We may well see Altior back on a racecourse this weekend, with Nicky Henderson targeting The Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.
His imminent comeback is perfectly timed, following on as it does from a terrific performance in Ireland from his chief two-mile rival Min. It’s easy to forget how brilliant Altior is, but look again at his Supreme Novices’ victory of 2016, or last year’s Game Spirit romp. Some were less impressed by the Arkle Chase success, despite him storming clear from the last fence. And he was again at his destructive best when powering clear of Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.
Two from two at The Festival, he’ll hopefully return to Prestbury Park in March, and if back to his best, will make it a trio of victories at Jump racing’s most celebrated gathering.
Altior’s return got me thinking of others that will travel to Cheltenham in search of further Festival glory. Course form, especially a victory or prominent finish in a previous March gathering, is often a useful reference point for punters hoping to make a few quid during the four-day extravaganza.
Many horses find it difficult to handle Cheltenham’s undulations and that punishing uphill finish. The chase courses are especially testing with tricky downhill fences encountered as the tempo of a race intensifies. Cue Card’s ‘Groundhog Day’ moment at the third last in the past two Gold Cup’s is testament to the challenging nature of the track.
An ability to cope with the course is certainly essential, but returning heroes are often those that enjoy the spring conditions and a touch of sun on their backs. Some can slip off the radar after a winter toiling through the mud. Yet given a sounder surface they return rejuvenated to their happy hunting ground.
Cause Of Causes epitomises the phenomenon and must be followed whatever the target in March. Following his win in last year’s Cross Country Chase (his third Festival success), a thrilled Gordon Elliott said of his equine warrior: “He seems to come well at Cheltenham every year. He's an absolute superstar and we love him to bits.” It’s possible Elliott will send him in search of a repeat success in the ‘country’ before another crack at his main target, the Grand National.
Elliott has another Festival favourite in the yard, that may also line-up in the Cross Country. Tiger Roll was mightily impressive in winning last year’s National Hunt Chase (four-miler), three years after landing the Triumph Hurdle. The race will be remembered more for the drama surrounding Edwulf, though the way Tiger Roll ‘tanked’ his way through the marathon event was unforgettable. Hugely talented when in the mood, he clearly enjoys springtime in the Cotswolds.
Though yet to taste Festival success, I had to give a mention to the Tom George-trained Singlefarmpayment. Favourite to take last year’s Ultima Handicap Chase, he was chinned on the line by Un Temps Pour Tout (himself a dual-Festival winner). He’s likely to return for another crack and usually puts in a bold display at the Gloucestershire course. His six visits have gleaned two victories and a pair of second-place finishes. His handicap mark is just a touch higher than 12 months ago, and everything points to another productive Prestbury Park performance.
Several elite horses are simply so talented that they will inevitably become multi-festival winners, assuming they stay fit and well. Altior has already achieved ‘Cheltenham Star’ status, with Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade more than likely to add their names to the list of dual-Cheltenham Festival heroes in March. Un De Sceaux is another among that elite group that has already proved himself repeatedly at Jump racing’s Olympics.
Less flamboyant yet still likely to put their best foot forward in search of another Festival victory are Willoughby Court, Presenting Percy and Minella Rocco.
It was something of a surprise to see him defeat the ill-fated Neon Wolf in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore), but Willoughby Court has maintained that form over fences and is now favourite for the JLT at the festival. Slightly disappointing last time when trying to give Yanworth 5lbs in testing conditions, he’d previously defeated the same rival on level terms on a sounder surface. Ben Pauling’s yard have just started firing again after a lean spell, and this fella looks sure to go close in March.
Presenting Percy landed the Pertemps Final a year ago and will return to Prestbury Park as a leading contender for the RSA Chase. He’s two from three over fences this term and proved his well-being last time when impressive over hurdles at Gowran Park. He’ll have tough opposition to overcome, including the likes of Monalee, Yanworth and Al Boum Photo. Nevertheless, this talented stayer showed his love of the track last year and should go close again.
Jonjo’s Minella Rocco will again arrive at Cheltenham as a relatively unconsidered contender for the Gold Cup. Yet punters should surely take note of his previous Festival outings and act accordingly. He took the National Hunt Chase in 2016, defeating Native River. And in last year’s Gold Cup he was a fast-finishing runner-up to an in-form Sizing John. He proved to be my only antepost success, having had a few quid on him each-way at 33s. With better ground and that stamina-sapping hill playing to his strengths, I see no reason why this year’s renewal should be any different. If anything, the race looks more open this time around. He’s currently available at 25/1.
Finally, I need to mention the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion. I’m not on my own in fancying this fella for the Gold Cup (Twitter’s @TenEmbassy a huge fan), but the yard is yet to commit. I doubt he has the talent to win, but like Minella R, he’ll be charging up the famous hill and could be one for a place at a tasty price. He’s an RSA winner, and I’m reminded of Lord Windermere’s success some years back when an unconsidered outsider. I’m on at fancy odds, so let’s just hope that Big Nige takes the plunge.
A winter of discontent is not always a sign of decline. For those punters hoping to make money from the Cheltenham Festival, blinkers should be removed, and full consideration given to previous festival performances. Spring ground and the ability to act on a unique racecourse can often spark a return to form.