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Mulholland Pair to Master Ayr

The transition from Jumps to Flat is now well underway, and this weekend we are treated to quality racing from both codes.

Ayr host the Scottish National on Saturday, whilst at Newbury Expert Eye makes his eagerly anticipated seasonal bow in the Group Three Greenham Stakes.

Vicente returns to Ayr searching for a third-straight win in the Scottish Grand National. The Paul Nicholls-trained nine-year-old was set for a crack at Aintree but was withdrawn due to the testing conditions. With just three outings this winter, he should arrive fresh and ready for another huge performance. There’s no doubting the race suits, and he’s only 4lb higher in the handicap. He’s again partnered by Sam Twiston-Davies and it’s hard to imagine a finish without his involvement, though no horse has won with a rating higher than 146 in the past 10 years.

Vintage Clouds also missed out on an Aintree trip, missing the cut by one place. The eight-year-old has had a fine season, winning once and finishing in the top four from his five starts thus far. He was a gutsy fourth in the Welsh National, proving his ability to see-out these marathon trips. He was seventh here last year, though is a more mature and stronger horse this time around. His handicap mark has crept up to 141 (134 last year) and though he’s in off a nice race weight of 10-12 it would be wrong to say that he’s well-handicapped. I fancy he’ll go close, though he lacks gears and is always likely to find one or two with a little more zip at the business end.

Doing Fine is towards the head of the betting, and providing the rain stays away, looks to have a great chance at the weights. Trained by Neil Mulholland, this 10-year-old has twice finished in the top four of the London National at Sandown. He’s another that’s sure to arrive fit and well having not been sighted since December. Like Vintage Clouds, he’s likely to get a little outpaced at some stage, but I can see him finishing with a rare old rattle. He looks sure to go close.

It’s hard to ignore Gordon Elliott and Davy Russell. Fresh from a successful Cheltenham Festival and a famous victory in the Grand National at Aintree, the pair are reunited, with novice chaser Fagan taking his chance. The eight-year-old has clearly had his health issues, with just five runs since his Albert Bartlett runner-up spot in 2016. Four outings over fences is hardly ideal when faced with 27 obstacles over a marathon four-mile trip, and his last run was way back in October. Taking on Elliott and Russell is a dangerous business, but I can’t see this fella winning.

Ballyoptic is a talented novice who arrives here following a creditable fourth place finish in the RSA at Cheltenham. The eight-year-old is trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies and looks the sort that will thrive over this marathon trip. His race mark of 149 is plenty high enough for this, though looks fair on what he has produced thus far. He lacks a little experience with just five outings over fences, though his preparation for this, as opposed to Fagan’s, has been a smooth one. He looks a leading contender.

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The Young Master is another Mulholland entrant with a realistic chance. His handicap mark has dropped like a stone, and it seems incredible that at the age of nine (far from past it), he’ll run here off 132. A year ago he ran in the Grand National at Aintree off a mark of 150, and his last run at Cheltenham, following a wind-op, suggested he has much more to offer. Sam Waley-Cohen takes the ride, claiming 3lbs and bringing his race weight down to 10-0. He reminds me of the classy Wayward Prince, who won the race in 2015 having been similarly dropped by the handicapper.

The Young Master last won a chase in April 2016, when landing the bet365 off a handicap of 148. I can’t resist taking him to win this off 132, especially at odds of around 20/1. It could prove quite a day for Mulholland as I also fancy Doing Fine to go very close. However, despite having to carry 11-7, Vicente must be other Keeling punt. Twice a winner of this, he’s sure to go close again, and his odds of 9/1 make him a cracking each-way proposition.

Whilst the stayers slug it out in Scotland, Newbury play host to potential Classic contenders. Arguably the most exciting of these is Expert Eye trained by Sir Michael Stoute and ridden by Ryan Moore. Simply stunning in the Vintage Stakes at Goodwood last year, he then failed to spark in the Dewhurst at Newmarket. That run was too bad to be true, and Flat racing fans will be hoping for a return to form on his seasonal debut.

Hey Gaman could prove his toughest challenger, having looked a more than useful juvenile, finishing runner-up in the Group Two Champagne Stakes. He’s beautifully bred, being by New Approach out of a Dubawi mare and looks a real danger to the favourite.

The Fred Darling also looks a tasty renewal, with plenty of fillies hoping to put themselves in the 1000 Guineas picture. Gavota looks as exciting as any, and like Expert Eye, will carry the famous Khalid Abdullah silks. She performed well as a juvenile despite looking jus a shell of a horse. One would anticipate plenty of improvement from two to three, and a big performance here would not be surprising.

The Elliott Express Keeps Rolling On

Gordon Elliott’s outstanding season continued with success in Saturday’s Grand National, thanks to his diminutive equine star, Tiger Roll.

The eight-year-old is a three-time winner at the Cheltenham Festival and arrived at Aintree having recently captured the Cross-Country at Prestbury Park. The trainer had used the same prep for Silver Birch, before capturing his first National in 2007. And just last year, Cause Of Causes romped home in the Cross-Country prior to a runner-up finish in the ‘big one’ at Aintree.

And so, it was no surprise that the tried and tested plan was put into operation again. With Cheltenham conquered, the question for many was whether Aintree’s prodigious fences would prove too much of an obstacle for a horse lacking somewhat in stature.

Such concerns proved unfounded, with Davy Russell given a dream ride aboard a foot-perfect staying chaser. Positioned just behind the leaders for much of the marathon contest, Russell made a forward move heading for the second-last fence, taking up the running from long-time leader Pleasant Company. At the last, he appeared to make the winning manoeuvre, stretching some five-lengths clear by the elbow. In true dramatic Grand National fashion, Tiger Roll’s petrol tank began to run empty and Pleasant Company finished with a rare old rattle. At the line, just a head separated the pair.

The front duo were 11-lengths clear of third-placed Bless The Wings, also trained by Gordon Elliott. Whilst Anibale Fly ran a cracker under the burden of 11-8 to finish a neck further back in fourth.

Elliott was clearly thrilled to win his second Grand National and said: “I was nervous. I thought I had it, but you're so nervous watching it. I said I didn't appreciate it first-time round. I'm definitely going to appreciate it now. It's great for my family and everyone at home. He's an unbelievable horse. I was really worried about the ground. All the way round I couldn't believe how he was going. It's unbelievable for Davy Russell. He's lost his mother and I'm sure his father Gerry is very proud at home watching.

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“Coming after the Cheltenham we had, we didn't dare dream this. We only beat him (Mullins) last week in the Irish National and now we've beaten him again, I can't believe it. Having to beat Willie is tough, he's an amazing man and sets the standards, one of the greatest of all time and to be training at the same time as him is unbelievable.”

Of being beaten a head, in the world’s most famous race, Mullins said: “That’s twice Gordon has done that to me, he did it in the Irish National too. He (Pleasant Company) seemed to get a little bit tired and then get a second wind. I never actually thought he’d got back up, but he ran a fantastic race. He jumped from fence to fence and you couldn’t ask for any better. He was only beaten a head and at the last fence I thought we were going to be beaten eight or 10 lengths. I’m really proud of him, he jumped fantastic and he’s one for next year.”

Gigginstown were winning the Aintree showpiece for the second time in three years, and following a successful Cheltenham Festival, Michael O’Leary looked rather pleased: “We were panicking at the line. It was a well-judged ride by Davy. It’s a phenomenal training feat by Gordon. We bought him for the Triumph, which he won. But then to win the Cross-Country, the four-miler and now the world’s greatest steeplechase is phenomenal. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

Mullins and Elliott continue to battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, with the latter currently more than €500,000 ahead. However, the situation was similar going into the Punchestown Festival a year ago. On that occasion it was Willie Mullins who finished the stronger, with numerous victories and placed finishes, including a success for Wicklow Brave in the Champion Hurdle which proved pivotal.

In little more than a week the pair will again lock horns for the season finale, with the title in the balance. Elliott has edged-out his rival several times so far this winter and will hope to do the same for one final historic success.

Might just may on opening day- If Gold Cup hasn’t left mark

There’s no fewer than four Grade One’s on the opening day of the Grand National meeting, with the Bowl Chase and the Aintree Hurdle the feature events.

Might Bite will be a short-priced favourite for the Betway Bowl, following his runner-up finish in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and victory in the King George over Christmas. He’s without doubt the class act in a field of eight, though his performance will surely hinge on how he has recovered from those Festival exertions. It’s less than a month since he had that prolonged battle with Native River in testing ground, although his campaign had been light prior to that.

Might Bite landed the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at the corresponding meeting a year ago, following up on his success in the RSA. Both track and trip look ideal for this talented young chaser, and Henderson isn’t one for taking risks with his horses. The Seven Barrows handler must believe that the nine-year-old is fighting fit. If so, he’ll take all the beating.

Last year’s surprise winner, Tea For Two, looks to emulate Silviniaco Conti in achieving back to back victories. Cheltenham doesn’t appear to suit this fella, and he looks more at home on a flatter track. He ran well when third to Might Bite in the King George, and though I don’t fancy him to beat Henderson’s charge, he should run a decent race.

Double Shuffle was runner-up in the Kempton showpiece and will arrive here fresher than most. Tom George had a terrific Cheltenham Festival and this eight-year-old looks a rapidly improving sort. He’s another that has his work cut out to reverse King George form with Might Bite, though missing that arduous encounter in the Gold Cup should work in his favour.

Definitly Red appeared slightly outclassed at Cheltenham, and I’d be surprised if he wins this. Nevertheless, he has course form and if the ground is testing enough, he has the guts to run into a place. Brian Ellison was insistent that better ground would suit his horse, but I struggle to believe it.

Clan Des Obeaux could prove the surprise package. Paul Nicholls has captured three of the last eight renewals, and I can see this young chaser running a cracker. He looks a King George sort to me, and this race should suit. The six-year-old is taking on more experienced rivals but looks hugely talented. This step up in trip appears the main concern, though he didn’t appear to be stopping last time at Cheltenham over 2m5f.

Bristol De Mai is back on a flat left-handed track in testing conditions. He probably needs the ground to be bottomless, nevertheless, we can probably expect an improved performance from the seven-year-old. Nigel Twiston-Davies has also given him a wind-op and, should his jumping hold together, he could prove a serious challenger.

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Might Bite is a cut above these, and as long as the Gold Cup hasn’t left a mark, I’m confident he’ll win. If it has, then Clan Des Obeaux is the one I fancy to take advantage.

Sadly, we will not be seeing Buveur D’Air in the Aintree Hurdle. His absence leaves Jess Harrington’s Supasundae a short-priced favourite. Runner-up in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, the eight-year-old had previously landed the Irish Champion Hurdle at two miles. This trip ought to prove ideal for this grand looking son of Galileo.

Henderson sends 11-year-old My Tent Or Yours into battle. Runner-up in the last pair of renewals, he looked as good as ever when winning the International Hurdle at Cheltenham back in December. He was no match for Buveur D’Air in last year’s race, though I fancy Harrington’s fella is not in that league. This could be his final race and he rarely disappoints. It’s a tough ask at 11, though this race looks more open than the odds suggest.

The New One was a place behind My Tent in last year’s race. This appears his optimum trip, though he is undoubtedly a better horse going right-handed. The soft ground should suit him, and he looks a leading contender. He’s likely to be jumping out to his right all the way up the straight, and that must be a huge concern.

L’Ami Serge is sure to go well for much of the race and may well look a huge player approaching the last. However, he’ll need to battle at some stage, especially against the likes of The New One and Supasundae. And that will surely be his undoing.

Supasundae is progressive and should win, though his odds (currently evens) look a little skinny to me. On this ground I’d probably risk a punt on The New One.

Green and Gold – A dependable route to Grand National Profit

The hugely competitive nature off the Grand National ensures that no single trainer or owner can boast an outstanding record in the race.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is the only handler to have captured more than a single Grand National victory in the past 30 years. In the same period jockeys Carl Llewellyn, Ruby Walsh and Leighton Aspell landed a pair apiece.

As far as successful owners are concerned, there’s no doubting that Trevor Hemmings stands alone at the head of the field. Finding Grand National contenders has become a serious hobby for the wealthy businessman. And he’s proved particularly adept, with an impressive three victories in the past 13 years. Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds were the successful trio and he’ll be looking for a fourth on Saturday.

Irish racehorse owner JP McManus stands at just one victory in the world’s greatest steeplechase, though his recent record suggests that he is the one to keep onside if you’re looking to have a punt on Saturday.

Cause Of Causes was the latest to carry those famous green and gold silks to a prominent finish, when runner-up to One For Arthur last year. It was announced yesterday that the Gordon Elliott-trained chaser has been retired due to a recent injury picked up at Prestbury Park. Though not the biggest, the gutsy stayer was at his best on spring ground, adapting well to the unique national fences. He was also talented enough to land a hat-trick of victories at the Cheltenham Festival.

In 2016 the McManus colours were carried to fourth-place by the Enda Bolger-trained Gilgamboa. A year earlier Shutthefrontdoor managed a fifth-place finish, whilst in 2014 Double Seven came close to giving AP McCoy another win, before fading to third after the elbow.

Neptune Collonges landed a dramatic victory in the Grand National of 2012, chinning the McManus owned Sunnyhillboy on the line. It was a heart-breaking day all-round for the Irishman, as not only did he miss out on victory by a nose, but he saw his Gold Cup hero, Synchronised, fatally injured just a month after that glorious success at Cheltenham.

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In 2010 the McManus/McCoy combination had one of their greatest days, with the Grand National victory of Don’t Push It. The 10-year-old travelled beautifully throughout and cruised into contention two fences from home. When McCoy asked for an effort the horse gave an emphatic response. The pair returned a year later and ran a cracker off top-weight to finish third behind Ballabriggs.

Anibale Fly and Minella Rocco appear to be JP’s leading contenders for Saturday’s renewal. Both have placed in a Gold Cup, though will be asked to carry plenty of weight as a consequence. There’s a doubt, as the rain continues to fall, of Minella Rocco making the start-line. Jonjo O’Neill has remained adamant that his chaser needs decent ground, and that certainly won’t be the case at Aintree this weekend. Nevertheless, the eight-year-old has undergone a wind operation and connections may decide to take their chance.

Anibale Fly stayed on strongly to finish third in last month’s Gold Cup. That run suggested that a marathon trip such as the national would prove ideal. Tony Martin’s eight-year-old is by French stallion Assessor, and ought to therefore cope admirably with testing conditions. The concern is, of course, the 11-7 that he’ll need to haul over the 30 fences, though there’s no doubting his class.

Anthony Honeyball has had an outstanding season and has a decent contender in Regal Encore. Sporting the famous green and gold, this fella finished a respectable eighth in the race 12 months ago and ran a cracker when a staying-on third in the Ladbroke Trophy (formerly the Hennessy). He arrives here off the same handicap mark as 12 months ago and at 33s looks to have a great each-way chance.

A couple of weeks back I wrote of the potential contenders for Trevor Hemmings. He has a cracking national record and though the weather may rule out the Paul Nicholls-trained Vicente, he still has a pair of decent each-way propositions in Vintage Clouds and Warriors Tale. Both will appreciate testing ground, and in Sean Bowen, the latter has a jockey that excels in these marathon events.

This pair of wealthy businessmen share a common passion for our wonderful sport. And their continued success in the world’s most famous race, gives hope to punters, as they search for potential winners in this ultra-competitive event.

Aintree Delights

Though the Grand National is undoubtedly the headline act, next week’s Aintree meeting has plenty more to offer, with eye-catching renewals on each of the three days.

The Grade One Aintree Hurdle is run at 2m4f and never fails to deliver. Buveur D’Air was mightily impressive in winning last year, comfortably accounting for My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

Since its inception in 1976, the race has been won by some of the best hurdlers in the business. Dual Cheltenham Champion Hurdle hero, Comedy Of Errors, was a gutsy winner of the first running. The following year, Night Nurse and Monksfield dead-heated in an absolute epic. The pair were two of the all-time greats in a golden period for hurdling. Both went on to win the Champion Hurdle a couple of times apiece, with Monksfield returning to Liverpool to take the Aintree Hurdle three years in-a-row.

The wonderful Irish mare, Dawn Run, captured this race soon after landing the Champion Hurdle and a couple of years before her dramatic victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Morley Street became the most successful hurdler in the history of the event, winning four times from 1990 to 1993. He also landed the Champion Hurdle in 1991.

Another hurdling great, Istabraq, captured the Aintree Hurdle in 1999, though failed in a thriller 12- months earlier, when losing out in a prolonged duel to Pridwell, under an inspired ride from AP McCoy.

Al Eile was an Irish raider that loved both track and trip. Trained by John Queally, he achieved a trio of victories in 2005, 07 and 08. Oscar Whisky was similarly suited by the trip. Never quite quick enough to land a Champion Hurdle, he was at his best at two-and-a-half-miles. His two Aintree victories in 2011 and 2012 proved dramatic, as on both occasions he had to hold off a sustained threat from the Willie Mullins-trained Thousand Stars, each time hanging on by a neck.

In a race where horses regularly return to win again, it’s hard to envisage a Buveur D’Air defeat next Thursday.
Another Aintree highlight will be the Grade One Melling Chase. This is a personal favourite and has been won by Jump racing giants. Introduced in 1991, this wonderful race has gone to numerous Queen Mother Champion Chase winners. Remittance Man, Deep Sensation, Viking Flagship and Martha’s Son, all landed the big one at Cheltenham before capturing this.

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But it was Moscow Flyer that won over the hearts of so many National Hunt racing fans. Hugely talented, he undoubtedly had his quirks. But from being sent over fences in 2001, until the end of his 2005 campaign, Jess Harrington’s chasing superstar was virtually unbeatable. He hit the floor on occasion, but whenever Barry Geraghty was able to retain the partnership, this formidable chaser swept all-comers aside.

Twice a winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, his win in the Tingle Creek of 2004 will live long in the memory. Then a 10-year-old, he proved himself ‘the daddy’ at two miles, when fighting off two top-class chasing youngsters in Azertyuiop and Well Chief. He travelled to Aintree to land the Melling Chase in 2004 and 2005.

Undeniably one of the most talented, Moscow Flyer dominated for years. But for a period from 2012 to the end of the 2013 campaign, Sprinter Sacre surely surpassed anything that had been previously achieved over fences.

Nicky Henderson’s chaser was poetry in motion. Seemingly created to jump a fence, Sprinter Sacre was as good a jumper as there’s ever been. Blessed with perfect physical attributes, he was a truly glorious sight leaping an obstacle. Destructive in the Queen Mother of 2013, he then went to Aintree and proved himself a class apart when defeating the wonderful Cue Card. Wishing to show him off to the Irish racing public, Nicky Henderson then sent Sprinter to Punchestown to win their Champion Chase. He was to return from a heart condition and famously win another Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2016.

It would be lovely to see Henderson’s latest star, Altior, compete in the Melling Chase next week. This outstanding racehorse is building a reputation to rival the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Moscow Flyer. It would be fitting if he was to match their Aintree achievements.

Golden Oldies are having a ‘Grand’ time

Whilst age has proved a major obstacle to success at the Cheltenham Festival, the same cannot be said when equine pensioners line up for the Grand National.

Indeed, it’s often best when punting on the world’s greatest steeplechase, to side with an old warrior rather than an upwardly mobile youngster. It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise that a fair level of experience counts for plenty when faced with 30 fences over a marathon four-and-a-half-mile trip.

One For Arthur was just an eight-year-old when landing the major prize 12 months ago, though he’d had plenty of practice, with just shy of a dozen runs over the larger obstacles. Back in third that day was the 11-year-old Saint Are, and in fifth Gas Line Boy, also in his 11th year. That pair were 25/1 and 50/1 respectively.

The renewals of 2012, 2013 and 2014 all went to horses aged 11. The classiest of those was Neptune Collonges, who famously carried 11-6 when getting his nose in front just in time to defeat Sunnyhillboy. He was sent off a relatively unconsidered 33/1 shot.

Four of the first five home in 2013 were aged 11 or 12, with Auroras Encore coming out on top at a stonking 66/1. And in 2014 Pineau De Re won the world’s most famous race at an attractive each-way price of 25/1.

Since the 11-year-old L’Escargot defeated Red Rum in the national of 1975 (carried 11-3), there has been a further 15 Aintree heroes aged 11 and 12. Rummy himself famously returned in 1977 to land his third Grand National at the grand old age of 12. He managed to haul 11-8 to victory on that occasion. Of those successful pensioners from 1975 onwards, only L’Escargot, Red Rum and Neptune Collonges managed to carry more than 11 stone to victory.

Away from this classy winning trio, there’s been other elderly headline makers. Aldaniti provided one of the great national stories when winning the famous race in 1981. Third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1979, he’d then recovered from serious injury before arriving at the start at Aintree. His jockey, Bob Champion, had himself overcome adversity in battling against testicular cancer on the road to this incredible success. Such was the nature of the victory, that the tale was told on the ‘silver screen’, with John Hurt taking the lead role in ‘Champions’.

In 1990 Kim Bailey’s Mr Frisk, at the age of 11, raced to victory in a record time of eight minutes and 47 seconds. The 12-year-old Royal Athlete became trainer Jenny Pitman’s second success in the race in 1995, and in 2004 Amberleigh House was also 12 when capturing the prestigious prize for Red Rum’s legendary trainer Ginger McCain.

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And there’s plenty of contenders that will be hoping to extend that impressive record for the older generation a week on Saturday.

Gas Line Boy returns for another crack following his fifth place finish a year ago. Now 12, he is notoriously good in the mud, and his trainer, Ian Williams, will be one of the few handlers hoping that this winter’s miserable weather holds out a little longer. He was defeated by 11-year-old Buywise last time out at Sandown. The pair renew rivalry at Aintree, with the Evan Williams-trained contender looking to improve on a midfield finish in 2016. His jumping will need to hold up, but at 50/1 he’s an interesting proposition.

Milansbar is another that could outperform his odds of 50/1. An impressive winner of the Betfred Classic in January, he recently finished runner-up in the Midlands National at Uttoxeter. He’s set to be ridden by one of this season’s young stars, Bryony Frost. She was onboard the 11-year-old at Warwick and is renowned for getting a horse into a lovely rhythm over fences.

Then there’s a pair of ever youthful 13-year-olds, in Raz De Maree and Bless The Wings. The former has already landed the Welsh National this season, whilst the latter was runner-up in the Irish Grand National 12 months ago. Both are big odds, yet more than capable off their current handicap mark, of putting in an impressive performance.

Saint Are has been placed in two of the last three nationals and returns at the age of 12 for another crack. And should ground conditions improve, Noel Meade’s 11-year-old Road To Riches (if making the cut) could prove an interesting outsider having plummeted down the handicap in recent times.

One or two of the oldies are sure to be in the mix, with Gas Line Boy currently the shortest priced at 33s. There’s certainly value to be had, though as ever, finding the right one will again prove the greatest challenge of all.

Dubai struck by a bout of the blues

Saturday’s Dubai World Cup proved a triumph for Team Godolphin, with the boys in blue scooping the three most valuable events.

Bob Baffert had hoped to land the Dubai World Cup for the second-year running, following Arrogate’s stunning success in 2017. West Coast was duly sent off a short-priced favourite but was firmly put in his place by the Saeed bin Suroor-trained Thunder Snow. A Group One winner at the three, the four-year-old has clearly flourished during his winter in Meydan. Sent to the front by Christophe Soumillon, he never looked in danger, romping clear in the latter stages for a five-length success. West Coast had tried to close him down in the home straight but lacked the gears to land a telling blow.

The winning trainer was clearly thrilled, when after the race he said: “This horse is brilliant. Christophe rode a great race. We spoke beforehand about what to do from the outside draw and he rode him to perfection. As soon as he was out the stalls and in a good position, I thought he would go well.”

The Thunder Snow show came little more than half an hour after Hawkbill had put in a stunning front-running performance to capture the Sheema Classic. Cloth Of Stars looked to be Godolphin’s leading hope but it was William Buick that got the fractions right aboard Charlie Appleby’s five-year-old, with the rest of he field finding it impossible to peg him back. Three lengths separated him from runner-up Poet’s Word, who battled on bravely to finish a neck ahead of Cloth Of Stars.

Buick had won the race 12 months earlier aboard Jack Hobbs and said of this impressive winner: “Physically he did well over the winter and we’ve always thought a lot of him. His run on Super Saturday got his head straight and his body right. He relaxed well in front and was in a lovely rhythm. It was going to take a good one to get past him.”

Appleby had earlier won the Al Quoz Sprint with Jungle Cat, following the late withdrawal of stable companion and Godolphin number one Blue Point. The boys in blue then captured the Dubai Turf when Benbatl proved far too good for a competitive looking field. The winner could now be aimed at Royal Ascot. Saeed bin Suroor clearly believes the horse is going places, saying: “We have thought a great deal about this horse over the last three years and he won for us at Royal Ascot last year (Hampton Court Stakes). He broke well tonight and had a nice position all the way. I wasn't surprised he won like that, because he had been working very well. The plan will now be to go back to Royal Ascot for the Prince of Wales's Stakes.”

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Whilst Godolphin stole the show, Aidan O’Brien also had an impressive winner on the card, when three-year-old Mendelssohn destroyed the opposition, knocking more than a second off the nine-and-a-half-furlong track record to land the UAE Derby.

“Obviously we weren’t expecting that,” said O’Brien. “We were very happy with him after his win at Dundalk, we knew there was a lot of dirt in his pedigree and that he had a lot of speed, but we weren’t sure how far his speed would carry him. We’re over the moon. The lads paid a lot of money for him.”

Ryan Moore was also impressed: “He’s a very fast horse. It was his first time in front and he was still green in places. He’s high quality; second in a Dewhurst, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s getting better with every start. He’s very exciting.”

A trip to America for the Kentucky Derby is now on the cards. He’s as low as 5/1 for the Churchill Downs renewal on May 5; the same day as the 2000 Guineas from Newmarket.

Meade can land Irish National with ‘well-in’ Moulin

Before we get stuck-in to the world’s most famous horserace at Aintree, we must first call in at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday for the Irish Grand National.

The country’s richest steeplechase has again attracted a strong and competitive looking field, with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott likely to throw plenty of darts at the financially desirable target. The pair are once again locked in a titanic battle for the Trainers’ crown, and victory at Fairyhouse would be of huge benefit to either team.

It’s hard to believe that neither have yet landed the prestigious prize, though it’s surely only a matter of time before that omission from the pairs CV is rectified.

The race has tended to go to talented young chasers in recent times, with those aged seven and eight winning 10 of the last dozen. Novice chaser Our Duke romped to victory a year ago and in doing so scored a rare success for an Irish National favourite. Only two have prevailed in the last 10 renewals; a period that has seen winners at odds of 33/1 (three), 25/1 and 50/1.

Elliott’s association with Gigginstown is a huge advantage, with O’Leary’s Maroon silks crossing the line first in three of the last 10. The team are once again mob-handed, with Elliott’s trio of Folsom Blue, Monbeg Notorious and Dounikos the shortest priced. The latter pair fit the profile of young progressive chaser, both are seven-year-olds with limited chasing miles on the clock.

Monbeg Notorious has three victories from his five chase starts and was an impressive winner of the valuable Thyestes Handicap a couple of runs back. That came off a mark of 137 and he now stands on a lofty 152. The inclusion of Outlander ensures a race weight of under 11 stone, nevertheless, that handicap mark looks on the high side. He does look a thorough stayer and is certainly not without a chance.

Dounikos flopped in the RSA Chase and will need a dramatic return to form. He looked badly outpaced at Cheltenham and ultimately outstayed before being pulled-up. The fractions during an Irish National are sure to be less demanding, but I’m no longer convinced that this fella needs a trip. And having fluffed his lines just a couple of weeks back, he’s far from certain to make the start.

Folsom Blue is a regular in this type of event and landed the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in February. He’s up 9lb for that success and is hardly a progressive type at the age of 11. With handicap mark blown, I can’t see him figuring on Monday.

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A stronger Gigginstown contender may prove to be Joseph O’Brien’s Arkwrisht. He was fourth in the Cork National back in November, when looking to have a huge chance before tiring late on. Prior to that, he’d looked unfortunate when runner-up in the Kerry National in September. He’s off a 1lb lower mark than at Cork and will probably be played slightly later this time. He looks to have been aimed at this, arriving fresh off the back of just one run in the past four months.

The Willie Mullins-trained Bellshill heads the market and has always promised plenty. He won the Bobbyjo Chase in February on his seasonal return but is lumbered with a sizeable handicap mark of 158. He was hammered by Whisper and Might Bite in last year’s RSA, having previously been badly beaten by Disko and Our Duke in the Flogas Chase. He may have improved since that novice campaign, though he’ll need to have done to win off his current mark. I’m not convinced.

The Master of Closutton also has his recent recruit, Pairofbrowneyes, tussling for favouritism. Stepped up in trip under Mullins for his stable debut, he was quite impressive in winning the Leinster National at Gowran Park. He beat a fair yardstick that day, in the Gordon Elliott-trained Space Cadet. He’s also taken a hefty hike in the handicap, though is less exposed at this new trip.

Mall Dini ran a cracker in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham a few weeks back, when having travelled wonderfully well through the race, he only just failed to reel in Missed Approach. Prior to that he’d run with great promise in Ireland, finishing fourth to Presenting Percy over course and distance. Though by no means generous, his mark of 143 has remained the same throughout the winter, and he looks to be improving. Much will depend on how he has recovered from the Cheltenham effort. Despite not yet winning over fences in 10 starts, I fancy this eight-year-old is a major player.

Finally, a mention for the Noel Meade-trained Moulin A Vent. This unexposed novice certainly has the talent to go close, though his jumping can be erratic at times. His best performance this winter came in December, when comfortably accounting for Monbeg Notorious in a novice chase at Fairyhouse. That form was reversed at Navan in February, when a series of errors proved his undoing. His handicap mark of 145 could prove generous if he can get the jumping right, and at 33/1 it’s probably worth taking a punt on this talented youngster.

Hugely competitive as ever, Monbeg Notorious looks to be Gordon Elliott’s best hope of success. But the pair I fancy to go close are Mall Dini and Moulin A Vent. The latter must brush up on his jumping, but if he does, he could be thrown-in off this handicap mark.

Best of luck to those having a punt on this Irish showpiece.

Hemmings hopeful of Grand National Fantastic Four

Racehorse owner Trevor Hemmings has an exceptional Grand National record, with three victories since 2005.

A wealthy businessman, octogenarian and owner of Preston North End FC, Hemmings has seen his green and yellow quartered silks carried to victory in the world’s most famous race by Hedgehunter in 2005, Ballabriggs in 2011 and Many Clouds in 2015.

Hedgehunter was trained by Willie Mullins and had been fancied to go well in the National as an eight-year-old in 2004. He led the field turning for home but ran out of steam before falling at the last fence. Just 12 months later he made amends in stunning fashion, winning by 14-lengths, with Ruby Walsh doing the steering. His class was confirmed the following year when runner-up in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and then filling the same berth back at Aintree off top weight, behind Numbersixvalverde.

It’s inevitable that the McCain clan should be involved in this tale of National glory. Trainer Donald, when responsible for the Ballabriggs success in 2011. This son of Presenting may have lacked the class of Hedgehunter, but certainly didn’t lack guts. The 10-year-old was ridden prominently throughout the race, and galloped relentlessly to the line, holding off Oscar Time by a couple of lengths.

The tragically ill-fated Many Clouds, had the class for a prominent finish in the Gold Cup of 2015 having already landed the Hennessy at Newbury and the Grade Two Cotswold Chase. His success in the 2015 Grand National was a mighty performance under the immense burden of 11-9. The eight-year-old had crept into contention on the second circuit, taking up the running five fences from home. Saint Are threatened all the way up the run-in, but Oliver Sherwood’s talented chaser galloped on to victory.

It’s fair to say that this trio of Aintree heroes were similar types. Robust, powerful gallopers with plenty of size and scope for the task in hand. Hemmings clearly has an eye and will be hoping that this year’s challengers can go close as he attempts a stunning fourth success.

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He’ll certainly be hoping for better fortunes from his dual Scottish National winner Vicente. Trained by Paul Nicholls, the nine-year-old son of Dom Alco only got as far as the first fence 12 months ago, yet just a couple of weeks later was winning north of the border for the second year running. It was a colossal performance under top-weight, as he thundered home to deny Cogry by a neck. His handicap mark at Aintree will be 5lbs higher than when winning at Ayr, though importantly in my opinion, he’ll be carrying just 10-13 over a marathon trip that ought to prove ideal. He needs to show that he can handle the unique Aintree fences (though these are less of a challenge nowadays). If he does, that fourth Hemmings success is a real possibility.

The owner recently purchased another nine-year-old National hopeful, also trained by Nicholls. That procurement likely came after Warriors Tale’s solid performance in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. The son of Midnight Legend (same sire as Gold Cup winner Sizing John) was foot perfect throughout, and looked a certain winner before being chinned on the line by Wakanda. Back in December he’d put in another solid performance when just denied by Nicky Henderson’s talented chaser Gold Present. I’m not sure he’s quite good enough to win the Grand National off his mark of 149. Though Trevor Hemmings clearly thinks he has a chance.

One of the Hemmings team that may miss the cut is the Sue Smith-trained Vintage Clouds. This progressive young chaser is tailor-made for the National. Should enough drop out of the race, and he were to sneak in at the bottom of the weights, he’d prove a very interesting contender. A winner at Aintree back in October, this eight-year-old finished fourth in the Welsh National and recently stayed on gamely to land a third-place finish in the Ultima Chase at Cheltenham. He’s an out-and-out stayer, who I am sure, will land one of these valuable marathons at some point in his career.

Whether Vintage Clouds makes the race or not, Trevor Hemmings will arrive at Aintree hopeful of more Grand National glory.

Addeybb proves a Donny Dazzler in Lincoln Romp

Addeybb proved a cut above the rest when romping to victory in the Lincoln at Doncaster.

The William Haggas-trained four-year-old cruised through the race at the head of affairs and could be named the winner from some way out. Just beyond the furlong pole James Doyle made his move and the race was quickly put to bed. Top-weight, Lord Glitters, battled on bravely to finish second, closely followed by Mitchum Swagger and old favourite Gabrial.

This was a record-equalling fourth Lincoln for Haggas, and he was clearly pleased with the performance: “The right horses were up in the front. The top-weight (Lord Glitters) is a good horse and Mitchum Swagger is a good horse, so I think the form will prove to be strong. In this ground anything can happen, but he's Pivotal and we minded him as a young horse. He won the Silver Cambridgeshire well and I hope he's going to have a good year.

“We thought we'd go for the Sandown Mile next if something like this happened, so I see no reason to change it. It's a month away and it's good timing. I think the track will suit him, it should be slow ground and it's time he got up in grade. He's done a bit at home, but he's lazy and not very good on the all-weather, so I think James got a bit of a shock today. We're trying to build a relationship with James, but he's still contracted to Godolphin. They didn't use him much last year, but they probably will this year.”

Doyle was similarly impressed, saying: “The ground was a bit of an unknown, but he had the right pedigree to do his stuff today. He's such an unassuming horse. He goes through the motions; he's not a flashy work horse at home. I wouldn't like to say how far he could go, but he's certainly a horse on the up.”

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The winner was in receipt of 8lbs from the runner-up, nevertheless, the style of success suggests he could make an impact in Group races. His pedigree, by Pivotal out of a Kingmambo mare, also suggests he’ll cope with a step-up in trip. There’s sure to be further improvement physically from the youngster and the way he travelled through testing ground makes ventures to France an interesting proposition.

Much the same can be said of Lord Glitters, a five-year-old that clearly excels in heavy ground. O’Meara enjoys his jaunts abroad and it would come as no surprise to see the grey appear on the other side of the Channel, though he appears best off a strong pace, which isn’t always forthcoming in France.

This was of course merely the opening salvo of the turf flat season, and as such, it would be unwise to get too carried away with the performance of Addeybb. Penitent was probably the classiest of the recent Lincoln winners. Having won the race in 2010, it took him another two years to land a Group race. He was also trained by William Haggas, prior to switching to David O’Meara’s yard at the beginning of the 2012 campaign.

The Lincoln – O’Meara to show that all that Glitters is Gold

I’d be lying if I said the Cheltenham Festival went well from a punting perspective. I spent the week siding with favourites that lost and opposing those that romped home. But like a phoenix rising from a Prestbury Park Pyre, I intend to get back on track, with the aid of a change of code.

The curtain lifts on a new turf flat season, with the Lincoln Handicap Saturday’s highlight at Doncaster. Run over a straight mile, the race has a habit of producing upsets. Four of the last six renewals have gone to those at odds of 20/1 or greater. There’s only been two successful favourites in the last dozen years. Richard Fahey has a strong recent record with a couple of wins in the last six. He often arrives mob-handed with his most prominent pair last year finishing fourth and fifth.

The Malton handler sends three into battle this time round, with last year’s fourth Gabrial having another crack. A former winner of the race, he’s now a nine-year-old and arrives on a 4lb lower mark than 12 months ago. He was a cracking fifth in the valuable Balmoral Handicap on Champions Day back in October. That performance came on this type of ground and a repeat would see him terrific value at 33/1. It’s four, five and six-year-olds that tend to win the Lincoln, though this fella looks sure to go close again.

Stamp Hill appears to be Fahey’s other major hope. The five-year-old needs to improve off a career high mark but will love the ground, and his trainer sounded more than hopeful in his Sporting Life column yesterday. A course winner, he needs to see out the trip and is another 33/1 shot with a fair chance.

Michael Bell’s Fire Brigade has been all the rage at the head of the market. He put in a string of solid performances as a three-year-old when only out of the frame twice in 10 starts. Up just 4lbs from last season’s concluding mark, you’d be hopeful that he’s strengthened physically since October and with ground in his favour he looks a major player.

On last year’s form he’s closely matched with the William Haggas-trained Addeybb. This four-year-old by Pivotal will also appreciate ground conditions and finished just ahead of Fire Brigade when winning over a furlong further at Newmarket back in September. The pair are closely matched in the betting and look sure to finish close on the track. It’s pretty much guesswork as to who will have improved the most for a winter’s break. They’re hard to split on known form.

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Lord Glitters was an emphatic winner of the Balmoral on this type of ground and followed that performance with a close second in a listed event at Newmarket, when probably not favoured by a small field. Winning top-weights are rare, with Babodana in 2004 the last. Yet David O’Meara’s five-year-old still looks unexposed to me and the ground looks key to his chances. I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close.

Dark Red is capable of a big run having gone close in the Balmoral behind Lord Glitters. The ground isn’t an issue and he’s better off at the weights with his Ascot nemesis. I’d be surprised if he won but he’s another 33/1 shot with a fair chance at placing.

The James Tate-trained Via Via also looks over-priced on his performance behind Lord Glitters at Newmarket. This six-year-old, by Lope De Vega, is lightly raced and should enjoy both track and ground. His handicap mark of 101 is 6lb lower than Lord Glitters and I fancy he’ll go very close.

Taking on favourites has not gone well for me in recent weeks but I’ll be doing so again tomorrow. Lord Glitters will be tucked away in this big field and delivered as late as possible. I take him to defy top-weight and add to that impressive Balmoral success. I fancy Via Via is far to big at 33s and he’ll be my each-way punt.

Best of luck to all those having a crack at this prestigious and valuable handicap.

To Chase or not to Chase? That is the question.

The dust continues to settle on the latest Cheltenham Festival. For today’s piece I thought I’d look at the novice hurdlers that impressed during the week and attempt to second-guess future targets.

I covered a little of this in yesterday’s review of the meeting, but I wanted to expand on a few points.

Trainers and owners will have plenty of tough decisions to make and many will get it wrong. Yorkhill appeared the type that would flourish over fences. Indeed, just a year ago he landed a JLT Chase at the Festival. Yet his subsequent demise is undoubtedly down to his loathing of the larger obstacles, with the result that the great Willie Mullins has been left clueless as to what to do with him.

Much the same can be said of Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar, a horse touted as a future Gold Cup contender. As a novice hurdler he landed a Grade One at Aintree last April, but the switch this winter to fences has proved difficult. He’s looked awkward at his obstacles and at one point his trainer took the decision to send him back over hurdles. That move backfired with the horse pulling up in the Cleeve Hurdle. He was given a wind-op before returning to fences at the Festival, but again disappointed when trailing home fifth in the JLT. His trainer will now be scratching his head as to the direction to take.

Both horses were top class and their faltering careers are testament to the importance of that decision-making process. Are they bred for chasing? Do they possess the desired size and scope for the task? Having been schooled, do they look a natural fit? Such questions will be asked and of course a leap of faith is often required.

The Supreme Novices’ runner-up, Kalashnikov, looks the perfect type to make the grade over fences. He’s a sizeable unit with plenty of scope and makes the right sort of shape over his hurdles. He’s out of an Old Vic mare and I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a talented chaser, though I fancy he’ll need to go up in trip to make an impact.

Summerville Boy lacks both size and scope and though some horses jump a fence better than a hurdle, I’d be surprised if this fella becomes a natural over the larger obstacles. We may well see him spend another season over hurdles, though I fancy he’ll need to go up in trip if he’s to progress. He’s out of a Carroll House mare (a source off mud-lovers) though his apparent liking for testing ground may be more a result of his lack of gears. I can’t see him living with the best two-milers and if he does remain a hurdler he may well end the next campaign at three rather than two miles.

Mengli Khan is a big beefy sort and particularly tall. Though don’t be fooled by his size. Gigginstown love their chasers, but I’m convinced that this fella will make a top-class two-mile hurdler. He travelled better than any in the Supreme, despite the testing ground. Highly rated on the flat, there’s plenty more to come from this youngster. He’s 33/1 for next season’s Champion Hurdle and I’d much rather take that than the 20/1 available on Summerville Boy.

Henry De Bromhead has a habit of uncovering two-mile chasers and in Paloma Blue he may have another. By Stowaway out of a Supreme Leader mare, the pedigree suggests he’ll stay further, but he is a keen going type. He certainly has the size and scope for fences and is under the same ownership as Ordinary World, himself placed in an Arkle Chase.

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Samcro has undoubtedly become the season’s star novice and was hugely impressive in winning the Ballymore. He’d previously hammered Paloma Blue at Leopardstown, suggesting he’d have won the Supreme had connections fancied the shorter option. He’s athletic rather than large and scopey, though connections have said all along that he’s a staying chaser in the making. He’d probably go close in a Champion Hurdle and the same could be said of the Arkle, the JLT and the RSA. The likelihood is that connections will not ‘waste time’ in staying over hurdles and will instead target the Arkle Chase. That could change depending on decisions over Mengli Khan. Samcro looks more adaptable and is without doubt the more talented.

Black Op got closest in the Ballymore and looks sure to go chasing next term. He’s similar in stature to Kalashnikov and should prove an ideal sort for the larger obstacles. He certainly jumped his hurdles like a chaser and looks a JLT or RSA contender in the making.

Next Destination flew late-on in the Ballymore and looks sure to become a decent staying chaser. He’s out of a Flemensfirth mare and though by no means huge, he attacked his hurdles like a chaser. I’m also a fan of another Mullins youngster, Duc Des Genievres. Just a five-year-old, this son of Buck’s Boum (sire of Al Boum Photo) has plenty of scope for a fence and should strip stronger with another summer on his back. I’m uncertain as to how far he’ll stay, though the JLT and RSA seem the most likely options.

The Albert Bartlett is usually a breeding ground for decent staying chasers and in Santini we look to have a potentially high-class one. Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old is a gorgeous looking son of Milan, out of a Sleeping Car mare. He’s only run three times under rules and looks sure to progress when sent chasing. I’m far from certain that he’ll make an out-and-out stayer and am more inclined to think that his optimum may rest at around two-and-a-half miles. He looks a classy sort.

Kilbricken Storm landed the Albert Bartlett and looks a four-mile chaser in the making. It was noticeable that he leapt the last with feet to spare whilst others battled wearily through the Cheltenham mud. He’s not huge, but looks big enough to make his mark.

Henderson’s OK Corral has proved difficult to keep right and that may have a bearing on the decision-making process. He’s a lovely big horse and his pedigree suggests that fences will prove ideal. Out of a Flemensfirth mare, this was only the fourth run over hurdles for the eight-year-old. He’s clearly talented and if kept right should make a lovely chaser.

I’ll also be interested to see if Topofthegame and William Henry are sent over fences. Second and fourth in the Coral Cup, the former is a huge son of Flemensfirth, whilst the latter is a more athletic type by Kings Theatre out of a Bob Back mare. Topofthegame has continued to improve throughout the season, seemingly strengthening as he’s filled that huge frame. Paul Nicholls will be hoping he can take high order.

There’s plenty of decisions to be made by excited connections over the coming months. Many will take the right course and go on to bigger and better things. For some the inevitable disappointment of huge potential sadly never fulfilled.

Tizzard Strikes Gold at thrilling Cheltenham Festival

There were many outstanding performances during last week’s Cheltenham Festival, though there’s no doubting testing conditions proved a gamechanger for some.

Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov had fought through the mud in the Tolworth Hurdle back in January and were well suited by the heavy ground encountered in the Festival opener. As at Sandown, it was Tom George’s six-year-old that came off best, though he needed every yard to get his head in front. A haphazard jumping display almost cost him, but he stayed on powerfully up the famous hill to deny Kalashnikov by a neck.

Mengli Khan travelled powerfully and on better ground may well have finished ahead of the front two. There’s plenty more to come from Gordon Elliott’s youngster, and he may be the one to take out of the race. Getabird was a major disappointment, having pulled his way to the front he travelled far too keenly and faded out of contention after the second-last. He’s not been the easiest to train, and I’m convinced that he’s far better than he showed here. It would come as no surprise should he bounce back to form at Punchestown in April, where he’ll likely clash again with Mengli Khan.

Ground conditions were also ideal for Footpad as he romped to victory in the Arkle Chase. His task was made far easier by a rare poor riding performance from Davy Russell aboard Petit Mouchoir and an inspired one from Ruby Walsh. De Bromhead’s chaser had little chance of seeing out the trip having set-off like an equine Usain Bolt, whilst the Mullins-trained favourite was ridden with restraint and delivered with a perfectly timed challenge. This isn’t to say that Footpad was a lucky winner. He’s a class act and looks capable of mixing-it with all bar Altior at the minimum trip. Though I’d be surprised if Mullins didn’t move him up in distance next season. He looks a natural successor to Un De Sceaux.

Buveur D’Air clung on to his crown and fought off Melon to win the Champion Hurdle. Conditions wouldn’t have favoured the favourite. Slick jumping at pace has proved his forte, along with a potent finishing kick. On this occasion he was forced into a slug-fest with a Mullins youngster who clearly has more to offer than many had anticipated. Melon is no mug, though I fancy on better ground the Champ would have too many gears for the youngster. It’s hard to assess how the pair will match-up in a year’s time. There’s the possibility of further progress from the Closutton inmate, though the team may also consider sending him over fences. He has the size and scope to make a chaser and could easily become an Arkle contender.

Another that could be heading for next season’s Arkle Chase is the wonderfully talented Samcro. Second-guessing future targets for this fella won’t be easy. Seemingly blessed with the speed that would make him a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, connections seemingly insist that his future lies as a staying chaser. There’s certainly plenty of stamina on the dam’s side, though his sire, Germany, was responsible for the mighty Faugheen.

Samcro proved far too quick for the opposition in the Ballymore. Having powered through the race, he swept past the field turning for home, with only Black Op capable of putting up any sort of resistance. The Tom George-trained seven-year-old managed to get within three-lengths at the finish, though never looked like landing a serious blow. The runner-up looks a cracking prospect and should improve plenty for fences. Next Destination was badly outpaced coming downhill towards the second-last, yet flew up the hill to finish third. He’s likely to be sent chasing and looks an RSA type.

Presenting Percy was next to impress, though I’ll reserve judgment as to his potential as a serious player in next year’s Gold Cup. Monalee finished second though looked a non-stayer. Al Boum Photo came down at the second-last when looking to lay down a challenge, though I doubt he’d have got to the winner. Nevertheless, Presenting Percy has now to step into the ring against top-level experienced chasers. Our Duke’s performance later in the week illustrated the unique demands of a high-class Gold Cup. Presenting P has been installed as a 6/1 joint-favourite for next year’s ‘blue riband’ and I fancy that’s a slight over-reaction to his RSA romp. Native River remains available at 8s.

Wednesday’s Champion Chase finally delivered the Douvan/Altior clash that so many Jump racing fans had been waiting for. Mullins also threw Min into the mix, attempting to wrestle the prize away from Nicky Henderson’s stable star. For much of the race Douvan looked back to his sublime best, jumping like a stag at the head of affairs. But just as we started to get excited he guessed at the fourth-last and was down.

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Altior was struggling in the testing ground and turning for home looked in trouble, with Min travelling much the stronger. But rarely has a horse surged up the famous hill like Altior. He put seven-lengths between himself and the runner-up in a simply astounding finishing burst. Min wasn’t stopping, but the winner is a freak. That he should arrive on the scene so soon after the glorious Sprinter Sacre must be a dream come true for Nicky Henderson.

Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival, as did owner’s Gigginstown House Stud. Day three proved a cracker for both, with a talented mare, Shattered Love, landing the opening JLT Novices’ Chase. She’s regally bred, being by Yeats out of a Bustino mare, yet has the perfect physique for this game. She’s a huge beast, and powered clear up the final hill, despite taking a chunk of the final fence with her. Now five from six over the larger obstacles, she did fiddle a few, but given this type of testing ground is clearly hugely talented.

Gigginstown supremo, Michael O’Leary, then landed his own race, the Ryanair Chase. Balko Des Flos travelled supremely well throughout and proved far too hot to handle. The seven-year-old drew clear of last year’s winner, Un De Sceaux, to win by a little over four-lengths. There’d been concerns over the suitability of the ground, but in the event, he simply cruised his way through the mud. This was a power-packed performance from a horse on a steep upward curve.

Many had hoped for a similar display from Sam Spinner in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but a pedestrian pace played to those with a finishing kick and it was Penhill that found more than Supasundae. The winner is without doubt a talented horse, but this was a disappointing race for those that had hoped for a pulsating battle.

Elliott and Gigginstown were at it again at the start of day four, when Farclas landed the Triumph Hurdle. He toughed it out to beat fellow Irish raider Mr Adjudicator. Apple’s Shakira ran well but was probably undone by the testing conditions. Stormy Ireland was another that ran with huge credit, before tiring and coming down at the last. She could take some catching on better ground.

Colin Tizzard’s Kilbricken Storm caused an upset to win the Albert Bartlett, though the lightly raced Santini looks the horse to take out of the race. Henderson’s six-year-old should make a terrific chaser next season.

It became a day to remember for Tizzard and his team, when Native River pulled out all the stops to defeat Might Bite in the Gold Cup. The pair proved a class apart as they duelled throughout the race. Turning for home, Henderson’s King George winner appeared to be travelling the better. But it was Richard Johnson who managed to get a little extra from the gutsy Native River up the final climb to the finish. The runner-up lost little in defeat and, on a better surface, may well have come out on top. Nevertheless, this was Tizzard’s day, and in Johnson and Native River he’s uncovered a match made in heaven.

In a Festival where Mullins and Elliott proved dominant, the Brits turned to Henderson and Tizzard for a small piece of solace. There were grounds for concern throughout, but once again Cheltenham delivered.

Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott continue to boss affairs at Cheltenham, bagging five races between them on day three. It was Mullins who took the Stayers’ Hurdle courtesy of last year’s Albert Bartlett winner, Penhill.

Off the track since that success 12 months ago, Mullins had the seven-year-old tuned to perfection and aided by a ponderous pace he was able to out-kick Supasundae up the infamous hill. Sam Spinner had been sent off the short-priced favourite, with the responsibility of setting a searching yet controlled pace, resting in the hands of Joe Colliver. Such a task had proved too much for more experienced jockeys during this Festival (Davy Russell-Petit Mouchoir) and sadly for his trainer and connections it appeared the case once again, as virtually the whole field queued up waiting to land a blow as they turned for home.

From the pack Penhill and Supasundae came to the fore and battled out the finish, with the former possessing the gears to land the prize. It was a terrific training performance from Mullins, and after the race he spoke of the frailty of the seven-year-old that had prevented the team from getting a run into him prior to the meeting. Jess Harrington’s Supasundae ran a cracker but found one with a little too much zip at the finish. Despite the rather pedestrian pace of the race, The New One and Yanworth failed to see-out the trip. Sam Spinner battled on bravely for fifth and there’ll be many more opportunities for this gutsy six-year-old.

Willie Mullins went on to land a double on the day, with the talented young mare Laurina romping to victory in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. She cruised through the race before powering up the Cheltenham hill to win by just shy of 20-lengths.

Gordon Elliott added another treble to the one on Wednesday, with Shattered Love arguably the star turn as she powered to victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. He again proved the master of the handicaps winning the Pertemps and the Brown Advisory, with Davy Russell in the saddle on both occasions. Russell gave The Storyteller the ride of the week, as he weaved his way through the field to challenge approaching the last. And when his mount drifted across the track, seemingly unimpressed with the whip, the jock was quick to get at him under hands and heels, driving him to a thrilling victory.

Elliott now lies one adrift of Mullins over the three days, with six winners. The pair have captured 13 of the 21 races thus far and have plenty more leading contenders for the final day of the Festival. Indeed, the pair account for more than half of the field in the opener, the Triumph Hurdle. Mullins runs four, including the talented filly Stormy Island. She won her debut in Ireland by more than 50-lengths, though has another talented filly to beat, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Apple’s Shakira.

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Elliott and Mullins then have the joint-favourites for the ultra-competitive County Hurdle, though it’s a Mullins 14/1 shot, Whiskey Sour, that takes my fancy.

Nicky Henderson appears to hold all the aces in the Albert Bartlett, with Santini and Chef Des Obeaux expected to go close.

Mullins arrives mob-handed as he goes in search of his first Gold Cup success. Djakadam has another crack, though it’s Killultagh Vic that looks to have the best chance for the Closutton team. Hugely talented, yet frighteningly inexperienced, this nine-year-old won at the Festival back in 2015 and has only run five times since. He fell at the last when looking the likely winner of the Irish Gold Cup last time. It looks a tall order for both horse and trainer, though the same could have been said for Penhill as he attempted to win the Stayers’ Hurdle on seasonal debut.

Mr Mullins appears capable of almost anything during these four-day gatherings at Prestbury Park.

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

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There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

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