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Mullins Mare Shows Star Potential

The loss of Thistlecrack from the Gold Cup line-up came as a real bombshell, in a winter that has proved disastrous for ‘Blue Riband’ contenders.

The 2016 winner Don Cossack, had to be retired, and then the 2015 winner Coneygree was ‘pulled’ due to ongoing injury concerns. Each-way prospect Many Clouds tragically died after his sensational win in the Cotswold Chase, and now a potential star of the sport has been struck down.

Colin Tizzard was philosophical as ever when saying: “He had a bit of heat in his leg last night and was a bit sore. We had the leg scanned this morning and he has a slight tear on his tendon. We've seen it at every yard and it happens every year.” The trainer still has the top two in the betting, with Native River now taking over as race favourite.

The setback for Thistlecrack will be particularly galling for jockey Tom Scudamore. The King George success was a special occasion, and he would have been confident of another thrilling spin around Prestbury Park. He said: “It's something that happens in racing unfortunately, look at Willie Mullins this season, he's lost a handful. Even still, it doesn't make it easy to swallow, it makes you feel sick. It's worse for the owners, John and Heather (Snook), and the lads that see him every morning. Look at Olympians, they get their dreams shattered and have to wait four years, hopefully we'll get another chance next season.”

It’s become something of a theme throughout the build-up to this Cheltenham Festival, with the Champion Hurdle suffering a similar amount of upheaval. As in the Gold Cup, the hurdling showpiece has lost its last two winners, with Annie Power and Faugheen both sidelined. Yanworth looked likely to go the staying route but is now a leading contender, whilst Buveur D’Air was sent over fences, and then returned to the smaller obstacles.

Willie Mullins has dominated the Champion Hurdle in recent times, though the loss of his two leading hopes suggested the run of success would end. However, at Punchestown yesterday, we may have witnessed the arrival of a new Closutton contender, with last year’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Limini, running a cracker to defeat Apple’s Jade.

Both Mullins and Ruby Walsh looked stunned by the performance, with the trainer saying: “I don't know what way to take that run, but Apple's Jade is a triple Grade One-winning mare and Ruby never even stirred on our mare - he just gave her a shake-up going to the last. Our mare was coming back after a year off and we've had our troubles trying to get her right. The race conditions didn't suit us and the ground didn't suit us, so we came here thinking it was all in Apple's Jade's favour. She has run a stone better than I thought she would.”

Walsh was also impressed, saying: “We kind of steadied up from the fourth-last, it turned into a bit of a sprint to the last and we always knew she wasn't short of pace. It was a good performance, and onwards and upwards. I'd say she jumped better than last season. She was very slick and very accurate. Fingers crossed she'll come out of the race well and she can start her prep for Cheltenham next week.”

The stable has Vroum Vroum and Let’s Dance for the Mares’ Hurdle at The Festival, and it would come as no surprise if they were to supplement this speedy looking six-year-old to a very open looking Champion Hurdle, as they did with Annie Power 12 months back. VVM has looked a stouter stayer, and I’d anticipate Mullins keeping her to the longer trip. Limini is currently 8/1 with those offering NRNB for the two-mile showpiece.

As always, you pays your money, you takes your chance. And second guessing Team Mullins is never an easy pastime. But in a year when so much has gone wrong for the Closutton stable, yet another Mullins mare shows the potential of delivering further Festival glory.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Let Leopardstown Shine A Light

It should come as no surprise to see that Cheltenham Festival winners tend to take-in high profile meetings at elite tracks en-route to glory in March.

The better racecourses usually hold the more prestigious events, attracting better prize money and thereby tempting leading trainers to send their yards most talented inmates. The Hennessy meeting at Newbury; Betfair Chase Day at Haydock; Christmas at both Kempton and Leopardstown, and Cheltenham’s Trials Day, are just some of those significant events that attract the best that jump racing has to offer.

I had a quick look at where last year’s Festival winners ‘warmed-up’ for the big event, and the usual suspects sat proudly at the top of the pile. Leopardstown led the way, providing four winners, followed by Cheltenham, Kempton, Punchestown and Ascot with three apiece. Smaller tracks cannot be ignored, but more often than not, future Festival heroes will complete their preparation at the likes of Punchestown rather than Plumpton.

And it’s an Irish racecourse that I wish to focus on for today’s Cheltenham Festival piece. Leopardstown host several top-class meetings throughout the winter, with leading trainers such as Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins battling over prestigious and extremely valuable prizes. Their Christmas Festival often shines a light on those with a bright future.

Races include the Lexus Chase, won in previous years by Best Mate, Denman, Synchronised and Bobs Worth. The Ryanair Hurdle (often known as the December Festival Hurdle) is another Christmas highlight, which is targeted by those with outstanding two-mile hurdlers. It has a roll of honour that includes, Istabraq, Brave Inca and Hurricane Fly. And there’s the Racing Post Novices’ Chase which has produced wonderful two-mile chasers, including, Native Upmanship, Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe, and in 2015 Douvan.

The length of time from Leopardstown at Christmas until the Cheltenham Festival in March clearly makes the meeting an unlikely event for final preparation’s, though it has been known. Timing plays a major part in all sport, and having a horse ‘cherry-ripe’ for the Festival is a crucial factor in having any hope of success. That’s sure to be in the minds of connections as they send their best hopes to Leopardstown in early February.

It’s this particular meeting that has provided so many pointers to Cheltenham success in recent years. With several prestigious races on the card, the timing of the event (usually five weeks prior to The Festival) fits in perfectly with those trainers targeting Jump racing’s Olympics.

The Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle usually attracts the best four-year-old’s in Ireland, with an eye on the Triumph Hurdle in March. The race doesn’t always go to plan for the ‘leading lights’, but a Festival winner is likely to be lurking among the contenders. Four of the last five Triumph winners have prepped in this, though only one of those won the Leopardstown race.

Our Conor was that exceptional juvenile, and he romped to victory in Ireland before destroying the best youngsters at Cheltenham in March 2013. His 15-length success was extraordinary, and he looked set to become a star of the sport. Tragedy struck the following March, when a fall in the Champion Hurdle cost him his life.

Last year Ivanovich Gorbatov flopped in unsuitable heavy ground at Leopardstown, but proved a different beast when arriving at Prestbury Park. He defeated Apple’s Jade, Footpad and Let’s Dance in lifting the Triumph Hurdle, under a classy ride from Barry Geraghty.

Tiger Roll finished second to Guitar Pete in the Leopardstown event of 2014, but improved plenty to reverse the form at Cheltenham a month later. And in 2012 it was Countrywide Flame that could only manage third at Leopardstown, before once again reversing Irish form in capturing the main event at Cheltenham. Unaccompanied only just failed in her bid to win the Triumph, when second to Zarkandar in 2011, a month after winning the juvenile hurdle at Leopardstown.

Mega Fortune and Bapaume came first and second in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle a couple of weeks back, and will head to Cheltenham as leading contenders for the Triumph Hurdle. Soft ground possibly suited Gordon Elliott’s runner, though the stiff finish in March will also be in his favour. Bapaume got the better of their encounter at Christmas on a sounder surface, and they look closely matched.

Along with strong recent Triumph clues, Leopardstown in February is host to the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, so often another strong Festival pointer, especially for the Supreme and Neptune. In its time the race has been won by Istabraq, Like-A-Butterfly, Brave Inca, Champagne Fever and Vautour.

The 2016 renewal failed to produce a Cheltenham Festival winner, though Tombstone and Petit Mouchoir ran well in the Supreme, and are now contenders in a wide-open renewal of the Champion Hurdle. In 2015, Nichols Canyon defeated Windsor Park in the Deloitte, but when the two met at Cheltenham it was the latter that gained revenge when winning the Neptune Novices’ with Nichols Canyon back in third.

Vautour and Champagne Fever won the prestigious Leopardstown event in 2014 and 2013, before going on to Supreme Novices’ glory. Willie Mullins was responsible for the first and second home this time around. Bacardys finished powerfully to get the better of the classy looking Bunk Off Early. The former has the potential to go close in the Neptune, whilst the latter is likely to head for the Supreme Novices’.

The Flogas Novice Chase is another that has provided plenty of Festival clues over the years, though has been less fruitful in the last couple of years. In 2013, Lord Windermere came third before going on to take the RSA. Bostons Angel won both in 2011, and Weapon’s Amnesty finished runner-up at Leopardstown before winning the RSA of 2010. In 2009, the winner and runner-up went on to Cheltenham Festival glory, when Cooldine, having won in Ireland went to the Cotswolds to capture the RSA, with Forpadydeplasterer taking the Arkle.

This year’s Flogas looked a classy affair, and though Our Duke will not be heading over to Cheltenham, there’s every chance that Disko will prove a tough nut to crack in either the JLT or the RSA.

Finally, a mention for the Foxhunters at Cheltenham, with the Leopardstown Hunter Chase providing the winner on so many occasions. Indeed, the last five renewals have delivered the last five Festival winners. On The Fringe is a dual winner at Prestbury Park, and the way he ran a couple of weeks back behind Foxrock gives hope of a hat-trick. Prior to him, Tammys Hill and Salsify (twice) completed the double.

Studying the results from Leopardstown’s February meeting has proved fruitful in recent years, and I’ll be hoping that 2017 follows a similar pattern.

Lions run with pride at Haydock

A pair of lions roared at Haydock in the Grand National trial, but it was Vieux Lion Rouge that proved himself ‘King of the jungle’ on this occasion.

Prominent throughout, the winner and his main challenger Blaklion, moved to the head of affairs at the third last. The pair jumped impeccably over the final few fences, pulling well clear of the remainder. David Pipe’s Becher Chase winner came out on top, with the Twiston-Davies RSA winner finishing three lengths adrift. Vieux Lion Rouge was in receipt of a crucial 6lbs from the runner-up, and both will now be aimed at Aintree, where the weight differential is only 3lbs. Pipe’s eight-year-old shot to the head of the betting for the main event in April, whilst Blaklion, somewhat surprisingly to me, can still be backed at 25s.

Pipe was thrilled with the victory, and especially the way the horse pulled out more when pressed over the latter stages. Tom Scudamore was just as thrilled with the win, when saying: “He never used to finish off his races, but running in the National as a novice made a man of him. He was foot-perfect in the Becher and was foot-perfect today. He wasn't the greatest jumper before he ran in the National last year. We can head there with confidence and a few pounds up our sleeves, we hope.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies had anticipated a huge run from Blaklion, and was not disappointed. Sent off favourite, the top weight lost little in defeat, and with his charge 3lbs better off next time, the trainer will be hopeful that positions can be reversed. He sounded bullish when saying: “We'll win the National and forget about being second today. His jumping was spot on at almost every fence and even when he was tired he put himself right, and that's what you need for Aintree.”

This looked a classy renewal, and the way the front pair pulled miles clear of the remainder, despite having plenty of weight to carry, suggests both will be serious players when Aintree comes around.

Age proved no barrier for Cue Card at Ascot, as he disposed of a bunch of handicappers in the Ascot Chase. Some had ‘crabbed’ his King George performance, despite him finishing second to the Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack. There was nothing of that quality in opposition this time around, and he was rightly sent off a short-priced favourite. He demolished the field, and now heads to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham as part of a powerful Colin Tizzard trio. It’s a mouth-watering prospect.

At Wincanton, Yanworth captured the Kingwell Hurdle in workmanlike fashion. Many onlookers appeared unimpressed, and he drifted slightly in the Champion Hurdle market. Nevertheless, the main event at Cheltenham remains a wide-open affair, and Yanworth will be staying on strongly at the finish. His jumping may need to improve, though Petit Mouchoir looks the only horse likely to be stretching the field from the front. He remains a serious player in my eyes, and Barry Geraghty has a tough decision to make when choosing between him and race favourite Buveur D’Air.

Lions to Roar in Haydock Trial

The Grand National weights were announced earlier in the week, and tomorrow Haydock host a Grade 3 trial over a gruelling trip of three and a half miles.

Run since 1947, with a short break in the 80s, the race tends to attract quality stayers, though doesn’t necessarily prove the best guide to the main event at Aintree. Moreover, the prevalent testing conditions tend to attract horses more suited to the Welsh National, held in mid-winter at an often, boggy Chepstow.

Nevertheless, several have run here after, or prior to, an assault on Aintree, with Neptune Collonges the most recent. He failed by a neck to take the trial in 2012, before winning a thrilling Grand National by the smallest of margins just a couple of months later. Mon Mome finished down the field here in 2009, before his incredible 100/1 shock victory in the ‘greatest steeplechase’.

In 1993 Party Politics captured the trial, though he somewhat put the cart before the horse, having won the Grand National the year before. And the greatest of them all, Red Rum, won the Haydock event in 1975, smack in the middle of his incredible period of Aintree success.

Other notable winners include Young Kenny, who went on to win the Midlands National and then the Scottish National, with all three victories coming in a two-month period. Master Oats captured this as an eight-year-old, before going on to win the Welsh National and then the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And Cool Ground landed the same trio between 1990 and 1992.

That’s something of a snapshot of the history of the event, but serves to show the quality that is often required to be victorious here. And Saturday’s renewal looks a particularly strong affair, with several progressive types taking to the start.

There’s likely to be 14 runners, with last year’s RSA winner, Blaklion, heading the weights. He’s yet to enter the winners’ enclosure this winter, though this severe stamina test looks sure to suit. His run in the Hennessy looks a particularly strong piece of form, thanks in the main to the subsequent exploits of Native River. Rumour has it, that the ground may be no worse than good to soft on Saturday. That should be fine for the Twiston-Davies contender, though more rain wouldn’t harm his chances.

A pair of top-weights have won the race in the past 10 years. In all, five of the last 10 winners have carried 11 stone or more. Sue Smith’s Wakanda is next in the weights, and looked to be back to form when second to Definitly Red at Wetherby last time. That was a terrific performance, but my gut feeling is that this marathon test may stretch his stamina. He’s a very ‘forward going’ type, and I can see him wilting late on. I could be wrong, and 16s does look a generous price.

Vicente will certainly appreciate the trip, having won the Scottish National last April. He also ran well in last year’s National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham, but has proved disappointing so far this winter. He appears to need better ground to be at his best, though having got it last time at Doncaster, still ran like a drain. He’s a tough one to trust, though it would come as no surprise were he to run a huge race.

Vieux Lion Rouge looks sure to go well. He won the Becher Chase in December, and has a course victory to his name. He ran well for a long way in the Grand National last April when only a seven-year-old, and this trip should prove ideal. I’d be surprised if he didn’t go close.

Along with Wakanda, Sue Smith saddles Vintage Clouds, ridden by the prolific Brian Hughes. Seven-year-olds don’t have the best of records, but this fella was running a cracker last time when coming down at the third from home in the Peter Marsh. He’ll probably need more rain if he is to have a realistic chance, but he’s on an attractive handicap mark, and could go well.

Kerry Lee took the race last year, when Bishops Road coped with demanding conditions better than the rest. Goodtoknow takes his chance this year, though the progressive nine-year-old has been particularly busy of late. He was runner-up in the Betfred Classic at Warwick a month ago, and just a couple of weeks back won a handicap chase in heavy ground at Hereford. The Grand National in April is the target, and this may come a little soon after recent exertions.

Eight and nine-year-olds have the strongest record in recent times, and it’s several eight-year-olds that I expect to be battling out the finish tomorrow. Though I fear Vicente, especially if the ground runs no worse than good to soft, his poor run of form puts me off. His odds of 20/1 are extremely attractive, but this race tends to go to those showing strong recent form, and so I nervously ignore Nicholls’ contender.

Much the same can be said for Wakanda, though his run at Wetherby last time shows that he is at least returning to form. His odds of 16s make him an each-way proposition, and he’s another that I tentatively bypass.

I’m more than hopeful that it’s a pair of lions that will be scrapping over the valuable prize. I take Blaklion to get the better of Vieux Lion Rouge, and the pair to then contract considerably in the Grand National market. Both are currently available at 25s for the ‘big one’ at Aintree in April. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Flash Gordon’s a Handicap Cert

Involved in an epic duel for the Irish Trainers Championship, Gordon Elliott is having a season to remember.

With a stable full of talent, he’s been capturing prestigious prizes throughout the winter, and now has his sights set on the spring festivals. Victories have certainly not been confined to handicaps, but it is a sphere that he excels, and when looking forward to Cheltenham in March, a decent Elliott handicap haul seems likely.

Diamond King did the business at Prestbury Park last March, when winning the Coral Cup at odds of 12/1. Given a cool ride by Davy Russell, he swept to the front at the last to win comfortably. Elliott also struck with Festival regular, Cause Of Causes. Winning for the second time at Cheltenham’s showpiece, he’s a horse to follow at the ‘Home Of Jump Racing’. On this occasion, it was victory in the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase. He didn’t just win it, he romped to a 12-length success at an attractive price of 9/2. He could turn up in the Cross Country this time, and had a spin round on Trials Day at the end of January.

Taglietelle, Bless The Wings and Noble Endeavor all went close to adding valuable handicap prizes at the Festival in 2015, and in 2014 Bayan and especially Cause Of Causes, were unlucky not to hit the bullseye for Elliott and his team.

There’s little doubt that Ireland’s current leading trainer will be sending a battalion across the Irish Sea for an assault on graded races as well as handicaps. Outlander is fancied to go well in the Gold Cup, and over the weekend Mega Fortune looked every inch a realistic contender for the Triumph Hurdle.

Arguably the yard’s leading Cheltenham hope is Death Duty, who looks likely to head for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. We’ve not seen him since early January, but he’s looked one of Ireland’s best novice hurdlers over the winter. Apple’s Jade is another with a leading chance to scoop a major pot in the Cotswolds. She’s top class, and is likely to contest the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, where she’ll probably clash with Vroum Vroum Mag.

But back to the handicaps, and a host of potential challengers for honours. It was interesting to see A Toi Phil back among the ‘big boys’ at Leopardstown. There’s no doubting that this fella is a touch below top-class, but he remains reasonably handicapped going forward. Better ground at Cheltenham will not be ideal, but he coped well enough when winning a valuable handicap at Leopardstown last month. The stiff finish at Prestbury Park may well make a trip around two and a half miles ideal.

Another novice chaser that looks to be on a fair mark is Ball D’Arc. He won at Fairyhouse in January, and has now had eight runs over fences since September 2016. The Grand Annual looks a realistic proposition, and he is currently best-priced 16s for the festival finale.

Mick Jazz lowered the colours of highly touted Cilaos Emery last time at Punchestown, and rather than a shot at the Supreme, Elliott hinted at the County Hurdle for this progressive son of Blue Bresil. The stallion is responsible for Le Prezien and Ibis Du Rheu, the latter a winner at The Festival last year. He looked particularly tough and gutsy last time out, and should Elliott let him take his chance in the County, he would surely have a great chance.

Another pair of novice hurdlers that I’ll be keeping a close eye on are The Storyteller and Runfordave. I fancy both are just short of Grade 1 standard, but should they line-up in something such as the Coral Cup, they’d be just the type to go close. Neither is short of speed, and both have been pitched against the best over the winter. They both hold entries in the Albert Bartlett, but may be just short of the class needed to capture that one.

It will come as no surprise to see Gordon Elliott having his most successful Cheltenham Festival to date, but as ever it’s finding the winners that is the difficult part. He has a powerful team at all levels, and though there’s no Don Cossack this time round, that shouldn’t stop the Co. Meath trainer from having a fabulous four days.

River Romp for Newbury Native

Native River proved far too classy for his rivals in the Denman Chase, and heads to Cheltenham as a leading contender for the Gold Cup. Regular pilot Richard Johnson, was struck down with the flu, but ‘supersub’ Aidan Coleman followed the pre-race plan to perfection, and Tizzard’s young chaser controlled the race from start to finish.

In both the Hennessy and the Welsh National, Native River was ‘hanging-on’ a little at the finish, hence a slightly more conservative approach was tested, with Coleman stepping on the gas later in the race. Native River responded stylishly, scooting clear of Le Mercurey, and the slightly disappointing Bristol De Mai.

Colin Tizzard said of the winner: “I only think he (Coleman) asked him coming down to the second last. He just nursed him along. It showed he was a bit classier. In his last two races, he went a few lengths clear four out and just held on. We wanted to ride him a little differently and have that finishing spurt at the end and it's worked brilliantly. He's gone away at the line.”

Bristol De Mai was ridden patiently by Daryl Jacob, but the tactic appeared to backfire when he was unable to match the finishing kick of the winner. He’s likely to be made more use of when getting to Cheltenham, which in-turn may well help his jumping. It’s possible of-course, that he is simply not quite good enough when up against elite stayers. Nigel Twiston-Davies wasn’t giving up hope, when saying: “He was never at the races. We've got five weeks to get him ready for the Gold Cup and, all being well, that will be long enough to get him back shining.”

The trainer’s day improved considerably, with Ballyandy landing the valuable Betfair Hurdle in a thrilling finish. The race turned into a head-to-head with Movewiththetimes, and as the pair pulled clear heading for the last both jockeys waited for the moment to strike. And it was Sam Twiston-Davies that came off best, as his partner had a little more zip than Barry Geraghty’s.

“He's been unlucky and hasn't won any of the races we thought he would. What a consolation!” said the winning trainer. “He'll go to Cheltenham now. He's in the Supreme and the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and we'll see how both races are panning out. I don't think he'll have any problem with the trip of the Neptune, so we've got that option if we want it.”

The winning jockey praised his willing equine partner: “I had a smooth passage. He didn't jump as well as I might have liked down the back, but in the straight he came alive. I got there sooner than I would have liked, but with his cruising speed it just happened and he has a good turn of foot.”

It’s impossible to review Newbury without mentioning Nicky Henderson’s latest star, Altior. He took on more experienced chasers in the Game Spirit, and duly demolished them. Allowed to stride-out in front by Nico De Boinville, the young chaser was scintillating at his fences, and powered clear down the home straight. The finishing time was impressive, and it’s hard to imagine anything getting close when he heads for the Arkle at Cheltenham. Fox Norton ran with great credit on his return from injury, and may be the one to give Douvan a race in the Champion Chase next month.

Yesterday at Leopardstown, Sizing John stepped out from the shadows of Douvan, to capture the Irish Gold Cup. Up in trip, he travelled like a dream and stayed on powerfully to stave off a pair of Gigginstown chasers, and probably book his place in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. “He was brilliant,” said a thrilled Jess Harrington.

“It's fantastic to have a horse like that for Alan and Ann (Potts, the owners), who has finished so close to Douvan on many occasions. That was his first time over three miles and he jumped, travelled and did everything we had hoped he would. Once he went past two and a half miles we knew he was into unknown territory, but we fully expected he would stay three miles and he did.

“I'd say we'll be going for the Gold Cup. I don't know, as I haven't spoken to Alan and Ann yet,” Harrington added.

The likely clash with Tizzard’s trio will no doubt prove an interesting and probably amusing talking point, for connections and trainers as the ‘big day’ approaches, with the Potts’ now such high-profile patrons at the Dorset stable.

Expect a Ballyandy Blitz in the Betfair

With prize money of £155,000, the Betfair Hurdle is the most valuable handicap hurdle in the UK.

Nicky Henderson has won more than any other trainer, though My Tent Or Yours was his only winner in the last 10 renewals. Having lost his major hope, Consul De Thaix to injury, his hopes now rest with top-weight Hargam. Though classy he’s struggled this winter in handicaps, and it’s hard to see that changing tomorrow.

Younger horses have an outstanding record, with five and six-year-olds dominant. The Nick Williams trained Agrapart, ridden by Lizzie Kelly, took the event 12 months ago, taking the number of winning five-year-olds to half a dozen in the last 10 years.

Paul Nicholls has the only five-year-old in the field. Zubayr was a classy juvenile, and ran well in a handicap at Sandown in December. The handicapper has given him a chance by dropping the gelding 3lbs, and he’s likely to go well again, though I’d be surprised if he was quite good enough to win.

Those having a punt would usually be wise to avoid horses at the top end of the weights, with only three of the last 10 carting more than 11 stone to victory. The aforementioned My Tent Or Yours was one of those, when carrying 11-02 in 2013 and the year before Zarkandar won with 11-01 on his back. The handicap is a little more compressed this year, and ignoring those at the top end may prove unwise.

It often helps to have handicap experience to win these type of races, but that’s no longer the case with the Betfair Hurdle. Of the last seven renewals, five have gone to novices. So, which of the 16 declared for tomorrow’s main event, have an appealing profile?

Clyne is at the peak of his powers and will appreciate the testing conditions. The New One was all-out to beat him last time at Haydock, and he hammered Verni a couple of runs back, with that form taking a boost at Taunton in the week. He’s a gutsy sort, and though he’s having to lump 11-9, I’m struggling to discount him. He’s also the wrong age and has far too much experience to win on recent trends. But my gut tells me he’ll go close.

Wait For Me is a horse I like, though he’s yet to achieve what appeared likely when he finished third in the Champion Bumper of 2015. He’s closely matched with William H Bonney on their Cheltenham run last time, but is twice the price at 16s. He likes Newbury, and he’ll enjoy the testing conditions. He’s another ‘trends buster’ at seven, but despite his age I fancy he’ll run a huge race.

Movewiththetimes and Ballyandy also appear closely matched, on the evidence of their run behind Moon Racer at Cheltenham in November. I’m convinced that both need further, but the ground will help. They both fit the profile, and are likely to be fighting for favouritism on Saturday. Of the two, I’d come out in favour of Ballyandy, especially in the conditions. He looks a tough sort, but has a touch of class.

Yet another I find myself drawn to, that has completely the wrong profile, is eight-year-old Gassin Golf. He likes Newbury, and ran a cracker at the track in November. That was in a two-and-a-half-mile handicap, which clearly stretched his stamina. This minimum trip is ideal, and he has bits of form that make his current handicap mark look particularly attractive. Kerry Lee’s horses go well in the mud, and I think his price of 25s is generous.

It’s slightly disappointing that such a valuable handicap has only attracted 16 runners, but the low turnout has not made the event any easier to predict. The betting appears to have it about right, and certainly the key trends point towards Movewiththetimes and Ballyandy. I’m coming out in favour of the latter, to give Nigel Twiston-Davies his second win in four years. I expect Clyne to go very close, and I’ll be putting a few quid each-way on Gassin Golf to sneak a place. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Festival Jocks with Added Value

It’ll come as no surprise should Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty land the ‘Top Jock’ spot at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

It’s been a tough winter for Willie Mullins and the team, but despite the well documented setbacks, he will head to the Cotswolds with a powerful team, and Ruby will get the leg-up on a host of talented beasts. Geraghty too, will find himself spoilt for choice, as he selects from a plethora of JP McManus contenders. Winners are virtually guaranteed, but value will often be hard to find.

Two jockeys that have found plenty of Festival success in recent years, and that are more likely to give the punter a decent return for his or her hard-earned cash, are Ireland’s Davy Russell, and Gloucestershire’s Tom Scudamore.

The latter is having another solid season, with every chance of making the top five in the Jockeys Championship. He’s spent much of the campaign riding for David Pipe and Colin Tizzard, and is given the enormous responsibility of guiding Thistlecrack to the pinnacle of the chasing division.

For much of the winter, ‘Scu’ has played down the pressure of such a task, and instead highlighted the thrill of being able to partner such a wonderful racehorse. He rode a perfect race at Kempton when capturing the King George, and in fairness did little wrong in defeat at Cheltenham last time. Nevertheless, flying down the hill towards the third last in the Gold Cup is sure to set the heart racing, and his decision making will need to be precise if he is to steer Tizzard’s star to success.

Scudamore landed the World Hurdle on Thistlecrack at last year’s Festival, adding to his win earlier in the week aboard Pipe’s Un Temps Pour Tout. The latter took the Ultima Handicap Chase at odds of 11/1. He also had a couple of third-place finishes during the week, on-board Kings Palace and Champers On Ice at prices of 11/1 and 20/1 respectively.

The Cheltenham Festival of 2015 brought success on Moon Racer and Next Sensation. The latter was an emotional victory on the horse trained by his brother Michael, whilst Moon Racer is a fancied runner for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in March.

In 2014 Scudamore bagged a trio of triumphs when winning on Western Warhorse, Dynaste and Ballynagour. The latter won at 12s whilst Western Warhorse shocked Champagne Fever in the Arkle Chase at 33/1.

Thistlecrack, Moon Racer, Champers On Ice and Starchitect, are just a sample of the exciting rides available to Scudamore at Cheltenham in March, and it looks likely that he will once again be ‘booting-in’ some high profile winners.

Davy Russell is another top-class jockey with Cheltenham Festival pedigree. Losing the top job at Gigginstown to Bryan Cooper could easily have had a hugely damaging effect on a lesser jock. But Russell rolled up his sleeves, and continues to be one of the most sort-after riders in the business.

Always with a full book of rides, he has spent much of the winter flitting between the likes of Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead, and Jess Harrington. He’s had a couple of jaunts over to Prestbury Park during the campaign, and ridden for Rebecca Curtis and Nicky Henderson. He got the leg-up on progressive chaser Shantou Flyer a few weeks back, and may well be in line to maintain the partnership at the Festival.

Last year, wins on Diamond King and Mall Dini at odds of 12s and 14/1 showcased his undoubted talent. He came mighty close to steering Fagan to victory in the Albert Bartlett at 33/1, and was again runner-up on-board Arthur Moore’s Dandridge in the Grand Annual.

In 2015 Russell had a pair of victories on the Wednesday of the meeting, steering home Windsor Park and Rivage D’Or. Both rides were exquisite.

Back in 2014, he had possibly his finest success, when getting up in the shadow of the post to win the Gold Cup aboard Lord Windermere. That victory formed part of a treble on the day, with further success on Savello and Tiger Roll. 20/1, 16/1 and 10s were the generous winning odds.

It’s inevitable that Russell will have the leg-up on a number of fancied Gigginstown contenders. But also expect him to partner his share of Tony Martin handicappers, along with a handful for De Bromhead, Harrington, Curtis and Henderson. He rode William Henry to a second place finish on Cheltenham’s Trials Day, and with the firepower at Seven Barrows disposal looks sure to pick up a number of decent spares.

His skills are in demand, and his ability to guide a horse through traffic, and deliver it at just the right moment, is possibly second to none. If Tony Martin’s Mydor heads over to the Cotswolds, and Russell keeps the ride, I’ll be selling the family heirlooms to ‘lump on’.

Both Russell and Scudamore are jockeys to keep on-side during the ‘Greatest Show’, though plucking those all-important gems from the also-rans, as ever, will prove the toughest task.

He Who D’Airs – Henderson Switch Pays Off

Nicky Henderson shuffled the pack before playing a pair of aces at Sandown on Saturday.

Early in the week, Buveur D’Air looked set to contest the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, before heading for a shot at the JLT at Cheltenham. But after a change of heart, he was switched to the smaller obstacles, and duly strolled to victory in the Contenders Hurdle. That left the Munir and Souede owned Top Notch to step in, and out-class the opposition in the Grade 1 showpiece.

He’s certainly not the biggest, but that hasn’t stopped Top Notch from being extremely slick and accurate at his fences. He made one mistake out the back, but otherwise put in an immaculate round of jumping. Always travelling powerfully, Daryl Jacob held on to his mount until the last, before sweeping past Baron Alco and pulling five lengths clear. The disappointment of the race was Clan Des Obeaux, who having been sent off a short-priced favourite, failed to cope with the intensity of the event. His jumping became ragged, and he ultimately faded tamely to finish last of the five runners.

Daryl Jacob and connections were winning the Scilly Isles for the third consecutive year, and the jockey said: “It was a great performance. That was a real test for him. He's not the biggest in the world but he makes up for it with his heart. He deserves it. He's very, very consistent and he always tries his heart out. This was a big step and it told us a lot.”

An emotional Nicky Henderson said of the winner: "This is a real favourite. He's nearer a pet than a racehorse. He came as a juvenile hurdler and I thought that was all he ever would be. He had a good year last year. He won the Morebattle (Kelso) and was fifth in the Champion, and had nowhere to go so we tried him over a fence. He was beaten first time out, and then we found him two lovely, easy races, and you could see him grow in stature and confidence. Daryl says the two and a half miles suits him well. It will probably be the JLT he'll go for at Cheltenham.”

Top Notch is now widely available at 7/1 for the JLT, with connections having finished second in the race 12 months ago, thanks to Bristol De Mai.

Earlier in the day Buveur D’Air had put his Champion Hurdle credentials to the test, and ran-out an easy winner of the Contenders Hurdle. In truth, only Irving looked to be any sort of meaningful opposition, and Nicholls’ hurdler is far from reliable. He had one of his off days, which left Rayvin Black alone in the task of stretching Henderson’s classy youngster. Oliver Sherwood’s eight-year-old did his best from the front, but Barry Geraghty cruised alongside just yards from the post, winning ‘hard-held’ by a length and a half.

Buveur D’Air was a classy novice hurdler, finishing third in the Supreme before beating Petit Mouchoir at Aintree. He forms part of a JP McManus double-act heading for the Champion Hurdle in March, along with Alan King’s Yanworth. Geraghty will have a tough decision to make as the opening day of the Festival draws near. Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “He did it well. He was very slick over his hurdles. He was a bit sticky at the first, but after that he did it well. The ground is tough, but he obviously did it easily.” And when asked if the horse was a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, Geraghty added: “You'd like to think so.”

Henderson spoke of the winner, and of the switch to hurdles, saying: “I think that has earned him his (Cheltenham) ticket. He's done nothing wrong over fences, but he is very good at this and very talented. I thought it was worth a shot and he had to do what he did. We didn't learn a lot, I just think at this stage of his life he might just be a sharper hurdler than chaser.”

The trainer added: “Barry said he can make a length or two over hurdles with him but not so over fences. He is very quick, slick and pacey. He likes soft ground, but good ground will be fine. It was good enough ground in the Supreme last year, but they just all got first run on him. With a bit of luck, he would have finished second and anything that finishes second to Altior is a good horse.”

Henderson has an outstanding Cheltenham Festival record. Performances at Sandown show that Seven Barrows are assembling another powerful squad that will head to the Cotswolds in March.

Top Notch the type for Sandown Test

Best Mate was the most famous winner of Sandown’s Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, back in 2001.

The three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was a short-priced favourite, when cruising to a stylish victory. Foot and mouth put-paid to the Festival that year, and to Best Mate’s hopes of an Arkle Chase success. But the young chaser was to develop into one of the greats, taking Cheltenham’s ‘Blue Riband’ three years in a row.

Paul Nicholls enjoyed a dominant period in the race from 2006 until 2009. It’s fair to say that none of the winners shot to fame, though Silverburn went on to finish fourth in the RSA behind Albertas Run.

In three of the last season renewals, the prize has gone to Nicky Henderson. Punchestowns, Captain Conan and Oscar Whisky were all classy types, though again, none of the trio hit the heights over fences. The 2010 winner Punchestowns, looked to have a bright future over the larger obstacles, winning this race in stunning fashion before heading to Cheltenham and a tilt at the RSA. Sent off a 2/1 favourite, he faded tamely out of contention, finishing a hugely disappointing fifth behind Weapon’s Amnesty.

The last two renewals of the Scilly Isles have gone to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. The pair were responsible for Gitane Du Berlais in 2015 and Bristol De Mai 12 months ago. The latter was a stunning winner at Haydock last month and is now viewed by many as a serious Gold Cup contender. Connections are responsible for one of Saturday’s fancied runners, when they team up with Nicky Henderson and the six-year-old Top Notch.

The master of Seven Barrows will have been pleased with the progress made by his young chaser. Third on debut at Uttoxeter, he has won his last three, and proved a step-up in trip was no issue when winning at Ascot last time. That effort at a right-hand track can only enhance his chances here, and he’s always proved adaptable to ground conditions. He’s not the biggest, but has been neat over his fences thus far. He’s a gutsy sort, with a touch of class, and should go well.

Paul Nicholls has plenty entered, though appears to be favouring Clan Des Obeaux. He looked a little unfortunate to lose out to Whisper at Cheltenham last time, when meeting the second last fence wrong and losing momentum. He’s a big, raw looking five-year-old, who looks sure to improve over time. He’s won twice since arriving in the UK, and both victories came at Newbury. It’s likely that the flat galloping track suits him at this stage of his development, and how he copes with the railway fences will be of interest. He may well prove the best of these in the long-term, but at some stage on Saturday, his ability to shorten-up into a fence will undoubtedly be tested.

Le Prezien is currently third best in the betting, and should Nicholls allow him to take his chance, he’ll prove an interesting contender. He chased home Yorkhill at Aintree in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle in April, and has coped well with the switch to the larger obstacles. Just ahead of Top Notch in the Uttoxeter race, he has won his last two, though both at a shorter trip than this. He’s looked capable of going further, though jumped slightly to his left at Exeter last time, which clearly would be less than ideal here.

Baron Alco looks likely to take his chance for local trainer Gary Moore. He has two wins over fences at Plumpton to his name, and has also finished behind Whisper this winter. He’s likely to make the running, and has been neat at his fences thus far. He’s not exceptional, but he’s no mug, and I’d expect him to put up a bold show. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he didn’t find one of these a little too good for him.

In a competitive renewal, I’m coming down in favour of Top Notch. I fancy that Clan Des Obeaux will prove a long-term project, and that Henderson’s chaser will be a little more battle-hardened. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

McManus Launches Champion Hurdle Assault

The JP MCManus decision to switch Buveur D’Air from fences back to hurdles came as quite a surprise, though it shouldn’t have.

Nicky Henderson’s talented youngster looked sure to be heading for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, but suddenly finds himself a live Champion Hurdle contender. JP clearly believes that the Mullins contingent are vulnerable, and now is the time to attack with everything at his disposal.

Binocular in 2010, and Jezki in 2014 are the most recent winners of the Champion Hurdle to carry the famous Green and Gold silks, though it was Istabraq who famously carried the colours to a hat-trick of victories from 1998 to 2000.

This year’s Champion Hurdle is starting to resemble 2014’s, when McManus sent Jezki, My Tent Or Yours and Captain Cee Bee into battle against the Mullins favourite Hurricane Fly, and a young unexposed The New One. On that occasion, Jess Harrington’s charge defeated the more fancied My Tent Or Yours in a thrilling finish, with the ‘Captain’ back in fifth. ‘The Fly’ was then a 10-year-old, and though I hesitate to say it, was probably somewhat past his best. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that The New One was outpaced by the front two before staying on for a third-place finish. Understandably, Mr Twiston-Davies has a different opinion.

The field for this year’s renewal continues to evolve. Annie Power met with a setback and will not be there, and Mullins, though sounding confident, must be a little concerned over the wellbeing of Faugheen. The Champion Hurdle favourite, and winner from 2015, has not been seen on a racecourse for more than a year, and missed his intended return last weekend after a slight muscle issue. Chances are that he will now head directly to Cheltenham in March, without a prep-run. He’s a ‘tank’ of a horse, and is known to improve for a run or two.

It’s hard to believe that Faugheen will arrive on the opening day of the festival firing on all cylinders. The question is whether a 90% primed ‘Machine’ will be enough to repel a McManus assault.

Yanworth was expected to deliver the sternest challenge, having impressed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Alan King’s seven-year-old was due to run at Sandown this weekend, but has also met with a minor setback and may also now head straight to the Festival. In his ‘Weekender’ column, King, writing before the injury came to light, said: “He could have gone straight to Cheltenham, but he’s had only two races this season, and it’s a long time from the Christmas Hurdle to the Champion. It will do him no harm to have a bit more match practice.”

Unfortunately, yesterday JP McManus' racing manager Frank Berry announced: “He's just met with a small problem. He's tweaked a muscle in behind, it's nothing serious but he can't run this weekend. Hopefully it won't take too long to come right and we can get going with him again. Whether he runs again we'll just have to play it by ear, he could go straight to Cheltenham.” Again, by no means ideal, but at least Yanworth has had a couple of runs this winter.

In his absence, it looks like Buveur D’Air will now head to Sandown for the Contenders Hurdle. It was anticipated that Henderson’s hurdler, turned chaser, turned hurdler, would head north to Kelso in a couple of weeks, but a rather busy Frank Berry announced: “Obviously Buveur D'Air is in at Sandown, so it's still an option. We'll see how he is in the morning and we'll come to a decision then I'd imagine. Nicky had mentioned taking him up to Kelso, so we'll just see.”

On Twitter Henderson tweeted: “Change of plan! With Yanworth not going to Sandown, Buveur will now head there instead. Lots of chopping & changing this week!”

A trip to Sandown means that Henderson now has the top two in the market, with Brain Power already an intended runner. An impressive winner at Ascot prior to Christmas, I’m a huge fan of the horse, but this will come as a major test. He’s bred to become a chaser, and certainly has the physique to excel in that sphere. I’m not sure he’ll possess the speed to cope with Buveur D’Air on Saturday.

Decisions made by McManus have certainly given the Champion Hurdle picture a shake. In Nicky Henderson and Alan King, he has trainers that know how to win the main event in March. A McManus-Mullins clash is on, and let’s just hope that all the main contenders now arrive at the start on a thrilling opening day of the Festival.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – ‘Jonjo Joy’ a Festival Feature

Though his monopoly in Ireland has come under threat this winter, chances are that Willie Mullins will again dominate at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

Finding value in a Mullins contender is never easy, with his battalion often going off at restrictive prices. His Supreme Novice Hurdle contender, Melon, is a perfect example. The horse made his hurdling debut a few days back, beating an ordinary field in a 13 runner maiden. Though admittedly visually impressive, he’s now as short as 3/1 to take the Festival opener. The price is based on reputation rather than racecourse performances, and the handler’s outstanding Prestbury Park record of-course.

Success at Cheltenham for Mullins is pretty much nailed-on, but the same cannot be said for any other trainer. Many will be travelling to the Cotswolds full of hope, dreaming of that ‘big win’ on jump racing’s greatest stage. Anyone who doubts the magnitude of such a win should watch the reaction of trainers and owners as they return victorious to the winners’ enclosure during those fabulous four days.

One handler that knows the feeling all too well is Jonjo O’Neill. And he’s become something of a master at plotting the path to success, despite his team often looking to be ‘out of sorts’. He’s lifted major prizes at Cheltenham over the years, including the Gold Cup in 2012 with 8/1 shot Synchronised.

Jonjo’s had a steady flow of Festival winners since the turn of the century. Iris’s Gift was a hugely talented hurdler, finishing second in the Stayers’ of 2003 as a novice, before returning a year later to gain revenge on the mighty French hurdler Baracouda. Rated as high as 173 over the smaller obstacles, it came as a surprise when the powerful grey failed to make an impact over fences.

Though Black Jack Ketchum ultimately failed to reach the lofty heights many had anticipated, his victory in the Albert Bartlett of 2006, then the Brit Insurance, was possibly one of the most eye-catching the festival has seen for many a year. Travelling like a Ferrari among a field of Ford Fiestas, he cruised past his rivals, before scooting clear to win by nine lengths. AP McCoy’s face could not disguise the thrill of the ride on the wonderfully talented gelding.

McCoy had the pleasure of winning aboard Wichita Lineman and Albertas Run in the following years, with the latter winning three times at the Cheltenham Festival. In 2012 Synchronised captured the Gold Cup, and two years later, Jonjo celebrated a trio of festival winners, with Holywell, Taquin Du Seuil and More Of That.

The latter looked set to dominate the sport after his stunning success in the World Hurdle. That victory came as a raw six-year-old, and in More Of That, Jonjo appeared to have a future superstar. Unfortunately, injury struck during the following campaign, and despite finishing third in the RSA last March, the horse hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle over fences. Nevertheless, he remains a horse to follow when running at Cheltenham, having won four times at the ‘home of jump racing’. His festival target is yet unknown, but he should not be discounted.

Taquin Du Seuil is another with festival pedigree, though he’ll find it tough in March. Despite looking like a horse that needed mud in his youth, his better performances in recent times have come on a sounder surface. His jumping remains an issue, but given a clear round in either the Ryanair or the Gold Cup, he remains an each-way proposition. He ran pretty well in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and is as big as 66/1 for the ‘Blue Riband’.

Holywell has the look of a Jonjo plot, with a handicap mark almost back to the festival winning level of 2014. Expect him to run in the opening day Grade 3 handicap chase. He won it in 2014, and finished runner-up 12 months ago. A pair of 10-year-olds have won the race in the past decade, he could be the third.

He may well line-up against stable companion Beg To Differ, who was last seen running a cracker in the Welsh National. His last run at Cheltenham was poor, but he was second at the track in January 2016, and is on a competitive handicap mark. Still only a seven-year-old, he looks a progressive sort.

Another young chaser who looks to be heading in the right direction, is the JP McManus owned Another Hero. He’s a dour stayer, and was last seen finishing third in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. He came down in the Irish National last March, and may well be one for the Scottish version in April. If he arrives at Cheltenham, the Fulke Walwyn Handicap Chase looks a possibility, a race the yard won with Sunnyhillboy in 2012. Jonjo had three in the race last year, with Upswing the best of the finishers.

Doesyourdogbite was a little disappointing last time in the Lanzarote at Kempton. He was sent off favourite for the race, but never looked like winning, staying on late for a sixth-place finish. He’s won three of his four hurdle starts, and may well still prove competitive off his current mark, if taking his chance at The Festival. Two and a half miles with a stiff finish may be ideal.

Finally, the horse that maintained Jonjo’s impressive festival record a year ago. Minella Rocco looks set to test his Gold Cup credentials when he goes to Leopardstown in a couple of weeks. He’s fancied to go well in the Irish version, though this will be only his third outing of the winter, following his fall at Aintree behind the ill-fated Many Clouds in December. He won the National Hunt Chase at last year’s festival, beating Native River in the process. That form looks a lot stronger now. I’ve watched that race several times since, and it’s noticeable just how powerfully he travels into contention. He could be a real contender in March, assuming he jumps well enough.

It’s been a tough season to date for Jonjo and his team, with a current strike-rate of just 10%. Don’t be too surprised however, should the master of Jackdaws Castle be stood in the winners’ enclosure during the biggest four days of the Jump racing calendar.

Dark Clouds Cast Shadow Over Cheltenham

Jubilation turned to despair, as Many Clouds fought like a lion to defeat the mighty Thistlecrack, before collapsing and dying on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf.

In a pulsating finish up the famous hill, Oliver Sherwood’s Grand National winner went toe-to-toe with the young pretender, overhauling the Gold Cup favourite in the shadow of the post to win Saturday’s Cotswold Chase. Smad Place had set the fractions, with Many Clouds taking up the running approaching the third last. Turning for home Tizzard’s star joined the older warrior, and the two tussled all the way to the line. It was a thriller, and yet no sooner had the result of the photo-finish been announced, a tragic twist saw the winner fall to the ground.

Sherwood gave a moving tribute to an outstanding racehorse: “We've got to look forward and not look back. He's been the horse of a lifetime and I always said he would die for you and he's died for me and the team today doing what he does best. He wanted to win that race, he was beaten and then fought back in the last 50 yards to win.

“We've got to be philosophical and celebrate the Hennessy and National wins and that was almost a career-best performance. I thought, hand on heart, having had a wind op that he might have been struggling for oxygen and hence the reason we did it. He was better on his first run back at Aintree this season. The public get to know the horses, especially horses that try for you, they appreciated what he had done and he captured your imagination, really. Leighton is in bits and has gone home.”

Colin Tizzard summed up the mood when saying: “Poor old Many Clouds. My initial thought when we got beat was that I was disappointed but it's as sad as can be, he was a lovely horse and he beat us on the day. We ran our race, we're not making any excuses - today, on winter ground, we were beaten by a better horse, no question. They had a battle and it's just a tragic end to the race. This is what happens in our sport occasionally and you've got to face up to it.”

Despite the sad end to the race, thoughts inevitably turn to the result itself, and the shock defeat of Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack.

His jumping throughout was solid rather than spectacular. He got in close at the fourth last, and found himself several lengths adrift coming down the hill. Despite the error, he was back alongside Many Clouds at the second last and we waited for him to stretch clear. But when Tom Scudamore asked the favourite to find another gear, the response was probably as surprising to him, as it was to the thousands watching from the stands.

Thistlecrack has not been asked a serious question for the best part of a season and a half. We’ve become accustomed to seeing him gallop clear of opponents with his head in his chest. But on soft ground at Cheltenham, with that stiff uphill finish, at the end of a truly run three-mile plus graded chase, and against experienced battle-hardened opposition, it’s fair to say that he failed his toughest test to date.

Better ground may well have brought about a different result. Conditions appeared to favour Many Clouds, putting an emphasis on stamina rather than speed. Thistlecrack’s major weapon is his ability to tank-along at speed, gradually burning off the opposition. That asset was wonderfully displayed at Kempton in the King George, but there now has to be a concern as to whether he can apply the same pressure over such a demanding trip, at a track that serves up such a unique test.

Though Thistlecrack somewhat fluffed his lines, giving hope to those likely to take him on in March, the season’s best three-mile hurdler proved less charitable.

The Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry maintained his phenomenal run of success, in winning the Cleeve Hurdle. He travelled powerfully throughout, and saw off a rejuvenated Cole Harden, with Tizzard’s talented novice, West Approach, back in third. It will take a good one to lower his colours in March, though a sounder surface at the Festival could leave this gutsy galloper vulnerable to a speedier sort.

Another huge performance from West Approach, coupled with another victory for Wholestone in the latest Neptune Novices’ trial, serves to reaffirm the lofty standing of this pair. The latter has twice finished ahead of the former during the winter, though both were beaten by Peregrine Run at Cheltenham on decent ground in November. I fancy that all three will perform well at the Festival in March, though their targets are yet to be confirmed. I’d imagine both Wholestone and West Approach will line up in the Albert Bartlett, whilst Peregrine Run has the speed for the Neptune.

Un De Sceaux put in another polished performance in taking the re-routed Clarence House Chase for Willie Mullins. He proved five-lengths the better of Alan King’s returning Ryanair hero Uxizandre. It would come as no surprise to see both in the Ryanair come March, and a reversal in positions is a distinct possibility. I’d be amazed if either were to tackle Douvan in the Champion Chase.

Mullins will have been buoyed by the success of Un De Sceaux and of Vroum Vroum Mag at Doncaster, though the mare failed to impress. Sadly, both Faugheen and Min missed Leopardstown yesterday, after suffering minor setbacks. Both are expected to be fighting fit in no time, though Faugheen may now need to head straight to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle. Heading there without a prep-run is far from ideal, and it’s worth remembering that his only defeat came off the back of a break when sunk by Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle of 2015.

In his absence, Petit Mouchoir took a sub-standard looking Irish Champion Hurdle. It was another bold, front-running display from the six-year-old, though Footpad got to within a length of him at the line. You’d have to think that a fit Faugheen would chew these up and spit them out.

And so, a weekend that promised so much, turned out to be truly dramatic for so many reasons. Glory and tragedy ride side by side in this wonderful sport. Participants put everything on the line in search of the former, yet the latter occasionally steals the show.

Old King Cole To Capture Cleeve

In a weekend of top-class action, I eventually opted to preview the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle from Cheltenham.

It’s a race I love, and one that has produced many memorable performances over the years. The roll of honour is a corker, with many of the best staying hurdlers having captured the prestigious prize. The event was originally run at 2m5f, though still played to those with an abundance of stamina. Despite this, a Champion Hurdle winner took the race in 1994.

Flakey Dove was a talented mare, and had an exceptional period of form during the spring of that year. She’d had a busy winter, running several times on the flat, along with numerous outings over hurdles. Her performance level rocketed when she ran-out a stunning winner of the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial. She then headed for Cheltenham to contest the Cleeve, and was again far too good for the opposition, winning easily by six lengths. Though beaten in the Tote Gold Trophy, she bounced back to form in the Grade 2 Berkshire Hurdle at the beginning of March, destroying the field by 20 lengths.

A couple of weeks later she arrived at Prestbury Park to contest the Champion Hurdle. The field included previous winners Granville Again and Morley Street, and though the mare was sent off a 9/1 shot, she proved too good, beating favourite Oh So Risky into second place. Her victory came a decade after the wonderful Irish mare Dawn Run’s success.

One of my favourite racehorses of all-time, Inglis Drever, captured the Cleeve in 2008. He’d already proved himself the dominant force in staying hurdles over numerous years, and was to return to Cheltenham in March and win his third World Hurdle. Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, the diminutive warrior became something of a cult hero.

One heroic staying hurdler was quickly replaced by another when Big Buck’s burst onto the scene. And it was his victory in the Cleeve Hurdle of 2009, that hinted at the potential of this hugely talented beast. He defeated race favourite Punchestowns on that occasion, and was to return weeks later to capture the first of four World Hurdles. He took the Cleeve for a second time in 2012. He clocked up a staggering 18 wins on the bounce, during a period of complete domination. He was a class apart.

And last year’s winner wasn’t half bad. Thistlecrack romped to a 12-length success, and was no less impressive when taking the World Hurdle in March. The latest National Hunt sensation is likely to have won the Cotswold Chase a few hours before the contenders line up for the Cleeve on Saturday.

And what of those contenders, hoping to carve their name alongside the likes of Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s and Thistlecrack?

The favourite is sure to be the Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry. Currently on a seven-run winning streak, including two at Grade 2 level, and a pair of Grade 1s, he has looked imperious this winter. He’s unbeaten in three starts at Cheltenham, including the Albert Bartlett at last year’s Festival. He’s not a flashy sort, but he’s a powerful stayer that relishes a battle. Three nine-year-olds have won in the last decade, and he’ll be looking to put his name alongside, Inglis Drever, Tidal Bay and Big Buck’s. He’ll be hard to beat.

Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles one of the main challengers in Ballyoptic. He was running a mighty race in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle, when falling at the last. Unowhatimeanharry went on to win, but the result was in doubt until that blunder. He’d marked himself down as one of the best novice hurdlers, when winning the Sefton at Aintree in April, defeating Bellshill. Still only a seven-year-old, there’s likely to be further improvement to come, and he’s a real danger to the favourite.

Paul Nicholls has won the race three times in the past decade, and on two occasions with a six-year-old. Old Guard fits the profile and has three course victories to his name. Better ground looks sure to suit, and he’s a player if coping with the step-up in trip. His last run was a belter off top weight in the Lanzarote, but he’ll need to improve again to be competitive in this. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he put up a bold show.

Sentiment plays a huge part in National Hunt racing. Horses longevity in the sport, gives the fans time to take them to their hearts. This is certainly the case with George Charlton’s Knockara Beau. His incredible victory in this race a couple of years ago, at odds of 66/1, was the stuff of legend. It was his one and only victory at a course he has visited for the past eight years. I was lucky enough to be there on the day, and the crowd’s reaction brought a tear to the eye. He won’t win tomorrow, but it will be wonderful to see him up close in the parade ring. He’s a gorgeous looking racehorse.

Warren Greatrex is likely to be double-handed, though one runner needs rain, whilst the other needs the dry spell to continue. Shantou Bob is the mud-lover, and should rain hit the Cotswolds before the off, he would have a serious chance. Classy at his best, he’ll get weight from the leading contenders, and has to be respected.

But it’s Cole Harden that interests me. The World Hurdle winner of 2015 needs decent ground to have any chance. He gets more than half a stone from Unowhatimeanharry, and at odds of 14/1 is surely worth a shot. His last outing on unsuitable ground at Cheltenham looked a fair performance. He’s a completely different animal on a sounder surface, and though he hasn’t looked the horse of old, he’s still only an eight-year-old.

I fancy the favourite will take all the beating, but I’m hopeful that an old Champion can rise again with conditions set to be in his favour. It’s Cole Harden each-way for me. Best of luck to all those having a punt, and enjoy the weekend’s exhilarating action.