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Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day 3 Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day 3 Preview, Tips

Day three, Thursday, at the Cheltenham Festival is the first half of the second half, or the third quarter, or just plain old Day 3. Those in good shape after the opening two days shouldn't get too far ahead of themselves, and there is plenty of time for those behind the eight ball to make a meaningful break. After all, there are still fourteen races to go!

1.20 Marsh Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

We start day three with the Marsh Chase, an intermediate distance novice event where those lacking the speed for the Arkle and with doubtful stamina for the Brown Advisory/RSA/Broadway can combine what they have of each of those commodities over two and a half miles. In spite of that vaguely insulting introduction, the roll of honour for the Marsh, registered as the Golden Miller (all very confusing with so many sponsorship changes), is impressive enough: the likes of Sir Des Champs, Vautour, Yorkhill, Defi Du Seuil and Samcro decorate its honours board.

But, tellingly perhaps, none of those winners - or any other Marsh/JLT/Gold Miller winner - has gone on to win one of either the Gold Cup or Champion Chase. Vautour did triumph in the Ryanair but, if you fancy Envoi Allen to double up in the Gold Cup next season, you might ask why he's not having a crack at Monkfish this time around. Anyway, I digress...

Envoi Allen is the big dog in this field. He is unbeaten in eleven Rules starts (and a point to point, where he had Appreciate It back in third) and he won the Ballymore (formerly the Neptune, registered as the Baring Bingham, sigh) last year and the Champion Bumper the year before. I was surprised - perhaps I shouldn't have been - to discover that the Marsh has been won by any number of previous Festival novice hurdle winners: Samcro, Defi Du Seuil, Yorkhill and Vautour had all won either the Triumph, Supreme or Ballymore, and Sir Des Champs won the Martin Pipe. When you consider there have only been ten renewals of the Marsh, that's a strong pointer and Envoi checks that box.

His chase form has been solid if unspectacular to this point although he has never faced a proper challenge. On the one hand, that's testament to his class but, on the other, one wonders whether he'll give as generously off the bridle as on it. Or, indeed, whether he will come off the snaff at all! If you're on at a fancy price, you'll be happy enough to accept your fate as it comes; but if you're toying with the odds on - as a single or part of a multiple - it is a possible fly in the ointment. And, being brutally honest, there are not many others I could find.

Envoi Allen seems to handle any ground, is fully effective at the trip, has bundles of Grade 1 winning form to demonstrate his class, has won at the track, and is tractable in terms of run style. He has very recently changed stables and maybe that's a tiny concern, but Henry de Bromhead is a master at readying one for this Festival (I've backed him as a bit of value to be top trainer) so I'm not at all concerned about that.

Who might give Envoi most to ponder? Shan Blue was impressive at Kempton in the Kauto Star (Feltham as was) at Christmas, his electric jumping a sumptuous feature of his win. And that athleticism will stand him in good stead here for all that Cheltenham is less about rhythm and more about stamina than Kempton. His defeat by Sporting John in the Scilly Isles was still good form: he led or disputed for most there at a fast pace and was softened up for the late run of Sporting John, himself ridden very quietly throughout.

Blackbow has a chequered history over fences thus far: after an easy beginners' win on chase debut he then fell when lobbed in deep in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Christmas. A distant third to Energumene in an ungraded (in name) novice chase next time, the stewards enquired as to the extreme waiting tactics deployed. The response was that he'd taken a heavy fall the time before, which I think was reasonable. Most recently, he again had a cut at Grade 1 company and again finished behind Energumene, but this time at a more creditable ten length distance.

This will be a first attempt at beyond 2m1f and, as a keen goer who wears a hood, it's not guaranteed he'll stay; but the slightly steadier tempo should put his jumping under less pressure, and he clearly has a touch of class.

Talking of Mullins novices with chequered histories, the chequered colours of yellow and black carried by Asterion Forlonge have twice hit the deck this season. He ran all right but not great at the Dublin Racing Festival behind Monkfish, but was errant in the extreme here in the Supreme last year. A talented horse, no doubt, he's a few quirks that make him as big a swerve as he did at most of the hurdles twelve months ago!

Chatham Street Lad rose to prominence with a course and distance romp in the Caspian Caviar Handicap Chase, blowing apart a 17-runner field by fully fifteen lengths. That was a massive effort and, while he didn't back it up next time over two miles in a Grade A handicap chase at Fairyhouse, the return to a proven track and trip is a plus. The problem for backers of this Lad is that he doesn't have another piece of form within ten pounds of the course and distance procession, leaving a doubt as to whether he can back it up. If he can, he'll get close to a concert pitch Envoi Allen; as a nine-year-old with 21 races under his belt, I'm far from convinced. It would however be a great story for trainer Michael Winters, who campaigned Rebel Fitz and Missunited so well a decade or so ago: he knows what to do with a good'un, that's for sure.

I had hoped that Fusil Raffles would go the Arkle route, having backed him for that race before I converted to Shishkinism. But this longer trip - and avoidance of Shishkin if not Envoi Allen (you can't dodge them all) - looks right based on a course and distance novice chase win in December. He had Lieutenant Rocco, very well fancied for the Ultima before handing in his sick note, and fellow Seven Barrows inmate Chantry House behind that day and the form looks robust. He was a Grade 1 winning juvenile hurdler and is three from four over fences. Interesting contender.

Chantry House re-opposes, having dotted up in a little race at Wetherby since the Cheltenham race. That was more experience for him and, on his Supreme third he has the class to again make the Festival frame. I have an inkling that he might win the Henderson match bet this time.

Last year's Champion Hurdle third, Darver Star, has not looked a natural over fences but his class got him into contention in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novices' Chase at Christmas. He was walloped by Energumene - and most of the rest of the field - in the Irish Arkle and comes here with plenty to prove.

Marsh Chase Pace Map

Envoi Allen may bid to make all, though Shan Blue and, when he stands up, Asterion Forlonge also go forward frequently. Could be pretty fast.

Marsh Chase Selection

Envoi Allen probably wins. But there are each way and without the favourite markets if that's not enough/appropriate for you. In those arenas, take your pick of Chantry House and Blackbow. If siding with the latter, look for a bookie that offers 'faller insurance'.

Suggestion: Back Chantry House and/or Blackbow each way or 'without the favourite'.

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1.55 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

I'm not going to waste much of your or my time on this, it's simply too tricky for me. Saying that, eight of the last nine winners returned 14/1 or shorter so perhaps I'm being too lily-livered. Last time out winners have a good record - 10/103 in the last 23 years, +16 at SP - and the Irish have won the last five. During those last five years, only one of the 25 last day winners has prevailed... which probably means a UK-trained last day winner or an Irish-trained last day loser. Tying myself in knots already.

The Bosses Oscar got a tough trip in the Martin Pipe last year but still finished fifth there; representing the Elliott/Foster team he's an obvious player and looks sure to be thereabouts again though he is off a 13lb higher mark. Willie runs Dandy Mag, up a stone since beating The Bosses Oscar into second in the December Pertemps qualifier at Leopardstown. Dandy was then well beaten in another Leopardstown three mile handicap since: he might have too much weight now. Mrs Milner wasn't far behind Dandy and Oscar in the qualifier and this will have been the plan.

Brinkley has been going great guns on soft and heavy - three from four since a wind operation - for David Pipe and, if he can convert that progression to quicker turf, he'll have a chance of being involved. And Paul Nicholls' Storm Arising has stepped forward plenty this term and finishes off his races well; he's another player in an uber-competitive contest.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Likely to be a good test, with Bushypark a confirmed front runner and plenty of others who normally race up top.

Pertemps Final Selection

Use your lucky pin. The Bosses Oscar is a safe option to be in the first six and maybe the first one. Mrs Milner and Storm Arising are more risky but also offer more reward.

Suggestion: Good luck!

*

2.30 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

The oft-maligned Ryanair is the open Grade 1 version of the Marsh and, in my opinion, it is usually a very good race. Maybe not having the class of a Champion Chase or a Gold Cup but with a lot more depth and offering an appropriate top table seat for plenty of horses that, as in the Marsh, either don't get the longer Gold Cup trip or are not fast enough for the shorter Queen Mother. If you're happy not to hold that against them - and I am - then you have a legitimate race full of legitimate Grade 1 horses. And as good a betting race as there is at the meeting in my view, not that that makes it easy to solve, as 5/1 the field implies!

Where to start? With A is for Allaho, I guess. He's one of the plethora vying for favouritism and represents powerful connections in Willie Mullins and Cheveley Park Stud. Allaho's chase record is a racing curate's egg: good to soft, good in places. As a novice he thumped Milan Native en route to getting in that memorable/gut-wrenching* (*delete as applicable, Champ/Minella Indo backers - I was in the latter camp, sigh) photo for last year's RSA. Actually beaten two lengths, that was a stand up performance in a race where no quarter was sought or ceded.

Since then, a trio of chases this term have been largely underwhelming: defeats to Min and A Plus Tard look excusable on the face of it, but by 34 lengths and 20 lengths? Not so much. Redemption, to some degree, came in his most recent run, a Grade 2 score from Mares' Chase favourite Elimay. Elimay is 6/4 or so for that new Friday race but she'd be a double figure price in here. I'll let him beat me.

Min won this last year and is here again this time around. A Festival standing dish he ran second-second-fifth to Altior in the 2016/18/19 renewals of the Champion Chase before connections got the message and gallantly bagged last year's Ryanair. As it happened, with big guns dropping out left and right, he might have won the Champion Chase last year if he'd gone that way! This season has left his fans scratching their heads: it began with 'yay' as he beat all in the John Durkan, Grade 1; but was more recently 'nay' (or maybe 'neigh') with a big P - not a Timeform one, a non-completion one - in the Dublin Chase behind the imperious that day Chacun Pour Soi.

In Min's defence, the John Durkan is two and a half miles, and the Dublin Chase is two miles. He tried to make all, got into a speed duel, and basically did way too much way too soon. A line can easily be put through that effort. He's ten now and, while Albertas Run, Our Vic and Fondmort all won at that veteran stage in their careers, the most recent of that trio was ten years ago. It's only a minor niggle for me and I think he has definite prospects: certainly I prefer him to his aforementioned stablemate.

But I like another Mullins stablemate more than Min, although I don't think I'd back him to win. That one is Melon. The perma-bridesmaid has been more unlucky than canine and, for those who see him in the former light, his Festival efforts are heroic: second to Labaik in the 2017 Supreme, second to Buveur D'Air in the 2018 Champion Hurdle, second to Espoir D'Allen in the 2019 Champion Hurdle, and second to Samcro in the 2020 Marsh. This season he's run third-third-fifth, but he's had excuses. Yeah, yeah, I know, he's had a lot of excuses down the years. But hear me out.

A 22/1 shot when third to Min in the John Durkan, he was clearly a touch under-cooked that day. Thereafter connections upped him to three miles where he first ran third to A Plus Tard in the Savills Chase at Christmas, and then, on softer ground, he was a nine length last of five to Kemboy in the Irish Gold Cup. Here's the thing: he doesn't stay three miles. As much as I am a Melon fan - don't be messing with my Melon, man - he has won only three of 21 races since Mullins took him on, and only one of four on the flat for Nicolas Clement in France previously. He's a great place bet!

There is a spicy blend of British and Irish runners in this, and the home team's skipper might be Imperial Aura. Three-length winner of the novices' handicap chase at last year's Festival, he's stepped into Graded conditions company like an old hand this term. First was a comfy verdict in the Colin Parker at Carlisle, then a dominant win in the Grade 2 1865 Chase at Ascot, and then... ooh, fluffed lines in the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton where he horlicksed the second and bade adieu to David Bass. So there's that to overcome, but he did look progressive and is rated second best of the Brits.

Top of the British pops, on official figures, is Saint Calvados, a close second to Min in last year's race. Since then, he ran very well in the King George when just failing to see out the three miles before a fairly lamentable effort in the Sandown version of the Cotswold Chase: never really travelling he ended up dumping Gavin Sheehan into the very forgiving heavy turf. His numbers give him a squeak but his recent win record is not exciting and there's just something about him I don't really like from a betting angle. (Such unsubstantiated fluff should never be part of a preview like this, so apologies for any offence caused!)

And what about Mister Fisher? The Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old has a fine Cheltenham record, winning over course and distance 15 months ago and in the diverted Peterborough Chase over a similar course and distance here in December. Only fourth in the Marsh last season, he perhaps could have been a little closer to the sharp end a little sooner; he raced prominently in both the Peterborough and that course and distance win and I imagine he will do so again this time. If he does, he too has his chance.

Fakir D'Oudairies is yet another horse quoted at a single-figure price in an extremely well-contested race. Second in last year's Arkle, it might be fair to say that connections were unsure which way to go this season, an assertion whose supporting evidence includes runs over two miles and three miles in his last two starts. The three mile spin resulted in pulling up in the Grade 1 Savills Chase, where he probably just didn't get home. The two mile run was a fair second to Chacun Pour Soi in the Grade 1 Dublin Chase. This slot feels like acknowledging that two miles is his better trip while also conceding that he cannot beat CPS. Although he won the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase over two and a half last season in a small field, I'm not fully convinced he'll get the trip here. He's a player if he does, however.

Another of the many pace angles is Dashel Drasher, a Grade 1 winner at this trip last time at Ascot. That looked a fairly hollow G1 in truth, but he won it nevertheless, rounding out an upwardly mobile hat-trick this season in the process. As much as I'd love to see him win for his brilliant trainer, Jeremy Scott, I think trying to lead all the way against this crew will be a bridge too far.

The 25/1 about Chris's Dream will take some of my money. He was highly progressive last year before palpably failing to stay in the Gold Cup, where he ran a massive race until stamina gave out. This season he was a neck second to The Storyteller in a Grade 1 chase before disappointing in the John Durkan, another G1, at Punchestown last time. One has to be prepared to forgive that flop at a trip which ought to have suited but, in a race which might set up for a closer he's of some interest to me.

Real Steel is another who ran really well before stamina snapped in last season's Gold Cup; but he's done now't since. He was a Willie Mullins horse last term, but a Paul Nicholls horse this; that's been material in a number of cases with that particular trainer switch for whatever reason... Still, if he came back to that Gold Cup run, and on better ground at a shorter trip that's not impossible, he'd have a chance.

This time last year, Samcro was winning the Marsh, the novice equivalent of the Ryanair. We've not seen much of him since and, what we have seen has not been encouraging. It wouldn't be a shock if he won - almost no horse in this race would be a shock winner - but he's not for me. In that spirit, none of Kalashnikov, Tornado Flyer or Fanion D'Estruval can be entirely discounted.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Lots of speed or potential speed. Dashel Drasher and Min are very likely to go on, so too quite possibly Imperial Aura and maybe Melon or Allaho. Might set up for a more patiently ridden horse.

Ryanair Chase Selection

Probably the most difficult puzzle of the entire meeting. I think the projected pace sizzle will cook a few of the front-rankers, and I'd take a couple of closers against that perceived early heat. Chris's Dream could be a complete no show, but he's a good horse on his day and this setup might fit. The same comments exactly apply to Real Steel and he's a small each way for the same reason.

Suggestion: Bet any horse you like in this. Bookies should be paying eight places, so fiendish does it look! I'll speculate that either or both of Chris's Dream and Real Steel can wheel back to their excellent but non-staying 2020 Gold Cup runs and get involved over the shorter trip.

*

3.05 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

A race robbed of some of its appeal by the late withdrawal of Thyme Hill, who had been close to favouritism for some time. Further shorn of Roksana, who contested Tuesday's Mares' Hurdle, the main man is currently Paisley Park, the 2019 winner. The Emma Lavelle-trained, Andrew Gemmill-owned nine-year-old has a fantastic winning record and only saw his halo slip a year ago due to a fibrillating heart.

2021 seems to have dispelled any concerns about that medical blip, a good second in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury followed up with a battling success in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. His late run style, and famous 'flat spot' - a moment when he is changing gear but appears to be struggling - can't be good for his legion of supporters, or for his equally famous blind owner: he has to rely on the commentary which must make for very difficult listening sometimes, for all that it often ends in joy unbounded!

If Paisley seems back to his best, the numbers suggest he's been a few pounds shy of his 2019 pomp. Then, a pre-race Racing Post Rating of 172 was career-high, almost matched by a 170 in the Stayers' of that year. Last season, he was running low 160's before the March disappointment; and this season he's earned a couple of mid-160's to date. So, it is perfectly possible a) that he can step forward to high 160's and/or b) that a 165 might just about be enough to regain his crown.

Against him is a phalanx, headed by the Irish pair of Sire Du Berlais and Flooring Porter. Sire is a regular Festival fixture, having won the Pertemps Final for the past two seasons, most recently off a mark of 152. That official figure, which was upped to 158, compares with Paisley Park's OR of 165. Apologies for RPR/OR confusion - the two are not interchangeable - but it is worth saying that when Sire won his second Pertemps he recorded an RPR of 164. A small step forward from that, which he has not achieved in less satisfactory race setups twice since, would get him in the photo finish.

Flooring Porter is another Stayers' story horse: he was rated 95 when winning his maiden hurdle, at Bellewstown in August 2019. It's fair to say that nobody at that point expected him to be a Grade 1 winner and legitimate contender for a main Festival prize 18 months later. That's where we are, courtesy of a string of excellent handicap efforts - usually from the front - prior to that 'made all' six length stroll in the Christmas Hurdle. But he is unlikely to get things all his own way in front this time. Both Lil Rockefeller and Fury Road, stablemate of Sire Du Berlais, are habitual leaders. So, too, occasionally, the current Stayers' champ, Lisnagar Oscar.

Lisnagar Oscar was a shock winner last year, but had only been four lengths behind Paisley Park in their prep race, the Cleeve Hurdle. He's a strong stayer and probably needs soft ground; with the pace in the field it looks like being more of a test than is sometimes the case but the ground is drying out.

Fury Road is another who perhaps won't have his optimal conditions: soft is his forte and a soft lead if he can get it, too. He's unlikely to get either here and is not for me as a result. The second string to Gigginstown's bow is Beacon Edge, one of the more progressive in the field. Only seven, he beat Fury Road in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle last time, having previously got within a length of Honeysuckle in the Hatton's Grace, a Grade 1. That's top form but at two and a half miles, and this longer trip is a question mark for all that he's been finishing off his races well. If he improves a little for it, he'll have a chance at a huge price.

The most versatile horse in the field, for all that he probably won't be quite good enough, is The Storyteller. Now ten, he won the Festival Plate in 2018 and was second in the 2020 Pertemps, getting three pounds from the winner, Sire Du Berlais. Here, off levels, Sire is 9/2 while The Storyteller is 10/1. He's danced plenty of dances this year, winning at Galway, Punchestown and Down Royal (Grade 1 chase), and running second at Gowran and Leopardstown twice (both Grade 1 spins, one each hurdles and fences). He'll leave it late, a tactic suited to the projected run of the race, and should not be under-estimated.

I don't give the rest too much hope.

Stayers' Hurdle Pace Map

Flooring Porter is a pace presser. Lil Rockerfeller and Fury Road like to go on as well. This should be a truly run affair.

Stayers' Hurdle Selection

This feels like a race to take a swing at. Paisley Park was unexpectedly beaten last year and has been below his 2019 form since. Sire Du Berlais has a good chance, reflected in his price, but I want to have a crack at a couple each way, especially if I can get bonus places. They are The Storyteller, whose Festival form is excellent, has been in brilliant form and will be played late against wilting rivals; and Beacon Edge, who if improving a little for the longer range is the progressive horse in the line up.

Suggestion: An open race on my reading. Try The Storyteller and/or Beacon Edge each way with extra places if you can get them.

*

3.40 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The Plate, a race of many names in recent times, currently under Paddy Power's banner. It's a handicap chase and it has a lot of runners. As such, it is twicky, as Jonathan Ross might say.

Anyway, some numbers. Top five last time out, ran within 60 days, Pipe and Venetia positives. In truth, horses of all ages, positions in the weights and market, and from UK and Ireland have won this.

Mister Whitaker won the novices' handicap chase at the 2018 Festival, pulled up in the Ultima in 2019, was third in this last year and is now two pounds lower than that bronze medal. That'll do.

[Obviously, I could have written another thousand words but it wouldn't have helped me frame a more compelling case for a loser than the sentence above - so I've saved us both a bit of time!!]

Festival Plate Pace Map

Just an even gallop expected here.

Festival Plate Selection

This is for the wagering masochists.

Suggestion: 5p e/w Mister Whitaker with a firm paying twelve places.

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4.15 Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

15 are due to post in the Dawn Run, and it's a foggy top of the market.

Four mares vie for favouritism as I write, just headed by Pat Fahey's Royal Kahala. She's been busy, running in a couple of bumpers and three hurdle races before this and winning the middle three races, most notably when beating Hook Up by five lengths at Fairyhouse. Her prep was a good second to Roseys Hollow in a Grade 3 on heavy ground over a slightly longer trip, and the first two winners of the Dawn Run were also beaten in their prep runs.

Roseys Hollow has won her last two, including that defeat of Royal Kahala, and comes here on the up. Indeed that Fairyhouse effort represented a stone increment on her Racing Post Ratings and she, like all in here, can go forward again. Gauloise was third there, closing well but given enough to do. It's very hard to choose between the three of them on that line of form.

The form of Hook Up was extremely well advertised on Tuesday; her fourth against the boys in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma already looked good, but after runners from that race finished 1-2 (and would have filled out the podium had Blue Lord not tipped up at the last) it looks the best piece of these if taken at face value. I say that because Hook Up closed from out back there and might have been flattered a touch; still, it was an excellent run. She was well beaten in last year's Triumph Hurdle, so we'll have to see which Hook Up shows.

There are a lot of others in here with chances but honestly I don't have much of a read on them. One that is probably a touch over-priced is Perfect Myth: she's better on good ground so would want it to dry out, but has strong handicap form off 136 and gets five pounds from the Graded winners. Harry Skelton will ride and I think 40/1 is a touch unfair.

Lots of others not mentioned with prospects.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This will be pretty quick but not searing is my guess.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

I've backed Hook Up on the strength of the Chanelle Pharma form because it's the best line in the field. I'm just not quite sure I believe it! If she can reproduce it here, she'll nearly win; on much of her other form she'll be off the ticket. Perfect Myth is playable in the each way extra markets as she's not a 40/1 chance, I don't think.

Suggestion: Pass. Or risk Hook Up or Perfect Myth.

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4.50 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

11 of the last 23 winners of the Kim Muir, an amateur riders' race contested by professionals this year, finished in the first three last time. A further three winners were pulled up last time. Aged seven to nine is the sweet spot. More weight has typically been at least not a disadvantage and often a positive, as is a run in the same calendar year. Elliott/Foster, McCain, Henderson and Pipe are the trainers with the best records; Mullins and Nicholls are 0/29 combined.

Hold The Note was third in the novices' handicap chase last year and is now five pounds lower. He needs to prove he gets the trip but he is very attractively weighted if he does. And Mount Ida looks to have been crying out for this sort of distance: she was readily outpaced in the Dawn Run last year and was running on - never nearer, look after the mark - in a Grade 2 novice chase last time.

There are many other alternatives.

Kim Muir Pace Map

This will almost certainly be truly run, maybe overly fast as each of Hold The Note, Milanford and Morning Vicar perennially lead in their races; loads of others often do, so hold on to your hats!

Kim Muir Selection

Tricky but two with rock solid chances are Hold The Note and Mount Ida. They're not sexy prices but they might be hard to keep out of the frame, faller insurance a bonus if you can get it.

Suggestion: Back Hold The Note and/or Mount Ida each way a pleasure, sir.

*

The second half of the week is usually tougher than the first, but IF you can find a winner or two you'll have a good time of it. Hoping, though not really expecting, there will be a couple of nice priced successes in the above.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day 3 Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day 3 Preview, Tips

The second two quarters are upon us and, for many, the weakest day, from a quality perspective, is Thursday, Day 3 of the Cheltenham Festival. But last year was a sizzler with that brilliant Frodon Ryanair and the equally emotional Paisley Park Stayers' Hurdle. Both are back to defend their crowns, each with numerous challengers. We start as always at 1.30 with a name change...

1.30 Marsh Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

A new name but the same deal: horses lacking the speed for the Arkle and/or the stamina for the RSA; or, some might say, lacking the class for either. Looking at the roll of honour, which includes Defi Du Seuil, Yorkhill, Vautour and Sir Des Champs from just nine renewals to date, that seems like typical racing snobbery. This newish race is up to par already from a standing start.

All that said, it's a wide open race this season and might be one of the less compelling from a quality perspective. As ever, that tends to mean it's a fiendish betting puzzle.

Itchy Feet is the favourite, Olly Murphy's six-year-old arriving here off the back of Sandown Grade 1 Scilly Isles success, the same path trodden by last year's winner, Defi Du Seuil. Before Defi, Terrefort, Top Notch and Bristol De Mail all finished second in the Marsh/JLT having won at Sandown. Simply, it is a very strong trial for this.

Itchy's form isn't all about that one race, either, as he was third to Klassical Dream in last year's Supreme, and is unbeaten in his two chase starts. The horse closest to him at Sandown was Midnight Shadow, himself previously the main beneficiary of Champ's late tumble in the Dipper Novices' Chase. Things are nicely corroborated by that line and Olly's horse must have a great chance.

The one for money this past week has been Mister Fisher, trained by Nicky Henderson. The record of the master of Seven Barrows is not great in this: he's nought from ten, three places - silvers for Terrefort and Top Notch, and bronze for L'Ami Serge.

The case for Mister Fisher is made off the back of two small field novice chase wins, the latter in the Grade 2 Lightning Novices' Chase where he beat Al Dancer. That one was 20/1 in the Arkle while Mister Fisher is around a quarter of those odds for this. Strictly speaking that doesn't make him good enough. He had previously beaten Good Boy Bobby at Cheltenham, a race from which he is the only winner eight subsequent runs. He is also the only one to place from that race - not promising.

The Irish team are headed by Samcro, Faugheen and Melon. Ireland has won seven of the nine JLT/Marsh's to date so their entries have to be taken seriously. Samcro, once vaunted as being of invincible ability, has not been able to vindicate that reputation on the track. Indeed he's been sent off no bigger than 13/8 in a 14 race career that has yielded eight wins, but only one from his last seven starts. That was at 1/3 in a Down Royal beginners' chase.

In his defence, he was running a bold race in the Grade 1 Drinmore, falling at the second last when upsides Fakir d'Oudairies spotting that one eight pounds. A subsequent ten-length second to the resurgent veteran Faugheen pegs his prospects somewhat.

What of twelve-year-old Faugheen? The former Champion Hurdler has looked good, really good, in winning three novice chases, two of them Grade 1's. Most horses his age are lobbing around in hunter chases, the better ones in veterans' chases, and yet here he is a first season chaser, and winning the big pots! He's a legend of a horse and quite hard to write off. Most people will be sufficiently invested emotionally in his success: if there's one horse you'd let beat you and still cheer, it's surely this bloke.

So, while it kind of feels like he should be watching daytime TV in a retirement home somewhere, his track form has been a genuine joy to behold this season. He was unambiguous in slamming Samcro, and gallant in repelling Easy Game: in spite of his age, he has genuine win prospects.

Melon has looked a hurdler and he's looked a two-miler. While his record at the Festival is quietly impressive in defeat (222 in the Supreme and two Champion Hurdles), I'm not at all convinced his conversion to fences.

Marsh Chase Pace Map

Faugheen looks set to bowl along in front and he's going to be great fun to watch.

Marsh Chase Selection

As always it comes down to whether the Irish or the British are the better crop. At this stage (written before Tuesday's racing), it looks like the Brits might hold sway - in this interim distance division at least. The Scilly Isles is a rock solid trial for the Marsh and Itchy Feet was a good winner, beating a reliable yardstick. I quite like him.

As fine a story as Olly winning his first Festival race would be, how awesome would it be if former Champion Hurdler Faugheen prevailed? Well, although that question was initially rhetorical, let me tell you, in the words of Michael Caine: it would blow the bloody doors off!

Suggestion: Back Itchy Feet to win at 7/2 general. Consider a saver to allow you to scream home Faugheen at 6/1 general

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2.10 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

Three miles, 24 runners, a handicap: let's keep this brief.

The last four winners were Irish-trained, the last two by Gordon Elliott. Davy Russell, as good a waiting rider as there is, has ridden three of the last four winners, which is quite remarkable, especially when you consider he didn't have a run the other year!

Last time out winners are 10/100 since 1997 and have by far the best win and place strike rate. What is surprising is that they've also been profitable to back at starting price. Those rested between one and three months have the best win and place strike rates.

Looking at well-rested last day winners leaves two: Third Wind and Skandiburg.

Skandiburg is up only a stone for a second and two wins in handicap company, the most recent of which was over course and distance. A win for him would make it the ultimate 'happy hour' for owners Kate and Andrew Brooks and trainer Olly Murphy.

Hughie Morrison's second season hurdler, Third Wind, hasn't looked back since an aborted a novice chase campaign. He won the novices' handicap hurdle final at Sandown this time last year (soft), and has most recently won a heavy ground qualifier on heavy. Clearly, then, juice in the turf is no issue. A rise of four pounds may also not stop him and, if it is deep on the New Course on Thursday, he looks set to run well.

The pick of the Irish could be The Storyteller. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell, he has the right connections. A sixth place in the Leopardstown Pertemps qualifier last time was the optimal qualifying effort - you have to be sixth or better! - and he'd previously beaten Mary Frances, herself the winner of the Punchestown qualifier thereafter. The Storyteller won the Festival Plate in 2018 under Davy Russell, and was pulled up in the Ryanair last year.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Not bundles of pace here, but a few likely to take things along at a good even gallop.

Pertemps Final Selection

7/1 about The Storyteller is not a massive bargain but he looks sure to run well. The above named pair of British-trained horses are all vaguely statistically interesting, and both are backable prices.

Suggestion: Back The Storyteller win only at 7/1, and either or both of Third Wind (16/1 general) and Skandiburg (12/1) each way with as many places as you can get.

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2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

Just eight go to post for this year's Ryanair. If that seems a little underwhelming, the clash between A Plus Tard, Min, and last year's winner, Frodon, is far from it.

Bryony's ride, and her subsequent interviews, when winning last season will live long in the memory. She was plastered all over the front pages of the next day's newspapers, something which is an all too rare occurrence - in a positive light at least - for the sport. Frodon came into that race off the back of two impressive course wins and was a slightly generous (especially with the benefit of hindsight) 9/2 chance.

This time he's about the same price but with no such recent form to support the case. Of course, he does have last year's triumph, which was against a deep-looking field. This term, Frodon has played away matches only, at Aintree, Haydock and Kempton, and not quite set the world alight. He was good enough to win the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase in his final prep and a return to the slopes of Cleeve Hill can be expected to bring about a chunk of seasonal improvement.

But here he faces two tough rivals - one emergent, the other established, both Irish - in the form of A Plus Tard and Min. The former was sent off 5/1 favourite in the novices' handicap chase at last year's Festival and duly obliged... by sixteen lengths! In a Festival handicap! An immediate class elevation followed, and A Plus Tard ran a respectable third to Delta Work in a Grade 1 at Punchestown.

This season he's been second to Ballyoisin in the Fortria Chase (G2) at Navan and then beat Chacun Pour Soi in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas. I, like everyone else, was spellbound by that novices' handicap chase win last March, but I've not been nearly so sold on his two runs since: I can't shake the perception that Chacun might have been undercooked at Christmas and that that form line may not be all it seems. There is also the fact that it was achieved at two miles, whereas this is two and a half.

Betwixt Frodon and A Plus Tard in the betting is Min, a Festival hardy perennial who steps up in trip for this fourth visit. Previously, Min was second to Altior in the 2016 Supreme, second to Altior in the 2018 Champion Chase, and only fifth to, you guessed it, Altior in last year's Champion Chase. Those races were all at two miles, but his form at this 2m4f range is 12111, a string that includes Grade 1 successes at Aintree and Punchestown twice. It feels very much like this is his trip.

He was recently beaten about the same margin by Chacun Pour Soi as that one was beaten by A Plus Tard at Christmas, which gives him six or seven collateral lengths to find; but I perceive that Willie's Dublin Racing Festival team was a lot closer to readiness than his Leopardstown Christmas team, a contention that makes me wary of these collateral lines. Regardless, I don't think there's much between them.

Of the rest, Riders Onthe Storm is unbeaten in his last four completed starts, though did fall behind A Plus Tard in the novices' handicap chase last season and pulled up in a similar race at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival thereafter. Soft ground suits but he has maybe seven pounds to find with the pick of these. As a progressive seven-year-old he may find them.

Aso has no such progress in him but he does have a fine record in this race. Last year, in spite of more feted rivals, he got closest to Frodon; and he was third in the 2017 Ryanair, too. Now ten years old, he might just have lost a bit of his ability, but he is a more interesting longshot than many across the four days.

Both Duc Des Genievres and Shattered Love are previous Cheltenham Festival winners, Duc in last year's Arkle and Shattered Love in the previous year's JLT/Marsh. The last named seems a touch lost in the wilderness and couldn't be countenanced, but Duc Des Genievres has not been so obviously regressive. That said, it is still too big a leap of faith to envisage a second Festival win.

Saint Calvados is a bit more credible than the two former winners, his new held up tactics proving more successful than the absolutely bonkers lead-at-all-costs approach taken in his abortive 2018 Arkle bid. He was most recently beaten the narrowest of margins, a nose, in a Grade 3 handicap chase over course and distance and, if Frodon and Min did here what Saint C and Petit Mouchoir did in 'that' Arkle, Harry Whittington's runner could hit the board. Owned by the Brooks' - who also have Itchy Feet and Skandiburg - it could truly be a red letter day for them.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Frodon will make a bold bid from the front again, with Min in close pursuit. There should be no hard luck stories from a pace perspective.

Ryanair Chase Selection

I've backed Min. I think it's taken connections a long time to realise his best trip, and I think he has the best form. So far. It is perfectly possible that A Plus Tard can improve past Min's level, though that eventuality seems well factored into his odds. Frodon will be a terrific result for the reporters - and for the sport - with a gushing Bryony a thing of beauty, but I have to let him, and her, beat me. Saint Calvados is probably the most credible of the rest, especially if ridden to pick up pieces.

Suggestion: Back Min at 11/4 general

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3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The Thursday feature, and another defending champion in the form of Paisley Park, trained by Emma Lavelle, ridden by Aidan Coleman, and owned by the excellent Andrew Gemmell. 'Double P' comes here unbeaten in his last seven, six of which have been by less than three lengths: he gives his rivals a sniff and then slams the door in their faces. What a devil!

He's a top price of 4/6 which implies he's a certainty, but is that really true? The level of his form in last year's Cleeve was much higher than the level he achieved in this year's renewal of the same race. That was in large part a factor of the way the race was run, comments which apply similarly to his previous start this season, in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Of course, the argument goes, he won despite the steady pace and he can be marked up accordingly. That is entirely plausible but, as punters, we have to be forensic, all the more so when faced with what is ostensibly being presented as an 'open and shut' case. The fact is that, for whatever reason, Paisley Park's form this season is a seven pounds below his form of January and March last year. It doesn't mean he can't rediscover that prior level, it just means I don't want to take odds on about it.

The next question is who might be able to step in should PP come up short in the Stayers' Hurdle, this year sponsored by PP? That is a tougher one to answer, though the rewards for a correct response would be far greater. Those lovely bookie types have Summerville Boy and Emitom as the most likely pair to lower the champ's colours.

Summerville Boy got closest last time, in that steadily run Cleeve, and he'd previously beaten Roksana et al in the Relkeel over two and a half miles here. Like so many who end up in the Stayers' those form lines appear after a failed novice chase campaign.

Emitom is a horse I love. He's a strong travelling high class animal who was second to Champ in a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree last spring. This season, he flunked desperately on his debut behind Summerville Boy but proved that to be all wrong when bolting up in the Rendlesham at Haydock. That was on heavy but he does not look ground dependent and is not slow.

The pace will likely be dictated by Apple's Jade, a mare whose popularity is well deserved but whose ability has been on the wane for some time. The horses she beat in the Grade 1 at Christmas - two of which, Penhill and Bacardys, re-oppose here - have looked shy of top class and/or regressive. She's been third and sixth at the last two Cheltenham Festivals and I don't see her on the podium.

Last year's Ballymore winner, City Island, arrives here off a failed novice chasing programme. In his favour he is a Grade 1 winner here, and he has the sort of tactical speed that is often the hallmark of a Stayers' Hurdle winner. But his last hurdle run was ten months ago.

Penhill is a dual winner at the Festival, first when scoring in the 2017 Albert Bartlett and then in this race two years ago. Having missed all of last season, Willie Mullins' nine-year-old has managed to race four times this term - the same as his last two campaigns combined - but he's yet to get his head in front. It seems clear that this has been the target all along, and Penhill has run acceptably in defeat; it wouldn't be the biggest shock if he went close but he's not for me.

It's 20/1 bar those, with the likes of Bacardys - who has suckered cash from me in this race in the past - usually giving himself too much to do from the back of the field. It's not impossible I will be mugged into another small bet but I couldn't possibly suggest anyone else do likewise!

Stayers' Hurdle Pace Map

Apple's Jade is very likely to lead but she may not have it all her own way with Summerville Boy and perhaps Donna's Diamond handy racers. Paisley Park will be ridden midfield probably.

Stayers' Hurdle Selecton

I want to be against Paisley Park but it's really not easy to find one to beat him. The way to play might be 'without the favourite' and in that context I'll happily have a go at Emitom and, less happily, at City Island.

Suggestion: Back Emitom and/or City Island without the favourite

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4.10 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The last two winners of this handicap chase were price 5/1 or shorter, the previous five were 12/1 or bigger. Ireland used to have a dreadful record but have won three of the last four, their sequence broken last year here their two runners, both 33/1 shots, were unsighted. They are represented sixfold this year, with Ben Dundee - another for the Elliott/Russell axis - the main market hope.

Third in the novices' handicap chase last year off 141, Ben Dundee ran top four in two valuable handicap chases since prior to an eye-catching effort when seventh of 25 in a two mile handicap hurdle. Wrong code, wrong trip, right prep and a mark of 147 doesn't look unduly punitive.

Nick Williams won this last year and he has an excellent record in Festival handicaps. Siruh Du Lac won this last year, the final leg of a handicap chase four-timer. Since then, his only seasonal start was when pulled up in the BetVictor Gold Cup over this sort of distance on the Old Course in November. Connections are respected but it's asking an awful lot to win off an extended layoff and from a nine pound higher mark than twelve months ago.

Loads more with chances. Obviously.

Festival Plate Pace Map

Last year's winner, Siruh Du Lac, will bid to make all again. There doesn't look to be much competition for the lead which should help him - and Lizzie - to stay there for a long way.

Festival Plate Selection

I haven't really got a clue in here, if I'm honest, and I'll have a small 'clueless' bet on Ben Dundee for a bunch of people who know far better than me how to find the winner of this.

Suggestion: Put the kettle on. Or back Ben Dundee for a small interest at 10/1

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4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

Won by Willie Mullins all four times it's been run to date, last year was a bit of a shock insofar as, for the first time, it wasn't the short priced favourite who passed the post first. Rather, 50/1 Eglantine Du Seuil beat the same stable's Concertista, herself a 66/1 chance. Epatante, Champion Hurdle favourite this year, was the beaten jolly in this last season.

Mullins is clearly the man then and he saddles four this time around. Colreevy is the shortest, her defeat of Abacadabras in a Grade 1 bumper reading very well. She's most recently been turned over in a seven-runner mares' Grade 3 by today's jolly, Minella Melody, but it is possible she didn't appreciate the steady tempo in that short field. With 22 runners here it's likely to be faster and that is likely to set up better.

Minella Melody has to be respected: she's won her last three, all in smallish fields, on varying ground. But she wasn't quite as good as the Mullins mare in bumpers and she's yet to score above G3 company.

Nicky Henderson saddles Floressa, a mare who has good form in open mares' company, for all that she too has to prove she handles the hustle of a big field over hurdles. That said, she was second of 15 in a Grade 2 bumper here last spring, and outclassed a field of modest maidens at Worcester in October.

Last year's second, and still a novice, Concertista returns to try to go one better. The pick of her form is in big fields, as evidenced by a good third in a 27-runner handicap hurdle last time. The slight drop in trip looks good for her, and she's a fair price given conditions are proven.

A handful of other interesting novice mares but this isn't especially a race that excites me.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This is quite pacy and I'm hoping Colreevy doesn't take too much contention for the lead. If she does it will likely compromise her chance, but she'll be tough to beat if getting it nearly her own way.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

Not one to go mad in, I don't think. Willie Mullins' record is clearly worthy of respect and there are grounds to believe Colreevy can reverse form with Minella Melody. Concertista, second last year, also looks set to run well again.

Suggestion: Back Colreevy 7/1 general and/or Concertista 12/1 each way.

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5.30 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

Amateur riders in a 24-runner handicap chase. Ouch. The best riders tend to win this year after year, with Jamie Codd having an especially impressive record (three wins). Codd rides top weight and last year's National Hunt Chase winner, Le Breuil, who sneaks in here off 145 having dropped the requisite five pounds in two fair chase efforts this term. Lugging top weight won't be easy but Ben Pauling's charge has shown he handles the track and has class, and he looks fairly treated.

Derek O'Connor rides Champagne Platinum. Nicky Henderson trains, and J P McManus owns so he has the right connections. A promising novice hurdler last season, he ran a bold third to Itchy Feet in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles last time and drops into handicap company for only the second time. Cheekpieces for the first time and steps up six furlongs in trip. He's by Stowaway out of a Roselier mere, which is a good pedigree for stamina.

There are more than twenty further chances in a race where I'm not trying too hard to be clever.

Kim Muir Pace Map

A massive field and it could get messy. Not oodles of pace but enough for an end to end gallop. Derek O'Connor on Champagne Platinum will be playing late.

Kim Muir Selection

I've not looked deeply at the form, so even more caveat emptor than usual applies. I like the plotty look of Champagne Platinum, a horse who was third in a Grade 1 last time and who steps up markedly in trip for Champions League connections.

Suggestion: Back Champagne Platinum for a bit of interest at 8/1 general

*

It's a trappy Thursday and maybe not one to go mad for. But if we're lucky enough to get one and a half winners we should be close to level as we head into Friday, Gold Cup day.

Good luck!

Matt