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Jefferson’s Waiting Patiently has Star Potential in Ascot Chase

In its short history, the Ascot Chase has been won by numerous outstanding chasers.

Martha’s Son took the first during a sparkling campaign in 1995. He suffered an injury the following season which kept him off the track for 15 months. Returning to the track at the age 10, he produced two stunning performances to win the Champion Chase and then the Melling at Aintree.

One Man won the renewal of 1998 and a month later he too landed the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. A truly wonderful chaser, he’d already won a string of prestigious races including the Hennessy Gold Cup, the King George and the Charlie Hall. Tragically, One Man was to die that season, after a shocking fall in the Melling at Aintree.

The following year another grey, Teeton Mill, took the Ascot Chase. Like One Man, he won this after success in the Hennessy and the King George. Those three victories were scintillating, as he tore the fields apart in devastating fashion. Sadly, he suffered an injury during the Gold Cup later that campaign and never returned to the track.

Monet’s Garden (yes, another grey) and Kauto Star won in 2007 and 2008, with Monet’s winning again in 2010. Cue Card captured the race for the second-time last year, and will look to surpass Tiutchev, Monet’s and Riverside Theatre in becoming the first to win the prestigious event on three occasions.

Tizzard’s stable star returns to Ascot having had a decent break since a slightly disappointing display behind Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase. Stable talk suggests he’s working as well as ever, though it’s inevitably a concern that the old warrior is now 12. Trip and track look ideal, but the odds are stacked against the old favourite as he takes on several talented youngsters.

Top Notch heads the betting following a strong winter campaign. He was impressive at the track in November when easily accounting for Double Shuffle and Frodon. That form has been boosted since. In December he landed the Grade Two Peterborough Chase, defeating stable companion Josses Hill. The diminutive chaser is neat at his fences and is not short of speed. He’s reliable rather than spectacular, though is without doubt progressive.

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Waiting Patiently is five from five over fences and put in a career best performance last time at Kempton, when thrashing a decent field which included God’s Own and Josses Hill. He’s arguably the horse in the field with star potential. Thought to need soft or heavy ground to perform at his best (by Flemensfirth), he had no problem with good to soft last time. Ascot looks sure to suit and the trip is ideal. This is another step up the ladder for the young chaser, but he looks capable of handling it.

Also towards the head of the betting is the Irish raider Coney Island. Another son of Flemensfirth, this fella is touted as a serious Gold Cup contender. Trainer Eddie Harty remains undecided as to the Cheltenham target and this race should tell us whether he has the speed for a tilt at the Ryanair. He impressed on his return from injury when winning at Ascot in December and should strip fitter this time. His profile suggests he’ll be finishing the race strongly. The question is whether he can keep tabs on quicker horses like Top Notch and Waiting Patiently?

Frodon deserves a shot at this after a demolition job at Cheltenham last time. The softer the better for this six-year-old, though it’s hard to see him reversing the 10-length thumping that Top Notch served up back in November. That race followed on quickly from a terrific run behind Might Bite and his trainer, Paul Nicholls, will be hopeful that the youngster can get closer this time.

Speredek put in a huge performance from the front last time in the Clarence House, before finally giving way to the outstanding Un De Sceaux. That was at two miles and it’s hard to imagine this free-running sort will be suited by a step-up in trip. He’s likely to put in another solid round, but I can only see him setting the race up for the top three in the betting.

Of those, I’m siding with Waiting Patiently. I’m a huge fan of Top Notch, but my Dad always told me to take ‘a good big-un over a good little-un every time’. Coney Island will be doing his best work late-on, but I fancy the other pair have the gears to give him the slip.

Best of luck to those having a punt. It should prove a cracker.

Cheltenham Festival Shorties – Thrash or Crash

For today’s piece I’ve decided to take a closer look at the Cheltenham Festival ‘shorties’ and assess whether they will thrash the opposition or unexpectedly crash and burn in the cauldron of Prestbury Park.

Year after year horses arrive at the Cotswolds in March with a huge reputation. They’ve often impressed in slowly run affairs, with small fields and usually in deep winter ground. Some duly arrive and conquer, confirming their status as potential stars. But others find Cheltenham an inhospitable place. The ground proves too quick and the opponents run too fast. They feel crowded in the larger fields and the fences are much trickier than those they have encountered before.

You only need to look back to last year’s Festival to see how Cheltenham in March can prove an immense assignment.

Yanworth lined-up as the 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle having won three from three during the winter. Nevertheless, he came-up short when it mattered. Never slick enough over the obstacles, he was then badly outpaced coming downhill. By the time the field had turned for home his race was run.

Douvan was injured during his attempt to land the Champion Chase, but was he also a victim of a soft campaign? He arrived at Cheltenham having defeated 138-rated Realt Mor in a Grade Two at Punchestown. Thrown in at the deep end, in arguably the most intense National Hunt race of the calendar, the 2/9 favourite was forced to go a yard or two faster than at any time during the winter. He stood off way too far at the third and fourth fence, before putting in a short one at the fifth. Those early errors may have caused the physical damage which ultimately led to his demise, though there can be little doubt that chasing Special Tiara on Spring ground played a significant part.

Death Duty looked a non-stayer before coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett, though during a dominant winter campaign in Ireland had looked sure to appreciate a step-up in trip. He’d ‘kept on well’ to thump Monalee at Navan in December, yet at Cheltenham, when sent-off a 13/8 ‘sure thing’, was run off his feet and had nothing left when faced with the infamous hill. His pedigree shouts stayer! Yet quicker ground and the inevitable stronger pace of a Grade One at The Festival proved insurmountable for the talented young hurdler.

Unowhatimeanharry had swept all aside en-route to last year’s Festival. He’d looked hugely impressive in taking the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot and then the Cleeve at Cheltenham. A 5/6 favourite for the Stayers’ at the off, Harry Fry’s hurdler did little wrong, travelling powerfully through the race, but lacked gears on the livelier ground and was beaten into third.

Each year these stories are repeated and without doubt there’ll be several ‘shorties’ turned over in March. The difficulty comes in predicting which of the ‘Festival bankers’ will fail to deliver.

Getabird is already a 7/4 shot for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If Samcro heads to the Ballydoyle as anticipated, the Mullins-trained six-year-old will be hugely popular with punters, especially of an Irish persuasion. He’s arguably the sort that we should be taking on. His pair of hurdles victories have come in heavy ground, and as a point-to-point winner, we know he’ll stay much further in time. He could be tapped for toe in a quick-fire Supreme. Nevertheless, at this moment in time I’m a believer rather than a doubter. He’s looked slick and destructively quick in winning those two races. The Mullins/Ricci combo have a tremendous record in the opener and with no Nicky Henderson contender to beat, I’m taking this fella to thrash the opposition much to the delight of the Irish contingent.

The Mullins team have another short-priced favourite for the second race of the meeting - the Arkle Chase. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Footpad has been brilliant over the winter, winning all three chase starts and taking to fences like a duck to water. An even-money favourite with most bookies, he’s earned the right to top the market and will be many punters banker of the opening day. Despite a faultless campaign to date, I’m taking Footpad to crash in a renewal that looks hugely competitive.

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Petit Mouchoir, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados could ensure that this is the race of the festival. A strong pace is guaranteed, and the winner will need to travel powerfully before staying on strongly up the famous hill. You could argue that Sceau Royal’s performance in winning the Henry VIII at Sandown was the most impressive by any novice this winter. I just have a slight concern as to whether he’ll be strong enough when faced with Cheltenham’s stiff finish. Saint Calvados was devastatingly good at Warwick last time, though needs to prove himself on a sounder surface. But it’s Petit Mouchoir that I fancy can turn the tables on Footpad. He should improve a ton for the run at Leopardstown last time. And producing two-mile chasers is Henry De Bromhead’s speciality.

Buveur D’Air is a certainty in the Champion Hurdle. Sure to thrash his challengers, those with plenty of cash can still get on at around 4/9.

I’m taking a huge risk with the next ‘Festival banker’. Samcro will look to maintain his perfect record under rules, with plenty believing that he cannot be beaten. Hugely impressive last time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, he’s odds-on to take the Ballymore. Spring-heeled at his obstacles, he has gears and is bred to appreciate this trip. Those winter wins have come on heavy ground, but he’s by Germany, a stallion that has produced previous festival winners Faugheen and Captain Cee Bee. He has the credentials, but in On The Blind Side and Next Destination, the opposition looks strong.

The former is trained by Nicky Henderson and is also unbeaten under rules. He was mightily impressive at Sandown in December and is highly thought of by his trainer. The Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination is unbeaten over hurdles and ran well in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He’s accounted for some decent sorts over the winter and looks sure to run a huge race. Samcro has looked awesome thus far, but I fancy the opposition is strong enough for him to be vulnerable here. Despite a huge amount of talent and a colossal reputation, he’s a crash rather than a thrash.

Like Buveur D’Air, Altior cannot be defeated. A two-time Festival winner, he’s in a different league to the rest. Min may be challenging approaching the last, but Altior will no doubt surge clear approaching the line. This fella is sure to thrash all-comers in the Champion Chase.

Though I’m stretching it a little in calling him a ‘shortie’, Might Bite has dominated the Gold Cup market since his King George success at Christmas. Hugely talented, though undoubtedly quirky, Henderson’s young chaser will face by far his toughest assignment at Cheltenham and I fear the infamous hill will prove his downfall. Almost chinned late-on in last year’s RSA, he faces better horses in March and arguably stronger stayers.

Sizing John needs to bounce back to form, but last year’s winner will probably do so. Native River has been aimed at this one race and looks sure to go close. Road To Respect is a Festival winner and has improved a ton during the winter. And there’s no doubting that Minella Rocco will be charging up the hill as others cry ‘enough’. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Might Bite proved me wrong, but for me he’s likely to crash when challenged by talented and more proven stayers.

So there you have it. Some will leave the Cotswolds with huge reputations intact, whilst others head home having found Cheltenham a place where dreams fail to come true.

Grand National Weights – A Tiger and a Lion catch the eye

The Grand National weights were announced last night, with recent Cotswold Chase winner Definitly Red top of the pile on 11-10.

Mightily impressive at Cheltenham last time, he was pulled-up early last year when impeded at Bechers. Though clearly talented, he’s not the biggest, and carting top-weight looks a tall order.

Bristol De Mai was allotted a pound less, but trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said the seven-year-old will not be running. Instead, he is likely to contest the Betway Bowl on the opening day of the Aintree meeting.

Gigginstown supremo Michael O’Leary has had plenty to say about the handicapper’s decision-making process and the treatment of his Irish raiders. The team have numerous entries as they look to add to the success of Rule The World in 2016. Outlander tops the Gigginstown contingent on 11-08 but is unlikely to head to Aintree, with Punchestown the preferred option. Sub Lieutenant and Valseur Lido come next, though it’s Tiger Roll at 10-09 and Thunder And Roses at 10-01 that catch the eye. The former heads to Cheltenham for the Cross Country next month having been an impressive winner of the four-miler at Prestbury Park last year. The latter was fourth in the Irish National last April and looks to be fairly treated on that performance.

Minella Rocco will head for the Gold Cup before Jonjo O’Neill decides on an Aintree bid. He’s been given 11-07, which looks fair enough for a horse that finished second in last year’s ‘blue riband’ at Prestbury Park. Jonjo was hardly exuding confidence when saying: “He’ll go for the Gold Cup first and we'll see what happens. You'd think he would make a decent National horse, but he's been a bit disappointing really and is not as economical as you would like. He's good when he's good, but you need a bit more consistency for the National.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies was more bullish over race favourite Blaklion (given 11-06) when saying: “It would have helped if they had compressed the weights as usual, but it's not a huge weight range these days and Red Rum won with 12st. Quite a lot of horses, like Neptune Collonges and Many Clouds more recently, have won with big weights too. He’ll be ridden differently. I don't think stamina is an issue. He kicked on a mile out last year and was beaten only eight lengths. There's no blame on Noel [Fehily], but if he didn't kick on that early maybe that eight lengths could be found.”

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Gordon Elliott has a strong team entered, with Noble Endeavor, Cause Of Causes and the aforementioned Tiger Roll catching the eye. The former is yet to be seen this season but will have a prep run prior to a National challenge. C Of C was runner-up 12 months ago and will again head to Cheltenham prior to Aintree. “You’d have to imagine Cause Of Causes is the principal one,” said the County Meath handler. “He looks like he has a lovely weight again and I thought he ran well on his first run back. He seems to come alive in the spring and I’d imagine he'll go the cross-country route at Cheltenham.”

The Last Samuri again showed his love of the course when running a cracker behind Blaklion in the Becher Chase in December. He’s been given a chance with 11-04, with his trainer Kim Bailey saying: “His weight is what we were expecting given his rating. If the weights stay as they are and don't rise, I think he would have more of a chance. I have been very happy with him since Cheltenham and he will have a prep race somewhere between now and Aintree. We have got several options, but there are no firm plans as we will have to see what the weather does first.”

Willie Mullins has a leading contender in Ladbroke Trophy winner Total Recall. Opinion varies as to the strength of that performance and it’s tough to judge whether 11-01 is a fair weight or not. Nevertheless, he’s currently second-favourite for the race and is without doubt a progressive sort. Patrick Mullins was representing his father and said: “It'll be hard for him with more than 11st, but he has an improving profile which makes him very interesting. He's a fantastic jumper, he handles big handicaps, and he should stay.”

Evan Williams has produced several National contenders in recent times, including Aintree regular State Of Play. Despite being a quirky character, I can’t help being drawn to Buywise who has been allotted 10-04. Down the field behind Rule The World when last tried in 2016, he’s since run a cracker last April at Cheltenham in the Ultima Chase and cruised to victory in a Veterans’ Chase at Sandown. Two-time National winning jockey Leighton Aspell has been aboard on his last two outings. Should the pair hook-up at Aintree, they’d be an interesting each-way proposition at big odds.

Others that caught the eye included Abolitionist (10-04), Three Faces West (10-03) and Final Nudge (10-02). The field is sure to alter plenty between now and five-day confirmations on April 9. The final declarations are made at 10am April 12. A maximum field of 40 go to post.

Lalor to land an emotional Betfair Hurdle

Known as the Betfair Hurdle since 2012, the race was originally the Schweppes Gold Trophy and first run in 1963.

Nicky Henderson has enjoyed his fair amount of success with five victories, dating back to 1998. That sparked a run of four wins in seven renewals. His recent victory came in 2013, when classy hurdler My Tent Or Yours landed the prize en-route to a second-place finish in the Supreme Novices’ at the Cheltenham Festival.

That trend of talented novices taking the race has proved a theme of the Betfair Hurdle in recent times. Get Me Out Of Here, Recession Proof, Splash Of Ginge, Agrapart and last year’s winner Ballyandy were all first season hurdlers. Five or six-year-olds have won the last 10 renewals, with the age groups notching five apiece.

A maximum field of 24 go to post on Saturday with Nicky Henderson responsible for five. Jenkins heads the market and the six-year-old is currently on the crest of a wave. Always highly regarded by the Seven Barrows team, the application of blinkers appears to have worked the oracle. He’s won his last two, ably assisted by James Bowen last time at Ascot. The pair are re-united tomorrow with Jenkins off top-weight. The horse must cope with a 5lb rise in the handicap, with the jockey now only able to claim 3lb as opposed to five last month. It’s a tough ask to keep this run going, but both horse and jockey are firing on all cylinders.

Irish Roe is battling for favouritism and like Jenkins arrives in sparkling form. The seven-year-old mare was last seen getting within a length of Maria’s Benefit in a Grade Two at Doncaster. That was a cracking performance and suggested that her handicap mark should be some way higher than the current 134. She’s clearly progressing at a fair rate of knots and a race weight of 10-12 looks ideal.

Only three of the past 10 winners have carried more than 11 stone, with 11-2 the biggest weight carried in that time.

Kalashnikov is one of the younger brigade and the five-year-old has impressed in his three outings over hurdles. Having won his first two over timber, he lost out to Summerville Boy last time in the Tolworth Hurdle, though the pair pulled clear of some talented rivals. He has the right sort of profile for the race and his handicap mark looks fair for what he has achieved thus far.

Henderson has another fancied pair in Kayf Grace and Verdana Blue. The former is a classy mare and despite now being an eight-year-old has few miles on the clock. Good enough to beat Augusta Kate in the mares’ Grade Two bumper at Aintree in 2016, she’s proved fragile since, but won cosily last time at Kempton and seems to be back on track. Nevertheless, a handicap mark of 140 is possibly high enough and she’s not for me.

Verdana Blue is yet another mare and was last seen finishing third in a competitive handicap at Ascot (had several of these behind). Despite her form reading stronger, Nico De Boinville has chosen to partner Kayf Grace. She looks an improving sort, though off 145 I fancy there’ll be others in the race with a more lenient mark.

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Lalor is one such sort and is back from a wind-op. The novice hurdler was a leading bumper horse last term and is now trained by Kayley Woollacott after the tragic recent death of Richard. The six-year-old has run well but failed to win any of his three starts over hurdles. He’s looked a little weak in a finish, hence the operation. His form stacks up and a handicap mark of 137 looks fair. He should be a leading contender.

Gary Moore has a decent record in the race and runs the eight-year-old Knocknanuss. A decent bumper horse in Ireland, he arrived at Moore’s in 2015, but only got to the track back in May of this year. Twice a winner and twice runner-up from four starts over hurdles, he’s unexposed and on the upgrade. This is a much tougher assignment than his last win at Fontwell, but he’s an interesting contender.

Henderson’s Lough Derg Spirit gets in off 138 and that looks fair enough. He was a good novice last term and returned with a second-place finish in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton. Of all the Seven Barrows contenders this fella looks the one who could be well-in.

Moon Racer is an intriguing challenger and another back from a wind operation. Hugely talented as a youngster, he took the Champion Bumper back in 2015. He beat Ballyandy in his first run over hurdles but failed to be competitive when somewhat thrown in at the deep end in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Ballyandy ended his hurdling campaign off a mark of 147, whilst Moon Racer gets in here off 142. He has plenty to prove but the Pipe’s now how to prepare one, and he’s a horse that goes well fresh. His odds of 25s are tempting.

Divine Bere is another at a price that could run a huge race. The five-year-old only just lost out in last year’s Fred Winter before getting close to Defi Du Seuil at Aintree. He showed nothing on return at Ascot but was duly dropped 4lb by the handicapper. He’s probably carrying a little too much to win but he’s a stonking 40/1.

You’d expect a handicap of this nature to be competitive and it certainly is. Any of the above could win, plus a few that I’ve failed to mention. I’m going with Lalor in the hope that the wind-op has done the trick. He has the right profile and his bumper form was outstanding. I fear Kalashnikov, as he could be the class act in the field with plenty more improvement to come. The one for the each-way punters has to be Moon Racer. He could just as easily finish last, but a wind operation, coupled with an interesting handicap mark, makes his odds of 25/1 too tempting to turn down.

Best of luck to all those having a punt in this head-scratcher.

Altior and Native River back at Newbury

If the weather forecast is correct (improbable I know) we’ll finally get to see Altior back on the racecourse on Saturday.

In his absence, Politologue has ruled the roost, winning the Haldon Gold Cup, the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid Chase. He defeated Fox Norton at Sandown, though only just. The pair are set to clash again and it’s possible they’ll give a ring-rusty Altior a run for his money.

Politologue’s owner, John Hales, is certainly excited at the prospect of meeting the best two-mile chaser in the business. He told Press Association Sport: “He's (Politologue) been electric this year and I'm looking forward to it. It's nice to see Altior is going to run. It will be a good contest and that's what it's all about. When he's stood up, he's unbeaten over two miles. It took us some time to realise that was his trip but since we have, there's been no looking back.

“The only time he's lost over two (miles) over fences was at Aintree, when he'd have probably won anyway. His jumping is his biggest asset. He's very quick and very accurate. I call him a coat-of-paint job, because he leaves no gap between himself and the fence - there's no air. That's a trait of all the best two-milers, looking back at them.”

Hales is one of the great enthusiasts and deserves to own a high-class racehorse. Nevertheless, Altior has looked a breed apart and if back to near his best will surely prove too hot to handle. Speaking earlier in the week, a typically cautious Nicky Henderson said of his star chaser: “He's going to get beaten one day, probably. I think you've got to look at it that way. I'd like to get a race into him and if he gets beaten, he gets beaten. I suppose that this is the time that he's going to be at his most vulnerable, but in the interests of him trying to win the Champion Chase I think it's good for him to have a run.”

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It’s certain to be another emotional day for the racing fraternity, with Cloudy Dream contesting the Denman Chase. Formerly trained by Malcolm Jefferson, the stable is now in the hands of daughter Ruth following the recent death of her father. And the eight-year-old has a great chance of landing the prestigious race, especially as favourite, Native River, will be returning from an 11-month lay-off.

Tizzard’s classy chaser will use this as a prep for the Gold Cup in March. His owner, Garth Broom, said of his return: “He's as ready as you can get him at home without having a race. All the reports are that Colin [Tizzard] and his team are very happy with him. In the past he's always wanted one race as a warm-up and this is what the idea is. If he got beat, as long as he ran a good race, it wouldn't be a complete disaster. It's the means to an end to get him to the Gold Cup.”

Broom added: “What happened last year was we were running him in the big races to see if he was a Gold Cup horse. Now we know he is, we didn't have to go through that process. The form of the stable dipped slightly at Cheltenham last year and he was beaten only two and three-quarter lengths and nutted on the line by Minella Rocco, his old foe. He loves Newbury. He's run in three chases there, the Hennessy and Denman last season and a novice the season before, and he's never been beaten there over fences, I'm hoping it will continue.”

Another talented horse on the comeback trail is Barters Hill. Trained by Ben Pauling, the eight-year-old has been off the track for more than a year after sustaining an injury on his chasing debut at Cheltenham. Back over hurdles this weekend, connections will be hoping for a trouble-free round before making plans for the remainder of the campaign. “It's very much the plan to go on Saturday at Newbury,” said Pauling. “He's in good order and it will be great to have him back out.”

Repeat Offenders – Festival Favourites Aim To Be Back On Track

We may well see Altior back on a racecourse this weekend, with Nicky Henderson targeting The Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

His imminent comeback is perfectly timed, following on as it does from a terrific performance in Ireland from his chief two-mile rival Min. It’s easy to forget how brilliant Altior is, but look again at his Supreme Novices’ victory of 2016, or last year’s Game Spirit romp. Some were less impressed by the Arkle Chase success, despite him storming clear from the last fence. And he was again at his destructive best when powering clear of Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Two from two at The Festival, he’ll hopefully return to Prestbury Park in March, and if back to his best, will make it a trio of victories at Jump racing’s most celebrated gathering.

Altior’s return got me thinking of others that will travel to Cheltenham in search of further Festival glory. Course form, especially a victory or prominent finish in a previous March gathering, is often a useful reference point for punters hoping to make a few quid during the four-day extravaganza.

Many horses find it difficult to handle Cheltenham’s undulations and that punishing uphill finish. The chase courses are especially testing with tricky downhill fences encountered as the tempo of a race intensifies. Cue Card’s ‘Groundhog Day’ moment at the third last in the past two Gold Cup’s is testament to the challenging nature of the track.

An ability to cope with the course is certainly essential, but returning heroes are often those that enjoy the spring conditions and a touch of sun on their backs. Some can slip off the radar after a winter toiling through the mud. Yet given a sounder surface they return rejuvenated to their happy hunting ground.

Cause Of Causes epitomises the phenomenon and must be followed whatever the target in March. Following his win in last year’s Cross Country Chase (his third Festival success), a thrilled Gordon Elliott said of his equine warrior: “He seems to come well at Cheltenham every year. He's an absolute superstar and we love him to bits.” It’s possible Elliott will send him in search of a repeat success in the ‘country’ before another crack at his main target, the Grand National.

Elliott has another Festival favourite in the yard, that may also line-up in the Cross Country. Tiger Roll was mightily impressive in winning last year’s National Hunt Chase (four-miler), three years after landing the Triumph Hurdle. The race will be remembered more for the drama surrounding Edwulf, though the way Tiger Roll ‘tanked’ his way through the marathon event was unforgettable. Hugely talented when in the mood, he clearly enjoys springtime in the Cotswolds.

Though yet to taste Festival success, I had to give a mention to the Tom George-trained Singlefarmpayment. Favourite to take last year’s Ultima Handicap Chase, he was chinned on the line by Un Temps Pour Tout (himself a dual-Festival winner). He’s likely to return for another crack and usually puts in a bold display at the Gloucestershire course. His six visits have gleaned two victories and a pair of second-place finishes. His handicap mark is just a touch higher than 12 months ago, and everything points to another productive Prestbury Park performance.

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Several elite horses are simply so talented that they will inevitably become multi-festival winners, assuming they stay fit and well. Altior has already achieved ‘Cheltenham Star’ status, with Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade more than likely to add their names to the list of dual-Cheltenham Festival heroes in March. Un De Sceaux is another among that elite group that has already proved himself repeatedly at Jump racing’s Olympics.

Less flamboyant yet still likely to put their best foot forward in search of another Festival victory are Willoughby Court, Presenting Percy and Minella Rocco.

It was something of a surprise to see him defeat the ill-fated Neon Wolf in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore), but Willoughby Court has maintained that form over fences and is now favourite for the JLT at the festival. Slightly disappointing last time when trying to give Yanworth 5lbs in testing conditions, he’d previously defeated the same rival on level terms on a sounder surface. Ben Pauling’s yard have just started firing again after a lean spell, and this fella looks sure to go close in March.

Presenting Percy landed the Pertemps Final a year ago and will return to Prestbury Park as a leading contender for the RSA Chase. He’s two from three over fences this term and proved his well-being last time when impressive over hurdles at Gowran Park. He’ll have tough opposition to overcome, including the likes of Monalee, Yanworth and Al Boum Photo. Nevertheless, this talented stayer showed his love of the track last year and should go close again.

Jonjo’s Minella Rocco will again arrive at Cheltenham as a relatively unconsidered contender for the Gold Cup. Yet punters should surely take note of his previous Festival outings and act accordingly. He took the National Hunt Chase in 2016, defeating Native River. And in last year’s Gold Cup he was a fast-finishing runner-up to an in-form Sizing John. He proved to be my only antepost success, having had a few quid on him each-way at 33s. With better ground and that stamina-sapping hill playing to his strengths, I see no reason why this year’s renewal should be any different. If anything, the race looks more open this time around. He’s currently available at 25/1.

Finally, I need to mention the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion. I’m not on my own in fancying this fella for the Gold Cup (Twitter’s @TenEmbassy a huge fan), but the yard is yet to commit. I doubt he has the talent to win, but like Minella R, he’ll be charging up the famous hill and could be one for a place at a tasty price. He’s an RSA winner, and I’m reminded of Lord Windermere’s success some years back when an unconsidered outsider. I’m on at fancy odds, so let’s just hope that Big Nige takes the plunge.

A winter of discontent is not always a sign of decline. For those punters hoping to make money from the Cheltenham Festival, blinkers should be removed, and full consideration given to previous festival performances. Spring ground and the ability to act on a unique racecourse can often spark a return to form.

Samcro Cruise, Faugheen Blues and bags of Cheltenham Clues

Edwulf caused a monumental upset when landing a thrilling Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.

This was a truly remarkable success, as the horse had almost died at the Cheltenham Festival little more than 10 months earlier. He’d collapsed in the latter stages of the four-mile chase, and vets had worked tirelessly to save him. Only after a summer vacation did connections give any thought to a return to racing.

Our Duke was sent-off the 9/4 favourite, but Jess Harrington’s young chaser fluffed his lines when getting the second-last all wrong and stumbling badly on landing. The Willie Mullins-trained Djakadam had bowled along in front, but as the leading contenders approached the last it was his stablemate Killultagh Vic that looked to have made a decisive move. However, he too made a crucial jumping error, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outlander was left at the head of affairs as he looked to add to his terrific track record. But in a pulsating finish he was unable to withstand a power-packed finish from Edwulf and jockey Derek O’Connor. A neck separated the pair at the line, with Djakadam 10-lengths further back in third.

It was one of the finest moments in the saddle for O'Connor and he said of his mount: “I'm exceptionally happy for the horse. He ran himself into the ground for me at Cheltenham and we thought his career was over but he's after coming back to his best.”

For trainer Joseph O’Brien, this is yet another prestigious prize in such a fledgling career. He looked stunned when speaking on At The Races and said: “He's always been a great horse. It's a credit to everyone involved - the staff at home, the vets at Cheltenham last year and JP (McManus, owner) and Frank Berry (McManus' racing manager), who gave him all the time in the world. It's been a long road to get him back from where he was at Cheltenham when we thought he was gone.

“Derek is an unbelievable horseman. Horses just jump unbelievably well for him and he gets on great with this fella. We're over the moon. We'll see how he comes out of this first and we'll think about Cheltenham then. It's not too often you get a horse good enough to run in the Gold Cup so if he's well, I'd imagine he might go there.”

Gordon Elliott will also send the runner-up to contest the blue riband at Prestbury Park. The County Meath handler said: “He ran his heart out and seems to like it here. We have to run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Where else would you go?”

Our Duke’s error at the second-last put-paid to any hopes of winning, but jockey Robbie Power was pleased with his efforts, saying: “I'm absolutely delighted with him. Down Royal was a non-event for him and realistically this was his first run of the season. He was very ring-rusty and he'll improve an awful lot from it.”

Earlier in the day Gordon Elliott’s Samcro had further enhanced his reputation as one of the sports most prodigious new talents. He cruised to victory in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, slamming a strong field by more than five-lengths. The powerful six-year-old is now a shade of odds-on for the Ballymore Novices’ at Cheltenham. He also heads many Supreme markets along with the Willie Mullins-trained Getabird. The Ballymore may prove the easier option, though connections will no doubt decide nearer the time.

The Flogas Novice Chase had looked an exceptionally competitive renewal, with a field of 11 going to post. And so it proved as five jumped the last almost in a line across the track. Monalee had led from the off and despite plenty having a crack at him, he simply refused to let anyone past. Henry De Bromhead’s chaser is now second-best to Presenting Percy in the RSA betting.

On Saturday many had flocked to Leopardstown in hope of seeing a resurgent Faugheen. The ex-champ has had his problems of late and was on a recovery mission after a poor performance over Christmas. He was sent-off an odds-on favourite to land his second Irish Champion Hurdle, but despite a much-improved effort he was unable to hold off the prolonged challenge of Jess Harrington’s Supasundae.

Mullins had clearly hoped for more when saying: “I was disappointed with him. He's sort of half back on track, but he'll have to improve a lot to be back where he was. I was actually very happy when he was coming round the last bend, but by the time they lined up for the last, the writing was on the wall. I was hoping at that stage he might pull something else out, but it wasn't to be. I'm just hoping spring ground, spring air and spring sunshine might rejuvenate him, but there's just no spark there, I think.”

Of the much-improved winner, Jess Harrington said: “He's never jumped as well before, he jumped absolutely super and was always travelling. I thought they'd go too quick for him over two miles and Robert was sure when he had Faugheen in his sights at the last he would stay every inch of the way, and he did. I came here to give him a prep run for the three-mile hurdle at Cheltenham and to win this is some prep run!”

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She added: “He's only in the Stayers’, so that's where he'll be going. He is a much better horse on better ground, he doesn’t like slogging around in very muddy ground and that's why he comes into his own in the spring.”

Footpad put in a commanding performance to land the Arkle Novice Chase. Run at a cracking pace, the young chaser led from the drop of the flag, chased throughout by Petit Mouchoir. The runner-up, returning from injury, lost little in defeat, and should get a lot closer to the winner at Cheltenham.

Mullins was more than satisfied with Footpad, saying: “He did it the hard way and jumped well in front. I think he pecked a bit at the last, but it was a very good performance. We didn't set out to make it, but Paul wasn't happy there was enough pace so he went on. We are heading for the Arkle unless something else changes.”

He added: “Footpad was fourth in a Champion Hurdle, but we thought he would be going two and a half miles or more over fences. The first day he jumped he was very good and when you can jump, you can go any trip.”

The trainer’s comments were interesting, especially as owners Munir and Souede have Sceau Royal lined up for the Arkle at Prestbury Park. The bookies were taking no chances, shortening Footpad to a shade of odds-on for the two-mile event, whilst several cut him to as short as 2/1 for the JLT.

Any Mullins and Ricci disappointment in Faugheen was tempered by the stunning success of Min in the Dublin Chase. He romped to victory and now looks a serious challenger for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, with or without Altior. Travelling powerfully throughout, he breezed past long-time leader Special Tiara as they approached the last before stretching clear for a 12-length success. Ordinary World had looked like throwing down a challenge, but he blundered badly at the last and Davy Russell did well to stay on-board.

The inaugural Dublin Racing Festival has proved to be a huge success. And many horses took the opportunity to enhance their reputation with Cheltenham little more than a month away.

Supasundae must have a great chance in the Stayers’ following his stunning success in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Better ground will suit, and he already has a Festival victory on his CV. Footpad has looked sensational over fences and is sure to go close in the Arkle Chase. He’ll have a slightly fitter Petit Mouchoir to contend with at Cheltenham and I’d expect the rematch to be a thriller.

Monalee was a gutsy winner of the Flogas Novice Chase and should go close in the RSA. Runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett, the seven-year-old clearly goes on the track. However, don’t discount Al Boum Photo when looking for a likely winner. The Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old finished to great effect and was less than a length adrift at the line. And he’s still available at 25s with a couple of bookies.

Min must have a great chance in the Champion Chase having romped to victory on Saturday. But I’d also be interested in Ordinary World back at Prestbury Park on decent ground. De Bromhead’s chaser was mounting a fair old challenge when getting the last all wrong. He was third to Altior in last year’s Arkle and though he’s not good enough to win, he could be on hand to pick up a place as others fall by the wayside. He’s available at 50/1, with many of those above him in the betting likely to run elsewhere. I’ve had a little each-way, as that price is simply wrong.

It’s also interesting to see that the bookies have given-up on Espoir D’Allen after his disappointing effort in the juvenile race. He ran far too freely yesterday before floundering in the mud. Cheltenham will be different, with a decent pace assured, and better ground likely. A couple of years back Ivanovich Gorbatov flopped in the same race, yet at Prestbury Park a month later was able to fend off Apple’s Jade in the Triumph Hurdle. Footpad was a well-beaten third that day. You can now get 20s on an Espoir upset and I’m seriously tempted.

Unfortunately, I’ve probably missed the boat on Samcro. His price has contacted too much for the likes of me, though those with deep pockets will no doubt be lumping on for what looks the banker of the meeting. Those going antepost will hope that they choose the right race, which, at the moment, appears to be the Ballymore Novices’.

And what of Edwulf? Can he really go to Cheltenham and win the Gold Cup? It would be some story, if he was to return to the track that almost took his life, only to win one of jump racing’s most sought-after prizes.

Outlander to continue Leopardstown love-affair

Who’d be a tipster? Things haven’t gone according to plan in recent weeks, so I’ve decided to travel across the Irish Sea (not literally) in search of a winner.

The Dublin Festival at Leopardstown begins on Saturday and it’s Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup that I’ve decided to scrutinize for this week’s preview. It’s a competitive renewal though many will be disappointed not to have Sizing John and Road To Respect in the line-up. The former took this race 12 months ago prior to his successful trip to Prestbury Park, whilst the latter landed the Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus). They’re arguably Ireland’s top two staying chasers, although many would fancy Our Duke as a potential star.

Established in 1987, the first winner was the classy, if sometimes unpredictable, Forgive ‘n Forget. The 10-year-old had captured the Gold Cup at Cheltenham two years earlier but was often apt to put in an erratic round of jumping. A strong traveller through a race, when he did get it right he proved to be mighty impressive. His victory at Leopardstown in ‘87 was one such occasion.

Jodami completed a hat-trick of wins in the 1990s along with a single victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And at the turn of the century Florida Pearl matched that success with his own trio of wins. Trained by Willie Mullins, the horse became an Irish chasing goliath. He captured a fourth Irish Gold Cup (then the Hennessy) in his final start at the age of 12. Although never cracking Cheltenham’s Gold Cup, he did manage to land the King George at Kempton in 2001.

Mullins has found it impossible to win Cheltenham’s Gold Cup but has a terrific record in Ireland’s equivalent. He landed three-in-a-row from 2011 to 2013 (bringing his total to nine), with Sir Des Champs taking the latter. Much to the trainer’s frustration, he too came up just short back at Prestbury Park when losing out to Bobs Worth.

The champion trainer has two entries in Sunday’s renewal with a huge disparity in experience. Djakadam has been contesting these top-class events since 2015 and has proved wonderfully consistent. He’s won or been placed in 10 Grade One’s, though his two victories came in the John Durkan at two and-a-half miles. It would be wrong to say he isn’t effective at three miles, but he tends to find one or two a little too strong in a finish. I’d forgive him his last poor performance at Leopardstown over Christmas, when appearing to be suffering the effects of his previous clash with Sizing John. Nevertheless, on all known form he looks set to be placed at best.

Mullins’ second challenger is Killultagh Vic who only has two chase outings to his name. It’s quite incredible that a horse with so little experience and having only had one outing in the past two years (that was over hurdles) can find himself second in the betting. There’s no doubting the nine-year-old is talented, but it probably says more of the doubts surrounding other contenders. I’d be astounded if he wins and of the pair I’d be siding with Djakadam.

Jess Harrington trained Sizing John to win a year ago and has eight-year-old Our Duke primed for the challenge on Sunday. Ireland’s best novice chaser last year, his return in the was a disaster. Found to have a back issue post-race, he’s had an operation and is reportedly ready to put his best hoof forward. His Irish National success last April was mightily impressive, though he still must prove himself at the highest level against more experienced campaigners. He’s favourite for the race and needs to go close if to be considered a contender for Cheltenham’s Gold Cup in March.

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Gigginstown have three entered though only two are likely to challenge. Outlander and Valseur Lido certainly have the ability to go close, though the former is unpredictable whilst the latter is only recently back from injury. Outlander is four from five at Leopardstown and ran another cracker at the track when third in the Christmas Chase. He’s looked as good as ever this winter and I fancy he’ll go close.

I remain to be convinced that Valseur Lido truly sees out the three-miles at this level. When part of the Mullins team, his trainer was convinced that the horse needed ‘a trip’. But he looked a certain winner approaching the last in the Lexus of 2016 before fading. Then off the track for a year, he returned to contest the same race (now known as the Christmas Chase) and again faded late-on. He’s sure to strip fitter this time and now a nine-year-old may well have the stamina required. He’s arguably the most talented horse in the field and will likely be at the head of affairs approaching the last.

Many are singing the praises of Anibale Fly and it’s true he was impressive in winning the Paddy Power Chase at the track over Christmas. This is a much tougher assignment and his novice form leaves him a little shy of Our Duke. He’s only eight and there’s certainly room for further improvement, but I’m not convinced he’s quite up to this.

This track doesn’t play to Minella Rocco’s strengths. It would come as no surprise to see him staying on powerfully to grab a place, but he needs a stiff finish to be seen at his best. This will serve as a warm up for Cheltenham, where I can see him again going close.

I hope Our Duke wins and he may well do so. A talented novice, he’s the horse in the field that has star quality. However, there’s enough doubt for me to look elsewhere. Outlander’s record at the track is exceptional and I take him to land the spoils.

Best of luck to all those having a punt. And enjoy what is set to be a sensational Dublin Festival.

Northern Lights hoping for Cheltenham Festival Revival

Can the Northern trainers turn the tide and finally make an impact at the Cheltenham Festival in March?

The deep pockets of owners in the south, along with the dominant recent performance of Irish raiders has resulted in a barren period for our friends in the north. You need to go back to 2014 for their last Cheltenham Festival winner, when Hawk High landed the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle for trainer Tim Easterby.

A year later the journey to the Cotswolds proved fruitless – not even a placed finish to their name. In 2016 Lucinda Russell’s Sky Khan finished third in the Fred Winter, whilst last year’s festival proved slightly more promising thanks to a runner-up spot in the Arkle Chase for the Malcolm Jefferson-trained Cloudy Dream and a third and fourth place finish, again in the Fred Winter, for Nietzsche and Project Bluebook for Messrs. Ellison and Quinn.

All this is a far cry from a glorious March of 2012, when a northern raid produced six winners for four different trainers.

Malcolm Jefferson and Donald McCain were flying the flag, landing a pair apiece. Cinders And Ashes won the Supreme Novices’ for McCain during a wonderful period when the yard was home to the likes of Ballabriggs, Peddlers Cross and Overturn. The latter was runner-up in the Champion Hurdle that year and McCain also trained Son Of Flicka to land the Coral Cup.

Jefferson’s stable stalwarts, Cape Tribulation and Attaglance, were successful at Prestbury Park prior to completing a sensational double at the Aintree Festival. The 2012 Festival half-dozen was completed when John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame caused an upset to win the Triumph. And then Lucinda Russell’s hugely talented yet sadly ill-fated Brindisi Breeze captured the Albert Bartlett.

The north’s main hope for this year’s festival appears to be the Jed O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. Favourite for the Stayers’ Hurdle, this six-year-old has looked magnificent this winter, especially in winning the Long Walk at Ascot last time. A relentless galloper, this son of Black Sam Bellamy keeps finding for pressure and ought to be well suited by the famous hill at Prestbury Park. He looks sure to be given a positive ride in the hope of ‘burning off’ speedier rivals.

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Definitly Red’s win in the Cotswold Chase has also sparked excitement from the northern racing fraternity. Brian Ellison will now prepare the nine-year-old for a shot at the Gold Cup and he certainly looks an each-way proposition. Should the ground turn testing, there’ll be few finishing to greater effect.

Once again Malcolm Jefferson will head to Cheltenham with several talented contenders. Waiting Patiently has become the stable star and his performance at Kempton last time gives hope that he could be competitive in the Ryanair Chase. That victory also proved that he is not dependant on testing ground to excel. Nevertheless, his trainer will undoubtedly be on weather watch as the festival approaches, before deciding on a suitable target. He’s as low as 14s for the Champion Chase, though ground would need to be soft or heavy to take in the shorter trip.

Mount Mews had looked a promising type for the Norton handler, but his transition to fences has not proved seamless. His size and breeding suggest that this is his game, but he’s occasionally looked cumbersome over the larger obstacles. The JLT and the RSA may prove too loftier targets at this stage of his development, though it would come as no surprise to see him take-in the opening day novice handicap chase. The son of Presenting may also improve for the likely better ground at the festival.

Cloudy Dream was runner-up to Altior at last year’s event and has the talent to run well again in elite company. Not sighted since chasing Definitly Red in the mud at Aintree in December, his Cheltenham target is far from certain. Incredibly consistent under rules (runner-up or winner in last 13 starts), Jefferson will be keen to have him fit and well for March in the hope of another huge performance.

In recent times the only bright spot on an otherwise dismal meeting has proved to be the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. It would come as no surprise should this again yield some form of reward for the northern contingent. Indeed, last Saturday at the Trials Day meeting, Look My Way ran a cracker for John Quinn when chasing home Apple’s Shakira. The gelding by Pour Moi is now on a mark of 135, which would certainly give hope of a realistic challenge in this year’s renewal.

Though Messrs. Mullins, Henderson and Elliott look sure to hog the limelight during the Cheltenham Festival, it is hoped that trainers from the north grab a piece of the glory. A festival winner may just spark that long-awaited Jump racing revival.

Destination Dublin – Equine Elite flock to Leopardstown

It’s the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend from Leopardstown with jump racing fans in for a real treat.

Proposed by the racecourse and enthusiastically backed by Horse Racing Ireland, the decision to combine three stand-alone meetings into a two-day extravaganza appears a masterstroke. The festival is ideally positioned between Leopardstown’s Christmas gathering and the Cheltenham Festival in March, with the intention of attracting equine elite from Ireland and hopefully the UK.

It’s fair to say that trainers this side of the Irish Sea have yet to grasp the nettle, though in years to come many are likely to add this to their winter schedule. Despite something of a UK ‘no show’, many of Ireland’s leading lights will be on duty, aiming to land prestigious prizes and further advertise their Cotswold credentials.

Leopardstown tends to attract the best at this stage of the campaign. Petit Mouchoir defeated Footpad in the Irish Champion Hurdle last year. The pair are set to meet over fences this weekend in what could prove the clash of the meeting. In recent years Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and Istabraq have all landed Ireland’s showpiece hurdle.

The Flogas Novice Chase (formerly Dr P.J. Moriarty) is often a target for Ireland’s best young staying chasers. Disko took last year’s renewal, defeating Our Duke and Balko Des Flos in the process.

The Irish Gold Cup will be one of the highlights this weekend, having gone to Sizing John a year ago. Jess Harrington’s powerful chaser followed up at Cheltenham, though that double had not been completed since 1993 when Jodami was at the peak of his powers. Harrington has Our Duke primed for a return in Sunday’s renewal.

The Deloitte Novice Hurdle also takes place on Sunday and has gone to numerous high-class performers over the years. Nichols Canyon, Vautour and Champagne Fever are recent winners, whilst Brave Inca and Istabraq also have their names engraved on a stunning roll of honour.

The action starts on Saturday with the Grade One Irish Champion Hurdle the feature. The mighty Faugheen is due to run and heads the market with stable companion Melon. ‘The Machine’ is on a recovery mission after his unexplained flop last time at Leopardstown. There must be a concern as to how the ex-champ will react when put under pressure, and one wonders if time spent on the sidelines is finally catching up with him. Melon travelled like the best horse for much of the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time, before being out-battled by the more experienced duo of My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

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Defi Du Seuil is set to travel over for the race and like Faugheen, needs to get his campaign back on track. Last year’s top juvenile ran a shocker on return at Ascot but is expected to show his true form on Saturday. He’ll need to go close if he’s to be considered a realistic Champion Hurdle contender back at Cheltenham in March.

The Arkle Novice Chase looks a straight duel between Footpad and Petit Mouchoir. The former has a slight edge on experience and race fitness. He’s looked terrific on his two runs over fences and is a short-priced favourite for the corresponding race at Cheltenham. Henry De Bromhead’s chaser has been off the track since his impressive debut in October. You’d expect him to improve for the run and the likelihood is that he’ll come off second best this time. That may not be the case back at Prestbury Park.

Another cracker on the opening day is the Grade Two Dublin Chase. Min, Special Tiara and Yorkhill are set to clash, with the latter looking to get his chasing career back on track. Undoubtedly hugely talented, this looks a mighty test for the unpredictable eight-year-old. Min is a classy racehorse and we all know what Special Tiara can do. This is a terrific renewal with plenty of questions waiting to be answered. The winner will likely endorse their position towards the head of Cheltenham’s Arkle Chase market.

Sunday’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, with Our Duke looking to re-establish himself as one of Ireland’s leading staying chasers. He’ll have plenty on his plate as Mullins arrives double-handed with Djakadam and Killultagh Vic. Outlander and Valseur Lido are Gigginstown’s dynamic duo, whilst Jonjo sends Minella Rocco back to Ireland. Sizing John and Road To Respect are missing, but this remains a mighty renewal.

The Grade One Flogas Novice Chase also looks hugely competitive. This appears to be a strong division in Ireland with the main protagonists set to clash. Monalee and Al Boum Photo both hit the deck last time, whilst Invitation Only, Snow Falcon and Sutton Place all impressed. The Storyteller is no mug, in a race that could prove an absolute thriller.

Others to watch for during the two-day spectacular are Espoir D’Allen, Samcro and Sharjah. This trio of young hurdlers all look capable of careers at the top table. This weekend’s thrilling action will tell us more.

Definitly Red runs riot on emotional day at Cheltenham

Definitly Red landed the Cotswold Chase on Saturday, leaving trainer Brian Ellison dreaming of Gold Cup glory.

Revelling in testing conditions, the nine-year-old stormed up the famous hill for an eight-length victory. Harry Fry’s young chaser American had travelled powerfully throughout and heading downhill looked to be going best of all. Bristol De Mai and Definitly Red challenged from three-out, but by the second-last Ellison’s charge had taken command. American rallied as Bristol De Mai began to paddle, but there was no catching the winner. The Last Samuri closed on the front three as the line approached, though at no point looked like landing a serious blow.

“That was brilliant,” said Ellison after the victory. “He's class, isn't he? Danny gave him a great ride, he gets on great with him. He’s probably one of the best jockeys riding. He had to use his head down the back.”

The trainer was winning at the course for the first time in 16 years and added: “I thought the other horse (American) was going better, but Danny took a pull to lie a couple of lengths off him and when he gave him a kick in the belly he took off. He's just got better every year and the plan this year was to keep him fresh. Today would tell us if we went for the Gold Cup, so we'll go now.”

Cook can now look forward to a first ride in the festival showpiece. He said of the winner: “He stayed on really well. He got a bit lonely in front and had a good look. This horse is going from strength to strength, he gave me a nice feel today.”

On an emotional day at Prestbury Park, the jockey added: “I'd like to dedicate that to my grandad, who is not very well, we don't know how much longer he's got, he said he'd love to see me ride a winner at Cheltenham and he has.”

Bristol De Mai failed to shine and is simply not the same horse away from Haydock. Nigel Twiston-Davies said: “I'm disappointed, what else can I say? Something might come of it.”

Anthony Bromley is the racing manager for BDM’s owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He said of the disappointing performance: “We've asked him a few questions and we've found them out. We came here hopeful, but it doesn't look like we've got a Gold Cup horse on that run. He will get an entry to the Grand National on Tuesday, and it might be the National more than the Gold Cup.”

Harry Fry’s American ran a cracker, and the trainer was full of praise, saying: “It was a huge run, I'm absolutely delighted. I was thinking 'here we go again' (when started slowly) but he warmed to the task and relished the conditions. He jumped his way to the front and for a long way I thought he was going to do it. He didn't have a proper run in the Ladbrokes Trophy and maybe that cost us. It was a huge run. He's not in the Gold Cup, but if conditions come up like that we might have to think about supplementing him.”

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In my piece on Friday, I’d plumped for The Last Samuri, but Kim Bailey’s gutsy stayer was never going quick enough to land a serious blow. He stayed on well to finish a close fourth and his trainer seemed happy enough, saying: “He’s never been to Cheltenham before, and better ground would have suited him today. He’s run a proper Grand National trial and all he was doing was staying at the end. He’ll go straight from here to Aintree and fingers crossed he’ll have a great chance.”

The Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle shared main billing and much of the lead-up centred on the tragic death of Richard Woollacott. The young trainer succumbed to mental health issues earlier in the week and Cheltenham Racecourse paid tribute to him with a minute’s silence during the meeting. Beer Goggles had given him his greatest day on the track when taking the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December. He was fancied to go close again but having set the fractions for much of the contest, faded turning for home before finishing fifth.

It was left to Agrapart and Wholestone to battle-out the finish, with the latter travelling powerfully approaching the last. However, when push came to shove it was Lizzie Kelly’s mount that found more for pressure to win by three-lengths. It looked as though Wholestone failed to see-out the three-mile trip, and if mine, I’d be thinking of a crack at the Coral Cup in March rather than the Stayers’. Agrapart may miss the festival, as testing ground is key to his chances. His trainer Nick Williams said: “We haven't even made an entry for March, the ground is so important. There's a 90 per cent chance the ground won't be soft enough, even soft isn't soft enough for him so he's quite hard to place.”

A thrilled and hugely emotional Lizzie Kelly said of the winner: “This horse has helped shape my career, the owners have been so good to me. I'm delighted their faith in me has paid off. They started using me when I was a 10lb claimer. I love riding this horse, as he tries so hard. He travelled so well, I got to the front too soon. Once this horse gets his head in front he doesn't like being beaten.”

Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls were responsible for other notable performances on the card. Apple’s Shakira landed the Triumph Hurdle Trial, though had to work hard to maintain her perfect record. She found plenty up the stamina sapping hill in ground that was plenty testing enough for the lightly framed filly. She remains favourite for a hot renewal in March.

Seven Barrows was also responsible for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle victor Santini. He battled bravely in conditions that clearly didn’t suit, to get up very late and deny the Tom George-trained Black Op. The pair pulled miles clear of a decent field and the winner is now around 10s for both the Ballymore and the Albert Bartlett in March. He’s a stunning individual who should progress into a smashing chaser.

It also proved to be another great day for young Bryony Frost. She rode the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon to a stunning success in a competitive looking Grade Three handicap chase. From the second-last to the line the fast improving six-year-old put 17-lengths between himself and the field. Shantou Flyer came off second best for another outstanding claimer in James Bowen. The pair of young jockeys are making quite a name for themselves.

As for the winning horse, he’s likely to head for the Ryanair at The Festival. Should conditions be in his favour (best in testing ground) he’d be a fair each-way proposition.

Warrior-like performance expected from The Last Samuri

Cheltenham’s Festival Trials Day takes place tomorrow with the prospect of numerous pointers as the main event looms on the horizon.

Apple’s Shakira should prove hard to beat in the Triumph Hurdle Trial. Whilst a hugely competitive field go to post in the Cleeve Hurdle, a renowned trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle at The Festival. Beer Goggles, Wholestone and Finian’s Oscar are all fancied to go close. We’re also likely to see exciting young novice hurdler Santini stretching his legs in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

But it’s the Cotswold Chase that I’ve decided to focus on, ironically a race that rarely shines a light on a live Festival contender.

Many Clouds won last year’s renewal in dramatic fashion, defeating Thistlecrack after a mighty duel. Tragically, the wonderful staying chaser collapsed after the race and was unable to be saved. It was the second success in the Cotswold Chase for the Grand National winner of 2015. A firm favourite with jump racing fans, he’d also won the Hennessy Gold Cup back in 2014. Cheltenham Racecourse are to put on a fitting tribute to the gallant chaser after racing tomorrow.

The Giant Bolster did come close to following up in the Gold Cup having won this in 2014, when finishing a close third to shock winner Lord Windermere. Exotic Dancer was another that almost achieved the double, though that was back in 2007. He hammered Our Vic in the Cotswold Chase before finding Kauto Star too hot to handle in the main event at the festival. Looks Like Trouble was the last to land both races back in 2000.

Bristol De Mai looks the one in tomorrow’s field with the ability to land a blow come March, though he’s on a recovery mission after a tame performance in the King George over Christmas. He’ll have his ground this time (the softer the better), though the test will come as he turns for home and faces the climb to the finish. He ran well for a long way in last year’s Gold Cup on unsuitably quick ground, until mistakes late-on saw him fade to a seventh-place finish. Those jumping errors have proved less costly in testing ground at Haydock, when horses are unable to get away from him. That may prove the same tomorrow, though doubts remain over his ability to get up the hill over this extended trip. He also needs to overcome the shocking record of favourites in the race.

One that will have no problem seeing out the 3m1½f journey is the Grand National contender, The Last Samuri. Last seen running a cracker behind Blaklion in the Becher Chase at Aintree, he was giving the winner 6lbs on that occasion. A son of Flemensfirth, he’ll love testing conditions, and if able to keep tabs on Bristol De Mai he should be finishing to great effect. He’s been hauling top-weight around for some time now and will no doubt appreciate the feel of just 11 stone on his back. He looks a major player in this. 10-year-olds have won five of the last ten renewals, which is another plus for Kim Bailey’s experienced campaigner.

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Experience has proved a major asset in taking this race, with nine-year-olds successful in a further four of the last ten. Definitly Red is another that will love testing conditions and arrives after a decisive victory at Aintree in December. He defeated The Last Samuri back in March, though was in receipt of almost a stone on that occasion. It’s also a concern that he was thrashed at Wetherby by both Bristol De Mai and Blaklion in the Charlie Hall Chase. It’s possible that he’s unable to cope with a step-up in grade and may therefore finished placed at best.

Tea For Two has continued to surprise many when thrown in at the deep end. He was again terrific in the King George, when a close third to Might Bite. He only got as far as the second fence in last year’s Gold Cup and was pulled-up in his only other start at the track. His best performances have tended to come when going right-handed, though he did run a cracker to win the Betway Bowl at Aintree, defeating Cue Card in a thriller. He looks a serious challenger, and there’s a danger that once again punters are underestimating this talented horse. Of the 10 entered, he is rated second only to Bristol De Mai.

Coneygree is once again on a recovery mission and it would take a brave man to side with the one-time top staying chaser. Soft ground will help his cause, as will a return to Prestbury Park, where he’s three from four. It would come as no surprise should he run a belter, but I’m afraid that I am unable to trust him with my hard-earned dosh.

American is also looking to put a poor performance behind him. A talented novice chaser last term, he ran no sort of race when behind early in the Ladbrokes Trophy in December. He’ll also have plenty of competition on the front end, and this looks a tough ask for one so inexperienced. The ground should prove ideal, but this looks an enormous step-up for the eight-year-old. It’s a brave call from trainer Harry Fry, but I can’t see it coming off.

Bristol De Mai does look the most likely winner, but there’s enough question marks that lead me to side with The Last Samuri. A rock-solid performer with a touch of class, he’s the right age, will love the ground, and will be storming home up the famous hill. Tea For Two may prove a greater danger to my selection.

Best of luck to those having a punt and keep that notepad ready for those festival clues.

Clues abound on Festival Trials Day

Saturday’s Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham is often a source of pointers for the main event in March.

The opening Triumph Hurdle Trial went to Defi Du Seuil 12 months ago, and the Philip Hobbs-trained juvenile followed up in the festival’s four-year-old showpiece in impressive fashion. In 2015 the Trials Day opener went to Peace And Co. He too was successful at the festival, though Henderson’s talented hurdler failed to progress, much to everyone’s surprise.

Nicky Henderson is responsible for Saturday’s favourite. Apple’s Shakira has already won twice at the track and is one of the leading contenders for the main event in March. A daughter of Saddler Maker, she’s looked a future star and will have conditions to suit this weekend. She’ll take all the beating.

The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly Neptune) is another that’s likely to reveal leading festival contenders. Wholestone continued his Cheltenham love-affair when winning comfortably a year ago, before a cracking third place finish in the Albert Bartlett some six weeks later. He’s back on Saturday contesting the Cleeve Hurdle.

In 2016 it was Yanworth who romped to success in the trial, before meeting his match at the Festival when chasing home Yorkhill in the Neptune. Back in 2013 a stellar renewal was won by At Fishers Cross. He was chased home by The New One, with Coneygree back in third. Whisper was a distance back in fourth. At Fishers Cross went on to win the Albert Bartlett, whilst The New One landed the Neptune. A couple of years later it was Coneygree’s time to shine, when as a novice chaser he led all the way to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He too is back this weekend contesting the Cotswold Chase.

As for Saturday’s renewal, it’s the master of Seven Barrows that again appears to hold the aces. Henderson has three entered, though Santini and Pacific De Baune look most likely to line up. The former is priced-up as favourite having impressed at Newbury in December. He defeated stablemate Chef Des Obeaux on that occasion, and he has since romped home at Kempton.

The Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle is one of Saturday’s features, and is regularly a pointer to the Stayers’ at The Festival. Unowhatimeanharry was successful 12 months back, though could only manage third behind the ill-fated Nichols Canyon when returning in March. Thistlecrack made no mistake when taking the trial in 2016 before destroying the field in the main event several weeks later. In 2015 it was Saphir Du Rheu that landed the Cleeve, though he too came up just short in the ‘big one’ when runner-up to the surprise package Cole Harden.

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None-other than Big Buck’s was twice successful in the Cleeve Hurdle during his dominant period as leading staying hurdler. Beer Goggles would prove an emotional winner this weekend, following the tragic loss of trainer Richard Woollacott. Cheltenham regular Wholestone is also fancied to go close. The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained seven-year-old comes to life at Prestbury Park.

Another intriguing contender is Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar. He’s back over hurdles after failing to impress over the larger obstacles. There’s no doubting he’s a talented racehorse, but he has plenty to prove, not only his ability to see-out this sort of trip.

The trainer’s son Joe Tizzard, said yesterday: “He's in real good form and runs in the Cleeve on Saturday. He hasn't really done a lot wrong over fences, but he's a young horse and there will be plenty of time to go back chasing with him.”

One race on Saturday that rarely proves insightful with the Festival on the horizon, is the Cotswold Chase. Many Clouds was a thrilling winner 12 months ago, only to collapse and tragically die moments after one of his most memorable victories.

Though competitive, it’s hard to imagine a Gold Cup winner coming from this latest renewal, despite one of the contenders being the highly rated Bristol De Mai. Ground conditions will be in his favour, and should he win well, there’s no doubting he’ll be back on many peoples fancied list for the ‘Blue Riband’ in March. Coneygree looks to get back on track, though punters faith in the ex-champ is shaky at best. The Last Samuri looks an intriguing proposition and receives weight from plenty of his opponents. The Grand National is the target, but he’ll likely run a huge race here.

It’s sure to be a cracking day, with pointers aplenty as The Festival draws ever near.

A Clarence House Cruise – Un De Sceaux Easy

Un De Sceaux cruised to victory in the Clarence House on Saturday and remains at the head of the market for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Willie Mullins-trained chaser was completing a hat-trick of victories, though will rarely find it easier to win at the highest level. The opposition for such a prestigious event was mediocre at best. Decent handicapper Speredek chased him home, whilst Nicky Henderson’s novice, Brain Power, once again failed to spark over the larger obstacles, before coming down two-out. The victor is without doubt an outstanding chaser, but it’s a shame that the record-breaking achievement should come in such a poor renewal.

Speredek did his best to make a race of it. Ridden boldly from the front by Sean Bowen, he maintained a lead until turning for home. Un De Sceaux swept past approaching the second-last, with Brain Power driven to get involved. The latter had jumped erratically throughout, and hit the fence hard, crumpling on landing. The favourite gradually pulled clear for a seven-length success.

Paul Townend was aboard the winner, in the absence of injured Ruby Walsh, and said of the victory: “I rode my horse to suit him, and the further we went the more confident I was getting. It was hard work, but it was job done today. It's great to get the opportunity to ride these horses. I spoke to Ruby (Walsh) this morning. He's always helpful when he's on the sidelines and I'm grateful to Willie and all the owners. He has a massive heart.”

Mullins looked on from Navan and added: “It looks like he's racing a lot more relaxed nowadays which means we can ride him differently. I was very happy with his jumping. I'd be happy enough to go back for the Ryanair Chase after what he did last year. But let’s see what happens with all the other horses first.”

Nico de Boinville felt Brain Power was struggling with his breathing, and the horse will be tested before further plans are made. Connections were made to sweat, as the horse took some time to rise from the tired looking fall. Henderson has said that he thought the horse ‘jumped and travelled great’, but having watched the race again, I find it hard to concur.

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Despite having the size and scope for fences, he’s no natural. At times he makes an ugly shape over the obstacle, and though he remains a novice, and should therefore be judged as such, he has a long way to go if he’s to become competitive at the highest level.

The winner will head to Cheltenham and attempt to defend his crown in the Ryanair, though he’ll have a hell of a lot more on his plate with the likes of Top Notch, Fox Norton and Waiting Patiently in the line-up.

As Un De Sceaux completed a famous trio of victories in the Clarence House, so The New One was landing a stunning four-in-a-row at Haydock, with yet another gutsy success in the Champion Hurdle Trial. The popular hurdler has made this race his own in recent times, and though victory looked unlikely as Ch’Tibello cruised alongside, the Twiston-Davies stable star refused to accept defeat. He’ll now head for the Stayers’ Hurdle in March, whilst I still give the runner-up an each-way chance in the Champion Hurdle. Skelton’s seven-year-old jumped and travelled beautifully throughout before being ‘out-slugged’ by the ultimate slugger. He’ll be no match for Buveur D’Air, but a place finish is up for grabs.

As ever, the winning trainer was full of praise for a horse he so clearly adores, saying: “We know he's not at his best here in heavy ground, but that is the fourth time he's won it now - surely they must name the race after him. He carried a 6lb penalty too, so if they were off level weights he'd have done it comfortably. He appears to be better than ever at the age of 10, which tells you all you need to know about him.

“He's just so tough, we love him and while he'll get an entry in the Champion Hurdle in case the wheels fall off the others, it will be straight to the Stayers' now. He's never been that impressive in this race, in a way that's probably his best win. I've certainly never won the same race four times, never mind a Grade Two. Quite simply he's the horse of a lifetime.”

Shantou can Fly in Ascot Handicap

Finding a race to preview has proved difficult for this weekend. Un De Sceaux only needs to get round to win the The Clarence House Chase at Ascot. Whilst there’s every chance that the Haydock card will be lost to the weather. I’ve eventually come down in favour of the ultra-competitive Bet365 Handicap Chase at Ascot.

It lacks the cachet of a Clarence House or a Peter Marsh, but it’s competitive, and is certain to go ahead. Though Ascot could get a fair amount of rain overnight, the ground is currently described as soft, good to soft in places. The likelihood is that we’ll have testing conditions by the time racing kicks off early on Saturday afternoon.

Seven of the last 10 renewals have been run in testing ground (last year’s meeting lost to frost). Paul Nicholls has won three of those, with two victories coming in the last three. Hauling lumps of weight has surprisingly not proved to be such an issue. Four of the last 10 winners carried more than 11 stone, with Regal Heights in 2008, the last to win off top weight. Royal Regatta came close to repeating the feat in 2016 when runner-up to Dare Me.

Eight-year-olds have the strongest record in recent times, though only just. Dare Me was 12, and horses aged seven and 10 have took their fair share. Experience therefore appears quite important, with only a single six-year-old successful in the last 15 renewals.

That’s quite a concern for race favourite Acting Lass. Harry Fry’s seven-year-old is very lightly raced, with just five outings under rules. He is two from two over fences, with those victories coming in four-runner affairs. He jumped slightly out to his left at Leicester last time, which is another worry. There’s no doubting this fella is talented, and his form stacks up. He’s also proven in the conditions, but there’s enough niggling doubts for me to take him on.

Guitar Pete will look to continue the improvement which saw him land a valuable handicap at Cheltenham last time. Certainly fortunate when Starchitect tragically broke down that day, nevertheless, Nicky Richards has this grey back to his best after several years in the wilderness. It may sound blatantly obvious, but jumping is key to this fella. He’s not the biggest, and can get in close at times. But the ground will certainly aid his chances, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go close.

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Nigel Twiston-Davies is having a terrific winter, especially with his chasers. Almost a 20% strike-rate from 160 runs over fences is a tremendous return for the Cotswold trainer. Robinshill is another that lacks experience with just four outings over fences, though he did have 16 runs over the smaller obstacles. He’s won his last two at Ludlow, though the strength of those victories is more than questionable. This is a whole lot tougher, though the step up in trip is probably in his favour. On the face of it this looks a tough ask. But the trainer has a habit of getting more than most from these young chasers in this type of race.

His neighbour, Fergal O’Brien, is also having a cracking season and has Master Dee entered. He finished a place behind Guitar Pete back in September at Market Rasen, though is far better off at the weights. He’s a consistent sort having never finished out of the first three in 20 career starts under rules. Rarely tried in testing conditions, that may prove an issue. But his handicap mark remains competitive, and his only previous trip to Ascot resulted in a victory over San Benedeto. He’s certainly a major player if lining up.

Shantou Flyer returned to form last time at Cheltenham, and both ground and trip should prove ideal. Mitchell Bastyan is booked to ride, and his 5lb claim could prove crucial. His last run at Ascot was in the Grade One Ascot Chase last February when runner-up to Cue Card. A repeat of that performance would see him right in the mix, and I fancy he’ll run a huge race.

Should the 12 declared make the start line, this should prove a cracking renewal. I’ll be siding with Shantou Flyer for yet another Cotswold trainer, Richard Hobson. If he doesn’t make the start, my cash will switch to the vastly improved Guitar Pete. Still on an upward curve, there’s more to come from the Nicky Richard’s trained eight-year-old.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

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