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Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day Four Preview, Tips

We're onto Friday, Day Four, and traditionally the least fathomable of a quartet of largely inscrutable afternoons punting. But if we can unearth a winner or two we'll likely be well rewarded so let's work in that optimistic spirit...

After an unforeseen monsoon on Wednesday (it was a miserable day at the track), the going changed to heavy and much of what follows was based on an expectation of very different ground conditions. Do check whether the horse you fancy (or I've suggested) handles conditions!

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

A dozen horses searching for Triumph triumph, the first four in the betting hailing from Ireland. Favoured is Vauban, trained by Willie Mullins to win the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival. There he beat Gordon Elliott's - or, more correctly, Caldwell Construction's - Fil Dor by a relatively comfortable three lengths; but Vauban was previously second to another horse with the same connections as Fil Dor, Pied Piper. Vauban was rumoured not to be ready that day but the evidence of the form book is that Pied Piper beat him fair and square.

Pied Piper has run once since, in the Cheltenham Triumph Trial (G2) on trials day in late January, easily accounting for Moka De Vassy and six others, none of whom re-oppose. That fact implies a degree of hollowness to the win but it's hard to lay blame at the hooves of Pied Piper. He's unbeaten and on literal form reading should probably be favourite.

Fil Dor had notched a hat-trick before conceding only to Vauban last time, that trio being achieved in a novice, then a Grade 3 and then a Grade 2. Very much heading in the right direction until undone by Vauban, then, and another obvious contender.

Less obvious is the third from that Spring Juvenile, Il Etait Temps, who did all his best work at the finish and surged past the two in front of him at the jam stick. That was a first run for the Mullins yard having been acquired from France and he looks tailor made for a stern stamina test at the trip.

First of the British challenge is Porticello, whose excellent season in the care of Gary Moore has seen him win three of four, most notably the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle at Chepstow. He has plenty of experience and his best form is all on soft turf (has won on good to soft in Listed grade).

Porticello's sole defeat was to Knight Salute, himself unbeaten in five hurdle starts of which the last three were in Grade 2 fields. All of that quintet were on good to soft or good ground so no worries there, and one of them was at this track. The question is simply, is Knight Salute good enough, given he's unlikely to have the progression of some of his rivals after so much relative experience. He's a flagship horse for the resurgent yard of Milton Harris, and I very much hope he runs well. I feel he's entitled to be first home of the UK entries.

One of my ante post "probably gone west" vouchers is on Icare Allen, who was well beaten in the Spring Juvenile two back before getting on track, after a fashion, in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse. He may have a little more to show yet though probably not as much more as at least one of the four atop the market.

Dan Skelton will saddle Doctor Parnassus, two from two over hurdles and a close second to the very good mare Indefatigable when last seen on the flat. This lad looks all about stamina: he's won over 2m3f already and was staying on in the soft before that. I just feel he'll not be fast enough even if he's good enough (and I doubt that, also).

The other four have limited claims on what they've achieved at this stage.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Not masses of obvious early pace, with Lunar Power and perhaps Ages Of Man seeking a name check before the proverbial taps are turned on.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

The top of the market looks about right if you, like me, believe the Irish are stronger than the British. The one who has some juice still in his price potentially is Il Etait Temps, who looks an each way bet on that Spring Juvenile debut. Connections will know more this time and he'll not leave his challenge so late. Porticello has G1 form on wet ground and might hit the frame.

Suggestion: Try 11/1 Il Etait Temps each way.

*

2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

This is way above my punting pay grade though I did once tip and back the 50/1 winner, Silver Jaro when the County was the Friday night cap. What a day that was! Still, we can't live on former glories.

These days, it seems, you want an unexposed handily-weighted and classy animal. My shortlist, which should be treated with extreme caution, is State Man, First Street, I Like To Move It, Top Bandit, Cormier and Jesse Evans.

Few horses at this year's Festival have been as well touted and widely entered up as State Man, who lands here as the likely jolly. A five-year-old novice, he was second in France before falling on his Irish debut and then bolting up in a nothing maiden hurdle. All his form is on soft ground and that's a concern as is that jumping frailty/inexperience. I certainly believe that he's a very talented horse but at the price he's opposable.

First Street, in comparison, is relatively battle hardened after three wins from five hurdle starts, three novices and two handicaps. Most recently he was third to Glory And Fortune in the Betfair Hurdle (handicap) at Newbury, and that one ran a mighty race to be a nine length fifth in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. Betwixt Glory And Fortune and First Street that day was I Like To Move It whose chance is also well advertised by the winner's subsequent effort. At Newbury, he just failed to close the remaining head deficit with the winner and has gone up four pounds as a result. This likely fast pace should bring the front of the race back to him sooner and he rates a definite danger.

Brian Ellison has played many a fine tune on Cormier, a veteran of 31 races, though only ten over hurdles, four of those wins. That record includes Class 2 handicap victories the last twice, one of them at Cheltenham, though his record in large fields is a concern for me.

Gordon runs Top Bandit, well named some might say, and this fellow has been progressing nicely over hurdles. After a debut third on soft at Limerick, he's rattled up a treble of novice hurdle scores. This will be his handicap debut and he's got the right combination of relative experience and a total lack of exposure to the assessor.

Meanwhile, trying to pretend he's not as good as he is has taken a different form for the Noel Meade-trained Jesse Evans. Meade saddles last year's Fred Winter bomb, Jeff Kidder, at 80/1 so he knows the way to do it. Jesse was sent off favourite for the Greatwood handicap hurdle in November (14 length ninth of 19), since which he's not been seen. His previous run over timber was when a two length fourth in the extremely valuable Galway Hurdle and before that he'd won an 18-runner handicap hurdle at Killarney. He looks a tempting price though wouldn't want it to get too wet.

Lorna Fowler trains Colonel Mustard and plenty thought he should have gone in one of the Grade 1's. He's been second to Jonbon and third to Sir Gerhard in his last two starts and that reads very well, as well as does the fact he handles all ground.

Many more can win, natch.

County Hurdle Pace Map

The charge looks set to be led by Felix Desjy and I Like To Move It principally, though there are bound to be others who want a piece of it. Likely to be rapid from the get go.

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Selection

Devilishly difficult. Willie's certainty in the Fred Boodles was beaten on Tuesday and I don't want to be with State Man at the price, for all that he could be fantastically well handicapped. Top Bandit is not much bigger but has more concrete claims on the form book if not the rumour mill. But I'll swing with two at double figure odds in I Like To Move It and Colonel Mustard. They both have proven form, in top class handicaps and Graded conditions races respectively, and retain upside for this ultra-test.

Suggestion: Back 14/1 I Like To Move It and/or 12/1 Colonel Mustard each way with all the extra places.

*

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

This goes one of two ways, in terms of the market: it's either won by a classy well-fancied runner, or by an unconsidered rag with a street fighter's attitude. The last two winners, Monkfish and Vanillier, fit more or less in the first category; before that, we had 50/1, 33/1 twice and 16/1 within six years. Probably the way to play, in Countdown terminology, is one from the top and two from anywhere else.

The top is made up of Ginto and Hillcrest, strong and classy stayers from either side of the Irish Sea. Ginto (pronounced 'Jinto', I think) is a Gordon runner that is unbeaten in three over hurdles, taking in a maiden, a Grade 2 and the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas. 4 1/4 lengths is the closest a rival has got to date, in that G1, and he will likely again be front rank from the start. Whether he can see it out in this bigger field I don't know but he deserves his primary perch in the punting pecking order.

So, too, does Hillcrest, top of the domestic pops after four wins over hurdles in as many completed starts. While they've been largely achieved on wet ground, his first two were good to soft and he ought to go fine on that. Representing the Henry Daly team he'd be something of a throwback to an age before the mega yards and, as a soppy old romantic, I'll be cheering him on for that alone.

Back in the real world, Willie has the next one in the lists, Minella Cocooner who, rather marvellously, got the better of Minella Crooner last time. That was a good race at the DRF but it was over a shorter trip and he'd not have beaten the other Minella at this distance that day. He's lightly raced and is another who races very prominently.

Bardenstown Lad has lots of top of the ground form, and a similar profile to last year's third, Streets Of Doyen, for the same connections. He won easily, and as expected, at Musselburgh last month and looks like he'll stay well. He, too, is a front rank racer.

Willie's The Nice Guy steps up in both trip and grade after three wins, including a romp in a 22-runner maiden hurdle. That is his sole spin over timber, though, so his inexperience has to be a reservation.

From a personal perspective, I'd love Stag Horn to win. Along with Ron Huggins and Pete Williams, I own a horse called World Of Dreams, who was second to Stag Horn on that one's hurdling debut, giving him seven pounds and coming out best at the weights. Our lad is unfortunately sidelined just now but we're cheerleading for the Stag, who has elevated his claims for the 'spuds race' with a second hurdle win, in Grade 2 at Warwick. His previous career as a flat horse earned him a triple-digit rating, which confirms the class and substance of his profile.

At the big-priced bomb end of considerations is a horse like Idas Boy. He's run to a good but not great level in three mile novices behind the likes of Gerri Colombe, and if they 'go a million' placing a later premium on extreme stamina, he's the type to plod on into the picture. Of course, he might not be even nearly good enough: such is life.

And a word for Dermot Weld and his entry, Falcon Eight. Like Stag Horn, he's a classy flat horse - he won the Chester Cup off top weight last May - but, unlike Stag Horn, his price is still quite fat. Never in it on hurdle debut over two and a half miles (yielding to soft), he was able to get to the front eventually in a 2m7f maiden at Thurles last month on yielding ground. His best form is on good to soft or yielding and he looks the type to keep running. Indeed, his profile is quite similar to Stag Horn's where his price is 2.5x that one's.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Stag Horn might take them along, though there are plenty of others who want to be close to the lead if not on it.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

Like all of Friday's races, this is trappy. I do like Ginto but not his odds, likewise Hillcrest. I'm after a bit more latitude for making a mistake and so will tilt at a windmill in the form of Idas Boy, who might just appreciate an out and out slog, and Falcon Eight, whose classy flat form may have been a bit under-rated.

Suggestion: Try a couple of big-priced guesses in the form of 25/1 Falcon Eight and 50/1 Idas Boy each way, extra places obvs.

*

3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

This year's Gold Cup is an interesting race though not a vintage one, on looks at least. I covered it in some detail in my Gold Cup preview here, and don't have much to add now the final preparations have been completed. Written on 11th January I felt Minella Indo was big enough to bet at 8/1 (now 5/1) and Chantry House was worthy of a small dabble at 16's (still 16's).

I'm not inclined to add anything much to those opinions, the reasons for which are to be found at the above link if you're minded. One horse who does need marking up, however, is Royale Pagaille, for whom the Wednesday rain moves him from unlikely to quite possible. He's been backed accordingly but remains a double figure price at time of writing.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Not clear where the pace will come from if not from Santini. And if from Santini, it may not be that fast early.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A competitive but not outstanding renewal of the Gold Cup, and one in which I respect Galvin's chance greatly but would rather bet Minella Indo at similar prices. Trying to guess on a longer priced horse led me to Chantry House, whose winning habit is more admirable than it often looks and whose clunk in the King George needs overlooking to rate his chance here. Trainer Nicky Henderson is having a very good week.

Suggestion: Back Minella Indo to win at 5/1 or maybe Chantry House each way at 16/1 if you're feeling fearless/reckless enough. Don't forget 16/1 Royale Pagaille loves it wet.

*

4.10 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

This is a race for people who know about point to point and hunter chase form, and I am not among their number. So there will be better places to go for an insight than what follows. Nevertheless, and caveats firmly in situ, here goes...

Second for the past two years, the chance of Billaway is obvious. Trained by Willie Mullins (really?), he's been in similar form this term and has a similar chance. Sent off at evens and 2/1 in that pair of silvers, he's a slightly bigger price this time but not enough to get me interested.

Dangers abound, perhaps most notably Winged Leader, who beat Billaway on his most recent start. With his best form on a good or yielding surface, as long as it's not too soft this eight-year-old probably holds strong claims.

David Maxwell rides Bob And Co, who unseated when still in with every chance last year. There he was ridden by Sean Bowen in the absence of amateur riders but, reunited with his regular rider, he's a chance of hitting the board, though recent second places when a short priced favourite temper enthusiasm for the win a touch.

I'm sure there's a reason he's this price and I'm a layman as I've said when it comes to this discipline, but Cousin Pascal looks big to me. He won the Aintree Hunters' Chase last year and beat Bob And Co last time - that one less than half his price - he also bolted up, granted in maiden hunter company, over further than three miles from a big field in very wet ground. This set up looks spot on and his sole defeat in recent times was on good ground which may not have suited.

I probably haven't mentioned the lively outsider that the hunt fans are all over, so apologies for that.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase  Pace Map

Pinch of salt pace map because we don't have point form so these are Rules races only.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection

I obviously don't know, so feel free to skip this next bit. But I've had a bit of Cousin Pascal each way at 16/1, and the other half of my stake each way four places at 14/1. Winged Leader should go well as a win play.

Suggestion: Back 5/1 Winged Leader to win and/or 14/1 Cousin Pascal each way with four or more places.

*

4.50 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)

The least interesting race of the meeting for me. I accept that, in the grand scheme of the breed and all, there may be a place for it; but I'm unexcited by the prospect. Anyway...

Top rated is Elimay, second in last year's inaugural running to stable mate Colreevy. She's since won at Fairyhouse and Naas but, in between times, has been beaten by both Zambella and Mount Ida who lock horns again this time. Elimay handles all types of underfoot and is commendably consistent, but she's very short against a series of credible rivals.

Chief among them may be Mount Ida, winner of the Kim Muir last season, and 1-1 versus Elimay since. She was apparently a little wrong physically when taking the Kim Muir, hence the erratic looking jumping at times and the tailed off early run style. That remains a niggle when considering this six-furlong shorter trip but she's a very good mare.

Zambella handles deep ground and two and a half miles is her range. She has a comprehensive score against Elimay in last season's Houghton Mares' Chase (2m4f, soft, exhibit A) and could be the value.

A mare who has had a few problems since winning the 2020 Dawn Run is Concertista. When she's good, she's very good, though, and her second to Black Tears in last year's Mares' Hurdle would be about enough to win here if she could reproduce it. She's a novice taking on seasoned chasers and that tempers enthusiasm.

Course specialist Vienna Court has been having a great season, winning a couple of handicaps here, the second of which was against the boys. Back in mares only company last time, she was picked off by Pink Legend on the flatter pastures of Huntingdon. It is likely Vienna needed a slightly greater stamina test, which she'll get, but I'm not convinced she's good enough. Pink Legend has since fallen in a race won by Zambella but was struggling at the time.

Scarlet And Dove has won on heavy and was not far behind Mount Ida two back before pulling up in the Thyestes Chase. Her overall profile is patchy though she does have some occasionally solid form in defeat.

Mares' Chase Pace Map

Zambella will be near the front, along probably with Elimay. Should be an even gallop, no more than that.

Mares' Chase Selection

Mount Ida and Elimay look very likely to be on the premises but the one that stands out at the current odds is Zambella. This race could have been framed for her and, though she hasn't quite the class of the first named pair, that optimal setup could see her competitive. She's a definitely each way bet with the firm paying four places.

Suggestion: Back Zambella each way with extra places if you can find them.

*

5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

The getting out stakes is for masochists! Conditional riders and 26 of them aboard largely unexposed and/or jobbed up horses over two and a half miles.

Langer Dan is trained in Britain by a Dan, Skelton, and was second in the Martin Pipe last year to Galopin Des Champs. Only two pounds higher now, having been nudged up five for the Martin Pipe silver then straight back down three for a limp effort at Taunton on his only intervening run has been widely observed as generous handicapping. Be that as it may, the missed point may be that this race has the potential for a lurker of the quality of a Galopin Des Champs. Or a Killultagh Vic, or a Don Poli, or a Sir Des Champs (strong trend for winners to have the suffix 'Des Champs'!)

So, if Langer Dan is not a blot, then who are the likeliest lurkers? Each of those mentioned was sent of 12/1 or shorter so I'm not going deep into the bowels of the form book.

Hollow Games heads the chasing pack, market wise, and is trained by former Martin Pipe conditional, Gordon Elliott, as are five others in this field. He was third in a brace of Grade 1's in his most recent starts and has form on deep ground. Of his others, Chemical Energy has won a maiden and a novice hurdle either side of beating all bar My Mate Mozzie in a Grade 3; he's quietly progressive. Likewise, The Goffer has more to give after a Grade 3 score last time at Thurles (soft). In fact, similar comments apply to all of Gordon's and I'm not even sure they're confident of how the hierarchy shakes down.

Willie Mullins saddles only two, so he's either happy he'll have won the trainers' title before 5pm on Friday or he quietly fancies one or both. They are Adamantly Chosen, winner of a big field bumper and a big field maiden hurdle, and second twice in between, including to the decent Gringo d'Aubrelle; and Five O'Clock, not seen since being hampered before staying on into a four length seventh in this race two years ago. Now four pounds better in, we know Mullins can get one ready off a layoff and this fella is a fan of the mud.

I can't resist a mention for Freedom To Dream, who has been second in a G2 and fourth in a G1 in most recent racecourse visits. He seems to handle all ground conditions and his trainer Peter Fahey knows the job (Royal Kahala, Belfast Banter, Suprise Package at Sandown, etc).

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Expect this to be fiercely contested from the outset, with what looks like one each of Willie's and Gordon's vying early. If it's not them it will be some others in a race that will take some getting.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

There's a good chance something at a single figure price will win this, perhaps even Langer Dan. But I'll have very small guesses on Five O'Clock and Freedom To Dream with the extra places.

Suggestion: Have a punt each way on 16/1 Five O'Clock and 25/1 Freedom To Dream with extra places aforethought.

*

The rain changed everything on Wednesday and hopefully you were able to pivot your punting accordingly. Regardless of wins or losses accrued in the toughest betting week of the year, the sport generally comes out in front and, with a following wind, will do again after the Gold Cup.

Be lucky.

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Four Preview, Tips

And so to the fourth quarter of a unique Cheltenham Festival, and Gold Cup day. The main event looks a cracker, Al Boum Photo facing a strong challenge in his bid for a Gold Cup hat-trick not seen since Best Mate in 2002 to 2004. But we start at the polar opposite end of the jumping spectrum with the four-year-old hurdlers in the...

1.20 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

Fields have been smaller for this race since the inception of the Fred Boodles but this Covid-19 behind closed doors chapter sees the smallest entry for many a long year - certainly since 1997. Like many races at the Festival, the Triumph represents a crossing of the Anglo-Irish swords and, this year, the evidence of Tuesday suggests that Ireland has the upper hand. Not only did their older novices run 1-2 (and would have been 3 but for a last flight unship) in the Supreme, more pertinently their four-year-olds ran 1-2 in the Boodles/Fred Winter.

On that, granted, limited evidence, then, it seems as if Irish horses might be favoured. A battle for market leadership since the Adonis between Tritonic, winner of that Kempton race, and Zanahiyr, long-term ante-post jolly, seems to have finally settled in favour of the latter, the punting pendulum having briefly swung in Tritonic's direction.

Zanahiyr, trained out of Cullentra House, has won his last four, beginning with a maiden victory on the flat and ending with a Grade 2 win on St Stephen's/Boxing Day (does nothing have a single identity any more?). Any concerns about the longish absence since Christmas are partially dispelled by the seventh and last placed runner from that race, Jeff Kidder, who hadn't raced since but still managed to win the Boodles.

But this lad, a son of Nathaniel, had already advertised his top table credentials with a scintillating performance on the clock when, according to Simon Rowlands in his ATR Sectional Spotlight piece, he ran close to ten seconds - around fifty, 5-0, lengths - faster than Ballyadam (second in the Supreme) over the same Fairyhouse course and distance. In case you think that may have been a function of Ballyadam's race being slow, there were two other events over the same trip that day: the £38k handicap was won by Advanced Virgo off a mark of 121 (carrying just 9-04 allowing for his rider's claim) seven seconds (about 35 lengths) slower and the next time out 13 length Grade 3 winner, Grand Paradis, won his maiden hurdle by nine lengths in a time 4.5 seconds (circa 22 lengths) slower than Zanahiyr.

If that is verbose, consider this: the second horse there was Saint Sam, beaten in the Boodles only by Jeff Kidder giving that one a stone. Saint Sam got closer in the Boxing Day Grade 2 but was still 7 1/2 lengths in debt to Zanahiyr whilst also getting three pounds.

Let me be more succinct: Zanahiyr is the best four-year-old novice in Ireland, and the Irish four-year-old novices appear to be a fair bit better than the British ones. He ought to win this all other things being equal.

The Brits were a ramshackle crew - relatively speaking of course, I'd love to own the worst of them! - until Tritonic dished up twice against Casa Loupi, latterly by ten lengths. Casa Loupi let the team down a bit when failing to win at Stratford earlier in the week as an odds on shot, his rider losing his irons when he had probably already lost the race.

Sometimes you have to take a view, and my view is that Zanahiyr is different league to Tritonic, for all that the latter has a good turn of foot. This looks like it will be run at a pretty honest pace in spite of the small field - both Quilixios and the rag Talking About You generally lead - and I expect that to suit the Irish challenger.

It's not a two horse race, though. Quilixios himself has won all four career starts, the first of which was in France before changing hands privately to Cheveley Park Stud. A recent stable switch to Henry de Bromhead won't check his momentum but he does have a tough task holding Zanahiyr at bay. Still, he should have first run on that one turning in.

Adagio ran a fine race when doing plenty in a pace meltdown affair before conceding to Duffle Coat, a stable mate of Zanahiyr and, formerly, Quilixios. He'd won once before and twice since, including in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow, and may be best of the home team.

Willie Mullins has Haut En Couleurs, a leftfield entry making his debut for the stable having won a big field Auteuil 3yo hurdle in early October. Not seen since, it's impossible to know what to expect though such races at the Paris track are not easily won.

The rest are unlikely to trouble the judge.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Talking About You will lead, Quilixios will follow, and Zanahiyr will win.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

Zanahiyr.

Suggestion: Back Zanahiyr at 6/4. He's a very good horse on any reading of times or collateral form.

*

1.55 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

This one is far too difficult for me. However, incredibly, three trainers have collectively won twelve of the last 17 County Hurdles! They are Willie Mullin and Dan Skelton (who have won the last six between them, 3-3) and Paul Nicholls. That, to me, is quite astonishing. Their horses comprise the shortlist!

They are Third Time Lucki (Skelton), Thyme White (Nicholls), and Buildmeupbuttercup, Ciel De Neige, Ganapathi, Getaway Gorgeous and Captain Kangaroo (all Mullins).

Third Time Lucki bids to be the fourth County Hurdle winner in the last six years for his trainer, and he had a proper claim in the Supreme before connections opted for this. His fourth behind Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It looks outstanding after the second routed the Supreme field; and his defeat to For Pleasure was franked when that one finished third at a massive price, also in the Supreme. This has obviously been the plan.

Thyme White's case is less clear cut and looks pace dependent: he doesn't seem to have much of a gear change but is a strong traveller. Happily for him, the field has bags of speed courtesy of the likes of Petit Mouchoir, Gowel Road and Mengli Khan. He cruised through the Betfair Hurdle before finding little and, if he can move through this crowd with similar facility, might hit the board.

Where to begin with the Mullins quintet? With the favourite, I guess. Ganapathi is a lightly raced novice who was second in a Grade 2 and then a non-staying fifth over two miles six in the Grade 1 Nathaniel Lacy. He's yet to race on quicker ground, which is a slight worry given how short he is in the market. Ciel De Neige is a third season novice, breaking his duck at the tenth time of asking in a Limerick maiden at Christmas. He was third in the Boodles two years ago, and down the field in this last year off a pound lower mark. He doesn't scream handicap plot having been sent off 6/1 twelve months ago.

Captain Kangaroo sneaks in at the bottom of the weights, which is not a place where County Hurdle winners are typically found; while Buildmeupbuttercup has been admirably busy and successful but has no secrets from Mr Capper. That leaves Getaway Gorgeous, who is a 33/1 shot. She's another at the wrong end of the handicap, though if this has been a plan she might run better than her form suggests.

If a different trainer is to get their name on the roll of honour, it might be Martin Brassil who saddles You Raised Me Up, a highly progressive novice that has won his last two having previously run third of 22 in the Grade B Ladbrokes Hurdle at last year's Dublin Racing Festival. Relatively old but still lightly raced, he handles big fields and better ground which is what he'll have here. Player.

County Hurdle Pace Map

There are enough runners to be virtually certain of a fast pace; but it might not be a meltdown. Mengli Khan, Gowel Road and Petit Mouchoir are the most forward-going and, with luck in running, every horse should have its chance.

County Hurdle Selection

Clearly tough. Third Time Lucki's form has been very well advertised this week and his trainer has a peerless record in the race. Less fashionably, You Raised Me Up may go close to notching his third win in a row.

Suggestion: Back 15/2 Third Time Lucki and/or You Raised Me Up 10/1 each with as many extra places as possible (8 places with Sky).

*

2.30 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

A race that has provided plenty of shocks, some of them more predictable than others. The reason, I've contended on these pages for many years, is that the nature of the Albert Bartlett - often a mad scramble from start to finish, is very different from the small field Graded dawdles which largely precede it through the season. When the race is run more evenly, the result better fits the form book. Pace is the kingmaker in 'the potato race'.

This year's race looks an even tempo affair and, as such, might align with what we know. Stattler, performing this season without Waldorf (I know, what a muppet!), was a little outpaced in a 2m6f Grade 1 last time, so this longer trip ought to suit. All of his form so far is on soft ground, however.

Torygraph, trained out of Cullentra House, looks a likely type for a strong stamina test, doing his best work at the end of his most recent pair of races, the only two at which he's raced around three miles. He has a good run on good ground also. From the same stable is Fakiera, well fancied but with a bit to prove, not least affection for terra firmer and stamina. On the latter point, he's finished his races at shorter as though he needs this extra distance, but he's a tight enough price having not yet demonstrated he actually does need it.

Pick of the domestic challenge, in a year where that challenge has often felt token at best, might be Adrimel. But he was all out to hold on at 2m5f (heavy), and has to improve again on sounder footing and at a longer trip. Alaphilippe has less to prove having already easily won a three mile Grade 2. That was on heavy and he too has yet to race on anything better than soft.

There's been some chat about the Paul Nicholls-trained Barbados Buck's, who does have form at three miles and on a sound surface... but novice hurdles at Southwell (twice) and Kempton don't very well answer the class element of the Bertie Bartlett equation. On the same team, Threeunderthrufive ticks a number of boxes but is twice the odds of his stablemate. He's won his last four - a bumper and three novice hurdles - coping with a variety of ranges and terrains, and has been strong at the finish in his races. It's a tad disconcerting that his mate is so much better fancied as I quite like the one with the golfing name.

Another of my errant ante post tickets has the name of N'Golo on it. I have him to win any race at the Festival and this would not have been the one I'd have chosen (Coral Cup since you ask). He's got loads to prove in this group.

And circumstances have conspired against The Cob, supplemented for this having won a bruising Grade 2 at Doncaster on soft. Only half of the dozen starters even finished there and if this became attritional he'd come into my reckoning; but I don't think it will.

The forgotten horse might be Streets Of Doyen. He's a fast ground horse who did all his winning in the autumn. A sequence of four wins, all at three miles, all with good in the going description, was ended by defeat in a two mile soft ground event that could only be considered a late sharpener (in late Feb) for this. His winning sequence included a five length verdict over Stayers' Hurdle third favourite, Flooring Porter, and a Class 2 novice win at this track in October. He's a 25/1 shot I'll be playing.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Stattler is likely to make a bold bid from the front; there are not many other standout pace horses, though a few led last time (Oscar Elite, Beatthebullet).

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

An interesting race not expected to be run at a fierce gallop. The top of the market looks fair enough, with perhaps Torygraph the pick of them. But I'm going to risk two proven on the expected quicker ground, Threeunderthrufive and Streets Of Doyen. Both are win machines and both may have more to offer yet.

Suggestion: Try 14/1 Threeunderthrufive or 25/1 Streets Of Doyen each way, four places better than three.

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3.05 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

This year's Gold Cup is all about the threepeat (as they say across the pond)-seeking Al Boum Photo and his bid for a slightly larger spot in the history books. But he'll face a strong challenge from a variety of top class opposition: all as it should be.

In his two Gold Cup triumphs to date, Al Boum Photo has won off a searching gallop (2019) and he's won off a steady, tactical pace (2020). This year seems considerably more likely to be akin to the 2019 renewal pace wise with fast early horses like Native River, Frodon and Kemboy. ABP has had his by now traditionally quiet prep: he's run only six times in the past three years. That freshness, taken from the previous GC hat-trick hero Best Mate blueprint, has served connections well for all that us lusty race fans would have craved plenty more sightings of the star.

Since April 2018, then, and removing a defeat when over the top at Punchestown after his first Gold Cup, the pattern has been Tramore, Cheltenham, Tramore, Cheltenham, Tramore, Cheltenham, with victories written in the first five lines of that sexain. And so to line six. What do we know? As much as we did last year when the path was the same. Then, as now, we must judge him on his Cheltenham form because the Tramore races prove little more than he retains the same leg-in-each-corner physique as a table.

That Cheltenham form is obviously tiptop class; he does hit a few on the way round but doesn't generally look like coming down, and he handles quickish ground well. It could be good, rather than good to soft, this time which must be taken on trust but he clearly sets the standard for all that his price fully reflects that.

Last year's RSA winner, Champ, is the main danger. A drifter in the betting for much of a season where he was absent for one reason or another, he catapulted into second choice after an excellent second place in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase. That was over two miles, no sort of appropriate test for a stayer, and the way he travelled there was particularly taking. He will have come on fitness-wise for the run and matches Al Boum's one race preparation. He'll need another step forward to become the, erm, champ and, on his second start after a wind op, that's eminently plausible.

Henry runs A Plus Tard and if he is still in the mix for the Top Festival Trainer by then, I'll be giving this one the big one! His form is consistent for all that he was only third in the Ryanair last season; since then, he looked for all the world as though a good test was what he needed when only just getting up over three miles in the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Christmas. Not sighted since, he's another coming in off the fashionably light prep. As a seven-year-old versus two nine-year-olds mentioned already, A Plus Tard perhaps has more scope.

The other seven-year-old in the field, and a hard horse to fathom, is Royale Pagaille. A novice still, in spite of this being his twelfth chase start (six more than Champ, one more than A Plus Tard and only one less than Al Boum Photo), it won't be inexperience that beats him! But it might be the drying ground, his blitzkrieging barreling belligerence this season coming in hock deep mires. In fact, Royale Pagaille - who I backed to win this - has a lot to prove given he's never raced on faster than soft turf in a 15-race career and given this will be his first foray into Grade 1 company. In the most respectful way imaginable, he has something of a Bristol De Mai feel about him. Anyone want to buy a Gold Cup wager?

Minella Indo is flirting with a single figure price. Having hung tough until the shadow of the line, he was passed by the rallying Champ in last season's RSA, a race where Indo did a chunk of work early and just got very tired. He's generally on or close to the pace and that doesn't look a positive in what may be a searching gallop over a searching trip. Besides which his form just doesn't appear good enough this season. He's not for me here, as much as I am a fan generally.

Then come the populists: Frodon, Native River and to a lesser extent Santini. Frodon is younger than he seems, still nine, and in possession of an outstanding course record: he's won half of his twelve Cheltenham spins, including two Caspian Caviar Gold Cups (the second when carrying 11-12 off a mark of 164, crikey), a Cotswold Chase, that memorable Ryanair and a second handicap chase off 164 carrying 11-12. What's more he's done most of that wearing his heart on his sleeve from the front, and partnered by that faintly bonkers - but tactically excellent - Bryony Frost, whose eulogy to her partner after the 2019 Ryanair was a thing of PR beauty for a sport continually in need of such public validation.

That's the past for Frodon; what of his present? Sad to say I can't see it, as he'll likely need to be ridden forcefully and, while, he'll have the toe to usurp Native River on the speed it is quite hard to envisage him having the stamina to finish that off after the early skirmishes. All that said, there can't be too many horses to have proven so many people wrong as often as this partnership, and it would be absolute public relations manna from heaven for our beleaguered sport should he grab the whole pineapple. Hope he runs a stormer.

Native River is the veteran grinder, his own Gold Cup triumph immediately preceding the ABP era. Now eleven it won't be easier than it was then, but he looked in good form when wearing down the resilient Bristol De Mai in the Sandown redirect of the Cotswold Chase last month. He has won on good ground, in last year's Denman Chase, but I can't see him having the legs of some of these. Another story horse for the race, though.

The pantomime horse - metaphorically, not literally - is Santini. A gallant plodder in the eyes of many ("He's behind you? Oh no he isn't"), he just failed to reel in Topofthegame in the 2019 RSA and just failed to reel in Al Boum Photo in the 2020 Gold Cup. A goodly distance behind Native River in the Cotswold, this quicker ground and faster pace might actually be an optimum combination for the nine-year-old. I'm not especially excited about his chance in relation to those of the top three in the betting, but he could easily be fourth over the line, perhaps better if they went bananas up top in the first half of the race.

I'm not expecting a shock from the rest, though Kemboy deserves a mention as a horse within half a length of being a dual Grade 1 winner at three miles in his last two races (one of which he won). His problem is that Cheltenham really doesn't seem to be his track, his form figures being 54U7 at the last four Festivals.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Fast and furious. Frodon, Kemboy, Native River all go forward.

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A cracking Gold Cup in prospect, though not an easy one to unravel. The top three in the betting could fill the podium. And I think Santini will run well.

Suggestion: Back your own fancy!

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3.40 Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

Hard to peg many of these, and I won't spend too much time trying. Last year It Came To Pass won as an unheralded 66/1 chance, though shocks of that outlandish nature are fairly rare in recent times. That said, 25/1 (and 16/1) Pacha Du Polder, 33/1 Zemsky and Amicelli, and 20/1 Drombeag and Whyso Mayo have all won since 2006, so perhaps a swing at a price is not a terrible idea.

In the land of the more likely, Billaway heads the betting. Trained by... Willie Mullins?!... the nine-year-old got closest to It Came To Pass last year. Closest, yes, but still ten lengths behind that one. With last year's winner showing no form in two runs this season, his retained ability requires plenty of faith and, though dual scorers are common - Pacha Du Polder, On The Fringe and Salsify since 2012 - they typically arrived with more visible credentials. Billaway has a good chance of course but his best form is on softer ground.

The same comment applies to Bob And Co, who has traded the corinthian David Maxwell for the professional Sean Bowen in the plate. Moreover, after a wind op prior to his most recent run, he fair bolted up by 17 lengths in a Haydock Hunter Chase on his first run with Bowen steering. Bob And Co skipped the race last year when Maxwell opted to ride Shantou Flyer and it will be bittersweet for his owner/regular jockey if his horse scores during a time when Covid prevents amateurs from riding.

Staker Wallace has a little - two lengths - to find with Billaway on recent Naas running, but a bit more on last year's Foxhunters' form where he finished fourth. A very consistent horse, he may again make the frame especially if you can find four places.

Red Indian is harder to gauge. He's run in a couple of point to points this season, winning both naturally, and ran acceptably in midfield when last seen under Rules in the Peter Marsh of 2020. He looks like he wants mud on his hooves to perform best.

Stand Up And Fight, like Staker Wallace trained by Enda Bolger (of On The Fringe fame), has a three mile verdict over Billaway this season, though was soundly beaten by that one subsequently over two miles five furlongs. It could be that Bolger's horse is the stronger stayer - a prospect given further credence by his staying on close second to Jury Duty over 3m1f last time - in which case he may be overpriced.

An interesting British contender is Late Night Pass, who won the intermediate hunter chase over course and distance two years ago. Next seen under Rules when winning at Warwick last month, he handles this track, good to soft and stays well.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase  Pace Map

Lots who will want to be to the fore and out of trouble. Will be quick but perhaps not crazily so given these more experienced riders.

Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase Selection

A few with chances but not all of them at the top of the lists. Bob And Co looks better value than Billaway and will nearly win if handling faster turf. But it might be worth swinging at either or both of Stand Up And Fight and/or Late Night Pass. Both stay well, the former is with the right man and the latter has going/track/trip form.

Suggestion: Back 9/2 Bob And Co to win, and/or 14/1 Stand Up And Fight or 20/1 Late Night Pass each way, extra places if you can find 'em.

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4.15 Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m 4 1/2f)

The new race, taking the place of the Novices' Handicap Chase. As ever, some are pleased about this, others not so much. Me? I wouldn't be getting excited about either though I can far more readily see the need for a race like this in the Festival programme than the one it's replaced.

A smallish field and a strongish favourite in Elimay. One of four Willie Mullins entries, she has only once been out of the first two in nine runs since moving from France. That was in the 2019 Mares' Hurdle where she was only sixth; and, if that's a niggle, so too is her propensity for nearly winning: six times first, six times second in 15 jumps races. That consistency might be considered an asset if she was 8/1, but it's a liability in my book about a 6/4 shot. (To prevent a detailed explanation in the comments about how 40% wins equates nicely to being a 6/4 shot - even if that faultless mathematical logic was appropriate when judging her second toughest gig to date, she is still only 'the right price' rather than a value price).

Not always when Mullins runs amok with a mob in a mares' race does his best fancied prevail. Think Eglantine Du Seuil (50/1) in the inaugural Dawn Run, Glens Melody (6/1) in the Mares' Hurdle and, though it was an open race, Relegate (25/1) in the Champion Bumper. Colreevy has little to find with Elimay on figures, and what she lacks in the ratings department she makes up for with her win record - three from three since going chasing this term. She was a fair fifth in the Dawn Run last season, and has won a Grade 1 and a Grade 2 in her most recent starts.

Colreevy may not quite enjoy quicker ground as much as Elimay - I'm not sure about that either way - but at twice the price of her stable mate she's better value as I don't believe she's half as likely to win. She races front rank which, in a field packed with pace pressers, is a reservation; on the flip side, her win two back was when tracking until five out so perhaps she's tractable enough.

The back class of the field is Shattered Love, now ten but a former JLT/Marsh winner who was only a 20/1 chance in the 2019 Gold Cup itself. She was a staying on second to Elimay over an inadequate two miles last month and this two-and-a-half-miler might have been ideal for her had the ground not dried out. It still may be ideal.

It's tougher to make cases for the rest. Magic Of Light wants further and probably softer, too; Salsaretta needs to raise her game though will have come on for what was effectively her first run of the season last time, this trip and ground being optimal; the rest not having (yet) displayed the requisite class for a gig like this.

Special mention for Really Super, a syndicate horse in which friend of geegeez.co.uk, Josh Wright, owns a nostril. She has a, well, a really super win record in all disciplines: since summer 2019, she's won over hurdles, fences (including the Summer Plate at Market Rasen), in a flat race on the all weather and in a jumpers' bumper. The figures say she's not nearly good enough for this, but she will relish quick ground where some others won't, and the trip is close to optimal. Fingers crossed she runs well and maybe sneaks into the frame.

Mares' Chase Pace Map

This looks like being fast with loads of confirmed front-runners taking each other on.

Mares' Chase Selection

Elimay is too short for me though she has strong enough claims. I backed Shattered Love ante post but it's dried up enough for her price to be only fair. That leaves Colreevy as a progressive frequent winner in the right class bracket to challenge the other two. But she may be compromised if trying to make all as she generally does. Salsaretta is better than her recent runs but will need to step up to win, less so to make the frame.

Suggestion: It's quite hard to find a value play in a race where the top of the market may dominate. If you really want a tepid suggestion, 18/1 Salsaretta could make the frame if wheeling back to her best, but I'll not be going in again here.

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4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

Good luck with this project!

Gentleman De Mee is the Exhibit A of 'could be anything' and given that his trainer, Willie Mullins, has won this three times with fancied horses in its twelve year history, I'm not going to try any harder.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Gentleman De Mee shows as forward, but he's only had the one run in UK/Ireland, so he could be ridden differently. A good bit but not a huge amount of expected pace, so should be a nice even tempo.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

Most of us will know our fate by now, smashing out of trouble here the most ill-advised form of attempted recuperation. A small bet on Gentleman De Mee may at least stem some bleeding, though there'll be half a dozen jumping the last and finishing with a flourish.

Suggestion: Have a tickle on 5/1 Gentleman De Mee - win only, don't lose twice! - but don't go mad. The week's races have been run now, and we must accept whatever fate we have created for ourselves.

*

What a week. One of the best sporting events of the year, very likely the best racing event of the year. Never easy, always captivating, with bad beats galore; that's what keeps us coming back for more. I hope you've made a profit. Much more than that, I hope you've had a blast. Next year, it will be different. Better. But this year has still been amazing (and I'm writing this during Day 2!)

Be lucky.

Matt