Tag Archive for: Glenfarcas Cross Country Chase

Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Day two, Wednesday, and a similar combination of novice races, handicaps and a Championship race, this time the Queen Mother Champion Chase. As ever, it's a one-thirty start for the...

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

They say the Ballymore/Neptune/Baring Bingham is more of a speed test than the Supreme and, if very recent history is anything to go by "they" are right. The winners' finishing speeds in the Supreme in the past two years - the only two for which CourseTrack sectionals are available on the RTV website - were 100% each time, with the runners up coming home in around 94% each time. Meanwhile, in the Ballymore, the winners' closing sectionals were 102.2% and 106% while the runners up recorded 101.4% and 103.8%. What does it all mean? Well, simply that we might be looking for a horse able to travel and quicken rather than one who gallops relentlessly.

To the form, and the only place to start is with the talking horse's talking horse, Impaire Et Passe. Reputedly the latest Pegasus on the Willie Mullins production line, he's unbeaten in a Nancy bumper before transferring to Closutton (for €155,000) and winning a brace of novice hurdles, the second of which was the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer. That race has been a stepping stone in the past for the same trainer's Mikael d'Haguenet, Vautour, Douvan and Min, amongst others. The first of those named won the Ballymore next time, while the other three all went Supreme (two of them winning, Min running second to Altior). So it is arguably the trusted prep for Mullins' top novice hurdlers, although the Grade 1 at the DRF is a more obvious candidate in that regard.

A winner of his maiden hurdle by 18 lengths, in a field of 24, that form looks very ordinary: none of the runners behind that day have won since, and they've collectively amassed 42 starts! Still, that's hardly Impaire Et Passe's fault as he fulfilled his end of the bargain by going so far clear. In that Moscow Flyer, run this year on heavy ground, he jumped well in the main though was a little clumsy at the last. The key thing with his chance, given that on form he has a bit to find, is the stable confidence. Mullins has a raft of talented novice hurdlers and yet this is the one seemingly most talked up: he must be good. But he is inexperienced and, as I say, does not yet have the best form.

Mullins also saddles Gaelic Warrior, second in last year's Fred Boodles and winner of all three of his starts this term, including in a valuable handicap hurdle, shouldering top weight, at the DRF. That form has already had some lustre added to it and, where IEP is a tad shy on experience, GW brings much more as a second season novice.

Splitting the Willie pair in the betting is the Paul Nicholls-trained Hermes Allen. Triumphant in all three of his races so far, he must have surprised a few at Ditcheat because he started out in a Stratford maiden hurdle before claiming the Grade 2 Hyde Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Grade 1 Challow at Newbury. That Challow form has worked out superbly well, with the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th and two of the pulled up also-rans winning since; not only winning, but three of them scoring in Pattern company. Hermes Allen is already a heck of a hurdler, but he could be a monster over fences next season.

The third string to Mullins' extremely stringy bow is Champ Kiely, winner of the Grade 1 Lawlor's Of Naas Novices' Hurdle last time. There he beat Irish Point, who won a Grade 3 at Naas on Sunday; the overall level of that form looks below others in the field, however. That said, the Champ handles any ground and has won four of his five career starts to date.

Barry Connell, boutique trainer of his own horses, has not just Marine Nationale in the Supreme but also Good Land in this. He's winner of his three completed starts this term, having unseated at the first in his hurdling debut. He was last seen winning the Grade 1 Nathaniel Lacy over 2m6f at the DRF, and that is normally top form as illustrated in this article by Jon Shenton. [For info, the best novice hurdle run annually in Britain or Ireland tends to be the one at DRF won this year by Il Etait Temps].

Ho My Lord is a further Willie wunner, and is unbeaten in completed starts, a French bumper and an Irish maiden hurdle either side of a tumble at Leopardstown at Christmas. He completely unexposed, and as such wouldn't be a total shock winner; but his known level of form is stones below that in the book for some of his rivals.

I liked American Mike for the Supreme after his Champion Bumper second last year, but he seems to have completely lost his way since. It's not unheard of for horses to rediscover their best form at the Festival, but it is usually slightly more planned by connections - who were aiming at a handicap until running out of time to get the requisite fourth run under their belts. Mike looks somewhat homeless in terms of race fit this year; hoping he'll be back next season over a fence.

Ballymore Pace Map

Plenty of early dash, with Hermes Allen and American Mike, along with probably one or more of the Mullins lesser lights. Might be a little quicker than normal in the early stages.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

I have come round to the hype surrounding Impaire Et Passe, a horse who will have plenty of peers against which to compare his level at home. His stablemate Gaelic Warrior has the best public level of ability but the vibes are all for IeP. Still, the Warrior will likely be hard to keep out of the three and represents a fairly solid each way tickle.

Suggestion: Probably a race to bet Impaire Et Passe, even at relatively skinny odds. 5/1 Gaelic Warrior is a solid-looking each way alternative.

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2.10 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

Widely recalled as the RSA Chase, this is in fact the Broadway Novices' Chase, currently sponsored by Brown Advisory, an independent investment management firm apparently. No matter: it always has been and presumably always will be a three mile novice chase and an early opportunity for chasers to advertise future Gold Cup credentials: in that context, it's typically a very good race. The last couple of winners, L'Homme Presse and Monkfish, have absented for the following year's Gold Cup; but going back a decade, Bobs Worth and Lord Windermere were back to back Broadway/Gold Cup doublers.

This year, the most fancied runner is Gerri Colombe, and not without good cause. He's already a dual Grade 1 winner, in the Faugheen at Limerick at Christmas and in the Scilly Isles at Sandown last month; and, though both of those races were over half a mile shorter than he'll face here, he's been going on to assert at the finish each time. Still, he's not guaranteed to stay in a top class test such as this. One asset that will help is his jumping, which was outstanding at Sandown: long or short, he was always clever and didn't tickle a twig at any of the 17 fences. Gerri is a very worthy favourite.

One thing the jolly has not yet done is race around Cheltenham; the same cannot be said of The Real Whacker. Patrick Neville's seven-year-old is unbeaten in two chases at the track, most recently when beating Monmiral three lengths in the Grade 2 Dipper. He, too, has been very good at his obstacles to date and may have more to give: perhaps he'll need to as a line through Monmiral gives him a bit to find with GC - though it's fair to say the collateral horse wouldn't be a reliable yardstick even if reliable yardsticks were a reliable yardstick, if you see what I mean. In any case, his defeat of Thunder Rock (reopposes) was much more in line with Gerri C's margin over the same horse, so if you're into collateral you can choose your poison.

Philip Hobbs has recently announced a joint licence plan whereby long-time assistant Johnson White will share the honour; but before that Thyme Hill will test his mettle for the current sole licensee here. A couple of years the senior of Gerri and the Whacker, Thyme Hill has been a top class staying hurdler, running second in last year's Stayers' Hurdle as well as winning the G1 Liverpool Hurdle, the G1 Challow as a novice, and running third in the 2019 Champion Bumper here. He was also fourth in the Albert Bartlett of 2020, giving him Festival form of 342 in Grade 1's.

Although it feels like this feller has been around forever he only spent three seasons hurdling; and the manner of his Feltham/Kauto Star win at Kempton on Boxing Day - by 15 lengths from McFabulous - was striking. The form however has plenty of question marks with the second pulling up as odds on favourite next time; and the other two runners at Kempton failing to complete. Thyme Hill came from off a sizzling pace that day to barrel away from a couple of tired rivals, an approach that perhaps again gives him a chance to pick up pieces here.

Remember Sir Gerhard? Sporting the union flag colours of Cheveley Park but raced in Ireland for better prize money (sigh), he cost four hundred grand at the end of the 2019. That looked a fairly chunky price tag but he's since recouped more than half of it, which is more than most racehorses achieve! A win here would add another hundred bags to the total and offer the prospect of him getting his nose in front financially (obviously, ignoring training and transport costs - who bothers with those?!).

More materially, what of his form chance? Well, he infamously 'stole' the 2021 Champion Bumper from Kilcruit (pocket talk) and went on to win last year's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Festival. This season he's been sighted just once, when bagging a beginners' chase by 38 lengths from the occasionally-very-good-but-not-on-this-particular-occasion Largy Debut. That was in spite of a horlicks of an error, which would be a concern here in terms of chasing experience. Yes, he won a point to point back yon but this wouldn't be the gig to come in underdone. Still, he's plenty of class and ability, so is not easily discounted.

The aforementioned Thunder Rock has been beaten by both Gerri Colombe and The Real Whacker so what chance has he here? Both of those defeats were at around two and a half miles, and the run behind the Whacker was at Cheltenham (2m5f, soft) where the closing comment was, "stayed on final 110 yards". That doesn't really tell the full story: Thunder Rock was last of five three furlongs out and closed all the way to the line. Meanwhile, The Real Whacker - who'd led them a merry dance from flag fall - was getting to the end of his soap-on-a-rope. This extra three furlongs is what brings Olly Murphy's charge into the picture, and he's a price against the top of the market.

The mare Galia Des Liteaux seems to be very well regarded by the Skelton yard, and has looked very good a couple of times this term. Her best run was her most recent, when surging 13 lengths clear of her field in a Grade 2 three mile novice chase at Warwick. The going was heavy that day, as it was when she won a Listed novice chase at Bangor earlier in the season, and that appears to be the key to her: the wetter the better. She was pulled up in the Kauto Star/Feltham when failing to get into a rhythm; that can happen to a horse without necessarily being the death knell to its Festival chance - see for example Bobs Worth.

By contrast, Adamantly Chosen has plenty of good ground form. In his latest pair of races, he's been second in two and a half mile Grade 1's to Mighty Potter and Gerri Colombe - not beaten comprehensively either time, and staying on both times - which puts him in the picture here. He's been supplemented for this, another indication that his chance is credible.

RSA Chase Pace Map

Likely just an even gallop here, with Harry Skelton the prime contender to take them along on Galia Des Liteaux. The Real Whacker has gone forward the last twice, however, so there's a chance of some early contention.

RSA Chase Selection

A race where Gerri Colombe is an obvious and legitimate favourite but a bit on the skinny side pricewise. Of his rivals, I quite like the claims of Sir Gerhard, Galia Des Liteaux (soft ground only), Thunder Rock and Adamantly Chosen (good to soft or quicker), and I think it's an each way sort of a race - though we may end up playing for the place part behind Gerri.

Suggestion: Consider 15/2 Galia Des Liteaux (soft or heavy) or 18/1 Adamantly Chosen good to soft or quicker) each way or without the favourite.

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2.50 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

A big field handicap hurdle, inscrutable in the extreme to these peepers. A bit of 'black box' shortlisting leaves me with HMS Seahorse, Beacon Edge, Captain Conby, and Bold Endeavour.

HMS Seahorse runs for Paul Nolan, the trainer of Mrs Milner, last year's Pertemps Final winner. He seemed to improve a good bit when needing a few extra pounds to get in here stepping up in trip last time; and he won in the style of a horse with a good bit more up his sleeve.

The Noel Meade-trained Beacon Edge was third Stayers' Hurdle favourite Blazing Khal in the G2 Boyne Hurdle last time, and was a G2 winner at this trip a couple of years ago. He's handily weighted for this handily-cap debut.

Eddie Sheehy is the sort of 'no name' trainer whose runner slips a tad under the radar in races like these; and who can get the job done a la Peter Fahey and Paul Hennessey two years ago. Captain Conby is tough and consistent, and was good enough to still be in the mix in the G1 Mersey Novices' Hurdle when coming down at the second last a year ago. He seems to handle any ground, too.

Best of the home team might be the Nicky Henderson-trained Bold Endeavour, who reverts to hurdles after running second (of three) in the G2 Reynoldstown last time. He looks on a very fair mark so, although the last Festival handicap hurdle winner to have been chasing on its most recent start was Andytown in 2009, that horse was trained by Hendo - and returned a similarly fat price to this one's likely SP. The King of Seven Barrows has attempted the feat eleven times since, faring no better than 7th (in 2021, Mill Green, 40/1) - that obviously tempers enthusiasm.

Coral Cup Pace Map

Probably not crazy fast early despite the huge field, with Bold Endeavour a possible designated driver. Could be a bit of elbows out action turning into the straight with doubtless a dozen and more still holding chances.

Coral Cup Selection

Skybet are *eight* places on this race and that feels the way to go, as long as their win price is competitive with best available. I'll be perming 12/1 Captain Conby, 10/1 HMS Seahorse and 12/1 Beacon Edge - another three very possible place prospects and three darts at hitting the win jackpot.

Coral Cup Suggestion: Split your stake three or four ways - and bet each way with as many extra places as you can find.

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3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The Champion Chase is the championship speed test for high class steeplechasers. Remarkably, when Energumene claimed the spoils a year ago, it was Willie Mullins' first Champion Chase success at the 15 time of asking. The other 14 included Un De Sceaux (2nd at 4/6), Douvan (7th at 2/9), and Chacun Pour Soi (3rd at 8/13), so it will have been good for him to get that monkey off his back. This year, Mullins saddles only one: Energumene, the reigning champ.

Energumene comes here off a less than convincing prep in the G1 Clarence House in late January (run here rather than its usual Ascot home). There, he was still in the mix before a shocker at the last curtailed his claim. Prior to odds on disappointment there he'd won ten from eleven, the only blemish being a narrow defeat in 'that' race with Shishkin at Ascot. It is reasonable to assume he was not quite at concert pitch in January and further reasonable to say that he will be this time, in which case he may be the one they all have to beat.

Gentleman De Mee - who misses the race with an infection - previously had an Aintree G1 verdict over Edwardstone, while that one won convincingly in last season's Arkle at Cheltenham. And Edwardstone was imperious in the Tingle Creek earlier in the season, though he himself has since been turned over by Editeur Du Gite.

The management summary is that any of a number of these could conceivably win the Champion Chase, a race that is likely to be further confuddled by a pace profile featuring a broad cast of prospective forward-goers. All of this makes for a fascinating and thrilling spectacle but a nightmare of a punting puzzle.

Further down the lists are very-good-on-their-day types like two mile specialist Funambule de Sivola (chase form of 1121121126451 at or around two miles), whose season took a marked turn for the better with a bold front-running display in the Game Spirit; Greaneteen, who was closest to Edwardstone at Sandown but a bit floppy behind Funambule at Newbury; and Nube Negra who all but won the 2021 Champion Chase but has been in and out since.

And then there's Captain Guinness, representing three-time Champion Chase-winning trainer, Henry de Bromhead, who of course suffered the ultimate distress not long ago: what a phenomenal story it would be if the Captain could get home in front. Heart-warming, but unlikely.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Two or three who can go forward but, with none of them needing to do so, it's not clear how this might play out. Editeur Du Gite and Energumene will fancy their win chances to may rein back slightly off Funambule de Sivola, whose prospects are more wild card. Still, I'd expect it to be at least truly run.

Champion Chase Selection

This might just be a straight shoot out between Edwardstone and Energumene, and it might not. As unhelpful as that sounds, I'm not really sure where to go with it. If Energumene tracks the pace rather than contests it, he gets first run on Edwardstone who will be played later. In that scenario, he might win; or he might set it up for the last challenger, probably Edwardstone.

Editeur Du Gite's chance may be compromised by a duel with Funambule de Sivola, another fast horse early, and another classy contender (though not quite in the Eddie/Energ quality category).

Incredibly, perhaps, this is a no bet race for me. It ought to be a cracking watch all the same.

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4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

Another of the 'not for the purists' races, arguably; but I have to concede to very much enjoying the different spectacle of a big field of often familiar names jogging around quirky ever decreasing spiral before shaking loose onto the main course for the sprint to the line. In the olden days, this used to be the almost exclusive province of Enda Bolger but, since 2017, there's been a new sheriff in town. Gordon Elliott (and, in 2021, his proxy, Denise Foster) has won five of the last six renewals of the Glenfarclas Chase and saddled the second and third in the year he didn't win during that spell.

This season, he will be responsible for the first two in the betting, Delta Work and Galvin. Now ten, Delta Work was fifth in the 2020 Gold Cup and was the panto villain a year ago when beating everybody's darling, Tiger Roll, by less than a length. He followed that up with third in the Grand National and he's a worthy and obvious favourite. If there is a vulnerability in his profile it might be that he much prefers wet ground: it was heavy when he bested the Tiger but looks unlikely to be that deep this time.

His stablemate Galvin by contrast prefers top of the ground, though he was good enough to claim silver in the 2020 novices' handicap chase at the Festival on soft. A year later, having retained his novice status, he won the NH Chase; and, last year, he was fourth in the Gold Cup. That's very classy form against this field.

And there is another top tier entry this season in the form of Franco De Port, trained by Willie Mullins. He's run respectably in Grade 1 three mile chases the last twice, a level good enough to mix it with Elliott's duo, but he's never raced in public over cross country fences; that's a knock. He looks sure to stay, however, on the basis of his fine third in the Grand Steeplechase last May.

To be honest, I'm struggling to make a case for anything else. Back On The Lash won the cross country handicap in January here but he's 20-odd pounds wrong with Delta Work, and has fluffed his Festival lines in this exam last season (may have hated the ground, in fairness) - any chance he might have is ground dependant. Snow Leopardess would be a very popular winner, and she did have a sighter over the track in January and arrives on the back of a very good run in the Grand National Trial handicap chase last month. She was fourth in Galvin's National Hunt Chase of 2021, handles genuine soft ground and could be a bit of each way value if/when the bookies offer five places.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

This will be run at its usual sedate pace for the first three miles or so, with Lieutenant Rocco and Back On The Lash the most plausible for name checks throughout. The gorgeous white mare Snow Leopardess will be easy to spot and may not be far from the front, while Galvin, Delta Work, and especially Franco De Port, will probably be further back during the first half of the race.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

It looks a straight shootout between the Elliott pair Delta Work and Galvin. On good ground, it's the reigning champion's to lose; soft or heavy would tilt the scales in favour of Galvin; while good to soft would render it pretty much a coin toss between the pair. I don't see anything else representing much value, nor am I mad about punting the short ones at the top at their current prices. I would be tempted by Galvin at bigger than 9/4 on soft ground though that may be asking too much from the layers. If you want an each way with extra places, that might be Snow Leopardess, who looks very likely to improve on her first gallop round this unique circuit.

Suggestion: Back Galvin at 5/2+ if the ground is soft; consider 25/1 Snow Leopardess each way with bonus places, or in any 'without the front two' markets.

4.50 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m)

Impossible. For me, at least. I've backed Coeur Sublime after his 'not quite off for the lot' fourth in a Grade 1 two back and his 'still not quite off' second in a Grade 3 last time out. It's possible he has too much weight or is not good enough - of course it, perfectly possible - but I think this has been the plan all season. He's been second in a Triumph Hurdle and was only 12/1 for a Champion Hurdle so he's classy all right.

Aside from Coeur, the market is a little over-enamoured with the Irish challenge given that the raiders have won just twice since 2014, though they did have the 1-2-3 in 2020 and the second horse home in the two runnings since. Andy Dufresne was one of those silver medallists, last year, and he has been laid out for this since. He'll need to have been because his recent track efforts have been lamentable. On his full body of work, however, he has a clear chance even off top weight (and the same mark as twelve months ago).

I feel as though Joe Tizzard may go close in a handicap this week and he has Elixir De Nutz in this one. Easy winner of a Class 2 handicap a couple of spins back, he was no match for Champion Chase-bound Funambule de Sivola last time, though of course he'd got a qualifying mark by then. Elixir runs in the same Terry Warner colours as former winner (and third placed on another occasion) Oiseau De Nuit, who was trained by Joe's dad, Colin. He's a Grade 2 winner at the track over hurdles, but wouldn't want too much rain.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Fast and furious always. Last year's winner, Global Citizen, and my fancy, Elixir De Nutz, need to be careful not to compromise each other's chance; especially with fancied runners like Final Orders and Dinoblue snapping at their hooves. Expect it to be frenetic.

Grand Annual Selection

I have backed Coeur Sublime and think he can run a nice race; and if it's not too wet - it might be - I'll have a small each way bet on Elixir De Nutz with as many places as I can find.

Suggestion: Your guess is better than mine. I'm guessing 11/1 Coeur Sublime and 16/1 Elixir de Nuit, and hoping to be lucky rather than good.

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5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

Some shrewd judges go to the bar when this is on; even shrewder judges make a lot of paddock notes for future reference. It's not really a betting race, with whispers and hearsay trading far more strongly than form lines - on the basis that most of the horses have very few of those, and even the ones they do possess were earned in vastly different circumstances.

To offer a hint into the opaqueness of the race, how many do you think Willie Mullins has entered this year? Five? Six? Nope. Ten. TEN!!

One who has shown top class bumper form is A Dream To Share and that's why he's favourite. At least you know he can run fast and good. Obviously, plenty of the others are capable of running faster and gooder than ADTS, we just haven't seen that yet.

Better Days Ahead is a Bective Stud/Gordon Elliott entry, and was a good winner last time from Chapeau de Soleil ("gwarrn the sun hat!") in a small field. Who knows that form amounts to?

Willie has won this with some of his unexposed bigger priced runners, such as Briar Hill (25/1, ridden by Ruby Walsh), Relegate (25/1), Champagne Fever (16/1) and Ferny Hollow (11/1). So the advice is to split a small stake between a few of the unexposed Mullins bombs, and hope to be lucky.

Backing all last day winning Willie Bumper runners at bigger than 10/1 in this would have yielded six winners and six more places from 42 starters, and an SP profit of 67 points! A point each way would have returned a surplus of 77.4 points, and that before you include the two fourths and three fifths that some bookies would have paid out on. You'll be taking a good few this time around but it's a less annoying way to play things than betting the buzz horse and watching it crawl home midfield.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

Pinch of salt stuff here, but for what it's worth, this is what we've discovered about the field so far in terms of run style.

Champion Bumper selection

No idea!

Suggestion: Bet the big priced Willies. Perhaps 16/1 Western Diego and 20/1 Westport Cove, e/w with five places in a couple of shops.

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These seven skirmishes will deliver us to our half time cup of tea. We might need something stronger by then! Regardless, we've another 14 chances at redemption / further glory / giving it back* [*delete as applicable]

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Day two, Wednesday, takes us from the end of the first quarter to halfway and, en route, we will savour four Grade 1's, a circuitous Cross Country jaunt, and a National Hunt race without any obstacles: all the fun of the fair. Matters commence at half past one with the...

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

There were only seven runners in last year's Ballymore (Neptune) and this year there are nine. Not great, but better at least.

It's six years and a dozen runners since Willie Mullins last clapped his germans on the Neptune pot, that 2016 triumph recorded by the subsequently quirky Yorkhill. Two years before Yorkhill came the machine, Faugheen, and then it was back as far as 2008/9 for Mullins' other two Neptune winners, Mikael d'Haguenet and Fiveforthree. The long and short of it is that Willie has trained four winners of this race but from 28 runners, 18 of which were sent off single figure prices. More positively, three of the six horses he saddled at odds of 3/1 or shorter won; and Sir Gerhard is by far the shortest priced runner he's had in the Ballymore, likely to be sent away as an odds-on chance.

Sir G's Rules career to date has comprised six races and five wins, the defeat being when only third in the Punchestown bumper behind Kilcruit. In two hurdles efforts thus far he was the easy winner of first a maiden hurdle (runner up is two from two since, including in a Grade 3 on Sunday) and then a Grade 1 novice hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival. On that latter occasion, he was six lengths too good for Three Stripe Life, who renews rivalry. Critics point to Sir Gerhard's less than perfect jumping while supporters counter that the longer trip will enable him to hurdle more fluently and, in any case, didn't he win his Grade 1 easily despite that imperfect technique? Sir Gerhard has to prove his stamina under Rules but he did win a three mile point to point so it is more than fair to assume he'll see the trip out.

Three Stripe Life has no such proof of stamina though is bred stoutly enough to feel he'll get home; what is more of a reservation is that he's been beaten by Sir G twice and there is no obvious reason why that would change in round three.

Henry de Bromhead has been at least the third best trainer at the Cheltenham Festival in recent seasons and he is represented here by Journey With Me, unbeaten in a point, a bumper and two novice hurdles. The six-year-old son of Mahler was impressive in beating Minella Crooner and Kilcruit, both serious Grade 1 horses, in a very hot maiden before looking a touch laboured when following up under the penalty. This will be the quickest turf he's raced on, which is an unknown, and also is a step up in grade - at least nominally, because his maiden was peppered with G1 animals - but he too is a threat to Sir Gerhard.

Unquestionably the pick of the British challenge is Stage Star, trained by Paul Nicholls and owned by Owners Group's fractional ownership club. His is another high class form profile, most notably his latest effort when comfortably collecting in the Grade 1 Challow at Newbury. That form has yet to be fully tested, though third placed Gringo d'Aubrelle, beaten ten lengths by Stage Star, was 19 lengths behind Dysart Dynamo next time. Stage Star is tractable with regards ground and run style, the question being simply, is he good enough? I'm not sure, but he certainly deserves a crack and what a craic it will be for his enthusiastic owners. [Those who crab fractional ownership don't really get it, do they? It clearly works for thousands of racing fans, and if the crabs are not in that number, so what? *puts soap box away*]

Nicky Henderson runs I Am Maximus, whose form when winning a warm Newbury novice and running close to Hillcrest over this course and distance is solid but slightly below spectacular. He did beat My Drogo in a bumper here at the start of last season so clearly relishes this track. He'd be a shock winner but could push for the podium.

Whatdeawant's form behind Ginto in the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas last time leaves him with something to find, but he travelled very powerfully for a long way there before not quite getting home in the testing ground. It's possible that this sounder surface can help him finish off better but he still has plenty to find with the best of these.

The remaining trio are all maiden hurdlers - Scarface, Haxo and Hemlock - and look highly tried.

Ballymore Pace Map

Plenty of forward goers in the field though most are versatile enough to rein back as needed. Haxo and Journey With Me, and possibly even Sir Gerhard, are the likeliest for the lead and a sensible tempo is expected.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

On the face of it this is Sir Gerhard's to lose. He is the Champion Bumper winner, and he has been impressive in his two hurdle starts in spite of some less than electric leaping at Leopardstown. But he's terribly short and there is at least one credible threat in the form of Journey With Me, whose form may look better or worse after Kilcruit has finished his Supreme challenge 24 hours prior. He has to prove he handles quicker turf but he's an each way price and that'll do for me.

Suggestion: Back Journey With Me each way at 13/2 or bigger.

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2.10 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

Widely remembered as the RSA Chase, and officially as the Broadway Novices' Chase, the Brown Advisory is the Grade 1 staying novice chase at the Festival. It has, however, lost a touch of its draw in recent years with the reduction in distance of the National Hunt Chase and the emergence of the Turners/Marsh/Golden Miller at an intermediate range.

This season, we might have expected Stattler from the NH Chase and either or both of Galopin Des Champs and Bob Olinger from the Turners to tackle this contest but all three of those Irish runners chose alternative paths. Such is the way of things now.

As it happens, the Brown Advisory looms as a strong chance for the home team with the first three in the betting being UK-trained. They are headed by Kauto Star/Feltham winner, Bravemansgame, who has since followed up off a big weight in a small field Newbury handicap. It is a well worn statistic that no Kauto Star winner has followed up in this from, I think, 22 to have attempted it. That's a withering trend and attests to the stark difference between the two challenges. It should be noted that Coneygree won the Gold Cup after winning the Kauto Star, which was a remarkable double from a freakishly talented novice.

What is more notable still, perhaps, is that five beaten horses from that Kempton Christmas contest have won the RSA/Brown Advisory. They include the likes of Bobs Worth, and that brings in Ahoy Senor. The Lucinda Russell-trained novice was seven lengths too good for Bravemansgame in the G1 Sefton at last year's Aintree Festival, but was beaten by a similar margin at Kempton (soft). His best form is on top of the ground and if his jumping stands the test - a comment that applies to a lesser or greater degree to all of them - he may reverse form with the Paul Nicholls runner.

There are a few contenders for the early lead, Ahoy Senor principle among them, but also L'Homme Presse and Threeunderthrufive potentially. The first named has the tactical speed as a result of being campaigned over shorter trips, including when taking the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown. That is usually a precursor for a tilt at the Golden Miller but perhaps the stern opposition there has encouraged connections to take the scenic route. Regardless, L'HP's unbeaten quartet of chases to date have seen him largely unflustered to record double digit margins in the most recent three including a bloodless verdict over The Glancing Queen at Cheltenham.

The first of the Irish contingent in the markets is Capodanno, who was second to Bob Olinger before unseating behind Galopin Des Champs in his last two runs; unsurprisingly, he swerves a rematch with that duo and instead takes on a different cohort entirely. He did have Gaillard Du Mesnil 27 lengths back in the Bob O race and surely has the measure of that one. A 140-odd rated hurdler, we probably have yet to see his top performance.

Threeunderthrufive is a win machine as demonstrated by his nine 1's from twelve starts. He's four from five over fences including a track score and, though only sixth in last year's Albert Bartlett, is another expected to make a bold bid from the front. He's won Grade 2's in that manner the last twice, and has led in all of his five chase runs.

One we've not seen a lot of is Ronnie Bartlett's Dusart, trained by Nicky Henderson. With just four runs to his name, three of them wins, his best effort was likely in defeat when a close up third to Belfast Banter in the Grade 1 Top Novices' Hurdle at the Aintree Festival last spring. Two easy wins over fences at this sort of trip and on this sort of ground put him in the right post code, but from there who knows?

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Farouk d'Alene has been quietly racking up a solid form portfolio: in four chase races so far, he has two wins and two seconds, the runners up spots being when pipped on the line in a Grade 1 over 2m4f and when headed on the run in over an extended three miles in a Grade 3. His vanquishers were the smart Master McShee and Stattler and he doesn't look far off the best of his countrymen in this field.

Fury Road, in the same ownership and also for Gordon Elliott, beat Run Wild Fred eight lengths in a three mile Grade 1 at Christmas, but fluffed his lines big time when trailing home the length of the straight behind Galopin Des Champs at the Dublin Racing Festival. His is a veritable mixed bag of form figures, though some hope comes in the fact that the G1 score was over this trip and on this sort of ground while his defeats were at shorter.

One of Fury Road's defeats was to Beacon Edge, who in turn has been seen off by Farouk d'Alene since. This third Gigginstown wheel  is not the most obvious stayer in the field, to my eye at least.

Streets Of Doyen was third in last year's Albert Bartlett and fourth in the Sefton at Aintree but has been largely AWOL over fences since. He's 100/1 if you want to take a massive flyer on him getting back close to his best. I don't.

RSA Chase Pace Map

Lots of early dash here on the face of it, which probably means the winner will jump well under pressure and doubtful stayers need not apply.

RSA Chase Selection

A really good race in prospect and my inclination is to field against the favourite. Ahoy Senor is a gallant and very capable alternative but his jumping may be a little sketchy for a searching examination such as this. L'Homme Presse has to prove he stays but he's finished off his races well, while Capodanno doesn't look an obvious single figure player in here to me. Fury Road looks a bit over-priced if you're prepared to overlook that pasting last time out. At 16/1 and with four places, he's in my shake up.

Suggestion: Consider 7/2 L'Homme Presse for the win and Fury Road each way at 16/1+ with four places. Should be a very exciting watch.

*

2.50 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

A big field handicap hurdle is not the sort of race in which I should be wasting your time or mine, but I have sifted through some trends and come up with a shortlist of Saint Felicien, Fastorslow, Indigo Breeze and Good Risk At All.

Of those, I backed Saint Felicien last week after Matt Tombs made a very strong case for the horse fitting a Gordon Elliott-trained Festival handicap winner's profile. Seeing the broader trends profile fitting as well, he's as good an arrow as any in an obviously open race. His form only amounts to three lines in the book: a win in a big field at Auteuil, a win in a small field at Gowran Park, and a mark-qualifying fair second in a Grade 3 at Naas. His price has shortened from the 10/1 I felt was fair enough but his chance is the same as it was.

Elliott also has Indigo Breeze (amongst others) who, like Saint Felicien, will be making his handicap debut. The winner of a bumper and a hurdle, and runner up in two of three further hurdles races, including last time, the six-year-old son of Martaline has bundles of upside though was well beaten (7/4 SP) on his only try at this sort of trip.

Good Risk At All had been ante post favourite since the entries came out for this. A scopey sort yet to finish out of the first two, he bolted up by nine lengths on his handicap debut last time and now moves up in trip to something more closely aligned with his pedigree. It would be a great occasion for young trainer Sam Thomas if he could land this coup though he did show the 'capper plenty at Ascot last time.

I was surprised to see how strong Fastorslow had been in the ante post markets even though that early momentum has steadied in the past week or so. His form has been disappointing in two spins after a promising Irish debut second last April. But perhaps that was the plan given he won two of three French starts beforehand. Trainer Martin Brassil won the Ballymore in 2019 with City Island for these connections but he's had a couple of fancied handicappers flop at the meeting, too.

One non-trends type who caught my eye was Drop The Anchor, trained by Pat Fahy. Proven in top class big field handicaps, this eight-year-old won a valuable such race at the 2021 Dublin Racing Festival and was subsequently a staying on three-and-a-half length seventh of 25 in the County Hurdle. Most recently seen keeping on under minimal urging in that DRF handicap hurdle he comes here three pounds lower for an attempt at four furlongs further than the County. His best form seems to be on soft but I think he'll get away with good to soft, in fact he might even need it to allow his stamina to last out.

And a Brit to hurl into cogitations is McFabulous, who has been anything but in recent Graded spins. As a consequence his mark has drifted south from 158 to 150. His only previous role in a handicap was when bolting up by better than six in an 18-horse charge at Kempton (Grade 3 novices), and a pair of January jogs around this circuit suggest a plan was afoot. I'm happy to buy a bit of 20/1 to find out.

As ever, there are at least a gross more with chances.

Coral Cup Pace Map

Loads of runners and loads playing their hands late from midfield or further back.

Coral Cup pace map

Coral Cup pace map

Coral Cup Selection

I've backed Saint Felicien and, now there are all those extra places to work with, I'm minded to have a small crack at Drop The Anchor, too, for whom this has surely been the plan. McFabulous would be a brilliantly Keeganesque "I'd love it" moment for his trainer, Paul Nicholls, were that one able to do a job on the raiders.

Coral Cup Suggestion: If you can stomach the prices in such a big field, consider 10/1 Saint Felicien and 10/1 Drop The Anchor. At bigger odds, 20/1 McFabulous could be the pick of the home defence. Eight places are available with at least one firm, which gives us a fighting chance of getting something back.

*

3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

For many, this year's Champion Chase is the race of the meeting. It's easy to understand why when you see the headline acts Shishkin, Energumene and Chacun Pour Soi. The fact that the first two named met so recently in a classic encounter at Ascot, with the result in the balance even after the last fence, adds to the anticipation for this deeper contest.

At Ascot, in the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase, Energumene attempted to make all, an endeavour he very nearly completed: jumping slickly on the front and enjoying a rail-scraping trip, Paul Townend did the right things at the right moments and was overhauled only in the shadow of the post over the two mile and a furlong race distance.

Contrast that with Shishkin's transit, where Nico de Boinville had him wide and in clear daylight but with the partnership enduring some untypically scrappy leaps en route. Despite travelling further and showing less fluency at his fences, Shishkin was able to prevail. So what hope Energumene in the rematch?

Well, plenty as it happens. Firstly, the Queen Mother Champion Chase distance is a full furlong shorter than the Clarence House, a factor Energumene's supporters maintain gives their pure speedster the edge. The counter is that, in a field with bundles of possible pace angles, they will surely go a lick quicker than at Ascot which ought to allow Shishkin to travel and pick up so many pieces from the second last.

Those closest to the challenger insist he doesn't have to lead, and that may be correct; but the evidence of the form book is that he has led in every one of his seven races over obstacles and in one of his two bumpers. His only career defeat? When he didn't lead, on his first Rules start. At this point, we cannot know if that is coincidence or something more material; but knowing that we cannot know means the uncertainty must be factored into his price.

Prior to Ascot, both Shishkin and Energumene had shown themselves to be the dominant domestic players in their respective jurisdictions, though their ratings (Shishkin 177 in UK, Energumene 175 in Ireland) have an interloper betwixt and between. Step forward the 176-rated Chacun Pour Soi, stablemate of Energumene and a third large cog in the 2022 Champion Chase machinery.

Chacun Pour Soi's Irish form is incontrovertibly top class: four straight Grade 1 chase wins and six G1's in all. But, in two visits to Blighty, he double clunked: first when sent off 8/13 for last year's Champion Chase ("we rode him all wrong", they said) and then when returned that same price in this season's Tingle Creek ("too bad to be true", they said). Fact is, UK CPS is a pale imitation of Irish CPS on, granted, a limited evidence base to this point. In a 'normal' year, when he wasn't up against not one but two superstars, he might be worth chancing - and the price may be enough to make the play for some this time around - but for me he's very much up against it.

Even allowing for the strength at the head of the table, there are still worthies lower down the order. Take Nube Negra for example, a course winner in the the Grade 2 Shloer Chase in November and last year's Champion Chase runner up. Of course, last year, he had neither Shishkin nor Energumene with which to contend, and he did rather fluff his lines in the Tingle Creek albeit when different (wrong?) tactics were deployed. Nube Negra is a strong-travelling hold up type who comes home well; there might be an optimal setup for him here and, if so, the frame may again witness his presence.

It's pretty big prices on the rest, and understandably so. Envoi Allen has seemingly been 'found out' since tipping up in the Marsh (now Turners) last season. A current rating of 161 gives him a stone to find with three rivals and something pretty unexpected would need to transpire to bridge that apparent ability deficit. Put The Kettle On has been an unbelievable Cheltenham stick for connections, winning last year's Champion Chase in a remarkable conclusion. But she's been beaten 21 lengths, half that distance and double that distance in her three subsequent starts. Even allowing for a non-staying effort last time over 2m6f, she's hard to fancy against the strength and depth assembled this time around. Awesome mare, though.

The other form champ in the field is Politologue, whose Champion Chase record is very good indeed: fourth in 2018, second in 2019 and winner in 2020. He didn't contest last year's renewal but is back for another tilt this time. Aged eleven, he's knocking on a touch now, but what he certainly does bring is front end speed. He'll be a thorn in the side of whichever of Energumene and Chacun Pour Soi goes forward and that ought to make for a fascinating race, potentially favouring Shishkin and a late runner like Nube Negra.

A horse I like a lot, though not necessarily in a cauldron like this, is Funambule Sivola. A moderate novice hurdle campaign two seasons ago blossomed into deep progression last term when sent handicapping straight over fences. Wins in that sphere ensued, off 112, 124, 133 and 141, before Graded competition was embraced. The Venetia Williams-trained seven-year-old had his first taste of Grade 1 action at Aintree last April, ceding only to Shishkin and, even then, giving him a race.

This term, it looked very much as though connections wanted to swerve Shishkin at any cost, pursuing an abortive two-and-a-half mile chase campaign: first, when not getting home in the Peterborough Chase and then when midfield in a valuable Cheltenham handicap in January. Reverting to two miles in a brace of spins since has seen as many gold medals most recently in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. This horse wins a lot and does it at two miles; his full trip record in chases is 12121 and it is not inconceivable that he could continue that pattern.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Only eight runners but three of them are want the lead types. Two of those are stablemates so it's hard to know how the front of the race will go, or rather who will be at the front of the race. My guess is one of the Mullins pair of Chacun Pour Soi and Energumene will lock horns with Politologue. Shishkin will travel kindly in the next rank and Nube Negra will be sniffing around in the late furlongs for some podium action.

Champion Chase Selection

This looks a humdinger. We said that before the Clarence House at Ascot and it fully delivered. Asking for reality to match the hype a second time, whilst mixing in two former champions and Chacun Pour Soi - and Nube Negra and Envoi Allen - is asking for a lot; but let's hope we get a bag full of hum and ding.

I think Shishkin will win. There, I've said it. He's just going to travel beautifully through the race, might hit a flat spot but will have a strong finish when the pace pugilists have thrown in the towel. If you want a more exciting wager, or at least one at a bigger price, Nube Negra without Shishkin looks a bet. There's a pace-driven case for thinking the Mullins pair may be susceptible to the finishers and, bar the jolly, none finishes better than NN.

Suggestion: If you haven't got enough fives to try and win some fours via Shishkin, who will probably win, consider backing Nube Negra each way without the favourite at around 11/2, a quarter the first two.

*

4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

The Festival's yeast extract spread of a race. Love it or hate it, the Cross Country - Glenfarclas Chase to give it its correct nomenclature - is here to stay, and this scribe is delighted for that. Apart from anything else, how could the peerless Tiger Roll have so emblazoned his palmarès without it?

The mighty midget - he's only 15.2 hands - has a Cheltenham Festival record that very few can match even going back to the dawn of battle engaged on Cleeve Hill. Not just the winner of three Glenfarclas Chases, but also a National Hunt Chase and, as far back as 2014, a Triumph Hurdle, little old (he is small and he is relatively aged) Tiger bids for a sixth Festival win spanning eight years. Chuck in a couple of Grand Nationals for kicks and, oh boy, what a joy. Unbelievable, Jeff, as Kammy would have it.

He's twelve now, is the Tiger, but word has it that the fire remains aflame and he doubtless knows his way around the ever-decreasing circles of Cheltenham's inner course better than any of the pilots. If this is to be his swansong (and let's not sully our chat with the National handicapping phoney war), then praise be if Tiger can Roll once more into the winner's enclosure. He'll take the blooming roof off!

Don't worry too much about his form away from the Festival in the context of the Festival; this (and Aintree's Nash) is the only one that counts, the rest mere cobweb removal.

Against him is a soupcon of interesting horses and a grab bag full of dead wood. Let's zero in on those of interest, starting with Prengarde, a young upstart from the French provinces who has decamped to Enda's in the livery of JP. That's Enda Bolger, and J P McManus, for the avoidance of doubt and, before and betwixt the Tiger King's domination, those connections enjoyed their own hedge-mony (see what I did there?!).

Indeed it's 3-3 between Giggy's Tiggy and JP's assortment. McManus has owned seven of the 17 winners of the race since its inception in 2005 and his most recent victor, in 2020, was also a jeune from the other side of La Manche, Easysland. More on that one anon but back to Prengarde, whose reputation for disrespecting his elders across the varied impediments of Compiegne's cross country piste grew with each of his five consecutive scores in the discipline. He was well enough beaten in the midst of that quintet in a hurdles spin, so we ought not perhaps to get too flustered about his nothing run at Naas a little over a fortnight ago. Still, his price is tight enough considering he's yet to officially traverse the Cheltenham bushes and barrels.

And back we go to Easysland, 17 length router of his opposition two years ago - closest rival, Tiger Roll, going soft (not good is no good for the Lord of this manor) - but beaten by the same margin, plus a length to remind him who is the daddy, a year later. That distant silver was Easy's last run for David Cottin before a move to Jonjo's Jackdaws base. From there he has so far amassed two letters and no numbers in his form profile; to wit, a pair of P's at 50/1 and 66/1 in strong handicap hurdle company implied plenty regarding expectation those days. Now he is a 12/1 chance and tepid enough in the early exchanges. Perhaps it's a language barrier thing, perhaps not; one thing we can rely on is the application of cash in the hours leading up to the race as a portent of prospects. No blue on the grid, likely no chance.

But these are not the only Gigginstown and McManus runners atop the market. Dear old Mr Ryanair (whose banter, whisper it, is so so good for the game, emotive and divisive as it typically is) has quintuple Grade 1 winner, Delta Work, as his second string! If that's the good news, he's looked a fair whack below that since the last of those five, in February 2020. Yet he's still a mere whipper snapper in cross country terms at the age of nine - Prengarde and Easysland are barely potty-trained - and was only beaten 15 lengths in the G1 Irish Gold Cup last time. That, like most of his other 'not beaten far' recent races, was a steadily run affair, and he could travel all over these until the kick for home as they straighten up on the course proper.

Old 'green and gold' also has the 1-2 from the PP Hogan, a banks race hosted at Punchestown which has traditionally been the key prep for this. There, Midnight Maestro bested Shady Operator, yet the market vibes suggest tables will be turned in this rematch, as indeed they were in their previous meeting, again over the Punchy banks in the Risk Of Thunder Chase in November. Shady will be having his first race over this track while the Maestro had a sighter in last December's handicap (6/1, never in it). That local knowledge edge allied to a bit more meat on his price means he's the value in a match bet.

Diesel d'Allier is a dual winner of the handicaps on these slopes and has a fourth placed finish behind Easysland in the 2020 Glenfarclas. That's enough to expect him to threaten the first half dozen but insufficient to consider even an each way play.

In the context of this race, the rest are akin to the cast of the Star Wars bar (*braces for aggrieved owner response) though Brahma Bull's rating at least affords him a name check. He was third in the Ladbrokes Trophy in November, but as an unexpected 40/1 poke. He'd not be the biggest shock ever, but he would be a big shock.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

Whilst there is no guaranteed pace, they always go a crawl anyway so it doesn't really matter too much.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

It's hard to know where to turn for a bet here. Tiger Roll is not really much of a price but it'll be fun cheering him home if he's still engaged as they face up to the stuffed hurdles. I've backed him in novelty wagers - biggest winning margin of the week, win by 10 lengths, that sort of thing - on the basis that maybe he either wins by miles or doesn't win; but of course he might just win by a little bit.

Against Tiger - such heresy - Prengarde was very strongly touted initially though that confidence has subsided since and he's been ousted as crown prince by Delta Work. I favour the former's subject matter expertise over the latter's back class, but both have much to answer.

Easysland looks a bit of a busted flush, though is young enough - and Jonjo is both talented enough and wily enough - to bounce back. Of the Punchy pair, Midnight Maestro may have a sliver of value in his price, but I'm nowhere near sure enough to suggest he's a bet.

Indeed, I can't find a bet here. Small win play on Prengarde perhaps?

Suggestion: Back whatever you like, or enjoy the theatre of it. Or, if you're one of them, go make a pot of tea or grab a beer. 😉

*

4.50 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m)

Impossible. Just. Impossible. Let's try a few of RacingtoProfit.co.uk Josh's profile pointers to try to whittle things more manageable.

14/14 had run at G1 or G2 level previously: (had not: 0/73, 13p)
14/14 had 7< career wins (8+ : 0/49, 4p)
14/14 ran 26+ days ago (25<: 0/48, 3p)
12/14 had 13< chase runs (14+ : 2/106, 14p)

That's unfortunately not a huge help, but it does eliminate some. I still have eleven on my shortlist and I don't think I've ever backed the winner of this race, so I won't waste too much more time. It goes without saying you want a strong travelling, sure-footed jumper and ideally one that has not shown too much already - or at least not recently.

The novice Embittered was rated a bit higher over hurdles and has yet to run in a handicap chase, instead rocking up and taking it on the chin in many of the best Irish two mile novice events. As with a goodly number of his rivals, this looks like a bit of a plan. And that'll do.

[Sorry not sorry if you were expecting more in this section]

Grand Annual Pace Map

For Pleasure is in here, and so is Editeur Du Gite; Exit Poll also. Chuck in Global Citizen and Before Midnight and this cannot be anything other than a tear up from tape up. Don't come from too far back, mind, as you'll need fortune in transit aplenty.

Grand Annual Handicap Chase pace map

Grand Annual Handicap Chase pace map

Grand Annual Selection

I don't know, simple as that. But I do know that Embittered looks like a horse who ought to relish this sort of test, and I'll probably have a throwaway voucher (which is very likely to get thrown away) in his direction.

Suggestion: Get your prayer mat out and try tuppence win and place Embittered. Don't feel that way when the inevitable comes to pass.

*

5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

And we close with the only race less scrutable - or more inscrutable if you prefer - than the Grand Annual. Actually, the Fred Boodles is another runner. Anyway, what I mean to say in my typically verbose way is that this is usually deeper than the betting suggests. Consider this epic snippet from Matt 'the Stat' Tombs:

12 of the last 13 times Willie Mullins has had multiple entries in the Bumper, the most fancied has failed to be the first Mullins horse home. That is not a positive for Facile Vega, which is a shame because yours true has a tidy ante post ticket on the early talking horse. In fairness, he's done everything right since popping out of Quevega five or so years ago, his latest form line - of two - being a breath-taking smash up job in a hot-looking Leopardstown bumper.

He deserves to be favoured on that performance, but the reason for the Tombs-tone stat is that the Champion Bumper is a race in which most have yet to peak and many are unbeaten to this point. Consider this: since 2008, Willie has had four unbeaten winners of Cheltenham Flat Race. Sir Gerhard was 85/40 (ugh) last year, but in 2018 Relegate was 25/1; and in 2013 Briar Hill was 25/1; and in 2008, Cousin Vinny was 12/1.

The message is this, I think: if you've a tasty ticket on Facile Vega, bully for you and bonne chance. If not, look elsewhere because Willie had ten horses that fitted the above profile beaten at odds of 7/1 or shorter.

Mullins also saddles third choice, Redemption Day, winner of his only start to date. Paul Townend rides that one. But in the longer grass are Houlanbatordechais (easy for you to chais), James's Gate, Madmansgame, and Seabank Bistro, all of which are unbeaten in one or two starts and some of which are pronounceable. Who knows what the hierarchy is among them? Not Willie, as he's keen to share; history tells us we should take the hint and take a flyer on a 'could be anything' at a price.

Houlanbatordechais - did I spell that right? - will be ridden by Rachael Blackmore and is currently 50/1. Really? Madmansgame gets Danny Mullins and is 40's in a place. Brian Hayes partners Seabank Bistro and he's 40/1. Those are darts I'm more than happy to fling.

Meanwhile, back up top, I've failed to mentioned American Mike, Gordon's fly in the Mullins ointment. Spoken of in bullish terms he's been a facile, ahem, winner of two small field bumpers, the latter of which was in Listed company. This is wider and deeper than that but they know a good'un at Cullentra and they're fair sure this lad is a good'un. His price leaves zero margin for error, however.

The obvious truth is that I have no divine 'in' for this race, but the fact that King Willie has won it multiple times with a double didge-priced runner makes my wagering bed for me. I'm happy to lie there.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

Pinch of salt pace map below. They may very well run in a completely different formation from that suggested, such is the amorphous nature of their profiles.

Champion Bumper pace map

Champion Bumper pace map

Champion Bumper selection

One of these will step forward more than all the others, but which one is a total unknown. Facile Vega is a fair and obvious favourite, likewise American Mike second choice. But there's depth here that has historically rewarded a big odds guess. So let's guess!

Suggestion: Try a tiny tickle of Houlanbatordechais (I'll be cheering for 'the Mongolian' in case you're wondering), Madmansgame and/or Seabank Bistro and/or James's Gate. It's that sort of a race.

*

This second quarter brings us to the half time show. It will have been a roller coaster, as ever, and fingers crossed we'll have enjoyed more luck than losers.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

Day Two, Wednesday, at the Cheltenham Festival has a cast of stars, none bigger than last year's last minute absentee, Chacun Pour Soi, who, with Altior again an eleventh hour scratch, will have Champion Chase star billing to himself. Earlier on the card the ascendant star Monkfish will bid to enhance his stellar credentials in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase. We start, at the slightly earlier time of 1.20, with the Ballymore.

1.20 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

Small fields are again a feature of the novice divisions, just seven lining up for the opening Ballymore Novices' Hurdle; despite that there are a few with chances. The Irish have their traditionally strong representation - they've won six of the last seven - headed by Bob Olinger.

Trained by Henry de Bromhead, Bob's sole defeat in four Rules starts (and a point to point race) was when a length second to the sidelined Ferny Hollow in a maiden hurdle last November. Since then, he has won his maiden and then easily beat Blue Lord in the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas Hurdle. That was two and a half on heavy, this will be less testing; but he won there very easily indeed. He has made the running in the past, but that last day setup of tracking the leader before making his bid might be optimal. There are a couple in the field who led last time so he ought to get his way.

Another Irish Grade 1 winner is in opposition, Gaillard Du Mesnil, who took the Nathaniel Lacy at the Dublin Racing Festival in good fashion. What struck me there was his galloping style: it was a performance more about stamina than speed, whereas Bob Olinger looks to have gears. Crucially, it seems probable the Ballymore will be at least somewhat tactical. That may not play to Gaillard's strength, assuming I have him right (a dangerous assumption at best!).

One feature of both of the Irish contenders is that all of their form has been recorded on deep surfaces. Compare that with Bravemansgame, whose form has largely been achieved on good turf. A close second to Betfair Hurdle winner and Supreme contender Soaring Glory on hurdling debut was followed by easy novice wins at Exeter and Newbury, the latter over this trip. Faced with soft ground in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle last time, he routed the closest of his four rivals by ten lengths.

Bravemansgame led pretty much throughout that contest and he may bid to make all again; the form has worked out okay, with a couple of rivals running 1-2 in a Listed hurdle subsequently. The British handicapper has taken a very positive view of the Challow form, giving the winner a mark of 150, the same mark he's awarded Bob Olinger, the pair a pound behind Gaillard Du Mesnil on BHA ratings. He might be right but I feel that this Paul Nicholls runner, who is spoken of in glowing terms by the yard, is definitely more of a stayer than a speed horse - and the epitome of the proverbial "chaser in the making". He could set things up perfectly for Bob (or Gaillard).

Bear Ghylls heads the remainder, betting wise at least, and this raw talent has found obstacles only a minor irritant on his way from start to finish in a trio of ungraded novice hurdles. He's not the slickest but he sure has an engine, the form of his Ffos Las beating of Gowel Road being well advertised by the two subsequent wins of that one. Still, he looks to have a fair bit to find with the three already mentioned and, if he replicates his careless jumping it won't help him bridge the gap.

Does He Know was a course and distance Grade 2 winner of the Hyde Novices' Hurdle in November but then ran out in the Challow and has since been whacked in handicap company. He's plenty to prove in this grade.

At prices, the most interesting might be Keskonrisk. A very expensive (£370,000) sales purchase after winning a non-descript bumper in grand style, he then just got up to win a two mile maiden having been hampered when trying to make ground in a big field. That's all no better than promising in the context of a race like this, but his third to Appreciate It in the Christmas Grade 1 at Leopardstown reads much better. Not seen since, this longer trip could bring out improvement and so, where some of these are pegged at their level, Keskonrisk remains in the improver camp.

Optimise Prime looks out of his depth after an eleven-length third in the Listed Sidney Banks.

Ballymore Pace Map

Expect Bob Olinger to be on or close to the lead; likewise Bravemansgame. Don't expect it to be frenetic, though.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

A fascinating race which brings together as yet uncrossed form lines from both Britain and Ireland. As interestingly, it brings together relatively speedy types (Bob Olinger, Keskonrisk) with more stamina-laden types (Gaillard Du Mesnil, Bravemansgame). If they go at no faster than an even tempo, which must be the percentage projection, it ought to set up for speed. In that case, Bob Olinger looks the one. He's been impressive this season, jumps very well for a novice, and looks to have that crucial change of pace. It wouldn't surprise me if Keskonrisk was in the first three so he might be playable in extended place markets or without the favourite.

Suggestion: Back Bob Olinger to win; or have a look at Keskonrisk in the exotic markets.

*

1.55 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

Formerly the RSA and, before that, the Broadway Novices' Chase, apparently. Now it's the Brown Advisory (registered as the Broadway) Novices' Chase. But I might just stick with RSA for a bit...

Anyway, for a good while it has looked like a cakewalk for the mighty Monkfish, last year's Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle winner, and this year's superstar staying novice chaser (with the possible exception of Royale Pagaille, in the same ownership and headed to the Gold Cup). And that may be how it pans out for the horse famously referred to by Nicky Henderson as Fishcake (in a further ironic twist, Henderson now has Monkfish's sister in training, and she has been named Fishcake!).

Monkfish, trained by Willie Mullins, has won his last six races and all three of his chase starts, most recently a brace of Grade 1's. He jumps well, travels powerfully, and looks the clear pick of the Irish contingent. If there's a potential Achilles heel - and I'm not remotely convinced there is - it could be quicker ground.

Best of the British might be The Big Breakaway. Trained by Colin Tizzard, he was impressive in defeat in the Kauto Star (formerly Feltham) Novices' Chase at Kempton last time; impressive inasmuch as he absolutely ploughed through a number of the fences - including a howler at the last - and yet still finished second. That sort of a speed test was clearly not his bag and it remains the case that no winner of the Kempton Grade 1 has gone on to win the RSA/Brown Advisory/Broadway while a number of beaten horses from Kempton have gone on to score in this, including Bobs Worth, Might Bite and Topofthegame since 2012.

The Big Breakaway was fourth in Envoi Allen's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle last year, and then returned to Cheltenham to win on chasing debut in November. Since then he's been second twice, and jumped really poorly on both occasions. That's obviously a worry for a race like this but it is also an opportunity to step forward if he can correct the mistakes. He handled the quicker ground better than the quicker tempo at Kempton last time, so any drying of the turf ought not to be an issue for him.

Eklat De Rire is another from the powerful de Bromhead squad, his form hard to gauge as it has been achieved at ungraded level. Nevertheless, he's beaten the likes of Escaria Ten and Pencilfulloflead readily enough in the manner of a highly progressive type. He looks to have a lot to find to trouble the favourite though he is unexposed so it's not impossible. All form to date has been on heavy ground.

Sporting John put a limp effort in an Exeter Beginners' Chase behind him when cutting down Shan Blue late in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles play: he benefitted from a strong meter there, something that could be reprised here if Monkfish and Eklat De Rire take each other on early. He looks a stayer, with his best form on muddy turf in a truly run race, so these three miles - while unknown territory - ought to suit.

We haven't seen a lot of Dickie Diver since his good fourth to Minella Indo in the 2019 Albert Bartlett. In fact, we've seen him just once, when running up in a decent novices' handicap chase at Newbury in late December. He's a mature horse, at eight the oldest in this field, has low mileage and class, and wouldn't be a total shock winner for all that he's not especially for me wagering-wise.

Nor is Fiddlerontheroof, an expensive flop in last year's Supreme when the Tizzard horses weren't right. The problem is that, since then, they've often not been right, a one year strike rate of below 9% not really acceptable given how many very expensive purchases they accommodate. Fiddler's chase form of 21222 is a touch misleading, too, as it has been achieved in fields of 3-6-3-5-3. I wish the Tizzard team luck but I won't be backing many of theirs this week.

RSA Chase Pace Map

Likely to be run at an honest, though probably not all out, gallop. Eklat De Rire may take them along with Monkfish and Fiddlerontheroof close up. The Big Breakaway may track from midfield with the McManus pair likely to be produced late.

RSA Chase Selection

Monkfish is a very strong favourite and deserves to be. There are a couple - Eklat De Rire and Sporting John - who can be considered unexposed, and The Big Breakaway is a possible improver if his jumping holds together. But, barring accidents, the jolly should win.

Suggestion: Put Monkfish in a double with anything else you fancy to add 50% to your winnings! [Terms and conditions apply, the main one being caveat emptor 😉 ]

*

2.30 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

Oh heck. 26 runners in a handicap, many of the more fancied ones having at least partially hidden their best side in recent times. Even allowing for that sort of chicanery, four of the last ten Coral Cup winners also won their prior start and another two were second. And eight of the ten winners in that time shouldered 10-12 or more (seven lugged eleven stone-plus).

Incredibly, and highly satisfactorily for yours truly, that leaves just two: Grand Roi and Monte Cristo.

Grand Roi is the Elliott/Foster runner, the Cullentra House squad having won this in 2011 and 2016. Symmetrists will like this one for 2021, then, and his form chance is obvious. A very close fourth in a junior bumper at Cheltenham's New Year's Day 2020 fixture, he won a Grade 2 hurdle a year less two days later, and has peppered the target before and in one run since. Five-year-olds novices have a good record in the race, to which Grand Roi may add further.

Nicky Henderson will saddle Monte Cristo, bidding for his fifth Coral Cup triumph in total and third in a row. Have that, Gordie and co! Monte fair bolted up in a 15-runner Kempton handicap on Boxing Day, and has not run since. That 81-day layoff should be seen as a positive: Dame De Compagnie was off 88 days before her Coral Cup last year and William Henry absented for 77 days before winning the year before. This is the Henderson Coral Cup blueprint, and Monte Cristo is a box-ticker of the highest order.

Coral Cup Pace Map

A massive field but no out and out front runner. Grand Roi may be near the front, with most of the field not too far away in what could potentially be a muddling affair.

Coral Cup Suggestion: Obviously close to impossible, but Grand Roi and Monte Cristo represent the most established recent 'firms' in the race and both should go well. I will Count on Monte Cristo - see what I did there? 😀

*

3.05 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

Wednesday's headliner is the Champion Chase, a race that has crowned the likes of Moscow Flyer, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Altior in recent years. Last term, the day of race withdrawals of both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi left Defi Du Seuil with what appeared to be a penalty kick; alas for Defi backers, he skied his effort from twelve years (extended metaphorically speaking), trailing home fourth of five at odds of 2/5.

Here we are a year later and, lo, there is no Defi Du Seuil but both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi are on the team sheet. Or were, before Altior's late defection. Here, too, is Politologue, who won the race twelve months ago, and Put The Kettle On, who scored in last year's Arkle Chase. Throw in Rouge Vif, Nube Negra, Notebook, Cilaos Emery and First Flow and you have the makings of a great race. If they all get to the start line. Which they didn't last year.

The odds on favourite, deservedly so, is Chacun Pour Soi. A winner of six of his seven starts for Willie Mullins, the now nine-year-old has been a little flaky in seasons past but seems the real deal this time around. Easy scores in the Grade 2 Hilly Way, and then a brace of Grade 1's at Leopardstown, have rendered him the undisputed champion of Ireland. But now he must come to Blighty and race, a task he only partially managed last year. On form, he has little to answer: a few have questioned his ability to get up the hill but I have no such reservations. He does so much squeezing of throats in the middle part of his races that he's entitled to not barrel through the line - it has recently always been the case that those behind have finished considerably more limply.

But he will have to handle Cheltenham as well as he's handled Leopardstown. Both have a climb to the finish, but the Irish Grade 1 track is a lot less undulating and rhythm there more easily found. Pace wise, CPS is normally handy but not on the speed. In a field including trailblazers like Politologue, Put The Kettle On and maybe First Flow, he should be able to find a position just off the keenest of those and raise the tempo when he's ready. If he actually gets to the start line, and stands up in the race (no reason to believe he won't), I think he will win.

The second favourite was eleven-year-old Altior. But, for the second year in succession, he's a very late no show. It's a sad way to bow out if that is what transpires but, aged twelve next year, it's hard to see him getting competitive, especially against either or both of Chacun and Shishkin. He wouldn't have been for me from a betting stance anyway, but I'd have loved to see him in the race - as I'm sure would everybody.

Altior was readily passed last time by Nube Negra, a good horse - and one of promise - but not a great one, at Kempton. Nube Negra didn't quite run away in the Kempton race like his transit through suggested he would. Tellingly, his official chase rating, which had gone from 135 to 142 to 146 to 153 in his career to that point, then leapt almost a stone to 165 for his win there. I just don't believe it. It remains fair to say that Nube Negra is progressive and, only recently turned seven, probably has more to offer yet; but I'm betting he was flattered by that run. In any case, I'd have taken NN in a match against the old master who I couldn't easily see being in the trifecta. So who else might be on the podium in this deep deep deep QMCC?

A slightly overlooked horse is the reigning champ, Politologue. It may be fair to suggest he took advantage of absence last year but, if that is true, he did what Defi Du Seuil should have done and didn't. Moreover, the Paul Nicholls-trained ten-year-old has previous in the race and at the Festival: no better than a back marker in the 2016 Coral Cup, fences saw him improve to fourth in the 2017 JLT, fourth in the 2018 Champion Chase, second (less than two lengths behind a near top form Altior) in the 2019 Champion Chase, and then that memorable win in the 2020 Champion Chase. He's knocking on a little but he knows this road very well indeed.

I do worry whether he might have left his best finishing effort at Ascot in late January; there, he and First Flow had a rare old tussle from a good way out. It was a brilliant spectacle - probably my favourite race of the season to date - but it wasn't an easy race for either of them. First Flow did well to prevail but the softer turf there was in his corner.

Henry de Bromhead has brought Put The Kettle On over to Cheltenham three times, and they have gone home winners three times including, as mentioned, in last year's Arkle. Each win was on soft ground and she was either tapped for toe or outclassed by Chacun Pour Soi on yielding last time. Whichever interpretation you have on that defeat, it is hard to see her reversing form with the favourite.

Henry also runs Notebook, second then third to CPS, at widening margins, in consecutive Grade 1's in Ireland. Notebook was a multiple Grade 1-winning novice on better ground, and it might be that drying good to soft will narrow the gap. He has slightly more of a chance than the market gives him credit, without especially exciting as a wagering proposition.

The interesting one at a price might be Rouge Vif. True, I backed him ages ago and am thus predisposed to his chance; but allow me to share the case. He won in the manner of a progressive horse on his seasonal debut at this track carrying 11-07 in an open handicap, putting more than seven lengths between himself and the second to whom he gave a stone and a half. Stepping back a touch, last season he'd beaten Nube Negra by seven lengths at Warwick on good to soft in the Kingmaker before running a game third to Put The Kettle On in the Arkle on soft ground. He then ran third to Politologue in the Tingle Creek and fourth to Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid, both on soft.

I was surprised he ran in both of those races given his trainer stated straight after Cheltenham that the key to him is good ground and that he wouldn't run on softer. Regardless of what has happened in between he now gets better ground for the first time since and may resume his trajectory as a result.

First Flow deserves another column inch: he's won seven of eleven over fences, including his last six. Though, in contrast to Rouge Vif, his key seems to be very deep turf. The six timer was achieved on heavy, heavy, heavy, soft, heavy, soft. Indeed, he's not even raced on quicker than soft since running fourth in a bumper 17 starts ago!

Sceau Royal has been busy, mixing hurdling and chasing with a large degree of success. To that end, he accumulated more than a hundred 'bags' (of sand, grand) in prize money this term, courtesy of G2 pots at Wincanton (hurdle) and Newbury (chase) as well as a G1 second in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Betwixt and between he came down early in the Nube Negra-Altior race at Christmas. He'd be an incredible horse to own - versatile and sound - but is expected to come up a touch short in this quality field of specialist two mile chasers.

In the longer grass, Greaneteen looked a horse of great promise a year or so ago, and was fourth in last season's Grand Annual. Two fair runs in Grade 1 and 2 events since, behind a number of today's rivals, have either put him spot on or demonstrated his level, depending on your perspective. My view is in line with most people's: that he has a bit to find.

And that leaves Cilaos Emery to round out ten fascinating runners in a top class Champion Chase. He should have run in this last year - pocket talk - but instead, bizarrely, went for the Champion Hurdle in which he finished a good fourth. This season he's been second to Bachasson and danced away from Daly Tiger in a Grade 2 and a Grade 3 respectively. That most recent effort was eye-catching for all that it was at a significantly lower plane to this. He has sometimes struggled with his fencing, any such frailties likely to be thoroughly exposed here, but he's a very talented horse.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Every chance Politologue goes forward, a fair chance Put The Kettle On and First Flow follow him closely, and not impossible that either or both of Notebook and Rouge Vif seek a piece of the action, too. Chacun Pour Soi is expected to be played from midfield.

Champion Chase Selection

What a race. Having previously felt this would be an open and shut case for Chacun Pour Soi - and with various ante post positions supporting that contention - I now fear pretty much all of his nine rivals to one degree or another! There will be little margin for error, and almost any horse putting together a perfect performance could win this. That said, if Chacun puts in a 95% performance he should win. His Irish form this season is peerless for all that it was achieved in softer turf. He needs to handle Cheltenham, and potentially tacky ground, and he has to jump.

Finding an each way alternative is hard because of the depth to the race.

Suggestion: I hope Chacun Pour Soi underlines his form this season by winning here, but he's only about the right price. After him, it's not difficult to make place claims for most and, as such, it's every man and woman for themselves. Gun to head, Notebook might be the best value each way/ without the favourite option. Should be a brilliant watch.

*

3.40 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

Not for everyone is the Glenfarclas Chase, aka the Cross Country, but I'm a fan. It doesn't have quite the same predictability as in the good old Enda domination days but it remains a compelling spectacle and a welcome break from main course championship or big field handicap action. And it has advertised the claims of past Grand National winners (and maybe future Grand National winners) to boot.

The ante post market for the race has seen more shuffles than a Vegas black jack table with first the two French chevaux noirs and then the new Enda kid on the black, Shady Operator, skipping the gig this year. Meanwhile, at the head of affairs, Easysland and Tiger Roll, winners of the past three renewals between them, have been on the bookies' 'get' list as a combination of expected drying ground (Easysland) and bad juju vibes (Tiger Roll) have seemingly conspired against their optimal chances.

In spite of all that, Easysland is no bigger than 11/10 to record his own double in a race whose alumni includes three dual winners. When ambling away a year ago from a flailing Tiger Roll, 17 lengths in the French raider's debt, it looked as though David Cottin's then seven-year-old star was destined for a long reign over the kingdom inside the main tracks. He'd already emerged as a contender on his sole previous Cheltenham cross country run, and win, in December 2019.

But, on better ground and up a chunk in the weights, Easysland was unable to reduce much of the margin lent to pace-setters Kingswell Theatre and Beau Du Brizais here last November. That pair had enjoyed an unpestered time of it on the sharp end throughout and pressed on before the turn for home, catching a number of their pursuers a tad unawares. It was Potters Corner who got closest to smashing the cartel up front, but he had to settle for third. Meanwhile, Tiger Roll - never travelling - was pulled up.

All of these, bar Beau Du Brizais, will re-engage, the market predicting a notably different finishing order off level weights. But is that right? After all, the weight changes are often an irrelevance, or at least of diminished relevance, in the type of 'bimble then sprint' setup that characterizes most cross country races.

Easysland was sent off at 8/11 for the November handicap on this course. He closed quite well but never looked like reeling in the leaders. His trainer has expressly stated that the good ground was against him; so, if the forecast dry days manifest and given the fact that there is no capability to water the cross country track, he could be vulnerable. Add in an interrupted preparation, where he missed two intended engagements, and evens or so looks a potential opportunity to oppose. But with whom?

Tiger Roll is closest in the betting but, since winning this and the Grand National in that glorious 2019 pre-Covid spring, he's run 52P6. The '5' and the '6' were to some extent by design, both prep races in the last two Boyne Hurdles, the '2' was that 17L silver in this race last year, and the 'P' in the November handicap here. Are those runs forgivable in the context of the Tiger's overall form?

When he won this in 2019, he had finished a five length 4th of seven in the November handicap version and then won - albeit as a shock 25/1 shot - the Boyne Hurdle. When he won this in 2018, he'd been a well beaten (42L) fifth in the December handicap version and then trained up to the race. So the pattern in finishing position terms is the same, but he was pulled up never going in the November handicap and then 65L last of six in the Boyne Hurdle. His price requires a Grand Canyon-esque leap of faith off the back of recent efforts even when cognisant of the Tiger Roll blueprint. It is worth saying that, although 'only' eleven, he's danced a LOT of dances since winning the Triumph Hurdle in 2014.

A similar price is Potters Corner, who did best of the late runners in the November handicap. He is a Welsh National winner, on heavy ground, and all of his best runs do seem to be when it's hock deep and a test. This quicker ground and relative foot race probably isn't ideal for Christian Williams' stable star. Moreover, there is every likelihood his main target is the Aintree showpiece, for all that Tiger Roll has shown the two races are not mutually exclusive.

The December cross country handicap was won last year by Some Neck, who had preceded that victory with a third place in the Risk Of Thunder Chase on Punchestown's banks course. He'll handle the presumed quickish ground fine and has done well for a relatively inexperienced banks horse but this is a deeper and classier contest than either of his previous two for all that there are question marks against the top three in the wagering.

Balko Des Flos has not won since 2018. March 2018. In the Ryanair Chase. Since then, the ten-year-old has run occasionally with minor credit mainly in Grade 1 company. This is a big class drop, and it might be that the infield discipline rejuvenates him. The drying ground would also be in his favour but reservations are stamina - even in a typically tactical race such as this it's still most of four miles and 32 obstacles - and the dearth of encouraging efforts since the Ryanair.

A third Gigginstown wheel is provided by Alpha Des Obeaux, second in a Stayers' Hurdle and fourth in an RSA way back when. He's long in the tooth now so, while he has oodles of back class, he's probably too mature.

But there might be some interesting contenders in the long grass. Take Le Breuil, for instance: winner of that National Hunt Chase in 2019, he has twice been second in smaller field tactical affairs on good ground here. This looks a good race for him for all that he lacks cross country experience, and he ought to give his followers a run for their money as a prominent racer with more than a dash of grit and class.

Or what about the aforementioned Kingswell Theatre, twice a winner of handicaps over course and distance? He obviously handles conditions just fine, but a Glenfarclas record of 06P is less exciting. If it came up rattling quick (and I really hope it doesn't) he'd probably lead them a dance until at least the home turn but on good to soft or slower, he won't have the class.

And still there's one more I want to mention. Horses often get a sighter of the course in November or December prior to running much better in the March 'final'. Tiger Roll did it; Cause Of Causes did it; and, this season, both Potters Corner and Kings Temptation have done it.

The latter, in training with Ben 'Croco Bay' Case and wearing the same owner's silks as that late lamented Grand Annual legend, came home not far behind Potters and Easys in November having never been anywhere near the front rank throughout. He's won six of 18 chase starts, one on good to firm and the other five on good, so quick is how he rolls; and he rattled off a Uttoxeter hat-trick in that context last summer at between three and three and a quarter miles. Since the November sighter, he's had a spin in a jumpers' bumper and now here he is. I quite liked that quiet effort over course and distance and, though there's every likelihood he's simply nowhere near good enough, he looks very well suited to the conditions of the race.

I'm not much keen on the chances of the rest.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

Odds on that Kingswell Theatre will lead. Easysland will probably be played from midfield, though connections may be mindful not to get too far back after the November episode (de Giles replaces Plouganou in the saddle). Hopefully Kings Temptation will be ridden in a much more 'interested' position this time.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

Backers of Easysland do have a few things to take on trust, fitness and ground being soft enough (can wait until nearer the time) principally. At around evens, I'd rather bet each way against him or without the favourite. Potters Corner ought to show up well if connections don't have one and a half eyes on the Grand National and, at a mad price, I've had a quid or two each way on Kings Temptation at 50/1. If you follow me in, don't whine if he's never even mentioned!

Suggestion: Back 6/1 Potters Corner each way. Hail Mary players might risk a shilling win and place on Kings Temptation at 50/1.

*

4.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m)

Impossible stuff, and often attritional stuff, too, with the field tearing all guns blazing from the start. Mercifully, it looks on paper to be slightly less rapid early than is generally the case. This has been won by some massive prices including 66/1 shot Croco Bay two years ago, but that winner was sandwiched between 'obvious' 15/2 Le Prezien and 7/2 (!) Chosen Mate, both unexposed novice or second season chasers.

It makes sense to have a crack at a few against the field, and I'll take one novice and two more experienced. My first experienced guess is Us And Them, second in the 2019 Arkle and third in this race last year. He's been biding his time for the repeat bid and, for a few no shows, gets one pound back off the handicapper. This has been the plan, no question.

A second non-novice guess is Moonlighter for that shrewd Nick Williams team. Since 2017, the yard has had three winners from 15 Festival handicap runners - one a year from 2017 to 2019. Just two runners last year included the reigning champ, Siruh Du Lac, which fell two out when still in the lead. Moonlighter was fifth in the handicap on Scilly Isles day at Sandown responsible for five previous winners of the Grand Annual. Ibleo won that day and re-opposes on a stone worse terms. Ouch. It might not stop him of course, but it probably will.

Moonlighter followed up that fifth with a win over the same Sandown course and distance and has his first run at Cheltenham. He looks to have better than a 20/1 chance.

Of the unexposed novices at the top of the market, easily the most compelling to my eye is Embittered. The Joseph O'Brien-trained Gigginstown entry was third in the County Hurdle last season and has been running with credit in Grade 1 novice chases against the likes of Energumene and Franco De Port this time around. A mark of 146 should enable a bold showing granted the safe passage and luck in transit that all contestants will need.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Not as mad a gallop on the cards as is sometimes the case, though On The Slopes, Us And Them and Glen Forsa ought to be front rank from the start. Hopefully be a nice even tempo.

Grand Annual Selection

Your guess is very likely better than mine. I think each of Us And Them, Moonlighter and Embittered has its chance; but so, too, do 17 others!

Suggestion: Try 16/1 Us And Them, or 6/1 Embittered each way; and add in 20/1 Moonlighter if you are happy to take three against the field, with as many extra places as you can lay hands on. Then get the prayer mat out.

*

4.50 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

A great race in prospect, with many stars of the future in the field. But who knows which will further advertise their nascent ability against this particular examination? Not most people if the market is anything to go by. Mucklemeg, Liberman, Missed That, Moon Racer and Envoi Allen are the only five jollies to justify favouritism since the race was incepted in 1992. Crikey. Why do favourites have such a poor record? Simply because there are so many unexposed horses stepping into Grade 1 from lower level facile wins that nobody really knows which way to turn.

This year it's tight at the top between an established Mullins inmate and a recent arrival courtesy of the Cheveley Park axis of the Gordon Elliott fallout: by name, Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard.

Kilcruit is my pin up boy, the more so since he's been torched by some sections (word used advisedly) of the press. He's won his two races this year in impressive fashion, most recently in the Grade 2 Future Stars bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival. He was simply much too good for a field of theretofore upwardly mobile opponents that day. But they went hard and they walked home, say the timing boys. Well, guess what? They'll probably go hard here and walk home, relatively at least. More material may be that this is going to be run on a very different surface and Kilcruit's grinding style may be compromised by that. But he's a very high class grinder who deserves to be favourite on what he's achieved; whether that's a blessing or a curse given the history of the market leaders is moot.

Threatening to usurp Kilcruit atop the wagering tree is Sir Gerhard, whose winning Rules form was when trained by Elliott. His profile is quite different - more about style than substance at this point - but he, like all of this field, is doubtless capable of plenty more yet. That's the challenge in betting the Bumper: we have to project by how much each horse might improve. On the clock Sir Gerhard regressed from first to second bumper run, but the manner of his win knocked the eye out. Style or substance? You pays your money, your takes your choice.

This is never a two horse race, depth a perennial feature. Three Stripe Life lines up for Mrs Foster, Elliott's super sub, and he was an easy winner on heavy ground in his sole run. That form hasn't been especially well advertised but stable confidence is high, the same stable having recently claimed this prize with Envoi Allen and the sadly ill-fated Fayonagh.

Mr Mullins meanwhile also deploys Ramillies, who travelled like a high class horse in Kilcruit's race before failing to pick up in the very deep ground. It wouldn't be a huge shock if he turned tables on less punishing terrain.

It is harder to make cases for the rest, though the mare Elle Est Belle's form has been well advertised albeit at a relatively ordinary level in the frame of this Grade 1. And, though I don't like four-year-olds in the Champion Bumper, Super Six surprised at Chepstow last time, winning easily as an 11/2 chance. His sectionals reveal a very fast finish off a fair early pace that day so, if he can travel with these, he might have a little to offer at the business end. He'd perhaps need to be in the Cue Card ability range to prevail as a four-year-old, mind. Unlikely, perhaps, but not impossible. Little is, least of all at the Cheltenham Festival.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

Hard to know what might happen here. Based on recent form, Fine Casting might take them along, from the likes of Ramillies, Shearer and Sir Gerhard. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Champion Bumper selection

I'm into Kilcruit for a bit and, as time passes, I get more apprehensive. Usually there are any number of unexposed types in opposition, though this year - as with other races - it seems less deep. Still, the likes of Sir Gerhard and Three Stripe Life retain similar 'could be anything' potential, while Ramillies is worth another chance in a fascinating renewal.

Suggestion: The obvious pair are the class of Sir Gerhard and the relentlessness of Kilcruit, but at the available odds it could be worth chancing Three Stripe Life or Ramillies each way.

*

Some fantastic racing, most notably a vintage Champion Chase, bring us to the halfway stage. It's a long week, though, and we've still to do as much again before the weekend.

Good luck!

Matt