Cheltenham’s three-day Open Meeting kicks off today, with the prospect of numerous top-class encounters at Jump racing’s premier venue.
On Saturday, a pair of World Hurdle winners will be looking to enhance their prospects of taking a shot at the Gold Cup back at Prestbury Park in March.
Thistlecrack is already favourite for the ‘blue riband’, despite having only had one run over fences. There’s no denying that Tizzard’s eight-year-old is an incredible racehorse, and his hurdling campaign last winter was nothing short of sensational. His chasing debut at Chepstow went perfectly, and he is expected to follow up in the three-mile novices’ chase tomorrow.
Little more than an hour later, the World Hurdle winner of 2014 will be looking for an incident free return, in the ultra-competitive BetVictor Gold Cup. More Of That appeared a natural over fences last season, and was sent off a short-priced favourite for the RSA Chase. However, he faded tamely up the famous hill, having reportedly burst a blood vessel.
Jonjo remains confident in the horse’s ability, and when interviewed recently he said: “I definitely think he is a Gold Cup horse. He is the best horse I have trained but unfortunately he has a few problems. This fella is special, really special. We are pretty hopeful and he is working as well as he has ever worked before.” O’Neill went on: “I think I have improved him a stone and half at least! He is in great shape and we have been delighted with him at home. It was annoying to miss the race at Carlisle, but that is just the way it is with the weather. He has done most of his winning over two and a half but he seemed to stay well when he won the World Hurdle over three miles.”
With the rain finally arriving, there now appears no doubt that he will take his place at the start, and his road to the Gold Cup in March will begin. He achieved a rating of 169 over hurdles, so his current rating of 154 over fences may well prove lenient, especially if fully fit and raring to go.
His main danger, at least as far as the markets are concerned, is the Paul Nicholls trained four-year-old Frodon. He won the Rising Stars Novices’ Chase at Wincanton last Saturday, producing a stylish jumping display in the process. His victories have come in small fields; indeed, he was the only horse to reach the finish last time. This race tends to go to improving sorts with few miles on the clock. Caid Du Berlais was only a five-year-old when winning this for Nicholls in 2014, though he had a little more ‘big field’ experience.
Seven-year-olds have the strongest record in recent times, and the winners are often second season chasers. Paul Nicholls has several others that fit the bill, in Art Mauresque, Bouvreuil and As De Mee. The former is at the top end of the handicap, and came sixth in this race last year. He has slightly less appeal than the other two.
Bouvreuil looked something of a work in progress last season, especially in the jumping department. He is still only five, and there is plenty of scope for improvement. His bare form probably leaves him a little shy of winning this, but he will have strengthened over the summer, and has only five chase outings to his name. Gavin Sheehan is an interesting booking for the ride.
As De Mee finally got off the mark over fences at Fontwell last month. He ran consistently last season without looking particularly special. Though he did come a close second to More Of That in the Steel Plate And Sections at this meeting. He’s undergone a breathing operation during the summer, and is on an appealing handicap mark. Of all the Nicholls contenders, he’s the one that interests me the most.
Another that fits the second season chaser profile, though still only six, is Venetia Williams’ Aso. He’s another that will need to jump better to be in with a chance. He made several mistakes at both Cheltenham and Aintree in the spring, which accounted for poor performances. However, his final run of last season came at Newton Abbot, where he sauntered to an impressive victory on soft ground. With more rain forecast tonight, he may have conditions to suit, and is certainly not without a chance.
Should we get torrential rain overnight, and conditions change dramatically, it would come as no surprise to see Venetia’s other contender, Tenor Nivernais, run a huge race. He’s a completely different beast on soft ground, likes Cheltenham, and goes well fresh. Williams won this race with a nine-year-old back in 1999, and at 33/1 this fella would be an interesting each-way punt with conditions to suit.
It’s a hugely competitive renewal, as befits such a prestigious event. The best horse in the race is More Of That, and I think he’ll win. O’Neill appears bullish, and should the horse put his best hoof forward, he’ll be in a different class to these. I can’t have Frodon at the prices. He’s yet to truly prove his ability, especially in such a competitive race. He could be something special, but this is a huge test at such a young age.
As De Mee and Aso are most appealing of the remainder, and have the right profile to make an impact. Of the pair, I’d take As De Mee with the aid of a breathing operation to run a huge race. If soft or heavy appear in the ground description, I’ll be unable to resist a couple of quid on Tenor Nivernais.
Best of luck to all having a punt. It ought to be a cracker.