness has arguably run his best two races when failing to get round: first when brought down at the second last while still well in contention in last year's Supreme, and then when challenging Energumene for the lead and taking a soft fall - again at the second last - in the Irish Arkle last month. But there's also the pulled up effort when found to be clinically abnormal post-race on chasing debut, and that combination of misfortunes makes for a Scrabble rack of form: B-P12F and a growing list of excuses. Regardless, assuming he stands up, he has strong podium claims.

Franco De Port is the wise guy 'pieces play'. He got the whole lot when Felix Desjy and Benruben blasted off in front in the Leopardstown Grade 1 Novice Chase at Christmas, and he was good enough to come through for a respectful second to Energumene in another Grade 1 over the same course and distance last time. There was no pace collapse for him to run at there and his case is largely based on a searing early gallop, which looks less likely since the withdrawal of Energumene.

Eldorado Allen is interesting: as Colin Tizzard was confirming on Racing TV he was running in the Grand Annual, declarations closed and he'd been left in the Arkle. Oops. He was easily brushed aside by Shishkin at Doncaster last time and, though Tizzard claims the horse "was wrong" that day, it is very difficult to see a reversal of placings especially given this was apparently not the plan anyway.

That leaves Numitor, who has a lot to find on form but who may have a part to play in the race as a confirmed front-runner. I'm not sure he can live with Allmankind given he's rated 32 pounds inferior to that one, but he might set the Skelton horse alight over the first couple of fences. Still, the likelihood is that Allmankind should be able to swat the attentions of that pace-pressing interloper without too much ado.

Arkle Pace Projection

It will be quick early but possibly not mega-quick. That depends on how long Numitor can lay up with Allmankind (or whether the former will be ridden more conservatively in a bid to finish his race off). Regardless, Shishkin and Captain Guinness will take a lead with Franco De Port and Eldorado Allen likely to be played later.

Arkle Chase Selection

It's quite possible that I've underrated Allmankind who does a lot early in his races but still has a bit left late on and who is a Grade 1 winner over fences. But I see this going readily to Shishkin and the exacta being completed by either Captain Guinness or Franco De Port, probably the Captain.

Suggestion: Back Shishkin to beat Captain Guinness in an exacta, or Captain Guinness without the favourite..

*

2.30 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

The first of the Festival handicaps is historically one of the more predictable puzzles to unravel. Indeed, while Gold Chieftain, Chief Dan George and Joes Edge each returned between 28/1 and 50/1 when prevailing, the other 17 winners this century returned 14/1 or shorter, with 15 of them at 10/1 or shorter.

Tony Martin won this in 2006, Francois Doumen in 2005 and Christy Roche in 2003, but generally speaking this is for British-based trainers. Jonjo O'Neill and David Pipe have each won it thrice, Nicky Henderson twice.

Applying a few weighting factors (don't ask), my shortlist is Happygolucky, Aye Right, One For The Team and Nietzsche.

Kim Bailey trains Happygolucky. Bailey has saddled three runners in the Ultima since 1997, Bettys Boy winning in 1999 and Vinndication running fourth last year. Somewhere in between was an outsider that pulled up. This chap is lightly raced and has excellent track form including a Festival fourth of 23 in last year's Martin Pipe handicap hurdle. That ticks the big field, class and course boxes, and a novice chase win at this distance - on the New Course here, this is the Old Course - is another feather in his cap. He's a rubbish price but should go very well.

Aye Right is a better price, almost double Happygolucky's, and has excellent handicap form including seconds in the Ladbroke Trophy (Hennessy as was) and Sky Bet Chase this season. He's inched up the handicap eight pounds for not winning which seems harsh but he's earned those increments for nearly winning multiple times. He might nearly win again here - was a fair fifth of ten in last year's RSA at the track - and I backed him after my mate Gavin Priestley of nagnagnag and Festival Trends fame told me I ought to. Think I'll probably do the field to beat Aye Right exactas...

One For The Team is seemingly a bit less obvious, but he does represent the shrewd Festival handicap firm of Nick Williams. Four starts in chase company this term, three in novices/beginners' and last time in the Sky Bet mean he's an upwardly mobile novice. While his Sky Bet fifth was a touch underwhelming (sent off 5/1), all of his best form is on a sounder surface than the soft turf that day. Prior to Doncaster last time, he was close to top novices in Graded company.

Nietzsche is a lot more left field. He's never run over this trip and was last seen chasing home Sky Pirate at a distance in third over two miles. Clearly pacier than many in the field, he's the sort that if he stays could hit the board. He's a 25/1 shot which feels reasonable enough.

As always in the handicaps, though slightly less so this year given the smaller fields, plenty more with chances.

Ultima Pace Projection

A good even gallop looks likely. Aye Right, Happygolucky, Pym and The Wolf could be to the fore, so too possibly Milan Native and Vintage Clouds. But none of these is an out-and-out need the lead type so expect common sense to prevail. All the fancied runners should be in the front half of the field early to mid-race; some of them will still be there at the end!

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: The prices have collapsed on the top few. Happygolucky, Aye Right and One For The Team are only about 11/10 combined but that's perhaps not a terrible price given they all come here with strong credentials and, in two cases, upside to boot. SkyBet are paying seven places - a fifth the odds - in this. Use them if they're price competitive and you're able to get a bet on there. Nietzsche is the seven places play.

*

3.05 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

The day one highlight is the Champion Hurdle which, this year, features a shoot out between two top class mares who both won on this day last year and a five-year-old gelding who should have won by half the track a year ago last Friday. They are, respectively, reigning champ Epatante, Mares' Hurdle winner Honeysuckle, and the desperately unlucky Triumph Hurdle last flight faller, Goshen.

Since last March, the trio have taken divergent paths. Epatante was a facile scorer in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November but was then surprisingly beaten (at odds of 1/5) in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle in late December. She's not yet been seen in 2021. Trainer Nicky Henderson insists he has isolated whatever the issue was when she under-performed at Christmas and, if he has, Epatante remains the one to beat: she's a pure two-miler who handles good to soft well and she has bundles of class.

But she's not the favourite. That honour is Honeysuckle's, the Henry de Bromhead-trained mare's unbeaten career now extending to ten races, six of them in Grade 1's and five of them against males. If that's the good news - and it is very good - then the reservations are twofold: trip, and ground. Honeysuckle has only raced over the minimum three times, scoring by 3 1/2 lengths in a good ground Listed hurdle, by half a length from Darver Star in last year's Irish Champion Hurdle on yielding, and by ten lengths from Abacadabras on soft to heavy in this year's Irish Champion Hurdle.

So she's a dual Grade 1 scorer at two miles, what's the problem? The problem - if indeed it is one - is that she was entitled to win the Listed contest, she scraped home against Darver Star, and it was very deep ground when she won last time. The combination of quicker ground and the shorter trip might - only might - find her out. And, at 9/4 or so, that's enough to put me off a touch. On the flip side, this does look like being a proper test with three confirmed trailblazers in the field, and she has proven class and stamina.

Goshen has been both the Messiah and a very naughty boy in the past twelve months. Fate conspired horribly against him in the Triumph Hurdle last year when, with the race in bar-a-fall safekeeping, he got his hooves tangled together on the landing side of the final flight and came down. It was such a freak incident and devilishly unfortunate. After that, Gary Moore's stable star went missing in action for a while: beaten a couple of times on the flat when better was expected and then completely flunking in the International Hurdle in December.

He could have been backed at 25/1 after that minor catastrophe but was no bigger than 9/2 after romping away with the Kingwell Hurdle last month. So which Goshen will we see this time? It's hard to say, particularly as a literal reading of the 22-length margin at Wincanton seems ill-advised. I am a massive fan of this horse, but from a value perspective cannot bet him at his current price. An interesting side note is that Champion Hurdle day will be Goshen's fifth birthday.

One I did back, at 6/1 (current odds 8/1, sigh) shortly before he notably under-performed, was Abacadabras. Second to Shishkin by a small margin in the Supreme last season, he's since run second to Aspire Tower, beaten Saint Roi, clunked behind Sharjah, and finished those ten lengths behind Honeysuckle. In spite of all that, he's flirting with a single figure price as I write. Why? Well there's that course and distance run last year, and there is also the contention that he will prefer this better ground and, crucially, more pace to run at.

The under-rated horse in the field is Silver Streak. I am as guilty as anyone of picking holes in his form, but he just keeps on turning up and running with enormous credit. Third in Espoir D'Allen's 2019 Champion Hurdle, he was only sixth in the race last year (on soft); but to that he can add a win and a second in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle and third in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth. His best form appears to be on better ground and he ought to produce another bold effort.

Last year's runner up, Sharjah, tries again and the Willie Mullins-trained four-time Grade 1 winner has a squeak on his best form; but his best form is pretty much all at Leopardstown, ignoring that fine effort in this race a year ago. Naturally, we should not ignore that effort and he is yet another runner who cannot be discounted.

Mullins also saddles the unknown quantity, to British and Irish audiences at least, James Du Berlais. Second in two French Grade 1's, most recently when chinned by the width of a waffery-thin mint, the drop back to two miles on quickish ground is far more of a speed test than the two and a half on heavy he's been facing all season. Regardless, he has a high cruising speed and some class; whether he can lay up with these, I don't know, but he's probably about the right price if you wanted to invest in the answer to that question.

Aspire Tower's form ties in with Goshen, Abacadabras and Sharjah and, on those form lines he has a mountain to climb with an on-song Goshen but nothing at all to find with the other pair. I'm still generally wary of five-year-olds in the Champion Hurdle and he wouldn't be my idea of the winner.

Although a dual Grade 1 winner, Saldier is very hard to fancy off the back of two last place beaten out of sight efforts.

Not So Sleepy is occasionally not so fussed about being a racehorse but, on his day, he's pretty good. A front-runner normally, he adds to the pace of Goshen and Aspire Tower to ensure it will be a truly run affair. He was pulled up in this last year on soft ground and a similar outcome looks probable given the perceived early speed contention.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

Fast. Each of Goshen, Not So Sleepy and Aspire Tower has led in three of their prior four starts, and raced prominently on the other occasion. Silver Streak also led last time though is generally happy to be handy.

Champion Hurdle Selection

I love Goshen but I don't see him winning this. The mares at the head of the market deserve to be there and they may dominate. Which wins is tougher: I do harbour concerns about the trip on quickish ground for Honeysuckle whereas Epatante looked bombproof before her Christmas flunk. If she's back, she's definite value at north of 3/1 - obviously you have to factor that 'if' into the price. If there is one with which to take them on, it might be Abacadabras who ran his best race in the Supreme on the same day last year and for whom the strong pace will be a plus.

Suggestion: The bookies look to have this about right in the win market, but 8/1 Abacadabras is a reasonable each way or place only play. Epatante at 7/2 is perfectly fair enough as a win proposition although, as mentioned, there is little value to be had in this very mature market.

*

3.40 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

The fact that this was won last year by Honeysuckle and that there is a perennial debate about the favourites ducking either the Stayers' or Champion Hurdles is a testament to the quality of mare who shows up here. As we know, Honey goes the Champion route this time, leaving last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle winner, Concertista, with an open goal. Or at least it might have been had not Roksana decided to swerve the Stayers' and, erm, Rok up in opposition.

That's good for the race, which has featured some terrific head-to-heads in recent years, including Honeysuckle versus Benie Des Dieux last term, and which was looking a little one-sided until Roksana routed here. Still, it remains a shallow enough heat and a shock is unlikely.

Concertista had been a fair but not great flat filly for Christophe Ferland in France, winning once in a ten furlong handicap, before changing hands at the Arqana summer sale for €75,000. Not a snip at the time but neither was it a king's ransom, especially with the benefit of hindsight as we now know that this is the game for which she was made. On her debut for Willie Mullins, after 620 days off the track, she ran a fantastic second in the inaugural Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at the 2019 Festival.

The plan after that was clearly to come back in 2020 for the same race, and she duly danced home by a dozen lengths in a field of 22! Since then she's won a couple of minor Graded stakes with this day in mind throughout. Willie Mullins is a peerless target trainer with his mares - see Quevega, Benie Des Dieux, Annie Power - and Concertista looks the next on that particular conveyor belt of female stars.

She's probably not achieved a lot in beating the same rival - Minella Melody - twice, although the well beaten third from the second of those wins, Black Tears, has won a Grade 3 since and re-opposes here. Black Tears herself has Festival back class having run second in the Coral Cup last season. She's a strong travelling sort who handles big fields well - a pity then that this is the third smallest field in the (short) history of the race.

Returning to Roksana, the Dan Skelton-trained mare has looked superb at three miles this season, improving her official rating, her Racing Post Ratings, and her Topspeed ratings. Strange that connections have opted for the two and a half mile Mares' rather than the three mile Stayers', and a bit of a shame in my view. Still it does make for an interesting battle: Concertista is arguably better at two miles, Roksana at three, and here they both are compromising at two and a half.

Black Tears is a two-and-a-half miler but not at the level of the other pair, a comment which applies equally to the failed chaser, Dame De Compagnie. Failed chaser is a little harsh as she won her first fencing start and was all but brought down on her only other attempt. Still, redirection into the Mares' Hurdle field looks a fair move given she won last year's Coral Cup, in which Black Tears was second, and she won it going away. Her Cheltenham record is three wins from five starts and she's trained by Nicky Henderson, who is Champions League class at the Festival. She may actually prove a more potent threat to Concertista than Roksana given her affection for the trip and her change of gear.

It is very difficult to make a case for the remainder, though Indefatigable also has great Cheltenham form including when winning the Martin Pipe last time under an inspired withering run from geegeez-sponsored jockey, Rex Dingle. She has little to find with Dame De Compagnie on an old line of form but she does have to overcome a lamentable effort last time. Minella Melody has, as mentioned, run second to Concertista twice this term so it wouldn't be a shock if she finished in the same parish for a third time; and Great White Shark has some excellent handicap form, both on the flat (three-length winner of the Cesarewitch) and over hurdles (won the Guinness Handicap Hurdle at the Galway Festival, third to Indefatigable in the the Martin Pipe last year).

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

A good even gallop looks most likely with Floressa and Minella Melody front rank, followed by My Sister Sarah and Black Tears. Concertista and Roksana are expected to be played late.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

Concertista looks the most likely winner by far, something a very quick glance at the betting would tell you. I liked the way Dame De Compagnie ran through the line over this trip at the Festival last year and, reverting to hurdles, she might be the each way thievery play. I've loved Roksana throughout her career but she has looked so good over three miles this term that it's a surprise she drops back down here, especially after getting beaten a dozen lengths in the race a year ago. You can't bet them all and she's the one I'd take on here (though I'd have backed her in the Stayers').

Suggestion: Bet Concertista to win if you like, she ought to at least nearly do that. Or play Dame De Compagnie each way or without the favourite.

*

4.15 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter, Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

Wednesday's placepot nightcap is now Tuesday's placepot leg six and it's not easier for the change of day. I'm not going to get too stuck in to the form here. It's a guess up, plain and simple, a case of who can deceive the handicapper the best. Or, more politely, who has most scope to improve from their current mark. The sportsman in me wants Cabot Cliffs or Saint Sam to win as they've been campaigned with their light out front; the cynic in me sees something like Coltor going in.

But, in all seriousness, I haven't a clue. Tough race to close out the placepot.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection

Fast, frantic, furious, frenetic, ferocious and other adjectives beginning with 'f'. Doubtful stayers need not apply.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection

In the spirit of almost anything being capable of winning, I'll chuck a fiver at Longclaw, whose history is fascinating. A juvenile on the flat for Gordon Elliott, he ran third in a minor Stakes race at Keeneland, USA, worth a quarter of a million quid in August 2019. After one further run in the States, for Brad Cox, he shipped back to Elliott where he signed off his flat career with a six length maiden verdict. A few weeks later he recorded the first of back to back hurdle successes before a slightly disappointing effort in a Listed hurdle at Wetherby. That was in late October and he's not been seen since, now running for the John McConnell yard.

Interesting back story and some class make 33/1 worth that cheeky fiver for all that the French-bred's will probably run amok.

Suggestion: Ask Mr Felt Tippy.

*

4.50 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)

The closing line of the opening stanza of this year's Cheltenham Festival belongs to the National Hunt Chase. Two years ago, the race made headlines for all the wrong reasons; as a result of that, some sensible changes were introduced, most notably a reduction in distance by a quarter mile. This year, because of the pandemic, there will be no amateur riders either. A welcome relief in some cases, though most of those getting the leg up in recent years have been somewhere between competent and excellent horsemen and women.

The Gold Cup-bound Royale Pagaille had added some interest to the five-day entries but his absence leaves the door ajar for Galvin et al. Galvin, heretofore trained by Elliott, has moved to Ian Ferguson. "Who?", you might ask. Ferguson has trained a Festival winner for Galvin's owner, Ronnie Bartlett, Zemsky first past the post in the 2011 Foxhunters'. And, apparently, he also did the pre-training for this chap. Let's talk about Galvin's form.

A very good novice he was a regular visitor to Britain during his bumper and early novice hurdle days, before getting a chase mark by being beaten three times in Irish novice races. The handbrake was off in the final running of the Novices' Handicap Chase - gone but not forgotten, making way this year for the inaugural Mares' Chase - but he couldn't catch Imperial Aura up the hill. A non-winner in his first season over fences, then, he's since won four on the bounce, all in small fields at trips between two and a half and three miles, all on decent ground. The last of them was at Cheltenham in October, 144 days ago; so, while dodging the worst of the ground is understandable for one who likes it 'on top', fitness must be taken on trust. A positive to that end is that he'd been off for 105 days prior to the silver medal in the novices' handicap chase a year ago.

Next Destination, representing Paul Nicholls, was expected to line up in the RSA - sorry, Brown Advisory - but, wisely swerving Monkfish, lands in here. Galvin backers thrilled at the absence of Royale Pagaille will have been less pleased at the presence of this fellow. He's a nine-year-old, which is more a plus than a minus on recent evidence: two of the last three winners were aged ten, with Midnight Legend in 2014 aged nine. That's from a far smaller representation of runners than the younger age brackets.

Good enough to win a couple of Grade 1's for Willie Mullins in 2018, he switched to Nicholls after a protracted layoff and his new trainer has conditioned him to win consecutive Grade 2 novice events. The balance of his form is better than Galvin's and yet he is twice the price.

Another whose expected Festival target was different from his actual slot is Escaria Ten, hitherto presumed for a handicap. A progressive type he's yet to test his mettle in official Graded class but has run in beginners' and novice chases against established Grade 1 horses like Monkfish and Eklat De Rire. He has to show both that he can win in Graded class and that he handles quicker turf, and that combination is enough for me to think he's not excitingly priced.

Similarly, all of Lord Royal's Irish form to date is on very soft ground; but the Willie Mullins inmate did finish second in a mile and a half maiden on good ground on his sole flat run in France. He was a talking horse after putting up a  massive effort on time figures at Clonmel in January last year, and was threatening to do the same when coming down late in his chase debut at Thurles. He was well enough beaten next time over a shorter trip but, upped to three miles last time, kept on best and just failed to reel in the leader. This longer trip looks sure to suit and, if his jumping holds together, he's a player.

David Pipe has a few live ones this Festival, and Remastered could be one of them. Unbeaten in three chases, most recently the three mile Reynoldstown, a Grade 2, he has performed almost exclusively in soft and heavy turf. While it may not be a prerequisite it remains hard to peg his ability on faster terrain given he's now had 16 races. He probably doesn't have the upside that some of these do for all that he'd not be a shock winner.

Snow Leopardess usually runs well, but usually in defeat and, in spite of her seven pound allowance, she is not for me. The rest look to have plenty on their plates.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

This should be run at an even to strong tempo, probably more even than strong, with Remastered and Lord Royal expected to be front rank. The Malcolm Denmark pair of Next Destination and Soldier Of Love may be close up along with Snow Leopardess. Galvin and Escaria Ten are typically waited with a little more.

National Hunt Chase Selection

Galvin looks to have a fair chance but the combination of his price, a five month layoff and a lack of Graded form put me off. Next Destination on the other hand has a run this year, strong Graded form and a nice profile - and he's double the odds of Galvin. He looks a bet.

Suggestion: Back Next Destination to win or each way if you prefer, at 4/1. Hills will refund up to £10 stake in cash if your pick finishes second (3/1+) so if you fear Galvin, or another, that might be worth considering.

*

A fascinating first day, light on numbers but not at all in terms of interest or class. It gets trickier as the week progresses and personally I'll have a fair idea of my four-day fate at the end of the first quarter.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Four Preview, Tips

It's Friday 13th, Gold Cup Day, the last of four glorious afternoons in the Cotswolds for the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. As well as the Blue Riband itself, there are further Grade 1's in the form of the Triumph and Albert Bartlett Hurdles, devilish handicaps and a hunter chase! It all starts with the juniors in the...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

As fascinating a Triumph Hurdle as I can remember, with established Grade 1 horses, uber-impressive ungraded winners, and a Johnny Come Lately catapulted to favouritism.

Let's start with Johnny, or maybe Jeannie - the ex-French Solo. Trained by Paul Nicholls, he burst onto the scene with a visually stunning performance in the Grade 2 Adonis at Kempton last month. That recognised trial saw him put 13 lengths between himself and Fujimoto Flyer, the latter considered a Triumph contender when the tapes rose but perhaps not as they passed the jam stick.

So, yes, visually impressive; but the race time was the slowest of three on the card over that two mile trip, and there was little to encourage in Solo's sectional splits. He's entitled to improve and will shock nobody if he wins but I'm not quite believing it yet.

Vying for market primacy is the win beast, Goshen. In three goes over hurdles, he's won by 23 lengths, 34 lengths and 11 lengths. Prior to that he'd won his three flat handicaps by 12 lengths, nine lengths and seven lengths. The form of his most recent hurdle start was franked when the second, Nordano, waltzed home by 16 lengths in a competitive-looking Class 2 handicap at Ascot.

Goshen has yet to race in a Graded heat, and he does jump markedly right sometimes, but he's very, very good.

And then there's Allmankind, another talented but mild headcase. He won the Grade 1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow last time, but that was in late December. Here we are, eleven weeks later, and the Dan Skelton-trained son of Sea The Moon has not been sighted since. That won't necessarily stop him, of course, and he has a win at Cheltenham previously, too. He is a bold front-runner and, unlike Goshen - who also likes to go from the front, he probably needs to lead.

Aspire Tower is another who has both been ante post favourite for the Triumph, like all those mentioned so far, and generally races front rank, like all bar Solo of those mentioned so far. He was in a scrap when coming down at the last in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle but had previously looked very impressive in turning away Wolf Prince by 18 lengths in a Grade 2.

The chief beneficiary of Aspire's last day tumble was A Wave Of The Sea, who repelled Wolf Prince by just a length and a quarter. Given that he was 35 lengths behind Aspire Tower in that previous G2 and that Wolf was 18 lengths back that day, it is fair to assume that Aspire Tower did not bring his A game. If that's right, and his previous form can be believed, then he is a certain player in this field. A Wave Of The Sea meanwhile has had many tries and looks vulnerable in what is, ostensibly at least, a deep field.

Sir Psycho and the rest look to have a heck of a lot to find.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Plenty of pace with Allmankind likely to prove the 'speed of the speed'. Goshen and Aspire Tower will be bang there if recent evidence is any guide.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

I've backed Goshen at a good price and I hope - obvs! - that he wins. I think if he can settle behind Allmankind in the early stages he'll have a solid chance, though I am a little concerned about the drying ground. I don't want to be with Allmankind for all that I respect what he's done so far and I think Solo is pretty short though he may improve again - which would see him take plenty of beating. Perhaps the forgotten horse, if there is one, is Aspire Tower, whose form prior to his last flight fall last time was much the best in Ireland. His trainer, Henry de Bromhead, is having a terrific Festival.

Suggestion: Consider backing Aspire Tower at 6/1 general.

*

2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Too difficult. Way too difficult. But there is an interesting stat relating to trainers of recent winners: since 2004, the surnames Nicholls, Mullins, and Skelton have won 13 of 16 renewals of the County Hurdle!

Paul Nicholls has four, Willie Mullins has four also, Dan Skelton has three (in the last four years), and Tom and Tony Mullins have one apiece in that time frame. Given how many runners there are in this race, that is a remarkable stat, to my eye at least.

Those vying for favouritism are trained by Willie (Ciel De Neige and Aramon, plus four others) and Dan (Mohaayed), with Paul Nicholls' pair, Christopher Wood and Scaramanga bigger prices.

Skelton's winners were 8/1, 12/1 and 33/1, the 33/1 shot - Mohaayed - being 9/1 this time in spite of no obvious recent form and looking a plot. Nicholls' winners were 4/1, 7/1, 11/1 and 20/1, while Willie's winners were 10/1, 20/1 twice and 25/1.

So I want to risk a Willie wunner at a pwice. It's that sort of wace.

His fancied horse, Aramon, sets the form standard on a fifth place in the Irish Champion Hurdle, form advertised since by both the winner, Honeysuckle - winner of the Mares' Hurdle, and the second, Darver Star - third in the Champion Hurdle. He has a lot of weight but that didn't stop Arctic Fire for the same team three years ago. Paul Townend, winner in 2017 and 2015, rides.

Ciel De Neige was second at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle. Whilst he has more progression and fits the unexposed five-year-old route into the race, he's got a fair bit to find with Aramon. He might find it but Barry Geraghty, who presumably had the pick, has opted for Saint Roi, another in the Willie camp. That one was third in a Listed race at Auteuil on his second run and has since scored in maiden company to show the requisite level for a rating eligible for this. He's very much at the right end of the handicap but whether he quite has the experience for a County shemozzle I don't know: he's a player if he does.

Mohaayed has had a wind op since last seen 83 days ago. He was a nine length seventh in this last year off an 11lb higher mark and this has been the plan, plain and simple, for a team who have made this race their own in recent times. I'll be looking elsewhere though more fool me if he wins.

As usual, lots more with chances.

County Hurdle Pace Map

Not too intensive a pace by the look of things, but that can change in the cauldron of a race like the County. An even gallop is the percentage play.

County Hurdle Selection

Very tricky stuff, and I think I'll side - for beer money only - with Aramon. I like his class, that Irish Champion Hurdle form looking bulletproof if he can handle the war that is a County Hurdle scrap.

Suggestion: Back Aramon each way at 9/1 (six places) 888sport

*

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The Albert Bartlett is the race at which to take a swing at the Festival. It is habitually won by horses who can travel and stay off a strong gallop, and the top of the market is habitually framed around horses that have shown class rather than stamina/resolution in small field jigjogs (relatively).

Since At Fisher's Cross in 2013, who won as the 11/8 favourite, we have now witnessed six double-digit odds winners in a row, including 33/1 and 50/1 scorers in the past two years, a 33/1 winner in 2014, as well as a 33/1 winner in 2010. Go long!

Naturally, there are obvious form cases to be made for those near the head of affairs, most notably perhaps Thyme Hill, who has hinted at wanting a greater stamina test throughout his novice hurdles career to date. Hinted at it but not yet proven his aptitude for it.

So here's a little micro angle: horses that finished top four in a Graded race last time and were priced between 16/1 and 50/1 for the Albert Bartlett won five from 31, placed another four times, and netted 139 points of SP profit. Four of them were trained in Ireland. Back-fitted? A bit. Vague underlying logic? Yes'm.

Those at double-digit prices roughly fitting the bill include Cobbler's Way, Fury Road and Ramses De Teillee. Cobbler's Way was second to Latest Exhibition in the Nathaniel Lacy last month: having led, he got outpaced before coming back at the winner after the last, going down by two lengths. This stiffer test looks up his street.

Fury Road, like Cobbler's owned by Gigginstown, was the winner of a heavy ground near-three mile Grade 2 prior to being outpaced in the same race as Cobbler's. He too will prefer this test.

Ramses De Teillee is a typically hard-knocking type who has largely plied his trade in handicap chases. This season, switching to timber, he's three from three, all at three miles, two of them on heavy ground, and two in Grade 2 company. A win on good to soft demonstrates versatility in terms of the going, and there are many who have long held a candle for his chance.

The one at bigger prices is House Island. I'm not sure he'll stay for all that he might have just got outpaced the last twice in Grade 2's; but most of his racing has been on flat tracks.

Latest Exhibition is a more obvious form chance, having beaten both Cobbler's and Fury last time; so too Harry Senior, who beat House Island last time. That, of course, is well reflected in their odds.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This could be fast early, which would make for slow motion stuff at the other end. Any or all of House Island, Aione, Cat Tiger, Cobbler's Way and Ramses De Teillee are perennial pace pushers, with another five or so generally prominent. No hiding place looks the likely call.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

I want to take two at longer prices against those at the head of the betting, for all that it's a strategy that will fail at some point soon. My pair are Ramses De Teillee, for whom this test is demonstrably his cup of tea; and Cobbler's Way, who has more to come and might find it for the stiffer demands.

Suggestion: Back Ramses De Teillee at 12/1 and/or Cobbler's Way at 14/1.

*

3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

A dozen head to post for a cracking Gold Cup where established players, including the defending champion, take on the next generation of aspirants.

The champ is Al Boum Photo, an eight-year-old trained by Willie Mullins. He gave Mullins a maiden Gold Cup win last term and won the same Tramore Grade 3 on New Year's Day as he did last year en route to victory. We know he's well and we know he's at the same level as last year. If he can traverse the obstacles error-free - a fair 'if' - he has a really good chance of doubling up.

The fact that no horse has won back-to-back Gold Cups since Best Mate rounded out a hat-trick in 2004 attests to the difficulty of defending the title, and there are plenty of legitimate rivals throwing their hats into the ring. Santini, last year's RSA Chase runner-up, is perhaps foremost among them.

Nicky Henderson's charge had an interrupted preparation ahead of last year's Festival but has sailed serenely to the starting line (so far) this term. He has enhanced his claims with a pair of small field wins, first at Sandown where he made hard work of despatching Now McGinty, and then in the Cotswold Chase across these undulations when barreling away from Bristol De Mai. That form showed that staying is Santini's strong suit, but it also showed that he can take a liberty or two on the way round.

A couple of lengths behind Santini in last year's RSA was Delta Work, whose 2019/20 campaign has seen him win the Grade 1 Savills Chase and Irish Gold Cup. With Al Boum Photo in absentia on both occasions, Delta Work has staked his claim to be the best of the rest of the Irish, seeing off the re-opposing Monalee, Kemboy and Presenting Percy.

But there were barely four lengths from first to fifth-placed Percy there, which equates to a single mistake out in the country during the more than three and a quarter miles of the Gold Cup trip; and that brings in those last day vanquished.

Monalee was closest, just a head behind, and that after jockey Rachael Blackmore lost an iron on the run in, a very rare missed cue from a brilliant rider. She'll be keen to make amends but Monalee may have stamina limitations over this test.

Kemboy has had an interesting year, with his ownership being disputed through the courts as a syndicate turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. On the track, he's twice been close behind Delta Work since winning at both Aintree and Punchestown last spring. All four of those runs were in Grade 1's, but he didn't get beyond the first fence in last year's Gold Cup where he unshipped David Mullins. The odd sticky jump is a feature of his game though he generally gets around and often wins.

Presenting Percy has looked a lost soul in the last couple of seasons but he came back to close to his best in that Irish Gold Cup, for all that he has five lengths to find with Delta Work. The proximity of the above quartet leads me to believe this year's Gold Cup will either be won by something else, or it's a very competitive renewal. Probably, though not definitely, the latter.

I'm a fan of Clan Des Obeaux, but not in the context of a Gold Cup. He's got plenty of speed, as shown in two King George victories, but he seemed to run out of puff as they passed the three mile marker in this last year. A different prep, with two fewer battles, this season may offer a touch more late-race energy but I feel there are stronger stayers in the field.

Colin Tizzard is always to be respected with staying types and he saddles Lostintranslation. Hailed by many as the most likely Gold Cup winner in the early part of the season, he has not run since pulling up in the King George. There he couldn't go the pace, something which may be less of a concern in a field not loaded with early sizzle; but he's bidding to be the first winner to have pulled up last time since Cool Dawn in 1998.

Henry de Bromhead's team are in excellent fettle and he runs Chris's Dream. A near ten length winner of the big field Troytown Handicap Chase advertised his top drawer credentials, which he's subsequently rubber stamped by winning the Red Mills Chase, a Grade 2 over an inadequate two and a half miles. A second season chaser, he'll have to improve a good bit again, but he's risen from 146 to 160 to 165 in his last three starts, stays and jumps well, and handles all ground.

For all that I don't want to back him, I wouldn't put anyone off a small each way tickle on Bristol De Mai. Second in the Cotswold Chase behind Santini, he was third in this last year, and second to Lostintranslation in between times. If you like either of Santini or Lostintranslation, you have to give this nine-year-old a place squeak at least.

Real Steel and Elegant Escape don't look good enough, though the latter is a strong stayer.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Kemboy is the most likely to lead but, given that he didn't get further than the first last year, Bristol De Mai could also be bang there. Clan may be ridden to get the trip which would see him less handy than is often the case, but Monalee and Santini are expected to be nearer first than last.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A compelling puzzle but not an easy one to solve. The first route in is to say that Al Boum Photo just wins. That's possible but he's got to be the first to do a 'Best Mate' in more than fifteen years. The second is to rate the form of the Henderson yard and the Henderson horse, Santini, as the most progressive. I quite like that though I worry he might blunder his chance away late. The third is to favour the Irish Gold Cup form, which gives Delta Work nothing of note on Monalee, Presenting Percy and Kemboy. A fourth is to believe in the more measured season of Clan Des Obeaux to provide that one some extra pep in the late furlongs; and a fifth might be to play the Hail Mary of Chris's Dream improving over the top of all of them at a huge price. It's a puzzle all right!

I've already backed Santini, and I'm going for the big hit - which I might need to get me out of jail by this point - on Chris's Dream, whose progression I like.

Suggestion: Back Santini at 4/1 general and consider a small Hail Mary play on Chris's Dream each way at 25/1 general.

*

4.10 The Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

The amateur riders' Gold Cup over the same track and trip as the main event 40 minutes or so earlier. It's a wide open contest this season, with bookies offering close to 5/1 the field.

One of those on or around 5/1 is last year's winner, Hazel Hill. He was brilliant at Warwick prior to Cheltenham glory in 2019, whereas this season - now twelve years old - he was beaten by the occasionally very talented Minella Rocco. I feel he retains most of his ability but he will need all of it to double up as the oldest winner since Earthmover in 2004.

Minella Rocco has seemingly been revitalised by the change to hunter chases, scoring not just against Hazel Hill but also in the Warwick race Hazel  took en route to Foxhunters' glory last year. He's not reliable, as form in 2019 of 59PPPP8 betrays, but this is a different game entirely. Perhaps it's the key.

Ireland's hopes are headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Billaway, winner of the Naas Hunter Chase in late January. Given connections, it's very likely he will be a) well backed and b) have a good chance, but the form of that defeat of Staker Wallace is difficult to weigh up. Willie ran three in the race between 2004 and 2012, Bothar Na finishing fourth in 2006.

David Maxwell, a pilot who gets plenty of practice by spending plenty of money on decent horses he then rides himself, will try to go one better than last year aboard Shantou Flyer. The Flyer has a phenomenal Cheltenham record: 1F142222. That string includes second places at the last two Festivals, initially in the Ultima and then in this race a year ago. He looked as good as ever last time, albeit in a weak Fakenham hunter chase which he took out by 23 lengths, and his owner/rider has plumped for this one over the smart Bob And Co, who waits for Aintree.

The other one worth a mention is Caid Du Berlais. Trained by Rose Loxton, like Shantou Flyer, Caid was fifth in this in 2018 and pulled up last year. He wasn't really travelling then and proved it to be a false measure of his ability by hacking up in the Punchestown Champion Hunters Chase. The track is the issue, though: since going chasing he's run 1P309F5P. That '1' was in the Paddy Power Gold Cup of 2014. It's 2020 now, in case you hadn't noticed and much muddy form water has passed under the bridge in the interim.

If the ground dried out, which it very well might, seven-year-old Law Of Gold commands a second glance. Winner of the Champion Novices' Hunter Chase at Stratford last May, he's run up a sequence between the flags in between. What that form is worth I don't know, but at 20/1 or so I might buy a small ticket to find out.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

Amateurs and rushes of blood are commonplace in the Foxhunters', and who can blame them? The map below shows only Rules form - your guess is as good as mine regarding how they've gone between the flags.

Foxhunter Chase Selection

Hazel Hill is not getting any younger - very few of these are - but he ought to be thereabouts. Minella Rocco has been on going days since hunter chasing and represents last year's winning prep race form. Billaway could sink me but I just can't weigh that form up, so I'm rooting for Shantou Flyer to finally convert a 2 into a 1. At any rate, he's an each way price and that's the way to back him. I'll have a tiny bit on Law Of Gold 'just in case' as well.

Suggestion: Back Shantou Flyer each way at 9/1 with as many extra places as you can find; likewise, and for smaller money, have a look at 20/1 general Law Of Gold.

*

4.50 Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 1/2f)

I have backed the winner of this many times. Let me clarify: I had backed Croco Bay many times in this before he won at 66/1 last year!

Age is actually not a factor in this, two winners (from seven runners) having been twelve and one aged five since 1997. The last five winners have been rested at least 90 days; four of the last five winners had run in the race at least once previously, normally achieving a close up finish.

The one with the best fit is last year's winner, Croco Bay. Aargh. Now 13, he's looooong in the tooth but that didn't stop him winning twelve months ago when he was merely looong in the tooth. His record in the race is 3F51 and he's got to be backed, for pennies at least. Aged 13, racing on Friday 13th, he may come in 13th place... :-/

Marracudja ran down the field last year, but has some high class form since. As a result of that, however, he's now rated 15 pounds higher than a year ago. It will be some training performance if he wins.

Gino Trail pulled up in this last year, having finished second in 2018. A recent move to Fergal O'Brien elicited an easy win a fortnight ago and, while that's not the normal prep for this, he is another old-timer with prospects.

A relative young gun at just ten years of age, Theinval represents Nicky Henderson's bid to win the race named in honour of his old man. He sneaks in at the bottom of the handicap and fits the 90 day layoff angle. He was fourth in this in 2018 and third in 2017.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Gino Trail and Paddy Brennan, if he's fit enough to ride after a fall earlier in the week, are fast and they'll make a bold bid from the front. Close up are expected to be McGroarty, Jan Maat, Adrrastos and, if he gets a run from the first reserve slot, Delire d'Estruval.

Grand Annual Selection

I'm playing a couple of former placed horses against the field in Croco Bay and Theinval. I might chuck in Gino Trail, too, though I think that recent easy win may have taken more out of him than met the eye.

Suggestion: Try Croco Bay and Theinval both at 25/1 with five places

*

5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

The last race. It's impossible. It has been an Irish benefit since 2013 when Paul Nicholls (twice) hasn't won it, and that looks a sensible focus. Gordon Elliott famously worked for Martin Pipe, in whose name this race is run, and his Column Of Fire, one of four he saddles in the race - five if the first reserve gets in - looks a player.

He was a closing third when given enough to do in a 28 runner handicap hurdle at Punchestown last time, having previously won an 18 runner maiden hurdle. The big field won't trouble him.

Joseph O'Brien won the race last year, chinning my Gordon Elliott bet, and he saddles a horse I had backed at massive prices for the Albert Bartlett called Assemble. Assemble has form with plenty of Grade 1 types, notably Latest Exhibition and Cobbler's Way. He's just the type dropping into handicaps from Graded races.

22 other possibles but this is a time for licking wounds/counting winnings.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Similarly to the Foxhunters', there are plenty of inexperienced riders in the 'boys' race'. On known form, Espoir De Romay and Thomas MacDonagh are the two to take them along in what might be a contested pace battle. The winner will likely be minded until fairly late on.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

I want to back the two Gigginstown horses in the field. Their trainers have won the last three renewals so know exactly what is needed.

Suggestion: Back Column Of Fire to win at 13/2 Hills and Assemble each way at 25/1 Hills.

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day 3 Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day 3 Preview, Tips

The second two quarters are upon us and, for many, the weakest day, from a quality perspective, is Thursday, Day 3 of the Cheltenham Festival. But last year was a sizzler with that brilliant Frodon Ryanair and the equally emotional Paisley Park Stayers' Hurdle. Both are back to defend their crowns, each with numerous challengers. We start as always at 1.30 with a name change...

1.30 Marsh Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

A new name but the same deal: horses lacking the speed for the Arkle and/or the stamina for the RSA; or, some might say, lacking the class for either. Looking at the roll of honour, which includes Defi Du Seuil, Yorkhill, Vautour and Sir Des Champs from just nine renewals to date, that seems like typical racing snobbery. This newish race is up to par already from a standing start.

All that said, it's a wide open race this season and might be one of the less compelling from a quality perspective. As ever, that tends to mean it's a fiendish betting puzzle.

Itchy Feet is the favourite, Olly Murphy's six-year-old arriving here off the back of Sandown Grade 1 Scilly Isles success, the same path trodden by last year's winner, Defi Du Seuil. Before Defi, Terrefort, Top Notch and Bristol De Mail all finished second in the Marsh/JLT having won at Sandown. Simply, it is a very strong trial for this.

Itchy's form isn't all about that one race, either, as he was third to Klassical Dream in last year's Supreme, and is unbeaten in his two chase starts. The horse closest to him at Sandown was Midnight Shadow, himself previously the main beneficiary of Champ's late tumble in the Dipper Novices' Chase. Things are nicely corroborated by that line and Olly's horse must have a great chance.

The one for money this past week has been Mister Fisher, trained by Nicky Henderson. The record of the master of Seven Barrows is not great in this: he's nought from ten, three places - silvers for Terrefort and Top Notch, and bronze for L'Ami Serge.

The case for Mister Fisher is made off the back of two small field novice chase wins, the latter in the Grade 2 Lightning Novices' Chase where he beat Al Dancer. That one was 20/1 in the Arkle while Mister Fisher is around a quarter of those odds for this. Strictly speaking that doesn't make him good enough. He had previously beaten Good Boy Bobby at Cheltenham, a race from which he is the only winner eight subsequent runs. He is also the only one to place from that race - not promising.

The Irish team are headed by Samcro, Faugheen and Melon. Ireland has won seven of the nine JLT/Marsh's to date so their entries have to be taken seriously. Samcro, once vaunted as being of invincible ability, has not been able to vindicate that reputation on the track. Indeed he's been sent off no bigger than 13/8 in a 14 race career that has yielded eight wins, but only one from his last seven starts. That was at 1/3 in a Down Royal beginners' chase.

In his defence, he was running a bold race in the Grade 1 Drinmore, falling at the second last when upsides Fakir d'Oudairies spotting that one eight pounds. A subsequent ten-length second to the resurgent veteran Faugheen pegs his prospects somewhat.

What of twelve-year-old Faugheen? The former Champion Hurdler has looked good, really good, in winning three novice chases, two of them Grade 1's. Most horses his age are lobbing around in hunter chases, the better ones in veterans' chases, and yet here he is a first season chaser, and winning the big pots! He's a legend of a horse and quite hard to write off. Most people will be sufficiently invested emotionally in his success: if there's one horse you'd let beat you and still cheer, it's surely this bloke.

So, while it kind of feels like he should be watching daytime TV in a retirement home somewhere, his track form has been a genuine joy to behold this season. He was unambiguous in slamming Samcro, and gallant in repelling Easy Game: in spite of his age, he has genuine win prospects.

Melon has looked a hurdler and he's looked a two-miler. While his record at the Festival is quietly impressive in defeat (222 in the Supreme and two Champion Hurdles), I'm not at all convinced his conversion to fences.

Marsh Chase Pace Map

Faugheen looks set to bowl along in front and he's going to be great fun to watch.

Marsh Chase Selection

As always it comes down to whether the Irish or the British are the better crop. At this stage (written before Tuesday's racing), it looks like the Brits might hold sway - in this interim distance division at least. The Scilly Isles is a rock solid trial for the Marsh and Itchy Feet was a good winner, beating a reliable yardstick. I quite like him.

As fine a story as Olly winning his first Festival race would be, how awesome would it be if former Champion Hurdler Faugheen prevailed? Well, although that question was initially rhetorical, let me tell you, in the words of Michael Caine: it would blow the bloody doors off!

Suggestion: Back Itchy Feet to win at 7/2 general. Consider a saver to allow you to scream home Faugheen at 6/1 general

*

2.10 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

Three miles, 24 runners, a handicap: let's keep this brief.

The last four winners were Irish-trained, the last two by Gordon Elliott. Davy Russell, as good a waiting rider as there is, has ridden three of the last four winners, which is quite remarkable, especially when you consider he didn't have a run the other year!

Last time out winners are 10/100 since 1997 and have by far the best win and place strike rate. What is surprising is that they've also been profitable to back at starting price. Those rested between one and three months have the best win and place strike rates.

Looking at well-rested last day winners leaves two: Third Wind and Skandiburg.

Skandiburg is up only a stone for a second and two wins in handicap company, the most recent of which was over course and distance. A win for him would make it the ultimate 'happy hour' for owners Kate and Andrew Brooks and trainer Olly Murphy.

Hughie Morrison's second season hurdler, Third Wind, hasn't looked back since an aborted a novice chase campaign. He won the novices' handicap hurdle final at Sandown this time last year (soft), and has most recently won a heavy ground qualifier on heavy. Clearly, then, juice in the turf is no issue. A rise of four pounds may also not stop him and, if it is deep on the New Course on Thursday, he looks set to run well.

The pick of the Irish could be The Storyteller. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell, he has the right connections. A sixth place in the Leopardstown Pertemps qualifier last time was the optimal qualifying effort - you have to be sixth or better! - and he'd previously beaten Mary Frances, herself the winner of the Punchestown qualifier thereafter. The Storyteller won the Festival Plate in 2018 under Davy Russell, and was pulled up in the Ryanair last year.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Not bundles of pace here, but a few likely to take things along at a good even gallop.

Pertemps Final Selection

7/1 about The Storyteller is not a massive bargain but he looks sure to run well. The above named pair of British-trained horses are all vaguely statistically interesting, and both are backable prices.

Suggestion: Back The Storyteller win only at 7/1, and either or both of Third Wind (16/1 general) and Skandiburg (12/1) each way with as many places as you can get.

*

2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

Just eight go to post for this year's Ryanair. If that seems a little underwhelming, the clash between A Plus Tard, Min, and last year's winner, Frodon, is far from it.

Bryony's ride, and her subsequent interviews, when winning last season will live long in the memory. She was plastered all over the front pages of the next day's newspapers, something which is an all too rare occurrence - in a positive light at least - for the sport. Frodon came into that race off the back of two impressive course wins and was a slightly generous (especially with the benefit of hindsight) 9/2 chance.

This time he's about the same price but with no such recent form to support the case. Of course, he does have last year's triumph, which was against a deep-looking field. This term, Frodon has played away matches only, at Aintree, Haydock and Kempton, and not quite set the world alight. He was good enough to win the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase in his final prep and a return to the slopes of Cleeve Hill can be expected to bring about a chunk of seasonal improvement.

But here he faces two tough rivals - one emergent, the other established, both Irish - in the form of A Plus Tard and Min. The former was sent off 5/1 favourite in the novices' handicap chase at last year's Festival and duly obliged... by sixteen lengths! In a Festival handicap! An immediate class elevation followed, and A Plus Tard ran a respectable third to Delta Work in a Grade 1 at Punchestown.

This season he's been second to Ballyoisin in the Fortria Chase (G2) at Navan and then beat Chacun Pour Soi in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas. I, like everyone else, was spellbound by that novices' handicap chase win last March, but I've not been nearly so sold on his two runs since: I can't shake the perception that Chacun might have been undercooked at Christmas and that that form line may not be all it seems. There is also the fact that it was achieved at two miles, whereas this is two and a half.

Betwixt Frodon and A Plus Tard in the betting is Min, a Festival hardy perennial who steps up in trip for this fourth visit. Previously, Min was second to Altior in the 2016 Supreme, second to Altior in the 2018 Champion Chase, and only fifth to, you guessed it, Altior in last year's Champion Chase. Those races were all at two miles, but his form at this 2m4f range is 12111, a string that includes Grade 1 successes at Aintree and Punchestown twice. It feels very much like this is his trip.

He was recently beaten about the same margin by Chacun Pour Soi as that one was beaten by A Plus Tard at Christmas, which gives him six or seven collateral lengths to find; but I perceive that Willie's Dublin Racing Festival team was a lot closer to readiness than his Leopardstown Christmas team, a contention that makes me wary of these collateral lines. Regardless, I don't think there's much between them.

Of the rest, Riders Onthe Storm is unbeaten in his last four completed starts, though did fall behind A Plus Tard in the novices' handicap chase last season and pulled up in a similar race at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival thereafter. Soft ground suits but he has maybe seven pounds to find with the pick of these. As a progressive seven-year-old he may find them.

Aso has no such progress in him but he does have a fine record in this race. Last year, in spite of more feted rivals, he got closest to Frodon; and he was third in the 2017 Ryanair, too. Now ten years old, he might just have lost a bit of his ability, but he is a more interesting longshot than many across the four days.

Both Duc Des Genievres and Shattered Love are previous Cheltenham Festival winners, Duc in last year's Arkle and Shattered Love in the previous year's JLT/Marsh. The last named seems a touch lost in the wilderness and couldn't be countenanced, but Duc Des Genievres has not been so obviously regressive. That said, it is still too big a leap of faith to envisage a second Festival win.

Saint Calvados is a bit more credible than the two former winners, his new held up tactics proving more successful than the absolutely bonkers lead-at-all-costs approach taken in his abortive 2018 Arkle bid. He was most recently beaten the narrowest of margins, a nose, in a Grade 3 handicap chase over course and distance and, if Frodon and Min did here what Saint C and Petit Mouchoir did in 'that' Arkle, Harry Whittington's runner could hit the board. Owned by the Brooks' - who also have Itchy Feet and Skandiburg - it could truly be a red letter day for them.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Frodon will make a bold bid from the front again, with Min in close pursuit. There should be no hard luck stories from a pace perspective.

Ryanair Chase Selection

I've backed Min. I think it's taken connections a long time to realise his best trip, and I think he has the best form. So far. It is perfectly possible that A Plus Tard can improve past Min's level, though that eventuality seems well factored into his odds. Frodon will be a terrific result for the reporters - and for the sport - with a gushing Bryony a thing of beauty, but I have to let him, and her, beat me. Saint Calvados is probably the most credible of the rest, especially if ridden to pick up pieces.

Suggestion: Back Min at 11/4 general

*

3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The Thursday feature, and another defending champion in the form of Paisley Park, trained by Emma Lavelle, ridden by Aidan Coleman, and owned by the excellent Andrew Gemmell. 'Double P' comes here unbeaten in his last seven, six of which have been by less than three lengths: he gives his rivals a sniff and then slams the door in their faces. What a devil!

He's a top price of 4/6 which implies he's a certainty, but is that really true? The level of his form in last year's Cleeve was much higher than the level he achieved in this year's renewal of the same race. That was in large part a factor of the way the race was run, comments which apply similarly to his previous start this season, in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Of course, the argument goes, he won despite the steady pace and he can be marked up accordingly. That is entirely plausible but, as punters, we have to be forensic, all the more so when faced with what is ostensibly being presented as an 'open and shut' case. The fact is that, for whatever reason, Paisley Park's form this season is a seven pounds below his form of January and March last year. It doesn't mean he can't rediscover that prior level, it just means I don't want to take odds on about it.

The next question is who might be able to step in should PP come up short in the Stayers' Hurdle, this year sponsored by PP? That is a tougher one to answer, though the rewards for a correct response would be far greater. Those lovely bookie types have Summerville Boy and Emitom as the most likely pair to lower the champ's colours.

Summerville Boy got closest last time, in that steadily run Cleeve, and he'd previously beaten Roksana et al in the Relkeel over two and a half miles here. Like so many who end up in the Stayers' those form lines appear after a failed novice chase campaign.

Emitom is a horse I love. He's a strong travelling high class animal who was second to Champ in a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree last spring. This season, he flunked desperately on his debut behind Summerville Boy but proved that to be all wrong when bolting up in the Rendlesham at Haydock. That was on heavy but he does not look ground dependent and is not slow.

The pace will likely be dictated by Apple's Jade, a mare whose popularity is well deserved but whose ability has been on the wane for some time. The horses she beat in the Grade 1 at Christmas - two of which, Penhill and Bacardys, re-oppose here - have looked shy of top class and/or regressive. She's been third and sixth at the last two Cheltenham Festivals and I don't see her on the podium.

Last year's Ballymore winner, City Island, arrives here off a failed novice chasing programme. In his favour he is a Grade 1 winner here, and he has the sort of tactical speed that is often the hallmark of a Stayers' Hurdle winner. But his last hurdle run was ten months ago.

Penhill is a dual winner at the Festival, first when scoring in the 2017 Albert Bartlett and then in this race two years ago. Having missed all of last season, Willie Mullins' nine-year-old has managed to race four times this term - the same as his last two campaigns combined - but he's yet to get his head in front. It seems clear that this has been the target all along, and Penhill has run acceptably in defeat; it wouldn't be the biggest shock if he went close but he's not for me.

It's 20/1 bar those, with the likes of Bacardys - who has suckered cash from me in this race in the past - usually giving himself too much to do from the back of the field. It's not impossible I will be mugged into another small bet but I couldn't possibly suggest anyone else do likewise!

Stayers' Hurdle Pace Map

Apple's Jade is very likely to lead but she may not have it all her own way with Summerville Boy and perhaps Donna's Diamond handy racers. Paisley Park will be ridden midfield probably.

Stayers' Hurdle Selecton

I want to be against Paisley Park but it's really not easy to find one to beat him. The way to play might be 'without the favourite' and in that context I'll happily have a go at Emitom and, less happily, at City Island.

Suggestion: Back Emitom and/or City Island without the favourite

*

4.10 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The last two winners of this handicap chase were price 5/1 or shorter, the previous five were 12/1 or bigger. Ireland used to have a dreadful record but have won three of the last four, their sequence broken last year here their two runners, both 33/1 shots, were unsighted. They are represented sixfold this year, with Ben Dundee - another for the Elliott/Russell axis - the main market hope.

Third in the novices' handicap chase last year off 141, Ben Dundee ran top four in two valuable handicap chases since prior to an eye-catching effort when seventh of 25 in a two mile handicap hurdle. Wrong code, wrong trip, right prep and a mark of 147 doesn't look unduly punitive.

Nick Williams won this last year and he has an excellent record in Festival handicaps. Siruh Du Lac won this last year, the final leg of a handicap chase four-timer. Since then, his only seasonal start was when pulled up in the BetVictor Gold Cup over this sort of distance on the Old Course in November. Connections are respected but it's asking an awful lot to win off an extended layoff and from a nine pound higher mark than twelve months ago.

Loads more with chances. Obviously.

Festival Plate Pace Map

Last year's winner, Siruh Du Lac, will bid to make all again. There doesn't look to be much competition for the lead which should help him - and Lizzie - to stay there for a long way.

Festival Plate Selection

I haven't really got a clue in here, if I'm honest, and I'll have a small 'clueless' bet on Ben Dundee for a bunch of people who know far better than me how to find the winner of this.

Suggestion: Put the kettle on. Or back Ben Dundee for a small interest at 10/1

*

4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

Won by Willie Mullins all four times it's been run to date, last year was a bit of a shock insofar as, for the first time, it wasn't the short priced favourite who passed the post first. Rather, 50/1 Eglantine Du Seuil beat the same stable's Concertista, herself a 66/1 chance. Epatante, Champion Hurdle favourite this year, was the beaten jolly in this last season.

Mullins is clearly the man then and he saddles four this time around. Colreevy is the shortest, her defeat of Abacadabras in a Grade 1 bumper reading very well. She's most recently been turned over in a seven-runner mares' Grade 3 by today's jolly, Minella Melody, but it is possible she didn't appreciate the steady tempo in that short field. With 22 runners here it's likely to be faster and that is likely to set up better.

Minella Melody has to be respected: she's won her last three, all in smallish fields, on varying ground. But she wasn't quite as good as the Mullins mare in bumpers and she's yet to score above G3 company.

Nicky Henderson saddles Floressa, a mare who has good form in open mares' company, for all that she too has to prove she handles the hustle of a big field over hurdles. That said, she was second of 15 in a Grade 2 bumper here last spring, and outclassed a field of modest maidens at Worcester in October.

Last year's second, and still a novice, Concertista returns to try to go one better. The pick of her form is in big fields, as evidenced by a good third in a 27-runner handicap hurdle last time. The slight drop in trip looks good for her, and she's a fair price given conditions are proven.

A handful of other interesting novice mares but this isn't especially a race that excites me.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This is quite pacy and I'm hoping Colreevy doesn't take too much contention for the lead. If she does it will likely compromise her chance, but she'll be tough to beat if getting it nearly her own way.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

Not one to go mad in, I don't think. Willie Mullins' record is clearly worthy of respect and there are grounds to believe Colreevy can reverse form with Minella Melody. Concertista, second last year, also looks set to run well again.

Suggestion: Back Colreevy 7/1 general and/or Concertista 12/1 each way.

*

5.30 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

Amateur riders in a 24-runner handicap chase. Ouch. The best riders tend to win this year after year, with Jamie Codd having an especially impressive record (three wins). Codd rides top weight and last year's National Hunt Chase winner, Le Breuil, who sneaks in here off 145 having dropped the requisite five pounds in two fair chase efforts this term. Lugging top weight won't be easy but Ben Pauling's charge has shown he handles the track and has class, and he looks fairly treated.

Derek O'Connor rides Champagne Platinum. Nicky Henderson trains, and J P McManus owns so he has the right connections. A promising novice hurdler last season, he ran a bold third to Itchy Feet in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles last time and drops into handicap company for only the second time. Cheekpieces for the first time and steps up six furlongs in trip. He's by Stowaway out of a Roselier mere, which is a good pedigree for stamina.

There are more than twenty further chances in a race where I'm not trying too hard to be clever.

Kim Muir Pace Map

A massive field and it could get messy. Not oodles of pace but enough for an end to end gallop. Derek O'Connor on Champagne Platinum will be playing late.

Kim Muir Selection

I've not looked deeply at the form, so even more caveat emptor than usual applies. I like the plotty look of Champagne Platinum, a horse who was third in a Grade 1 last time and who steps up markedly in trip for Champions League connections.

Suggestion: Back Champagne Platinum for a bit of interest at 8/1 general

*

It's a trappy Thursday and maybe not one to go mad for. But if we're lucky enough to get one and a half winners we should be close to level as we head into Friday, Gold Cup day.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

One down, three to go. Days of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, that is. 21 more races yet to unfold, seven of them on day two, the highlight of which looks sure to be a mouthwatering clash in the Champion Chase. We'll get to that in due course; first though, this...

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

You need to have speed and stamina for this intermediate test of the novices. You also need to be five or six years old, according to recent history, which relates that French Holly in 1998 was the last older or younger winner - he was seven. Six-year-olds have far and away the best win and place record. And, while Massini's Maguire did win this (on good to soft turf) after only finishing third (on heavy) in his final prep, every other winner since at least 1997 was first or second last time out.

As you might expect, that still leaves the vast majority of the field and all of the players at the head of the market. The race revolves around one horse, Envoi Allen, unbeaten in a point to point, four bumpers and three novice hurdles. That sequence takes in the Champion Bumper, and a brace of Grade 1 hurdles, the Royal Bond and the Lawlor's of Naas.

Although his hurdles form will come under scrutiny from Tuesday's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Abacadabras and Elixir d'Ainay having run up in those two G1's, current thinking is that the Gordon Elliott-trained favourite will be extremely hard to beat. While he doesn't generally win by much, he usually gives the impression there is more if needed and, as he showed when held up in last year's Champion Bumper, he is tactically versatile.

But this is a Championship race and he will not have it all his own way. Sporting John has looked a brute in his own right, albeit in ungraded company. In spite of his lack of black type, JP McManus's unbeaten in three son of Getaway has collateral to put him towards the head of considerations, certainly in terms of the British team.

On his hurdling debut he beat Harry Senior, subsequent winner of the Grade 2 Classic Novices' Hurdle, before bolting up by eight lengths in a field of 18 in an Exeter novice. The second and third, who was beaten 16 1/2 lengths, have both won since giving a robust feel to that effort. And most recently, Sporting John turned away a small but select field of novices in a deep ground Ascot Class 2 event. He gives the impression this step up in trip will suit and is a worthy second favourite.

This race is 'watch your bets' territory as both The Big Getaway and The Big Breakaway are declared to run! The Big Breakaway, trained by Colin Tizzard, is a typical Tizzard staying type. He's yet to face serious competition in two easy novice wins to date and that does raise questions about his ability in a battle: it's not that he has shown he can't battle, but rather that he hasn't shown he can. If you see what I mean.

The Big Getaway is trained by Willie Mullins, winner of this race in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016. He is the prime mover of a proud recent Irish tradition in the Ballymore that has seen the raiding party claim nine of the last twelve renewals. This fellow is yet another exciting recruit owned by the Connolly's, of Al Boum Photo, Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge note. Like the other The Big, and Sporting John, he's yet to face Graded rivals but was ultra-impressive in despatching Foxy Jacks by 17 lengths last time. That one has since won a big field maiden, beating a horse which has itself subsequently won a maiden: the summary is he must take high rank among Irish novices, without it being clear just where in the hierarchy he currently sits.

Last year's winning connections saddle Longhouse Poet. Trainer Martin Brassil and owners the Mulryan's enjoyed success twelve months ago with City Island though this Yeats gelding has had a quite different route to the Festival. Whereas City Island was unbeaten in two novice hurdles away from the bright lights, Longhouse Poet has run bold races in Grade 1 defeat to Envoi Allen and Latest Exhibition the last twice.

Ballymore Pace Map

Loads of speed, perhaps headed by Easywork, but this looks set to be run at a strong gallop whoever takes them along.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

This is very likely to be between Envoi Allen and Sporting John but, with most of the favourite's rivals stepping up in grade, it might be worth backing one each way in the 'without the favourite' market. The one at a price of most appeal is Longhouse Poet. I'm guessing that he might again get close to Envoi Allen and his trainer knows what is needed having won this last year.

Suggestion: Back Longhouse Poet each way 'without the favourite'.

*

2.10 RSA Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

This year's RSA squad will be aspiring to next year's Gold Cup and, on that basis, it normally takes a very good horse to win it. Santini, the current Gold Cup joint favourite, was second last off an interrupted preparation and is a case in point.

While last time out winners have won 12 of the last 22 RSA Chases, that came from 128 runners (9% win rate, 28% place). Those finishing second or third on their previous start won the other ten since 1997 at a rate of 13.5%, second placers faring especially well (+49.5 to a 1 point level stake).

Seven-year-olds have the best win rate but are behind both five- and six-year-olds in terms of place rates, so I'd not read too much into age - except to add that 7yo's are +24.45 in the 22 year time frame (stats courtesy of horseracebase).

Those rested for between one and two months have the best win, place and profit records: 13/107 (12% win, 30% place, +43.08).

The vast majority of winners (18/22 - 82%) had three to five seasonal runs, though they also represented two-thirds of the runners (173/258 - 67%).

Trendy types include Minella Indo, Allaho, Easy Game and Aye Right.

In terms of the form, it's an interesting challenge to pick through. The top of the market has been the sole province of Champ all season, though increasingly uneasily it should be said. JP McManus' eight-year-old - bidding to be only the second of that age group to win the RSA since Rule Supreme in 2004 (Might Bite also won in 2017) - is quirky as well as talented.

He won his first two chases, both at Newbury, but almost took the wrong course on the latter of that pair, his rider taking urgent evasive action after the last. In fairness to Champ, it might be argued that it was the rider's fault rather than the horse; but there was no such shared responsibility when Champ walked through the second last at Cheltenham in the Dipper last time. Watching the race again, I noticed a little flash of the tail a couple of strides before the obstacle and he would have fallen at a hurdle let alone a steeplechase fence such was his effort there.

It's possible that he was feeling something, and it is also perfectly possible that I'm overstating things. But we must also note that Champ failed to win the Ballymore when sent off favourite last year; he did run an excellent second, so again balance is required. All things considered, while he has a clear chance granted a clear round, I'm wanting a bit more jam on my bread.

Second choice is Minella Indo, who announced himself on the big stage when springing a 50/1 shock in the 'shock race', the Albert Bartlett, at last year's Festival. He proved that was no fluke by following up in the equivalent Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival and, though not impressive in two chase starts to date, the feeling is that this more searching gallop will again play to his strengths. He has obvious pedigree, as well as stamina, but is a short enough price as a consequence.

The springers in the market are Copperhead and Allaho. Copperhead has been all the rage since winning the Reynoldstown last month. Although neither of the top pair in the betting gave their running that day at Ascot, there was still little not to like about Colin Tizzard's 17-length winner. He is clearly progressive, and has won his last three of four chases. Prior to his Reynoldstown win, he bolted up in a good Class 3 handicap chase over three-and-a-quarter miles and he looks a danger to all if it comes up soft.

Willie Mullins saddles Allaho, third and second behind Minella Indo at Cheltenham and Punchestown last spring. He was an easy winner of a beginners' chase at Fairyhouse at the end of January but has only two chase starts to his name. Moreover, there is no obvious reason why he should reverse hurdles form with his double vanquisher of a year ago.

Gigginstown tend to major in staying chasers, which perhaps explains how they've mopped up Grand Nationals and the odd Gold Cup in recent years. Here they rely solely on Battleoverdoyen, unbeaten in three completed chase starts, including a Grade 1 at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival. If that's the positive, the main negatives are twofold. Firstly, he fell when beaten last time in the 2m5f Grade 1 Flogas Chase; and secondly, he pulled up when sent off favourite for last year's Ballymore Hurdle. The son of, you guessed it, Doyen has bundles of ability but he seems like he can strop a bit in the furnace of top class competition. He won't be on my tickets for all that he has the talent to win.

Easy Game also runs for Team Closutton, and he is interesting, from an each way perspective at least. He's inexperienced, with just two chase starts to date, but they were a win over Allaho in a beginners' chase and a staying-on half length second to Faugheen in the 2m5f Grade 1 Flogas Chase at the Dublin Festival. This extra distance looks ideal. Battleoverdoyen was labouring further back when coming down and I just can't see how they're the same price to win this.

RSA Chase Pace Map

Likely to be run at an honest, though probably not all out, gallop. The smallish field means every runner should have its chance.

RSA Chase Selection

I was very taken with Copperhead at Ascot last time. Having already backed Minella Indo, I think his price is now tight enough on what he's done, for all that he is a proven G1 animal; and I'm in the - seemingly very large - swerve Champ camp; but the one that looks the wrong price is Easy Game. His chase form reads very well and he is entitled to improve again on only his third start over fences.

Suggestion: Back Easy Game each way at 11/1 general

*

2.50 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

26 runners. In a handicap hurdle. Sponsored by a bookmaker. Seriously? You want to bet in this?

I managed to fluke 40/1 advised William Henry in this race last year, and that will likely be it for me for the next hundred years.

Since 2010, the mighty yards of Nicky Henderson (three times), Gordon Elliott (twice), Paul Nicholls, Willie Mullins, and Jessica Harrington (once) have dominated.

Dame De Compagnie, for Hendo, is a far less sexy price than William Henry but has an obvious chance. She's a course specialist and has not been harshly treated for an easy victory in a big field mares' handicap hurdle in December. Her layoff of 88 days is not uncommon in winners of this race and I expect she'll run a big race.

Willie's Bachasson is interesting: third in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle last time on his first run since finishing fourth in the same race a year earlier, he'd previously beaten Darasso in a rated hurdle. That one runs in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle and, though Bachasson's Cheltenham form (unseated at the last when not out of it in the Albert Bartlett, fell at the 2nd in the Gold Cup) isn't great, the races he's contested were high class.

They are my two wild guesses against the field.

Coral Cup Pace Map

A massive field but no out and out front runner. Hordes of these want to be waited with and it could become quite messy in the closing stages.

Coral Cup Suggestion: Go for something to eat. If you must bet in a race like this, you're obviously into machismo punting. I'm trying to let that mostly pass me by these days, but will have small interests in the two flagged above, Dame De Compagnie 10/1 bet365 and Bachasson 16/1 general, but try to get 14 extra places!

*

3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The expected race of the meeting has lost just a hint of its sheen with the news that Altior was a touch lame on Sunday. It could be mind games, it could be something and nothing, or it could be material. Who actually really knows? The market immediately pre-race will be revealing. Until that time, we have to treat the race as though all three - the other pair being Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi - will run on their merits and the best on the day will win. So what of their respective merits? And are there any others we should consider?

Let's talk about Altior first. He's been the chaser of a lifetime for his owner, Patricia Pugh, and a horse the public have enjoyed since he burst on to the Cheltenham Festival scene as a novice hurdler in 2016. That year, he won the Supreme, the following year he claimed the Arkle, and for the past two years he's been the winner of the Champion Chase.

Rumours of his demise this season, after an arguably ill-judged early clash over a longer trip with Cyrname, have been grossly exaggerated as evidenced by an easy subsequent score in the Game Spirit Chase. Whether that translates into near favouritism in what is the warmest Champion Chase for a number of years is moot; what is not in doubt is that he showed at Newbury that trademark taunting of his rivals: momentarily looking to be paddling while his jockey depressed and released the clutch ahead of that perennial race-winning gear change either just before or just after the last.

It must be soul destroying to be a regular rival of Altior's because he's just so consistently brilliant whilst always offering the (false) hope that he's beatable. At two miles that has never been the case. Yet.

Here he faces the new guard, a pair of three-word French names with a gaggle of their own Grade 1's from which to play Top Trumps. Defi Du Seuil (DDS hereafter) has been a revelation since a moderate 2017/2018 campaign, thenceforth bagging a trio of G1's including the JLT Chase at last year's Festival. Much was made of his fall and rise but surely he was merely a victim of circumstance: a sick horse in a yard full of sick horses at that time. His form before and since seems to support that notion.

This term he beat Politologue in a tactical race over course and distance on his first start, then was all out to hold the now-retired Un De Sceaux in Sandown's Tingle Creek, before most recently repelling the same rival in more convincing fashion at Ascot in the Clarence House. I've been present for all three of those wins, and my on-track view is that he was quietly impressive at Cheltenham, a touch disappointing/fortunate at Sandown, and much the best at Ascot. On the form of his first and third wins he's about the right price, but on that Sandown run he's vulnerable.

Chacun Pour Soi (CPS next time) is the third in the top-knocking trio. He already holds a G1 verdict over DDS, at Punchestown last spring. The general theory is that DDS was OTT when CPS prevailed (too many TLA's - three letter acronyms?) there, and that might be true. But it might also be false. A literal reading of A Plus Tard's beating of CPS over Christmas gives the latter something to find, but that was his first spin of the season at a time when Willie Mullins's horses are often just a note shy of concert pitch.

He was pitch perfect at the Dublin Racing Festival when nearly four lengths too good for needs-further-these-days Min. They were the only two in the hunt from a long way out as Cilaos Emery and Duc Des Genievres capsized, the former at the very first fence. Min is a bombproof yardstick, however, and this line lost little lustre for it being a virtual match.

CPS is eight now, DDS seven, and it seems likely at this stage - given what we know of the Arkle class of 2020 - that the pair of them will have next year's QMCC between them. Whether that is true this time around remains to be seen: either way, I'd not have much between them in betting terms.

I'm not even going to try to make a case for the other four, with the betting - 20/1 bar the top three - telling all.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Hard to predict how this will be run, with Bun Doran and/or one of the Nicholls pair, Dynamite Dollars and Politologue, perhaps most likely to drive the peloton. Altior may even elect to cut out his own running as he did in the Celebration Chase last Aprill. Though it may not quite be tactical, it will probably not be frenetic either: a good even gallop with luck.

Champion Chase Selection

Tricky and probably not a betting race. If the vibes are good, or at least not bad, I might be tempted in to backing Altior at 5/2 or better (once I know he's fit and fine). I'd love to be cheering him home in a three-horse thriller and he's done nothing at all wrong over two miles, ever.

Suggestion: See how the pre-race vibes are and consider backing Altior at 5/2 or bigger. Otherwise, settle in and watch what should be a cracking race.

*

4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

Not for everyone is the Cross Country Chase, but it is for me. It's a little midweek interval of something different: a time to pause for breath and enjoy some very good horses traversing non-standard barriers. And, of course, it features the dual Grand National winner, Tiger Roll.

Let's start with the Tiger. As well as winning the last two Grand Nationals, he has also won the last two runnings of this race; and the bookies have him as a 50% chance to win a third Glenfarclas Chase. His credentials are obvious, his CV peerless almost in the history of the sport. To remind you, Tiger Roll won the Triumph Hurdle in 2014, the National Hunt Chase in 2017, the Cross Country Chase in 2018 and 2019, the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle in 2019, and the last two Grand Nationals. He'd have probably won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon if he'd entered!

Now ten, he ran a solid trial when fifth in this year's Boyne Hurdle and comes into this race as the obvious horse to beat. But, a year older, this looks a stronger renewal.

Josies Orders, only a 15/2 chance when snatching second last year, is a 25/1 chance this time around. Urgent De Gregaine, the horse Josies chinned for silver, was 17/2 third choice there - where the market had it spot on, the first three in the betting finishing 1-2-3. Urgent is a 10/1 shot now.

The interloper, taking out a chunk of the percentages between Tiger Roll and the rest, is Easysland, trained in France by David Cottin and acquired by JP McManus since winning here in December. That was in the handicap version of the cross country, where he raced from 139. He's since won a Listed Cross Country at Pau to take his unbeaten run to six, and his unbeaten in completed starts sequence to seven.

He is a strong stayer in terms of this game though has tactical speed (has won over two and a half miles in the discipline), and the only slight reservation is his jockey, Jonathan Plouganou, who wouldn't be for the purists. But he does seem to get the job done as he showed in December.

Urgent De Gregaine is twelve now, still relatively young for a cross-country chaser some might say. But the days of the old guard winning might be over: no horse older than ten has won since 2010 and before that 2006. Seven of the last nine winners were aged eight or nine. Easysland is six!

Josies Orders is twelve, too, and it is time to look to younger horses. Eliminating those failing my eleven-plus examination reduces the field notably for all that such semi-arbitrary diktats can cross out the winner on occasion.

Despite plundering the November and December Cheltenham cross country races, the French are 0/11 in this event. They include Toutancarmont in 2015, who ran out when favourite (ridden by M. Plouganout); and Urgent De Gregaine, who has been second and third in the last two renewals.

Those two Urgent runs show the French are getting closer and, as well as that one trying again, they are represented by a duo of d'Alliers, Diesel and Arlequin. Diesel d'Allier easily won the November Cross Country here from Urgent De Gregaine, albeit in receipt of 22lb. He's since run second in a small field cross country at Pau and most recently fell when still full of run behind Easysland in that Listed chase. Only seven, he's entitled to improve in the next couple of years, and he's a cross country specialist.

The real dark horse in this year's renewal is Arlequin d'Allier, who was ridden from the front by Felix de Giles to win a 2m4f cross country conditions race last time. The trip is an unknown as, in truth, is his level of ability; but his trainer, Emmanual Clayeux, has two wins and six more places from a dozen runners on this course. Interestingly, or perhaps merely coincidentally, the two winners were having their first sight of the Cheltenham inner loops - as is Arlequin.

Indeed, Clayeux's Cheltenham debutants have finished 26F124451. His Cheltenham Cross Country runners are 61322P321. Arlequin d'Allier is a big price and his trainer deserves utmost respect.

Might Bite, 2018 RSA champ, merits a mention. He's been both wayward and brilliant, often in the same races - remember that RSA? Or the Kauto Star where he was a mile clear when destroying himself and the final fence? - and is the undisputed back class of this field; but at twelve it's probable he's had enough of this lark. Fair play if he wins - it'll be a tremendous watch!

Yanworth is one of the biggest swerves in racing. He has tons of ability but hates the game and will find a way to lose, as usual.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

A hard one to second guess, not that it will matter much as the race generally changes complexion dramatically in the last half mile. On known evidence, Might Bite will roll along in front. He may be joined by Arlequin d'Allier, who led all the way when winning in Pau last time. Kingswell Theatre is a reliable front-ranker in these types of race.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

Tiger Roll deserves to be favourite and he may well beat Easysland into second. That exacta is not the worst bet by any means, though it is also worth a small win bet on Easysland if you're comfortable with Plouganou doing the driving. I'm going to take the two d'Allier's - hopefully not dalliers - for pennies each way: their trainer is something like the French Enda Bolger and his record over these fences commands utmost respect.

Suggestion: Consider a Tiger Roll/ Easysland exacta. If you're feeling braver, back either Diesel d'Allier (22/1 Ladbrokes) or Arlequin d'Allier (40/1 Victor 1/5 4 places) each way with as many places as you can plunder.

*

4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

The Fred Winter as was. With an average winning SP of 25/1 in the past eight years, it was arguably something of a surprise/relief when 7/2 Band Of Outlaws scored last season. He was trained by Joseph O'Brien, who joined Paul Nicholls (three), Gordon Elliott (two), and Nicky Henderson as winning trainers in the past decade. Another handicap race for big trainers then.

Nicholls has had nine placed from 23 since the race's inception, Elliott five from 16, and they look the pair upon which to concentrate. What is interesting is that Elliott's brace of winners were 25/1 and 33/1, and Nicholls also scored with a 25/1 shot as well as two much better fancied runners. So it is worth looking at the second- and even third-strings of these yards.

Although Irish-bred horses have won the last three, French-bred's have a fine record, with six victories in the fifteen-year history of the race.

If I'm going to have a bet in this race - and I am - then I'd rather back a loser at a bigger price than a loser at a short price so, while the cases for the likes of Aramax, Mick Pastor and Palladium are easily made, they're just not offering enough reward for the investment risk of a Boodles punt: for every Band Of Outlaws, there's a Veneer Of Charm, Flying Tiger or Qualando.

On that basis, I'll be siding firstly with Gordon's Saint d'Oroux. Looking very much 'not off' in a Leopardstown maiden hurdle over Christmas, after promising runs behind A Wave Of The Sea and Cerberus, he absolutely hacked up when the handbrake was released last time at Gowran Park, putting 24 lengths between himself and his, granted probably moderate, rivals.

As well as 33/1 winner Flying Tiger, Nick Williams has saddled 16/1 3rd Coo Star Sivola and 33/1 5th Diable de Sivola, from seven runners. As such, his 'brought along steadily' Galahad Quest, a Grade 2 winner here on Trials Day, is worth a go, too. Although beaten 66 lengths by the subsequent Grade 1 scorer and well-touted Triumph hope, Allmankind, he was actually sent off the 13/8 favourite for his debut that day at Warwick. Thereafter, he's clawed back his home reputation by running a neck second to the now 140-0dd-rated Buzz, and then achieving Grade 2 glory in his own right when scoring in the Finesse on Trials Day here in January.

134 seems on the lenient side given that the second, fourth and sixth from that Grade 2 have come out and won on their sole starts since, with just one other horse failing to win.

Boodles / Fred Winter Pace Map

The sensible play in this race is to focus on recent form - earlier efforts perhaps being 'for experience' - so the pace map below shows the last two runs only. It reveals that, unsurprisingly in such a big field, there are a good number who want to race prominently. An even to fast gallop would be my best guess.

Boodles / Fred Winter Selection

Two at fair prices against the 'well touted' runners at the head of the market. Saint d'Oroux is definitely better than he's shown so far, regardless of how he runs here; and Galahad Quest's form has probably been under-valued a touch. Both represent trainers with excellent 'Fred Boodles' credentials and both are solid double-digit prices.

Suggestion: Back Saint d'Oroux 25/1 Skybet and Galahad Quest 22/1 Hills with as many places as you can get.

*

5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

Not a race to go all in generally, with 20-odd largely unexposed 'could be anything' types facing off against each other. Reputations form the market here and most of the runners can be expected to show more than they've done to this point. As such, backing Appreciate It at 6/4 or so is at the bonkers end of the brave/bonkers continuum.

Yes, he's looked good in winning his last two of three bumpers, most recently in a Grade 2 at the Dublin Racing Festival. And yes, he ran fairly close to Envoi Allen in his first point two years ago. He was fairly impressive in the Leopardstown bumper last time, cruising home. And the time was decent, for all that he didn't find an awful lot given how easily he travelled up to the leader, Risk Factor, in the straight.

He might well win but I can't be backing a 6/4 shot in a field of completely unexposed uncrossed form lines. Horses priced at 4/1 or shorter are 4/16 since 1997, a group that does at least include Envoi Allen, who was 2/1 when winning last year. So the question to ask is whether you think Appreciate It can be more of a horse than last year's winner, and the answer - granted, with the benefit of plenty of hindsight - is no.

The good news is that it's 7/1 bar, and I'll let the jolly beat me.

Appreciate It has had five runs, in points and bumpers, whereas the four-year-old filly Panic Attack has had just one. That was in a Listed bumper at Market Rasen where she took her field apart hard on the bridle to win by ten lengths. You'll rarely see a more impressive bumper winner and the fact that it was a debut against a bunch of winners in Listed class flags her as a serious prospect.

She'd apparently been balloted out of a similar race at Cheltenham earlier in the season so was obviously held in high regard. The trainer switch from Willie Mullins to David Pipe since Market Rasen is a minor cause for concern, though Pipe is having a far better time of it this term. Four-year-olds don't tend to win a race like the Champion Bumper - just Cue Card, Dato Star and Rhythm Section since the race's inception in 1992 - but fillies have a decent record, Fayonagh (2017) and Relegate (2018) winning from just nine to face the starter in recent years. The Glancing Queen was fifth last year as the only filly to line up.

Panic Attack gets a massive fifteen pounds in weight and sex allowances from the older geldings and, if she can handle the hurly burly, she could go close.

Ferny Hollow represents the same owner, Cheveley Park Stud, as last year's winner. Unlike Envoi Allen, who is trained by Gordon Elliott, Ferny Hollow is housed at Willie Mullins' Closutton barracks. Mullins knows better than anyone how to win this race, and he's often scored with his second-, third- or even fourth-string entries. This five-year-old son of Westerner cost £300,000 after winning his point but took three goes to get off the mark under Rules. He was close up behind some decent horses in defeat, but he doesn't scream bumper winner to me.

Queens Brook looks more credible: a five-year-old mare who won her sole bumper for Gordon Elliott by 21 lengths in a field of 17! Jamie Codd rode that day, as he did Elliott's other mare, Fayonagh, when she overcame a terrible start to bolt up a few years back. He'll be looking to reprise the Fayonagh playbook, albeit ideally with a better beginning.

Arguably the pick of the British form - I still love that Market Rasen line - is brought in by David Pipe's other entry, Israel Champ. This lad has won his last two, both in Listed company, both by a length and three-quarters. The wetter the better for him, too, his wins coming over course and distance on soft and at Ascot on heavy.

The Cheltenham form hasn't really worked out, nor yet has the Ascot race, and it wouldn't surprise me if he finished midfield. Naturally, it also wouldn't surprise me massively if he won, but I don't want to bet him.

Roger Teal has had his share of good horses, including Tip Two Win, and he now has a classy bumper runner in Ocean Wind. A four-year-old son of Teofilo, he was cheaply bought (£9,000) from the Godolphin draft at the Ascot July sale, and he's proved a bargain: in winning twice, most recently in a Newbury Listed event, he's already racked up £19,000 in prizes. His only defeat was a narrow neck verdict at Cheltenham over 1m6f in a tactical affair. He gets the four-year-old allowance but whether he's quite in the Cue Card bracket of four-year-old - or even Dato Star - I'm not sure.

There is an interesting lurker - actually, there are probably loads of interesting lurkers - down the betting list. Elliott saddles Eskylane as well as Queens Brook, and this one has the distinction of beating Appreciate It in a bumper earlier this season. There he finished a head second to Assemble, a wild card of note in the Albert Bartlett on Friday, giving that one a stone, with Appreciate It more than two lengths back in third.

The winner has won again since, the third has won twice since and is 6/4 jolly here, the fifth - sent off favourite this day - has won since, and Eskylane has himself won since, by eight and a half easy lengths in a Navan bumper. He's got a bright future.

A good number of others who might step notably forwards off last day wins, including Darling Daughter, winner of the same Grade 2 Mares' Bumper that Relegate won en route to Champion Bumper success. Elliott has saddled the winner of the last race on Wednesday twice in the last three years and he is well placed to add a third.

Lady Bamford's Adrimel, trained by Tom Lacey, cost £280,000 after romping away with a maiden point last spring, and he's two from two in bumpers since. The first win was facile but with nothing immediately of note in behind, the more recent victory was harder earned but against better horses.

And Five Bar Brian was a good winner on his first start for Willie Mullins after two years off. He was giving more than a stone to the second that day, with the Gordon Elliott-trained favourite a further 13 lengths back in third. There is also The Glancing Queen, fifth in this last year before winning the Grade 2 Mares' Bumper at Aintree, to consider.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

This is little more than finger in the air stuff given how scant the evidence is but, caveat emptor, the pace map looks something like the below. Israel Champ and One True King are two of the more likely to go forward, with Appreciate It probably not too far off the speed.

Champion Bumper selection

An up to par and competitive looking Champion Bumper. I'd certainly not have the favourite at the price he is for all that he can win. Lots of these have some sort of a claim if they can step forward seven or ten pounds. And, as most of them have had very few goes to this point, that's perfectly possible.

I backed Panic Attack at 22/1 after she won at Market Rasen - I know, lucky me, eh? - and I don't think she's any better than fair value now. I like Gordon Elliott's entries, all of which have to be respected given his recent record in the race.

Eskylane has form in front of Appreciate It, ad Elliot's other pair, Queens Brook and Darling Daughter, are in receipt of the mares' allowances.

Suggestion: Split stakes between the Elliott trio of Eskylane (20/1 Skybet), Queens Brook (8/1 Unibet) and Darling Daughter (20/1 general).

*

And that concludes a somewhat briefer (relatively, at least) spin through Wednesday's Day 2 action. Plenty of races in which it's hard to take a strong view, and where we may have to be both good and lucky to come out in front I feel.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

It's been wet wet wet and, apart from the state of the turf, the ongoing coronavirus saga had rendered day one an on/off 'sweet little mystery' in its own right for a while but, at this stage at least, it looks as though we're a go on ground expected to be testing.

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Show time! The legendary roar is a real thing and unlike any other exhortation in the sport: it's a cocktail of excitement, anticipation and primal release from 361 (362 this year) days of waiting. And it's felt just as keenly - maybe more so - by the jockeys riding in the Supreme, some of whom can be guilty of going a shade too hard a shade too early.

The top of the market sees two horses split by the Irish Sea but united in ownership: both Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge belong to Joe Donnelly (as too does Gold Cup favourite, Al Boum Photo - lucky guy). What is perhaps strange is that the horse with much the better proven level of form has been the bigger priced of the pair throughout the ante post lead up.

Trained by Willie Mullins, winner of the Supreme five times since 2007 - four of them since 2013 - Asterion Forlonge was a clear-cut victor in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. There he was ten lengths too good for the 5/4 favourite, Easywork, a victory which took his record to three from three over hurdles. Add to that a maiden point win and the six-year-old son of Coastal Path is unbeaten in four.

As evidenced by Jon Shenton in this excellent piece, the Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) is the strongest novice hurdle run either side of the Irish Sea prior to the Festival, with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream all winning there en route to winning here, and all for Asterion's trainer. He should be favourite in my book and, by the time the tapes rise, he very well might be. His run style is from the front and he'll surely make a bold bid.

Currently favoured, however, is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin, winner of the Listed Sidney Banks Hurdle at Huntingdon last time out. Shishkin's form has not worked out especially well, for all that he's been visually highly impressive. Specifically, in the Kempton bumper he won last March, his rivals have collectively run 22 times since without winning; from the Newbury novice in which he fell, his 19 rivals have run 29 times between them without winning; and in the Newbury novice that he won, his 13 rivals have failed to even make the frame from eight collective subsequent starts. Ouch.

In Shishkin's defence, he bolted up from some 140-ish rivals in the Sidney Banks; and Shakem Up'Arry, his closest rival at Newbury, was well fancied for the Imperial Cup before that race's abandonment.

The best British form is arguably brought to the table by the Colin Tizzard-trained Fiddlerontheroof. Bought from Ireland for £200,000, he took a little time to get going before running out a convincing winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last time. Notably, his form on soft or wetter reads 3111 and includes a defeat of the very well-regarded The Big Getaway while still trained in Ireland. Fiddlerontheroof is sure to relish a battle and stamina may be his strong suit; as such conditions set up perfectly, especially if he can control things from the front as he often likes to do.

If such a thing exists, the forgotten horse in the Supreme could be Abacadabras - easy for me to spell (see what I did there?!). A rock solid National Hunt Flat horse who was fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Cheltenham Festival, he was a close up second to Envoi Allen in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle and followed up with a win in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices' Hurdle. Both those runs were in December, however, and Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown inmate has not been sighted in a race since.

That 74 day layoff is a worry, though Altior was off 80 days before winning in 2016 and Summerville Boy had 66 days between runs in 2018. Back in 2008, the mega-trendsbuster, Captain Cee Bee, was off 115 days prior to his Supreme victory, so it's far from a terminal knock.

Though he also runs Elixir d'Ainay, JP McManus's opening race hopes look to lie with Chantry House, unbeaten in four since tipping up on his point debut. Since then he's won his maiden point, then scored for the first time under Rules in a bumper exactly a year ago, and has added two ungraded novice hurdles to his CV. Each of his wins under Rules has been recorded as an odds-on favourite, testament to the regard in which he is held. He retains plenty of upside but it would represent a significant step forward were he to stride past this field.

If you want a wise guy horse - and who doesn't want a wise guy horse? - look no further than Edwardstone. Only a close second in the Grade 2 Rossington Main on Haydock's uniquely soupy surface, he'd previously won a couple of novice hurdles by narrow margins. Ostensibly not much to write home about in the context of a race like the Supreme. But... closer inspection reveals that in the first of them he beat the subsequent Grade 1 winner, Fiddlerontheroof, and in the second he beat subsequent Grade 2 scorer, Harry Senior. That pair are both single figure odds for Cheltenham novice hurdles and yet this chap can be backed at 20/1. It's simply too big about a horse who also has bumper form putting him very close to Chantry House, and who has yet to finish outside the first two in six career starts.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Fiddlerontheroof has been on the front in three of his last four starts, though not when winning the Tolworth. That gives him a touch of versatility and it might be that he takes a lead off Asterion Forlonge, who has won from on or near the pace the last twice. More likely Elixir d'Ainay, Chantry House's owner mate and Asterion Forlonge's stable mate, will be at the head of affairs. Expect Shishkin to also be prominent though behind the front rank and Chantry House to be mid-division in the early furlongs.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

This looks a seriously good renewal of the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, and all of Asterion Forlonge, Fiddlerontheroof, Abacadabras and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shishkin and Chantry House are perfectly credible winners. As such it's probably not a betting race at the current prices.

But there will be bookmaker specials galore on this opening heat of the meeting, meaning shopping around will garner significant value.

I think Asterion Forlonge is the most likely winner; I suspect Fiddlerontheroof will be the main beneficiary if it becomes a slog; but the one who is still the wrong price - for all that he's probably only the sixth or seventh most likely winner - is Edwardstone. His form ties in closely with a couple priced at a quarter of his odds.

Suggestion: Shop around for the best deals. Consider a small each way bet on Edwardstone at 16/1 with William Hill (1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6-7).

*

2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

A first sight of the chase fences as the two mile novices have at it in the Arkle. This looks like being quick, placing an emphasis on both stamina and accurate jumping at speed in the early part of the contest.

The uneasy favourite is Gigginstown's Notebook, trained by Henry de Bromhead. On form he looks to have an outstanding chance: his four chase runs have yielded four wins, the last pair in Grade 1 company. But... that probably leaves him with less scope to improve than some of his rivals for all that they still have to catch him up.

There are a number of causes for concern with this lad in spite of his G1 brace. First, his temperament: he bolted on the way to the start last time, antics which saw him prevail only by 3/4L from the re-opposing Cash Back. Whilst it could be argued he would have won by further if not for getting stressy, the counter-argument is that the cauldron of the Cheltenham parade ring is hardly likely to becalm a buzzy beast.

Secondly, there is the matter of his performance at the Festival last year. Granted, he was a 50/1 shot on the day, but a 51 length last of twelve finishers is hardly the sort of course form about which to get excited. He's clearly a different horse for fences, but those are two big negatives against a Festival favourite.

So what of Cash Back? He's eight years old, the same as that top class pair Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were when winning their Arkles. He was a decent but not top class hurdler, a comment that applies similarly to Notebook, so, while he has definitely improved a bundle there just might be a classier horse in the field. That said, I do think he'll see out the trip better than many and had backed him for small money after his Naas demolition job in January.

Fakir D'Oudairies is a five year old, the same age as four winners between 1998 and 2006, but none since. It used to be the case during those years that the additional maturity of the ex-French horses was a big plus, especially when allied to a healthy weight for age allowance. But the allowance was removed in 2009, and just four five-year-olds have appeared in this race since. They included 11/4 shot Saint Calvados, who was beaten by desperate tactics as much as anything else in 2018, and Tatenen, who fell as favourite in 2009.

Fakir has been beaten a length and a half by Notebook, meaning there is little theoretically between them. However, when one considers that there is still a weight for age allowance in such races in Ireland, and that Fakir was in receipt of seven pounds that day but runs off level weights here, it is quite hard to countenance a form reversal, for all that Notebook may burn some of his fuel before the race starts.

Fourth in the Ballymore and second in an Aintree G1 hurdle, both last spring, was Brewin'upastorm. This season, Olly Murphy's seven-year-old has cosily claimed two small field provincial novice chases, form which has worked out quite well without matching the other single-figure priced horses in the field. Olly's ability to get one ready for the Festival was shown last year when this horse finished a place behind the same trainer's Itchy Feet.

21 lengths behind Brewin'upastorm at Carlisle was Global Citizen. His trainer, Ben Pauling, was in lamentable form at the time (just two winners and four places from 55 runners between the end of June and early December), as well as which that was the horse's first run over fences and first run for 226 days. Nevertheless, as the highest rated hurdler in the Arkle, it was a disappointing seasonal bow.

Fast forward two months to Kempton at Christmas, and the real Global Citizen rocked up in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad to turn away Rouge Vif et al and re-establish his credentials for this gig. He's got the ability, clearly, but there are two reservations: first is that he might prefer flatter tracks, his only race at Cheltenham being when last of seven finishers - 45 lengths behind the sixth horse - in last year's Champion Hurdle; and second, he seems to want to bowl along in front. Here, so too does Cash Back, and potentially any of Fakir D'Oudairies, Put The Kettle On and Maire Banrigh. It could be pretty warm on the front end!

A Grade 1 winner at Sandown last time out, Esprit Du Large deserves a mention. The problem is that he's not been seen since that Henry VIII win in early December, 94 days being a longer absence to overcome than any winner this century.

The lovely mare Maire Banrigh has won her last six races since having wind surgery in early 2018, the most recent of which was an uncompetitive Listed Mares' Chase in which she was sent off 1-4 favourite. Her form isn't a million miles behind the best of these and she is able to receive a valuable seven pounds allowance. That said, she'll only be the third mare to run in the race in recent times, following I'm Delilah (unplaced in 2010) and Kruguyrova (2nd in 2008).

There are bits and pieces of cases to be made for the likes of the Kingmaker winner, Rouge Vif, but the one which makes a modicum of appeal in the long grass is Al Dancer. Winner of the Betfair Hurdle just over a year ago, he won a course and distance novice chase on his first start this campaign. He was caught for toe next time in the Grade 2 Arkle Trial behind Put The Kettle On, who had had plenty of practice by that point.

He's since run a little flatter at Kempton and Doncaster but comes here with the benefit of a good amount of experience, winning track form, and the prospect of a more truly run race suiting better. He could easily bomb out but at 20/1 or so he's playable for small money in what looks a very open race.

Arkle Pace Projection

Plenty of speed on based on recent form. Any/all of Global Citizen, Cash Back, and perhaps Fakir D'Oudairies, Maire Banrigh and Put The Kettle On might vie for the early lead. It'll take some getting with jumping over the first few fences likely to be closely examined.

Arkle Chase Selection

Notebook is in danger of becoming a backable price such is the concern over his pre-race temperament. Were he to handle preliminaries reasonably well he might be worth a saver, but this is a race in which I don't have a strong opinion. Perhaps Brewin'upastorm - presumed far back from the heat of early battle - can pass them all. He's got stamina and no little class. At bigger prices, Al Dancer may outrun 20/1 odds.

Suggestion: Have a look at Brewin'upastorm (6/1 Betfred) and maybe Al Dancer each way at 20's.

*

2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

The first handicap of the week and we're into wild guess territory. A few general patterns might reduce the field a touch. It's usually a race for the British, with Ireland not scoring since Tony Martin's Dun Doire in 2006. They don't have a lot of runners in truth. Seven- to ten-years-old and a top six finish eliminate a few runners but we're still left with most of the field.

One of very mild interest at a fair price is the Dan Skelton-trained Cobra De Mai. He was given a 'never in it' ride in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster last time under a seven pound claimer. Harry Skelton gets back on for the first time this season, having won a course and distance handicap chase off this mark last April. There is a slight concern about the ground and about Cobra's jumping, but there are no such reservations that this has been the plan.

Towards the front of the market, a more obvious one is The Conditional. A non-stayer over 3m5f last time when dropping to fourth in the final quarter mile, the half mile less range will work better. His win over course and distance on soft ground in October has been well advertised since, and he's attractively weighted to go well here.

I'll not pretend I have a strong handle on the form here, so let's move on.

Ultima Pace Projection

Bags of pace on again here, most likely from Activial and Cogry; but any of Vinndication, Cepage, Elwood and Mulcahys Hill could help to force it.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll have a wild guess at Cobra De Mai (20/1 Ladbrokes 1/5 5 places) and The Conditional (9/1 bet365, Hills).

*

3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

I previewed this race on 14th February here - Champion Hurdle preview. Nothing much has changed in the interim except that I think it's an even more imponderable puzzle than I did then!

There are not many who cannot win, but there are not many about whom you'd have no reservations: it's a race in which to take a swing at a price and it won't surprise me if the bookmakers offer 5/1 the field on Tuesday morning.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

A solid gallop looks a certainty here, with neither Cornerstone Lad nor Petit Mouchoir having a Plan B. Not So Sleepy is another whose metier is to push on from the get go, notwithstanding that he missed the kick last time. Ballyandy and Coeur Sublime are another pair who tend to be on or close to the front while, at the other end of the field, the likes of Supersundae and Silver Streak are expected to be played late.

Champion Hurdle Selection

A wide open Champion Hurdle and your guess is as good as - quite possibly better than - mine. I tipped and backed Supasundae in mid-February and am happy enough to let him run for me. Both Darver Star and Ballyandy should offer a run for small money, though the price has gone somewhat on Darver now.

Suggestion: Back what you like. I'm hoping Supasundae, who is both old and slow in the context of a Champion Hurdle - but perhaps not in the context of this Champion Hurdle - can make the frame at around 12/1.

*

4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

This looks a match between Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle.

Benie Des Dieux was in the process of running away with the race when coming down at the last and handing it to Roksana a year ago. The Willie Mullins-trained mare is otherwise unbeaten in Britain and Ireland from seven completed starts since December 2016, to which she added the French Champion Hurdle last May. She's fairly lightly raced, then, perhaps attesting to a fragility; though Mullins famously minded Quevega in similar fashion and managed to conjure an astonishing six Mares' Hurdles from her. Her name now exists in perpetuity at Cheltenham with a bar named in her honour!

Benie is nine already so no such opportunity to rack up a sequence exists for her, though she would have been bidding for a hat-trick but for that last flight capsize a year ago. She's won her three starts since and comes here with rock solid credentials.

There is, however, a viable alternative in the form of Honeysuckle, herself unbeaten in seven Rules starts and a point to point. She looked a little workwomanlike when repelling Darver Star et al by just half a length at the Dublin Racing Festival, but that was over two miles. The shortest winning margins in her career have come at the minimum, while at two-and-a-half miles-plus no rival has got within 5 1/2 lengths of her.

Her ratings are closely aligned with Benie Des Dieux and, as a six-year-old, she has the greater scope to improve. Of course, Benie just keeps winning so we don't really know how good she is.

Stormy Ireland will probably force the pace, along with Honeysuckle's owner mate Elfile, meaning it will be a solid test. Stormy was good enough to claim silver behind Roksana last year and, if she gets an easy, she might cling on for a place, but it is hard to see her troubling the top pair if Elfile take her on as expected.

So what of Roksana? Dan Skelton's mare is a hard knocking type who has been a fantastic servant to connections, finishing in the first three in eleven of twelve hurdles starts. As well as winning last year's Mares' Hurdle, she has finished second to Santini in the 2018 G1 Sefton at Aintree, second in the Aintree Stayers' Hurdle, also a Grade 1, and, most recently, second in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle over course and distance. If they were betting on third place in this, she'd be about even money in my book.

The rest are not good enough.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

Elfile and Stormy Ireland are confirmed front-runners, the former looking a potential spoiler working for Honeysuckle. and it is unlikely either will give the other any peace. As such, it is probable that they'll set the race up for those in behind. Honeysuckle tends to race prominently and will get a lovely tow into proceedings, while Benie Des Dieux will not be far behind in this short field if adopting her usual mid-division tactics.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

There are two very good mares in here, one pretty good mare, and some other less good ones. The two very good ones - Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle - should finish first and second, though I wouldn't be bullish about the order; and Roksana should finish third.

Suggestion: Play 65/35 forecasts and tricasts: 65% BdD-Honey-Roksana, 35% Honey-BdD-Roksana.

*

4.50 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f)

Not my strong suit, but the trends are starting to form after 15 renewals, even allowing for some minor tinkering with the conditions.

Twelve of the fifteen winners finished 1st or 2nd last time out; 8yo+ have a moderate record; the top five in the market have won all bar three; all 15 winners ran between two weeks and two months prior to this; all bar one of the last twelve winners had run three or four times over fences.

The two box-tickers are Imperial Aura and Hold The Note.

Imperial Aura has finished second at Cheltenham on his last two of three chase starts, the form of his most recent run working out well enough. That was in the novices' handicap chase on Trials Day in January, a race which has provided the winner of this three times to date.

Mick Channon, he of the windmill arm goal celebration in a distant former life, saddled the winner of this two years ago with Mister Whitaker, and he trains Hold The Note for the same owner, Tim Radford, he of Timico Gold Cup fame in a recent former life.

This fellow has had a different prep - Mister Whitaker actually winning the aforementioned Trials Day novices handicap chase en route to his triumph - but has solid form in spite of being a maiden over fences. Maiden status failed to stop Ballyalton, Irish Cavalier or Finger Onthe Pulse from scoring.

Hold The Note was just run out of it in a three mile Grade 2 last time meaning he has both the class and the stamina for this; whether he quite has the speed remains to be seen, but connections obviously know how to get the job done.

One I like, as much as you can like a horse in a field of twenty novice handicappers, is Fergal O'Brien's Paint The Dream. He finished last of five last time out, but that was over a completely inadequate two miles on a not nearly testing enough track, Ludlow. Prior to that he'd chased home Midnight Shadow in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase, finishing from some way back to get to within a long length of the winner. He looks sure to appreciate the increased emphasis on stamina IF his jumping holds up.

17 others with some sort of a chance!

Novices' Handicap Chase Pace Projection

Torpillo will be front rank, and so too most likely Precious Cargo, Champagne Court, De Plotting Shed and, if he's quick enough, Paint The Dream. The speed they go early is likely to place strong emphasis on the jumping of these inexperienced chasers.

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

I fully respect the chances of the two 'trendy' horses, Hold The Note and Imperial Aura, but I want to take a small chance at a big price. In that spirit, I'm swinging at the maiden chaser, Paint The Dream.

Suggestion: Have a small bit each way on Paint The Dream at 25/1 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6 Skybet.

*

5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)

An amended race distance and qualifying criteria for this year's National Hunt Chase after the attrition of the 2019 renewal. Just 3m6f this time around then, though that is unlikely to make it much less of a gruelling stamina test. Add in the fact this race is contested by novice chasers ridden by amateur riders and you have a precarious punting proposition.

A little surprising, then, perhaps, is that the favourite, Carefully Selected, is as short as 6/4. If his price is surprising - to me at least - his position in the market is not. He was a high class bumper horse, finishing a neck second to Relegate in the 2018 Champion Bumper; and a high class novice hurdler, finishing third to Minella Indo in the Grade 1 Punchestown staying novice hurdle last spring.

This season Carefully Selected is three from three over fences, most recently in a pair of Grade 3's over two and a half, and then three, miles. He ought to stay though this is a three-quarter mile journey into the unknown for him.

A massed rank in opposition as ever in a race where the smallest field this century has been 15. Ravenhill is an interesting one in spite of a fall last time. He's the same age, ten, as Rathvinden, winner in 2018, and Rith Dubh (2002), his age group having an 11% win and 22% place strike rate. Compare that with seven- and eight-year-olds, who have won 15 NH Chases since 1997 but from a whopping 290 runners (5% win, 14% place).

His form lacks the Graded lustre of Carefully Selected's but it has the unarguable substance of valuable handicap performance, most notably when second in the €118,000 to the winner Kerry National two back. He was travelling kindly in midfield when falling halfway through the Troytown Chase when last seen 107 days ago and, while both the absence and the tumble are concerns, he's just the sort of warrior for this job.

Willie Mullins (Carefully Selected) and Gordon Elliott (Ravenhill) have won four of the last seven NH Chases.

Eight of the last nine winners were rated 143 or higher, and that eliminates most of this field. One who passes that test and might be the pick of the home defence is Lord Du Mesnil. Acquired from France where he had solid handicap chase form, in the summer of 2018, he's improved 38 pounds this season so far. That improvement has coincided with deeper ground as can be seen from his form below, sorted by Racing Post Rating. Note the going for his better performances - soft and heavy - and for his least good efforts - faster turf. He will obviously enjoy things if it comes up very wet.

Another worthy of mention is Kim Bailey's progressive Newtide. Newtide has raced exclusively on soft ground and has won his last three, most recently the Grade 2 Towton Novices' Chase at Wetherby. With just seven races on the clock there's sure to be more improvement to come and a light campaign should see him fresher than many in the field.

Possibly the most progressive in the field is the Tom George-trained Springfield Fox. Beaten in three early season novice hurdles, the Fox was given an opening handicap mark of 117, from which he proceeded to bolt up by 12 lengths in a heavy ground three mile Chepstow novices' handicap chase. Reassessed to a ten pounds higher mark for his next and most recent assignment, he laughed at the handicapper's futile attempt to check his new found winning ways as he sluiced home by 17 lengths in a three mile Exeter novices' handicap chase.

He's up another 15 to 142 now, but that's clearly just a guess on the part of the handicapper: it is far from impossible that he steps forward another ten pounds from that mark - and if he did so he'd just about win this. The niggle with him is that he's gone from the front and, again, that might not be ideal with a number of other pace protagonists in opposition.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

The likes of Springfield Fox, who took a liberty at the first fence last time, and Carefully Selected are confirmed front runners. Lord Du Mesnil and Lamanver Pippin race close up, too. They could be sorted out with still three miles to go!

National Hunt Chase Selection

It's an open looking race, though the favourite's credentials are solid. Sadly, his price is terrible for a contest of this nature and I have to let him beat me if he can. Against him, I respect Ravenhill and Lord Du Mesnil, but the one I want to be with is Springfield Fox. If he can get into a nice rhythm over the first few fences then he looks as though he'll just keep rolling. He's highly progressive and is a tempting price.

Suggestion: Back Springfield Fox at 8/1 e/w bet365, Skybet, 888sport

*

Good luck with your first day wagers. Remember, very few people have their last bet of the week on Tuesday, so whether you're in front or behind by 6pm, there's still a lot of pushing and pulling to be done over the remaining three days.

Matt

Punting Angles: The Triumph Hurdle

Stubbornness and occasional obstinacy are two of my less desirable characteristics, writes Jon Shenton. That may explain my historically neutral view of the Cheltenham Festival. Sure, I look forward to it, enjoy the seemingly 12-month build up to the next one and attend every year for at least one day.

However, I haven’t really “got it” in the same way that others seem to. I’m sure I’ve spouted the cliché of a winner at Southwell pays the same as a winner at Prestbury Park on more than one occasion to a non-plussed audience (and perhaps in one of these articles, too!). However, that’s all starting to change, mainly through penning my latest articles on the novice hurdling programme and linking it to Cheltenham. Now it all suddenly and finally makes sense.

Invigorated by that exercise, then, this article will focus on entirely on the Triumph Hurdle, which kicks off proceedings on the final afternoon, Gold Cup Friday, of the four-day fixture.

Graded Race Form

My first port of call was to evaluate the paths that previous winners have trodden on the way to a place in the history books at the Festival. Below is a table documenting each winner dating back to 2010, containing all same season graded hurdle races with the associated finishing position and the winning horse name from the latest renewal.

The table has two clear pointers. Firstly, the market is broadly a good guide in establishing the name of the likely winner. Seven of the last ten winners have returned a single figure price (and Tiger Roll only just a double figure one at 10/1). Countrywide Flame and Pentland Hills bucked the trend with their more exotic 33/1 and 20/1 SP’s.

Secondly, as well as the market pathfinding for punters, Graded form looks to be important, with every single champ having cut their teeth at Graded level apart from the aforementioned Pentland Hills. I make it nine graded wins in total from 15 starts between the last ten Triumph winners.

The Pentland question is still important to acknowledge, with Nicky Henderson's charge either a trend-buster or a potential new trend-setter.  Last years’ champion prevailed following a single run (and win) over hurdles in a £4k Class 4 event at Plumpton after an only slightly ascendant flat career.

I’d be inclined to conclude that the Pentland way is more likely to be an irregular occurrence. Moreover, due consideration needs to be paid to the specifics regarding last year's renewal. It was a difficult affair, with the ill-fated Sir Erec going wrong in the early stages of the race. The market, vibes and form all pointed to the Joseph O’Brien starlet running a big race and his exit changed the complexion, and perhaps the result of the 2019 edition. All ifs, buts and maybes but I see very little reason to deviate from the tried and tested form and/or the market as the starting point.

In terms of specific staging posts en route to a Cheltenham coronation, it’s of little surprise that the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown is a key pointer to the Triumph. No less than five of the ten winners listed have taken in this (sort of) Dublin race on the Festival trail. That may be a tick in the box for A Wave of the Sea, Aspire Tower and Cerberus in terms of the key market fancies.

Taking the UK angle, the Adonis is interesting. It's a race which was won by Soldatino and Zarkandar in 2010 and 2011 respectively. For both, it was their only UK run prior to their triumphs in the Triumph: exactly the same set of circumstances apply to Solo of the 2020 vintage.

Expanding on this theme, the table below shows the chief protagonists for the 2020 renewal, with their graded form to date.  It’s sorted in current ante-post market order.

 

If graded form is a key then Solo, Allmankind, Aspire Tower, A Wave of the Sea, Cerberus and Burning Victory have the potential to unlock the Triumph Hurdle door. That spells bad news for Sir Psycho, potentially Mick Pastor (6th in the Prestbury Juvenile Trial) and, most strikingly, Goshen. The Gary Moore-trained horse has a lofty reputation and is currently a general 4/1 in the market after three bloodless wins in lesser company. There is no doubt that the Triumph will be a big step up in class, one which he may well be perfectly capable of taking, but he doesn't fit the recent mould of winners of this race. Luckily there are ratings available which present tangible data on how big a leap might be required to take the spoils back down to Moore's Sussex yard.

Rating the Triumph

To ascertain if Goshen and his rivals have displayed “good enough” credentials to indicate competitiveness in the Triumph, I thought it’d be of interest to compare ratings of their past performances against the historic winners dating back to 2010. For this comparison I’ve used Racing Post Ratings (RPR), which as far as I can tell have been generated using a consistent methodology over the ten-year period (I’m happy to be corrected if otherwise).

Only races over hurdles have been included. The RPR is helpfully part of the geegeez.co.uk toolkit so obtaining this intel is relatively straightforward, albeit manual in nature.

Prior to discussing the data, a quick explanation of the columns, in left to right order.

  • Win RPR – the Racing Post Rating given to the winner for their run in the Triumph
  • Price – Current Market Price for the 2020 Triumph contenders
  • 5LR to LR – 5th last run if applicable through to the last run (LR) RPR's
  • High – best RPR recorded over hurdles prior to the Triumph
  • Low – lowest RPR recorded over hurdles prior to the Triumph
  • Avg – the average RPR of all hurdle runs prior to the Triumph

It’s sorted by the last run (LR) column and I’ve signposted this year's crop with white rows, light blue relating to previous winners.

 

Laid out in this manner the table gives some valuable clues as to the likely shake up of the Triumph. The general shape reflects well on the class of 2020, showing that most of the main players have been pitching at a sufficient level over the course of this season to indicate that they have the potential to develop into Triumph winners.

Based on average RPR, three of the 2020 crop rank in the top five (Solo, Goshen and Aspire Tower). Although, it could easily be argued that there is a partial picture here, as it only includes winners from previous renewals, not the whole field. For example, Sir Erec ran to an RPR of 146 on his final outing prior to Cheltenham last year and, as he didn’t win, this is not included. However, even accounting for this it does indicate a high-quality renewal this year if all prospective runners make it to the starting tape.

It’s also logical to conclude that some of the longer shots (Mick Pastor, Sir Psycho, Burning Victory and Fujimoto Flyer) will have to improve significantly to prevail on Gold Cup Friday. Our old mate Pentland Hills’ Plumpton run gleaned an RPR of 128, demonstrating that a relatively low rating in a last run is not necessarily a barrier to onward success; but, PH aside, all other winners ran to at least 136 on their previous outing.

The lowest Triumph-winning RPR in the dataset is 144, and it belongs to household name Tiger Roll for his 2014 victory. This puts into context how much the animals with ratings in the 120’s or low 130’s last time out will have to improve. Notably, four of this year's field have already delivered RPR’s on or around that Tiger Roll winning rating and might be expected to improve further on the 13th March. It’s hard to see the horses at the lower end of the table improving beyond them if any of the main four take a step forward.

Solo’s 145 RPR from the Adonis is also noteworthy. The race was run just over four seconds slower than the Kingwell over the same course and distance on the same card. Perhaps the relatively high rating is a surprise, at first glance anyway. However, the RPR allocated to the winner of the Kingwell (Song for Someone) was a meaty 152 which gives a relative feel to the performance. It was visually impressive from Solo, and the RPR backs it up.

Arguably, Goshen is the most interesting in the RPR context given his lack of graded form. His RPR performance has metronomic consistency at 142 or 143 over the trio of his hurdle runs to date, having barely seen a rival in those three outings prevailing by a combined 68 lengths! Given his lack of experience at the higher level it should be of some reassurance to Goshen backers and fans that his race ratings are right on the money in these lower-class affairs. Based on ratings alone he is a very serious contender.

 

The trainers

Reviewing the trainers' record with juvenile hurdlers may offer another clue to the eventual winner. Using horseracebase the below table shows their complete records in juvenile hurdle events in the UK and Ireland.  It only includes trainers of horses that are 20/1 or shorter in the Triumph Hurdle ante-post market currently.

 

The data confirms that Gary Moore is a superb handler of juvenile hurdlers. There must be a couple of nice angles hidden within this table, perhaps for another time/edition of Punting Angles. The Nicholls operation, too, is meritorious and deserves closer inspection on another occasion.

Overall, it’s a nice insight but in terms of significant pointers for Cheltenham it doesn’t really help, so evaluating performance at the track should be an interesting and logical next step.

 

 

There are some astonishing numbers in the table above, one in particular: Willie Mullins’ 0-from-41 in juvenile hurdles at Cheltenham is the most extraordinary stat of all, although Gary Moore’s 1-from-40 is also equally startling. We’re fishing in small pools of data and the degree of relevance can be argued. That said, data are data and, consequently, a certain degree of bravery and belligerence is required to back Burning Victory or Goshen once you’ve digested these numbers.

To micro-analyse a little further, the table below shows performance only in four-year-old hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival. This includes data from the Triumph and the Fred Winter/Boodles.

 

 

All of Mullins’ 41 runners have been at 'the Fez' and include luminaries such as Footpad and Apples Jade. Moore hasn’t notched in 17 appearances, hitting the place crossbar only twice from those runs. Paul Nicholls' horses are obviously serious propositions; and Skelton, O’Brien and de Bromhead only have a handful of representatives between them, although it is worth noting that whilst Aiden O’Brien was the trainer of 2016 winner Ivanovic Gorbatov, it is widely rumoured that Joseph had a significant role to play in that victory. Overall though, trainer data points to negatives for Goshen and Burning Victory.

Race Composition – Pace to Burn

I’ve attempted to build a pace map of the chief protagonists below: it is constructed in line with the methodology and numbers deployed within geegeez pace maps.

  • 4 – led
  • 3 – Prominent
  • 2 – Mid-Division
  • 1 – Held up

 

Above is the individual race profile of each of the contenders in numerate form and below is a graphical representation of their average pace preference based on their hurdle runs thus far.

 

A lot of talk regarding this race is in relation to a likely pace burn up. The data backs that up with bells on. The top three in the market have all pretty much only ever cut out the running in their recent hurdles starts, with Cerberus and Sir Psycho preferring to race near the head of affairs, too. The addition of the other less fancied runners may further spice to the already fiery pace platter. It would be very, very surprising if this race is run at anything other than a fast and honest gallop.

Based on visual evidence, Goshen and Allmankind appear to be the ones that are most likely bolt on when the flag is dropped. There is a definite possibility of those two damaging each other by over-racing and it’ll be fascinating to see how they react to a bit of competition for the lead, although Goshen can take back as he did between the third and fifth flights last time.

Perhaps Aspire Tower gives the impression of being slightly the least headstrong of the trio which may mean he could pick up the pieces, but that equally could apply to any of the others. Despite the RPR numbers appearing to downplay the prospects of Burning Victory and Mick Pastor, maybe the race composition brings them into play a little.

 

Summary and conclusions

If you’re after a tip then you’re probably reading the wrong article! However, after evaluating each horse's path to the Triumph, their RPR performance, trainer records and the likely pace composition it’s fair to say that there are a plethora of pros and cons to evaluate, many of them ostensibly contradictory.

Of the four market leaders I favour Goshen the least: his lack of Graded form, Moore’s record at Cheltenham with juveniles, and his want-the-lead run style are all negatives in my view. Further, he has jumped markedly to the right in all three of his hurdle races, which is obviously sub-optimal in a Championship race at left-handed Cheltenham, and I do wonder how he will react under pressure as for the first time he is unlikely to get it all his own way, as the ratings and pace profile demonstrate.

Of the four I’d side with Aspire Tower, a perspective that’s driven by current prices as much as anything else. Along with Solo he has the best RPR from a previous hurdle race and I think he could be a good value play, although he is not the most likely winner and does have to bounce back from a fall in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The pace composition holds the key for me: a furious gallop could easily leave the door ajar for horses at the lower end of the pace profile, and maybe not the most fancied in the field. Based on evidence to date it’s likely to be a mega burn up, but if I know that then of course all the trainers, jockeys and pundits know it too. That makes it even more intriguing and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a change in tactics attempted by at least one of the main pace pushers. Good luck holding Goshen and Allmankind back though!

If I was putting my money down today based on this analysis, I would side with Aspire Tower and maybe A Wave Of The Sea all things considered. Along with Solo they tick more of the boxes and possibly have more versatility regarding how the tactics play out. The unappealing price for Solo leads me to the other two, though it will be far from a shock should Solo win as he is the likely favourite.

It would also be no surprise to see Goshen or Allmankind break the field apart! Whatever happens, it’s a genuinely fascinating race: the more I’ve looked at it the more I can’t wait to see how things shake down. I’ll be there to watch it in the flesh, and I haven’t looked forward to a single race as much in my life.

- JS

Your first 30 days for just £1