Social Discourse: 11th March 2019

Readers, friends, comrades in arms. We are here. There is just one day left before the 2019 Cheltenham Festival begins and, like all across this site, I can’t wait for the best that our sport has to offer.

It is a special edition of Social Discourse as we head into four incredible days, and as such there have been a few tweaks made to this particular edition.

If you’re headed to the home of Kings – and if you’re reading this, then there's a fair chance that you are – please give me a shout. You can do so via the same avenues that others use to complain about me lots - @KeejayOV2 on the Tweet Machine.

A big thanks to the hard work of Matt Bisogno on this and all the previous newsletters.

Let. The. Games. Commence.

  1. Do’s and Don’ts

It’s the greatest week of the year, but for most of us who take even half an interest, it is four days (or seven) that will have plenty of pitfalls as well as opportunities – no matter how you approach it. But what is the secret to a successful festival, both on and off the track?

I got in touch with the great and good to get some advice – and then gave some of my own anyway….

Do….

  • Watch races from different areas. Get different perspectives rather than just get a drink, or watch a race all in the same places. Go to the parade ring, watch near the second last fence, watch at the top after the winning post - @SteveRyder13, presenter of the On The Hunt Podcast
  • Think about how one race relates to another at the Festival. For example, as soon as they cross the line in the Supreme, think about what that race result has told you about the formlines for the Ballymore – and similarly for the Arkle and JLT/RSA. The result might just have unlocked a bit of value. - @jamesaknight, Coral/Ladbrokes
  • Dress weather appropriate! I never go inside at Cheltenham so will be outside the whole time on both days I am there. I am dressing smart but definitely layering up. - @novicefilly (Debbie Matthews), the founder of #GoRacingGreen
  • Get to the track early in the morning and see the Irish raiders exercising in the middle of the racecourse - @leemottershead, Racing Post
  • Remember the handicaps are impossible! - @MattBisogno, GeeGeez
  • Make it to the middle of the course. I had attended quite a few festivals before a friend took me to the middle of the course for a race. I had no idea you could do it! It is a totally different perspective to the racing though. First of all there is no big screen to watch the action on over there so when they go out to country, you are relying on the commentary to understand what is going on. Jowever there are two selling points to this little trip. The first is that it is a suprisingly different perspective to the course, you can take in the huge crowd in the stands from a relatively peaceful vantage point. The best thing about ding this though is being able to be mere metres from top national hunt horses taking the last fence. The sound of them brushing through the bitch is incredible. - @tdl123, Tim Larden, operator of themajorversusthebookieblog

Don’t….

  • Get so p***ed you can’t watch the racing. We’ve waited 361 days for this. @SteveRyder13, presenter of the On The Hunt Podcast
  • Be dogmatic about your selections before the festival. For example, you may want to be against Buveur D’Air at 9/4 in the Champion Hurdle (I know I do), but what if he drifts to 7/2? He’s probably a decent bet at those odds. It’s important to remember that betting is literally all about the price, so the advice is not to think in terms of ‘bankers’, and ‘lay of the festivals’ and any other b****cks that you might hear at preview nights and start to think about what price you need to get before you want to be with a horse (the other great thing about The Festival in this regard is that you don’t have to worry about non triers) - @jamesaknight, Coral/Ladbrokes
  • Back every odds on shot. - @UAE_Racing, editor of Racing Reflex
  • Don’t* bet on every race. Wait for extra places on the handicaps. The Irish are going to win all of the County, Coral Cup, Pertemps and Martin Pipe. Be aware of the super-rare moments where 'public money' and bookie multi liabilities actually create wonky markets - exploit them. – @GloriaVictis
  • Never chase out prices and compete with other Bookies around you. There is a lot of money in the ring at Cheltenham, and when it's your turn, at the right time, it'll come to you. Don't rush it or you can end up laying over the odds horses and you feel silly 3 minutes later. - @BenStarSports, owner of Star Sports
  • Be afraid to stick within your comfort zones. - @novicefilly (Debbie Matthews), the founder of #GoRacingGreen
  • Forget your folding stuff, as the queues for the cash machines might not move quickly. - @leemottershead, Racing Post
  • Don't forget the handicaps are impossible! - @MattBisogno, GeeGeez.
  • Speed drink between races! Gone are the days where I would take on the four day drinking test that the festival can be. I would emerge blinking into day four, confused and disorientated, trying to remember which form lines I was following into the Triumph. At any day at the festival, you have all day and all night to invoke the spirit of Bacchus. There is no rush. Especially if it is raining the bars can be busy, getting the round in can leave you little time between races. I enjoy the festival a lot more taking it easy and pacing the day out - @tdl123, Tim Larden, operator of themajorversusthebookieblog 

 

And some additional advice, from yours truly:

Do…

  • Bet before you get on course. Don’t rob yourself of the pleasures of the ring – the layers need your custom – but you will get the best positions and crucially place terms off course most of the time
  • Bet the night before – The best prices are nearly always found the night before, or in the morning
  • Take a portable charger – If you’re going, then you will earn your money back at some point with a powerful charger. £30 should get you a useful one that will last
  • Think outside the box – Only five of the festival’s 28 races have shown a profit for favourites over the last 10 years. There are routinely big priced winners at the Festival, and even more hit the place

 

Don’t….

  • Chase losses. It is the biggest betting week of the year and if things go wrong at some point, the temptation will be immense. Stick to your pace
  • Over-drink during the racing – As someone who loves a pint, yours truly is no stranger to a Guinness at the Festival. However, at no meeting all year will it take you longer to get served, and post 1.30 each trip is going to consume extremely valuable time. The day will fly by and refreshments after the last have always been beautifully thirst-quenching

 

  1. Whose Line Is It Anyway?

One race, one nose, two cameras. If it sounds too much like a sitcom, then that’s because it’s true; Welcome to British racing in 2019.

You know the scene by now. One For Rosie, having cruised into the lead of the European Breeders' Fund Matchbook VIP "National Hunt" Novices' Handicap Hurdle Final (try saying that without taking a breath), jumped to the front at the last. Sam Twiston-Davies punched and kicked for his life, and he just manages to get the better of the strong staying Third Wind, after a tense wait for the photo finish.

Or so we’d thought. Firstly it was all normal. We thought we’d simply seen another close Saturday finish. Punters got paid out and connections were being interviewed. And then we were told there was a delay. And then…

 

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That was just a flavour of the reaction. There are too many tweets to post, but

 

 

 

Fool Me Once: Amazingly, this wasn’t even the first time it had happened; this is the second occasion this year the wrong result has been called at Sandown, with the unique sprint course seeing Rio Ronaldo being announced the winner in a 5f handicap before the result was changed with Vibrant Chords handed victory.

 

Then, there was this interview:

 

The Official Response:  

  1. The Imperial Malaya

It’s just easier to ask what Paul Nicholls can’t do, the answer to which is nothing. His Malaya continued the stable’s brilliant form with victory in the Imperial Cup at Sandown on Saturday.

The five-year-old mare looked to have a tough task on when trying to hop the second last and then just stepping through it, buckling in the process, but Harry Cobden kept his cool brilliantly to allow her to regather her momentum and slowly but surely she caught up with Monsieur Lecoq – who had made the best of his way home whilst going strongly from two out - jumping the last brilliantly when needing to and eventually grinding her way to a one and three-quarter-length win.

 

What about the Festival? Paul Nicholls has been open to running her at the Festival in a bid to take a bonus in post-race quotes, telling Maddy Playle of the Racing Post: "She's tough and won't need to do much work, it's definitely a possibility. We're not saving her for anything so we might look at it.”

Be Smart: Looking at the rest of the field: Call Me Lord ran a tremendous race under his huge weight, First Flow ran a fine race on his first run for nearly a year, and Benny’s Bridge will be much happier on a sounder surface.

 

  1. Fun In The Sun

In much sunnier climes, Meydan had their Super Saturday, a leadup to the Carnival ending Dubai World Cup night that takes place in just over three weeks’ time. Highlights included:

  • Capezzano’s arrival at Group 1 level with a wide margin victory in the third round of the Al Maktoum Challenge, trashing the returning Thunder Snow by nine and a half lengths. He will now head to the World Cup, as will the second, who will hope to strip much fitter in a couple of weeks’ time

 

 

  • Dream Castle’s fine turn of foot to beat a heavy gamble on Wootoon in the Jebel Hatta, making it three from three in Dubai since being gelded

 

  • Old Persian managed to catch stablemate Racing History with apparent ease to take the City of Gold, seeing him up for the Sheema Classic and a promising European campaign
  • Muntazah broke the track record in the Burj Nahaar, winning by 10 lengths to make himself the sure fire favourite for the Godolphin Mile

  • Blue Point won the Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint with the ease that odds of ¼ suggested, and will be hard beat regardless of the international raiders that might well come his way

  • Divine Image put together a career-best performance to romp away with the Al Bastakiya, making her favourite for the UAE Derby

 

  1. A King’s Pair

Willie Mullins – yes, that’s right, remember him? – had a perfect warmup for the coming week when he had a 1-2-3 in the Leinster National, led by Pairofbrowneyes.

If you’re thinking that name sounds familiar then yes, you’re right – Pairofbrowneyes won this last year, and it was almost a carbon copy of his win in 2018, with an impressive show of staying power down the home straight to eventually end up winning by five lengths.

This matters why? It’s yet another boost for the form of Invitation Only’s Thyestes Chase win, which has barely produced a bad result, including the winner and the third of the Leinster National yesterday, and the Wylies will be very happy with their position ahead of the Gold Cup.

Winning Jockey Paul Townend, to Sportinglife: "He's very likeable. It was like riding a handicapper. He made one mistake at the ditch down the back, but he sorted himself out and you couldn't be any more pleased with him.”

Something to note: The form of La Bague Au Roi got another boost as Kaiser Black, second to her in the Flogas Novices’ Chase, won the Naas Directors Plate Novice Chase by an 11 length margin. He could be a big player for the rest of the season in novice terms.

- William Kedjanyi

Social Discourse: 4th March 2019

Another fascinating week in the racing life, with The Festival (sponsored by cider) getting closer and closer and, as ever it seems, we weren’t light on talking points. That makes Number 5 below particularly special to me – hopefully you like this week’s Discourse.

 

  1. Winx And You’ll Miss It 

Before a stride had been taken in anger, a World Record was broken in racing on Saturday as the amazing Winx made it 31 – yes, really – straight wins with a comfortable success in the Chipping Norton Stakes. That was her 23rd Group or Grade 1 success, an incredible number which is almost as startling as the 31 race winning streak.

At one point she seemed in the slightest of trouble, as Happy Clapper and Blake Shinn had a commanding lead coming into a short home straight, and even with 300 meters left to go her fans would have been right to start biting their nails. 

I’ve heard this before, haven’t I: Yes, you have, because she’s won pretty much all of her last 31 races like that, including four Cox Plates and 19 other Group 1's. Whilst it has always been enjoyable to watch, especially for her legion of fans, it has not been everybody’s cup of tea. 

For much of the past two years, a fierce debate has raged about the true ability of the Champion Mare, mainly conducted across Twitter between fans, punters and handicappers from both sides of the equator.

Winx’s easy defeat of the solid Benbatl, the best Northern raider sent to face her since Highland Reel, went a long way to answering those questions. However, with a dearth of realistic opposition in Australia, there are still a large number of people who have fallen out of love with the eight-year-old Australian treasure.

See an example of the case for:

And an example of the case against:

Happy Clapper himself sets a better standard than most of Winx’s domestic opposition by one sharp tweeter, and the discussion shall rage on.

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Many observers hope to see her travel one day, but she is eight now and the only realistic challenge will come from another Benbatl type heading Down Under. 

The Bottom Line: We’ve been incredibly lucky to have a Champion, fit for three years at the peak of her game – but the debate about what she's beaten and therefore her level of ability will almost never end.

 

  1. Good Things Come To Those Who Wait 

One of the quirkiest parts of racing is the wonderful spectrum of names our equine heroes have, and on some occasions they really do fit perfectly.

Waiting Patiently is one of such horse and Ruth Jefferson’s eight-year-old will keep us all waiting a little bit longer as he’s set to miss the Festival, with a number of options in the near future.

Aintree and Punchestown are both on the table, the Melling Chase presumably a likely target, and a trip to France for Auteuil’s Prix La Barka or French Champion Hurdle were both mooted, given the likelihood that he’d get his favoured ground there.

Owner Paul Colling, speaking to the Racing Post’s Bruce Jackson: "Ascot was Cyrname's ground and if you look at the three behind, we all need cut in the ground. I walked from the second-last with Ruth [Jefferson] and wasn't for running him, but Brian [Hughes] said it was soft enough.

Thinking ahead: This is unrelated, but there’s plenty of rain in the air after a very dry winter, and the Festival could well take place on a softer surface than the winter’s racing, just like last year. Consider that when approaching the races at this late stage.

 

  1. Money Moneyyy (Part 2)

What a difference a week and a boycott (or two) make. Last week’s edition covered the standoff between ARC and trainers who were rightly unhappy at prizemoney levels, especially with further cuts announced – blamed on the Government’s call to cut the maximum stake on FOBT’s to £2 from £100.

A temporary move to reallocate funds in lower-grade races backfired – another race at Sedgefield was a walkover and then there was a call from Ralph 'Red Raif' Beckett for further action this week. 

This isn’t close to over: ARC, in response to the first boycott, have unlocked funding from the levy war chest for the next couple of weeks but there’s only a month until the FOBT funding cut, and a lot of ground to cover to say the least. I mean, just read these quotes: 

Arc Spokesman, speaking on Saturday: "Last night’s agreement with the NTF was made in good faith, with the aim of allowing further time to continue discussions between all parties concerned.” 

Oliver Sherwood, speaking to At The Races on Saturday: “The money at the top end is A1, it’s the bottom end [that is the problem]. And there are more average horses than good horses.”

Gary Moore, who withdrew five Fontwell entries: "I'm supporting the boycott – cutting off my nose to spite my face – and hoping some good will come of it.”

 

  1. On The Track…
  • Paul Nicholls continued his domination of Newbury’s Greatwood Gold Cup with San Benedeto giving Ditchdeat their ninth win of the race – in just 15 years. Nicholls ran three and they were all in the mix until late in the race, but San Benedeto found more than Gala Ball, making his first appearance for Phillip Hobbs, whilst Valdez was third.
  • However, Nicholls did not have it all his own way, with two odds on reverses north of the Border at Kelso. Black Corton was outpointed by the giant Blue Flight in the Premier Chase and then even more surprising was the case of Getaway Trump, moved here after many had predicted he'd head towards the Festival, as Rouge Vif dominated the Premier Kelso Novices’ Hurdle.
  • Noel Meade was the star of a very snowy Leopardstown as wins for The Red Menace, Aint Dunne Yet and Sixshooter capped a weekend in which the team at Tu Va Stables had a perfect four from four. On the same card, Gordon Elliott bagged a double.

 

  1. Chasing Those Spuds

We have already commemorated the healthy retirement of one staying chaser on these pages and I have no shame about putting Chase The Spud in that category.

The 11-year-old had made himself one of most loved horses at a yard with plenty of such types, winning five races including the Midlands National, and over £100,000 in prize money in just over a year. Happy Retirement, Spud!

- William Kedjanyi

 

Social Discourse – 25th February

Another very busy weekend with Cheltenham clues aplenty, even this close to the big March fiesta. We witnessed some superb training performances, superb riding performances, and a boycott that led to a walkover. Thankfully we did not witness any more fights. As always, feel free to get in touch via the comments, or you can 'hashtag' me at @KeejayOV2 on Twitter. To the stories...

 

  1. Angels’ Out Of Breath

He’s still heading to the Supreme despite being outpointed at 8/11 in Saturday’s Dovecote Hurdle by Paul Nicholls’ – remember him? – Southfield Stone.

Nicholls' 6/1 shot, who was overturned at 4/6 when last seen, was always prominent and, under the urging of Harry Cobden, kicked for home off the bend into the straight, which proved to be a race winning move. Southfield Stone ran down the last and drifted markedly to the right thereafter, but still had enough to hold off the late charge of the odds-on favourite. The winner was cut for the Imperial Cup, nominated as his next target by Paul Nicholls, whilst Angel’s Breath was pushed out to as big as 12/1 for the Supreme.

Cheltenham questions abounded in the aftermath of the defeat as many punters cast a doubt on his Supreme aspirations, which had been perceived as very strong beforehand, as seen here. Opinion was split on his chances afterwards.

The Case For: 

 

And Against:

 

 

Be Smart: Defeat was disappointing for many at the time, but this was Angel’s Breath’s second run over hurdles, first run with more than four flights jumped, and first run for 64 days, including a flu jab that has come later than trainer Nicky Henderson expected to thanks to the equine flu hiatus.

Horses For Courses: Kempton was also a complete change of course for Angel’s Breath, who had done much of his best work up the home straight at Ascot on soft ground, and Cheltenham really ought to show his strength and stamina to best effect. 

Paul Nicholls, winning trainer, speaking to Kitty Trice of the Racing Post: "It'll be interesting because I know where Southfield Stone is and I know where Grand Sancy is after last week. I probably wouldn't entertain Southfield Stone in the Supreme, but he could be one for a handicap. He's in the Imperial Cup and might be one to leave for Cheltenham and go for a race at Aintree."

Nicky Henderson, trainer of Angel’s Breath, speaking to the Racing Post yesterday: “We’re pretty sure we’re staying at two miles for the Supreme, and a stiffer track will suit him much better, as would a little cut in the ground. He still ran very well in what was a very good time and we were all very happy with him."

 

  1. A Winning Raffle Ticket?

Henderson had better luck with Fusil Raffles on Saturday, as the French import sprinted clear for a nine-length win on his British debut in the Adonis Hurdle, impressing all-comers:

The Seven Barrows trainer had been relishing the chance to unleash another major festival contender, but in the process of his demolition, Fusil Raffles suffered a cut as he hit the second last. It is sufficiently severe to cast a doubt over his preparations for the Festival, as Richie Persad of ITV told viewers:

 

Henderson told Racing TV: “Unfortunately, he has got a very nasty gash right on his hind-bone shin which is being stitched. We’ve got less than three weeks to go (until the Festival) so it’s going to be tight. We will keep everybody posted. If we can get him there we will, as he deserves to, but if not he will have to wait until Aintree.”

 

  1. The Rath O’Vinden

Another huge target which is fast approaching is the Grand National, and Rathvinden staked his claim with impressive victory in the Bobbyjo Chase, a key prep which sets him on target for Aintree.

After the departure of Magic Of Light eight fences out, the race developed into a duel between Rathvinden and the long-time leader, Alpha Des Obeaux, with last year's National Hunt Chase winner prevailing by three and a half lengths under a resolute Paul Townend.

That was the second serious National trial in a week, after the amazing Tiger Roll bolted up in the Boyne Hurdle last Sunday, and Willie Mullins confirmed that Aintree was the plan afterwards.

"That was a nice first run of the season, and I'd imagine he'll go for the National. That would be the usual route from here. We're keen to go and the owner is keen to go."

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  1. Persistence Pays Off For Walter

Racing is sometimes, only sometimes, a game of just reward. Phil Simmonds could not have been blamed for turning away from the sport after losing Burns Cross to a terrible accident from a foot injury. 

But trainer Neil Mulholland kept him in the sport, and on Saturday he was rewarded for his persistence in the most wonderful fashion as Walt, given a power-packed ride by Sam Twiston-Davies took the valuable 888Sport Handicap Chase.

In what was a tremendous finish, he repelled the game top weight Double Shuffle, in receipt of 20lbs, to spring a minor surprise at 14/1. The winner might now head to Cheltenham for the Ultima Handicap Chase, whilst many eyes will be on the fast finishing third, Adrien Du Pont, who made up the most ground of any horse in the race by far.

 

Phil Simmonds, owner of Walt, speaking to At The Races: “From an owner’s point of view we need to support the Neil Mulhollands of this world. These guys are first class. It has shown today that if these guys have got the talent (to work with), they can do it.”

Bonus: Enjoy this superb shot of Walt jumping the last, taken by the brilliant Francesca Altoft.

 

  1. A Wissahickon For All Weathers

Meanwhile, at Leafy Lingfield, Wissahickon continued his run as one of most progressive horses in training with another dominant performance in the Winter Derby at Lingfield.

John Gosden’s four-year old tracked his stablemate Court House for most of the way, and after being given his orders by Frankie Dettori, he quickly sealed the deal to win by three and a half lengths, making it five wins on the bounce, four of them on the all-weather.

He won as odds of 1/4 suggested he ought to, and there are now much bigger targets on the agenda for him, including a potential trip to Dubai for World Cup night – although he looks set to have at least one more run here with owner George Strawbridge very keen to come and see him once again.

John Gosden: “There is some talk about World Cup Night out in Dubai, but I will have to speak to Frankie, who always has a very strong opinion! We might look at the Sheema Classic, if there was an invitation to run in the race. I think he is a mile-and-a-quarter to a mile-and-a-half horse – his mother stayed and he switches off in his races now, while quick, summer ground would be his game.”

 

  1. Money-Money-Money, Monneehhh

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems, Puff Daddy lamented in the 90’s, that golden age of rap. How the trainers and owners who keep racing afloat would wish to have even a sliver of the wealth floating around in the hip-hop game.

But British racing has pretty much always had a prize money problem. A huge fixture list, one which has bizarrely grown in recent years, stretches a pot of prize money that is under pressure at the levels where it counts – below the weekend racing and big festivals, at the general weekday level which is sustained by a huge bulk of class 4, 5 and 6 racing.

The Government’s long overdue crackdown on FOBT machines has led to a decision in turn by ARC, which owns 16 UK racecourses including Lingfield, to reduce prize money and thus not avail of a top-up fund provided to courses which offer prize funds at or beyond a threshold. That was the backdrop against which a protest against the unacceptably low prize money was staged at Lingfield on Saturday.

 

Costs are already stretched wafer thin: See this explanation from Mike Spence, a long time supporter of the game who has horses of all abilities:

Trainers made their mark with a protest against two races on Saturday with no runners declared for the five-furlong novice stakes from an entry of nine, while only the Nick Littmoden-trained Greybychoice was declared from the 18 entries for the mile novice stakes.

And they had the desired effect too, with the story making the BBC news, the papers – including The Mail, which has the largest online circulation of any British title – and international titles like BloodHorse and Australia’s SBS.

Never one to mince his words, Mark Johnston got stuck in: “I had two horses in the race and sent one to Chelmsford and the other has been entered at Southwell where the prize-money was £8,000 rather than £4,500. It gets to a point where it’s just not viable to take a horse all the way to Lingfield for that sort of money. We’ve done it in the past, but we’re not going back to the bad old days.

“The prize-money is quite ridiculous and the whole situation of Arc cutting prize-money in anticipation of a potential cut in the number of betting shops and funding due to the FOBT reduction, which is hypothetical at the moment, is out of order. The race values vary from 46-60 handicaps to maidens and better class races across the courses, but we always note the prize-money when making entries."

Good Gesture: Nick Littmoden, the only trainer who entered a horse in the two races, donated his percentage to the Injured Jockeys’ Fund.

What can be done? The big players – the British Horseracing Authority, National Trainers Federation, Racehorse Owners Association and Racecourse Association – are in talks but this problem will always persist unless there is a significant cash injection or, even more unlikely, a marked reduction in the bloated fixture list that consumes British racing for the benefit of bookmakers and media rights recipients. It is worth noting that Ireland does not have anything like this problem, even if the situation is not quite the same.

 

  1. Super Vision

Wind surgery and a step back up in trip proved the answer for Vision Des Flos, who turned out to be the quickest in what was a competitive National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell, and after a year and nine races, he finally got back on the winning trail.

 

 

The Kingwell Hurdle third had also finished second behind Buveur D’Air on his first start of the season, but he appeared to appreciate this trip and was always travelling best coming off the all-weather crossover. A big leap took him past the front running Lil Rockerfeller, and once Tom Scudamore sent him to win his race, he always had a little too much in hand for the late charge of If The Cap Fits, who was outpaced almost until he jumped the last.

Harry Fry’s runner up will head to the Aintree Hurdle next, whilst Ballymoy was a disappointment, finishing near last. The ever so admirable Lil Rockerfeller held on for third.

Colin Tizzard, trainer of Vision Des Flos: "He is in the Champion Hurdle and the Coral Cup, and on that running I’d say he would go for the handicap. You never know, if there are not many in the Champion Hurdle we might go there yet.” 

Harry Fry, trainer of If The Cap Fits: “He wasn’t good enough today and Noel did well to finish second the way he was travelling. We vaccinated him last week, which was not the plan in such close proximity to a race. Hopefully, the run was just down to that. If he had travelled well he would have won.”

Think Ahead: This was yet another boost for Elixir De Nutz, who had beaten Kingwell Hurdle winner Grand Sancy at Sandown. You can back both these proven horses, who had their form boosted twice over this weekend and who appear to be relatively versatile regarding ground for the Supreme at double figure prices.

 

Also at Fontwell: Hugos Other Horse, half-brother to the one and only Cue Card, ground out victory in the closing bumper.

 

 

  1. Check Mate 

In Ireland yesterday, there was a very smart card at Naas, with the feature Onside App Novice Hurdle (my Paddy Power cheque is in the post!) ending with a thriller eventually claimed by Chosen Mate.

The Gordon Elliott-trained progressive six-year-old travelled best into what turned out to be a sprint after the early fall of Jetez, who was in front at the time. A slick jump at the last sealed the deal for him in the dash for the line, which came just in time as he held off the charging four-year-old Hannon, in receipt of a stone in weight for age.

The runner up was cut to 25/1 for the Triumph with Paddy Power from an original price of 40/1.

Gordon Elliott, winning trainer: “Davy had to change tactics when Puppy (Robbie Power, aboard Jetez) fell. He wanted to get up and take Paul (Townend) on and not give him a complete freebie. The plan is to keep him for Aintree.”

 

  1. On The Ferry

On the same card, Cadmium booked his ticket to the Grand Annual, knuckling down to get the better of the consistent Doctor Phoenix in the Grade 3 What Odds Paddy? Chase.

He was three lengths to the good at the line but had to work harder than that, although he heads to the penultimate race of the Festival with as good a chance as any, especially with a bigger field likely to suit.

Rachael Blackmore was in the winning groove again, driving home Poker Party to take the Grade B Novice Handicap Chase. That’s two wins from two for the pair now, with the previously out of form seven year old seemingly thriving. And see this feature about her, below.

  1. Star Of The Week

A tough one, but perhaps Nick Littlemoden for doing the right thing by his owner and the trainers' collective.

 

11. Bad news to start the week...

And we start this week with the sad news that Le Richebourg, favourite for the Arkle, will miss the race - and the rest of the season - due to an injury during work on Saturday.

- William Kedjanyi

 

 

Social Discourse – 18th February

What a weekend that was! 11 graded races, eight winners for Paul Nicholls, three for Rachael Blackmore, and a 17 length winning margin in one of the season’s top races – and that’s about the short of what was a truly remarkable weekend, recapped – as best as is possible, by me, William Kedjanyi.

But first things first, just look at the brilliant reactions of Sam Twiston-Davies yesterday, perhaps saving the life of Daydream Aulmes at Ascot on Saturday. Show it to people who say that anyone involved in this game doesn't care.

 

 

As always, hit the comments, or come bother me at Twitter – the handle’s @KeejayOV2.

 

1. What’s In A Cyrname?  

You’ve probably seen it, but if not, just watch the end of this magnificent performance and marvel that a horse can run that quickly and jump that smoothly.

 

Cyrname’s rout in the Ascot Chase is still barely believable even after the dust has settled, but one had better believe that it happened because Paul Nicholls’ seven-year-old really did smash Waiting Patiently by 17 lengths.

He arrived here after winning a competitive Ascot handicap by 21 lengths last month, but this was a far tougher test. He faced Waiting Patiently. He faced Fox Norton. His stablemate Politologue was a Melling Chase winner. Even Charbel, the outsider of the field, was a winner of the Peterborough Chase this season.

It simply did not matter. From the very start, Harry Cobden was in front and whilst he was always travelling sweetly, it was in the home straight when the taps were opened, Cobden sat motionless in the drivers’ seat for the most impressive performance of the season in my book.

 

 

Thinking Ahead: You would forgive connections for being speechless, but Paul Nicholls had plenty of thoughts on the future: “Aintree last year, he jumped out right, and those type of tracks don’t suit him. At least we will see if he gets three miles round Punchestown. It will be brilliant for him, because it is a big galloping track with proper fences. One day, we will go back left-handed.”

Waiting Patiently was a 17 length second, and Ruth Jefferson gave credit in defeat: “He has been beaten by a better horse on the day,” she said. "My instant reaction is he is probably a better horse on soft ground. That’s the quickest conditions he has run on since Kempton.”

Fox Norton, having his second run since coming back from injury, was third ahead of the slightly disappointing Politologue, who could have his wind operated on according to John Hales.

 

2. Dance, Dance, Dance!

Good things come to those who wait. Nobody would have been dancing last week, not least Dai Walters, but he had the last laugh as Al Dancer almost moonwalked to impressive victory in the rearranged Betfair Hurdle.

 

 

12lbs higher than he was for his win at Cheltenham in December, he could have carried double the weight and still won, and gave Sam Twiston-Davies a dream conveyance down the inside. Indeed, he would have preferred a faster pace but, come the straight, he was cruising into the race and after a good leap at the last he simply had too much for Magic Dancer and Blu Cavalier.

For those interested, main market rival Getaway Trump was back in fourth having made a fair amount of ground in the home straight – an eye catching display given he was second in the Challow Hurdle.

 

The effusive – is he ever anything less? – Nigel Twiston Davies, speaking to Matt Chapman on ITV: "He's a lovely horse, what a shame we weren't at Newbury but well done Ascot for putting it on. He's a championship horse, he'll be going to Cheltenham."

 

Don’t Forget: Getaway Trump is entered in the Ballymore still, but might the Coral Cup be a tempting option?

The Reaction: There’s nothing quite like a big race favourite and Cheltenham contender winning…..

 

3. The Winning Clan

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Paul Nicholls’ red letter day had some incredible moments, but one of the most satisfying must have been the 13 seconds it took Clan Des Obeaux to seal the rescheduled Denman Chase and set himself up for a big crack for the Gold Cup.

In what was a very uncomplicated four-runner affair, he tracked Terrefort into the race before the last, and with one big leap – his best of the day – he put what was essentially a match race, the pair being well clear of Ballyhill and Thomas Patrick by the home straight, to bed with aplomb.

 

Harry Cobden Jockey, speaking to the Racing Post: "He's got better all the time, he's maturing and he's more professional when he races. He's not as exuberant as he was, but if you light him up he takes off."

One To Note: Ballyhill, who was third, could go well in handicaps around 2m4f in the spring.

 

4. Over and Out 

This winter we have been reminded about just how valuable our champions are, and how blessed we are when we get to see them go out happy and healthy, so a hearty farewell – of the good kind – to Coneygree, who jumped with enthusiasm and style at Ascot in the Keltbray Swinley Chase, but who did not have the legs to keep up with faster opposition.

He was wisely retired by The Bradstocks after that, a move which brought about an outpouring of love from all in the jumping game. Enjoy.

 

 

https://twitter.com/rockonxruby/status/1096778764170813440

 

5. Meanwhile, at Haydock…. 

Robinsfirth swooped upon Ramses De Teillee to take the Grand National Trial at Haydock with a finely timed challenge from Sean Bowen, on a day where some idiots got involved in a punchup after the racing. Chef D’Oeuvre was third and Colin Tizzard also had the fourth in the shape of Royal Vacation who could be headed to Aintree

Shades of Midnight gave Paisley Park backers yet another form boost as he romped home in the Rendlesham Hurdle. Kilcooley ran a fine race returning from 1066 days off, although he was passed for second by Petticoat Tails. Yanworth, well backed on his seasonal debut, was a bitter disappointment and the stewards – even more perplexingly to this scribe – reported that nothing was amiss.

Quel Destin gave Paul Nicholls another Cheltenham contender with a wide margin win in the Victor Ludorum Juvenile Hurdle, winning by six lengths whilst Torpillo disappointed here

Jester Jet ended a run of seconds – five of them – with a rallying win in the Listed Mares' Hurdle at Haydock to defy If You Say Run, benefiting from a perfectly timed Tom Scudamore ride to get up by a head.

 

  6. May The Forsa Be With You

The weekend’s action was properly kicked off by the rescheduled Kingmaker Chase, which was turned into a procession by Glen Forsa, who took apart the very disappointing Kalashnikov by 19 lengths in a display that will now see Mick Channon’s charge head towards either the Arkle or the JLT at the Cheltenham Festival, rather than the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.

 

 

Glen Forsa, who had impressed with his bold jumping over the Christmas period at Kempton, was jumping better early on and made his advantage count when over the first of the Railway fences, as the odds on favourite was beginning to labour, perhaps struggling in the very tacky ground, with poor leaps at the second and third Railway obstacles getting in the way, and by the time the pair had reached the pond fence the race was basically over.

 

From Amy Murphy and Team:

 

7. Glee for Monalee...

We had no Presenting Percy, but we did have a big winner for Rachael Blackmore as she kicked Monalee home in the Red Mills Chase, a result that will probably make many of Percy’s backers pretty happy – the RSA form holds up better by the week. The four runner affair proved to be a fascinating race, with Monalee always happy in front but Killultagh Vic stopping quite quickly when we had the potential for a three-runner race as they turned for home.

Monalee found enough in front but just as eye-catching in second was the returning Anibale Fly, third in last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup and set to head there again following a fine effort given that he’d had only one run this season – his sixth in a handicap chase back in November. Tony Martin will be a happy man, whilst Edwulf looks difficult to place now although he will be better when stepped up dramatically in trip.

 

Henry De Bromhead, speaking to the Irish Times: “He’s in the Ryanair and the Gold Cup and we’ll work it all out between now and then. I wouldn’t be leaning any way to be honest. I don’t know yet and I’d say the ground will be quite telling.

8. Elsewhere..... 

Grand Sancy got the better of Sceau Royal and Vision Des Flos in a tremendous battle for the Kingwell Hurdle, giving Paul Nicholls another of his eight winners on the day, and providing Harry Skelton with a first win for Ditcheat in six years. He considerably boosted the Tolworth form of Elixir De Nutz and gave a shot in the arm for the novice form this season as he now heads to the Supreme, with the runner up going for the Champion Hurdle.

Darasso bounced back from a poor run in the Galmoy Hurdle to dominate the Red Mills Hurdle, getting the better of a brief tussle with Forge Meadow to then win by 11 lengths, in a race where last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Farclas was a huge disappointment.

Mister Malarky took his record to three from four over fences with a game win in the Reynoldstown, fighting off Now McGinty. He was cut to 20/1 from 33s by Sky Bet for the Festival’s RSA Chase.

The incredible Tiger Roll bolted up in the Boyne Hurdle, sparking a joyous reaction from fans as he belied odds of 25/1. He was cut into 5/4 for the Cross Country Chase at Cheltenham and is now as short as 12/1 for the Grand National again. A shout out to Keith Donoghue, who rode him and had his first winner since he suffered a fractured eye socket and cheekbone after Christmas.

Rachael Blackmore gave Chris’s Dream a superb ride to land the Ten Up Novice Chase, only just holding on from Champagne Classic, on his second run off a long layoff to get very close.

 

9. What else you might have missed….

The last at Gowran, thanks to (or no thanks to) Racing TV. See the tweets below….

 

 

 

What happened? Daylight Katie won by eight lengths, giving Gordon Elliot yet another useful young horse.

How does this get fixed? The easy answer is for another channel, but things aren't that simple; the running costs alone to have two channels would presumably make such a project financially unviable.

So what then? Racing TV does have multiple channels online, although this is perhaps not all that comforting to Irish fans, many of whom have at best, faint internet access. Irish racing has the benefit of a slimmed fixture list which absolutely makes the product more valuable, but this comes at the cost of clashes such as this, especially on busy days.

On the bright side: The Punchestown Festival is run as an afternoon-evening card, so that should get pride of place come the end of April.

- William Kedjanyi

Social Discourse – 12th February

Welcome to a joyous, joyous edition of Social Discourse, as British racing makes its return from a six-day break caused by an outbreak of equine influenza (EI), which had put the sport into shutdown and caused concern over the Cheltenham Festival, due to commence a month today (allow yourself another little cheer).

Thanks to what one must say was quick and decisive action from the BHA, we are now set to return from tomorrow, albeit with caveats, giving (most) trainers a resumption of normality along with jockeys, owners, media outlets and the rest. There’s still time for Festival trials, too. Whoop!

As ever, hit me up at @KeejayOV2 on Twitter or just leave a comment below.

 

  1. The Wait……

1:57 PM · Feb 11, 2019:

9:12 PM · Feb 11, 2019:

10:23 PM · Feb 11, 2019:

11:19 PM · Feb 11, 2019: (Yes, that's right, the Irish Field got there first).

11:21 PM · Feb 11, 2019:


  2. The Joy…..

After what was nearly a ten-hour wait – although the last hour and a half was perhaps more stressful than the previous nine - it’s fair to say that this had brought the normally fractious social community of Racing Twitter together. A recap for you, if you couldn’t stay up, or just need that good feeling again.

 

3. The Super, Super Saturday Ahead 

We waited, and now good things are coming to us. Everyone within 10 miles of Cheltenham will still be breathing outwards with relief, but in the more immediate future, there are races to be won and more than a few Festival trials to be rescheduled.

Ascot’s card this coming Saturday was always going to be spectacular but, with the quick transfer of Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle and Game Spirit Chase to the Berkshire venue, it means we are set for a truly phenomenal day of action – the last chance for many high-class horses to run before Cheltenham.

 

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2-mile novice chasers get a last chance to tune themselves up for a very open-looking Arkle Chase with the Kingmaker moved from Warwick to boost Sandown’s Friday card; there’s a Mares’ Hurdle which now moves to Haydock from the same card, and Wincanton gets a Mares’ Chase from Exeter.

 

Don’t Forget: If Ascot is getting you excited, then Haydock also has a feature – the William Hill Grand National Trial, plus a Mares’ Hurdle – and Wincanton features the Kingwell Hurdle as well as the Mares' Chase. Best cancel those Saturday plans if you can.

Trigger-Happy Punters: Markets will have to be remade, with the BHA having to work out which yards can send runners, and the entries will come through at 1.30 today. So if anyone wants to get a jump…. Then have a sneaky tab open around 4 this afternoon.

 

4. The Caveats

It’s not as simple as some might think, however.

- No entries or declarations will be accepted from horses that have not been vaccinated in the previous six months.

- Added to this, trainers of all horses are required to submit a health declaration, the documentation for which needs to be with BHA staff at racecourse before a horse can be unloaded at the track

- If there happen to be any overseas runners, then they won’t be allowed to run unless there’s evidence of a negative test within last 72 hours.

- The ruling that all horses need to have been vaccinated in the last six months has put a spanner in the works of many plans. Already we know that Silver Streak will not be able to run in the Kingwell, whilst 2017 Grand National winner One For Arthur won’t be able to run thanks to needing another jab.

A list of yards that won’t be able to run at least in the next week has been speculated on twitter, and it could include Nicky Henderson, based on what we’ve seen here.

https://twitter.com/muffinmannhc/status/1095255812413497344

Those berating the BHA for not advising trainers of the need to get their horses a booster jab are wide of the mark, as this tweet shows:

As with all that has preceded it, the BHA is doing everything it can to support the sport, including announcing the provision of some additional races for circa 23rd February to enable those without booster jabs to get vaccinated and have a prep before the Festival:

5. Getting Jiggy With It

Meanwhile, racing in Ireland continued unabated and we were treated to a pair of good cards over the weekend with Punchestown having their Grand National Trial on what was at the very least an informative day.

Gigginstown can do no wrong at the moment and they gave themselves a tremendous hand in both the Aintree and Fairyhouse versions as Dounikos came right back to his best to beat Wishmoor by four and a half lengths, with General Principle just a half-length behind.

In what was a dominant showing for the O'Leary squad from start to finish – all three of their charges raced prominently – Dounikos put himself down as a major contender for either the Grand National itself at Aintree or the Irish equivalent, targets that Wishmoor and General Principle, the winner of last year’s Irish Grand National, will also be looking at.

Gordon Elliott, trainer of Dounikos, speaking to Tony O’Hehir of the Racing Post: "Dounikos might go to Aintree or Fairyhouse, we'll see the Aintree weights this week," he said. "I made a lot of entries and I could end up running 12 or 15 in the race. One of those could be General Principle, and Elliott added: "He ran a good race today and Aintree might be the job for him this year."

 

Be smart: Dounikos is generally a 33/1 shot for Aintree (as big as 40/1 with Bet Victor) with the weights due out tomorrow, and General Principle is around the same price.

 

6. Over The Water

A good card at Naas saved ITV, who combined quickly and effectively with the HRI to show a decent card in absentia of Newbury’s Super Saturday.

The highlight was arguably Pravalaguna, who gave a fine front-running display to take the Listed Opera Hat Chase.

Sent off at just 8/13 after strong support, the only scare came when jockey Paul Townend appeared to lose an iron briefly at the fifth last, but he regained full control before taking the next obstacle and from then on she didn’t put a foot wrong before marching to a 14 length success from Baie Des Iles in second.

On the same card, we saw another Festival contender in the shape of City Island, who justified long odds on favouritism with a facile win in the Connolly's Red Mills Irish EBF Auction Novice Hurdle at Naas.

Mark Walsh could have written this column whilst he was sat onboard Martin Brassil's six-year-old, and when he gave him his cue, he picked up trailblazing The Echo Boy and won by an easy seven lengths. Cut to as short as 9/1 for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, he now goes as one of the main players.

Death, taxes, and Joseph O’Brien having smart juvenile hurdlers are the three certainties in life just now, and Band Of Outlaws joined a growing club by coming from last to first to take the EMS Copiers Rated Novice Hurdle.

In a slowly run race, JJ Slevin had Band Of Outlaws fifth of six most of the way round but when push came to shove, he comfortably had too much speed for long-time leader Maze Runner after the final flight to win going away by four and three-quarter lengths.

The Festival now? Well do be careful – the runner up was only seventh in Leopardstown’s Grade 2 at Christmas and O’Brien, if anywhere at Cheltenham, may send him for the Fred Winter although that is not certain at this stage.

 

Even when O’Brien loses, he wins: The new JP McManus purchase Konitho was a disappointing fifth of sixth, not finding anything like the response of his stablemate, although O’Brien felt that the slowly run race did not suit him. "You'd have to say he was a little bit disappointing. The race probably didn't suit him as he's bigger, more of a staying type of horse.”

Jessica Harrington could have a runner in the Cheltenham Festival Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in the shape of the wide margin maiden hurdle winner, Emily Moon. Robbie Power, having his only ride of the day, took the race by the scruff of the neck and she never saw another horse, eventually finishing 14 lengths clear of Debuchet.

Winning rider Robbie Power was impressed: "I was very impressed with her. She's improved a good bit and probably dropping back half a mile in trip suited her better as she loves jumping out and rolling. Over two miles you can let her go, you're not worried about the trip."

Onto next week we go - should be a quiet one..!

- William Kedjanyi

Social Discourse – 5th February

A weekend with so much action that even this bumper edition struggling to fit it all in, writes William Kedjanyi. We like a challenge here, however, so here goes with a round up of all the latest movers and shakers on the bumpy highway to the Cotswolds next month…

 

  1. How’d you like them Apple's?

She’s going: The brilliant Apple’s Jade, a wide margin winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle, is now more likely to head to the Festival’s first-day showpiece than not. In the aftermath of her brilliant performance at Leopardstown, where she stole the headlines on the first day of the Dublin Racing Festival, Eddie O’Leary, speaking on behalf of owner Michael, had suggested that she would still go the Mares' Hurdle route in lieu of a tilt at the bigger race.

"We'll go to the Champion Hurdle if you can run a gelding in the Mares'. Did she win the Mares' Hurdle last year? No." – Eddie O’Leary, speaking to Nick Luck on Racing TV in the aftermath of Apple’s Jade’s stunning win.

But overnight, trainer Gordon Elliott and owner Michael O’Leary appeared to have a change of heart.

 

Gordon Elliott, trainer, speaking to Luck On Sunday:  "Buveur D'Air is obviously a very good horse and just does what he has to do every day, but we’ll take him on. Nothing is concrete, but I'd say it's likely."

Michael O’Leary, owner: "If you are going to lose, I’d rather lose trying to win a Champion Hurdle than a Mares’ Hurdle, now that we know she can run a fast two miles."

Looking ahead: If she stays sound, then a delicious clash between Apple’s Jade and Buveur D’Air will be the highlight of the first day at Cheltenham.

Best of the rest: Supasundae ran well once again to be second, although his connections are between a rock and a hard place regarding Festival targets: he would be unlikely to reverse form with Apple’s Jade but the emergence of Paisley Park in the staying division makes life difficult there also.

 

  1. Anything you can do….

Dual Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air responded in kind with victory in a hack canter in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, having to make some of his own running before easing clear of Vision Des Flos and winning the race for a third time.

Nicky Henderson’s charge has been following the same route as last season, albeit with a defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and aside from that sprint to the line where Verdana Blue beat him, he’s looked as dominant as ever. Slicker through the latter stages of the race this time than at the Sunbury venue last, he briefly looked under pressure before finding top gear and putting the race to bed.

However, we know he is likely to face perhaps his biggest challenge since becoming the Champion Hurdler in the shape of Apple’s Jade, and we didn’t learn much about him here aside from his wellbeing.

Nicky Henderson, speaking to Sky Sports Racing: “It was a muddling old race. He led down the back and then Barry took a pull and let another horse take a lead. I thought he jumped a bit slicker than at Kempton where he made one howler, but I'm not saying that as an excuse. I'm very happy as he did need this race and the timing was perfect. I was very nervous when I thought it might be off and I had Kelso as an alternative.”

Battle lines are now drawn - Britain vs Ireland, girls vs boys, Henderson vs Elliott, champ vs contender - for a Tuesday in mid-March: bring on the show!

 

  1. Joseph and his Multi-Coloured Triumph Brigade
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Joseph O’Brien has quickly established himself as one of the leading National Hunt trainers in the game – on either side of the Irish Sea – and using his high-class resources, he has emerged with a fine team of juvenile hurdlers.

Sir Erec, strongly fancied for the race beforehand, was an impressive winner of the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown over the weekend when beating stablemate Gardens of Babylon by five lengths. In so doing, he launched himself to the head of the Triumph Hurdle betting, where he’s now 9/4 generally, from 7/1 before Sunday.

Joseph O’Brien, speaking to the Racing Post: "Making the running with Sir Erec wasn't ideal but he's very straightforward and he did it very well. Stamina is probably his forte but he quickened well from the second last. It was only his second run over hurdles, whereas Fakir D'Oudairies has more experience, if not quite the same engine as this fellow."

 

In winning convincingly here, he displaced the wildly impressive Cheltenham trial winner, Fakir D’Doudaries, from the top of the market. That was the second 1-2 for the stable in major Triumph trials, as Fine Brunello was a 13 length second at Cheltenham on Trials Day.

Be smart: Given his incredibly close proximity to high-class flat horses, O’Brien could have much success in this sphere, including with horses making their jumping debut. Also, with so many options – and the backing of JP McManus to help – we could still see some targets being switched.

 

  1. Defi-nitely Maybe

Onlookers at Sandown were treated to a thrilling tale of revenge, as Defi Du Seuil reversed Cheltenham form with Lostintranslation in a battling victory to take the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase.

 

 

Flashback: Only ten weeks ago, Defi was being trashed by Lalor in the Racing Post Arkle Trial, ballooning each fence and looking like he’d confound Phillip Hobbs once again after his great juvenile hurdling season two campaigns ago.

But Hobbs has managed to coax the required fencing improvement from him on each run since that clumsy display, and he battled back determinedly under a fine Barry Geraghty drive. In so doing, he cast aside any lingering apprehensions about his finishing effort after Lostintranslation worried him out of the Dipper on New Year’s Day, albeit with a 3lbs weight turnaround.

Favourite Vinndication didn’t travel with any zest at all and stayed on fairly well to finish third, beaten just a couple of lengths. Kim Bailey reported that he didn’t like the ground – which was sticky 'holding' turf – so he adds further intrigue should the three re-engage in the JLT.

Philip Hobbs, after unsaddling Defi Du Seuil: “Barry was delighted with him, particularly with the way he jumped and coped with the ground. Where we go from here, a lot will depend on the ground, but he certainly saw the trip out well.”

 

  1. Here’s what else happened
  • Bellshill took a thrilling Irish Gold Cup, albeit in a decimated field, as he was driven home by a short head to beat Road To Respect under a great Ruby Walsh drive. He was cut to cut to a general 12-1 (from 16) for the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival.

  • Walsh was just as good aboard Klassical Dream, who is now as short as 8-1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after a dramatic Grade 1 success in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle, just touching off his stablemate and past Grade 1 winner, Aramon.

 

  • La Bague Au Roi struck a notable success for Britain with a gritty front-running success in the Flogas Novice Chase, holding off 33/1 outsider Kaiser Black after Delta Work was withdrawn. It’s probable she’ll miss Cheltenham for Aintree, and it is also to be hoped that Winter Escape will bounce back after bursting a blood vessel.

  • Envoi Allen booked his Cheltenham ticket on Saturday, winning the Matheson (C&G) I.N.H. Flat Race at Leopardstown. The favourite stuck his neck right out to the line and beat the closing Meticulous, owned by Michael Tabour and trained by Joesph O’Brien, and is now being aimed at the Festival Bumper.

 

  • Commander Of Fleet proved himself a promising stayer with a battling victory over Rhinestone in the the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors 50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff Novice Hurdle. He relished the step up in trip and might go further in the Albert Bartlett as Battleoverdoyen looks set for the Ballymore. Champion Bumper winner Relegate finished with a wet sail to take fifth but she must learn to jump better.

  • Min repeated his 2018 win in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown but the race was marred by a fatal injury to Special Tiara.

 

  • Le Richebourg cemented his claims as a leading player for what is now a very competitive looking Arkle with a smooth win in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase

 

  1. The Fast Show

The Dublin Racing Festival will mostly be remembered for performances on the track – as it should be – but the track itself was the subject of much attention as firm ground in places on the chase course led to a glut of non-runners on Sunday. 22 of the 26 non-runners with were withdrawn because of the ground, unusually quick for a jumps meeting, especially at this time of year.

The Irish Gold Cup was decimated, with Al Boum Photo, Balko Des Flos, Monalee, Edwulf, Noble Endeavor and Anibale Fly all withdrawn, leaving a four-runner heat that somehow still served up a fine duel, albeit a diminished one.

 

Be smart: This was a perfect storm of weather conditions. Below average rainfall had led to quicker underfoot already, and then low temperatures trapped the ground staff with nowhere to go. This might continue to be the case in future, with higher average temperatures leading to drier and drier winters. However, we could still be in for a nasty shock when the spring comes, as wet weather could make for very soft ground at Cheltenham and Aintree, just as it did last year.

Lorcan Wyer, Leopardstown’s Clerk of the Course, speaking to the Racing Post’s Richard Forristal: "In the lead into this meeting, ten days before this fixture, we were given a forecast by Met Eireann of 40-50mm of rainfall. We got maybe 20mm of that, and we started off on the Monday of this week with a forecast of 20mm to 40mm of rain, sleet or snow, and sub-zero temperatures all week. Watering with that forecast, particularly with the sub-zero aspect, would be alien to me. I'm not sure any other track would go along those lines."

Being Sensible; Noel Meade, trainer of Irish Gold Cup runner up Road To Respect: "It's a Catch-22 situation. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. The way it's turned out today, you would have loved if they had watered, but hindsight is a fine thing. They were in an impossible situation."

**

The countdown to Cheltenham's Festival continues apace, and next weekend the focus will be on Newbury, where the Betfair Hurdle, Denman Chase and Game Spirit Chase all offer Festival aspirants the chance to rehearse ahead of the big week in March. Join us early next week for another thrilling instalment of Social Discourse!

- William Kedjanyi

 

Social Discourse – 28th January 2019

Another crazy seven days has given us two new Festival favourites, the world’s richest turf race as well as the second richest dirt race, and the extraordinary achievements of five brilliant women... and that is where we start this week.

As always, seek me out on @KeejayOV2 or write something in the box below for all your comments, good and bad.

 

  1. Who Ride The World? Girls.

As one of the few sports in which men and women compete on equal terms, some would argue it has taken too long for top female talent to break onto the big stage of racing. That is no longer the case.

  • There are now top jockeys plying their trade in top races on both sides of the Irish sea: in Britain Bryony Frost and Lizzie Kelly have been responsible for a host of Saturday winners in front of the TV cameras.
  • In Ireland, Rachael Blackmore has ten Graded wins, 73 total wins, and €1,135,265 in prize money for the season, at the time of writing.
  • In France, Mickaelle Michel was atop the French Jockey’s Championship for 83 days until a certain Christophe Soumillon overtook her. 
  • Don’t forget Emma Lavelle, who has brought tremendous improvement out of Paisley Park this season, and Kayley Woollacott, who has the Arkle contender Lalor under her wing. And they’re just two of the numerous women flying high in training.

 Kelly and Frost showed themselves at their very best with wins on Siruh Du Lac and Frodon on Saturday's Cheltenham Trials Day. The former produced a powerful drive to get the better of Daryl Jacob and favourite, Janika; whilst Frost reprised her beautiful bond with Frodon to take yet another Saturday Cheltenham feature as the son of Nickname, only just turned seven, valiantly held the late charge of Elegant Escape in the Cotswold Chase.

TV and Social Media quite rightly absolutely loves these new stars, with fans responding with joy to their winners.

 

Meanwhile in Ireland, Blackmore has struck up a very promising link with the exciting novice Honeysuckle, who won impressively at Fairyhouse on Saturday.

Don’t forget the flat too, with Josephine Gordon a leading light who is getting a better class of horse to sit on with each passing season, whilst in France the weight allowance gives a small platform, even if that allowance was cut after a 165 per cent increase in the number of winners ridden by women there. Seems they didn't really need it!

 

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, May I Present Percy

It had been a long time between drinks for fans of Presenting Percy. The wide margin 2018 RSA Chase winner had been off the track for 316 days until his return in the Galmoy Hurdle last Thursday, in which time he’d found his Gold Cup price shortening and his reputation growing in the interim.

So it was no surprise to see a huge crowd turn up to Gowran Park to watch him retain his Galmoy title, travelling well before finding plenty when Davy Russell asked him to get the better of the Willie Mullins-trained trio of Bapaume, Killultagh Vic and Limini with his ears pricked.

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Market reaction was instantaneous and positive: he was cut into a top-priced 100-30 (from 9-2) to record a third consecutive Festival victory, in the biggest race of them all, the Gold Cup.

However, there was a twist in the tale, as connections suggested that they might head to the Stayers’ Hurdle rather than the Friday showpiece. Here’s owner Philip Reynolds speaking to the Racing Post: “Stayers'? He jumps a hurdle every bit as slick as he jumps a fence. We've been talking all year about 'what ifs' because of the ground. Is it my preference? Of course it's not. I'd like to get him back here in three weeks' time for the Red Mills Chase.”

Jockey Davy Russell was also floating the alternative in a post-race interview: "He has the Stayers' Hurdle as an option now as well. If the Gold Cup turned out to be very competitive or if he didn't get a run over fences beforehand, he has that option anyway.”

 

  1. Trials and Tribulations

Cheltenham’s Trials Day is always an important event on the racing calendar, and this year’s edition was no different, with a number of Festival clues as well as some compelling stories.

We saw huge performances change the landscape for two of the Festival’s feature races:

  • Fakir D'oudaries tore the Triumph Trial apart with a superb performance under JJ Slevin, beating his stablemate Fine Brunello by 13 lengths, the 5/4 favourite Adjali well beaten in third, to give Joseph O’Brien his first Cheltenham winner and the now Triumph favourite, as he was cut to as short as 4/1.
  • Paisley Park confirmed himself as the leading British stayer with a wide margin win in the Cleeve Hurdle, doing all his best work up the straight before he pummelled West Approach by a staggering 12 lengths up the hill. He’s now 7/2 generally for the Stayers,from a quote of 12/1 before the day's events.

Those weren’t the only things of note on the card either...

  • Birchdale was handed the Ballymore trial as Brewin'Upastorm crashed out at the last flight when narrowly in front, with both horses surely having more to give. The exchanges had Brewin'Upastorm winning at the time, as he was 1-4 in running, but the real winner from the race is probably the form of Champ, who beat Brewin'Upastorm by four lengths in the Challow Hurdle.
  • Siruh Du Lac just edged out Janika in a pulsating finish to the Trophy Handicap, with Lizzie Kelly earning deserved plaudits for a brilliant drive to hold off Daryl Jacob on the runner up.
  • Jacob didn’t go home empty handed however, as he gave Kildisart a fine ride to take the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase, travelling quietly into the race and getting the better of the strong travelling Highway One O One. He’s now a best price of 16/1 for the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase.
  • Fergal O’Brien and Paddy Brennan also took something from the day, as Benny’s bridge was a remarkable winner of the Steel Plate and Sections Handicap Hurdle, in a victory that truly has to be seen to be believed.

 

  1. Away From Prestbury Park…
  • Dynamite Dollars made it three Graded wins with a with an all-the-way success in Doncaster's Lightning Novices' Chase, giving 8lbs and a workmanlike beating to Ballywood, who had previously won two handicap chases over Christmas.
  • Lady Buttons overcame a late scare as she beat Indefatigable by a neck in the olbg.com Yorkshire Rose Mares' Hurdle, also at Doncaster.
  • Nadaitak sprang a 12-1 surprise with a convincing 22 length win in the Albert Bartlett River Don Novices' Hurdle, atoning for a blip at the course last time. However, at this stage he is not certain to go to the Festival.
  • Real Steel, who danced every dance in last season’s novice hurdles, broke his duck over fences in really impressive style at Fairyhouse, winning by 10 lengths and atoning for his late fall on debut at Leopardstown.
  • Honeysuckle was a deeply impressive winner of the Solerina Mares' Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse, setting herself up for a tilt at the Cheltenham Festival equivalent.
  • At Naas yesterday, Ballyward was left in front in the Naas Racecourse Business Club Novice Chase after a fall from Discorama at the last, setting himself up for a potential charge at the NH Chase. A winner at the 2017 Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals but not seen since, Champagne Classic travelled like the best horse in the race after that monster lay-off, and looks to retain at least most of his old level of ability.
  • On the same card, Espoir D'Allen took the Limestone Lad Hurdle, where he gave 7lb and a two and a half-length beating to Wicklow Brave despite some sloppy jumping. He’s now as short as 14/1 for the Champion Hurdle.

 

  1. Go Green

Last week I wrote a small bit about Debbie Matthews, the Altior superfan who overcame severe anxiety to see her star win the Clarence House Chase. Here she gets a lot more space, as she deserves.

Matthews has been at it again, this time handing out green ribbons  – think the pink ribbons for cancer, but different – in the crowd at Cheltenham’s Trials Day to raise awareness of mental health and to share a message that shows the best of this great sport.

Here she is, in her own words, speaking to the Racing Post’s Bruce Jackson: "Green is the colour of the mental health ribbon and if anyone is there on their own it's a sign that I'm one of those people who they can come and say hello to. Even others going in a group who wanted to wear one, saying people could join in with them, could."

As you can see, the results are inspiring. A special shoutout to friend of geegeez.co.uk (and many others), Rory Delargy, who wrote a brilliantly candid article on the subject in the Irish Field:

 

All credit due to Fergal O’Brien, who reached out as early as last April to Matthews when her blog had just started, and Nicky Henderson, who let her see Altior in the flesh after the Clarence House Chase. 

 

  1. Pegasus The Wonderhorse(s)

Big Money was on offer in America, where the third running of The Pegasus World Championships took place on a filthy evening and a sloppy track at Florida's Gulfstream Park.

The weather, and its effect on the track, definitely hindered some of the contenders, but so impressive was City Of Light in the Pegasus World Cup that it may well not have mattered. The five-year-old son of Quality Road, trained by Michael W.McCarthy and ridden by Javier Castellano, was always moving well and put away Accelerate in a matter of strides at the top of the stretch before he powered away to a five-length win. Seeking The Soul gave his connections a huge payday by pipping the Breeders’ Cup Classic winner for second, benefiting from a strong pace and doing best of those held up.

Accelerate ran with credit to be third, and Bravazo was a fine fourth ahead of Audible, though there was no joy for Frankie Dettori on Mexican Triple Crown winner, Kukulkan.

 

Michael W.McCarthy, trainer of City Of Light, spoke afterwards to the Daily Racing Form: “To have a horse like this come into your life, honestly, I can’t describe the emotion that goes along with something like this,” he said, hesitating to recover his poise, while his 8-year-old daughter, Stella, touched him on the shoulder in support.

“Winning the Breeders’ Cup was incredibly special. To follow it up with something like this, I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again, and if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be okay with it.”

Accelerate’s trainer, John Sadler, told NBC: "I will always remember his honesty, he would always run a good race. We enjoyed him for a good three years and he is just a really good, solid racehorse. He ran well in tough conditions and we are going to walk out of here with our heads high." 

What’s Next: Both City of Light and Accelerate will be heading to Lane’s End Stud to take up stallion duties, initially standing at $35,000 and $20,000 respectively.

 

Earlier on the card, Chad Brown’s skill and patience was rewarded once again with Bricks and Mortar romping in the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Turf, the Aidan O'Brien-trained Magic Wand finishing well to claim a very good second from the Frankie Dettori-ridden Delta Prince in third. Catapult, who made a big move down the backstretch, hung on for fourth.

 

It was a fine display of training from Brown, who had brought the winner back from over a year off; and Aidan O’Brien will be very happy with Magic Wand’s second given the rain that hit the track. We can expect plenty of good things from her if she builds on that and maintains her form.

Side Note: O’Brien’s night was a satisfactory one that could have been better had the rain stayed away, with Hunting Horn finishing fast for third but not having the tactical speed of the former Dermot Weld-trained Zulu Alpha who won the Grade 3 W L McKnight Stakes. Still, he’ll be sending plenty more horses across the Atlantic in 2019.

A disappointing night was had by William Mott, whose Pegasus World Cup favourite, Yoshida, failed to get into the race from a rear position early, whilst Channel Maker could only finish fifth. Japanese runner Aerolithe bombed.

Chad Brown, trainer of Bricks and Mortar, related to NBC: "I'm so proud of this horse. We managed to get him back after a couple of issues which required a lot of time and patience". Expect to see his campaign geared towards the Breeders' Cup in Santa Anita in early November, though whether he's aimed at the Mile or the Turf is still in question, this victory being achieved at a range of nine and a half furlongs.

- William Kedjanyi

Tizzard Strikes Gold at thrilling Cheltenham Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mud-lovers rejoice as Soggy Cheltenham Festival anticipated

We’ve come to expect good to soft ground on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. But this year’s meeting looks sure to prove an exception, with recent heavy showers leaving the ground soft, heavy in places, as of last night.

At this time of the year conditions can change dramatically in a short space of time, but we look set for soft ground at best as the ‘Cheltenham Roar’ reverberates around Prestbury Park. With more rain forecast, it seems inevitable that testing conditions will prevail throughout this year’s Festival. Such news clearly has a bearing on the contenders we are likely to follow. I’ve looked at the opening day of the meeting and can nominate several runners that have a greater chance under these unfamiliar Festival conditions.

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First Flow suddenly looks even more appealing in Tuesday’s opener, though punters have quickly cottoned on. Following a stunning success in the Haydock Supreme Trial, trainer Kim Bailey announced that the horse would skip Cheltenham, with the ground likely to prove unsuitable. However, the rain has brought about a rethink and this mud-lover will now take his chance. He was relentless at Haydock, maintaining a strong gallop during the second part of the race, before stretching clear of a useful looking field. The Cheltenham Hill should suit, and he looks a decent each-way prospect.

Similar can be said for Summerville Boy, who also takes in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He was last seen beating Kalashnikov in a testing ground Tolworth at Sandown. Amy Murphy’s Betfair Hurdle winner was unable to land a blow that day. It’s a slight concern that prior to that impressive performance he’d twice been beaten at Cheltenham, though it’s thought that the horse needs a strong end to end gallop. The style of the race, and of course the conditions, should prove ideal on Tuesday. The Tom George-trained six-year-old is currently third best in the betting at 10s.

Only five go to post in the Arkle Chase with five-year-old Saint Calvados now all the rage with the punters. Harry Whittington’s French recruit has proved something of a beast in testing ground, winning his three chase starts by a combined distance of 40 lengths. Quicker ground was a complete unknown, but the team will no longer need to worry. He’ll be bounding along from the front, looking to run the opposition into the Cheltenham turf. He had a decent chance prior to all this rain, but now looks certain to go very close.

A competitive field of 18 go to post in the Ultima Handicap Chase, and there’s a pair that I fancy even more since the heavens opened. Vintage Clouds has run consistently well throughout the winter, especially when finishing fourth in the Welsh National. He was running a huge race in this 12 months ago, before coming down at the second last. A year older and with the ground more in his favour, I fancy this son of Cloudings will go close. He’s on an attractive handicap mark of 141 and is currently available at 14/1.

I am also hopeful of a huge run from Peter Bowen’s eight-year-old Minella Daddy. This son of Flemensfirth is out of an Old Vic mare, and was last seen running a blinder at Ascot. He’s had a year off the track through injury, but his last run shows that he retains plenty of ability. It’s likely that he’ll improve further for that run and may still be on a lenient mark at 139. Sean Bowen has become something of a young master in this type of staying handicap, and at 20s I have a good feeling about this fella.

I’m a big fan of De Plotting Shed in the opening day Close Bothers Novices’ Chase, especially as Festival favourite Davy Russell will be onboard. But, one that catches the eye in these testing conditions is Le Rocher for the Nick Williams yard. The horse isn’t the biggest and is prone to serious jumping errors, but he loves the mud. If Tom Scudamore can pick his way cautiously through the pack I fancy this fella will be charging up the famous hill. He’s currently 25/1, which seems fair enough to me.

Our Duke has The Power for Gold Cup Glory

News came last night that Sizing John would not be defending his Gold Cup crown.

As the bombshell dropped, I was in the process of writing how surprisingly rare it is that horses complete back-to-back victories in the ‘Blue Riband’. Keeping these equine stars fit and well is an incredibly difficult task. Getting them on the racecourse year-in year-out is hard enough, but training the equine elite to maintain such a high level of performance is quite something else. Along with Sizing John, the likes of Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack are just a few names that instantly spring to mind.

Though Harrington will clearly be gutted at the untimely injury to her Gold Cup hero, it does mean that jockey Robbie Power will now be reunited with stable companion Our Duke. The partnership landed the Irish National back in April but occasional jumping errors since his return from a back operation have been a source of concern for those siding with the giant chaser, as he heads for his greatest challenge to date at Prestbury Park. Power is surely best placed to get the most from Our Duke, and that may well prove to be enough for a horse that looks tailor-made for the job that lies ahead.

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Might Bite heads the market following success in the RSA last year and a somewhat underwhelming victory in the King George. Turning for home at Kempton, the eight-year-old pulled clear of the pack and looked sure to romp to an impressive winning performance. But at the line he had just a length to spare over Double Shuffle with a further two back to Tea For Three. Henderson’s talented chaser may well win the Gold Cup next week, but his inability to focus throughout the race, from the fall of the flag to the finish, may yet prove his downfall. Better horses than Whisper, Double Shuffle and Tea For Three will be waiting to pounce, should he take his eye of the prize.

Native River will ensure that the contenders stamina is fully tested. Richard Johnson will set the fractions, firing the gutsy eight-year-old at every fence as he attempts to mirror a Coneygree style performance. Tizzard’s contender has had this race as his sole target this season, and as such, will arrive a fresh horse. He ran a cracker in finishing third a year ago, when arguably not ridden aggressively enough. Sizing John had the gears, and enough left in the tank to use them. It will be down to Johnson to ensure that the sting is drawn from the chasing pack, in much the same way as Sam Spinner in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He looks sure to go close.

Road To Respect won the Brown Advisory Handicap at last year’s Festival, and has continued on a steep upward curve throughout this campaign. He took the Leopardstown Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander, though several leading contenders underperformed that day. Off the track since, the lack of a prep-run is a slight concern. He’s a second-season chaser, clearly on the upgrade, and therefore ticks plenty of boxes for trend followers. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that he’s ‘the one’ and am far from certain that he’s robust enough for this extended trip with that infamous concluding climb.

The joker in the pack is the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic. He looked likely to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last. Such jumping errors must be a huge concern for a horse with so little chasing experience. Despite being a nine-year-old, he’s only had three races over fences. It’s testament to how highly he’s regarded that he’s fourth favourite at 10/1, and he does have a Festival success to his name, having won the Martin Pipe Hurdle back in 2015. Three years have passed, and in that period, he’s only been on the racecourse five times. If he wins we will all marvel at the training prowess of Willie Mullins coupled with the incredible talent of the horse. However, trend followers will say that he can’t win, and I’m prepared to go with them.

One that will outrun his odds is Minella Rocco. Runner-up last year and winner of the four-miler in 2016, this fella thrives at Cheltenham in March. He’ll likely be outpaced at some stage prior to charging up the hill when others cry enough. As Native River’s tank starts to read empty and Might Bite drifts across the track to inspect the Guinness Village, Jonjo’s fella will be making his move. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Gold Cup winners rarely stagger over the finishing line, rather, they charge up the hill devouring the Cheltenham turf, out-staying and over-powering their opponents. In the absence of Sizing John, I’m convinced that Our Duke has what it takes to complete back-to-back victories for Jess Harrington. At 25s, the each-way money will be lumped on Minella Rocco.

Expect the unexpected in this ‘anything could happen’ renewal. Best of luck to those having a punt.

RSA no two-horse race – whilst Sam’s the Man for the Stayers’

For today’s piece I’ve decided to preview a couple of Festival races, and in doing so, will focus on only those that I believe are realistic contenders.

The RSA Novices’ Chase looks to be a competitive renewal, with an Irish pair currently heading the market.

Monalee was a gallant runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett and has won two of his three starts over fences. His one defeat came when falling in a Grade One over the Christmas period, though he put that mishap behind him when jumping brilliantly on his way to winning the Flogas Novice Chase in February. It looked a strong renewal and though the pack were hot on his tail he battled bravely to claim victory. That success came at 2m5f, and there’s some concern as to his ability to see out the 3m trip at Cheltenham. He looked the quicker horse in the Flogas, but the following three were all gaining at the line. I’m not convinced that a three-mile slog with a stamina sapping hill to finish will suit him. I fancy he’d have won the JLT.

I’d argue that Presenting Percy was given a slightly inflated handicap mark over hurdles, following his victory in last year’s Pertemps at Cheltenham. He was certainly put in his place at Punchestown the following month when beaten some way out by Ireland’s best staying novice hurdlers. Nevertheless, he was always likely to make a better chaser and that appears to be the case. His last run was his best, when getting close to Our Duke in the Red Mills chase at Gowran (was in receipt of 7lbs). The trip was too short that day, and unlike Monalee, he looks sure to appreciate the rigors of the RSA. I still have a nagging doubt that he’s not quite as good as some believe.

Dounikos, trained by Gordon Elliott, and the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo, were hot on the heels of Monalee last time at Leopardstown. The pair clashed at Limerick over the Christmas period, with Dounikos appearing a fortunate winner as Al Boum came down at the last fence. The Mullins contender is only a six-year-old and whether he’s quite ready physically is a slight concern. I have a feeling that he’ll prove the best of these long-term and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go very close.

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Dounikos is my idea of the winner. He was squeezed out at the last in the Flogas before staying on strongly for fourth. He lacks gears, but both the trip and that stiff Cheltenham finish should prove ideal.

Black Corton certainly deserves a mention having improved throughout the winter. He’s eight from 11 over fences, including a couple of wins at Cheltenham. He’s a slick jumper and has proved a gutsy stayer. But I’d be surprised if he has enough class to win this. Testing conditions will help his cause, but I’d rather have seen him in the four-miler.

I’ll be taking on the front two in the market and hoping that Dounikos gets the better of the younger Al Boum Photo.

Supasundae heads the market for the Stayer’s Hurdle, with Jess Harrington convinced that he’s a better horse this season. He won the Coral Cup at the meeting 12 months ago, before losing out to Yanworth at Aintree. He was also ‘done’ late on by Apple’s Jade at Leopardstown over Christmas, though the mare was in receipt of 7lbs, and is exceptional. The trainer believes that this fella needs better ground, and as an eight-year-old he’ll likely be at the peak of his powers. Some see the Apple’s Jade defeat as a negative, but I fancy trying to give that much weight to the mare is nigh-on impossible. Supasundae has a huge chance in this.

As does the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. His victory in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot confirmed his status as one of the leading stayers, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go well at Cheltenham. He was 10-lengths ahead of Unowhatimeanharry that day and looked full of running as he crossed the line. Six-year-olds have a great record in the race, and this fella will take some pegging back.

Yanworth looks sure to go close and I’m convinced that this is the right race for him. Solwhit and Nichols Canyon both stepped-up in trip to win this in recent years and Yanworth looks a similar type. He’ll be travelling powerfully turning for home, and it’s then a case of whether the stamina holds out, or the likes of Sam Spinner can draw the sting out of him.

The New One, though older, has a similar profile to Yanworth. He’ll likely take a lead from Sam Spinner and will be played as late as possible. Stamina is also a concern with this fella and having run at two miles for most of his career, he’ll need to settle off a slower pace. He ‘ran on strongly’ to defeat future Grand National winner Rule The World, in the Neptune of 2013, and at that point in his career you’d probably have said that three miles would prove ideal. I think we’d all love him to win. He’s certainly got a chance.

This is an incredibly difficult race to call. It should also prove to be a magnificent race to watch, with Sam Spinner setting the fractions, shadowed by speedier rivals waiting to pounce. I’m backing the front-running warrior to fend off all-comers in a thriller. It’s Sam Spinner for me, with Yanworth and Supasundae best of the rest.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

Henderson and Mullins launch Anti-Samcro Assault

Often won by a future star of the sport, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly the Neptune) gets the action underway on day two of the Festival.

Istabraq took the race at the age of five back in 1997. He’d already announced himself as a horse of huge potential by winning the Royal Bond, the Future Champions and the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. What followed was a period of utter dominance from one of the all-time great hurdlers. He won a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles and won the Irish version four years in a row.

Hardy Eustace had also landed the Royal Bond prior to winning this event at Cheltenham (then known as the Royal & SunAlliance) in 2003. Like Istabraq before, the success proved a launchpad for a period of two-mile dominance. He won thrilling renewals of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 05, gaining a reputation as a front-running warrior.

Nicanor defeated Denman in the 2006 renewal and Massini’s Maguire got the better of dear old Tidal Bay in 2007. The pair had Imperial Commander behind them in seventh that day. First Lieutenant edged out Rock On Ruby in 2011, with the latter returning 12 months later to win the Champion Hurdle. Simonsig and The New One followed, before ‘the machine’ Faugheen romped to victory in 2014. He too returned a year later to win the Champion Hurdle and but for injury would surely have become the dominant force of two-mile hurdling.

Yorkhill has become something of an enigma over the winter, but he too followed his 2016 victory in this with further Festival success last year, when winning the JLT Novices’ Chase. Both he and Faugheen are likely to return to Prestbury Park next week in search of further Cheltenham glory.

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But what of the Ballymore? And are we likely to witness the crowning of a new Jump racing star?

One horse that has the industry and its viewing public as excited as any other, is the undefeated Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro. Touted as the new sensation, the six-year-old is three from three over hurdles, including a devastating performance in winning the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. That victory came at two miles, though connections were adamant that the horse needed further and would head for the Ballymore. He has a high cruising speed and had far too many gears for a classy looking field last time. He’s looked stunning thus far, though there’s a couple in this that should give him his sternest test.

Willie Mullins has won four of the last ten and has a leading contender in Next Destination. Also three from three over hurdles, he’s another strong traveller though perhaps lacks the acceleration of Samcro. He does, however, look a powerful stayer and is likely to be storming up the hill, probably attempting to peg-back a slicker, swifter Samcro. He too has impressed over the winter, beating many of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland. He’s a major player.

Elliott and Mullins lead the way in the Emerald Isle and it’s therefore a thrill to see a Nicky Henderson-trained On The Blind Side taking on the Irish raiders. Undefeated under rules, and also three from three over hurdles, this son of Stowaway was mightily impressive when last seen at Sandown in December. He was giving a couple of decent horses 5lbs that day and thumped them out of sight. It’s a slight concern that he’s not had a prep-run, though Henderson had said that he was happy to go straight to the Festival. Expect him to be niggled along as they come down the hill, but I fancy he’ll be powering up the famous climb to the finish as he attempts to overhaul Samcro.

Willie Mullins has another contender in five-year-old Duc Des Genievres. Rumour has it that this youngster may be aimed at the Albert Bartlett, though I’d be surprised if they send such a young and inexperienced horse to one of the Festival’s most gruelling events. This fella has a huge amount of potential, having finished third to Next Destination and runner-up to Samcro in his two starts in Ireland. The Deloitte trip was clearly too short, but he ran a cracker when third in the Grade One Lawlor’s at Naas having been off the track for seven months. This is undoubtedly the race he should be heading for, and I fancy he’ll put in a huge performance. At 14/1, he looks an obvious each-way proposition.

Kim Bailey’s Vinndication is yet another undefeated challenger. He’s a lovely looking son of Vinnie Roe and will likely make a smashing chaser in time. He possibly needs testing ground to be seen at his best, and I’m not sure he’ll have the gears to challenge the leading contenders. That’s just an assumption of course, as there’s no doubting he’s a talented sort. He defeated Western Ryder last time at Huntingdon, and that looks strong form. He’s not easy to dismiss, but I just fancy there’ll be quicker horses in the race and he’ll be tapped for toe late on.

Black Op is another that looks certain to make a cracking chaser. French Holly was the last seven-year-old to win this race in 1998, though this fella could put up a huge challenge. He’s a smasher to look at and travelled beautifully last time at Cheltenham when chinned late-on by another beauty in the Henderson-trained Santini. The pair pulled miles clear of the remainder and look to have exciting futures. Black Op is a powerful galloper who really sticks his neck out. He’ll run well, though again may lack the gears of a few of these.

Of those at a bigger price I remain interested in Western Ryder. I tipped him up each-way for the Supreme and I think that race is an easier option. This renewal has greater depth, yet I would still be tempted to have a little on him each-way, with better ground likely to suit and his fondness of the track already proven.

I wouldn’t be upset if Samcro romped home and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I’m taking On The Blind Side to finish the race stronger and nail the favourite up the famous hill. Despite Samcro’s reputation, I’m convinced that this race will be competitive, with several talented types taking their chance.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

De Bromhead novice can Sparkle in the Arkle

It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.

The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.

Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.

So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?

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Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.

Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.

Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.

One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.

Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.

Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.

North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.

This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.

Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.

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