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The Cheltenham Gold Cup – Trust in Tizzard’s Rampant River

Battered and bruised as stars of past and present fell by the wayside, nevertheless, the Gold Cup remains the most prestigious event of the Cheltenham Festival, and there’s every chance we could still be treated to an absolute thriller.

Willie Mullins continues his quest for a first victory, and surely has a great chance with twice runner-up Djakadam. And Colin Tizzard, despite the loss of budding superstar Thistlecrack, has a ready-made replacement in Native River, along with one of the most popular horses in training searching for redemption in Cue Card.

The trio are vying for top spot in the betting, and if recent trends are anything to go by, they’ll be battling out the finish. Fancied runners have won nine of the last 10, with only Lord Windermere bucking the trend when winning at 20s in 2014. Five favourites have been successful in that time, including last year’s winner Don Cossack, who was chased home by a pair of 9/2 shots in Djakadam and Don Poli. Cue Card had been sent-off the 5/2 second favourite, and would surely have been in the mix, but for his third-last blunder.

Don number one, took a tumble in the King George prior to Cheltenham glory, and Kempton’s Christmas Cracker has proved to be a decent pointer for the ‘big one’ in March. Many of the best staying chasers take in this valuable and prestigious event, and it’s therefore no surprise that Gold Cup winners have lined-up here. However, the two courses provide very different tests for a racehorse, and Cue Card fans should not be too despondent that he was swept aside so easily by stable companion Thistlecrack in December’s renewal.

The Hennessy Gold Cup and Denman Chase have also been stop-off points for future Gold Cup winners in recent years. Native River captured both, along with the Welsh National for good measure. The win at Chepstow proved his versatility with regards to track. Tizzard himself had hinted that the horse was better suited to a flat course, but the win in Wales was arguably his most impressive performance to date.

Ireland’s Lexus Chase has been slightly less influential as a Gold Cup guide, though Denman and Synchronised both won en route to Cheltenham glory. Lord Windermere had finished down the field prior to his shock win at Prestbury Park. Djakadam was somewhat disappointing in finishing third behind Outlander and Don Poli in the Leopardstown showpiece this time, but Mullins appears happy with the progress his chaser has made since that run.

Of the leading three contenders, you’d have to say that Native River has been the most impressive throughout the winter. He looks be improving at a rate of knots, though it’s somewhat surprising to see that Kauto Star was the last seven-year-old to win the Gold Cup, back in 2007. Long Run was only six when winning in 2011, but in recent times eight and nine-year-olds have proved dominant. A plus maybe for eight-year-old Djakadam.

What A Myth was the last horse over the age of 10 to capture Cheltenham’s showpiece, which is bad news for Cue Card fans.

Away from the leading trio, the markets have Sizing John next best. He stepped from the shadows of Douvan to win the Kinloch Brae Chase, and improved again when winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown. He’s an impressive looking beast, who looks sure to jump and travel beautifully for much of the race at Cheltenham. The question is whether he will last out the trip, in what is likely to be a strongly run affair. He wasn’t stopping at Leopardstown last time, though the field hardly hot-footed it around the track.

If Sizing John has stamina doubts, then the same can probably be said of Lexus winner Outlander. Visually at least, he looked to be powering away from his rivals at the finish over Christmas, though trainer Gordon Elliott has recently sounded less confident that the 3m2f trip will prove ideal. Now a nine-year-old, the horse looks to be Elliott’s best hope of landing back-to-back victories. His course form fails to fill you with confidence, though the same could have been said of Don Cossack prior to last year’s romp.

Henry De Bromhead’s Champagne West comes next in the betting. He appears to have improved immensely since his move to Ireland, though I’d be stunned if he’s good enough to win this. His jumping can be patchy at best, and he’s likely to be pressured into errors from the onset. Soft ground will help his cause, though not enough.

Bristol De Mai is another that will need heavy ground to have any chance. He seems to cruise through the mud whilst others flounder, but he’s another that probably comes-up just short at this level. He could run into a place, if conditions become severely testing.

Of the remainder, only Minella Rocco appears to hold any hope of an upset. He has that vital Festival form, having won the four-miler last year, beating Native River into second place. That however, has been his only success over fences, and he’s spent most of this campaign on the floor. There’s no doubting he’s a talented one, and at 25/1 he’s probably worth a small each-way flutter.

I’ve watched that four-miler on numerous occasions over recent months, and it has continually put doubts in my mind as to whether Native River can win the Gold Cup. He was horribly outpaced coming down the hill 12 months ago, before then storming up the famous final climb. I worry that the same may happen again, especially with several pacey types in opposition. Many say he has the look of Denman about him, but for me it’s Synchronised that he best resembles.

Nevertheless, Native River has done no wrong this winter, and because of that, he has my vote. I’ll also have a few quid on Outlander, as the more I watch his Lexus victory, the more I’m impressed. Let’s hope it’s a cracker, and the best of luck to all those having a punt.

Kempton Course Key to Saint BetBright Bid

Attention turns to Kempton and Newcastle on Saturday, with the former hosting an exciting card, including the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle, the Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle and the BetBright Chase.

All eyes will be on Nicky Henderson’s young hurdler Charli Parcs in the juvenile, as he looks to add to his course success in December, and bolster his already lofty reputation. The Seven Barrows team also have a leading contender in the Dovecote, in the form of two-time Ludlow winner River Wylde. He faces stiff opposition, including Team Ditcheat’s Capitaine, and course winner Elgin, trained by Alan King. I like the latter, especially if the ground remains good.

The BetBright Chase is as competitive as ever. First run in 1949, it has a classy looking roll of honour. Crisp and Pendil were successful in the 1970s, whilst Rhyme ‘n’ Reason and Rough Quest took this before winning the Grand National. Desert Orchid loved Kempton, and won this race as an 11-year-old in 1990. Last year’s renewal went to Colin Tizzard’s Theatre Guide, and he returns in an attempt to emulate Pendil and Docklands Express, by winning in successive seasons.

It’s a tough task for Tizzard’s 10-year-old, as he’s a stone higher in the handicap this time around. Nevertheless, this race has been won by numerous runners lumping top-weight around the track, and he clearly likes the place. He’ll appreciate the sounder surface, and the trip looks ideal. I’m anticipating a bold bid.

Aso looked a progressive sort, until disappointing at Cheltenham last time. Though only a seven-year-old, there’s a chance he’s already in the grip of the handicapper. He also lacks experience over this trip, and is possibly a better horse with a little more juice in the ground. His age suggests there’s more to come, but it may not come tomorrow.

Three Musketeers is another seven-year-old, stepping up in trip. His pedigree at least suggests that the three miles should suit, and he arrives here off the back of a strong performance at Market Rasen. Dan Skelton has always thought plenty of him, and he does look a horse with untapped potential. I can see him running a huge race, though I’m not sure I trust him enough to throw money his way.

Similar can be said of Double Shuffle, who won over course and distance in December. He wore a hood last time, and was having his first run at three miles. He’s another that cannot be discounted, though I’m not sure his form stacks up with some of these. He’s another that can throw in the odd stinker.

Paul Nicholls has won two of the last 10 renewals, and goes with Irish Saint this time. He’s a horse I like, and looked to be returning to something like his best when going well for a long way at Sandown last time. He missed a whole season due to injury, having looked a classy novice chaser prior to the absence. I fancy this trip stretches him a little, though he certainly enjoys Kempton, being three from three at the track. Indeed, his six career wins have all come when going right-handed. I fancy he’ll go close.

The trends suggest that horses of any age can win this event, and Nicky Henderson’s only previous winner was the 12-year-old Marlborough. He has a pair entered this time, with the one that interests me being Triolo D’Alene. The 10-year-old has proved hard to keep right, but on his day, with ground in his favour, is an extremely talented gelding. This ground will suit, and his handicap mark has dropped to its lowest since 2013. His odds of 20/1 are very tempting.

Finally, I need to mention the Twiston-Davies trained Ballykan, who came fourth in the race last year. He has a bit to find if he is to get the better of Theatre Guide, but there’s every chance that he’s strengthened from six to seven, and he carries the now familiar, and very successful colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He’s on a mark that makes him very competitive, and he could go very close.

In a race that I’m finding tough to read, I have finally sided with Irish Saint, and will have a little each-way on Triolo D’Alene. There are several others that I fear, and I’m certainly not as confident as I’ve been in recent weeks. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Lions run with pride at Haydock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

River Romp for Newbury Native

Native River proved far too classy for his rivals in the Denman Chase, and heads to Cheltenham as a leading contender for the Gold Cup. Regular pilot Richard Johnson, was struck down with the flu, but ‘supersub’ Aidan Coleman followed the pre-race plan to perfection, and Tizzard’s young chaser controlled the race from start to finish.

In both the Hennessy and the Welsh National, Native River was ‘hanging-on’ a little at the finish, hence a slightly more conservative approach was tested, with Coleman stepping on the gas later in the race. Native River responded stylishly, scooting clear of Le Mercurey, and the slightly disappointing Bristol De Mai.

Colin Tizzard said of the winner: “I only think he (Coleman) asked him coming down to the second last. He just nursed him along. It showed he was a bit classier. In his last two races, he went a few lengths clear four out and just held on. We wanted to ride him a little differently and have that finishing spurt at the end and it's worked brilliantly. He's gone away at the line.”

Bristol De Mai was ridden patiently by Daryl Jacob, but the tactic appeared to backfire when he was unable to match the finishing kick of the winner. He’s likely to be made more use of when getting to Cheltenham, which in-turn may well help his jumping. It’s possible of-course, that he is simply not quite good enough when up against elite stayers. Nigel Twiston-Davies wasn’t giving up hope, when saying: “He was never at the races. We've got five weeks to get him ready for the Gold Cup and, all being well, that will be long enough to get him back shining.”

The trainer’s day improved considerably, with Ballyandy landing the valuable Betfair Hurdle in a thrilling finish. The race turned into a head-to-head with Movewiththetimes, and as the pair pulled clear heading for the last both jockeys waited for the moment to strike. And it was Sam Twiston-Davies that came off best, as his partner had a little more zip than Barry Geraghty’s.

“He's been unlucky and hasn't won any of the races we thought he would. What a consolation!” said the winning trainer. “He'll go to Cheltenham now. He's in the Supreme and the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and we'll see how both races are panning out. I don't think he'll have any problem with the trip of the Neptune, so we've got that option if we want it.”

The winning jockey praised his willing equine partner: “I had a smooth passage. He didn't jump as well as I might have liked down the back, but in the straight he came alive. I got there sooner than I would have liked, but with his cruising speed it just happened and he has a good turn of foot.”

It’s impossible to review Newbury without mentioning Nicky Henderson’s latest star, Altior. He took on more experienced chasers in the Game Spirit, and duly demolished them. Allowed to stride-out in front by Nico De Boinville, the young chaser was scintillating at his fences, and powered clear down the home straight. The finishing time was impressive, and it’s hard to imagine anything getting close when he heads for the Arkle at Cheltenham. Fox Norton ran with great credit on his return from injury, and may be the one to give Douvan a race in the Champion Chase next month.

Yesterday at Leopardstown, Sizing John stepped out from the shadows of Douvan, to capture the Irish Gold Cup. Up in trip, he travelled like a dream and stayed on powerfully to stave off a pair of Gigginstown chasers, and probably book his place in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. “He was brilliant,” said a thrilled Jess Harrington.

“It's fantastic to have a horse like that for Alan and Ann (Potts, the owners), who has finished so close to Douvan on many occasions. That was his first time over three miles and he jumped, travelled and did everything we had hoped he would. Once he went past two and a half miles we knew he was into unknown territory, but we fully expected he would stay three miles and he did.

“I'd say we'll be going for the Gold Cup. I don't know, as I haven't spoken to Alan and Ann yet,” Harrington added.

The likely clash with Tizzard’s trio will no doubt prove an interesting and probably amusing talking point, for connections and trainers as the ‘big day’ approaches, with the Potts’ now such high-profile patrons at the Dorset stable.

Harry Cobden’s Blog: 10th February 2017

Hello again, nearly the middle of February and Betfair weekend at Newbury, doesn't time fly?

Since I last blogged, I've ridden a couple more winners, the most recent being the most significant. Diego Du Charmil's victory in the Scottish County Hurdle was my 75th overall, which means I can no longer claim a conditional's allowance. It took me 23 months and 377 rides, and I'm told that's a strike rate of 19.9%, which is pretty good I guess!

Of course, I have to be thankful to many people, most importantly all the owners who have continued to support me, and also especially Paul Nicholls, Anthony Honeyball, Michael Blake, Ron Hodges and Colin Tizzard, all of whom have had enough faith to leg me up on their stable charges. Thank you!

Back to Diego du Charmil, the Fred Winter winner at last year's Festivaal, and it was a really nice performance in a good race. He loves top of the ground but has gone up to 149 now, which might just anchor him for a while. Still, it would be no surprise to see him make another trip north, to Ayr for Scottish Champion Hurdle in April.

A couple of weeks earlier - has it really been that long? - Virak ran well in defeat in the Peter Marsh Chase on very soft ground at Haydock. He's been dropped another five pounds to 147, which is almost a stone lower than when he ran second in the same race last year, and he must be getting well handicapped now. Soft ground and three miles plus is what he needs.

Anthony Honeyball's Cresswell Breeze is a tough little mare that I rode to finish second in a Listed Chase towards the end of January. She was beaten far enough by Desert Queen, a very smart horse on her day, but nicely clear of some decent mares in behind. This was probably a career best effort for her, and she is entered at Catterick for a Grand National trial on Monday.

At a lower level, Madame Lafite was surely going to win when brought down by the only horse in front of her two out. Johnny Portman's five year old is an ex-flat racer who was having her first start in a handicap: she's a nice genuine mare who will win races if her confidence is not affected by this spill.

Ibis du Rheu is another Festival handicap winner I steered since I last wrote. He won the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' race, and ran a big race here when third in a quality Cheltenham novices' handicap chase. The race is normally a good pointer to the Festival handicaps, and my lad got hampered at a crucial stage.

I wasn't overly hard on him once his chance had gone but he ran on well. He'll have Festival targets off this same mark, 146, so with slightly better ground likely, he goes with a fighting chance just seven pounds higher than last year's win at the big meeting.

One who was perhaps a little disappointing on Trials Day is Old Guard. He showed a little bit in midfield behind Unowhatimeanharry in the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle, but was beaten 18 lengths by the line. He could conceivably be one for something like the Coral Cup on better ground, though 150 is high enough in the weights. He has to prove he's the same horse that won the Greatwood and International Hurdles in the early part of last season.

I'm developing a soft spot for doughty stayer, Royal Salute. Since picking up the ride two starts back, which has coincided with the horse going up in trip and tackling softer groun, he's won both times. He ran possibly his best race yet when comfortably winning a Plumpton marathon on heavy. He's been nudged up five to 119, which seems fair enough, and he could still be progressing when faced with stamina-sapping conditions. His trainer has half an eye on the Eider Chase, over four miles at Newcastle! Sadly, he's unlikely to make the cut.

At the top level of race riding, where I aspire to be, it's about getting your head down, working hard, and making as few mistakes as possible. But we're all human, and I have to admit that my ride on Sweeping Beauty was not my finest hour. I got trapped wide and far enough back, but she was game enough to run on into third on the Lingfield all weather track. She was a touch better than the bare finishing position, and sold cheaply for just £12,000 at last week's Tattersall's mixed sale, which should turn out to be an absolute bargain.

 

FUTURE ENTRIES

Looking forward, today I ride Bears Rails for Colin Tizzard. He stayed on well over an extended three miles last time and I'd be more worried about the eight pound hike in the handicap than the half mile step up in trip. Also, I can't claim the three I had when he won last time now, so he's effectively up eleven, but on the positive side, he's still a relatively lightly raced seven year old so may have more to offer. I'll probably be front rank, but there are a few others who can race handily, so we'll play it by ear. I'd be no more than hopeful in what will be a gruelling race.

 

Looking to the weekend and I have been jocked up on a couple of nice horses at Warwick tomorrow. I still don't know if they'll run yet, so we'll have to see. Frodon is a smart horse but whether the two miles of the Kingmaker is enough of a test for him I'm not sure. Half an hour later, Vibrato Valtat may attempt to defy top weight in a handicap chase. He's two from two at Warwick, including when winning the 2015 Kingmaker, but has yet to prevail over this half mile longer trip despite running well in defeat on a number of occasions.

On Monday, I'm down to ride Dragoon Guard for one of the geegeez.co.uk syndicates. He's been a hard horse to win with, but I understand he's had a wind operation since his last run. He shouldn't mind any ease in the ground - he has a quite pronounced knee action - so if his wind is reasonably sound he'll hopefully be in the mix.

SEASONAL SCORES

I'm up to 43 winners now for the season. Jamie Bargary and Dave Noonan are both on 29, and there are roughly 11 weeks left of the season. My first - and only real - target is to try to win the conditional jockeys' title, but I'd really love to get the seven winners I need for 50 in my first full season riding. I'm just about on track, but things change fast in this game so I'll keep kicking!

Until next time...

- Harry 

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

Dark Clouds Cast Shadow Over Cheltenham

Jubilation turned to despair, as Many Clouds fought like a lion to defeat the mighty Thistlecrack, before collapsing and dying on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf.

In a pulsating finish up the famous hill, Oliver Sherwood’s Grand National winner went toe-to-toe with the young pretender, overhauling the Gold Cup favourite in the shadow of the post to win Saturday’s Cotswold Chase. Smad Place had set the fractions, with Many Clouds taking up the running approaching the third last. Turning for home Tizzard’s star joined the older warrior, and the two tussled all the way to the line. It was a thriller, and yet no sooner had the result of the photo-finish been announced, a tragic twist saw the winner fall to the ground.

Sherwood gave a moving tribute to an outstanding racehorse: “We've got to look forward and not look back. He's been the horse of a lifetime and I always said he would die for you and he's died for me and the team today doing what he does best. He wanted to win that race, he was beaten and then fought back in the last 50 yards to win.

“We've got to be philosophical and celebrate the Hennessy and National wins and that was almost a career-best performance. I thought, hand on heart, having had a wind op that he might have been struggling for oxygen and hence the reason we did it. He was better on his first run back at Aintree this season. The public get to know the horses, especially horses that try for you, they appreciated what he had done and he captured your imagination, really. Leighton is in bits and has gone home.”

Colin Tizzard summed up the mood when saying: “Poor old Many Clouds. My initial thought when we got beat was that I was disappointed but it's as sad as can be, he was a lovely horse and he beat us on the day. We ran our race, we're not making any excuses - today, on winter ground, we were beaten by a better horse, no question. They had a battle and it's just a tragic end to the race. This is what happens in our sport occasionally and you've got to face up to it.”

Despite the sad end to the race, thoughts inevitably turn to the result itself, and the shock defeat of Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack.

His jumping throughout was solid rather than spectacular. He got in close at the fourth last, and found himself several lengths adrift coming down the hill. Despite the error, he was back alongside Many Clouds at the second last and we waited for him to stretch clear. But when Tom Scudamore asked the favourite to find another gear, the response was probably as surprising to him, as it was to the thousands watching from the stands.

Thistlecrack has not been asked a serious question for the best part of a season and a half. We’ve become accustomed to seeing him gallop clear of opponents with his head in his chest. But on soft ground at Cheltenham, with that stiff uphill finish, at the end of a truly run three-mile plus graded chase, and against experienced battle-hardened opposition, it’s fair to say that he failed his toughest test to date.

Better ground may well have brought about a different result. Conditions appeared to favour Many Clouds, putting an emphasis on stamina rather than speed. Thistlecrack’s major weapon is his ability to tank-along at speed, gradually burning off the opposition. That asset was wonderfully displayed at Kempton in the King George, but there now has to be a concern as to whether he can apply the same pressure over such a demanding trip, at a track that serves up such a unique test.

Though Thistlecrack somewhat fluffed his lines, giving hope to those likely to take him on in March, the season’s best three-mile hurdler proved less charitable.

The Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry maintained his phenomenal run of success, in winning the Cleeve Hurdle. He travelled powerfully throughout, and saw off a rejuvenated Cole Harden, with Tizzard’s talented novice, West Approach, back in third. It will take a good one to lower his colours in March, though a sounder surface at the Festival could leave this gutsy galloper vulnerable to a speedier sort.

Another huge performance from West Approach, coupled with another victory for Wholestone in the latest Neptune Novices’ trial, serves to reaffirm the lofty standing of this pair. The latter has twice finished ahead of the former during the winter, though both were beaten by Peregrine Run at Cheltenham on decent ground in November. I fancy that all three will perform well at the Festival in March, though their targets are yet to be confirmed. I’d imagine both Wholestone and West Approach will line up in the Albert Bartlett, whilst Peregrine Run has the speed for the Neptune.

Un De Sceaux put in another polished performance in taking the re-routed Clarence House Chase for Willie Mullins. He proved five-lengths the better of Alan King’s returning Ryanair hero Uxizandre. It would come as no surprise to see both in the Ryanair come March, and a reversal in positions is a distinct possibility. I’d be amazed if either were to tackle Douvan in the Champion Chase.

Mullins will have been buoyed by the success of Un De Sceaux and of Vroum Vroum Mag at Doncaster, though the mare failed to impress. Sadly, both Faugheen and Min missed Leopardstown yesterday, after suffering minor setbacks. Both are expected to be fighting fit in no time, though Faugheen may now need to head straight to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle. Heading there without a prep-run is far from ideal, and it’s worth remembering that his only defeat came off the back of a break when sunk by Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle of 2015.

In his absence, Petit Mouchoir took a sub-standard looking Irish Champion Hurdle. It was another bold, front-running display from the six-year-old, though Footpad got to within a length of him at the line. You’d have to think that a fit Faugheen would chew these up and spit them out.

And so, a weekend that promised so much, turned out to be truly dramatic for so many reasons. Glory and tragedy ride side by side in this wonderful sport. Participants put everything on the line in search of the former, yet the latter occasionally steals the show.

‘Power Failure’ latest blow for Mullins

The Cheltenham ‘Trials Day’ takes place on Saturday, and will once again attract a host of high-class horses, putting their Festival credentials to the test.

The meeting is always a classy affair, and this time has the bonus of the rearranged Cross Country along with the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase which was transferred from a frozen Ascot. The eagerly anticipated clash between Un De Sceaux and Ar Mad will sadly now not take place, as trainer Gary Moore decided against sending his young chaser to the Cotswolds.

When contacted by the BHA, and asked about the likely switch to Cheltenham, Moore is quoted to have said ‘It's not a fair track or a conventional racecourse’, and he suggested a move to Sandown would be best. Moore added: “If they run the race at Cheltenham I think they might get only two or three runners. I'd say it's unlikely we'd be one of them.”

Now there’s no doubting that Ascot has more in common with Sandown than Cheltenham, and Moore has a terrific record at his local track. But I’m amazed that he isn’t taking this opportunity to test Ar Mad at the recognised ‘Home of Jump Racing’. Kauto Star won a Tingle Creek at Sandown, a King George at Kempton and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, all within a four-month period. I don’t recall Nicholls saying that he’d give the Gold Cup a miss because of those awkward undulations and tricky fences.

Ar Mad is a hugely talented chaser with the potential of becoming a star of the sport. To do that, Moore will surely need to bite the bullet at some stage, and send him to Prestbury Park in search of the most prestigious prizes. We know the horse has a tendency to jump out to the right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t ‘win big’ at jump racing’s major festival. Captain Chris famously overcame such tendencies to win an Arkle in 2011.

In time, it’s possible that Moore will regret making such a hasty decision, as it appears he did when removing the horse from the King George at Christmas. As we approach February, the yard’s most talented horse has now run just once this winter. The ‘have a go’ attitude of Colin Tizzard has been one of the most refreshing aspects of this jump racing season. He sets an example that others may wish to follow.

Of course, owners and trainers have every right to send their horses wherever they wish, and many would argue that the obsession with Cheltenham is unhealthy for the sport. That’s a debate for another time I fancy.

In the absence of Ar Mad, Un De Sceaux will go off a short-priced favourite for the Clarence House. Willie Mullins appeared happy to take on the new challenge, when saying yesterday: “He is great and I could not be any happier with him. The travelling did not seem to take anything out of him and I am pleased with what I have seen from him at home. I am looking forward to the race.”

I don’t wish such a contentious start to the article to detract from the thrilling action that will take place over the coming weeks. This weekend we hope to see Thistlecrack, Faugheen, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and the aforementioned Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins, in particular, will be stoking-up the furnaces, with those spring festivals fast approaching. He’s also in the unusual position of having a serious challenge to his trainers’ crown.

There’ll be plenty of tension in the air at both Cheltenham and Leopardstown this weekend. Thistlecrack continues his education at the toughest jumps circuit, whilst Faugheen returns from injury, with racing fans hoping and praying that the ‘Machine’ can return to his former glory.

One major Mullins asset that will miss proceedings, is the wonderful mare Annie Power. Thought to be on the verge of a return, it seems she has been struck down by a leg injury, and may well miss the remainder of the season. It’s yet another setback for the master of Closutton, during a winter that has tested his disposition more than most.

Twiston-Davies aims high with De Mai

Bristol De Mai romped to victory in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock on Saturday.

The three-mile trip proved well within his compass, as he sauntered clear of the field to record a 22-length success. Otago Trail did his best to make a race of it, but was brushed aside from three out. The winner is undoubtedly at his best in testing ground, and put in an exhibition round of jumping.

Nigel Twiston-Davies said of the impressive winner: “We'd been a bit disappointed with him this season, until today. But he seemed in really good form at home and we were hopeful. We'd had this race planned-out for a bit of time and he's settling better than he used to. He stays, he settles and he's a proper racehorse.”

Of Festival targets the trainer added: “We don't need to make our minds up yet but there are two races for him and it's nice to have options. I'd lean towards the Gold Cup. It looks like he's a stayer now. But whether we are quite of the class of Thistlecrack will be seen to be believed. Jump racing is about dreams, so we can dream at the minute.”

Darryl Jacob was the lucky jockey given the armchair ride, and he was clearly impressed when saying: “He's an accurate jumper and has got scope as well. That was nearly back to one of his best performances. He's a six-year-old so I'm hoping he's going to keep improving. We're still some way off Graded level, but he's an exciting horse and a beautiful one to ride.”

Bristol De Mai had been outpaced on better ground in the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham last March. Whether connections go Ryanair or the Gold Cup, his chances will be greatly enhanced should the ground turn soft, or even better, heavy. He’s as low as 10s for the Ryanair, but the trainer certainly gave the impression that the Gold Cup was the preferred target. He can still be backed at 20s for the ‘Blue Riband’.

Much of the pre-race chat had centred on the Tizzard trained Alary. He looked a picture in the parade ring, and appeared to warm to the task after a couple of sticky jumps early-doors. But he started to falter turning for home, and Aidan Coleman was quick to pull him up once any chance of placing had gone. Races in France are often run at a more sedate pace, and it’s likely that this British debut came as something of a shock for the young chaser. He’s a gorgeous looking horse, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t improve a ton for the experience.

It proved a successful day for Twiston-Davies, with The New One completing a hat-trick of victories in the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial. It was yet another gutsy success for the yard’s outstanding hurdler. It appears that the Festival target is still up for debate, with the trainer edging towards another run in the Champion Hurdle, whilst his son Sam would love a crack at the Stayers’. “I think he'd be running around in second gear, and if he had anything left at the last he'd go close,” was the jockey’s assessment.

Sam may well be right. A third or fourth place finish in the Champion Hurdle may satisfy the trainer, but surely it’s worth a crack at the Stayers’. The step-up in trip worked for Solwhit a few years’ back, and it appears that Jess Harrington will be making a similar switch with Jezki.

Arguably the most impressive performance at Haydock came in the Supreme Trial, when Harry Fry’s Neon Wolf demolished a decent looking field. Conditions certainly suited the stoutly bred hurdler, with the emphasis very much on stamina rather than speed. This six-year-old is bred to stay a lot further, and should he head to Cheltenham will surely go for the Neptune or indeed the Albert Bartlett.

He's a tank of a horse, and Fry clearly sees his future over fences. He spoke yesterday of the various options: “He's come out of the race in good order and it was a very exciting performance, not just on the day, but for what it means for the future for him. He's got a lot of options open to him, obviously the Cheltenham novice races and at the same time he's going to be chasing in the autumn. It's a case of doing right by him.”

Fry went on: “The Masterson Family (owners) like Cheltenham and they also like going to Punchestown. He's a big unit of a horse, a tank of a horse really, so he wouldn't want quickish ground.”

The weather will play a vital role in the Cheltenham prospects of both Neon Wolf and Bristol De Mai. Soft, heavy in places may be a necessity if either are to land a valuable prize. For the former, the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle is surely the most likely target. For the latter, a shot at Thistlecrack now looks more than just a dream.

Harry Cobden’s Blog: 20th Jan 2017

My second blog of the new year, and hopefully a few more interesting horses to tell you about. Let's start at the start...

Two Saturdays ago I had three rides for Colin Tizzard, the pick of which might turn out to be Lillington. The son of Westerner was having his first try in handicap company and beat all bar the winner there. It shouldn't be too long before he goes one better. A horse with a similar name, Cucklington, made his debut over fences the same day and ran only all right. He's back on Saturday in a similar race at Taunton, with a nice racing weight, and should come on plenty for that first experience of the big obstacles.

The following day I managed to snare another winner for Mr Tizzard. Bears Rails is a nice horse, although he has a few ideas of his own maybe! With blinkers on for essentially the first time (ignoring the void race he ran in on Boxing Day), I gave him a forward ride around Fontwell - which would have been tight enough for him - and he jumped like a pro, keeping on well in the end. He's still relatively young at seven, and has already won three chases, so could have a bit more to come later in the season.

Reilly's Minor was a horse I thought might be worth following, and I wouldn't give up on him just yet. He was stepping up a full three-quarters of a mile at Catterick and just didn't seem to get home. If dropping back in trip to around 2m6f ideally on a left-handed course, he can get back on the winning track.

More recently, I notched another winner for the very lucky Anthony Honeyball Racing Club with Royal Salute. Those enthusiastic owners have enjoyed eight winners from 21 runners this season, with another nine places! This lad is a thorough stayer and he put that to good use over three and a quarter miles of Plumpton's soft turf on Monday. He won going away in the end, and he only does as little as he can get away with. As a result he may still be half a stride ahead of the handicapper, and all he does is stays. That was his third win since April last year.

Another who may have gone a couple of furlongs too far was Coole Cody, who probably also bumped into one in Harry Fry's Over To Sam. Cody will hopefully drop back to around two and a half miles and is capable of winning a novice event somewhere before facing his handicap mark.

Although I was only fourth on him, I was quite taken with As De Fer yesterday. He is slow enough but stays very well. I tried to make it but couldn't lay up with a pace that was too fast but, having got outpaced, Anthony's horse was closing again at the finish. He could go close over a trip with a bit of soft ground.

Finally, Monsieur Co was obviously lucky to win, Harry Fry's horse coming down at the last with the race at his mercy. But our lad hasn't been in that long and should improve a fair bit for the run. Saying that, he still made quite hard work of this.

As well as my boss, Paul Nicholls, I've been lucky enough to have ridden a fair bit for Colin Tizzard in recent weeks. He's got some serious horses in the yard this season and is a very easy-going man to work for.

I ride Robinsfirth for him this afternoon in a hot novices' handicap chase. An eight year old son of Flemensfirth (how did you guess?), he's not had much racing and this will be only his eighth race. He's well regarded at home and should run very well if putting in a clear round, with the step up in trip expected to suit.

Colin runs his 'talking horse', Alary, in the Peter Marsh on Saturday, and I think it's nuts that the French import is so short for the race. Mind you, he needs to be winning that if he's to justify a pretty skinny price for the Gold Cup!

I'm due to ride Virak, who has a right chance, that race. I'll probably be handy, and he was second in this race last year off a seven pound higher mark. A bit of cut is ideal, which he should get, and I'm really looking forward to the ride.

I also ride Irving in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Trial. If he can repeat his Fighting Fifth win he'd almost be the one to beat, but he was disappointing twice before that so definitely needs to put his best foot forward again.

I'm up to 41 winners in the Conditional Jockeys' Championship race now. Jamie Bargary has 27, the same as Dave Noonan, and they are sharing second spot. With more than three months left in the season, I'm not counting my chickens just yet. We all know that you're only ever one tumble away from a long layoff, so we'll keep on pushing.

I've now only got two winners left on my claim, with a career total of 73, so with luck by the time I speak to you next I'll have ridden it out. I guess that's when the hard work really starts!

- Harry

Venetia to deliver a Haydock ‘Trail’blazer

This looks one of the most intriguing renewals of the Peter Marsh Chase for many a year.

In its infancy during the early eighties, the race became a recognised stepping stone to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Several won here before successfully following up at Prestbury Park. The Peter Easterby trained Little Owl took the inaugural running in 1981 before defeating Night Nurse and Silver Buck at Cheltenham.

The following year Bregawn took the Peter Marsh, but could only finish second to Silver Buck in the Gold Cup. He was not to be denied in the ‘big one’ 12 months later when thrashing Captain John and Wayward Lad. The Thinker was another to complete the double in the late 80s, before Jodami went one better in 1993. He took the Peter Marsh, before heading to Ireland to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown. A month later he captured the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, completing a stunning three-month period of success.

Jodami went on to take the Haydock feature for the second time in 1997. He became one of only a trio of 12-year-olds to win the race, when lumping 11st 10lbs to victory. Twin Oaks had mirrored the feat in 1992, and then in 2010 Our Vic became the third OAP to defy age and 11st 6lbs, in battling to a heroic success.

Eight-year-olds have won the lion’s-share in recent years, though nine and 10-year-olds have a decent record. One aged 11 and Our Vic at 12 have also been successful in the past dozen or so years. You have to go back to 1996 for the last seven-year-old winner, which is somewhat ironic, as all the pre-race chat has centred on the Tizzard trained Alary, himself a seven-year-old import from France.

Tizzard has been dominant over the winter, and has the three leading British staying chasers, in Thistlecrack, Cue Card and Native River. Despite having such riches in the yard, the Dorset trainer has not held back in his praise for the newcomer. Earlier this month when pondering over a likely starting point he said: “I don't know when he will run but he's bloody good, I'll tell you that.”

‘Bloody good’ he may be, but he only managed to win twice in France, though his last run was undoubtedly his best, when finishing a close second in a Grade 1 at Auteuil. The handicapper has taken no chances, and has awarded him a mark of 162. To put into context, Native River is currently rated 168. Trip and ground look sure to suit, and though he’s in new hands, his last outing was only in November, so fitness shouldn’t prove an issue. If he wins, and wins well, you can kiss goodbye to 20s for the Gold Cup in March.

The main danger to Alary may well come from Bristol De Mai. No six-year-old has ever won the race, but the Twiston-Davies youngster looks to set that record straight. He’s been stepped-up in trip this year, and ran well off top-weight in the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle in November. He lost out to Otago Trail on that occasion, but is better off at the weights this time. Five of the first six from the Newcastle event re-oppose, and it’s tough to discount any of them.

The Venetia Williams trained Otago Trail, needs testing ground to be at his best. He too has moved up in trip of late, and he stayed on powerfully to win the Rehearsal, having looked likely to come-off second best for much of the race. He was thrashed by Bristol De Mai when the pair last met at Haydock a year ago, though that came at two and a half miles, when a quicker De Mai simply dominated from the front. This looks sure to be closer, and it’s tough to split the pair.

Definitly Red looked outpaced at Newcastle, before staying on well to finish third. He has since won the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby, and though now worse off at the weights with both Otago and De Mai, he looks to have an outstanding chance here. He’s currently second favourite to Tizzard’s newcomer, but will need a thorough end to end gallop if he is to scrap his way to victory.

Sausalito Sunrise is another that looks to have every chance. The Philip Hobbs trained nine-year-old is down 8lbs from a career high mark of 163. He appears to act on all ground, but a slight concern is that he has failed to spark in his two runs so far this winter. He should benefit from having less on his back, and is undoubtedly a classy chaser on his day. I’m not convinced he needs a slog through the mud, and should the ground prove as testing as it often does at Haydock, I’d be against him.

Virak represents champion trainer Paul Nicholls, and is ridden by the outstanding claimer Harry Cobden. The same combination were runners-up 12 months ago, though beaten a fair way that time by Cloudy Too. This looks a classier renewal, and having been beaten a mile in the Rehearsal, I’m not sure this fella is quite good enough in this company.

Of the remainder, the inexperienced Vintage Clouds is of interest. Another seven-year-old, he is trained by Sue Smith, who took this last year, and has a strong record in the race. He’s finished runner-up in all three starts over fences, and has looked a promising novice. By Cloudings, his breeding suggests a slog should suit. The concern is whether such a test at this stage of his career will prove too much. I think it probably will.

It’s a cracking renewal, with the added spice of a potential star in the field. Alary may well romp home and prove a realistic Gold Cup contender, but his odds are restrictive, and he’s worth taking on. At 14/1, I’m taking Otago Trail come out on top. He was so impressive at Newcastle, and I take him to uphold the form in testing ground. Bristol De Mai is wonderfully talented, but I am concerned that he doesn’t really see out three miles. I fancy Definitly Red to do best of the remainder. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Don Gone! – Elliott Calls Time on Cossack Career

Kempton may have captured most of the headlines for obvious reasons, but for me, the major news from yesterday was that of the retirement of Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.

Gordon Elliott’s top-class staying chaser had been off the track since his devastating performance at Cheltenham last March. Hopes were high of a return, and only in December Elliott said of his Gold Cup hero: “He’s been coming along nicely over the past few months. In addition to cantering away, he swims twice a day and it's so far so good with him. It's still a case of taking one day at a time, but if things continue to go well the plan will be to give him one run before the Gold Cup.”

Sadly, yesterday the County Meath trainer revealed that the horse had met with a further setback, and the decision was made to call it a day. On his Betfair blog Elliott announced: “It's a real sickener for Gigginstown, myself, Bryan Cooper and the whole yard. We knew it was never certain we would get him back to the racecourse and even after that, to get him back to his best, but we were hopeful and he was on track for a run at Gowran Park next month.”

Elliott went on: “He's a horse of a lifetime and he owes us nothing. I said all season that if he had any sort of setback at all we would not abuse him and retire him straight away. He's won Grade Ones at Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Down Royal. He was the top-rated horse in Britain and Ireland for the last two seasons running, and we'd have loved to see him take on Thistlecrack in the Gold Cup. It was one of the highlights of my career when Don Cossack won the Gold Cup for us last year and he retires a champion.”

It’s been a tough week for lovers of the Gold Cup, with the news that Coneygree will also miss the race in March. On Monday, Sara Bradstock appeared to admit that time had run out for the Gold Cup winner of 2015, when saying: “We're not going to enter him. If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement him, but I'm not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he will not run.”

She added: “It's all too quick. It's only two months from now and he's still only walking and we're not going to be there in top form. He'll definitely have some spring target and could go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong. We just need to do this right.”

For Jump racing fans, all of this is of course hugely disappointing. The best races need the best horses in opposition, and unfortunately this year’s Gold Cup now looks a little threadbare. Colin Tizzard’s grip on the ‘Blue Riband’ now looks tighter than ever, with Thistlecrack a shade of odds-on across the board. His stablemate, Native River, is generally a 5/1 shot, and another from the Tizzard yard, Alary, continues to be supported, despite never yet stepping hoof on a British track.

The French recruit was a top-class performer in France. A huge chestnut gelding, with an eye-catching white flash down his face, he was last seen going down by half-a-length in a Grade 1 at Auteuil. He’s only a six-year-old, and that appeared to be his best run to date. Tizzard has made no secret of how much he thinks of the youngster, and he remains an intriguing ‘dark horse’ for the main event in March.

Magnificent Martaline – A Leading French Stallion

The career of talented chaser Dynaste came to an end at the weekend, following a slightly disappointing run in the Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Sandown.

The popular 11-year-old grey had been one of David Pipe’s stable stars for almost half a dozen years. The racecourse highlight came when winning the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2014. He followed that performance with a second-place finish in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree, and later that year was runner-up to Silviniaco Conti in the King George at Kempton.

Though an attractive looking grey, Dynaste could not compete in the looks department with his talented father Martaline. The truly gorgeous French stallion is virtually white from nose to tail. A strikingly powerful colt, he stands at Haras De Montaigu, a beautifully picturesque stud in North-West France.

A classy horse on the flat, Martaline was at his best as a four-year-old in 2003, when runner-up in the Group 2 Grand Prix De Chantilly before winning the Prix Maurice De Nieuil at Longchamp. That victory came at 1m6f, when he defeated an outstanding stayer in Westerner. He was victorious or placed in 12 of his 22 career starts. It’s also interesting to note, that his most disappointing performances came on heavy ground.

As a leading French National Hunt stallion in recent years, he has produced numerous talented jumpers for trainers on both sides of the English Channel.

Agrapart was a high-profile success for the French sire recently, when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Trained by Nick Williams, the six-year-old clearly thrived in testing conditions, when getting up late to beat L’Ami Serge, with Cole Harden seven lengths back in third. He’s likely to head for the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, though he looks a chaser in the making, and certainly has the action over hurdles to suggest that he’ll suit a fence.

Another with a Cheltenham success to his name this season, is the Colin Tizzard trained Viconte Du Noyer. Owned by the Potts’, he’d previously been trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was winning the Grade 3 Betvictor Handicap Chase on his first run for the new yard. He failed to take to the Grand National fences next time at Aintree and then ran below par in testing ground at the Welsh National. His win at Cheltenham suggested there’s plenty more to come, so I wouldn’t be losing faith in this fella. Better ground may well be essential, and he’s worth a second luck with conditions to suit.

One from the bloodline that does enjoy Aintree’s National fences, is the Gordon Elliott trained Ucello Conti. He was fourth in the Becher Chase in December, having been sixth in the Grand National last April. It’s tough to say whether he truly stayed the trip that day on soft ground, but he’s likely to be back for another crack this year, and on a more attractive looking handicap mark.

Noel Meade also looks to have a talented chaser on his hands with the six-year-old grey gelding Disko. He seemed to appreciate better ground when running a cracker at Leopardstown over Christmas. His third-place finish in the Grade 1 three-mile novice chase was a personal best, and he’d be a live contender at Cheltenham in March, for either the JLT or the RSA. He’s not short of speed. Meade’s last Cheltenham Festival winner was another son of Martaline, with Very Wood landing the Albert Bartlett of 2014 at huge odds.

Another from the Martaline production line, who is rapidly going the right way, is Tim Vaughan’s hurdler, Theligny. Despite four victories and three second place finishes from his eight outings over hurdles, the six-year-old remains on a fair handicap mark. He was impressive at Newbury last time, when showing a terrific attitude in holding off the Rebecca Curtis trained Geordie Des Champs. That came at two and a half miles, and the target may well be the Martin Pipe Conditional at The Festival, with classy claimer Alan Johns likely to be on-board.

As an 18-year-old, Martaline continues to prove an extremely popular stallion. A strike-rate of 31% this season for his offspring, shows just how potent he is. It would be no surprise to see many more of his progeny travelling across the Channel in the coming years.

Tizzard top in Tolworth

Finian’s Oscar ran out a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.

In the absence of Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace, Saturday’s renewal looked to be a head-to-head between Tizzard’s exciting youngster, and the Paul Nicholls trained Capitaine. The pair battled for favouritism, and then continued the tussle on the track. In truth, the result rarely looked in doubt. Approaching two flights from home, Tom O’Brien made his move, and Finian’s Oscar swept clear. Capitaine tried to go with him, but a poor jump at the second last put paid to his chances.

Tizzard said of the impressive winner: “He’s a real professional horse. He's a gorgeous young horse, but we were worried we’d not done enough with him. He's only won a point to point and a novices' hurdle at Hereford, but the way he did it at Hereford, why waste him in a little race when you can have a go at this? He looked in control most of the way and he soon went five lengths clear. He stuttered into the last and I thought ‘is he going to stop’, but as soon as Tom got busy, he went on again.”

Of plans leading to The Festival in March, Tizzard added: “He probably will run again. I think the easiest option is to go two and a half, but he's got the speed for two and he stays.”

Bookies were taking no chances, and slashed his odds to 5/1 for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. He’s generally a 10/1 shot for the shorter Supreme Novices’. With the ground likely to run quicker at Cheltenham in March, the chances are that he will head for the Neptune. The trip should prove ideal, though whether his performance on Saturday warrants such euphoria is questionable.

Capitaine floundered somewhat in the ground, having previously run below par at Haydock in testing conditions. It was also a surprise to see Sam Twiston-Davies riding such a patient race, after the horse had performed so well from the front at Ascot the time before. He’s a gelding that lacks gears, and was caught short when O’Brien kicked for home on the winner. Messire Des Obeaux, and numerous runners from Ireland, are likely to prove a far more serious test for Tizzard’s young novice in March.

One that looks likely to swerve the clash is the impressive Irish hurdler, Death Duty. He was in action at Naas yesterday, taking the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle. His task was made easier by the last flight fall of Augusta Kate. Willie Mullins’ mare was launching a strong challenge, and had every chance, when Ruby was forced to go long at the last. The mare crumpled on landing, leaving Death Duty in glorious isolation, galloping home to win by nine lengths.

Of the victory, Gordon Elliott said: “To be honest, I thought they didn't go fast enough. Our lad is just an out-and-out stayer. They were upsides when the mare fell, so it's hard to say but the one thing you know about our horse is that he would have kept pulling out. Jack thought he had it covered. He has his job done again and that will be it now until Cheltenham.”

Doubts remain over the festival target, though Elliott appeared to be favouring the longer race when saying: “There is a long way to go between now and Cheltenham, but if the race was tomorrow, I'd be saying the Albert Bartlett, definitely. He's a proper, big three-mile chaser. At this stage, of all the good horses I've had, none of them were ever as good as hurdlers, but that doesn't mean they'll do it as chasers. I'd say he's a fair one.”

Mullins was philosophical in defeat, when saying of Augusta Kate: “She trotted up fine. I'm sure she'll be a little bit sore in the morning. She was running a good race and Ruby felt he had a little bit left, but there was still a lot of racing to do. The winner is a fair machine, so we're just happy our mare was running a good race. Whether she'd have won or not is another day's work.”

Festival targets remain a mystery, with Mullins adding: “We'll see how she comes out of the race and go from there.”

There’s no doubt that she was running a huge race when coming down at the last, and is now generally a 5/1 chance for the Mares Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Mullins already has the favourite for that particular race in Airlie Beach, and it would come as no surprise should one of them take their chance against the boys in the Neptune.

For now, it’s Death Duty and Finian’s Oscar that have enhanced their reputation, with the Cheltenham Festival looming large on the horizon.

Expect an Oscar winning performance in the Tolworth

It looks a competitive renewal of the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday, with the Paul Nicholls trained Capitaine heading the betting.

Winner of a Grade 2 at Ascot in December, the handsome looking grey ran green at times, but nevertheless, stayed on powerfully to pull clear of a decent field. That victory came from the front on good to soft ground, though his high knee action suggests he should be fine in the likely testing conditions at Sandown. He’d previously been held too far off the pace at Haydock, when finishing second in a listed event. He’s a robust, scopey type, that looks sure to make a chaser in time.

The past nine renewals have all been run on soft or heavy ground, and without exception, have gone to horses that looked suited by further than the bare minimum two-mile trip. Fancied horses have a strong record in the race, with seven of the last 11 winners sent off at 3/1 or shorter. And though five and six-year-olds have proved most successful, a pair aged seven have landed the prize in the past 10 running’s.

Nicky Henderson has a terrific record in the race, and has a couple of seven-year-olds set to line up tomorrow. Kayf Grace looks to be his most notable challenger. A high-class bumper performer, she opened her account over hurdles at Bangor. By Kayf Tara, her record suggests that soft ground will not be an issue. She looks to have gears, and though this is sure to be a serious test, her Aintree bumper win proved that she has both class and guts. I would be slightly concerned if the ground became heavy. Indeed, the trainer has a habit of withdrawing horses late-on if he feels they are unsuited by a slog.

Henderson’s second dart at the bullseye is Gaitway. Back from two years on the sidelines, his effort at Cheltenham in December was respectable. He should improve for the run, but the long lay-off is a major concern. He’s not a horse I’d be backing at this stage of his comeback.

Colin Tizzard is having a sensational campaign, and looks to have a classy young hurdler on his hands with Finian’s Oscar. Ann and Alan Potts spent a small fortune on this fella, and he looked an exciting recruit when storming home at Hereford on debut. He’s dropping back in trip, which is a slight worry, though testing conditions will help. He looks the likely type for this race, and his trainer can do no wrong. I fancy he’ll go close.

Celestial Path is an interesting contender, though his entry rests on a schooling session this morning. “Tom Scudamore will school him and we'll make a decision on the Tolworth after that,” said trainer David Pipe. “He was a very good Flat horse, but he only went a mile and you'd prefer it if he was proven over further. He's been gelded since we got him and he's done lots of schooling already, he's been jumping okay.”

The ‘jumping okay’ comment is hardly a ringing endorsement, and I’d be a little surprised if he isn’t given an easier option for his hurdling debut.

One that certainly could go close, if taking up his entry, is Dan Skelton’s Mohaayed. He ran a cracker over Christmas at Kempton on hurdling debut, and should improve for the experience. As an ex-flat performer, the ground would again cause concerns. His sire, Intikhab, has been responsible for several decent jumpers over the years, including the talented Kempes, who was good enough to chase home Hurricane Fly in the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in 2009. Mohaayed certainly possesses the ability, if he copes with conditions.

One that should be suited by both the ground and track, is Harry Fry’s Chalonnial. He’s a big chasing type who galloped powerfully to victory at Bangor last time. The worry is whether he’ll possess the necessary speed to get competitive in a Grade 1. Nevertheless, I fancy he’ll be finishing the race to great effect.

It’s a tough one to call, but I’ll be siding with Finian’s Oscar for the all-conquering Tizzard Team. I fancy that Kayf Grace will go on to achieve more over hurdles, but track and ground will be against her on this occasion. Best of luck to those having a punt.