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Cheltenham Festival day four – Another Photo-finish just what Mullins is looking for

Friday is the fourth and final day of the Cheltenham Festival – and the day when the sport’s best steeplechasers line-up for the most revered race of the jumps calendar, the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Al Boum Photo is the star attraction as he bids to win the race for the third successive season for his trainer Willie Mullins, potentially emulating greats such as Best Mate and Arkle in the process.

The most precocious four-year-olds in the hurdling sphere will battle it out in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, with the Denise Foster-trained Zanahiyr undoubtedly the one to beat on what he has done so far.

Mullins is again responsible for a leading fancy in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle as Stattler represents the yard in the race won by Monkfish last season.

The final afternoon also means the leading trainer and jockey titles can be awarded as the sun sets on what is hopefully the first and last Cheltenham Festival held behind closed doors.

Three in a row for Al Boum Photo?

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Paul Townend celebrates with Al Boum Photo after winning the Gold Cup
Paul Townend celebrates with Al Boum Photo after winning the Gold Cup (Jacob King/PA)

Al Boum Photo has a chance to become one of only five horses to win three Gold Cups as he lines up in the race that is the pinnacle of the jumps season. His preparation has run along similar lines to previous years with an easy win at Tramore on New Year’s Day, giving little away with regards to his chance against the likes of Champ, last season’s Ryanair winner, and Grade One Savills Chase champion A Plus Tard. The latter is the mount of Champion Hurdle heroine Rachael Blackmore – and do not discount Bryony Frost on Frodon, either.

Will Zanahiyr be triumphant?

Zanahiyr has been hugely impressive so far
Zanahiyr has been hugely impressive so far (PA)

The young stars of the hurdling division assemble for the Triumph Hurdle, with Zanahiyr the leading light. The gelding is now campaigned by Denise Foster and will face stiff competition from Alan King’s Tritonic, who was impressive when taking the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton. Henry de Bromhead also has a live chance with the undefeated Quilixios, who won the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle before leaving Gordon Elliott’s Cullentra yard.

Stattler set for Albert Bartlett stardom

Stattler is yet another leading chance for Willie Mullins
Stattler is yet another leading chance for Willie Mullins (PA)

The line-up for the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle is led by Stattler, but Foster’s Fakiera is also a well-fancied runner despite finishing two lengths behind the former when both horses were beaten at Leopardstown by Gaillard Du Mesnil. Bringing less prestigious but more consistent form to the table Paul Nicholls’ Barbados Buck’s, who has triumphed in three successive novice hurdles in the run-up to the Festival.

Bonus chasing

Harry Skelton and Langer Dan (left) at Sandown
Harry Skelton and Langer Dan (left) at Sandown (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Saturday’s easy Paddy Power Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan will bid for the £50,000 bonus which has only ever been won three times after making the cut for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle with two to spare. The participation of Dan Skelton’s five-year-old was in the balance until the 48-hour declaration stage, as despite picking up a 5lb penalty he still needed around 20 of those above him to come out. However, he gets into the race close to the foot of the handicap and will be 5lb ‘well in’, having been raised 10lb since his Sandown win.

Al Boum Photo faces 11 rivals as he chases Gold Cup hat-trick

Al Boum Photo is among a field of 12 as he seeks to join an elite list as a three-time winner of the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Only Golden Miller (five times), Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate have won chasing’s blue riband event three years in a row – and Willie Mullins’ charge is favourite to join them on Friday.

Ireland’s champion trainer also runs Kemboy, a multiple Grade One winner in his own right who is having his third run in the race, having unseated his rider in 2019 and finished seventh last year.

Perhaps an even bigger story, though, would be if Champion Hurdle victor Rachael Blackmore were to complete a historic double on Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard, who came from the clouds to win the Savills Chase at Christmas.

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He is owned by Cheveley Park Stud, and their managing director Chris Richardson said: “He travelled well, and Henry seems very happy with him.

“He was very impressive in the Savills. He didn’t look the winner there as he turned for home, but we were delighted that he won in the last stride and got the trip so well.

“It’s a dream to have a runner in the Gold Cup.”

Rachael Blackmore with A Plus Tard on the gallops on Wednesday morning
Rachael Blackmore with A Plus Tard on the gallops on Wednesday morning (David Davies/Jockey Club)

De Bromhead also has a decent second string in Minella Indo, who went close to winning for a second time at the meeting last year when second to the fast-finishing Champ in the race now known as the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

Nicky Henderson’s Champ has not had the ideal preparation, but he did finally reappear in the rearranged Game Spirit 26 days ago over two miles, and he takes his chance in the Festival feature.

He is the mount of Nico de Boinville, meaning the ride on last year’s runner-up and stablemate Santini goes to Aidan Coleman.

Just behind Santini and Al Boum Photo 12 months ago was Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation, but he has failed to run to form three times this season and needs to bounce back.

Native River is having a fourth run in the race for Colin Tizzard
Native River is having a fourth run in the race for Colin Tizzard (David Davies/PA)

Tizzard’s veteran Native River is also back for another run in the race – having finished third, first and fourth previously.

The King George VI Chase winner Frodon and Bryony Frost would also be popular winners.

Having won the Ryanair Chase two years ago, Frodon needs to prove his stamina for this trip, but a victory would mean Paul Nicholls joins Tom Dreaper on five wins in the great race.

Venetia Williams runs two in Aso and the novice Royale Pagaille, with Tom George’s Black Op also declared.

WellChild has ‘dream opportunity’ as Cheltenham Gold Cup partner

Children’s charity WellChild will take centre stage this week as the partner of jump racing’s most revered event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

WellChild announced its association with the Jockey Club in February following cider brand Magners’ decision to cease sponsorship of the Festival showpiece in December last year.

Rather than seeking an alternative sponsor, the Jockey Club instead chose to strike up a partnership with the Cheltenham-based charity.

This year’s race will therefore be run as the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday.

WellChild’s principal aim is to prevent seriously ill children from spending long spells in hospitals, instead supporting families in providing the necessary care from home.

The charity’s links with the sport can be traced back to ITV Racing anchor Ed Chamberlin, who has been an ambassador for WellChild since 2012.

He was drawn to support the organisation after witnessing life in an adjacent children’s ward when he himself was undergoing treatment for stomach cancer in Southampton Hospital.

“It’s probably eight years or more that Ed’s been involved,” said WellChild Chief Executive Colin Dyer.

“He came along to an event as a guest and he’d been quite ill himself – he was in hospital for a while, and he saw young people in hospital.

“WellChild’s big push is to make sure that children don’t spend months and months in hospital, and that they can be cared for at home. Ed vowed to himself that he would help, so when he heard of what we do it just touched a nerve with him – and he’s been involved ever since.

“He does our fundraising golf days, and a lot of the racing community started coming along to the things we did and getting involved.

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ITV Racing's Ed Chamberlin during St Patrick’s Thursday of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival
ITV Racing’s Ed Chamberlin at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival (Mike Egerton/PA)

“When this opportunity came along and they wanted to do this community-charity link, because the racing world has worked alongside us for a few years and heard our messages at events, it just seemed like a natural fit.

“He is fantastic for us, really passionate and pro-active, and has helped us hugely – especially now that we find ourselves as partners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.”

While fronting the ITV Racing coverage, Chamberlin is often joined by 20-time champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy – who has undertaken a punditry role since retiring from the saddle in 2015.

McCoy, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Mr Mulligan in 1997 and Synchronised in 2012, recently announced he too will be joining WellChild to act as an ambassador for the Festival.

“He’s just signed on the dotted line,” said Dyer.

“We find that with something as emotive as the work that WellChild does, when people see a chance to help, they want to take that chance.

“Hopefully Ed and AP will be able to pick that up in the coverage and shine a light on us and highlight what we do. They’re both such positive people as well, and so well respected.”

Sir AP McCoy on Synchronised after winning the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Sir AP McCoy on Synchronised after winning the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup (David Jones/PA)

While Dyer naturally hopes that a raised awareness of the charity’s work will result in an upturn in donations, an equally important aim is to reach out to families who are in need of help but may not have heard of the organisation.

“What we always find is that one of the real positives from spreading the word far and wide is that it brings families to us – it unearths people who may not realise that WellChild can support them,” he said.

“If it brings new families who are caring for seriously ill children to us, to help us support them, then that’s the biggest success we could possibly have from this.

“The second thing is that we are voluntary-funded charity, everything that we are able to do comes from the money that we have raised ourselves, so it’s being able to explain to people why we need their support – whether it’s a pound or a hundred pounds.

“There’ll be a lot of ‘text to donate’ messages, and people will be able to go to our website and donate – but having the platform to find more families who need our support is just a great opportunity for us.”

The charity relies on events to generate much of its income and has inevitably found that its calendar has been decimated by the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns.

“About 60 per cent of our income comes from events – and every event went, every single one,” added Dyer.

“Everybody’s in the same boat, and this partnership will hopefully help us fill that gap. It’s a dream opportunity.

“We’ve only known about it for about four weeks now, and it’s already been crazy. It’s created such a sense of positivity in and around the charity, just to have something like this.

“We’ve already seen the generosity of the racing community over the past few years, and I think filling that gap that Covid has left is going to be a really important element of this.”

As is customary for partnerships in high-profile races, WellChild branding will adorn the boards up the run-in for the big race, with the winning horse also set to wear a rug decorated with sketches drawn by some of the children the charity supports.

WellChild's branding will replace the Magners branding seen behind 2020 winner Al Boum Photo
WellChild’s branding will replace the Magners boards seen behind 2020 winner Al Boum Photo (Tim Goode/PA)

“This isn’t just a ‘stick-a-badge-on-it’ exercise for them,” Dyer said of the Jockey Club’s involvement with the partnership.

“They’ve been really creative and they clearly want to make a difference with this, which is brilliant to see.

“That was the real clincher for us, seeing how much the Jockey Club wanted to get behind this themselves to make that difference.”

ITV’s coverage of the 2020 Cheltenham Gold Cup drew an audience of 1.9 million, and the channel’s viewership has since risen as lockdown restricts most people to their homes – meaning a sizeable percentage of the population is likely to gain an awareness of the charity’s work after watching this year’s race.

“It is already a bit surreal to hear people saying ‘the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup’,” said Dyer.

“To have that ability to shine the light and be shown in people’s homes, which we wouldn’t ever really be able to do, it’s just a brilliant opportunity.”

Hat-trick seeking Al Boum Photo tops 13 in Gold Cup

Al Boum Photo will face a maximum of 12 rivals as he shoots for a third successive victory in Friday’s WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Willie Mullins’ runner will join a select band of three-times winners if he can triumph again in the Festival showpiece, becoming the first horse since Best Mate in 2004 to complete the feat.

The nine-year-old has won his only start so far this term and could be joined by fellow Mullins runners Kemboy and Melon, although the latter is still in the Ryanair.

Native River won the Gold Cup in 2018
Native River won the Gold Cup in 2018 (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

He faces another previous winner in 2018 hero Native River, who is one of two for Colin Tizzard along with last year’s third Lostintranslation.

Santini was beaten just a neck by Al Boum Photo in 2020 and he is set to be one of two for Nicky Henderson, along with last year’s last-gasp RSA winner Champ, who made a satisfactory return when second in the Game Spirit last month.

Paul Nicholls and Bryony Frost are set to team up with Frodon, winner of the 2019 Ryanair Chase and successful over three miles in the King George VI Chase when last seen while Royal Pagaille stands his ground for Venetia Williams, although he also remains in the Sam Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase and the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

A Plus Tard after winning the Savills Chase
A Plus Tard after winning the Savills Chase (Niall Carson/PA)

Williams also has Aso in the mix, with Tom George’s Black Op completing the home team.

In addition to Mullins’ trio, Henry de Bromhead has two Irish-trained contenders in A Plus Tard and Minella Indo.

A Plus Tard impressed when beating Kemboy in the Savills Chase at Christmas, while Minella Indo was well beaten by that Mullins runner when last seen in the Irish Gold Cup.

Nicholls senses Frodon may be surprise package in Gold Cup

Paul Nicholls will not be surprised if Frodon throws a spanner in the works for hat-trick seeker Al Boum Photo in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

While acknowledging Willie Mullins’ reigning dual champion will be hard to beat, Nicholls feels his challenger can be relied upon to give it his best shot in what the trainer views as an open race, barring the favourite.

Frodon, who famously landed the 2019 Ryanair Chase under regular rider Bryony Frost, sprang a surprise when scuppering stablemate Clan Des Obeaux’s bid for a third King George on Boxing Day – proving conclusively he is Grade One class at three miles.

Having also won the Cotswold Chase two years ago and a Cheltenham handicap on his seasonal return, the trip and track hold no fears for Nicholls.

Frodon was a surprise King George winner
Frodon was a surprise King George winner (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

He said: “Earlier this season he won a handicap off top-weight over three-mile-one, he’s won a King George – King George winners stay and do end up winning Gold Cups.

“He definitely wants a trip. We ran him in last year’s Ryanair, and he was completely outpaced all the way, (so) we decided this year we would stay over a longer trip. He’s in really good form, he worked beautifully this morning.

“He loves to be fresh and fit and he loves Cheltenham obviously – I think he’s won there six times. Often on the last day (of the Festival) the ground is decent, which would suit him.

“No one would expect him to win the Gold Cup – but if he did, I wouldn’t be surprised because he’s that sort of horse.

“He keeps surprising people. No one ever expected him to win a King George, but if you watch the replay, he won very cosily and was probably (running) the wrong way round.

“He’s in good shape – and you know whatever he does, he’s going to give a good account of himself.”

Al Boum Photo is seeking a third Gold Cup win
Al Boum Photo is seeking a third Gold Cup win (PA)
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Nicholls thinks the Gold Cup field is a closely-matched bunch if the favourite is taken out of the equation.

He said: “It’s very competitive. Last year’s winner is the one we’ve all got to beat – but I think after that, it’s very much of a muchness. A lot of the horses have beaten each other.

“We beat Santini in the King George, and Santini is a shorter price than us for the Gold Cup, which I don’t really get. Frodon is always underestimated a little bit, but he will give a good account of himself.

“Al Boum Photo has won the last two and is the one to beat. He’s the class act, but the rest are much of a muchness, and you could get many different results.

“We’re glad to be there and that the horse has got to this point – we’re just really looking forward to him running.”

Frodon was one of a dozen horses to enjoy a racecourse spin on Tuesday morning, with Nicholls explaining: “It was just a good day out for them really.

“It’s just something you fit into their workload – we always do it every year. Some horses need a gallop more than others – they didn’t really go and have a searching, hard gallop. It was just a day out, and it came together well.

“Politologue, Bravemansgame, Frodon, Real Steel, Houx Gris, Soldier Of Love – who probably wouldn’t go to Cheltenham – Barbados Bucks, Saint Sonnet, Amour De Nuit, Duc De Genievres, Storm Arising and Threeunderthrufive were the 12. They just had a lovely day out, and everyone was happy.

“Politologue loved bowling along in front. It was just a good day out for them.”

Politologue will be defending his Cheltenham crown
Politologue will be defending his Cheltenham crown (Simon Cooper/PA)

Politologue has become something of a standing dish at the Festival and finally enjoyed his moment in the spotlight when lifting the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase last year.

The 10-year-old landed the Tingle Creek first time out this term, but finished a leg-weary second to First Flow on testing ground in Ascot’s Clarence House Chase on his most recent run.

Nicholls said: “I love this race – it’s a fantastic race. I’ve been very lucky to have some fantastic horses win it.

“Politologue winning last year was fantastic for him and everybody connected with the horse.

“This is his sixth Festival, which is amazing really – and if you’d seen him gallop this morning, he was very impressive.”

Chacun Pour Soi leads the Champion Chase betting
Chacun Pour Soi leads the Champion Chase betting (PA)

Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi is a hot favourite after three effortless wins so far this term. But Nicholls, who also plans to field Greaneteen, will not duck a challenge.

He said: “Chacun Pour Soi looks very, very smart, but he has not run at Cheltenham before and has got to act on the track. If he does, he’ll undoubtedly be hard to beat, but you should never be afraid of one.”

Duc Des Genievres is also in the mix, and Nicholls added: “He won the Arkle two years ago and has run some tidy races this year. He’s just shy of being a Grade One horse, and we need to decide whether to run him in this or run him in the Grand Annual.”

Paul Nicholls with Bravemansgame on Tuesday
Paul Nicholls with Bravemansgame on Tuesday (David Davies/PA)

Nicholls has one of the leading lights for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle in Bravemansgame, winner of the Grade One Challow Novices’ Hurdle last time in fine style. His only defeat over hurdles came at the hands of Betfair Hurdle hero Soaring Glory on his debut.

The trainer said: “The Challow as a nice race to win, and he won very nicely that day.

“His form has been really progressive. At the start of the season he was beaten a neck by Jonjo’s (O’Neill) horse (Soaring Glory), who won the Betfair Hurdle – and I was impressed with him that day, because Harry (Cobden) could hardly pull him up afterwards and he ran green.

“With each run he’s got better and better, and this is the obvious race for him.

“He worked very nicely this morning, and I’m very happy with his preparation.”

Empty stands at Cheltenham earlier this season
Empty stands at Cheltenham earlier this season (David Davies/PA)

Nicholls’ only regret is that the Festival will be limited to essential personnel only on course as coronavirus restrictions remain in place.

He added: “It’s a great meeting. It’s a shame the crowd aren’t there and owners aren’t there, because it’s such a social occasion and means so much to so many people.

“The main thing is we’re racing, there’ll be a lot of people watching it – and the racing will be as competitive as normal.”

Henderson relieved Game Spirit plan paid off for Champ

Nicky Henderson is glad his “ridiculous” idea of running Champ over two miles as a prep for the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup did not leave him with egg on his face.

Having had an interrupted season and his intended reappearance in the Denman Chase postponed by the weather, Henderson came up with the plan of running last year’s dramatic RSA winner over the minimum trip in the Game Spirit, once Altior had been ruled out.

Always prominent under Nico de Boinville, Champ exceeded nearly all expectations in finishing second to Sceau Royal and connections are now dreaming of winning the big one.

“It was an extraordinary performance in the RSA last year, reminiscent of dear old Might Bite,” said Henderson.

“I was watching what was going on up front, but then he came back into sight and swept by them. That proved one thing – his stamina.

“When we brought him in earlier this season, he was loose-schooling at Henrietta Knight’s and we could hear a noise we’d never heard before. It makes me wonder whether it had anything to do with what happened last year. Round about the second-last is where it could catch you out. It’s just a Henderson theory.”

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After a wind operation, Henderson went about planning the second half of the season for Champ.

“The Cotswold Chase was his alternative, but we thought that was better for Santini, certainly in that (soft) ground, then Champ would have come in for the Denman at Newbury – on the original weekend,” he said.

“The move back a week, as commendable as it was, just interfered with plans and we decided against Altior running. Sometimes crazy ideas come into your head in the middle of the night and it occurred to me that three miles, first time out, three weeks and five days before his objective, put him in the ‘bounce factor’ bracket.

“He’s an extraordinary horse because a week before the race he was working with On The Blind Side, a three-mile hurdler who isn’t good enough for the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’s not a good work horse, but it took Champ all day to get to him.

“My assistant, Charlie Morlock, said he didn’t exactly look like a horse to run over two miles, but Champ at home and Champ on a racecourse – you wouldn’t know it was the same horse as he does nothing at home.

“I was hoping we’d see what we saw as my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn’t work. It worked because he could do it, but I didn’t know where he’d finish. It went well and his jumping at that pace was exceptional. We all came away very happy and he has been fine since.”

Champ on his way to the gallops at Seven Barrows
Champ on his way to the gallops at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

Henderson confirmed De Boinville will stay on Champ for the Gold Cup, with Aidan Coleman riding last year’s runner-up Santini.

“Santini has had a difficult season. He started at Aintree when it was essentially a Flat race when they took the fences out. He’s a huge horse, he ran a very good race that day and in fact Frodon was behind him,” he said.

“We had no intention of running him in the King George, but there was just too much of a gap between Aintree and the Cotswold. He’s not a horse that sits still, he loves racing.

Nicky Henderson with Santini, last year's Gold Cup second
Nicky Henderson with Santini, last year’s Gold Cup second (David Davies/PA)

“Not surprisingly he found the track sharper than ideal, but it was still a good exercise for him. Then the Cotswold Chase was off, Sandown took it on but the ground was desperate. I was satisfied with him in third.”

While Champ is a much shorter price for Cheltenham, Henderson feels Santini may be going in under the radar if the ground is on the good side.

He said: “Champ’s run was obviously more eyecatching as he was running over the wrong trip. I’m very happy with Santini as it’s been a difficult winter with him. It’s not as if he’s coming in off three wins, but this is what he’s been waiting for.”

Al Boum Photo ‘in great shape’ as Gold Cup hat-trick bid looms

Willie Mullins is planning a “big bit of work” for Al Boum Photo this week as the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner continues preparations for his hat-trick bid.

The nine-year-old will attempt to join Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate as a three-time winner of the blue riband, with Golden Miller the most successful in the history of the race thanks to his five victories.

Al Boum Photo will head to Cheltenham on March 19 with just one start under his belt this season, having won the Savills New Year’s Day Chase on his January return – the same route Mullins plotted for his previous victories in the Festival showpiece, which this year will be run as the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The trainer admits he did not expect Al Boum Photo to be a staying star following a novice-chase campaign back in 2018 which included a fall at the Festival and a dramatic run-out at Punchestown.

Al Boum Photo and jockey Paul Roule on the gallops on Monday morning
Al Boum Photo and jockey Paul Roule on the gallops on Monday morning (Niall Carson/PA)

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Mullins said: “He’s in great shape. He worked well last week and he’s a big bit of work coming up this week.

“He’s uncomplicated, he’s very nice to train.

“I didn’t think when we were buying him we’d be in this position, or indeed the day that he ran out in Punchestown, or when he had the mishap with Ruby (Walsh) jumping the last at Cheltenham.

“He’s got a funny back history – but here he is, a double Gold Cup winner going for his third. We’re very privileged to have him.”

Champ returned to action at Newbury on Sunday
Champ returned to action at Newbury on Sunday (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

While Mullins has plenty of faith in Al Boum Photo, he is alive to the threat posed by Savills Chase winner A Plus Tard – and last year’s top three-mile novice Champ.

A Plus Tard had Mullins’ Kemboy back in second at Leopardstown over Christmas – while Nicky Henderson’s Champ impressed many when second, dropped down to two miles in Sunday’s Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

Mullins said: “I think you have to (take Champ and A Plus Tard seriously). Both are stayers, A Plus Tard is bred to stay; Champ proved that he stays all day last year, and he put in a huge performance yesterday. The two of them have put in huge performances as their prep runs.”

Willie Mullins Stable Visit
Kemboy and jockey Ruth Dudfield following a Monday morning exercise (Niall Carson/PA)

Kemboy went on to win the Irish Gold Cup this month, with stablemate Melon a well-beaten fifth. The pair are among five entries for Mullins at this stage, although neither is certain to run – with Kemboy given an alternative option in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle as well as, like Melon, the Ryanair Chase.

The Closutton trainer added: “Kemboy is there – we haven’t decided or spoken to connections yet – and Melon is there. Looking at the replay last night, we think possibly should he (Melon) go for the Ryanair? But then we are well represented in the Ryanair, so we will see.

“I’ll have to have a word with connections about where we go. There’s no hard-and-fast rules made at this stage. There’s a few bits of work to do, and who knows what’s going to happen?”

Gold Cup glory with Long Run was the stuff of dreams for Waley-Cohen

Long Run had to win a race for the ages as he surged clear of both Denman and Kauto Star to lift the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

A decade on, his name still resonates among his fellow heroes of a famed golden era of steeplechasing – as do the Corinthian achievements of father-and-son, owner-rider combination Robert and Sam Waley-Cohen.

Robert still recalls the “unimaginable” joy at seeing Long Run and Sam silence the doubters who wondered if an amateur jockey would be sufficiently adept for the most exacting of challenges, beating the very best to claim National Hunt racing’s greatest prize.

The Waley-Cohens and trainer Nicky Henderson (right) welcome Long Run home to Lambourn after his Gold Cup glory
The Waley-Cohens and trainer Nicky Henderson (right) welcome Long Run home to Lambourn after his Gold Cup glory (Ben Birchall/PA)

Waley-Cohen senior never harboured any such qualms – and vindication was emphatic.

Long Run had interrupted Kauto Star’s sequence of five King George VI Chase victories in six years – in an edition of the Kempton showpiece delayed three weeks by a frozen Christmas – and would go on to succeed Paul Nicholls’ great on Boxing Day 2012, too.

At the age of just six, his CV also included two Grade One victories in his native France and another on British debut in the 2009 Feltham Novices’ Chase at Kempton.

It was enough to send Long Run off favourite in his first Gold Cup to beat a mighty old guard comprising the three winners of four preceding renewals – dual hero Kauto Star, stablemate Denman and title-holder Imperial Commander.

Nonetheless, as the Waley-Cohens gathered to cheer on their horse and their man, there were thousands yet to be convinced about Long Run’s suitability to Cheltenham – where he had been beaten on his two previous visits, third in both the RSA Chase 12 months earlier and then the Paddy Power Gold Cup.

Waley-Cohen senior begged to differ.

Long Run (middle) left the mighty Denman ad Kauto Star in his wake as he won the 2011 Gold Cup
Long Run (middle) left the mighty Denman ad Kauto Star in his wake as he won the 2011 Gold Cup (David Davies/PA)

“I wasn’t at all concerned (about Cheltenham) – and unlike many others, I wasn’t at all concerned about his rider’s ability to handle it, although the pressure was considerable,” he said.

“He was more than capable of doing a good job.”

Ten years on, however, he is prepared to admit to a momentary consternation as to whether Long Run could match Nicholls’ two superstars as they joined battle ahead of him leaving Cheltenham’s back straight.

“There were definitely some concerns during the race, particularly when Kauto Star and Denman took each other on coming down the hill,” he said.

“As it turned out, that was probably to our advantage – they probably overdid it coming down the hill. But I thought ‘Oh no, we’re not quite good enough to get to them’ – then as he turned the corner and started to gain on them and jumped the second-last so well, I did shout extremely loudly.”

He was not alone.

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“The noise from the place we were in was unbelievable from there to the line – we couldn’t quite believe what we’d just seen,” Waley-Cohen added.

“It was before the construction of the Princess Royal Stand, so we were in one of those ghastly little boxes in that old space – a whole bunch of us and a lot of Sam’s friends, including his then fiancee now wife.

“It was absolutely fantastic. It is the biggest National Hunt race there is – to win that with your horse and your son on board is just unimaginable.”

Yet he knew all along that – albeit with history against them – Long Run and his jockey had the credentials to become, respectively, the first six-year-old Gold Cup winner for almost half-a-century and first amateur to succeed since 1981.

“I thought he had every chance, and indeed he started favourite,” he said, referencing other factors behind Long Run’s near five-length defeat in handicap company four months earlier.

“It wasn’t that Cheltenham wasn’t his course, but two and a half miles wasn’t his trip – certainly not that early in the season.

“When he ran in the RSA, (trainer) Nicky (Henderson) said he was over the top by then. He’d been running in top-class races in France before he came over.

“He won Grade One races in five consecutive years, which is exceptional. He beat Denman, Kauto Star and Imperial Commander – the winners of umpteen Gold Cups before him – which was amazing.

“He’d also done something quite extraordinary the year before. As a three-year-old, he won the Grade One three-year-old hurdle in France, and as a four-year-old he won the Grade One four-year-old chase in France – which no other horse had ever done, and still hasn’t.

“Then he came over as a four-year-old, and in his first race in England he won the Feltham – so he’s the only four-year-old to have won two Grade One races in two different countries.”

Long Run was not, however, able to add a second Gold Cup – having to settle for third in both 2012 and 2013.

Waley-Cohen said: “The only thing I’ve never understood and never will, just to show how horses are not machines and how they break your heart, is how he didn’t win the Gold Cup the following year.

“Everything was going his way; Sam produced him perfectly, and he got beaten by two horses who had never beaten him on any other occasion.”

Long Run cannot tell us why, of course, either – but at the age of 16, five years after his retirement, he is still compensating his owner with a larger-than-life presence at their home on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border.

“He’s very much still around – he’s still with us at Upton,” said Waley-Cohen.

“We decided to allow him have a quite normal life, enjoying going out – he doesn’t like hunting, because he can’t understand why things don’t happen a bit quicker.

“He’s happy to stand around for 20 minutes, then he says ‘Right, time for something to happen now!’

“I didn’t want to train him for dressage or to go showing – he’s much too impatient to go showing. We did actually take him once to show off Gold Cup winners at Cheltenham, and he was a complete nightmare – he bounced around the paddock as though he was going to run in a race.

“My eldest son Marcus rides him a lot around the farm, and he enjoys going with the kids. He’s like an old pro going away from home, and an absolute idiot racehorse going back towards home!”

The memories endure for the Waley-Cohens, and the future promises much – including perhaps at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and in part thanks to Long Run’s lineage.

Long Run's half-sister Liberthine was a winner over the big fences at Aintree, ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen in the 2006 Topham
Long Run’s half-sister Liberthine was a winner over the big fences at Aintree, ridden by Sam Waley-Cohen in the 2006 Topham (Gareth Copley/PA)

Waley-Cohen bought him when he started to show great promise for owner Marie-Christine Gabeur and maestro French trainer Guillaume Macaire – having previously acquired Long Run’s half-sister Liberthine from the same source.

She went on to be a Cheltenham Festival winner and also mastered Aintree’s fences as heroine of the 2006 Topham Chase.

Her son Sure Touch won his bumper debut at Wincanton in January, and on Gold Cup day on March 19 the first edition of Cheltenham’s newest race – the Liberthine Mares Chase – will honour her.

The competition will be formidable, but Waley-Cohen will be trying to win it 10 years on from Long Run’s triumph.

“They’re both bred by Madame Benoit Gabeur,” he said of Long Run and Liberthine.

“Benoit also bred (dual Champion Chase winner) Master Minded, but I think they are all in his wife’s name.

“I bought Liberthine, who is five or six years older – she was Sam’s first ever winner against professionals in a novice chase at Stratford – (and then) Long Run was the fourth I bought out of the mare.

Elusive Belle (right) may bid to mark the 10th anniversary of Long Run's Gold Cup glory in style at Cheltenham this year
Elusive Belle (right) may bid to mark the 10th anniversary of Long Run’s Gold Cup glory in style at Cheltenham this year (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Sure Touch won his bumper. Liberthine’s first foal won black type, and her second foal won a bumper – both fillies, both with foals in the yard now.

“She’s now retired, but she’s a granny.”

There will be no Cheltenham challenge this spring for Sure Touch, as Waley-Cohen nurtures a bright future for the five-year-old, but he could yet be double-handed in pursuit of the race named after Long Run’s sibling, on the anniversary of his Gold Cup glory.

“I won’t run Sure Touch (in the Champion Bumper), because I think it’s too tough a race for horses you hope have a very good future,” he said.

“But I definitely will run, if I possibly can, two or three others (at Cheltenham).”

Among them, Elusive Belle and Lust For Glory are contenders in the Liberthine – and although currently outsiders behind Irish big-hitters such as Elimay, no one will treasure victory more than their owner.

Covid-19 restrictions will prevent his son Sam from riding unless the current suspension of amateur jockeys lapses – but the Waley-Cohens may nonetheless yet be able to celebrate again on Gold Cup day 2021.

A Plus Tard set to head straight to Cheltenham

Savills Chase winner A Plus Tard is likely to sidestep the Dublin Racing Festival and head straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Connections are keen to give the seven-year-old as long as possible to get over his exertions from the Christmas feature at Leopardstown, in which he proved his stamina for three miles with a relentless finish to overhaul Kemboy and Melon.

While he would have another two furlongs to tackle at Cheltenham, the manner of his victory, in coming from well off the pace, has given his team hope Henry de Bromhead’s charge will be a genuine player in the blue riband come March.

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“A Plus Tard was very impressive. It was obviously a step into the unknown, but it has opened up so many more options and one is clearly the Gold Cup,” said Chris Richardson, managing director of owners Cheveley Park Stud.

“He likes to run left-handed and he likes to run fresh and we’re very fortunate to have a selection of special horses.

“He was eyecatching in that performance. It was a bit of a punt to see if he stayed, but occasionally you have got to roll the dice and it worked out a treat. He’s very exciting and a serious star in his own right.

“I don’t think he’ll run at the Dublin Racing Festival, I think he’ll go straight to Cheltenham for the Gold Cup, as he runs so well fresh. So I think we’ll just go there.

“He had a hard race the other day and it wasn’t easy, it was a pure test so we don’t want to rush him back, we’ll be patient and go for the Festival, all being well.”

One Cheveley Park-owned star who will not be at Cheltenham is Ferny Hollow, but Richardson has not given up hope the Champion Bumper winner will run again this season – especially given the horse he beat on his hurdles debut has subsequently won a Grade One.

“Obviously Ferny Hollow’s form was franked by Bob Olinger the other day and it’s frustrating he won’t be there,” said Richardson.

“He might make Punchestown, that is the hope, but I wouldn’t want to tempt fate. That is what we would like to think.”

Al Boum Photo headlines Gold Cup contenders

Dual winner Al Boum Photo heads 41 entries for this year’s Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Willie Mullins’ nine-year-old enjoyed his usual preparation recently with a straightforward victory at Tramore and will head straight to Prestbury Park in his bid to emulate the likes of Arkle, Best Mate and Golden Miller as a three-time winner of the blue-riband event.

Mullins has a host of other contenders for the showpiece event on March 19, including Kemboy, Melon and Allaho, who were second, third and fourth respectively in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

The winner of that race was Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard, already a Cheltenham Festival winner in the past and who was placed in the Ryanair last year.

However, the betting indicates at the moment De Bromhead has an even better chance with Minella Indo, who was caught close home in the RSA Chase last season but was an early faller in the Savills Chase.

It was Nicky Henderson’s Champ who flew up the hill to catch him in the RSA and although he has not run since, he remains one of the leading contenders for the Gold Cup.

Champ flew up the hill in the RSA to catch Minella Indo and Allaho
Champ flew up the hill in the RSA to catch Minella Indo and Allaho (Andrew Matthews/PA)
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Henderson also has last year’s narrow runner-up Santini, winless in two outings so far this season, while Gordon Elliott is keen to get another run into Delta Work, Samcro and Presenting Percy after they failed to trouble the judge over Christmas.

Frodon booked his spot in the Gold Cup when making all the running in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day under Bryony Frost and has been entered by Paul Nicholls along with Cyrname and Real Steel.

Waiting Patiently ran a fine race for North Yorkshire trainer Ruth Jefferson at Kempton to chase Frodon home, on what was his first racecourse appearance in over a year.

Outlining options for her stable star, Jefferson said: “Waiting Patiently is very well at home and has come out of the King George absolutely bouncing.

“We have decided to enter him in all of the possible targets at the Cheltenham Festival just to keep our options open – at least for now. The Champion Chase, Ryanair Chase and the Gold Cup are all championship races and it just makes sense at this stage to keep him in all three.

Waiting Patiently will have plenty of options at Cheltenham
Waiting Patiently will have plenty of options at Cheltenham (Julian Herbert/PA)

“We still don’t know how far he will be dropped back down in trip so the Champion Chase comes into the equation and he has got an entry for that.

“The Ryanair Chase is obviously another race to consider, whilst the Gold Cup, given these uncertain times, could be an interesting race.

“With so much going on, entering in all three races just keeps our options open and then we’re not tied down about having to go for one particular race.

“He will probably run again before Cheltenham, but where we go is something we are still discussing. The Ascot Chase was originally the race I had pencilled him in for, but I don’t know whether that will then be too close to Cheltenham and it therefore becomes difficult to run in both.

“With that in mind, I am not sure where we will go next at the moment, but I would like to get another run into him before Cheltenham.”

Bristol De Mai won his third Betfair Chase in November and may have another crack at a race in which he finished third in 2019 before possibly heading for the Grand National.

Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said: “Bristol De Mai is fine, he has just been ticking over since Haydock so he is fresh and well.

“He didn’t win this Betfair Chase by as far as his others, but it was a very classy field he beat and he did it well.

“I don’t know whether he goes to the Cotswold Chase. He could go there or wait. It’s a bit up in the air.

“I would like to look at the Gold Cup, but if all the others turn up we might side-step it and go for the National.

“He was third in it (Gold Cup) before and he is right up there on ratings. He has been to the Gold Cup a few times, but has not won it yet. If he goes there hopefully he can prove them all wrong this year.”

Saint Calvados, Lostintranslation, Native River and Imperial Aura and among a host of other interesting possibles.

Monalee setback likely to rule him out for the season

Monalee is likely to miss the rest of the season through injury, leaving A Plus Tard and Minella Indo as Henry de Bromhead’s two contenders for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Beaten less than two lengths into fourth place in last season’s blue riband, the 10-year-old was third to Presenting Percy on his reappearance at Tramore in November, setting himself up for a tilt at the King George VI Chase at Kempton.

However, travel restrictions ruled him out of the Boxing Day showpiece – and while he was given the alternative of taking on dual Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo at Tramore on New Year’s Day, a setback has put all plans on hold.

“We’re not quite sure how long he’ll be out for yet, but he’s unlikely to be back this season. We’re just waiting for more information, then we’ll see,” De Bromhead told Sky Sports Racing.

Monalee could miss the rest of the season through injury
Monalee could miss the rest of the season through injury (Niall Carson/PA)

“It’s very disappointing for that to happen, but hopefully we’ll get him back on track again.”

A Plus Tard leapt into the Gold Cup picture when producing a late burst to snatch victory in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

“That was a great day. He was really good and we were really delighted he did it so well in the end,” said De Bromhead.

“We’ve entered him for the Gold Cup and the Ryanair and I’d imagine we’d be leaning towards the Gold Cup at this stage, but obviously we’ll keep our options open and confirm nearer the time.”

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Minella Indo was favourite for the Savills Chase only to fall at the eighth fence. He will try to make amends in the Irish Gold Cup back at Leopardstown next month.

“He seems good now, so he’ll aim towards the Irish Gold Cup next and try to get him back with a clear round and get him going again,” said De Bromhead.

“He’s been good at home, not a bother on him.”

Notebook and Put The Kettle On were second and third respectively behind Chacun Pour Soi in the Grade One Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown.

Put The Kettle On is being aimed at the Queen Mother Champion Chase
Put The Kettle On is being aimed at the Queen Mother Champion Chase (Simon Cooper/PA)

De Bromhead reports the pair to be in good form and have the Queen Mother Champion Chase as their Cheltenham target, with Notebook heading first for the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown next month.

“I was delighted with them. They both ran really well. Notebook was great and Put The Kettle On was really good as well. Unfortunately, Chacun Pour Soi was better then them on the day” said the County Waterford trainer.

“I think Put The Kettle On is a lot better around Cheltenham. She loves that track so we’ll aim her for the Champion Chase.

“I’d say Notebook will go back for the Grade One two-mile chase at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival, then I imagine on to the Champion Chase after that.”

De Bromhead also has a wealth of talent in the hurdling division, headed by Aspire Tower and Honeysuckle.

Aspire Tower's next race is likely to be the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham
Aspire Tower’s next race is likely to be the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (Niall Carson/PA)

Aspire Tower is set to go to straight to Cheltenham for the Unibet Champion Hurdle after finishing second to Sharjah in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.

“He’s matured physically and mentally this year,” said De Bromhead.

“It was a brilliant performance in the three-year-old hurdle last Christmas and then he fell at Leopardstown in February and he just didn’t show up in the Triumph Hurdle. We gave him a good break and he’s back.

“He’s only just five now, but he’s strengthened and matured. I was delighted with his first two runs. His jumping let him down a tiny bit at Leopardstown, the third-last and the second-last, but we’ll work on that and we are aiming towards the Champion Hurdle.

“He’s got real size and scope and is a real athlete and loves jumping hurdles. He’s just clicked.

“I’d day his next target would be the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. We might enter him for the Irish Champion Hurdle, but I think he could go straight to Cheltenham.”

De Bromhead is aiming Honeysuckle at the Irish Champion Hurdle – but would not be drawn as to whether she will run in Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle or go for the Mares’ Hurdle which she won in 2020.

“We’re aiming towards the Irish Champion Hurdle with her. That’s the plan,” he said.

“She seems in great form after the Hatton’s Grace and is really well in herself. She won it last year so we’ll give it another go.

“We’ll see how we go in February and make a decision (about which race at Cheltenham) after that. We have to make sure we get there and see who else is getting there as well. We’ll take it one race at a time.

“She was a timid filly when she first came. Now she’s a complete prima donna.”

Al Boum Photo claims Tramore hat-trick on seasonal bow

All roads lead back to Cheltenham in March for Al Boum Photo after the dual Gold Cup hero registered a third successive victory in the Savills New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore.

The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old lined up for the extended two-mile-five-furlong contest almost by accident two years ago, after sidestepping the Savills Chase at Leopardstown and subsequently the Irish Gold Cup on account of unsuitably fast ground.

With Al Boum Photo finally ending his trainer’s long wait for a Gold Cup winner in the Cotswolds a couple months later, Mullins followed the same route again last season, and his charge again produced the goods on the biggest stage of all.

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Making his first competitive appearance since his latest triumph in the blue riband last March, Paul Townend’s mount appeared to face a relatively straightforward task, with just four inferior rivals in opposition.

Djingle set a sound gallop from flag-fall, before giving best with a circuit to run, after which last year’s runner-up Acapella Bourgeois and his stable companion Al Boum Photo were the only two that counted.

Townend never looked entirely happy in the saddle aboard the 2-9 favourite, but he took over the lead from his tiring stablemate rounding the home turn and ultimately passed the post 19 with lengths in hand.

Paddy Power make Al Boum Photo the 100-30 favourite from 9-2 to become the first triple Gold Cup winner since Best Mate – and Mullins confirmed his intention to once again head to Prestbury Park without another run.

He said: “It’s a big relief. It was nerve-wracking watching him going around there. The sun was a worry and it probably cost Brahma Bull (unseated rider at second fence).

“He jumped very well and Paul said he was just so idle on his own in the middle of the race, he didn’t even think he was in race. He had to roust him up down the back, but once he got racing he was fine. Lack of company was a bigger worry for Paul than anything else.

“The ground is very, very testing out there. We are happy with his performance, he did what he was asked to do. We just hope now that he comes out of it sound and well and we will plan for the Festival. That’s the first hurdle jumped anyway.

“Halfway around today I was thinking it would have been easier to go to Leopardstown because there would be less focus on him. When you come here, you have to win and you have to win nicely and he did all those things.

“I usually like to do what has worked before and hopefully it will work again. A lot of ours are improving for their first run of the year and I’m expecting him to do the same.”

Minella Indo obliges with minimum of fuss at Navan

Minella Indo further enhanced his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials with a near-faultless display at Navan.

Reeled in late on by Nicky Henderson’s Champ in last season’s RSA Chase at Cheltenham, Henry de Bromhead’s charge made a foot-perfect start to the current campaign in a Grade Three contest at Wexford last month.

Faced with just three rivals in the Grade Two BetVictor Make Your Best Bet Chase, Minella Indo was a prohibitively-priced 2-11 favourite in the hands of Rachael Blackmore, and his supporters will have had few concerns.

Brahma Bull made much of the running under David Mullins and was still travelling strongly as he rounded the home turn and moved to the stands rail.

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Blackmore positioned her mount on the far side of the track and he picked up well between the final two fences to grab the lead before pulling seven and a half lengths clear on the run-in.

De Bromhead said: “I’m delighted with that. He did everything good, it was a lovely race for him and I’m glad we’ve got it behind us now.

“You couldn’t have asked him to do it any better. He jumped really well and did everything he had to do.

“I would imagine we’ll aim towards the Savills Chase at Christmas, I think that will be our next one.

“He’s had two nice races for second-season novices and now we have to go against the big lads and see how we fare there.”

Asked if he had the potential to be even better than stablemate Monalee, who was fourth in the Gold Cup last season in the same colours, De Bromhead said: “It would be great if he is because Monalee is rated 171, so if he is I’ll be very happy!

Minella Indo is already a proven performer at Cheltenham
Minella Indo is already a proven performer at Cheltenham (Julian Herbert/PA)

“He’s probably achieved a little bit more in each division because he won his Albert Bartlett and Monalee was second, I don’t know if it might have been a lesser race.

“He was only just chinned in an RSA and Monalee was well beaten – I don’t know, it’s unfair on Monalee, but we can’t fault what he’s doing at the moment.

“It’s nice to have a possible Gold Cup contender like him, but all along last year we thought Monalee had a great chance and thankfully he ran like he did.

“It’s great and the more of these types you can have the better. We’ll see how it all unfolds between now and then.

“At the moment we’re thinking Monalee for the King George, but if they end up having to run against each other they have to run against each other.

“Ideally you’d prefer not to, with the same owners.”

Coral cut Minella Indo to 7-1 from 8-1 for the Gold Cup, making him their joint-second favourite with last season’s runner-up Santini and just behind dual winner Al Boum Photo, who is the 6-1 favourite. Betfair stayed unchanged at 8-1.

Bailey sets sights on Gold Cup as long-term Vinndication target

Kim Bailey plans to work back from an outing in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup with Vinndication.

The Andoversford handler believes the seven-year-old is capable of competing against the best staying chasers on a regular basis, after finding only Cyrname too strong on his return in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on Saturday.

Although Vinndication – a general 40-1 shot for the prestigious Grade One at the Cheltenham Festival in March – needs to take another step forward on official ratings, Bailey is confident he can make the required progression.

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Bailey said: “I was delighted with his run at Wetherby. He slipped into the first fence, and it took a while to get his jumping back, but I was very happy with the horse.

“The ground wasn’t ideal up there, because it was pretty soft, but it confirmed in my mind that he is good enough to run in a Gold Cup – and I think we will be working back from that.

“Wetherby is two long straights with two tight bends. It is only just three miles, and all he was doing was finishing to good effect, so the Gold Cup trip of three and a quarter miles will be much more his distance.”

Kim Bailey was impressed with Cyrname who denied Vinndication a winning return at Wetherby on Saturday (Simon Cooper/PA Images)
Kim Bailey was impressed with Cyrname, who denied Vinndication a winning return at Wetherby on Saturday (Simon Cooper/PA Images)

While delighted with Vinndication’s seasonal bow, Bailey had plenty of admiration for his Wetherby conqueror Cyrname – who was claiming his first victory since defeating Altior in a Grade Two at Ascot last November.

He added: “It was a very good performance by Cyrname, and I take my hat off to him.

“It was a brave shout by Paul Nicholls to do what he did, but that is why he has been champion trainer so many times.”

Bailey, who won the Gold Cup in 1995 with Master Oats, has not ruled out returning to handicap company with Vinndication for the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury later this month.

He added: “He will have entries in all the big races like the King George, but I  would say that the Betfair Chase at Haydock might just come too soon.

“He is in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and that could be an option, but I’m not saying he is going there for definite. It will be interesting to see how the handicapper assesses it.”

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Four Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Four Preview, Tips

It's Friday 13th, Gold Cup Day, the last of four glorious afternoons in the Cotswolds for the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. As well as the Blue Riband itself, there are further Grade 1's in the form of the Triumph and Albert Bartlett Hurdles, devilish handicaps and a hunter chase! It all starts with the juniors in the...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

As fascinating a Triumph Hurdle as I can remember, with established Grade 1 horses, uber-impressive ungraded winners, and a Johnny Come Lately catapulted to favouritism.

Let's start with Johnny, or maybe Jeannie - the ex-French Solo. Trained by Paul Nicholls, he burst onto the scene with a visually stunning performance in the Grade 2 Adonis at Kempton last month. That recognised trial saw him put 13 lengths between himself and Fujimoto Flyer, the latter considered a Triumph contender when the tapes rose but perhaps not as they passed the jam stick.

So, yes, visually impressive; but the race time was the slowest of three on the card over that two mile trip, and there was little to encourage in Solo's sectional splits. He's entitled to improve and will shock nobody if he wins but I'm not quite believing it yet.

Vying for market primacy is the win beast, Goshen. In three goes over hurdles, he's won by 23 lengths, 34 lengths and 11 lengths. Prior to that he'd won his three flat handicaps by 12 lengths, nine lengths and seven lengths. The form of his most recent hurdle start was franked when the second, Nordano, waltzed home by 16 lengths in a competitive-looking Class 2 handicap at Ascot.

Goshen has yet to race in a Graded heat, and he does jump markedly right sometimes, but he's very, very good.

And then there's Allmankind, another talented but mild headcase. He won the Grade 1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow last time, but that was in late December. Here we are, eleven weeks later, and the Dan Skelton-trained son of Sea The Moon has not been sighted since. That won't necessarily stop him, of course, and he has a win at Cheltenham previously, too. He is a bold front-runner and, unlike Goshen - who also likes to go from the front, he probably needs to lead.

Aspire Tower is another who has both been ante post favourite for the Triumph, like all those mentioned so far, and generally races front rank, like all bar Solo of those mentioned so far. He was in a scrap when coming down at the last in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle but had previously looked very impressive in turning away Wolf Prince by 18 lengths in a Grade 2.

The chief beneficiary of Aspire's last day tumble was A Wave Of The Sea, who repelled Wolf Prince by just a length and a quarter. Given that he was 35 lengths behind Aspire Tower in that previous G2 and that Wolf was 18 lengths back that day, it is fair to assume that Aspire Tower did not bring his A game. If that's right, and his previous form can be believed, then he is a certain player in this field. A Wave Of The Sea meanwhile has had many tries and looks vulnerable in what is, ostensibly at least, a deep field.

Sir Psycho and the rest look to have a heck of a lot to find.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Plenty of pace with Allmankind likely to prove the 'speed of the speed'. Goshen and Aspire Tower will be bang there if recent evidence is any guide.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

I've backed Goshen at a good price and I hope - obvs! - that he wins. I think if he can settle behind Allmankind in the early stages he'll have a solid chance, though I am a little concerned about the drying ground. I don't want to be with Allmankind for all that I respect what he's done so far and I think Solo is pretty short though he may improve again - which would see him take plenty of beating. Perhaps the forgotten horse, if there is one, is Aspire Tower, whose form prior to his last flight fall last time was much the best in Ireland. His trainer, Henry de Bromhead, is having a terrific Festival.

Suggestion: Consider backing Aspire Tower at 6/1 general.

*

2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Too difficult. Way too difficult. But there is an interesting stat relating to trainers of recent winners: since 2004, the surnames Nicholls, Mullins, and Skelton have won 13 of 16 renewals of the County Hurdle!

Paul Nicholls has four, Willie Mullins has four also, Dan Skelton has three (in the last four years), and Tom and Tony Mullins have one apiece in that time frame. Given how many runners there are in this race, that is a remarkable stat, to my eye at least.

Those vying for favouritism are trained by Willie (Ciel De Neige and Aramon, plus four others) and Dan (Mohaayed), with Paul Nicholls' pair, Christopher Wood and Scaramanga bigger prices.

Skelton's winners were 8/1, 12/1 and 33/1, the 33/1 shot - Mohaayed - being 9/1 this time in spite of no obvious recent form and looking a plot. Nicholls' winners were 4/1, 7/1, 11/1 and 20/1, while Willie's winners were 10/1, 20/1 twice and 25/1.

So I want to risk a Willie wunner at a pwice. It's that sort of wace.

His fancied horse, Aramon, sets the form standard on a fifth place in the Irish Champion Hurdle, form advertised since by both the winner, Honeysuckle - winner of the Mares' Hurdle, and the second, Darver Star - third in the Champion Hurdle. He has a lot of weight but that didn't stop Arctic Fire for the same team three years ago. Paul Townend, winner in 2017 and 2015, rides.

Ciel De Neige was second at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle. Whilst he has more progression and fits the unexposed five-year-old route into the race, he's got a fair bit to find with Aramon. He might find it but Barry Geraghty, who presumably had the pick, has opted for Saint Roi, another in the Willie camp. That one was third in a Listed race at Auteuil on his second run and has since scored in maiden company to show the requisite level for a rating eligible for this. He's very much at the right end of the handicap but whether he quite has the experience for a County shemozzle I don't know: he's a player if he does.

Mohaayed has had a wind op since last seen 83 days ago. He was a nine length seventh in this last year off an 11lb higher mark and this has been the plan, plain and simple, for a team who have made this race their own in recent times. I'll be looking elsewhere though more fool me if he wins.

As usual, lots more with chances.

County Hurdle Pace Map

Not too intensive a pace by the look of things, but that can change in the cauldron of a race like the County. An even gallop is the percentage play.

County Hurdle Selection

Very tricky stuff, and I think I'll side - for beer money only - with Aramon. I like his class, that Irish Champion Hurdle form looking bulletproof if he can handle the war that is a County Hurdle scrap.

Suggestion: Back Aramon each way at 9/1 (six places) 888sport

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

The Albert Bartlett is the race at which to take a swing at the Festival. It is habitually won by horses who can travel and stay off a strong gallop, and the top of the market is habitually framed around horses that have shown class rather than stamina/resolution in small field jigjogs (relatively).

Since At Fisher's Cross in 2013, who won as the 11/8 favourite, we have now witnessed six double-digit odds winners in a row, including 33/1 and 50/1 scorers in the past two years, a 33/1 winner in 2014, as well as a 33/1 winner in 2010. Go long!

Naturally, there are obvious form cases to be made for those near the head of affairs, most notably perhaps Thyme Hill, who has hinted at wanting a greater stamina test throughout his novice hurdles career to date. Hinted at it but not yet proven his aptitude for it.

So here's a little micro angle: horses that finished top four in a Graded race last time and were priced between 16/1 and 50/1 for the Albert Bartlett won five from 31, placed another four times, and netted 139 points of SP profit. Four of them were trained in Ireland. Back-fitted? A bit. Vague underlying logic? Yes'm.

Those at double-digit prices roughly fitting the bill include Cobbler's Way, Fury Road and Ramses De Teillee. Cobbler's Way was second to Latest Exhibition in the Nathaniel Lacy last month: having led, he got outpaced before coming back at the winner after the last, going down by two lengths. This stiffer test looks up his street.

Fury Road, like Cobbler's owned by Gigginstown, was the winner of a heavy ground near-three mile Grade 2 prior to being outpaced in the same race as Cobbler's. He too will prefer this test.

Ramses De Teillee is a typically hard-knocking type who has largely plied his trade in handicap chases. This season, switching to timber, he's three from three, all at three miles, two of them on heavy ground, and two in Grade 2 company. A win on good to soft demonstrates versatility in terms of the going, and there are many who have long held a candle for his chance.

The one at bigger prices is House Island. I'm not sure he'll stay for all that he might have just got outpaced the last twice in Grade 2's; but most of his racing has been on flat tracks.

Latest Exhibition is a more obvious form chance, having beaten both Cobbler's and Fury last time; so too Harry Senior, who beat House Island last time. That, of course, is well reflected in their odds.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This could be fast early, which would make for slow motion stuff at the other end. Any or all of House Island, Aione, Cat Tiger, Cobbler's Way and Ramses De Teillee are perennial pace pushers, with another five or so generally prominent. No hiding place looks the likely call.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

I want to take two at longer prices against those at the head of the betting, for all that it's a strategy that will fail at some point soon. My pair are Ramses De Teillee, for whom this test is demonstrably his cup of tea; and Cobbler's Way, who has more to come and might find it for the stiffer demands.

Suggestion: Back Ramses De Teillee at 12/1 and/or Cobbler's Way at 14/1.

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

A dozen head to post for a cracking Gold Cup where established players, including the defending champion, take on the next generation of aspirants.

The champ is Al Boum Photo, an eight-year-old trained by Willie Mullins. He gave Mullins a maiden Gold Cup win last term and won the same Tramore Grade 3 on New Year's Day as he did last year en route to victory. We know he's well and we know he's at the same level as last year. If he can traverse the obstacles error-free - a fair 'if' - he has a really good chance of doubling up.

The fact that no horse has won back-to-back Gold Cups since Best Mate rounded out a hat-trick in 2004 attests to the difficulty of defending the title, and there are plenty of legitimate rivals throwing their hats into the ring. Santini, last year's RSA Chase runner-up, is perhaps foremost among them.

Nicky Henderson's charge had an interrupted preparation ahead of last year's Festival but has sailed serenely to the starting line (so far) this term. He has enhanced his claims with a pair of small field wins, first at Sandown where he made hard work of despatching Now McGinty, and then in the Cotswold Chase across these undulations when barreling away from Bristol De Mai. That form showed that staying is Santini's strong suit, but it also showed that he can take a liberty or two on the way round.

A couple of lengths behind Santini in last year's RSA was Delta Work, whose 2019/20 campaign has seen him win the Grade 1 Savills Chase and Irish Gold Cup. With Al Boum Photo in absentia on both occasions, Delta Work has staked his claim to be the best of the rest of the Irish, seeing off the re-opposing Monalee, Kemboy and Presenting Percy.

But there were barely four lengths from first to fifth-placed Percy there, which equates to a single mistake out in the country during the more than three and a quarter miles of the Gold Cup trip; and that brings in those last day vanquished.

Monalee was closest, just a head behind, and that after jockey Rachael Blackmore lost an iron on the run in, a very rare missed cue from a brilliant rider. She'll be keen to make amends but Monalee may have stamina limitations over this test.

Kemboy has had an interesting year, with his ownership being disputed through the courts as a syndicate turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. On the track, he's twice been close behind Delta Work since winning at both Aintree and Punchestown last spring. All four of those runs were in Grade 1's, but he didn't get beyond the first fence in last year's Gold Cup where he unshipped David Mullins. The odd sticky jump is a feature of his game though he generally gets around and often wins.

Presenting Percy has looked a lost soul in the last couple of seasons but he came back to close to his best in that Irish Gold Cup, for all that he has five lengths to find with Delta Work. The proximity of the above quartet leads me to believe this year's Gold Cup will either be won by something else, or it's a very competitive renewal. Probably, though not definitely, the latter.

I'm a fan of Clan Des Obeaux, but not in the context of a Gold Cup. He's got plenty of speed, as shown in two King George victories, but he seemed to run out of puff as they passed the three mile marker in this last year. A different prep, with two fewer battles, this season may offer a touch more late-race energy but I feel there are stronger stayers in the field.

Colin Tizzard is always to be respected with staying types and he saddles Lostintranslation. Hailed by many as the most likely Gold Cup winner in the early part of the season, he has not run since pulling up in the King George. There he couldn't go the pace, something which may be less of a concern in a field not loaded with early sizzle; but he's bidding to be the first winner to have pulled up last time since Cool Dawn in 1998.

Henry de Bromhead's team are in excellent fettle and he runs Chris's Dream. A near ten length winner of the big field Troytown Handicap Chase advertised his top drawer credentials, which he's subsequently rubber stamped by winning the Red Mills Chase, a Grade 2 over an inadequate two and a half miles. A second season chaser, he'll have to improve a good bit again, but he's risen from 146 to 160 to 165 in his last three starts, stays and jumps well, and handles all ground.

For all that I don't want to back him, I wouldn't put anyone off a small each way tickle on Bristol De Mai. Second in the Cotswold Chase behind Santini, he was third in this last year, and second to Lostintranslation in between times. If you like either of Santini or Lostintranslation, you have to give this nine-year-old a place squeak at least.

Real Steel and Elegant Escape don't look good enough, though the latter is a strong stayer.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Kemboy is the most likely to lead but, given that he didn't get further than the first last year, Bristol De Mai could also be bang there. Clan may be ridden to get the trip which would see him less handy than is often the case, but Monalee and Santini are expected to be nearer first than last.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A compelling puzzle but not an easy one to solve. The first route in is to say that Al Boum Photo just wins. That's possible but he's got to be the first to do a 'Best Mate' in more than fifteen years. The second is to rate the form of the Henderson yard and the Henderson horse, Santini, as the most progressive. I quite like that though I worry he might blunder his chance away late. The third is to favour the Irish Gold Cup form, which gives Delta Work nothing of note on Monalee, Presenting Percy and Kemboy. A fourth is to believe in the more measured season of Clan Des Obeaux to provide that one some extra pep in the late furlongs; and a fifth might be to play the Hail Mary of Chris's Dream improving over the top of all of them at a huge price. It's a puzzle all right!

I've already backed Santini, and I'm going for the big hit - which I might need to get me out of jail by this point - on Chris's Dream, whose progression I like.

Suggestion: Back Santini at 4/1 general and consider a small Hail Mary play on Chris's Dream each way at 25/1 general.

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

The amateur riders' Gold Cup over the same track and trip as the main event 40 minutes or so earlier. It's a wide open contest this season, with bookies offering close to 5/1 the field.

One of those on or around 5/1 is last year's winner, Hazel Hill. He was brilliant at Warwick prior to Cheltenham glory in 2019, whereas this season - now twelve years old - he was beaten by the occasionally very talented Minella Rocco. I feel he retains most of his ability but he will need all of it to double up as the oldest winner since Earthmover in 2004.

Minella Rocco has seemingly been revitalised by the change to hunter chases, scoring not just against Hazel Hill but also in the Warwick race Hazel  took en route to Foxhunters' glory last year. He's not reliable, as form in 2019 of 59PPPP8 betrays, but this is a different game entirely. Perhaps it's the key.

Ireland's hopes are headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Billaway, winner of the Naas Hunter Chase in late January. Given connections, it's very likely he will be a) well backed and b) have a good chance, but the form of that defeat of Staker Wallace is difficult to weigh up. Willie ran three in the race between 2004 and 2012, Bothar Na finishing fourth in 2006.

David Maxwell, a pilot who gets plenty of practice by spending plenty of money on decent horses he then rides himself, will try to go one better than last year aboard Shantou Flyer. The Flyer has a phenomenal Cheltenham record: 1F142222. That string includes second places at the last two Festivals, initially in the Ultima and then in this race a year ago. He looked as good as ever last time, albeit in a weak Fakenham hunter chase which he took out by 23 lengths, and his owner/rider has plumped for this one over the smart Bob And Co, who waits for Aintree.

The other one worth a mention is Caid Du Berlais. Trained by Rose Loxton, like Shantou Flyer, Caid was fifth in this in 2018 and pulled up last year. He wasn't really travelling then and proved it to be a false measure of his ability by hacking up in the Punchestown Champion Hunters Chase. The track is the issue, though: since going chasing he's run 1P309F5P. That '1' was in the Paddy Power Gold Cup of 2014. It's 2020 now, in case you hadn't noticed and much muddy form water has passed under the bridge in the interim.

If the ground dried out, which it very well might, seven-year-old Law Of Gold commands a second glance. Winner of the Champion Novices' Hunter Chase at Stratford last May, he's run up a sequence between the flags in between. What that form is worth I don't know, but at 20/1 or so I might buy a small ticket to find out.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

Amateurs and rushes of blood are commonplace in the Foxhunters', and who can blame them? The map below shows only Rules form - your guess is as good as mine regarding how they've gone between the flags.

Foxhunter Chase Selection

Hazel Hill is not getting any younger - very few of these are - but he ought to be thereabouts. Minella Rocco has been on going days since hunter chasing and represents last year's winning prep race form. Billaway could sink me but I just can't weigh that form up, so I'm rooting for Shantou Flyer to finally convert a 2 into a 1. At any rate, he's an each way price and that's the way to back him. I'll have a tiny bit on Law Of Gold 'just in case' as well.

Suggestion: Back Shantou Flyer each way at 9/1 with as many extra places as you can find; likewise, and for smaller money, have a look at 20/1 general Law Of Gold.

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4.50 Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 1/2f)

I have backed the winner of this many times. Let me clarify: I had backed Croco Bay many times in this before he won at 66/1 last year!

Age is actually not a factor in this, two winners (from seven runners) having been twelve and one aged five since 1997. The last five winners have been rested at least 90 days; four of the last five winners had run in the race at least once previously, normally achieving a close up finish.

The one with the best fit is last year's winner, Croco Bay. Aargh. Now 13, he's looooong in the tooth but that didn't stop him winning twelve months ago when he was merely looong in the tooth. His record in the race is 3F51 and he's got to be backed, for pennies at least. Aged 13, racing on Friday 13th, he may come in 13th place... :-/

Marracudja ran down the field last year, but has some high class form since. As a result of that, however, he's now rated 15 pounds higher than a year ago. It will be some training performance if he wins.

Gino Trail pulled up in this last year, having finished second in 2018. A recent move to Fergal O'Brien elicited an easy win a fortnight ago and, while that's not the normal prep for this, he is another old-timer with prospects.

A relative young gun at just ten years of age, Theinval represents Nicky Henderson's bid to win the race named in honour of his old man. He sneaks in at the bottom of the handicap and fits the 90 day layoff angle. He was fourth in this in 2018 and third in 2017.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Gino Trail and Paddy Brennan, if he's fit enough to ride after a fall earlier in the week, are fast and they'll make a bold bid from the front. Close up are expected to be McGroarty, Jan Maat, Adrrastos and, if he gets a run from the first reserve slot, Delire d'Estruval.

Grand Annual Selection

I'm playing a couple of former placed horses against the field in Croco Bay and Theinval. I might chuck in Gino Trail, too, though I think that recent easy win may have taken more out of him than met the eye.

Suggestion: Try Croco Bay and Theinval both at 25/1 with five places

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

The last race. It's impossible. It has been an Irish benefit since 2013 when Paul Nicholls (twice) hasn't won it, and that looks a sensible focus. Gordon Elliott famously worked for Martin Pipe, in whose name this race is run, and his Column Of Fire, one of four he saddles in the race - five if the first reserve gets in - looks a player.

He was a closing third when given enough to do in a 28 runner handicap hurdle at Punchestown last time, having previously won an 18 runner maiden hurdle. The big field won't trouble him.

Joseph O'Brien won the race last year, chinning my Gordon Elliott bet, and he saddles a horse I had backed at massive prices for the Albert Bartlett called Assemble. Assemble has form with plenty of Grade 1 types, notably Latest Exhibition and Cobbler's Way. He's just the type dropping into handicaps from Graded races.

22 other possibles but this is a time for licking wounds/counting winnings.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Similarly to the Foxhunters', there are plenty of inexperienced riders in the 'boys' race'. On known form, Espoir De Romay and Thomas MacDonagh are the two to take them along in what might be a contested pace battle. The winner will likely be minded until fairly late on.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

I want to back the two Gigginstown horses in the field. Their trainers have won the last three renewals so know exactly what is needed.

Suggestion: Back Column Of Fire to win at 13/2 Hills and Assemble each way at 25/1 Hills.