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Meydan Mauling – Jack’s The Lad

Jack Hobbs put in a monster performance to win the Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan on Saturday.

Sporting blinkers in the hope of sharpening his concentration, the Irish Derby winner of 2015 looked to be back to his best, cruising into contention turning for home, before powering clear for a two-length success over Aidan O’Brien’s talented filly Seventh Heaven. Postponed was sent-off favourite, but last year’s winner could only manage third. Highland Reel proved disappointing, trailing home last of the seven starters.

The winner had looked keen for much of the race, but when popped the question by William Buick, he had all the answers. “He's a classy horse,” said the Godolphin jock. “The blinkers probably have helped, John said earlier in the week he was in great shape and he was proven right. This night is horse racing's Olympics, it's very important, certainly when wearing the royal blue, so I'm very happy.”

A thoroughly satisfied winning trainer, John Gosden said: “When Godolphin bought into him they wanted to run him in this race and I said, 'as a five-year-old, not at four'. We had a quiet year last year, but his form at Ascot was rock solid (the Champion Stakes). He's a lovely horse. He's got semi-blinkers on, they're only little, but in the Champion Stakes he spent the whole time dreaming.”

Of the campaign ahead, Gosden said: “With a horse like this, after they've run here you need to freshen them up and I would like to look at the Hardwicke Stakes at Ascot and then the King George, which are ideal races for him.”

Highland Reel was only fourth in this race a year ago, but went on to have a terrific season. He’s sure to bounce back, and clearly thrives on his racing. O’Brien was thrilled with his filly, and she could prove a top-class performer over the summer. The Ballydoyle Chief said: “For the filly, it was also her first run back and I was delighted with her, it sets her up nicely for the coming months.”

Seamie Heffernan was also impressed, saying: “On her first run of the year she has run a cracker. She's a double Group One winner and I'm delighted with her.”

Of Postponed, Andrea Atzeni refused to be downbeat, saying: “The pace was a bit slow for my horse, which I was a little bit worried about in such a small field, and on that ground, he didn't find the gears that we all know he possesses.” Roger Varian’s six-year-old did have the benefit of a run earlier in the month, and I’d expect he’ll be a little disappointed that ‘match-fitness’ failed to work in his favour.

A barnstorming performance from the ‘King of the Dirt’, brought the curtain down on this year’s Dubai World Cup. Arrogate stormed from last to first, to win the feature event, and take his earnings to a staggering $17,084,600. It’s incredible to think that Baffert’s superstar only made his racecourse debut less than a year ago. He takes his winning streak to a magnificent seven, and it’s hard to imagine him getting beat any time soon.

An emotional winning trainer spoke of his stable hero, saying: “When he missed the break, I gave him no chance at all. I was so mad at myself, thinking I shouldn't have brought him - that's the greatest horse I've ever seen run, it's unbelievable, I can't believe he won. Mike did a great job, he didn't panic. When he turned for home I said, 'If he wins he's the greatest since Secretariat'.”

Clearly overwhelmed by it all, Baffert went on: “I can’t believe we won that race. On the turn for home from being last early on he used that tremendous long stride and he gobbled up the ground. I have to admit, I have my heart doctor here and for a few moments I was on red alert. If anyone in racing wasn't super impressed with that, well they must be seriously missing something. Sitting back there, Mike let the big kid gather himself and as soon as he saw them in front of him he picked up in an amazing way. I got very emotional as it was like a Hollywood-style finish.”

It’s likely that Arrogate will now be given a decent break, with the Breeders’ Cup Classic again the major target at the end of the season. For the likes of Jack Hobbs and Seventh Heaven, a shorter break has been earned, before the likelihood of further clashes during a thrilling summer of action in the UK.

Heaven Knows it’s time for a break

For those that need a short sabbatical from National Hunt Festivals, the annual Dubai World Cup meeting from Meydan is just the ticket. Taking place tomorrow, the event is one of the World’s most valuable, with US$30m up for grabs.

It’s no surprise that some of the best Flat performers from around the globe have arrived, with connections hoping to land a vast fortune in prize money. The star of the show is the latest American sensation Arrogate. The Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, and recently successful in the World’s richest race; the Pegasus World Cup, he’ll be looking to add the Dubai World Cup and take his winning streak to a magnificent seven.

Trained by Bob Baffert, the four-year-old is a short-priced favourite to land the $10m showpiece for Prince Khalid Abdullah. “It’s pretty amazing the Prince has had a superhorse like Frankel and now he’s got a superhorse like this horse,” said the American handler. “Turf versus dirt, it’s so different. Frankel was an incredible horse, I remember every time he ran I made sure I got up real early to watch his races in England and he was spectacular.

“I think this horse is like the dirt version, in the States, of Frankel, so it’s pretty amazing he would own two of the best horses that we’ve seen. I trained American Pharoah, and I thought when he retired it was going to be really tough to fill those shoes, and then here comes Arrogate. He got into those shoes and just kept on.”

There’s plenty of British and Irish interest during the meeting, especially in the Dubai Sheema Classic, where Roger Varian, Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden and Saeed bin Suroor all clash. Postponed was an impressive winner of this race 12 months ago, and is the favourite to repeat that success. He warmed up with a narrow defeat to bin Suroor’s Prize Money, over course and distance. The Godolphin horse had a fitness advantage, and the places are expected to be reversed this time.

Highland Reel and Seventh Heaven represent Ballydoyle, with the former looking to add to his impressive International CV. A winner of the Hong Kong Vase in 2015, the five-year-old won the Breeders’ Cup Turf last November, before a narrow defeat back in Hong Kong in December. Ryan Moore will look to dictate from the front, and he’ll take some passing if getting the fractions right.

Seventh Heaven could prove the value bet in the race. Much will depend on how she’s progressed over the winter, but at times during her three-year-old campaign, she looked top-class. She has the physique to blossom as she gets older, and it would come as no surprise if she were to improve past these. Conditions should prove ideal, and she’s the one I’ll be backing.

Jack Hobbs will look to build on his encouraging run in the Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot back in October. Gosden will be praying for an uninterrupted spell with the five-year-old in the hope of him meeting his full potential. Undoubtedly classy when right, he’s a tough one to trust after such a troublesome 2016 campaign.

There’s also plenty of European interest in the nine-furlong Dubai Turf, with the Richard Fahey trained Ribchester taking on Alain de Royer Dupre’s Zarak. The latter was impressive at the track in February, when winning the Group 3 Dubai Millennium Stakes. Twice a close second to Almanzor in France last term, he is a high-class colt, who could well make giant strides this season.

Ribchester did nothing but improve throughout his three-year-old campaign, becoming one of the leading milers. Just beaten by Minding in the QEII at Ascot, Fahey is adamant that his stable star will see-out this extended trip. He certainly looked as though a step-up in trip would suit, and this should prove an intriguing clash.

Finally, the Sprint over six furlongs sees Limato return to action, after his failed attempt at a mile in the Breeders’ Cup back in November. He was one of the stars of last Summer, and Henry Candy will be hoping that a return to sprinting will see him at his dazzling best.

Ertijaal looks to be one of his main dangers. The Meydan regular is owned by Hamdan Al Maktoum, and was runner-up in this last year. The son of Oasis Dream hammered Jungle Cat last time, and will be a tough nut to crack. Aidan O’Brien’s Washington DC may prove each-way value at 14s. He had some tasty form last year, especially on quick ground, and there’s every chance of marked improvement from three to four.

This looks an exciting taster, as the Flat season draws ever near.

Apple’s At Aintree

As the dust settles post-Cheltenham, attention quickly turns to Aintree, which begins on April 6.

Yesterday, Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O’Leary announced that Festival heroine Apple’s Jade would be heading for a mouth-watering clash with Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air in the Aintree Hurdle. “The race at Cheltenham had everything and I really think it was one of the races of the week,” said O’Leary. “The first three home are three top-class mares. We will take in the two-and-a-half-mile race at Aintree next. She has come out of Cheltenham in good form and if she were to run well at Aintree, we could think about Punchestown as well for her.”

The 2m4f Grade 1 event is often a high-class affair, and this year’s renewal looks packed with quality. County Hurdle winner Arctic Fire is a likely contender, having impressed after a lengthy absence. His only previous visit to Aintree in 2015, resulted in a last flight fall in this race, when appearing to have every chance of success. Jezki was left to win on that occasion, and Jess Harrington’s popular hurdler is another intended runner.

The field also looks set to contain recent National Spirit Hurdle winner, Camping Ground. Now with Gary Moore, the seven-year-old was mightily impressive last time. The trip is ideal, though he does enjoy getting his ‘toe-in’, and rain leading up to the meeting would enhance his chances.

Yanworth may also line-up, and will be looking to rebuild a reputation dented by his disappointing run in the Champion Hurdle. This trip should prove more suitable, though he has a mountain to climb if he is to reverse form with Buveur D’Air.

There’s every chance that one or the other will have Barry Geraghty back on-board. He looks likely to be fit for the Merseyside meeting, having missed Cheltenham after the nasty fall from Charli Parcs at Kempton left him with broken ribs and a collapsed lung. “I'll have a scan in the next week and I should get a better idea after that,” the jockey told Press Association Sport. “Aintree is the target and it's definitely coming along. We'll see what the specialist says and go from there.”

Those allowing heart to rule head will also be hoping for a huge run from The New One. He took the Aintree Hurdle in 2014, defeating Rock On Ruby in a thriller. A faller in last year’s race, this could prove to be his last run over hurdles, especially if disappointing. I fancy a belated switch to fences would prove more fruitful than a step-up to three miles over the smaller obstacles.

The highlight of the Aintree meeting is of course the Grand National. And there’s been plenty of news this week, as connections determine whether to take-in the marathon contest. One that won’t be taking his chance is the Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. His trainer, Jonjo O'Neill said: “He ran a cracking race in the Gold Cup, but he had a hard race. He's only seven, so we've decided to take our time with him and give him a rest and bring him back next season for another go at the Gold Cup, and then maybe the National.

“More Of That ran a good race at Cheltenham and we were happy with him in the Gold Cup. We've another couple of weeks to go and we're hoping to be here (Aintree). He seems perfectly fine at home so it's full speed ahead. You need all the luck in running in the National but he seems in great form and if he sharpens up in the next week or two we'll be delighted with ourselves. He's not as fast as he used to be, so he's the right sort of horse to come to the National with.”

How Paul Nicholls would love another Aintree National, as he battles with Nicky Henderson for the Trainers’ crown. He has last season's Scottish Grand National winner Vicente in the field; the horse now carrying the silks of Trevor Hemmings, successful in Aintree’s showpiece on three previous occasions.

The owner’s racing manager Mick Meagher said of the horse: “He is nice and only an eight-year-old, so he might have a few years to go. I went to look at Vicente, who is lovely and he flew through the vet. He has some good form which would give him a right chance. He is a bit dependent on the ground - he does not like it too wet.”

Another with a huge player for the main event is David Pipe. Vieux Lion Rouge won the trial at Haydock, and is one of six entered by Pond House. “I don't think the ground will be too much concern for him over the Grand National trip,” said the trainer. “He seems to like the fences and Tom Scudamore is very much looking forward to the ride.” The horse was successful in the Becher Chase earlier in the season, and looks likely to go-off favourite.

Another with the right credentials for Liverpool’s marathon event is the Brian Ellison trained Definitly Red. A stunning winner of the Grimthorpe at Doncaster, he was apparently impressive over ‘Aintree-style’ fences at Malton earlier in the week, as preparations continue. His jockey, Danny Cook, speaking to Racing UK said: “The schooling fences are a little bit bigger and little bit wider. A lot of people don't even school with them so it's not a necessity but a bit of a confidence booster for both trainer and jockey to put their mind at ease that they're going to take to them.”

Looking forward to the ‘big day’, Cook said: “You just always need luck in running on the day. He'd jump off fine, it's just what happens in front of you. If he does get around and gets a clear round he won't be far away.”

Domesday Delight – Edmunds Festival First

Based just a stones-throw from the M1 near Newport Pagnell, Stuart Edmunds has been training horses for more than 30 years, and was assistant to the late Renee Robeson. Last Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival he had his proudest moment as a handler, when Domesday Book caused a 40/1 upset to win the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase.

With less than 30 horses at his disposal, this was an extraordinary success for the yard. The seven-year-old was previously trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was delivered with a storming late run by 25-year-old amateur Gina Andrews, to deny Pendra in a thrilling finish. The runner-up looked to have got the better of a prolonged duel as the pair turned for home. But Pendra’s stamina began to run-out from the last, and less than a length separated the pair at the line.

Edmunds could hardly believe his good fortune, and speaking after the win said: “It's unbelievable, it hasn't sunk in. I think it's as big a surprise to me as everyone else. He was recommended to me by a late friend. He ran okay at Leicester on his first run, and we thought the further the better, so we put him in this and told Gina to be forceful on him, and he just kept responding. I thought he was beat but she gave him a smack and he's always behind the bridle, the blinkers did their job. I came here thinking if he finished mid-division we'd be happy.”

For the young jockey, the result was a dream come true: “This has literally been my lifetime ambition, just to ride here never mind win. Stuart told me he'd never be on the bridle, but to be honest he was never off it until we turned in, so that was a pleasant surprise. He rallied well, but I thought I'd be second jumping the last, the loose horse helped - I'm delighted.”

Wolf Of Windlesham had been the star of the Fences Farm stable in recent times. A talented young hurdler, he’d won three of his four starts as a juvenile, including a Grade 2 at Cheltenham and a valuable handicap at Sandown last April. He was still going well, when coming down in the Greatwood Hurdle in November, though has not been sighted since finishing down the field at Ascot in December.

Edmunds has his team in good order, and Apasionado has become another yard favourite, having won three of his six starts since arriving from Ireland. A novice hurdler now rated in the mid-130s, he was a fast finishing runner-up at Kempton a few days back, and looks more than capable of going-in again before the season ends.

The handler also has some decent mares in the yard, few better than the promising youngster Maria’s Benefit. A win and a second-place finish from her two bumper outings, she looked a nice prospect when winning cosily last time at Huntingdon. She has an attractive pedigree, being by Beneficial out of an Anshan mare. Her breeding gives hope that she’ll make into a smart staying hurdler in time.

Molly Childers is another with potential, though she’s struggling to get her head in front. Three seconds, and a hugely promising fifth in a listed event at Sandown last time, suggests she’ll be winning soon. She appeared to find the soft ground an issue in her latest run, but the daughter of Stowaway looks a nice sort.

Grey Warbler is another that looks sure to be in the winners’ enclosure soon enough. Runner-up in both her bumper starts, she possibly lacks gears, and is another that will probably need a trip when sent over hurdles. She also has a smart pedigree, being by Notnowcato, out of a Sir Harry Lewis mare.

A festival winner is sure to boost confidence throughout the yard, and Edmunds will be hopeful that the success will attract new owners, looking to put their trust in the small yet beautifully formed Buckinghamshire outfit.

Cheltenham Festival – The Power And The Glory

Like many others, I’m feeling slightly flat this morning, as I come to terms with the reality that another wonderful Cheltenham Festival is over for another year. The build-up and anticipation is quite extraordinary these days, but all too soon the final race is run, and feelings of hope, joy, desperation and frustration are replaced by a rather hollow sensation.

Those that love Aintree, Punchestown, Newmarket, Royal Ascot or Longchamp, will feel that I am overreacting somewhat. But I know many feel as I do, that nothing quite compares to those four glorious days at Prestbury Park. The setting itself, with Cleeve Hill as a stunning backdrop, along with the grandeur of the new stand, and the stunning structural improvements throughout the course, all combine to make Cheltenham an exceptional sporting venue. Around 250,000 racegoers can’t be wrong.

And so, to ease my pain I thought I’d reflect on the racing performances that, in my opinion, were the standouts during four days of top-class action. I could have chosen more, and there’s one or two omissions that will puzzle readers, but the following ‘magnificent seven’ stood out for me.

Despite Gordon Elliott having a sensational opening day, I have chosen a Nicky Henderson duo that oozed star-quality on Tuesday.

I’m of the opinion that Altior proved himself an exceptional talent, in winning the Arkle Chase. Many appeared less than impressed by his ‘workmanlike’ victory, yet he went from a length in-front at the last, to six-lengths clear at the line. He needs rousing to get into top gear, but when stoked-up he is a destructive force. He jumped beautifully throughout, and like in the Supreme a year earlier, was doing his best work at the finish. He may well become a Champion Chase winner, but it would come as no surprise to me, if he were to be stepped-up in trip, with the King George as a short-term target.

Just a short while after Altior’s victory, stable companion Buveur D’Air proved himself the class act in a decidedly average looking Champion Hurdle. Time may prove that he beat very little, but the style of his success may well place him in the same league as Annie Power and Faugheen. He was wonderfully slick over his hurdles, as he cruised through the race, waiting for his jockey to give the signal. And when Noel Fehily said go, the six-year-old quickly put the race to bed. My Tent Or Yours proved best of the rest, though was comfortably brushed aside by the winner.

The winning time suggests the performance was a strong one, and Buveur D’Air looks capable of becoming a dominant force over the coming period. It’s worth remembering that this victory was only his second run of the season over hurdles, and there is certainly room for a fair amount of improvement.

I skip Wednesday despite solid performances from Willoughby Court, Might Bite and Special Tiara. An injury to Douvan probably robbed us of a dazzling performance, though I’m of the opinion that a rather circumspect preparation left him ill-prepared for this ‘true’ championship test. He defeated 12-year-old Realt Mor in his prep-race at Punchestown.

Willie Mullins had drawn a blank until Thursday, but then answered his critics with a stunning four-timer. The performance of Un De Sceaux in winning the Ryanair was as good as anything during the festival. Try as he might, Ruby Walsh was unable to apply the brakes on the free-going nine-year-old, and was pretty-much a passenger from the fifth fence. Onlookers waited for him to wilt as he turned for home, but Un De Sceaux kept-up the astounding gallop, and with a floorless round of jumping finished a comfortable length and a half ahead of the strong finishing Sub Lieutenant.

It was a cracking performance from the multiple Grade 1 winner, and reminiscent of his ‘all-guns-blazing’ Arkle success of 2015. This fella has been somewhat overlooked in recent years, with stable companions Annie Power, Faugheen, Vautour and Douvan creating the headlines. But there’s no doubting the star quality that Un De Sceaux possesses. He’s a true Champion in his own right.

I was also stunned by the performance of Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle later that day. Shaneshill had been my confident selection, having highlighted my doubts over the gears possessed by Unowhatimeanharry. I expected NC to be a little too keen to see out the three miles, but I was proved wrong. Not only did he storm up the famous hill to victory, but he looked capable of going around again. Beautifully ridden by Ruby Walsh, he was produced between the last two flights, and stayed-on powerfully to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller.

He’s no mug over two-miles, having finished third to Annie Power in last year’s Champion Hurdle. And it’s clear that he appreciates the better ground he encounters in the spring. His owner Graham Wylie was quick to compare him to his previous staying hero Inglis Drever. Similar in stature, and showing the same tenacious attitude up the final hill, there’s every chance that Nichols Canyon can become a multiple Stayer’s winner, assuming Mullins can keep him fit and well.

Friday’s action began with a stunning performance from Triumph Hurdle favourite Defi Du Seuil. He’s a tank of a horse, and he powered through the race like a potential star. There had been some concern over the drying ground, but in the end, nothing could stop the Philip Hobbs trained juvenile. Yet another dazzling hurdler for JP McManus, it will be interesting to see if he goes Champion Hurdle or Arkle Chase next year. Interviewed after the race, Hobbs spoke in glowing terms, hinting that this fella could achieve anything.

A little over half an hour later, Mullins completed another glorious piece of training, by saddling Arctic Fire to win the County Hurdle off top-weight. The eight-year-old had been off the track since January 2016, and it’s easy to forget that he had finished a close runner-up to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle of 2015. Rated 169 at his peak, he’d been given a chance by the handicapper running off 158, and so it proved with a performance that was both classy and tenacious. If coming out of the race fit and well, he’ll possibly head to the Aintree Hurdle, with the likelihood of a clash with Buveur D’Air. That could prove a thorough examination for the new Champion hurdler.

It’ll come as no surprise to see that Sizing John is the final member of my ‘Cheltenham Magnificent Seven’. He’s proved a sensation since being stepped-up in trip, having spent the early part of his career chasing Douvan around various racecourses, including Cheltenham. Never out of the first three over obstacles, this huge son of Midnight Legend won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time, though many questioned whether the steady pace that day had played to his strengths.

Nevertheless, trainer Jess Harrington remained confident that stamina would not be an issue, and she was proven right, with Sizing John seeing out the extended trip in fine style to win by almost three lengths, from the fast finishing Minella Rocco.

Robbie Power rode a beautifully cool and calm race, having the seven-year-old in mid-division throughout the early stages, with the horse always travelling supremely well. Moving onto the tail of the leaders coming downhill to the third last, only Djakadam appeared to be going as well, but by the second last Sizing John was on terms, and a fine leap saw him sweep to the front. Another superb jump at the last sealed the deal, with Minella Rocco getting up on the line to beat Native River for second spot. Djakadam faded late-on to finish fourth.

This was Jess Harrington’s first runner in the Gold Cup. The horse had formerly been trained by Henry De Bromhead, but was moved to Harrington by owners Ann and Alan Potts during the summer. He now stands at the head of the staying chase division, and with age on his side could well be there for some time to come.

And so the curtain came down on another terrific Cheltenham Festival. Once again, we’ve witnessed four days of sporting theatre, scattered with moments of elation and despair. Jump racing’s Olympics never fails to deliver on the most dramatic stage of all.

Mullins Back On Track

Team Mullins roared back to life with a stunning four-timer on day three of the Cheltenham Festival.

Yorkhill set the ball rolling with victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. Many had expected Disko to set the fractions after his dominant display in the Flogas Chase last time in Ireland. But for reasons best known to himself, Bryan Cooper thought it wise to sit patiently on Noel Meade’s talented six-year-old, and try to out-sprint last year’s Neptune winner (Yorkhill) and Top Notch, fifth in the 2016 Champion Hurdle.

Needless to say, the tactics proved wide of the mark, as both swept past him from the second last, with Yorkhill having the class and the gears to hold-off Nicky Henderson’s gutsy challenger by a length, with Cooper and Disko three lengths further back in third. It certainly wasn’t the Gigginstown jock’s finest hour. Nevertheless, Ruby Walsh wasn’t complaining, as his mount made it two Festival wins on the bounce.

A relieved Willie Mullins said: “To get on the board is huge. To get on the board in a Grade One is better. It's good for Ruby and the whole team. We've had a hard few days, but that's the way it is and we take what we can get.” Walsh was bullish after the win, saying: “He's got 'Gold Cup horse' written all over him and always had. People crab him because of his jumping, but he has a huge kink in him - people never realised the job Paul Nicholls did with Denman, because he was the same. Both are chestnuts by Presenting, the best ones all have a kink, he has a massive engine. He's brilliant. He's fantastic.”

There’s no doubting that Yorkhill is a classy racehorse; winning twice at the Cheltenham Festival is testament to that. But I’d be surprised if a one length victory over Top Notch in a JLT makes him a potential Gold Cup winner.
Things improved further for Mullins and Walsh, when Un De Sceaux put in a dominant display to win the Ryanair Chase. Briefly held up, the horse as much as the jockey decided to make the running from the fifth fence, and at no point in proceedings looked like being caught. It was a stunning performance from the winner, who has now won 18 of his 23 career starts.

Walsh said of the win: “I was a passenger. I got him back at the first fence down the back, but he attacked and jumped and he stayed. The jump at the last was special. He's a cracking little horse and he's so consistent, he must be a joy to own, he's a little tiger. He wants soft ground at two miles which is why we went two and a half miles on better ground.”

Just half an hour later, Team Mullins were at it again, this time in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Like Yorkhill, Nichols Canyon is owned by Graham and Andrea Wylie, and though somewhat different in stature, has proved no less talented. Third to Annie Power last year in the Champion Hurdle, the step up to three miles looked risky, but the decision proved to be spot-on. He travelled beautifully throughout, and when asked for his effort quickened and stayed for a decisive victory. Lil Rockerfeller battled on bravely for second, with race favourite Unowhatimeanharry, just done for toe back in third.

It was a cracking renewal, with Cole Harden doing his best to repeat his success of 2015 from the front. Neil King’s Lil Rockerfeller took over as they turned for home, but it was the superior speed of Nichols Canyon that proved the telling factor. Jezki looked threatening approaching the home turn, but failed to see-out the trip. Shaneshill proved disappointing, as did novice West Approach, with both being pulled-up late-on.

For owner Graham Wylie, the victory brought back memories of a previous hurdling hero, Inglis Drever. Speaking after the success he said: “When I told Willie to buy a horse for me, he rang me up and said 'I think I've found you the next Inglis Drever'. He looks like him as he's only a pony, but he flew up the hill. Ruby told me he'd ride him like that to make sure he got the trip. It wasn't until approaching the last I thought he might get placed, never mind win.”

Mullins said: “It was some performance. I didn't particularly think the three miles would suit. He is tough, I just thought he would be too keen over that trip. With age, a lot of these horses learn to settle.”

Walsh was also impressed, saying: “He's a little warrior. He switched off, he jumped and we just crept away. Lil Rockerfeller was battling back at me but he kept going all the way to the line. He just started to come back to himself the last 10 days, Katie (Walsh) rode him at the Curragh the other day and said he worked very well. I'm delighted for Graham and Andrea (Wylie), this race means a lot to them.”

The four-timer was landed when Let’s Dance romped to victory in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Ruby was again exceptional in the saddle, judging the pace of the race to perfection. He had his mount way-out the back, until making his move between the last two flights. The five-year-old dived a little at the last, but that didn’t prevent her from storming up the hill for an impressive win.

The victory also signalled a welcome change of fortune for owner Rich Ricci. He’s had to endure an incredible run of misfortune, with Douvan’s disappointing run in the Champion Chase the latest blow. The well-known saying ‘Form is temporary – Class is permanent’, was never more apt than at Cheltenham yesterday. Mullins, Walsh and Ricci team up with Djakadam today in the Gold Cup.

Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.

Festival Fever

The mighty ‘Cheltenham Roar’ is almost upon us, and as excitement reaches fever-pitch I thought I’d highlight some of the horses that are going to make us rich over those four glorious days.

I’m not on my own in fancying Holywell in the Ultima Handicap Chase on day one. Jonjo’s 10-year-old has a terrific Festival record, and took this race in 2014. He was runner-up last year and is handicapped to go close again. He comes to life at Cheltenham in March, and his indifferent campaign should put no-one off.

Altior looks a certainty for the Arkle Chase, but in Henry De Bromhead’s Ordinary World, we have a decent each-way proposition. The seven-year-old chased home Min in his last run at Leopardstown, and needs a sound surface to be at his best. He’s bred to get further than the two-mile trip, and that should serve him well for that final lung-bursting finish. The trainer has a wonderful record with chasers over the minimum trip, and this fella could prove a surprise package.

The RSA Chase looks a weak renewal, with arguably Ireland’s best two in Coney Island and Our Duke both missing. In their absence, I’d be all-over Disko if he heads for this. Trained by Noel Meade, the diminutive grey is a bundle of dynamite, and had Our Duke behind him last time when winning the Flogas Chase at Leopardstown. He may well go for the JLT, but would face a sterner test from the Mullins hotshot Yorkhill. This looks the easier option, and though the trip may stretch him, he has the class to get away with it.

In recent Festival previews, Gordon Elliott highlighted the chances of his Cross Country entry Cause Of Causes. Ultimately the horse is being aimed at the Grand National, but it seems he’s been over to Cheltenham for a few practice sessions in recent months, and his Festival record is formidable. He looks likely to get his ideal conditions (good ground essential), and I’ll be lumping on.

Those who follow my ramblings will know that I’m keen on Shaneshill for the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’s another with an exceptional Festival record, but also has the necessary credentials to run a huge race in this particular event. Quick enough to finish second in a Supreme, yet having the stamina to be runner-up in a RSA Chase last year, he’s sure to give Unowhatimeanharry a mighty fright.

The Coral Cup is a tough nut to crack, but I’m sure Peregrine Run will go close. Trained by Peter Fahey in Ireland, he’s already a winner at the track, and travelled like much the best horse last time at Warwick, before floundering in the mud. I’d be amazed if he doesn’t go close off a mark of 142, though I do fear Nicky Henderson’s Hargam. The former Triumph Hurdle third may well turn up in this, though he’s also entered in the County. He’s been given a huge chance by the handicapper, running here off an eye-popping mark of 140. He’s been lumping top-weight in handicaps for a while, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close in whichever race he contests.

Gordon Elliott’s Diamond King is the worst kept secret of the Festival, and looks to have a huge chance in the Brown Advisory Handicap Chase. He won the Coral Cup 12 months ago, and has been competitive against the best Irish novices on unsuitably soft ground over the winter. A sounder surface will suit this King’s Theatre gelding, and though his handicap mark is higher than ideal, he’ll still go close.

The aforementioned Hargam may head for the County Hurdle, but if he does he’ll face his stable-companion Peace & Co. They were first and third in the 2015 Triumph Hurdle, and though the latter has been in the doldrums since, Nicky Henderson believes he now has the horse back on track. Issues with his breathing have apparently been resolved, and if anywhere near his previous best, he’ll run a mighty race.

I can’t wait for the Festival to start. Hopefully we’ll have a few winners during the week. All the best to those having a punt.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup – Trust in Tizzard’s Rampant River

Battered and bruised as stars of past and present fell by the wayside, nevertheless, the Gold Cup remains the most prestigious event of the Cheltenham Festival, and there’s every chance we could still be treated to an absolute thriller.

Willie Mullins continues his quest for a first victory, and surely has a great chance with twice runner-up Djakadam. And Colin Tizzard, despite the loss of budding superstar Thistlecrack, has a ready-made replacement in Native River, along with one of the most popular horses in training searching for redemption in Cue Card.

The trio are vying for top spot in the betting, and if recent trends are anything to go by, they’ll be battling out the finish. Fancied runners have won nine of the last 10, with only Lord Windermere bucking the trend when winning at 20s in 2014. Five favourites have been successful in that time, including last year’s winner Don Cossack, who was chased home by a pair of 9/2 shots in Djakadam and Don Poli. Cue Card had been sent-off the 5/2 second favourite, and would surely have been in the mix, but for his third-last blunder.

Don number one, took a tumble in the King George prior to Cheltenham glory, and Kempton’s Christmas Cracker has proved to be a decent pointer for the ‘big one’ in March. Many of the best staying chasers take in this valuable and prestigious event, and it’s therefore no surprise that Gold Cup winners have lined-up here. However, the two courses provide very different tests for a racehorse, and Cue Card fans should not be too despondent that he was swept aside so easily by stable companion Thistlecrack in December’s renewal.

The Hennessy Gold Cup and Denman Chase have also been stop-off points for future Gold Cup winners in recent years. Native River captured both, along with the Welsh National for good measure. The win at Chepstow proved his versatility with regards to track. Tizzard himself had hinted that the horse was better suited to a flat course, but the win in Wales was arguably his most impressive performance to date.

Ireland’s Lexus Chase has been slightly less influential as a Gold Cup guide, though Denman and Synchronised both won en route to Cheltenham glory. Lord Windermere had finished down the field prior to his shock win at Prestbury Park. Djakadam was somewhat disappointing in finishing third behind Outlander and Don Poli in the Leopardstown showpiece this time, but Mullins appears happy with the progress his chaser has made since that run.

Of the leading three contenders, you’d have to say that Native River has been the most impressive throughout the winter. He looks be improving at a rate of knots, though it’s somewhat surprising to see that Kauto Star was the last seven-year-old to win the Gold Cup, back in 2007. Long Run was only six when winning in 2011, but in recent times eight and nine-year-olds have proved dominant. A plus maybe for eight-year-old Djakadam.

What A Myth was the last horse over the age of 10 to capture Cheltenham’s showpiece, which is bad news for Cue Card fans.

Away from the leading trio, the markets have Sizing John next best. He stepped from the shadows of Douvan to win the Kinloch Brae Chase, and improved again when winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He’s an impressive looking beast, who looks sure to jump and travel beautifully for much of the race at Cheltenham. The question is whether he will last out the trip, in what is likely to be a strongly run affair. He wasn’t stopping at Leopardstown last time, though the field hardly hot-footed it around the track.

If Sizing John has stamina doubts, then the same can probably be said of Lexus winner Outlander. Visually at least, he looked to be powering away from his rivals at the finish over Christmas, though trainer Gordon Elliott has recently sounded less confident that the 3m2f trip will prove ideal. Now a nine-year-old, the horse looks to be Elliott’s best hope of landing back-to-back victories. His course form fails to fill you with confidence, though the same could have been said of Don Cossack prior to last year’s romp.

Henry De Bromhead’s Champagne West comes next in the betting. He appears to have improved immensely since his move to Ireland, though I’d be stunned if he’s good enough to win this. His jumping can be patchy at best, and he’s likely to be pressured into errors from the onset. Soft ground will help his cause, though not enough.

Bristol De Mai is another that will need heavy ground to have any chance. He seems to cruise through the mud whilst others flounder, but he’s another that probably comes-up just short at this level. He could run into a place, if conditions become severely testing.

Of the remainder, only Minella Rocco appears to hold any hope of an upset. He has that vital Festival form, having won the four-miler last year, beating Native River into second place. That however, has been his only success over fences, and he’s spent most of this campaign on the floor. There’s no doubting he’s a talented one, and at 25/1 he’s probably worth a small each-way flutter.

I’ve watched that four-miler on numerous occasions over recent months, and it has continually put doubts in my mind as to whether Native River can win the Gold Cup. He was horribly outpaced coming down the hill 12 months ago, before then storming up the famous final climb. I worry that the same may happen again, especially with several pacey types in opposition. Many say he has the look of Denman about him, but for me it’s Synchronised that he best resembles.

Nevertheless, Native River has done no wrong this winter, and because of that, he has my vote. I’ll also have a few quid on Outlander, as the more I watch his Lexus victory, the more I’m impressed. Let’s hope it’s a cracker, and the best of luck to all those having a punt.

The Stayers’ Hurdle – Fry’s Favourite Vulnerable To Irish Speedsters

He’s proved peerless over the winter, and is understandably a short-priced favourite, but is Unowhatimeanharry vulnerable to a speedier type when he lines up for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival next Thursday?

He took the Albert Bartlett a year ago, and is four from four at the course. He’s spent the season sweeping-up the usual trials, and has looked impressive in winning the Long Distance, the Long Walk and the Cleeve. Previous staying stars such as Baracouda, Inglis Drever and the mighty Big Bucks, often travelled a similar path towards Cheltenham glory, as did Thistlecrack during his dominant campaign over a hurdles a year ago.

The Irish have a shocking record in the Stayers’, with Solwhit the sole winner this century. And with Harry Fry’s nine-year-old having accounted for all the British contenders during his dominant spell, he starts to have the look of a ‘Festival Banker’. If you add to this the strong record of favourites, and that only Cole Harden has won at double-figure odds in the last 10 years, then we are amassing a pretty strong case for Unowhatimeanharry landing his ninth straight victory.

The intriguing aspect of this year’s race is the likely assault of speedier Irish contenders, similar in type to 2013 winner Solwhit.

Vroum Vroum Mag now looks unlikely to head here, instead going for the Mares’ Hurdle. Nevertheless, Willie Mullins could have both Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill challenging for this, with both possessing plenty of natural speed. The former was third in the Neptune of 2015 and filled the same spot in last year’s Champion Hurdle. He won at Aintree over 2m4f in 2015 and then demolished Alpha Des Obeaux over the same trip at Punchestown. It was a little surprising that he was then dropped in trip last year, though he ran well in smart company. Whether he’ll get the three miles is questionable, but on good ground at two and a half he’s looked impressive.

Shaneshill has become a Festival stalwart, having finished runner-up in his three visits. He chased home Douvan in the Supreme of 2015, proving that he has plenty of speed, and last year came within half a length of winning the RSA Chase. Cheltenham in March clearly sparks this son of King’s Theatre, and he won his prep at Gowran over the trip. He’s a horse I like, and is probably better trusted to get the trip than Nichols Canyon.

The other Irish contender of interest is the 2014 Champion Hurdle winner Jezki. He returned from injury to win at Navan over two-miles, but was beaten by Tombstone last time at Gowran. Connections are yet to commit to this, and the open nature of this year’s Champion Hurdle is probably tempting, especially on better ground. If he heads here, he has to be a serious contender, though the year off the track is a nagging concern.

The 2015 winner Cole Harden is fancied by many to go close, especially after his promising performance in the Cleeve on unsuitable soft ground. He came off second best to Unowhatimeanharry that day, in receipt of 8lbs, so he has his work cut out to reverse placings, even on a sounder surface. Warren Greatrex had sent him over fences at the start of the season, but a mediocre performance at Wetherby brought about a change in direction. I think he’s held by the favourite, though he could run into a place.

Ballyoptic is another that appears to be well-held by the favourite. He was running a huge race at Ascot in December when coming down at the last, but was disappointing at Cheltenham in the Cleeve. I fancy he’ll make a better staying chaser, and he’s not for me.

Of those at a bigger price, there are two that catch my eye as each-way propositions. Lil Rockerfeller can’t beat Unowhatimeanharry on all-known form, but at 25/1 looks a fair bet to run into a place. He missed his intended prep at Fontwell, but that could prove a blessing, having looked a little jaded when finishing fourth in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day.

The horse that won that day is Agrapart, trained by Nick Williams. He was behind Zarkandar last time at Haydock, but was giving the winner 8lbs, and I fancy that 40/1 for the Stayers’ is wildly underestimating his chance of hitting the frame. He wasn’t stopping at Haydock last time, and I’m sure he’ll run far better than his odds suggest.

Everything points to the favourite in this, and often a punter can be guilty of trying too hard to find a chink in the armour of something that appears bulletproof. Unowhatimeanharry ticks every trend box and is rightly a short-priced favourite. Nevertheless, you occasionally need to go with a ‘gut feeling’, and this is one of those occasions. I think Shaneshill will have the gears to ‘out-kick’ the favourite from the last. And I take Agrapart at the prices to creep into the frame for each-way backers.

As always, best of luck to those having a punt.

The Champion Hurdle – He Who D’Airs Wins

The showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Hurdle.

Established in the late-1920s, it has possibly the most glittering roll of honour of all National Hunt races. The 1970s was a truly golden period for the race, with equine legends such as Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, battling for the coveted crown of Champion Hurdler.

The Nicky Henderson trained See You Then, won three-in-a-row during the 1980s, and the JP McManus owned Istabraq repeated the feat at the end of the 90s. In recent times, Henderson and Mullins have proved the dominant forces, often with horses carrying the famous green and gold silks of McManus, or the pink and green of Rich and Susannah Ricci.

It should come as little surprise then, to see those same connections and trainers prominent in this year’s betting for the race. Despite a particularly tough winter for Willie Mullins and the Ricci’s, with previous winners Faugheen and Annie Power both ruled out through injury, they still have a likely contender towards the head of the market, in Limini. JP McManus has the front two in the market with Henderson’s Buveur D’Air and the Alan King trained Yanworth.

I don’t wish to focus much on those that are missing from the line-up. That’s horse racing for you, and we must now look forward to an enthralling and ultra-competitive renewal, with a field that still contains horses with huge potential.

Last year’s Supreme Novices’ third and the Neptune runner-up are currently vying for top spot in the betting. Both carrying the famous green and gold, Buveur D’Air was switched from his short spell over fences, and proved a comfortable winner of the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month. That was his third run of the winter, and he’ll arrive at Cheltenham fit and ready to go. His Supreme Novices’ third, coupled with his victory over Petit Mouchoir at Aintree last April (a race that saw Limini nine lengths back in third), leaves Henderson’s six-year-old rightly in my books, at the head of the betting.

That Aintree success showed that he has the necessary battling qualities, along with the ability to travel powerfully though a race.

Yanworth proved no match for Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune, but at the minimum trip over hurdles is yet to be defeated. He’s a tough one to judge, and it’s understandable that some have been left underwhelmed by his performances this winter. He struggled to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot in November, and then was the first under pressure ion the Christmas Hurdle, before staying on best to win. His run in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton hardly sent shockwaves through the division, yet he continues to win, and will undoubtedly be doing his best work late-on when it matters at Prestbury Park.

The worry for Yanworth, is whether he’ll have the basic speed to keep tabs on the leaders, enabling him to land a telling blow up the final hill. He resembles The New One, and like him could find himself having to make up too much ground at a crucial stage.

Petit Mouchoir is next in the betting, and has been impressive through the winter. He’s looked the best of the Irish, thanks to victories in the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion, both at Leopardstown. Ridden boldly from the front, it’s likely that the tactics will continue at Cheltenham, and it will take a good one to pass him. The Irish have a terrific record in the race, having won five of the last six. He’s without doubt a leading contender.

Limini is yet to be supplemented by Team Mullins, though it looks likely after her stunning success on seasonal debut at Punchestown. The stable did the same with Annie Power last year, though I’m pretty sure that Limini is some way shy of Annie P. She certainly has a turn of foot, but at Aintree in April was unable to go with Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir, when the guys put in a sustained effort along the length of the straight.

Nicky Henderson has another contender for the crown in Brain Power. Though he’s been winning handicaps this winter, he announced himself as a horse of substance when third as a novice in the Grade 1 at Punchestown last April, when four lengths adrift of Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir. A strong traveller, he now appears to have matured both physically and mentally, and looks capable of a big performance on the main stage. He needs decent ground to be at his best. If he gets it, he could go very close.

Of the older brigade, you’d have to believe that My Tent Or Yours and The New One have had their chance, and despite several stars being missing, they will still find a few of these a bit too hot to handle. This is a race where six and seven-year-olds have the upper hand, and both look held by Yanworth on the Christmas Hurdle run.

At a price, Ch’Tibello may be the one to take each-way. He’s been running consistently well throughout the winter, seemingly putting in his best effort in the Kingwell last time. I’d be stunned if he won, but Dan Skelton’s six-year-old is a progressive sort, and it’s surprising that he’s 40/1 in places.

Favourites have won four of the last six Champion Hurdles, and I fancy the betting has it about right. Petit Mouchoir is likely to have them stretched at some point, and he’ll take some passing. But I feel this will be Nicky Henderson’s year, and in Buveur D’Air and Brain Power he has two mighty contenders. I’m favouring the former to have both the class and the grit to prevail. Expect Yanworth and Ch’Tibello to be flying late-on as they battle for minor places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – ‘The Hill’ no obstacle to Fast Flowing River

With the Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, I felt it was time to bite the bullet, and start producing a few previews.

Those that know and love this wonderful sporting event, realise just how tough it is to make money during the stamina-sapping four days. If you are attending, then the difficulty is remaining disciplined with the betting, whilst inevitably consuming gallons of Guinness. Those watching from the comfort of their sofas, have a slightly better chance of making a profit.

It seems right and proper to start at the beginning, and I’ll therefore launch into the Festival opener; the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Backed by ‘the roar’ of almost 70,000 fans, the contenders for the two-mile race usually scorch the turf at a frenetic pace. Runners and their jockeys often appear swept away by the excitement of the occasion, and consequently, the right mix of speed and stamina is needed to maintain a handy position, whilst having enough in the tank for the final hill.

In recent times the race has been dominated by Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci. The combination landed three-in-a-row from 2013 to 2015, and had hoped to make it four with Min well fancied to take last year’s renewal. Unfortunately for them, they ran into Altior.

The Closutton team have still managed to win four of the last 10 renewals, taking the Irish haul to six in that period. And it’s another Mullins trained challenger that heads the market for this year’s Supreme. Melon has only been sighted once during the winter, when winning a poor looking maiden at Leopardstown. Prior to arriving in Ireland, the son of Medicean had raced four times on the flat in France. He’s been talked of in glowing terms, but will need to be something special to take a Supreme off the back of just one outing over obstacles.

Next best in the betting is a pair of British contenders, Ballyandy and Moon Racer. Both are winners of Cheltenham’s Champion Bumper. Moon Racer is trained by David Pipe, and landed the Festival’s flat race in 2015. Now an eight-year-old, he’s proved tough to keep right, and has only run three times since that thrilling success. Nevertheless, he remains a leading contender, having lost only once in six outings under rules, and having won both his hurdles starts during this light campaign. The last eight-year-old to capture the Supreme was Like-A-Butterfly back in 2002, though in fairness, few of that age compete in this.

Pipe’s challenger also needs to overcome the lack of a prep-run, having been off the track since mid-November. Captain Cee Bee was the last to be successful after such a lay-off, when beating Binocular in 2008.

Ballyandy took the 2016 Champion Bumper, but has lost twice to Moon Racer over hurdles, and only broke his duck over timber at the fourth attempt, when winning the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury a couple of weeks back. He travelled beautifully throughout the valuable handicap, and quickened well to defeat Movewiththetimes. Those defeats to Moon Racer both came in muddling affairs, when Pipe’s fella proved the speedier gelding. The strong pace of a Supreme should better suit Ballyandy, and he arrives at Cheltenham ‘match-fit’. He’s also a six-year-old, which if trends are to be followed, is the likely age of a Supreme winner. Five-year-olds also have a cracking record.

Twiston-Davies appears to have settled on the two-mile option, and said of last year’s Champion Bumper winner: “We think we have just about totally decided to go for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He cantered to the last in the Betfair and quickened away nicely. We always thought a lot of him and we can't understand why he didn't do better in his first three races. He has got plenty of speed. He won there this time last year, although it was over two miles with no hurdles. We are really looking forward to it and hopefully we will be able to take our revenge on Moon Racer.”

Of the top three in the market, Melon needs to overcome inexperience, whilst Moon Racer is too old, and has been off the track too long. Ballyandy appears to tick more boxes. He is the right age, has enough experience, and has that all-important prep-run. He also scores on another important trend, being a winner on his last start. No fewer than 18 of the last 20 Supreme winners, arrived at the Festival having won their prep.

That’s bad news for fans of both Movewiththetimes and Bunk Off Early. The former got very close to Ballyandy at Newbury, having travelled every bit as well through the race. He’s by Presenting, and as such, should stay a fair bit further than the minimum trip. His proximity to Ballyandy makes me wonder if either will be quick enough to win a Supreme, and perhaps both would be better suited by a step-up in trip.

Bunk Off Early looked the likely winner of the Deloitte Novices’ at Leopardstown last month, until being outstayed by stablemate Bacardys. Champagne Fever and Vautour had took this race on their way to success in the Supreme, and it’s likely that better ground at Cheltenham will suit the Mullins trained five-year-old. He’s travelled powerfully in his two runs over hurdles, and despite being a little keen, has finished the races well. He’s attempting to emulate Menorah, who was the last horse to capture this after finishing runner-up in his prep.

Nicky Henderson often goes close in the Festival opener, and finally got a well-earned success in the race last year, when Altior romped to victory. It looks likely that he’ll have a pair of strong contenders once again, with recent Dovecote Hurdle winner, River Wylde, and Beyond Conceit both heading for this. The former has looked impressive in winning all three starts over obstacles. His jumping was slick at Kempton, and he finished the race off strongly, suggesting the famous hill at Cheltenham will prove ideal.

Beyond Conceit has made a sparkling return from a lengthy lay-off, having been a classy sort on the flat. He’s another eight-year-old, though like Moon Racer has few miles on the clock. He showed a great attitude to win at Ascot last time, and proved that he had the battling qualities to go with a touch of class. After the win, Henderson said that the strong pace of the Supreme would help him to settle, though the Neptune is sure to come under consideration. It’s clearly a worry that he was off the track for so long, and at Cheltenham he’ll be running for the third time in little more than two months. Ex-flat performers also have a poor recent record in the Festival opener.

Ben Pauling will be hoping for a huge performance from High Bridge. He was sixth in the Champion Bumper last year, and has won all three of his hurdles starts. He’s a strong galloping sort, that possibly lacks gears. He raced prominently in the bumper before being outstayed, and you’d expect similar tactics to be employed. He’s got place claims, though I’m not sure he’s quite good enough to win this.

One I fancy at a decent price, though he failed to win last time, is the Mullins trained Cilaos Emery. He disappointed somewhat, when losing out to Mick Jazz at Punchestown in soft ground. He was keen that day, and I fancy he’ll be better suited by decent ground and the guaranteed strong pace of a Supreme. He’s available at 25s, and I think that’s a fair price.

The Supreme Novices’ is a race that usually follows the trends. We’re therefore looking for a five or six-year-old, from the front half dozen of the market. He cannot be ex-flat, and is likely to be trained in Ireland, arriving here with three or four runs over hurdles, having won his relatively recent prep-run.

Sadly, I can’t find one that ticks all the boxes, but Ballyandy and River Wylde tick most. It’s the Henderson horse that I’m favouring, though I fancy both will go close. I’ll also be chucking a few quid at Cilaos Emery, as I’m convinced he’ll run much better than his odds suggest. Best of luck to those having a punt. And go easy on the Guinness.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Festival Form-Keep The Faith

Previous Festival form should never be ignored when assessing the contenders for those four famous days at Prestbury Park.

Year after year, horses return to the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’, and display their true ability, often rewarding those that ‘keep the faith’. A return to Cheltenham’s unique undulations may be the spark, or possibly the chance of running on decent spring ground rather than trudging through deep winter mud. Whatever, the reason, Festival perennials need spotting, and following.

Some of course are higher profile than others. Hurdling hero Hardy Eustace landed the Neptune as a novice in 2003, before returning to become a dual-winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 2005. He continued to enjoy his Cotswold excursions in 2006 and 2007, when third and fourth in the hurdling showpiece.

Denman was another Cheltenham legend that flourished at the track. Runner-up in the Neptune of 2006, he returned in stunning fashion to take the RSA of 2007, before his famous Gold Cup romp of 2008. He was then runner-up on three occasions in steeplechasing’s premier race; behind Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Long Run. That final effort came in 2011 as an 11-year-old.

More recently, Vautour became a ‘Festival Banker’ for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. It’s tragic when we lose such a star, but his Cheltenham heroics will live long in the memory. He followed his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle demolition of 2014, with one of the Festival’s greatest performances, when putting in an astounding round of jumping to win the JLT Novices’ Chase of 2015. He landed the Ryanair last March with the minimum of fuss, and who knows what he would have achieved this time around.

These of course, were National Hunt elite, and always likely to achieve repeated Festival success
if staying fit and well. Though we weren’t to know for sure when they arrived on the scene, indeed Hardy Eustace won his first Champion Hurdle as a 33/1 shot.

So, the trick is now to find the latest Festival regulars, who are likely to put their best hoof forward, achieving further success on the greatest stage, and leaving punters celebrating in the process. Some are clearly more predictable than others, and as such, hold little value from a punting prospective.

Douvan looks sure to add to his Festival haul in the Champion Chase. Already a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, the latest ‘Mullins Machine’ appears peerless, and it would come as a mighty shock if he were not to add to his Supreme and Arkle victories.

Similarly, Nicky Henderson’s Altior appears to be starting down the road to Festival immortality. Attempting to mirror the achievements of Douvan, he has looked sensational over fences this winter, and it’s hard to imagine anything landing a blow when the flag drops in the Arkle on the opening day.

Less flashy, yet still likely to make it two from two, is the Stayers’ favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He was something of a surprise winner of the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago, but it would come as no surprise were he to win the staying hurdle crown this time round. Winner of his last eight, he sets the standard, having won all the usual trials en route.

But there’s also those that consistently hit the frame in March, and yet still give plenty of value to those brave enough to take a punt.

Sizing John is one such beast, having finished behind Douvan on his last two visits to Prestbury Park in March. Third in the Supreme Novices’ in 2015 at a stonking 25/1, he then came runner-up to the Mullins hotshot in the Arkle, when again a generous 9/1. Those performances undoubtedly came at trips that were too short for Jess Harrington’s sizeable gelding. His success in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, proved that he could see-out an extended trip, and it’s likely that he will now take his chance in an open looking Gold Cup. There’s every chance that he is once again being underestimated by many, with numerous bookies offering 10s for this perennial Festival achiever.

Jonjo O’Neill makes a habit of landing Festival prizes with horses that peak at exactly the right time. He has a host of contenders that look capable of out-running their current form figures, and would leave punters crying ‘how did I miss that one?’. Minella Rocco took the four-miler last year, defeating Gold Cup favourite Native River, and is currently available at 25s for the ‘Blue Riband’. With two-falls-and- a-submission to his name so far this winter, it would take a brave punter to chuck a fistful of dollars his way, yet many apparently have. He has ‘Festival-previous’, and that counts for plenty.

Another Jonjo regular, who always punches above his weight, is the diminutive 10-year-old Holywell. His Cheltenham Festival record is a cracker, and yet he would be easy to overlook. A Pertemps Final victory in 2013 was followed by a win in the Ultima Handicap Chase (then the Baylis & Harding) a year later. In 2015 he took on the ‘big-boys’ and managed a stunning fourth place finish behind Coneygree, despite the ground being against him. Then last year he returned to the Ultima, with a cracking runner-up finish despite lumping top-weight around the 3m1f. His handicap mark is currently 148, having been 153 this time last year. Bookies are offering 16/1 against him taking the opening day handicap!

Willie Mullins has had his share of upset during the winter, but remains the trainer to follow when the Festival arrives. He’ll have plenty of contenders for major honours, with one hoping to end a run of near misses at Cheltenham’s prestigious meeting. Bumper runner-up; second in the Supreme Novices’ and chinned by Blaklion for last year’s RSA, Shaneshill looks set to contest the Stayers’ Hurdle this time. By leading Festival Sire King's Theatre, he’s 10/1 in places to get the better of Unowhatimeanharry, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close.

Mullins sends a strong team across the Irish Sea, and is joined by Gordon Elliott, who looks sure to have Festival winners among his team. Somewhere in the region of 30 horses are likely to make the journey, with Death Duty and Mega Fortune particularly strong fancies.

Cause Of Causes loves Cheltenham, especially with ground conditions to suit. A sound surface is ideal, and but for a mistake at the last fence in the Kim Muir of 2014, he would have a trio of Festival victories to his name. Elliott is aiming the nine-year-old at the Grand National, but will take in the Cross Country at Cheltenham as a prep. He had a ‘warm-up’ in January on Trials Day, when some distance back in fifth. Expect him to be much closer this time, as he looks to add to his impressive Festival CV.

Cheltenham form and especially previous Festival form is often a key pointer when searching for those elusive winners. There’s sure to be plenty of returning heroes that again land a major Festival success for trainers, connections, and hopefully for us punters, brave enough to keep the faith.

Festival Blow – Geraghty ‘Down and Out’

We’ve had such a good spell with the Friday Preview Piece, that it was very disappointing to see the tip for the BetBright Chase, Irish Saint, run such a poor race on Saturday. He was never slick enough at his fences, and faded tamely out of contention turning for home.

The race went to Pilgrims Bay, who was given a fabulous ride by James Best. The horse often finds little off the bridle, and has to be delivered as late as possible. The seven-year-old cruised into contention approaching the last, and was nudged out to victory, defeating the well fancied Double Shuffle by less than a length.

In Friday’s article, I’d also mentioned Triolo D’Alene as a live contender at a decent price. Unfortunately, Henderson’s classy chaser, was pulled-up early in the race, and has subsequently been retired. It typified a turbulent day for the master of Seven Barrows, which saw his talented juvenile, Charli Parcs crash out at the second-last in the Adonis Hurdle. In truth, the youngster was never travelling, and although mounting a challenge when falling, he was by no means sure to win. There must now be questions over whether he’ll head to Cheltenham, and his price of around 10s for both the Supreme and the Triumph Hurdle looks rather skinny.

The news was worse for his stricken jockey Barry Geraghty. He looked badly shaken when rising slowly from the ground, and a trip to the hospital confirmed that he had broken several ribs and suffered a collapsed lung. With the Cheltenham Festival just a couple of weeks away, Geragthy will not have recovered in time. His absence is a blow for Nicky Henderson, but more so for owner JP McManus. He will miss a host of exciting rides, including Yanworth or Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle, Coney Island, Uxizandre, Defi Du Seuil and Unowhatimeanharry in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson’s disappointment at the demise of Charli Parcs was quickly replaced by optimism as to the future of River Wylde. The six-year-old travelled beautifully in the Grade 2 Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle, and found plenty when asked to go and win his race. His jumping was slick throughout, and another fine leap at the last helped him pull three lengths clear of Elgin at the line. He’s bred to stay further, being by Oscar out of a Mandalus mare, though the dual Champion Hurdle winner Monksfield also appears in his pedigree. He’s still as big as 16s for the Supreme, a race where Nicky Henderson excels. That looks a generous price to me.

Earlier in the day, Henderson had watched a trio of Festival fancies put through their paces with a racecourse gallop. Champion Hurdle contender Brain Power, looked particularly impressive, working alongside Peace & Co and Josses Hill. Available at 8/1 for the opening day showpiece, he’s a striking looking individual, and every inch a chaser in the making. Henderson believes that decent ground is key to his chances at Cheltenham. He’s undoubtedly a serious contender in a wide-open renewal.

In a day of mixed fortunes, Nicky Henderson still has plenty to look forward to with Cheltenham now just a couple of weeks away. Sadly, Barry Geraghty is the latest in a long line of Festival casualties.

Kempton Course Key to Saint BetBright Bid

Attention turns to Kempton and Newcastle on Saturday, with the former hosting an exciting card, including the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle, the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle and the BetBright Chase.

All eyes will be on Nicky Henderson’s young hurdler Charli Parcs in the juvenile, as he looks to add to his course success in December, and bolster his already lofty reputation. The Seven Barrows team also have a leading contender in the Dovecote, in the form of two-time Ludlow winner River Wylde. He faces stiff opposition, including Team Ditcheat’s Capitaine, and course winner Elgin, trained by Alan King. I like the latter, especially if the ground remains good.

The BetBright Chase is as competitive as ever. First run in 1949, it has a classy looking roll of honour. Crisp and Pendil were successful in the 1970s, whilst Rhyme ‘n’ Reason and Rough Quest took this before winning the Grand National. Desert Orchid loved Kempton, and won this race as an 11-year-old in 1990. Last year’s renewal went to Colin Tizzard’s Theatre Guide, and he returns in an attempt to emulate Pendil and Docklands Express, by winning in successive seasons.

It’s a tough task for Tizzard’s 10-year-old, as he’s a stone higher in the handicap this time around. Nevertheless, this race has been won by numerous runners lumping top-weight around the track, and he clearly likes the place. He’ll appreciate the sounder surface, and the trip looks ideal. I’m anticipating a bold bid.

Aso looked a progressive sort, until disappointing at Cheltenham last time. Though only a seven-year-old, there’s a chance he’s already in the grip of the handicapper. He also lacks experience over this trip, and is possibly a better horse with a little more juice in the ground. His age suggests there’s more to come, but it may not come tomorrow.

Three Musketeers is another seven-year-old, stepping up in trip. His pedigree at least suggests that the three miles should suit, and he arrives here off the back of a strong performance at Market Rasen. Dan Skelton has always thought plenty of him, and he does look a horse with untapped potential. I can see him running a huge race, though I’m not sure I trust him enough to throw money his way.

Similar can be said of Double Shuffle, who won over course and distance in December. He wore a hood last time, and was having his first run at three miles. He’s another that cannot be discounted, though I’m not sure his form stacks up with some of these. He’s another that can throw in the odd stinker.

Paul Nicholls has won two of the last 10 renewals, and goes with Irish Saint this time. He’s a horse I like, and looked to be returning to something like his best when going well for a long way at Sandown last time. He missed a whole season due to injury, having looked a classy novice chaser prior to the absence. I fancy this trip stretches him a little, though he certainly enjoys Kempton, being three from three at the track. Indeed, his six career wins have all come when going right-handed. I fancy he’ll go close.

The trends suggest that horses of any age can win this event, and Nicky Henderson’s only previous winner was the 12-year-old Marlborough. He has a pair entered this time, with the one that interests me being Triolo D’Alene. The 10-year-old has proved hard to keep right, but on his day, with ground in his favour, is an extremely talented gelding. This ground will suit, and his handicap mark has dropped to its lowest since 2013. His odds of 20/1 are very tempting.

Finally, I need to mention the Twiston-Davies trained Ballykan, who came fourth in the race last year. He has a bit to find if he is to get the better of Theatre Guide, but there’s every chance that he’s strengthened from six to seven, and he carries the now familiar, and very successful colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He’s on a mark that makes him very competitive, and he could go very close.

In a race that I’m finding tough to read, I have finally sided with Irish Saint, and will have a little each-way on Triolo D’Alene. There are several others that I fear, and I’m certainly not as confident as I’ve been in recent weeks. Best of luck to all those having a punt.