Missed Approach can land Sandown’s prestigious Gold Cup

A stunning six-timer on Wednesday, followed by a faultless display from a Mullins monster on Thursday, leaves poor old Gordon Elliott facing yet another frustrating finish to an otherwise sensational campaign.

Now apparently lacking the ‘zip’ for two, Mullins stepped Faugheen up to three miles to contest the Champion Stayers Hurdle. Sent to the front by young David Mullins, the 10-year-old absolutely tanked along, jumping like a stag throughout. He had the field in trouble from some way out, with only Cheltenham Stayers winner Penhill, putting up any sort of resistance. But Faugheen was not in the mood for company, and given a shake of the reins, pulled effortlessly clear for a 13-length success. Penhill and Shaneshill made it a one-two-three for Mullins.

He received a hero’s welcome in the winners’ enclosure, where an emotional owner, Rich Ricci, spoke to At The Races: “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s been a tough old season for him and for us. All of a sudden, he’s done that today and it’s magic. It’s credit to Willie as well. He’s amazing, as is everyone in the yard. While Cheltenham may have been disappointing, this makes up for it. This is fantastic and the reception he got here was brilliant. It’s a magic day.”

Little more than an hour after fantastic Faugheen, Punchestown was treated to fabulous Footpad. Foot perfect throughout, this outstanding novice chaser romped home by 12 lengths. His stunning display put the Closutton master more than 420,000 euros clear of a shell-shocked Gordon Elliott. Even a victory for the mighty Samcro over Mullins’ Melon in the Champion Hurdle today is unlikely to put the brakes on the Closutton express. Somewhat resembling King Canute, Elliott looks set to drown under this tsunami of Mullins winners.

Punchestown concludes on Saturday, as does the UK Jumps season, with a cracking finale at Sandown. Nicky Henderson will be crowned Champion Trainer for the second year running and his star chaser Altior will no doubt thrill an expectant crowd in the Celebration Chase.

The result of the Bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase looks far less assured, with a competitive field of 20 likely to go to post. Known as the Whitbread in the good old days, it’s a prestigious race that’s been won by some of the best. Arkle and Mill House landed the pot in the 1960s, whilst Diamond Edge became a Sandown superstar as the 70s became the 80s. Dessie won the race in 1988 and a few years back we were treated to a thrilling victory from a personal favourite of mine, when Tidal Bay hauled top-weight to an astounding 15-length success.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Following a first fence mishap at Aintree, Blaklion is tasked with heading the handicap for this assignment. Though he’s undoubtedly a warrior in testing ground, his chances of success under top-weight are surely enhanced by the current drier conditions. Nevertheless, this is a tall order, with only Tidal Bay lumping 11-12 to victory since the turn of the century. Only two others have managed to win with more than 11-stone on their backs in the past 20 renewals. The 2016 RSA winner is undoubtedly a classy staying chaser, and though he heads the betting, I fancy he’ll struggle under the welter burden.

The same can probably be said of Regal Encore, who is a horse that has continued to surprise me this winter. His run in the Ladbrokes Trophy (finished third) was most unexpected, and that he then won a competitive handicap at Ascot in February proved that on a going day, he has a touch of class. Nevertheless, he’s now on a career high mark of 154 and though going right-handed will suit, he can be prone to jumping errors, when getting very low at his fences. It’s tough to be confident about this fella, though his odds of 16/1 are tempting.

The rest of the field carry 11 stone or less, and the trends suggest that this is where we should look in our search for the winner.

Missed Approach is currently tussling for favouritism and was last seen winning the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival. Noel McParlan will once again be onboard and claims a valuable 5lbs. He gave the horse a beautifully judged ride at Prestbury Park, leading from the off, yet saving enough for a titanic battle up the final hill. The Cheltenham success followed a wind operation and though the eight-year-old is up 8lbs for that victory, he is only 1lb higher than when running a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase back in November.

Along with Blaklion, Nigel Twiston-Davies has Bigbadjohn towards the head of the market. Formerly trained by Rebecca Curtis, this nine-year-old unseated his rider in the Topham last time, having previously won at Kempton. A mark of 138 lands him an attractive race weight of 10-3, though it has to be said that he’ll need to improve on what he’s shown so far this season. Despite his prominence in the market, he’s not one for my shortlist.

The Young Master won this race in 2016 and is now on a 13lb lower handicap mark. Fancied to go well in the Scottish National (tipped up by me), his race only lasted to the first, where Sam Waley-Cohen was bounced out of the saddle. Prior to that he put in a reasonable performance at Cheltenham, though will appreciate the better ground at Sandown. There’s no doubt that his jumping is a concern, but he now looks to be incredibly well handicapped.

Nicky Henderson has had a terrific winter and will be hopeful of a decent performance from Sugar Baron. He ran well in last year’s race, before being swamped by challengers after the last fence. A year older, it’s likely he’s a little stronger and certainly a little more experienced. He clearly performs well at the track, having finished a close runner-up in the London National back in December. This better ground is a must for the son of Presenting and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t on the premises.

Paul Nicholls has captured two of the last six and is likely to let Present Man take his chance. He’ll be partnered by winter sensation Bryony Frost. She rode him to victory in the Badger Ales at Wincanton last November on soft ground, though whether she can guide him to see out this extended trip has to be a concern. He didn’t appear to get home in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and was pulled up in this race 12 months ago. Despite all that, I fancy he’ll go well under the talented claimer.

Another horse that enjoys his trips to Sandown is Rathlin Rose. Trained by David Pipe, the 10-year-old has won three times at the course, and though he’s up 5lbs since his win at Ascot in March, a mark of 133 appears reasonable. This will be his toughest task to date and he’s no progressive youngster. Nevertheless, his course form gives hope of a strong performance.

Competitive as ever, this valuable and prestigious handicap is a tough one to call. I fancy that Missed Approach will go very close, especially with the assistance of 5lb claimer Noel McParlan. Those that take to Sandown often return and go well. Benbens and Sugar Baron may well go close, but it’s Rathlin Rose that I’ll be siding with for the each-way money.

Best of luck to those taking a punt.

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

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

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

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

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat Offenders – Festival Favourites Aim To Be Back On Track

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

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

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

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

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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.

Warrior-like performance expected from The Last Samuri

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

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

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

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fox lacks Fizz as Nicholls makes it a Tingly Ten

At the highest level, Fox Norton’s vulnerability to a slicker and quicker two-miler proved his undoing, as Politologue held on for a thrilling victory in Saturday’s Tingle Creek at Sandown.

The six-year-old grey, trained by Paul Nicholls, jumped beautifully throughout and at the third-last came alongside Ar Mad at the front of affairs, with a couple of lengths back to Fox Norton. He maintained that advantage to the last and though the runner-up gained all the way to the line, he was never able to bridge the gap.

Nicholls was clearly thrilled with the victory, his tenth in the race: “That means an awful lot, we are just short of a Grade One horse and I always believed in this one. It was a good ride from Harry and I'm delighted for everybody. He is starting to look the proper job. I knew when he went to Exeter there would be huge improvement. No one ever believes you when you say they need a run, but he hadn't been back long enough really.”

The trainer added: “I knew they would go quick and his jumping stands him in great stead. Harry said he just cruises there and ends up idling in front. The faster they go, the more he can get a tow into the race. John (Hales, owner) has always wanted him to be a Gold Cup horse. I just thought at Haydock last season and at Cheltenham we were riding him wrong and doing the wrong thing. That's why I said we will go to back to two at Aintree and we were unlucky that day.”

Your first 30 days for just £1

Speaking to Racing UK a little later Nicholls added: “He’s only six and we’ll just go along with him quietly. That’s only his second run out of novice company and he’s won a Tingle Creek and a Haldon Gold Cup, which is what all those good ones I had before had done. His jumping is brilliant and that’s a big asset to him. We’ll possibly go to Ascot at the end of January for the Clarence House, but there’s one target, the Champion Chase, and that’s what we’ll aim at.”

Hales has owned other high-class two-milers including One Man and Azertyuiop, but had never previously captured the Tingle Creek. He said of the victory: “It is a wonderful win. I'm absolutely delighted. He is only a six-year-old. I thought we had a chance. I thought if we win this today, we've beaten a really good horse. It is a pity Douvan didn't come or Altior wasn't fit because I like to compete against the best and we don't duck anybody. But he a beat a very good horse and all credit to him.”

Harry Cobden had given the winner a perfect ride, and said: “He's a lovely horse, the first day I sat on him was at Haydock over two and a half on heavy ground, he took a bit of my heart that day and he's got it all now.”

Tizzard appeared a little stunned at proceedings, but admitted that there were always concerns over the right trip for Fox Norton: “Whether he is a Ryanair horse or a King George horse I don’t know. We’ll think about it. I’m sure from now on he will go up in trip - we hankered on it all last year and it looks more like it every time we talk about it. We got in a bit tight at the last and the Paul Nicholls horse was away.”

It became a day of rare disappointment for the Tizzard team, when the decision to run Finian’s Oscar in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase backfired spectacularly. Outpaced on the flat and woefully ponderous at his fences, the five-year-old is clearly no two-mile chaser. Tailed off throughout the contest, he finished 61 lengths behind the impressive winner Sceau Royal and will not be seen over the minimum trip again. Along with Fox Norton, Tizzard will be stepping him up for the remainder of the campaign. Both could find themselves running over three-miles at Kempton during the Christmas period.

The Alan King-trained winner was foot-perfect throughout and zipped past Brain Power approaching the last fence. Henderson’s fella got in close and stumbled on landing, sending David Mullins to the turf, whilst Sceau Royal scooted clear for an 11-length success. North Hill Valley was the eventual runner-up in a dramatic renewal.

The winner is likely to be aimed at the Arkle, though the large galloping and undulating track may not play to his strengths as Sandown clearly did. He was laser-sharp over the obstacles and clearly that will be of benefit come March, though his ability to battle bravely up the final hill will prove just as crucial.

One horse that did battle bravely in testing conditions was Blaklion at Aintree. Punters latched on to the Twiston-Davies chaser, and he was sent-off a short-priced favourite for the Becher Chase. He proved himself the class act, travelling powerfully throughout before pulling clear for a nine-length success. The Last Samuri ran another cracker over the National fences to finish second. Both are likely to return for the ‘main event’ in April, though their respective handicap marks will make life awfully difficult.

Fox to Capitalize on Douvan ‘No Show’

The Douvan ‘no show’ is clearly a blow for Sandown and their feature, the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday.

Nevertheless, no one should be surprised, as Willie Mullins has previous. Antepost punters must learn that lumping on a Mullins contender comes with a serious health risk. The trainer would say that his only loyalty is to the horse and the paying owners. Jump racing fans will be hoping that Douvan returns to his best sooner rather than later, and that a clash with the best two-milers takes place at Cheltenham in March.

The Tingle Creek was already missing one of the most exciting young chasers, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior. Stunning at the end of the last campaign when romping to victory in Sandown’s Celebration Chase, he’ll hopefully be back in time to lock horns with Douvan at Prestbury Park.

In the absence of arguably the most exciting pair of two-mile chasers, the money has come for the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton. Impressive winner of the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham on his seasonal return, he has yet to run at Sandown, though did win the Champion Chase at Punchestown in April going right-handed. Robbie Power gave him a fabulous ride that day, bustling the horse along early to ensure the speedier Un De Sceaux didn’t give them the slip. He both outstayed and out-battled the Mullins chaser that day.

Of his six opponents on Saturday I’m struggling to find one that is likely to trouble the favourite. A back to his best Ar Mad may have what it takes to get Fox Norton out of his comfort zone, though Gary Moore’s brittle seven-year-old has only run three times in the past two years. If allowed to bowl along at the head of affairs, he could have plenty of these in trouble, and he did run well to finish fourth in last year’s renewal despite having made a serious error at a crucial stage.

Politologue is the other contender with the potential to improve and become a serious challenger. The six-year-old is trained by Paul Nicholls, who just happens to be the most successful handler in the history of the race. He has nine wins in total, with eight of those coming in the last dozen years. The horse was an impressive winner on his seasonal return, when giving weight and a beating to San Benedeto in the Haldon Gold Cup. I’d expect him to be up the front end with Ar Mad, though whether he can hold off the late rattle of Fox Norton has to be doubtful.

Your first 30 days for just £1

I can’t see beyond the favourite, though Ar Mad at 20s has to worth a punt on finishing in the top two.

The other highlight of Saturday’s action is the Becher Chase at Aintree. The 3m2f trip over the National fences is always a major test for the staying chasers, but with ground described as ‘heavy’ this renewal looks sure to be a war of attrition.

Blaklion is as short as 5/2 in places for Saturday’s race, which seems incredibly mean for a 16-runner handicap of this nature. Nigel Twiston-Davies has had a terrific start to the campaign, and this fella ran a cracker on his seasonal debut when getting close to Bristol De Mai in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby. That performance came on soft ground and I’m convinced he’ll revel in conditions. He thoroughly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when looking the likely winner of the Grand National in April. He looks sure to go close, though is undoubtedly vulnerable to one off a low weight.

Vieux Lion Rouge and The Last Samuri are next best in the betting though I can’t see either beating the favourite. The former won the race last year with the latter third. Pipe’s chaser has gone up 10lbs since that victory and was 40 lengths behind Blaklion at Wetherby last time. The Last Samuri is likely to put-in a solid performance, but I can’t see him winning off top-weight.

As De Mee proved his liking for these unique fences when winning the Grand Sefton a year ago. He’s another that has seen his handicap mark suffer, and I’m far from sure he’ll enjoy the gruelling conditions. He’s talented, but he’s not for me in this ground.

Highland Lodge is not without a chance having won this race in 2015 and finished runner-up last year. He’s now an 11-year-old, though equine pensioners cannot be discounted from this. A 12, 13 and 14-year-old have won in the past seven renewals, and this fella is much better off at the weights with Vieux Lion Rouge this time around. The ground is no concern and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the shake-up.

Kerry Lee’s Goodtoknow will enjoy the test, having performed at his best in challenging conditions. He finished runner-up to One For Arthur in the Betfred Classic at Warwick back in January and then won in desperate ground at Hereford. He failed to see-out the trip in the National, but was prominent for a long way. I think he’ll run well.

Rogue Angel has proved a disappointment since winning the Irish National in 2016, but the nine-year-old has now dropped to a nice handicap mark and could go well. Mouse Morris won the ‘big-one’ with Rule The World and if this fella puts his best foot forward he’s capable of a huge performance. He was down the field in last year’s renewal though is 10lb better off. He led the Grand National for a long way in April before fading late-on. His odds of 18s look fair though not generous.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if Federici goes well from the bottom of the handicap. The eight-year-old is trained by Donald McCain, a man who knows a thing or two about the National course and how to win. Fifth in the Ulster National back in March, there is a slight concern over the ground, but the trip should prove ideal. He ran reasonably well in the Grand Sefton last winter, though would need a lifetime best to win this.

Despite my concerns over the weight he’s set to carry in such testing conditions I think Blaklion will take some beating. He’ll love the ground and a repeat of his run at Wetherby may well be good enough. Goodtoknow looks the main danger and will be my each-way punt.

Best of luck to those having a bet on Saturday.

Sue Smith Pair Can Prove National Treasures

Another weekend, and yet another national.

The Aintree winner was outstanding, and last Monday Our Duke was something close to sensational in running away with the Irish National, on only his fourth start over fences. I’d been impressed with him throughout the winter, but doubted he had enough experience to win a 30-runner handicap of such magnitude.

Team tactics, along with a huge amount of talent ensured Jess Harrington’s young chaser prevailed. Given a perfect ride from Robbie Power, Our Duke was kept prominent and wide throughout, given a clear sight of his fences, and ensuring that he was never ‘crowded’ at any stage. He jumped solidly, and when asked to go and win his race, he simply pulverised the opposition. It was a thrilling performance from the seven-year-old novice.

He’s been well supported for next year’s Gold Cup, and looks the ideal sort. He’s clearly a powerful stayer, who should appreciate the famous hill. He’ll need to polish-up the jumping a little if he is to test the impressive Sizing John. But, if Harrington can get them both to Prestbury Park in tip-top condition, Robbie Power will have an incredibly tough decision to make.

So, what of the third national in three weeks? Ayr plays host to the Scottish marathon, won last year by the Paul Nicholls trained Vicente. He’s back for another crack, though has to haul 11-10 over the four-mile trip, and you have to go back to 1985 for the last back-to-back success.

Your first 30 days for just £1

As with most distance handicaps, especially nationals, it’s carrying huge weights that has proved a major stumbling block for contenders. In the last dozen renewals, only two have carried more than 11 stone to victory, and both of those had 11-3 on their back. There was a period between 1993 and 2004, when four horses triumphed off top-weight, but recent trends follow the norm.

It’s probably fair to say that tomorrow’s race looks a pretty ordinary renewal. Despite a torrid campaign, the aforementioned Vicente is virtually top-weight, and may well go-off favourite. He remains on the same handicap mark as 12 months ago, but has shown little spark over the winter, with his fall at the first at Aintree, rather summing-up his season.

Missed Approach heads the weights after his runner-up performance in the four-miler at Cheltenham. Carrying 11-12 is a huge negative, but his run in the Cotswolds was a cracker, showing he clearly appreciates a marathon trip. He could go well here, but it’s a tall order from the top of the pile.

Arpege D’Alene is another Nicholls contender towards the head of the handicap and the betting market. He was fourth in the four-miler at the Festival, proving his ability to cope with these extended trips. His jumping can be erratic at times, and that could make it tough for him to hold a prominent position. He has the talent to go close, but his jumping, along with plenty of weight on his back, are two major worries.

Nicky Henderson never wins nationals, though he has his best chance for a while with Premier Bond. The seven-year-old has only run four times over fences, though such a lack of experience hasn’t always been a problem in past Scottish Nationals. Beshabar (4), in 2011, Godsmejudge (6) in 2013 and Vicente (7) last year, were all similarly lacking in chasing experience when successful here. Premier Bond was third in the Fulke Walwyn at Cheltenham, and this extended trip may well suit. He looks to be on the right kind of mark to run well, and I fancy he’ll go close.

I’m losing track of the times I’ve tipped-up Shotgun Paddy for this type of race, and he’s once again hard to ignore. He’s a relentless galloper, but is always likely to find a couple with a little more ‘toe’ at the business end. Nevertheless, his handicap mark continues to give hope of a huge run, and his third-place finishes in the Classic Chase at Warwick and the Eider at Newcastle, show that he retains plenty of ability. He’s available at a tempting 16/1.

Six of the last 10 renewals have gone to those at odds of 14/1 or shorter, and Vintage Clouds falls neatly into that category. Sue Smith trains the Trevor Hemmings entrant, and this seven-year-old has proved a consistent performer throughout the winter. He was a promising third behind Vieux Lion Rouge and Blaklion in the Haydock Grand National Trial in February. He came down at Cheltenham when going well in the Ultima Handicap Chase, and I fancy that he’ll go well tomorrow. He can be clumsy at his fences, and he’ll need a better round to go close. Nevertheless, I think his handicap mark is favourable.

Another Sue Smith contender that could go well at a huge price is Blakemount. He ran out of gas in testing ground at Uttoxeter in the Midlands National, when looking the likely winner three-out. By Presenting out of a Supreme Leader mare, I’m confident he’ll enjoy the sounder surface, and that this marathon trip is within his compass. He could be an exciting each-way proposition.

Picking the winner of this 30-runner marathon is a tall order. And I’m going to be greedy in firing three bullets at the target. Sue Smith knows how to win a national, and I’ll be backing both Vintage Clouds and Blakemount. And I fancy Nicky Henderson will go very close to ending his National jinx with Premier Bond.

Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Irish Point Notes: THAT point-to-point

The Aintree Grand National witnessed a remarkable result this year if you are a fan of walking in muddy fields with the rain pelting down, otherwise known as point-to-pointing, writes David Skelly. I must admit I am partial to that particular day out and I love to scamper out into the countryside to watch the horses jumping at full stretch. An occupational hazard is keeping a weather eye out for loose horses galloping gaily on without their original riders.

The headlines that delved a little deeper into this year’s National result told us that for the second year in a row Lucinda Russell’s winner had learnt his tradecraft in the Irish point-to-point nursery scene and One For Arthur’s victory followed that of Rule The World in 2016. For the record, since 2000 a total of three other Irish point-to-point graduates have collected the winners’ garland and these were Bindaree (2002), Monty’s Pass (2003) and Silver Birch in 2007 for the relatively unknown Gordon Elliott who continues to train the odd winner..

The disclosure that One For Arthur had won his four-year-old maiden at Lingstown in November 2013 was enhanced by the fact that he beat Saturday’s National favourite, Blaklion, by eight lengths in that maiden and repeated the winning distance in the “world’s favourite steeplechase” with Blaklion finishing fourth, eight-and-three-quarter lengths behind One For Arthur. Blaklion was then trained by Colin McKeever: he won his, now, five-year-old maiden a couple of months later before joining Nigel Twiston-Davies in a private deal. One For Arthur – probably forgiven the fact it took him five attempts to win his maiden on account of his sire, Milan – left Liam Kenny’s Enniscorthy base and cost the Two Golf Widows £60,000 before heading for Russell’s Scottish base. It seems an expensive gesture on behalf of the male widowers to placate two unhappy spouses but no doubt they are patrons of an all-male club!

The part of my brain that occasionally sees a bottle as half-empty immediately prompted the questions: what finished second in that fateful Lingstown maiden splitting these two top chasers and how has his career prospered since?

Your first 30 days for just £1

The answer to the first question is: The Wexfordian.

It’s fair to say that this race did not especially catch the eye of the race readers back then with the first three home rated 86, 83 and a relatively lowly 78. Today, an impressive winning four-year-old will be rated in the low nineties and a small degree of rating inflation has crept into being, probably in direct proportion to the rising prices achieved for winning point-to-point graduates at public auction. Whether or not the increase in ratings is justified remains moot.

The Wexfordian was then trained by Liz Doyle in, where else, but Wexford and never ran in a point-to-point again. He was despatched to the Brightwells Cheltenham Sale the following month and joined Martin Keighley having been secured by the agent, Gerry Hogan, for a bid of £45,000 which was a decent return for the owner-breeder of this Shantou gelding.

You pays your money and you takes your chances in this game and The Wexfordian has run fourteen times for Keighley and, whilst running respectably, has yet to get his head in front whilst wearing an assortment of head gear. He has finished second on four occasions, including his last three starts in handicaps over hurdles and fences, his last start being in a seller, and his owners probably hate Wexford people at this stage.

In an interesting postscript I picked up the following from Keighley’s blog after The Wexfordian last ran on Tuesday, 11 April: “Sadly, The Wexfordian yesterday failed to frank the form of his debut Irish point to point (Nov 2013) with Saturday’s Grand National winner One For Arthur, who won that day, and Grand National fourth Blaklion, who finished behind him in 3rd, when only managing to finish 2nd in his Selling Hurdle at Exeter yesterday! He’s had his problems and hasn’t been the easiest to train but has been pretty frustrating. He was claimed yesterday so we wish them luck with him.”

And so say all of us!

David Skelly is a chartered accountant and Ballydoyle/Coolmore graduate who now dispenses pearls of wisdom to private bloodstock clients. Likes to look beyond the headline and the obvious to offer insights to professionals and punters alike. David can be contacted at or via twitter @djskelly1

King Arthur Rules At Aintree

One For Arthur became King of Aintree, as he stayed on powerfully to land the Grand National in thrilling fashion.

The Gigginstown pair of Roi Des Francs and Rogue Angel set the pace for much of the race, tracked by the heavily backed favourite Blaklion. As the front duo began to feel the pinch, Noel Fehily took up the running on the strong-travelling market leader, and looked to be making a break for glory. But at the second last it was One For Arthur that swept to the front, with Cheltenham hero Cause Of Causes launching a brave challenge.

At the elbow the winner had pulled three lengths clear, and maintained that advantage all the way to the finish. A brave Cause Of Causes galloped all the way to the line for second place, whilst Saint Are stayed on well to pip Blaklion for third.

It was a first Grand National win for Scotland since Rubstic in 1979. The winning trainer Lucinda Russell, was bursting with pride when saying of the success: “I am so proud of the horse. He jumped fantastically and I thought Derek gave him a great ride. He has done us proud, he has done Scotland proud and he has done everyone at the yard proud.

Your first 30 days for just £1

“Before the Melling Road, I was up with the owners and we just shouted, ‘We're going to win the National.’ Derek is great at getting these horses to finish strongly and I knew that he would stay, so maybe it was a bit bold but it was right.”

It was a wonderfully cool ride from Fox, who sat well off the strong pace, timing his challenge to perfection. The victory was especially sweet, as he had only just returned from injury to make the ride. He fractured his left wrist and right collar bone in a fall last month, and spent three weeks in Jack Berry House, undergoing intensive treatment at the rehabilitation centre.

“I saw the doctor a couple of days after the fall, and he took the plaster cast off,” Fox said. “I asked him whether I could back in four weeks and he said the only way to do it would be to be without a cast and left a splint on. I stayed there for just under three weeks and I didn’t leave. I did a lot of physio work in the hydro pool and training on the bike. Every other bit of fitness work you could do without putting any pressure on the collar bone I did it.”

Though only half the field finished the race, it was fantastic to see all 40 runners return home safe and sound. Of the leading pre-race contenders that failed to place; Vieux Lion Rouge again appeared to find the National trip beyond him, finishing sixth. Very much in touch three from home, he was almost 30 lengths adrift at the finish.

Top-weight and last year’s runner-up The Last Samuri was unable to cope with the burden of 11-10, and trailed home in 16th place. Definitly Red was badly impeded at Becher’s first time, and had to be pulled-up shortly after. Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu only made it to the 11th fence, and More Of That failed to last out the marathon trip, being pulled-up by Barry Geraghty at the last.

Of the top 15 finishers, only Blaklion carried more than 11 stone, with the first three home carry 10-11, 10-13 and 10-10. Despite all the talk of classier renewals and handicap-compression, weight remains a vital factor in winning the World’s greatest steeplechase.

Away from the National, there’s a need to mention the fabulous Aintree experienced by Colin Tizzard, owners Ann and Alan Potts and their jockey Robbie Power. Finian’s Oscar and Sizing Codelco were winners on the day, adding to Pingshou and Fox Norton a day earlier. It’s been an especially thrilling period for the owners, following on from the glorious success of Sizing John in the Gold Cup. They have much to be excited about.

It’s Back to Blak for the Grand National

Finding the winner of the World’s most famous steeplechase is no easy task. But I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t like a challenge, so let’s have a crack at uncovering this year’s Grand National hero.

It’s important to reflect on recent renewals when attempting to solve the Aintree puzzle, though a quick peek over the last decade or so, does nothing to settle my nerves for the task ahead. Last year’s winner, Rule The World, was a 33/1 shot who had failed to win any of his previous starts over fences. In 2015 and 2014 we had winners priced at 25/1, and in 2013 a 66/1 shot caused a mighty upset. Add to those a further pair at 33s and a 100/1 rank outsider, and you begin to appreciate the size of the task.

With a field of 40 going to post, I must first attempt to cull the no-hopers from the possible contenders. We have to go back to 1940 for the last seven-year-old winner, suggesting that the younger chasers probably lack both the mental and physical constitution for this marathon event.

There’s also a case to dismiss the chances of 12-year-olds, with only one in the last 20 years successful. But it’s likely we’ll have two in the field, and both have the perfect winning profile. Raz De Maree and Bless The Wings have excelled in similar staying chases, with the former runner-up in the Welsh National in December, and the latter filling the same position in the Irish National just 12 months ago. Of course, both have plenty of miles on the clock, but their recent form suggests they both retain plenty of ability.

So, with 37 horses still on my ‘contenders’ list, I now turn my attention to chasing experience. It’s no surprise that winners of the great race have been competing in all the usual trials, gaining that vital experience that will enable them to cope in a 40-runner marathon, with 30 fences to conquer.

Over the past decade, seven winners had run between 10 and 14 times over the larger obstacles. Rule The World, though a novice and a maiden over fences, had at least gained enough chasing experience, including a second-place finish in the Irish National. Many Clouds had just 10 outings over the larger obstacles before his famous win in 2015, but had won the Hennessy at Newbury several months earlier.

Your first 30 days for just £1

If I’m stringent in applying the ‘experience trend’, I am successful in excluding half a dozen or so from my ‘contenders’ list. Unfortunately, this application highlights the difficulty this year in reducing the number of potential winners. Definitly Red, Vieux Lion Rouge and Pleasant Company all fall short of the ideal level of chasing experience, and as such I should put a line through the trio. Yet all three are strongly fancied to go well, with Vieux Lion having experience in the right kind of races to go well tomorrow.

For many years, I would have no hesitation in putting a line through those carrying more than 11 stone. Hedgehunter carried a pound more when winning in 2005, though he was an exception at the time. However, in recent years, a combination of factors has resulted in horses winning despite carrying huge weights. The standard of competitors has certainly improved, with the handicaps from top to bottom becoming compressed. Doctor Harper on 10-6 and rated at 143, is likely to be at the bottom of the weights tomorrow. Hedgehunter was rated 144 when winning in 2005, yet carried a lofty 11-1.

Three of the last seven winners have carried 11-5 or more, though only Gilgamboa (fourth) carried more than 11 stone to a top ten finish last year. And though Many Clouds lumped 11-9 to victory, only one other carried more than 11 stone to a top dozen finish behind him. It therefore follows that we should still be safe in putting an upper-limit at around 11 stone for the likely winner.

If I ruthlessly draw a line just above those carrying 11-1, I can start to focus on the 20 plus contenders that remain on my list.

I’m keen on Blaklion for Nigel Twiston-Davies. Last year’s RSA winner has failed to progress to the top-table, but he looks the ideal sort for this. He finished a creditable fifth in the Hennessy Gold Cup, off a mark of 154 back in November. He then ran arguably a career best at Haydock in the Grand National trial, off top weight, when trying to give Vieux Lion Rouge 6lbs. It’s a lack of gears that stops this fella from reaching the top. But he has a touch of class, and looks a thorough stayer. He should go close.

Vieux Lion Rouge has done little wrong this winter, and clearly holds strong claims. Both trainer and jockey are adamant that he has strengthened since last year’s seventh-place finish, when beaten a mile by Rule The World. That may be true, and he certainly wasn’t stopping at Haydock last time. He finished with a rattle to win the Becher, and certainly looks a more resolute character this year. It’s right that he’s towards the head of the betting.

I’m less convinced by Definitly Red, though he did run well in the Grimthorpe last time at Doncaster. His jumping can be a little patchy, and though he beat Blaklion at Wetherby in December, he was receiving a ton of weight on that occasion. He looks a horse that enjoys a smaller field, and I’d fancy he’ll be harassed into errors tomorrow.

One For Arthur looks a thorough stayer and could run into a place. He ran well in the Becher Chase and then stayed on well to take the Betfred Classic at Warwick. He lacks a prep-run, and the stats show that this is certainly a negative. Nevertheless, I think he’ll go well, though he probably lacks the class to win.

Paul Nicholls will be desperate for success, as he attempts to cling to his trainers’ crown. Vicente looked a promising sort last year, and ran a cracker to win the Scottish National. But he’s proved a major disappointment this winter, despite conditions often being in his favour. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to him, as was owner Trevor Hemmings, who bought him in March. He’s worth a few quid at around 25/1.

Having discounted those above 11-1, I wish to give a mention to Paul Nicholls’ other leading hope, Saphir Du Rheu. He ran a cracker in the Gold Cup, and is without doubt a classy sort. He’s high enough in the handicap for me, and his jumping has proved an issue in the past. Nevertheless, if he gets into a decent rhythm, he could certainly run into a place.

Finally, a horse from left field that could run a huge race at a huge price. I was on Lord Windermere at 33s when he took the Gold Cup in 2014, and I’m unable to pass on the opportunity of backing him at 50s for this. He’s hopeless on soft ground, but is a different beast with conditions suit. His seasonal debut showed promise, and he has the ideal partner in two-time Grand National winner Leighton Aspell.

No doubt many of us will be scratching our heads as the winner crosses the line, but you need to be in-it to win-it. I’m all-over Blaklion for the win, and will be taking a punt at Lord Windermere each-way at 50s, and Vicente at 25s. Best of luck to all.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Festival Form-Keep The Faith

Previous Festival form should never be ignored when assessing the contenders for those four famous days at Prestbury Park.

Year after year, horses return to the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’, and display their true ability, often rewarding those that ‘keep the faith’. A return to Cheltenham’s unique undulations may be the spark, or possibly the chance of running on decent spring ground rather than trudging through deep winter mud. Whatever, the reason, Festival perennials need spotting, and following.

Some of course are higher profile than others. Hurdling hero Hardy Eustace landed the Neptune as a novice in 2003, before returning to become a dual-winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 2005. He continued to enjoy his Cotswold excursions in 2006 and 2007, when third and fourth in the hurdling showpiece.

Denman was another Cheltenham legend that flourished at the track. Runner-up in the Neptune of 2006, he returned in stunning fashion to take the RSA of 2007, before his famous Gold Cup romp of 2008. He was then runner-up on three occasions in steeplechasing’s premier race; behind Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Long Run. That final effort came in 2011 as an 11-year-old.

More recently, Vautour became a ‘Festival Banker’ for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. It’s tragic when we lose such a star, but his Cheltenham heroics will live long in the memory. He followed his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle demolition of 2014, with one of the Festival’s greatest performances, when putting in an astounding round of jumping to win the JLT Novices’ Chase of 2015. He landed the Ryanair last March with the minimum of fuss, and who knows what he would have achieved this time around.

These of course, were National Hunt elite, and always likely to achieve repeated Festival success
if staying fit and well. Though we weren’t to know for sure when they arrived on the scene, indeed Hardy Eustace won his first Champion Hurdle as a 33/1 shot.

Your first 30 days for just £1

So, the trick is now to find the latest Festival regulars, who are likely to put their best hoof forward, achieving further success on the greatest stage, and leaving punters celebrating in the process. Some are clearly more predictable than others, and as such, hold little value from a punting prospective.

Douvan looks sure to add to his Festival haul in the Champion Chase. Already a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, the latest ‘Mullins Machine’ appears peerless, and it would come as a mighty shock if he were not to add to his Supreme and Arkle victories.

Similarly, Nicky Henderson’s Altior appears to be starting down the road to Festival immortality. Attempting to mirror the achievements of Douvan, he has looked sensational over fences this winter, and it’s hard to imagine anything landing a blow when the flag drops in the Arkle on the opening day.

Less flashy, yet still likely to make it two from two, is the Stayers’ favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He was something of a surprise winner of the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago, but it would come as no surprise were he to win the staying hurdle crown this time round. Winner of his last eight, he sets the standard, having won all the usual trials en route.

But there’s also those that consistently hit the frame in March, and yet still give plenty of value to those brave enough to take a punt.

Sizing John is one such beast, having finished behind Douvan on his last two visits to Prestbury Park in March. Third in the Supreme Novices’ in 2015 at a stonking 25/1, he then came runner-up to the Mullins hotshot in the Arkle, when again a generous 9/1. Those performances undoubtedly came at trips that were too short for Jess Harrington’s sizeable gelding. His success in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, proved that he could see-out an extended trip, and it’s likely that he will now take his chance in an open looking Gold Cup. There’s every chance that he is once again being underestimated by many, with numerous bookies offering 10s for this perennial Festival achiever.

Jonjo O’Neill makes a habit of landing Festival prizes with horses that peak at exactly the right time. He has a host of contenders that look capable of out-running their current form figures, and would leave punters crying ‘how did I miss that one?’. Minella Rocco took the four-miler last year, defeating Gold Cup favourite Native River, and is currently available at 25s for the ‘Blue Riband’. With two-falls-and- a-submission to his name so far this winter, it would take a brave punter to chuck a fistful of dollars his way, yet many apparently have. He has ‘Festival-previous’, and that counts for plenty.

Another Jonjo regular, who always punches above his weight, is the diminutive 10-year-old Holywell. His Cheltenham Festival record is a cracker, and yet he would be easy to overlook. A Pertemps Final victory in 2013 was followed by a win in the Ultima Handicap Chase (then the Baylis & Harding) a year later. In 2015 he took on the ‘big-boys’ and managed a stunning fourth place finish behind Coneygree, despite the ground being against him. Then last year he returned to the Ultima, with a cracking runner-up finish despite lumping top-weight around the 3m1f. His handicap mark is currently 148, having been 153 this time last year. Bookies are offering 16/1 against him taking the opening day handicap!

Willie Mullins has had his share of upset during the winter, but remains the trainer to follow when the Festival arrives. He’ll have plenty of contenders for major honours, with one hoping to end a run of near misses at Cheltenham’s prestigious meeting. Bumper runner-up; second in the Supreme Novices’ and chinned by Blaklion for last year’s RSA, Shaneshill looks set to contest the Stayers’ Hurdle this time. By leading Festival Sire King's Theatre, he’s 10/1 in places to get the better of Unowhatimeanharry, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close.

Mullins sends a strong team across the Irish Sea, and is joined by Gordon Elliott, who looks sure to have Festival winners among his team. Somewhere in the region of 30 horses are likely to make the journey, with Death Duty and Mega Fortune particularly strong fancies.

Cause Of Causes loves Cheltenham, especially with ground conditions to suit. A sound surface is ideal, and but for a mistake at the last fence in the Kim Muir of 2014, he would have a trio of Festival victories to his name. Elliott is aiming the nine-year-old at the Grand National, but will take in the Cross Country at Cheltenham as a prep. He had a ‘warm-up’ in January on Trials Day, when some distance back in fifth. Expect him to be much closer this time, as he looks to add to his impressive Festival CV.

Cheltenham form and especially previous Festival form is often a key pointer when searching for those elusive winners. There’s sure to be plenty of returning heroes that again land a major Festival success for trainers, connections, and hopefully for us punters, brave enough to keep the faith.

Lions run with pride at Haydock

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

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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

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

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

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

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

Lions to Roar in Haydock Trial

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

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

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

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

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

Your first 30 days for just £1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayf Tara – Stallion’s Powerful Progeny

Kayf Tara has been one of the most successful National Hunt stallions for well over a decade.

And he was no slouch on the racecourse. Out of the Irish Oaks winner Colorspin and from one of the greatest sire’s Sadler’s Wells, Kayf Tara was first trained by Sir Michael Stoute before switching to Saeed bin Suroor. Under Godolphin he became one of the great stayers of his time, capturing the Ascot Gold Cup in 1998 and 2000. He also became dual-winner of the Irish St Leger, and won both the Goodwood and Yorkshire Cups.

He retired to stud in 2001, and has been responsible for high-class jumpers such as; Special Tiara, Planet Of Sound, Carruthers, Blaklion, and potentially the best of the lot, Thistlecrack. His home is Overbury Stud, near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, just a short drive from the home of jump racing, Cheltenham Racecourse. In his time there, he has become Champion British National Hunt sire on seven occasions.

Producing a star-performer such as Thistlecrack has certainly put the stallion in the limelight, though his influence has rarely waned over the years. The aforementioned Special Tiara, has been among the elite two-mile chasers in recent times. He captured the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase during Christmas 2014, and a few months later won the Grade 1 Celebration Chase at Sandown. He was only just denied victory in the Tingle Creek last winter, and arguably should have been awarded the race in the stewards’ room.

Your first 30 days for just £1

It appears that his spot as the Kayf Tara ‘top two-mile chaser’ could be in danger, with novice Identity Thief looking mightily impressive so far this winter. Two from two since switching to the larger obstacles, he was a classy hurdler, winning the Fighting Fifth last year, and has clearly transferred that talent to chasing. He’s sure to be tested over Christmas, with the likelihood of a clash with Mullins’ Min.

Though rarely a headliner, Planet Of Sound was a quality chaser for Philip Hobbs. Third in an Arkle, his finest hour came at Punchestown in April 2010, when winning the Guinness Gold Cup, defeating War Of Attrition and Denman in the process. A year later he finished runner-up in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, beaten by another from the Kayf Tara production line, Carruthers.

Blaklion and Carole’s Destrier look set to be the next Kayf Tara pair to challenge for major honours over marathon trips. The former is already a Grade 1 winning chaser, after his victory in the RSA at Cheltenham back in March. He ran well for a long way in the Hennessy Gold Cup, though was ultimately undone by a combination of 11 stone and lively ground. There’s plenty more to come from this progressive seven-year-old, especially with conditions to suit.

Carole’s Destrier is only a year older, and came close to capturing the Hennessy, when only just failing to get to Native River in a thrilling finish. He won a London National at Sandown last winter, and is a well-fancied second favourite to take the Welsh National at Chepstow over the Christmas period. He’s effective on all ground, and should be a huge player.

It could prove an incredible Christmas for Kayf Tara, with a pair of his progeny likely to take their place in Kempton’s showpiece on Boxing Day. Potentially the best of the lot was confirmed a runner on Monday, after owners John and Heather Snook rather surprisingly said ‘it’s definitely the King George for Thistlecrack’, setting up a clash with stable companion Cue Card.

Last year’s World Hurdle winner is one of the most gifted racehorses, and has cruised to victory in his first three outings over fences. Nevertheless, this is a huge challenge for a novice chaser, and in Cue Card he faces arguably the best staying chaser in the business.

He’ll be joined in the line-up by seven-year-old Tea For Two, another by Kayf Tara, who 12 months ago was an impressive winner of the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at this meeting. He had Hennessy winner Native River seven lengths back on that occasion. He’s three from three at the track, and is an intriguing contender.

Though I’ve spent time highlighting established stars from this incredible stallion, I’d also like to point out the substantial impact of Kayf Tara progeny when competing in bumpers. Ballyandy took the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in March, and Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace captured the mares equivalent at Aintree a few weeks later. Sadly, I’ve no stats to back it up, but I’d always be giving Kayf Tara progeny a second look when running in bumpers.

It looks like being another sensational winter for this mighty stallion. Thistlecrack is undoubtedly the fag-bearer, but he is ably supported by an array of talented young horses.

’tis Tizzard Again

Another Saturday brought another huge success for Colin Tizzard and his Dorset team, as they lifted the Hennessy Gold Cup.

Punters launched into race favourite Native River as if defeat was out of the question. And they were proved right, as the six-year-old held off a late challenge from Carole’s Destrier, to win the prestigious prize. Positioned towards the head of affairs by Richard Johnson, Tizzard’s charge jumped with gusto, sharing the lead with Double Ross throughout.

Turning for home the Twiston-Davies chaser was travelling the better of the two, and he swept to the lead, looking the likely winner. But as the pair approached the second last fence, the favourite had responded to Johnson’s urgings, and was back alongside his main rival. A prodigious leap at the last looked to have sealed the victory, but punters were made to sweat, as Noel Fehily produced a late charge from the Neil Mulholland trained Carole’s Destrier.

Your first 30 days for just £1

The winning distance of less than a length probably flattered the runner-up, with Native River appearing to pick-up again when challenged.

Tizzard spoke to Channel 4 after the victory, saying: “Everything was right for him today; going left-handed and a flat track. He went clear and looked like he would win easily. The other horse (Carole's Destrier) nearly got to him, but then he went again, which is the sign of a good, honest stayer.”

Speaking of future targets, the trainer hinted at a three-pronged assault in the Gold Cup: “He's in the Welsh National but he won't go there if it’s a slog. He's a stayer but he might just be a bit better than that. If he is in the same sort of form in March, he will join Thistlecrack and Cue Card. Hennessy winners go on to do that. They are right there in with the best of them.”

Richard Johnson was winning the Hennessy for the first time, and was clearly delighted when saying: “I was very lucky to pick up the ride on him at Aintree at the end of last season. Colin Tizzard said he stays and jumps and does what it says on the tin. Three and a quarter miles around here, you need a proper stayer and he had it in abundance. He probably idled and found a bit more. The big winners on Saturday is always what you are aiming at. This is race I've never won before and I've had quite a lot of goes. I've been second a couple of times so to win it is special.”

Carole’s Destrier finished the race to great effect, and looks every bit a national horse. He goes on all grounds, and his trainer, Neil Mulholland, confirmed: “He wants further. He will have an entry in this year's Grand National all going well. The plan was always to come here and go for the Welsh National so I don't see why that will change.”

Blaklion looked to have every chance turning for home, but his challenge flattened-out. He’ll have his wind checked, but I’m of the opinion that he’s a little one-paced. A stiff finish and softer ground will see him winning a valuable prize before the season is over.

And of the winner, Tizzard must now map a course for three potential Gold Cup challengers. There’s a chance this fella would be outpaced a little against the elite, but he finds a ton for pressure, and would be storming up that famous hill if taking his chance. He’s still 20s in places for the ‘big one’ in March. That looks a tasty and tempting price to me.