Trying to predict the likely target of horses as the Cheltenham Festival approaches remains something of a lottery.
With each passing day information is released by connections and trainers that tend to muddy the waters rather than giving the poor old punter much needed clarity. In the past few days Alan King has hinted that his young novice hurdler Yanworth is now likely to head for the Neptune rather than the Supreme as most expected. He may well bump into Ben Pauling’s Barters Hill, as although he is currently favourite for the Albert Bartlett, the Cotswold trainer seems to fancy a shot at the shorter trip.
Paul Kealy yesterday tipped up Road To Riches for the Ryanair in his Weekender piece, even though trainer Noel Meade appears adamant that his charge will be heading for the Gold Cup. I’m hoping the trainer gets his own way on that one, as I’ve already backed the horse for the ‘Blue Riband’ at 20’s.
Trying to pin Willie Mullins down with likely targets for his battalion is always a senseless task. And this year is no different, with the likes of Bellshill, Yorkhill, Long Dog, Vautour, Killultagh Vic, Pont Alexandre and so on and so forth, all giving punters, connections and no doubt the trainer himself a few headaches.
To be fair to the trainers and their paying owners there is absolutely no reason that they should commit so far in advance of such an important event. Ground conditions, the standard of opposition and the ever evolving opinions on their own animal can have a huge effect on the eventual race that a horse appears in.
More clues should be forthcoming this weekend, and one Festival race in particular has caught my attention.
Although the RSA favourite No More Heroes is yet another to get multiple entries for March, it is likely that he will stick to the staying novices event rather than take on the ‘big guns’ in the Gold Cup, especially as Gigginstown already hold such a strong hand in Cheltenham’s showpiece. He’s been mightily impressive since switching to fences with three comfortable wins from three outings.
His latest success at Leopardstown when stepped up in trip has left many experts of the opinion that this fella is a Gold Cup winner in waiting. He has all the physical attributes and has proved a natural over the larger obstacles. Whilst he spends the weekend tucked up back at Cullentra House Stables, there are others that will be looking to make their mark and an impact on the RSA market as a result.
Willie Mullins looks set to have a number of his novice chasers in action on Saturday. A Grade2 over three miles at Naas could be the next port of call for Black Hercules and Roi Des Francs. The former is owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie and has always looked sure to improve for being sent over fences. He never missed a beat at Navan on chase debut and was full of running at the line. The bookies have him shorter for the four miler at the Festival, and his performance on Saturday will tell us more.
Roi Des Francs was third in the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham in March and is another embryonic chaser. A son of Poliglote out of a Sillery mare, (as is Don Poli) he was behind Monksland on his chasing debut, but appeared to appreciate the step up in trip when winning at Fairyhouse in December. Yet another classy chaser running for Gigginstown, there’s also a chance he could head for the National Hunt Chase though the owners would be more than happy arriving for the RSA mob-handed. Last year’s race saw Gigginstown runners take first and third. He appears to have been somewhat overlooked by punters and experts alike, but that may change after Saturday.
Monksland is also due to run at Naas and his placing will help weigh up the form as he was well beaten by No More Heroes at Leopardstown.
Willie Mullins has Pont Alexandre entered in the same race at Naas, but it seems likely he will take up his entry at Warwick in the listed novices’ chase. His return at Punchestown, having spent more than two years on the sidelines through injury, was particularly eye-catching.
The form of his win doesn’t amount to much, but we know from his hurdling days that he is a class act, and if he retains all that ability he could take high order among the novice chases. He is also short in the market for Cheltenham’s four mile event, but it would surprise me if he took that route. He was one of the best novice hurdlers at two and a half miles, and this classy type has plenty of pace. The RSA would surely be the sensible option rather than a marathon slog.
Conditions at Warwick are certain to be testing and the likes of Silsol for Nicholls and Definitly Red for Brian Ellison will make this a severe test for the Mullins-Ricci inmate. Both look to be gutsy stayers capable of mixing it at a high level, and if Pont Alexandre shows any sign of ring rust they will take advantage.
When they line up for the RSA in March it will take a ‘good un’ to get the better of No More Heroes. Saturday looks sure to go some way in pointing out the likely contenders with the ability to get closest to him.