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Grand National Weights – A Tiger and a Lion catch the eye

The Grand National weights were announced last night, with recent Cotswold Chase winner Definitly Red top of the pile on 11-10.

Mightily impressive at Cheltenham last time, he was pulled-up early last year when impeded at Bechers. Though clearly talented, he’s not the biggest, and carting top-weight looks a tall order.

Bristol De Mai was allotted a pound less, but trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said the seven-year-old will not be running. Instead, he is likely to contest the Betway Bowl on the opening day of the Aintree meeting.

Gigginstown supremo Michael O’Leary has had plenty to say about the handicapper’s decision-making process and the treatment of his Irish raiders. The team have numerous entries as they look to add to the success of Rule The World in 2016. Outlander tops the Gigginstown contingent on 11-08 but is unlikely to head to Aintree, with Punchestown the preferred option. Sub Lieutenant and Valseur Lido come next, though it’s Tiger Roll at 10-09 and Thunder And Roses at 10-01 that catch the eye. The former heads to Cheltenham for the Cross Country next month having been an impressive winner of the four-miler at Prestbury Park last year. The latter was fourth in the Irish National last April and looks to be fairly treated on that performance.

Minella Rocco will head for the Gold Cup before Jonjo O’Neill decides on an Aintree bid. He’s been given 11-07, which looks fair enough for a horse that finished second in last year’s ‘blue riband’ at Prestbury Park. Jonjo was hardly exuding confidence when saying: “He’ll go for the Gold Cup first and we'll see what happens. You'd think he would make a decent National horse, but he's been a bit disappointing really and is not as economical as you would like. He's good when he's good, but you need a bit more consistency for the National.”

Nigel Twiston-Davies was more bullish over race favourite Blaklion (given 11-06) when saying: “It would have helped if they had compressed the weights as usual, but it's not a huge weight range these days and Red Rum won with 12st. Quite a lot of horses, like Neptune Collonges and Many Clouds more recently, have won with big weights too. He’ll be ridden differently. I don't think stamina is an issue. He kicked on a mile out last year and was beaten only eight lengths. There's no blame on Noel [Fehily], but if he didn't kick on that early maybe that eight lengths could be found.”

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Gordon Elliott has a strong team entered, with Noble Endeavor, Cause Of Causes and the aforementioned Tiger Roll catching the eye. The former is yet to be seen this season but will have a prep run prior to a National challenge. C Of C was runner-up 12 months ago and will again head to Cheltenham prior to Aintree. “You’d have to imagine Cause Of Causes is the principal one,” said the County Meath handler. “He looks like he has a lovely weight again and I thought he ran well on his first run back. He seems to come alive in the spring and I’d imagine he'll go the cross-country route at Cheltenham.”

The Last Samuri again showed his love of the course when running a cracker behind Blaklion in the Becher Chase in December. He’s been given a chance with 11-04, with his trainer Kim Bailey saying: “His weight is what we were expecting given his rating. If the weights stay as they are and don't rise, I think he would have more of a chance. I have been very happy with him since Cheltenham and he will have a prep race somewhere between now and Aintree. We have got several options, but there are no firm plans as we will have to see what the weather does first.”

Willie Mullins has a leading contender in Ladbroke Trophy winner Total Recall. Opinion varies as to the strength of that performance and it’s tough to judge whether 11-01 is a fair weight or not. Nevertheless, he’s currently second-favourite for the race and is without doubt a progressive sort. Patrick Mullins was representing his father and said: “It'll be hard for him with more than 11st, but he has an improving profile which makes him very interesting. He's a fantastic jumper, he handles big handicaps, and he should stay.”

Evan Williams has produced several National contenders in recent times, including Aintree regular State Of Play. Despite being a quirky character, I can’t help being drawn to Buywise who has been allotted 10-04. Down the field behind Rule The World when last tried in 2016, he’s since run a cracker last April at Cheltenham in the Ultima Chase and cruised to victory in a Veterans’ Chase at Sandown. Two-time National winning jockey Leighton Aspell has been aboard on his last two outings. Should the pair hook-up at Aintree, they’d be an interesting each-way proposition at big odds.

Others that caught the eye included Abolitionist (10-04), Three Faces West (10-03) and Final Nudge (10-02). The field is sure to alter plenty between now and five-day confirmations on April 9. The final declarations are made at 10am April 12. A maximum field of 40 go to post.

Repeat Offenders – Festival Favourites Aim To Be Back On Track

We may well see Altior back on a racecourse this weekend, with Nicky Henderson targeting The Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

His imminent comeback is perfectly timed, following on as it does from a terrific performance in Ireland from his chief two-mile rival Min. It’s easy to forget how brilliant Altior is, but look again at his Supreme Novices’ victory of 2016, or last year’s Game Spirit romp. Some were less impressed by the Arkle Chase success, despite him storming clear from the last fence. And he was again at his destructive best when powering clear of Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Two from two at The Festival, he’ll hopefully return to Prestbury Park in March, and if back to his best, will make it a trio of victories at Jump racing’s most celebrated gathering.

Altior’s return got me thinking of others that will travel to Cheltenham in search of further Festival glory. Course form, especially a victory or prominent finish in a previous March gathering, is often a useful reference point for punters hoping to make a few quid during the four-day extravaganza.

Many horses find it difficult to handle Cheltenham’s undulations and that punishing uphill finish. The chase courses are especially testing with tricky downhill fences encountered as the tempo of a race intensifies. Cue Card’s ‘Groundhog Day’ moment at the third last in the past two Gold Cup’s is testament to the challenging nature of the track.

An ability to cope with the course is certainly essential, but returning heroes are often those that enjoy the spring conditions and a touch of sun on their backs. Some can slip off the radar after a winter toiling through the mud. Yet given a sounder surface they return rejuvenated to their happy hunting ground.

Cause Of Causes epitomises the phenomenon and must be followed whatever the target in March. Following his win in last year’s Cross Country Chase (his third Festival success), a thrilled Gordon Elliott said of his equine warrior: “He seems to come well at Cheltenham every year. He's an absolute superstar and we love him to bits.” It’s possible Elliott will send him in search of a repeat success in the ‘country’ before another crack at his main target, the Grand National.

Elliott has another Festival favourite in the yard, that may also line-up in the Cross Country. Tiger Roll was mightily impressive in winning last year’s National Hunt Chase (four-miler), three years after landing the Triumph Hurdle. The race will be remembered more for the drama surrounding Edwulf, though the way Tiger Roll ‘tanked’ his way through the marathon event was unforgettable. Hugely talented when in the mood, he clearly enjoys springtime in the Cotswolds.

Though yet to taste Festival success, I had to give a mention to the Tom George-trained Singlefarmpayment. Favourite to take last year’s Ultima Handicap Chase, he was chinned on the line by Un Temps Pour Tout (himself a dual-Festival winner). He’s likely to return for another crack and usually puts in a bold display at the Gloucestershire course. His six visits have gleaned two victories and a pair of second-place finishes. His handicap mark is just a touch higher than 12 months ago, and everything points to another productive Prestbury Park performance.

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Several elite horses are simply so talented that they will inevitably become multi-festival winners, assuming they stay fit and well. Altior has already achieved ‘Cheltenham Star’ status, with Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade more than likely to add their names to the list of dual-Cheltenham Festival heroes in March. Un De Sceaux is another among that elite group that has already proved himself repeatedly at Jump racing’s Olympics.

Less flamboyant yet still likely to put their best foot forward in search of another Festival victory are Willoughby Court, Presenting Percy and Minella Rocco.

It was something of a surprise to see him defeat the ill-fated Neon Wolf in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (now Ballymore), but Willoughby Court has maintained that form over fences and is now favourite for the JLT at the festival. Slightly disappointing last time when trying to give Yanworth 5lbs in testing conditions, he’d previously defeated the same rival on level terms on a sounder surface. Ben Pauling’s yard have just started firing again after a lean spell, and this fella looks sure to go close in March.

Presenting Percy landed the Pertemps Final a year ago and will return to Prestbury Park as a leading contender for the RSA Chase. He’s two from three over fences this term and proved his well-being last time when impressive over hurdles at Gowran Park. He’ll have tough opposition to overcome, including the likes of Monalee, Yanworth and Al Boum Photo. Nevertheless, this talented stayer showed his love of the track last year and should go close again.

Jonjo’s Minella Rocco will again arrive at Cheltenham as a relatively unconsidered contender for the Gold Cup. Yet punters should surely take note of his previous Festival outings and act accordingly. He took the National Hunt Chase in 2016, defeating Native River. And in last year’s Gold Cup he was a fast-finishing runner-up to an in-form Sizing John. He proved to be my only antepost success, having had a few quid on him each-way at 33s. With better ground and that stamina-sapping hill playing to his strengths, I see no reason why this year’s renewal should be any different. If anything, the race looks more open this time around. He’s currently available at 25/1.

Finally, I need to mention the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion. I’m not on my own in fancying this fella for the Gold Cup (Twitter’s @TenEmbassy a huge fan), but the yard is yet to commit. I doubt he has the talent to win, but like Minella R, he’ll be charging up the famous hill and could be one for a place at a tasty price. He’s an RSA winner, and I’m reminded of Lord Windermere’s success some years back when an unconsidered outsider. I’m on at fancy odds, so let’s just hope that Big Nige takes the plunge.

A winter of discontent is not always a sign of decline. For those punters hoping to make money from the Cheltenham Festival, blinkers should be removed, and full consideration given to previous festival performances. Spring ground and the ability to act on a unique racecourse can often spark a return to form.

In The Numbers: Mullins versus Elliott (Part Two)

There are 1.525 million reasons to be excited about the Dublin Racing Festival and the Irish jumps trainers are certainly pumped for next weekend judged by their public comments, writes Tony Keenan.

The marketing/propaganda for this meeting has been heavy if understandable though it hasn’t been enough to attract much in the way of a UK challenge. Still, on the domestic front, no trainers will be focussed more on the fixture than Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott, the pair having five of the eight Grade 1 favourites at the time of writing, though that may change when the five-day declarations come out.

With Fairyhouse and Punchestown (those meetings have €1.496 million and €3.074 million in prizemoney respectively) to come, the Dublin Racing Festival won’t decide the trainers’ championship, but it still looks set to play a big part.

Let’s begin with the championship betting market to start to get the story so far. Paddy Power has been offering odds on this since the end of Punchestown 2017 with the key price moves listed below (and thanks to them for supplying this information).

 

Willie Mullins Date Gordon Elliott
2/7 30/4/17 5/2
1/12 25/9/17 6/1
1/3 26/11/17 9/4
8/15 3/12/17 6/4
10/11 29/12/17 (morning) 1/1
6/4 29/12/17 (evening) 8/15
15/8 27/1/18 2/5

 

So Mullins went through the summer smoking hot, winning the top trainer prize at Galway amongst other things, and looked to have his hands on the trophy at the end of September. From there Elliott gradually got back into things – the importance of the months of October and November will be discussed later – with a major odds shift after his Hatton’s Grace Day Grade 1 treble when he was cut into 6/4. The last day of the Christmas Festival was huge too with Faugheen injured, seemingly done for the season, and Elliott beating him with Mick Jazz. Since then last season’s runner-up continued to shorten with Monbeg Notorious doing his bit in the Thyestes last Thursday.

It’s worth looking at the current prizemoney table at this point and bear in mind that all figures in this article are correct up to Saturday, January 27th. The final standings in 2016/17 were Mullins €4,580,200 and Elliott €4,380,705 though with the usual prizemoney inflation it could take a bigger figure to win this season.

Trainer Winners Runners Strikerate Win Prizemoney Total Prizemoney
G. Elliott 151 854 17.7% €2,188,775 €3,149,113
W. Mullins 146 470 31.0% €1,859,600 €2,551,830

 

This is pretty standard stuff in terms of trainer methodologies, Elliott using quantity, Mullins using quality, the former dominating number of runners, the latter much better in strikerate. One interesting point is their average prizemoney per win with (win prizemoney divided by winners) with Elliott on €14,495 and Mullins on €12,736. The perception would be that the figures would be the other way though some might believe this is a product of Elliott winning lots of valuable handicaps; he has won some of those races but as we will see it is actually his record in graded races that is inflating his high average prizemoney figure.

So Elliott is €597,283 clear at this point and it is worth returning to how far he led by at various points last season; he was around half a million ahead after the 2016 Troytown at Navan (a card where he had six winners), roughly €300,000 clear after Christmas the same year. His current total shows how much better he is doing relative to last season and it is worth considering when he did the damage, looking at both campaigns month-by-month below, the figures referring to winners then runners.

 

W. Mullins Month G. Elliott
15/40 May 10/102
7/28 June 9/71
16/43 July 11/76
22/72 August 16/93
17/48 September 11/62
9/35 October 21/77
18/47 November 33/133
24/100 December 26/158
18/57 January 15/83

 

I thought Mullins would break every record around after his summer season, even suggesting the first 200-winner Irish jumps season was likely, but that was well off. The key period here was October/November with Elliott having 54 winners to 27 for Mullins and at that point the champion simply couldn’t compete with the volume of his younger rival. This stage of the season is a traditional changeover point with summer horses wrapping up and winter horses getting going but Mullins seems to have been slow getting them to the track. That may not be a bad thing for their careers overall – not rushing a horse to do something before it is ready makes sense – but it could prove costly for the 2017/18 championship. I do think though that Elliott is a trainer that always looks for a reason to run whereas Mullins tends the other way.

Elliott’s November win total of 33 was actually his most ever in a calendar month with 31 his next best in the same month the previous year. For context, Mullins’s best two months all-time are 44 winners in December 2016 and 34 in November 2014, the former an outlier among outliers. I mentioned above that Mullins has found it hard to compete with Elliott’s sheer numbers but again this needs context. There is an excellent feature on IrishRacing.com where they list the number of individual horses each trainer has run in a season.

Mullins is on 194 individual runners for 2017/18 when his most ever was 195 in 2013/14 (his totals the last three seasons were 184, 191 and 177). So as of the end of January, Mullins has already run basically as many individual horses as ever before and the season still has three months to go. It hasn’t so much been a case that Mullins hasn’t had enough horses to run but rather he hasn’t gotten them to the track often enough to rack up prizemoney; consider his total runs of 470 against Elliott’s 854. In Elliott’s case, he has run 272, 195 and 141 individual horses over the last three seasons and is at 263 for the current season.

It is also worth considering the luck factor in terms of how trainers are doing over the season as a whole. When doing some work on the Cheltenham Festival last year, I came up with a couple of methods of seeing which trainers were lucky or unlucky based on the number of seconds and placed horses they were having. It is a simple calculation where total seconds are subtracted from total winners to see if there are major discrepancies and also looking at the ratio of winners to placed horses (all runners finishing second, third or fourth) with the idea being that the further the ratio is below 3.00 the more fortunate a trainer has been as this 3.00 would the expected figure with there being three places for every winner in a race.

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Trainer Winners Seconds Difference Total Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Winners to Places Ratio
G. Elliott 151 134 -17 321 2.13
W. Mullins 146 85 -61 178 1.22

 

These figures would suggest that Elliott’s numbers are more sustainable that those of Mullins. Mullins has a big differential between his total of winners and runners-up while his winner/place ratio is also particularly low. Moving beyond pure numbers for a moment, it also worth looking at the each trainer’s top ten horses in terms of prizemoney won.

 

Willie Mullins Gordon Elliott
1. Rathvinden 1. Potters Point
2. Fabulous Saga 2. Apple’s Jade
3. Next Destination 3. Shattered Love
4. Lagostovegas 4. Outlander
5. Robin Des Foret 5. A Toi Phil
6. Footpad 6. Mengli Khan
7. Total Recall 7. Doctor Phoenix
8. Whiskey Sour 8. Death Duty
9. Shaneshill 9. Monbeg Notorious
10. Mystic Theatre 10. Dinaria Des Obeaux

 

Of the Mullins ten, seven ran during the summer: Rathvinden, Fabulous Saga, Lagostovegas, Robin Des Foret, Whiskey Sour, Shaneshill and Mystic Theatre. Some of those have continued to run well during the winter, others have barely run at all but it is hardly an outlandish argument to suggest that you can’t win a trainers’ championship with summer horses. There are a few reasons for this: most of the summer horses will have had their run of form at this point and are now higher in the handicap competing against better horses on softer ground but most importantly they are typically not good enough to win graded races when the winter horses come out. Elliott, on the other hand, has only one summer horse in his top ten (Potters Point) and you have to go to number 16 on his top prizemoney horses to find his next summer jumper which is Morgan.

There is a perception that Elliott is more of a handicap trainer than one for graded races but in 2017/18 this has not proved entirely true if we look at the record of each trainer in different types of races.

 

W. Mullins Race Type G. Elliott
8/80 Handicaps 37/281
24/86 Graded/Listed 24/89
56/161 Maidens 52/295
32/79 Bumpers 19/90
26/64 Other 19/99

 

Elliott does have the edge in handicaps which is unsurprising though it is worth pointing out that he was won only five of the valuable handicaps to four won by Mullins (by valuable handicaps I mean those worth more than the equivalent of £20,000 to the winner which basically means our graded handicaps). It is their very similar record in non-handicaps that stands out with Elliott actually leading in terms of winners. He is also ahead in terms of Grade 1 victories with a total of seven to Mullins’s four. That is particularly impressive as Elliott’s Irish Grade 1 totals over last five seasons are, working backwards: 7, 4, 3, 2, 2. In that same period, Mullins has figures of 14, 20, 21, 15 and 19 so he is well behind where he might typically be at this point of the season. The one area where Mullins does hold sway is in bumpers which I’ll return to in wrapping up.

So is there any way back for Mullins in 2017/18? It seems unlikely based on what we have seen above. I think he would need to hit every marker with his stars to have any chance; Faugheen would need to win Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown and Punchestown, Yorkhill would need to get his head right, Douvan would need to come back to his best, Djakadam would need to find an extra couple of pounds to take him from perennial placer to Gold Cup winner. Perhaps one or even two of these scenarios will unfold but it is a big price that everything will come together.

2018/19 might be more interesting however. As referenced above, Mullins has a distinct advantage in the bumper division this season and that edge may only bear fruit in seasons to come. The departure of Gigginstown obviously hurt Mullins last season and it took a lot of ready-made horses from the yard. Mullins surely went about replacing those horses quickly but the problem is that in most cases you aren’t replacing like for like; instead, a mature horse like Apple’s Jade was being replaced by a young bumper horse that needs time. So what we might call a Gigginstown gap year may have developed.

Mullins has come back strong with his bumper horses this season and one of the most interesting things about them is their ownership profile. Of his 32 bumper winners, there have been 26 individual horses, some of them winning more than once, and 24 different owners. Supreme Racing had three of the group, Rich Ricci had only one while there was not a Graham Wylie horse among them. By my research – which could be wrong as I was simply using the ownership statistics on the Racing Post website – 13 of them were new to the yard.

There were a lot of syndicates and partnerships, a few single person owners, but not many that seem likely to reach double figures in terms of horses in training. This seems a massive change in the ownership profile at Closutton which was once dominated by the triumvirate of Gigginstown, Ricci and Wylie but now seems to have many more smaller interests involved. What this means for Mullins I don’t know and how many more horses these people are willing to put in training will depend on their own financial circumstances though they have certainly made the sort of start that might encourage them to go in again.

- Tony Keenan

Permian Death – A Time For Reflection

Sioux Nation established himself as the leading juvenile with victory in a cracking renewal of the Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh.

It’s a race that Ballydoyle have dominated, with this success bringing up an incredible 16 for trainer Aidan O’Brien. Gordon Elliott’s Beckford was defending an unbeaten record, and lost little in defeat, going down by just half a length. The winner had captured the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot on quick ground, and again had conditions to suit. He swept to the front a furlong from home, before holding off the strong finishing runner-up.

Sioux Nation is a substantial unit, and clearly impressed jockey Ryan Moore, who said: “I loved him at Ascot, but I think he's got to have fast ground. At Ascot he took me into the race really easy and he did the same today. I think he's a very exciting colt. He’s bigger than Caravaggio, and I think and hope he's got a big future.”

O’Brien was similarly impressed, saying: “I think his turn of foot won it, he travels very well and quickens very well. Though he's a big horse, he's got a lot of speed. The ground would be a help and you probably wouldn't want to run him on soft. He's by Scat Daddy, like Caravaggio. I don't know if we'll stretch him to seven this year, if we did we could come here for the National Stakes and if we didn't he could go for the Middle Park (at Newmarket).”

It proved to be a weekend of vastly contrasting fortunes, with the disturbing scenes in America of three-year-old Permian breaking a leg as he crossed the line in the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington. Sending out distress signals turning for home, Mark Johnston’s gutsy colt quickly became tailed off from his five competitors. He’d clearly been feeling something, and the problem became clear as a crumpled at the post, sending jockey William Buick to the turf.

This was the three-year-old’s eighth outing in four months. And though it is impossible to say whether such a hectic campaign could have played any part in his demise, it’s surely worth debating the amount of racing the young horse had experienced between April 14 and August 12.

This subject is sure to stir a passionate response from all sides, and people will leap to the defence of trainers and their connections, who know a lot more about their horses than I. Nevertheless, the physicality of a horse is such, that great strain is placed on those four fragile limbs. Permian had been running at trips around a mile and a half throughout this campaign, and had been asked for maximum effort in thrilling finishes on five of those eight occasions. The ground at Arlington on Saturday could not have run quicker. Rattling firm ground is not uncommon in the summer sport, but is obviously an added strain on those flimsy legs.

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Of course, this tragedy could have happened to a horse on debut, or to one with relatively few miles on the clock. But it’s the intensity of the packed Permian campaign, over a relatively short period of time, that would surely have put strain on muscles, tendons and young bones. Studies at the University Of Melbourne in 2016 found that a high percentage of catastrophic injuries came about due to an accumulation of damage, rather than one singular injury. The make-up of the thoroughbred is such, that our sport will always be prone to such tragedies, and therefore apportioning blame is not the answer.

Johnston was clearly upset with some criticism he received on Facebook and Twitter, when saying: “Social media was fantastic for seeing all of the condolences coming in but there were also bastards blaming us for giving him one run too many. He wasn't even the horse who'd had the most runs in the race, and yet people latch on to him as if he'd had a huge number of runs. Aidan O'Brien's horse who finished second [Taj Mahal] had more runs than Permian, as Aidan's commonly do, because he, like me, believes in racing them.

“He was out there for everyone to see. We didn't hide him away and run him once every three months. That's what made him special in such a short space of time, and we really imagined he'd be racing on again as a four-year-old, and maybe even five.”

Johnston’s comment regarding Taj Mahal is slightly misleading. He is correct in saying that O’Brien’s colt has more career starts than Permian, but he had one fewer outing this term. And though Ballydoyle’s fella has run in good company, it would be hard to argue that he had been involved in so many epic finishes as Johnston’s gritty hero.

There’s no doubting that Mark Johnston and his team will be devastated at the loss of one of their yard. And our thoughts also go to William Buick who took a shuddering fall from the stricken horse. The racing fraternity will no doubt come under further scrutiny from the likes of Animal Aid and PETA, and as such must have as many answers as possible to tough questions raised. If those answers are not forthcoming, then research should be funded to make the sport as safe as possible for those brave creatures that run for our enjoyment and entertainment.

Much has been done to improve the image of our sport, and this work must continue, with horse welfare at the forefront. The Attached piece from Melbourne University is worth a read; Close to the bone

Phoenix Nights – Party Time for Elliott?

A pair of juvenile events are the highlight of this weekend’s action.

The Group Three Sweet Solero takes place at Newmarket, with several classy fillies on show. And 24 hours later at the Curragh, we have the Group One Phoenix Stakes, so often won by a leading Irish juvenile.

Numerous winners of the Newmarket event have returned to win the Group One Fillies’ Mile later in the campaign, highlighting the quality of filly this race attracts. Certify and White Moonstone completed the double for Godolphin in 2010 and 2012. The John Gosden-trained Rainbow View was another to complete the feat in 2008. In 2002 James Fanshawe’s Soviet Song announced herself as a talented filly, winning both and being installed as favourite for the 2003 Guineas. She became one of the greats, winning the Falmouth, Sussex and Matron Stakes as a four-year-old.

Godolphin look to add to their impressive Sweet Solero record, in the form of race favourite Poetic Charm. She’s trained locally by Charlie Appleby, and made a winning debut when defeating Ballydoyle’s Sizzling at Newmarket. She ran green that day, yet won cosily under a hands and heels ride. She’s beautifully bred, being a half-sister to Teofilo, and looks a potentially high-class filly.

The Richard Fahey-trained Dance Diva was put firmly in her place last time at Ascot by the classy Nyaleti, and now steps up in trip. She did stay-on steadily that day, and had been three from three prior to the loss. Nevertheless, that was a bruising defeat, and it’s likely she’ll find one or two a little too good for her once again.

Mayyasah was an impressive winner on debut at Newbury. The Al Shaqab owned filly displayed an eye-catching change of gear to scoot clear in the six-furlong maiden, and looked as if a step-up in trip would suit. This is a much tougher contest, but she looks to be a leading contender.

As does Irish raider Mamba Noire, who possibly sports the most impressive form. Though only winning once in five starts, she has twice chased home Clemmie, including a close third in the Group Two Duchess Of Cambridge at Newmarket. She got within half a length of Nyaleti that day, and that performance now looks particularly impressive. She was staying on strongly, and this seven-furlong trip should prove ideal. Nations Alexander was third in the Duchess of 2016 before returning to win this. Mamba Noire will hope to do the same.

Poetic Charm looks the obvious choice for this, though it’s possibly a race to watch with interest, rather than get heavily involved from a punting aspect. Mamba Noire looks to be the main danger.

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We are likely to see something special in Ireland on Sunday. The Phoenix Stakes is usually contested by the leading Irish juveniles, and was won last year by Caravaggio. In 2015 it was Air Force Blue that won impressively, before taking the National Stakes and the Dewhurst. Those performances saw him start 2016 as favourite for the 2000 Guineas. Sadly, as many of us recall, he was to prove a major disappointment as a three-year-old, and was retired after a string of poor performances.

Aidan O’Brien has an incredible record in this race, having won 15 of the last 19 renewals. Such dominance of a Group One event is simply mind-boggling. But that powerful record is likely to come under serious threat on Sunday from a most unlikely source. Jumps trainer Gordon Elliott looks sure to have the race favourite with his undefeated Beckford. The son of Bated Breath took the Railway Stakes in July, though will clearly need to take another step forward to land this. He’s undoubtedly quick, and is sure to be given a positive ride in an attempt to hold off the Ballydoyle masses.

At the time of writing, we are still unsure as to who takes him on. U S Navy Flag is among the contenders, and was a decent second in the July Stakes last time at Newmarket. He was no match that day for Cardsharp, who has since lost in testing ground at Goodwood. The colt has only won once in six starts, and though he’s clearly talented, his record suggests he’s far from star material.

I’m a fan of Sioux Nation, and should the ground be on the quick side, I’d fancy him to run a huge race. Fast enough to win the Norfolk at Royal Ascot, he’s by Scat Daddy out of an Oasis Dream mare, and should be well suited to six-furlongs at the Curragh. If he runs, I’ll be a follower.

The last British trainer to make a successful raid was Mark Johnston back in 1997. Tom Dascombe is set to send Frozen Angel across the Irish Sea, and he should not be discounted. The son of Dark Angel is a class act, as he showed when only just missing out at Maisons-Laffitte last time. He has a bit to find with Sioux Nation on the Royal Ascot run, but is clearly a talented sprinter and could easily find himself in the shake-up.

If he runs, I’ll be having a small punt on Sioux Nation. If he fails to turn up we may well see a very happy National Hunt trainer celebrating a sensational success.

Olly Murphy: The Story So Far

On the 4th July 2017, a remarkable story began. Shortly before four o'clock on a glorious summer day, a 25 year old by the name of Olly Murphy saddled his first ever runner, Dove Mountain, at Brighton in a lowly 0-55 handicap. The horse won, easily, to obvious celebration from young Olly and his team.

That was Tuesday and, by Sunday evening, Murphy had his second winner, this time the hurdler, Gold Class. Gold Class was one of two horses he saddled in the race, the other - Banff - finishing second.

On 11th July, just a week after Murphy sent out his first runner/winner, he had three horses entered. Although none of the trio won, two - Skilled and Sky Of Stars - finished second, the former 'bumping into one' in the shape of the very well handicapped Bestwork. Still, this was a strong start: two wins, three second places and two unplaced from his first seven runners.

A few more quiet days and then it was Sunday again, the 16th July. A brace of entries at Southwell and a third at local course, Stratford, would provide Murphy with a double which should have been a treble. Pershing, hitherto a 28-race maiden, and Sky Of Stars, a dozen races without a win to that point, both got off the mark; but it was a case of what might have been as a rare misjudged ride from the ultra-reliable Richard Johnson probably cost Varene De Vauzelle victory, and a notable trio for the new boy.

Back on the level the following day, Sevilla ran well to finish fourth, meaning that, after a fortnight with a license, Olly Murphy had racked up four winners, four seconds and just three unplaced efforts from eleven runners. The three out of the frame all came in flat races, with the National Hunt octet all finishing on the exacta ticket.

By now, the media had stood up and taken notice. The Guardian ran a story on Murphy; Racing UK broadcast a feature on the young handler; and Betfair signed him up as a content provider. Little old geegeez.co.uk also flagged his punting utility and suggested Murphy was worthy of blind support in coming weeks in this post.

So far, so good: a dream start as the trainer himself had put it.

But it was going to get better...

Two more flat runners on Thursday would yield another unplaced animal, the previous scorer Dove Mountain, but also a second flat winner, courtesy of Jazz Legend, dropped back a furlong after defeat on his maiden run for the yard. Five winners and four seconds from 13 runners.

By this point, like every other syndicate manager in the country no doubt, I had begun to ponder the prospect of stabling a horse at Warren Chase Stables, the Wilmcote base from which Murphy operates. By the end of the weekend, I was soul-searching more deeply about what exactly was happening here, and how sustainable it might be.

That was because, yesterday, Murphy won all four races in which he entered horses. Knight Commander bolted up in a novices' handicap hurdle at Newton Abbot to start the ball rolling. All roads then led to Stratford, five miles from Warren Chase, where a Murphy quartet contested three races. Cliffside Park ran in the seller and, though nudged out of favouritism, won "like an odds on favourite should", at 11/8.

Skilled, who jumps fences like me, made it a treble despite hitting almost every obstacle on the way round. He can't go up much for this effort, but would have won twenty lengths if lifting his hooves with more alacrity.

It was then left to a pair of relatively unfancied horses to round out the remarkable four-timer, Hongkong Adventure and Mizen Master (you clearly don't need to spell to name racehorses). The former was preferred of the pair, at no shorter than 6/1, while the latter was largely unconsidered at 10's behind a solid jolly from the Dan Skelton yard that traded at 5/4.

The Skelton horse, Wynford, undoubtedly ran his race, finishing a game four length second; but he was no match for Mizen Master, who just kept galloping.

That quartet parlayed at 154/1, a £1 yankee paying £459.16 if you landed on the right one of the pair in the last leg; and I know of a number of geegeez subscribers who emailed or tweeted to say they were on, thanks to either last week's post or the Trainer Snippets / Trainer Statistics reports. Nice job.

**

So here we are, not three weeks after the debut runner of Olly Murphy Racing, and already the rising star has saddled nine winners from 18 runners, a 50% clip. Moreover, from a dozen National Hunt starts, just one horse has failed to make the frame.

I'm a cynical, but generally reasonable, old buzzard so when I see stats like this I want to know how, and why. After all, the beaten trainers - the likes of Dan Skelton and Nigel Twiston-Davies - are established master practitioners in their field.

Having initially ruminated on far more nefarious possibilities (shame on me), I found my answer where all such answers should lie: in the form book.

Olly Murphy is the son of Aiden Murphy, bloodstock agent, and Anabel Murphy, racehorse trainer. Mum trains a quarter mile away, next door. At this stage I can only guess - and I really wish I knew/could corroborate - the relationship between Olly and John Joseph Murphy. My guess is that JJ is his uncle. What I do know, as it has been well documented, is that Olly spent four years as assistant trainer to the winning machine Gordon Elliott, a role he occupied until April of this year.

That is a comprehensive and excellent grounding, and it is important context for the form profiles of a number of the Warren Chase runners which follow. Let us first consider the winners:

Dove Mountain

Enjoyed four wins in the care of Gordon Elliott before switching to Anabel Murphy at the turn of the year. Six runs yielded a second, third and fourth - and a slipping of the rating from 60 to 55 - before Olly's breakthrough winner on 4th July.

Gold Class

Formerly trained by Robert Alan Hennessy in Ireland, for whom he was 0 from 20, though having run with relative credit on a few occasions. Off the track since October last year, he won by six lengths at 16/1 on debut for his new yard.

Pershing

Another former inmate of Hennessy's, this time a 28 race maiden (!) including a handful of flat runs for Brian Meehan and Marco Botti in 2013/14. Rated as high as 116 over hurdles for Hennessy, this fellow had clearly hinted at ability but looked to have lost his way until being freshened by his new surroundings. He too was off since October 2016 and won by eight lengths for new connections.

Sky Of Stars

Average on the flat - rated 70 - for Richard Hannon, briefly, and then William Knight, he had four runs in novice and maiden hurdles for Anabel Murphy before being awarded a timber-topping handicap mark of 90. Followed up a debut second for Olly with a narrow verdict five days later, prior to being re-assessed. He went up to 94 for the second place and, tomorrow, will receive his revised perch for the win, likely just a couple of pounds higher.

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Jazz Legend

Rated as high as 85 as a juvenile when in the care of James Given, brief stints with Robert Cowell, Mandy Rowland and, most recently, Anabel Murphy had seen his mark plummet to 50. After a moderate, but still career best, all weather effort - for which he's impeccably bred, being by Scat Daddy out of a Candy Ride mare - Jazz Legend hit the right notes at Leicester in a basement handicap on his second run for the yard.

Knight Commander

Another ex-William Knight horse, Knight Commander was a 15 race maiden on the flat with a fair rating of 77 at his peak (dropping to 65 on his final start for Knight). Then moved to Anabel Murphy where three middling runs in juvenile hurdles paved the way for an opening handicap figure of 95 and a switch to Olly Murphy. Knight Commander won by 16 lengths on handicap debut and will very likely turn out under a penalty before the middle of next week (entered at Uttoxeter on Friday).

Cliffside Park

Probably the smartest horse with form in the yard, this chap was previously with Elizabeth Doyle in Ireland, where he'd earned a career high rating of 128. Still rated 122 in this seller, he was entitled to win if not suffering a recurrence of the burst blood vessel issue that has troubled him. Win he did and, in similar races where he can boss his field without coming off the bridle, he may go in again. Punters must be aware of the likelihood of his finishing position being binary, however.

Skilled

With Gordon Elliott (won two) until mid- to late 2016, then moved to Anabel Murphy. Four runs moved the hurdle rating from 111 to 100 and the flat mark from 74 to 67. Second to very well handicapped horse (Bestwork, winner of three of last four starts) on stable/chase debut before, as mentioned above, winning in spite of uprooting most of the birch en route. Remains well handicapped if he can improve his jumping.

Mizen Master

Six race (five flat, one hurdles) maiden for John Joseph Murphy before acquiring an opening mark of 104 after two non-descript runs for Anabel Murphy. Won on handicap debut for Olly Murphy, beating 5/4 favourite Wynford - a last time out winner - by 4.5 lengths, with 17 lengths back to the third placed horse, who was 7/2 second market choice. Another likely to get entries before being re-assessed.

**

So those are the winners, with some interesting patterns emerging. But what of the non-winners to date? Murphy has saddled 14 different horses thus far, nine of them winning. These are the back stories of the quintet yet to savour triumph from the barns at Warren Chase:

Enchanted Moment

Eleven race maiden for Chris Wall, she was well beaten in a low grade handicap a fortnight ago, and is entered on Wednesday at Leicester. The handicapper has left her on 54 after she lost all chance at the start that last day, an effort through which it is easy to draw a line. She remains potentially well-handicapped.

Banff

Seven race maiden on the flat for John Joseph Murphy, he had three runs in maiden and juvenile hurdle company for Anabel Murphy before making his handicap bow for Olly Murphy off 100. Beaten only by stable mate Gold Class two weeks ago and has entries at the end of this week off the same peg.

Varene De Vauzelle

21 race maiden for James Ewart and Michael Hourigan before moving yards in the spring. Victim of the annual poor ride from ultra-reliable Richard Johnson when just held at Southwell last week, and looks sure to be bumped up from his hurdle mark of 89 when re-assessed tomorrow.

Sevilla

Thirteen race maiden for John Joseph Murphy (seven runs) and Anabel Murphy (six) before finishing fourth on debut for Olly. Had three hurdle runs for Anabel but not yet awarded a mark in that sphere. It was a claimer in which he was beaten last week and it is a selling handicap for which he is entered on Wednesday. Capable of winning at that level but perhaps no higher.

Hongkong Adventure

Four race flat maiden for Rae Guest, before three lacklustre runs in juvenile/maiden hurdle company for Anabel Murphy. Handicap / yard debut yesterday for Olly off 105 when better fancied of two for the trainer but trailed home well beaten. Plenty of horses don't act around the tight turns of Stratford and he may be forgiven on that basis. Worth another try at least, given lesser fancied stablemate won the race well.

**

There are some strong patterns emerging, not least of which is that Olly Murphy looks to be a very good trainer in the making. There is more to the early part of this story than that, however, and the sub-plot deserves an airing.

Of Olly's nine winners, six have been inherited from mum, Anabel. Indeed she managed to secure a handicap hurdle mark for three of the winners and two of the non-winners to date.

Trying to ascertain the ability of a new trainer on a small sample size is not easy, but there are grounds for feeling that at least a subset of the Warren Chase winners to date were, if not penalty kicks then at least clinically converted one-on-one's.

This, by now, will not be news to forensic form students as the new kid on the block notched first a debut winner, then a double (which should have been a treble) and most recently an incredible four-timer.

There are reportedly four 'summer' horses still to run, three of which appear on the website as Mullaghboy (four 'nothing' runs for Stuart Crawford to date), Wood Pigeon (seven runs for JJ Murphy, two for Anabel Murphy, now rated 100 over hurdles; should be competitive on soft ground at around three miles), and The Geegeez Geegee.

It is the last named which holds the most interest for me. Firstly, he has been acquired from a very (very!) good trainer in Anthony Honeyball, so it will be fascinating to see if TGG can be freshened/improved from there. And secondly, as the name suggests, he was formerly owned by a syndicate of geegeez.co.uk readers, and myself, who know the animal inside out.

The reason for my acute interest in Olly is that, as stated, I'm giving serious thought to syndicating a horse with him - as I'm sure are countless others. It is important to me that I understand the modus operandi of trainers who look after my/our horses, hence the deep dive.

It has been an enthralling exercise, and one after which I'm more inclined to want to support this new name. To be clear, I don't believe the Murphy's have done anything wrong - the fingerprint is very quickly discernible to anyone who cares to look - and I admire the orchestration with which this training career has begun.

Moreover, the improved showing from the likes of Gold Class, Pershing and Varene De Vauzelle demonstrate that much of the Elliott magic has rubbed off on his protégé, and that Olly Murphy may well be fast-tracking to the top table of the winter game if his summer 'pre-season friendly' results are anything to go by.

This will be a space that continues to be well worth watching...

Matt

Clear as Mud – Juvenile Colts

It comes as no surprise to see Ballydoyle fillies at the head of the juvenile division, and Ireland’s leading thoroughbred outfit also have a few colts making the right kind of noises with 2018 Classics in mind.

There’s little doubt that the picture is less clear with the juvenile boys, with outstanding performances few and far between. Gustav Klimt won the Group Two Superlative Stakes at Newmarket for Aidan O’Brien, though the performance could hardly be described as impressive. Yet another from the Galileo conveyor belt, he was inconvenienced in running and had to be switched before staying on well to win. He nabbed Nebo on the line, and that fella had previously finished down the field in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot. The form looks ordinary, and that Gustav is now clear favourite for next year’s 2000 Guineas says plenty of the dearth of talent seen on the racetrack thus far.

Royal Ascot form is also taking some reading after Rajasinghe’s defeat to Cardsharp at Newmarket. The former had won the Coventry Stakes, but was unable to land a blow on Cardsharp, who clearly appreciated a step-up in trip, having finished third at the royal meeting in the Norfolk. He in-turn had finished behind De Bruyne Horse in the Woodcote Stakes at Epsom, but that colt could only finish eighth in the Coventry behind Rajasinghe. Confused? You should be.

Hannon’s De Bruyne Horse then went to Ireland, and was beaten by Beckford at the Curragh. Gordon Elliott is better known for training three-mile chasers, but his talented juvenile is causing something of a sensation. He’s arguably the best of the youngsters to date, though how he performs in the Phoenix Stakes will tell us more. He’s by Bated Breath out of a Danehill Dancer mare, which suggests he’ll probably become a sprinter, though he just about has enough stamina on the dam side to make a miler. He defeated Jim Bolger’s Verbal Dexterity last time, though his colt’s pedigree is somewhat underwhelming.

I’m not convinced that we’ve yet seen a future star, though Royal Ascot’s Norfolk Stakes may prove the strongest form to date. The aforementioned Cardsharp, was third to Sioux Nation and Santry that day, and the latter pair both look decent prospects.

Aidan O’Brien’s Sioux Nation was desperate for the quicker ground at Ascot, and improved a ton accordingly. The son of Scat Daddy, out of an Oasis Dream mare, has entries in all the leading events during the remainder of the season. And I fancy that there’s plenty more to come from him.

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Santry was fancied to go close in the Norfolk, and did not disappoint. Declan Carroll’s youngster could well come over for the Gimcrack at York, though his targets are not so dependent on ground conditions.

Two races in Ireland over the coming months that look sure to bring some clarity to the Colt juvenile picture, are the Phoenix Stakes and the National Stakes. It’s no surprise that Ballydoyle dominate both, with Caravaggio taking the former in 2016 and Churchill winning the latter.

Another juvenile event that continues to produce thoroughbreds of the highest calibre, is the Dewhurst Stakes from Newmarket, which takes place towards the end of the season. Frankel, Dawn Approach and Churchill are three recent winners.

It’s quite clear to me, that though the juvenile fillies picture is starting to take shape, the colts equivalent has some way to go. Those that enjoy an antepost flutter on the following year’s Classics should probably hold-fire.

Monday Musings: Title Settlement

 

Bank Holiday Mondays allow me a little flexibility in terms of deadline, writes Tony Stafford. I know this because the Editor takes longer than usual to acknowledge receipt of these jottings. Saying that, he will probably have been awake early as the sun peeped across the horizon well before 6 a.m. the time today when I finally realised what the topic would be.

By a circuitous route, having started out with the Henderson-Nicholls and Mullins-Elliott season-long scraps finally decided and the likeliest subject, I landed on June 11 2006 at the picturesque Perth racecourse.

That day an unknown young Irish trainer travelled over his recent acquisition, a horse called Arresting, to Scotland and, ridden by Richard Johnson, Arresting was an emphatic winner, backed in to 7-2 favourite. He had won at the track on his previous appearance, on his sole run for Gavin Cromwell, but joined Gordon Elliott, according to official records, six days before the June 11 landmark.

Elliott, a graduate of the Martin Pipe stable, had yet to win a race in his home land, but Arresting gave him two more victories in the UK that summer, stopping off in between without success at the Galway Festival.

Thirteen horses took part in that first race and the lists of trainers and riders illustrate how quickly the pendulum swings in racing, like life really. Stuart Coltherd, Jim Goldie, Geoff Harker, Diane Sayer and Grand National winner Lucinda Russell remain active, while the remainder, including recently retired Keith Reveley have either handed in their licences or, in the case of doubly-represented Peter Monteith, died.

Of the 13 jockeys, only the relentless Johnson; James Reveley, then a 7lb claimer, now France’s jumps champion; and Paddy Aspell, still ride over jumps, although he has gradually switched more to the Flat. Graham Lee finished runner-up here two years after his Grand National triumph on Amberleigh House, who died last week aged 25. Now he rides exclusively on the level.

Michael McAlister, then a 5lb claimer, had his last rides, winning one of six in the season ending last April, while Richie McGrath, Jimmy McCarthy, Phil Kinsella, David da Silva and Peter Buchanan have all retired after varying degrees of success.

Tony Dobbin, 45 years old today and another Grand National hero, almost a decade earlier on Lord Gyllene, the only Monday winner, is now assistant trainer to his wife Rose, while Kenny Johnson has taken over his father Bob’s small yard in Northumberland.

There is another name from the race which has forced itself into the racing consciousness, particularly over the latest season. Neil Mulholland, unplaced in that Perth race, won 54 races over a ten-year span in the UK, again with a Martin Pipe connection, before starting out as a West Country trainer in the 2008-9 season.

He was an immediate success with 16 victories in his initial campaign, before collecting between that figure and 21 in the next four years. More recently, Mulholland has found acceleration and expansion, almost Gordon Elliott-like, with 31, 51 and 60 wins before the latest awesome tally of 108 wins from 129 horses. His list of owners makes impressive reading, dozens and dozens of names, with Bob Brookhouse, one who is always ready to pay plenty at the sales, a notable major operator for the yard. Big-race wins, usually in staying chases have come via The Druids Nephew, The Young Master and Pilgrims Way, while he’s also proved a dab hand at winning Flat-race handicaps with some of his lesser jumpers.

Gordon Elliott’s narrow failure to dethrone Mullins after their final day denouement at Punchestown cannot alter the fact that he has become the big name going forward. He did something nobody – to my limited knowledge anyway – has matched, to win a Grand National before winning a Rules race in his native country. Silver Birch, a Paul Nicholls cast-off, won ten months after the first of the three Arresting victories and it was not until later that year that the Irish explosion began.

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After two blank seasons, Elliott had six wins in his third, then 14, 26, 62, 40, 54, 56, 92, 123 and a mammoth 193 from an astonishing 285 horses, 101 more than Mullins up to Saturday. As the still-champion Willie lost 60 of the Gigginstown horses – not all of which ended with his protagonist – it was indeed a doughty effort to stay ahead but a team of 184 active horses is hardly negligible.

The next three home in Ireland were Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade, all with big teams, Harrington benefiting from the Ann and Alan Potts defection from de Bromhead with the other pair similarly indebted to the Mullins split with Gigginstown.

Of the trio, only Mrs Harrington is seriously involved in the Flat with 47 three-year-olds and juveniles listed in the latest Horses in Training book. She was at it again last week, winning five races at Punchestown while yesterday, she had a winner each at Limerick and Gowran on the Flat, beating horses trained by Aidan and Joseph O’Brien respectively.

Gordon Elliott sent out a remarkable 1,234 domestic runners last season, even more than Richard Johnson rode in his second-busiest season; 188 wins from 1,026 compared with easily his best, 235 from 1,044 the previous winter when he collected his first title after 20 years’ wait for A P McCoy to retire. Since 1996-7 Johnson has posted a century of winners every season, with between 102 and 186 until the last two. The McCoy retirement has brought an average of 200 extra rides, a good few of them horses McCoy would have partnered.

Johnson shows no sign of slowing down, bar injury or illness, so there is little chance he will fail to complete the hat-trick as he intends to mirror McCoy’s annual tactic of a fast start during late spring and summer.

Nicky Henderson’s stable stars contributed greatly to his fourth trainers’ title, but it also helped that he had more individual horses (173) to run than anyone other than Dan Skelton (202). Henderson and Nicholls had an almost identical win average, around 25%, a figure which only Harry Fry, among the leaders, with 23%, could get anywhere near. Fry’s Punchestown double last week confirmed his status as a future potential champion trainer.

Team Tooth had a first Flat runner (two getting-handicapped Winter AW runs apart) at Yarmouth, and Stanhope as usual suffered an element of bad luck as he finished a close fourth.

It seems he’s a horse that finds trouble, but when he doesn’t it finds him, as when at Sandown, a golf ball from the inside-the-track course flew up from a rival’s hoof and hit jockey Charlie Bennett a resounding bang on the helmet.

Here, Pat Cosgrave had just moved him into a gap to challenge, when it closed. In a desperate attempt to get home in front, Jamie Spencer launched his whip right handed, twice hitting Stanhope on the head. First you can see him flinch right, then more dramatically back and left, so it was brave of the horse to nick fourth under hands and heels after recovering. Pat says he’s stronger this year. He’ll need to be!

 

Jumps Over and Feeling Flat

Nicky Henderson captured the Trainers’ Championship for the second time in five years, with a dominant display at Sandown on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls had hoped for a successful final day of the campaign, but it was Henderson who landed a treble on the day, and came close to making it four, when Vyta Du Roc was denied by a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup.

Altior proved the star-turn with a stunning display in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase. He swept past the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara, as they headed for the last fence, and though he got in close, he quickly regained momentum, sprinting to an eight-length victory. His jumping was arguably as good as we’ve seen from him throughout the winter, and he travelled effortlessly throughout. It was a truly devastating display, and many Jumps fans will already be licking their lips at the prospect of Altior versus Douvan in the autumn.

Juvenile hurdler Call Me Lord had been a comfortable winner for Seven Barrows in the first, and L’Ami Serge finally put in a performance worthy of his talent, in winning the Grade 2 Select Hurdle. That double for owners Munir and Soude arguably should have been a treble on the day, when Vyta Du Roc appeared to be given plenty to do, before charging through traffic late-on to fail by just a head in the Bet365 Gold Cup. Peter Bowen’s Henllan Harri was given a peach of a ride by son Sean, and managed to hold-off Henderson’s horse. Though not the biggest, the runner-up will surely be aimed at nationals next season.

Of his success in the title race, Henderson said: “We’ve got some Grade One horses and to be fair to Paul, he has done incredibly well and won a huge amount of prize money whereas we’ve got horses like Altior, Buveur d’Air and Might Bite.” Of Altior he added: “He's top class. I think we've always known that. He’s got a bit of everything - he's got class, he's got the gears. I think we've always known that he is very special ever since a young horse as a hurdler. You know that Special Tiara is going to set serious fractions but this fellow can always have it covered as he has the pace to do it.”

A special Sandown mention goes to the wonderful Menorah, who won the Oaksey Chase for a fourth time, before being retired by connections. The 12-year-old has been campaigned at the highest level throughout his career, and has brought great success to owners Diana and Grahame Whateley. It was terrific to see him go-out with such a stunning display.

So, whilst Henderson successfully kept Nicholls at arms-length, the same could not be said in Ireland, with Gordon Elliott finally overwhelmed by a tsunami of Willie Mullins winners. A lead of around €400,000 going into the Punchestown Festival put Elliott in pole position, but despite several unlucky defeats during the week, the Master of Closutton still managed to retain his crown by a staggering €199,455.

Great Field was mightily impressive in winning the Ryanair Novice Chase earlier in the week, and on Friday, Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Bacardys in the Champion Novice Hurdle put Mullins in front. A double on the final day of the meeting, which included a victory in the juvenile hurdle for Bapaume, proved to be the title clincher.

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Of the dramatic turnaround, Mullins said: “I didn't think it was possible for us to win, particularly when a few of the early photo-finishes went against us this week. It's fantastic to win and a big thank you to all the team at home and all my owners. It's been a funny season. It hasn't been that enjoyable and I'm glad it's over. Gordon is a great competitor. He's fantastic and has been a gentleman the whole way through.”

Elliott had led from the off, and was understandably gutted to come off second best: “It's a bit heart-breaking. We've led from day one of the season, but to be in the same sentence as Willie Mullins is brilliant. Hopefully we'll do it one year. I'm still only 39 and hopefully I'll be around for another few years. We've equalled Willie's record of 193 winners in a season. I said coming here that if I could equal that, it would be something. I'll keep my head up and enjoy it.”

Saturday’s action brought the curtain down on a dramatic National Hunt season. Mullins’ ‘against all odds’ title victory will have left him needing a summer break more than ever before. The loss of Vautour was a huge blow, and then Mr O’Leary took his horses elsewhere. Faugheen, Annie Power and Min were all struck-down by injury, yet the Master of Closutton found a way to grab victory from the jaws of defeat.

A tough winter also for Paul Nicholls. His title challenge masks an underlying decline in the quality of horses at his disposal. He desperately needs to uncover a star or two if he is to challenge a resurgent Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre was retired, but Altior has moved seamlessly into the role of Seven Barrows Superstar. He also has a new hurdling hero in Buveur D’Air.

And both will be looking over their shoulders, as Colin Tizzard continues to build on a stunning campaign. Fox Norton, Thistlecrack and Native River have all captured major prizes, and promise much of the same for some time to come.

Now, if we can just get this Flat season out of the way.

Hard-Hitting Henderson Can Roc At Sandown

It truly is a week for the big-hitters, going at it toe-to-toe, in a battle for supremacy.

It may be a rather less bloody affair than Klitschko versus Joshua, but over in Ireland, Willie Mullins is throwing everything at Gordon Elliott as he tries to retain his trainers’title. Several agonizing near-misses, including Nichols Canyon and Djakadam, have served to thwart the Closutton King, and his crown has all-but fallen.

Whilst over in the UK on Saturday, another heavyweight battle takes place at Sandown, as they host the final meeting of the National Hunt season, with Nicky Henderson on the verge of landing the knockout-blow to be crowned the new champ.

There’s enough money in the Sandown pot for Paul Nicholls to turn things around, though Team Ditcheat look to have a mountain to climb. Whilst Nicholls has jabbed away intelligently throughout the campaign, maintaining a high-tempo, landing telling blows again and again, it is Henderson that has possessed the firepower, with the likes of Buveur D’Air and Altior bludgeoning the opposition to win major prizes. The latter may well end the fight by winning the Grade 1 Celebration Chase tomorrow.

Nicholls rests his hopes on the much-improved San Benedeto, though this looks a step too far for the gutsy Aintree winner. Special Tiara is likely to prove a greater threat to Henderson’s new star, though the Seven Barrows chief is taking no chances, and will hope to land the old ‘one-two’ with Vaniteux thrown into the mix. I’m a huge fan of the horse, and he’s more than capable of chasing home his celebrated stable companion.

With the referee likely to have stepped-in to end the fight, both Henderson and Nicholls should feel a little more relaxed as they prepare their challengers for the most valuable event on the card, the Bet365 Gold Cup. And both have the opportunity of ending the season with a bang, though Neil Mulholland holds a powerful hand going into the prestigious staying chase.

The Wiltshire handler saddles his usual suspects, The Druids Nephew and The Young Master, the latter the winner of this 12 months ago. The former was behind in fifth, but his handicap mark is now 10lbs lower, and both look to have a great chance. Their tough to split, and the bookies have them tied at 7/1. Yet Mulholland has arguably a stronger contender, in race favourite, and much improved, Doing Fine.

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A victory and three runners-up finishes, from his four outings since arriving at the yard, the nine-year-old by Presenting is in tip-top shape, and will love both the ground and the trip. He ran a belter when second to Rocky Creek at the track in December, and this race looks tailor-made. He’s a solid jumper, a thorough stayer, and runs without penalty having won easily at Cheltenham just over a week ago. He looks sure to go close.

The champion-elect has a pair of runners, and it’s Vyta Du Roc that I fancy will go best for the Master of Seven Barrows. The eight-year-old’s winter had mirrored, in levels of disappointment, that of Vicente, until that horse stormed back to form in winning the Scottish National last week. They were very similar types as novice chasers, rated around the mid-140s. But both had struggled to make an impact during this campaign, and their handicap marks fell accordingly. Vyta Du Roc is now off 137, and though his form is hardly inspiring, I find myself drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He was sixth in the Hennessy at the start of the season, and defeated Minella Rocco at Ascot, little more than 12 months ago.

Like Mulholland, Paul Nicholls sends a trio into battle, with two of his hopes having gone close in last year’s renewal. Just A Par won the race in 2015, and came within a short-head of repeating the feat last year. He remains on a competitive handicap mark, and looks sure to run well.

Southfield Theatre is burdened with top-weight, though Nicholls has stated that the horse is better prepared this time around. The enormity of the task is best illustrated by saying that Tidal Bay, Desert Orchid, Diamond Edge, Mill House and Arkle, are some of just a handful to overcome such a burden in the past.

Philip Hobbs took this race in 2006 and 2008, and has a serious contender in Rock The Kasbah. The seven-year-old has performed admirably in novice events throughout the winter, though has perhaps not hit the heights connections would have hoped for. I’m convinced that better ground suits him, though this trip is something of an unknown. He’s by Shirocco, the same sire as Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco. Hobbs will be hoping that this step-up in trip proves key to an improved performance. I fancy he could go very close.

It looks a terrific renewal, with cases to be made for plenty. I’m taking Vyta Du Roc to land the spoils for Henderson, and though both Mulholland and Nicholls arrive mob-handed, I’ll take Hobbs’ Rock The Kasbah to make a place for each-way punters. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Codd can chip-in with Fayonagh win

Jamie Codd, Derek O’Connor and Barry O’Neill are three of the best amateur jockeys in the sport.

The trio are currently battling for the Irish Point to Point jockeys title, with O’Neill leading the way. He’s attempting to win the title for the first time, having come close in recent campaigns. Derek O’Connor has been top of the tree for more than a decade, having notched his first winner back in 2000. A point to point legend, he broke through the 1,000-winner barrier in 2015.

But it’s Jamie Codd that I wish to focus on for today’s piece. So often the bridesmaid to O’Connor, he’s stepped out of the shadows in the past few years, and has a pair of titles to his name. He’s also become one of the most familiar and successful amateur jockeys when riding under rules.

His record in the current campaign is quite staggering. Successful in the opener at the Punchestown Festival yesterday, Codd now has a strike-rate of 31%, with a stunning 33 wins from 102 rides in bumpers, and 5 victories from just 15 over fences. He’s also becoming the ‘go-to’ amateur for the big spring festivals, having had another fabulous Cheltenham in March. He rode a famous double on day two at Prestbury Park, when guiding Cause Of Causes to success in the Cross Country, and then winning the Champion Bumper aboard Gordon Elliott’s flying filly Fayonagh.

Codd’s association with Cause Of Causes has brought three Cheltenham Festival victories, and in April almost delivered the greatest success of his career, when coming close to landing the Grand National at Aintree. Codd gave the horse a perfect ride, moving into the front half dozen deep into the race, and delivering the McManus owned nine-year-old with his challenge at the last. Unfortunately for all concerned, One For Arthur had one extra gear from the last fence to the elbow, and maintained the advantage to the line.

The Wexford pilot had arrived at Punchestown with high hopes of further festival success. And he didn’t have to wait long, when guiding the favourite, Enniskillen to victory in the opening hunter chase. Further exciting rides lie ahead, starting today, when he is reunited with Elliott’s Champion Bumper winner Fayonagh. Codd can play his part in bringing valuable prize-money the way of the leading trainer. The mare is currently favourite to take the Grade 1 Champion Flat Race, though faces a talented bunch including the Gigginstown owned Poli Roi.

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He then rides Minutestomidnight, who is well fancied to take the Mares Flat Race. A daughter of Vinnie Roe out of an Accordion mare, she was mightily impressive at Wexford earlier in the month. Codd was onboard on that occasion and must be relishing the opportunity of another ride on the exciting six-year-old.

It’s also been a busy winter for the leading amateur off the track. As the National Hunt season began in earnest, news arrived that Codd had landed a permanent role with Tattersalls Ireland. As the horses-in-training representative, he would have been in the thick of it during the winter sales at Ascot and Cheltenham.

At the time of his appointment, Tattersalls Ireland managing director Roger Casey said of Codd: “We are delighted to welcome Jamie to the team at Tattersalls Ireland on a permanent basis. He has a wealth of knowledge on the pointing and racing fields and an expansive network of contacts which we firmly believe will help the on-going development of our horses-in-training sales.”

On and off the racecourse, Jamie Codd is making his mark on the sport. Expect the man from Wexford to create a few more headlines before this Punchestown Festival is over.

Mullins and Elliott clash at Fairyhouse

To Fairyhouse we go for today’s preview, as I put Monday's Irish Grand National under focus.

I was tempted to look at the All-Weather Championships from Lingfield. But there’s a huge story developing in Ireland, and unless Willie Mullins has a fabulous Fairyhouse, followed by a pulsating Punchestown, we will have ourselves a new King of Irish Jump racing.

A victory in Monday’s showpiece for Gordon Elliott could prove the killer-blow, with the race now the richest in the Irish Jump racing calendar. There is €500,000 in the prize fund, with €270,000 going to the winner. A maximum field of 30 may well contain half a dozen of Elliott’s squad, which must be a concern for the master of Closutton, who could have just two or three making the cut.

Elliott’s Bless The Wings came within a short-head of winning the race 12 months ago, when just failing to catch the Gigginstown owned Rogue Angel. The same silks were carried to victory a year earlier, when Thunder And Roses took the race for Sandra Hughes. Elliott has a glut of Gigginstown contenders this time round, as Michael O’Leary looks for the hat-trick.

The trends point to a lightly raced winner. Seven and eight-year-olds have the dominant record in the 3m5f marathon, with seven of the last 10 renewals going to the age group. However, the roll of honour is peppered with nine, 10 and 11-year-old victors, and they should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

As with Aintree, weight carrying is a major factor in success or failure. Even more pronounced than at Liverpool, a horse needs to be carrying less than 11 stone to win this race. Commanche Court was the last horse to carry more to victory, when winning in 2000, and he went on to finish runner-up to Best Mate in the Gold Cup a couple of years later. Those rated in the low to mid-130s have been particularly successful in recent times, though that type of mark may miss the cut this year.

Gordon Elliott’s Lord Scoundrel is set to land top-weight of 11-10 when final declarations are announced this morning. He’s a talented young chaser who will appreciate the sounder surface. He took the Galway Plate back in July, but has been off the track since November, and that’s hardly the ideal prep for this.

Noble Endeavour and Clarcam follow-on for Elliott, with the former capable of going well off a huge weight. He’ll also enjoy the ground, and arrives off the back of a cracking effort at Cheltenham, when third to Un Temps Pour Tout.

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The favourite for the race is Jess Harrington’s novice, Our Duke. He’s a class act, and I’m a little surprised that he is heading here. He dodged Cheltenham, with connections saying that they wanted to ‘look after him’ with his future in mind. He’s only run three times over fences, and though the race tends do favour a novice, he is exceptionally inexperienced for this. He’s a horse I like a lot, but at this stage of his career I’d be stunned if he wins. Robbie Power can do no wrong, and he’ll take the ride, with the betting suggesting punters are confident of a huge run.

Thunder And Roses only got as far as the ninth fence at Aintree, and may remain fresh enough to do himself justice. He likes Fairyhouse, though did underperform in this race last year. Now with Mouse Morris, he’s just about on a handicap mark that would give him an each-way squeak.

Tiger Roll is another of the Gigginstown battalion that has an each-way chance. He was sensational at Cheltenham when winning the four-miler, and decent ground is crucial to his chances. He sauntered to victory in the Munster National back in October, and is arguably Elliott’s best shot at success.

All the above lie a little higher in the handicap than ideal, and there’s several from the bottom-end that appeal.
Though Willie Mullins may only have a few making the start, Haymount is one that looks to have a huge chance. Another that needs decent ground, he ran well in the four-miler at Cheltenham despite being keen throughout. He doesn’t lack gears, having beat Coney Island and Mall Dini earlier in the season at 2m4f. He’s a consistent sort, and I fancy he’ll go close.

Mall Dini is another with a shout, and has the right kind of profile. He was perhaps a little unfortunate at Cheltenham last time, when hampered late-on in the Fulke Walwyn Chase. He’s as short as 8/1 for this, though I’m not sure he warrants being half the price of Tiger Roll and Haymount. Nevertheless, he’s likely to go well despite still being a maiden over fences.

Abolitionist is another from the lower end of the handicap that has been attracting attention. Trained in County Kilkenny by Ellmarie Holden, this would be something of a fairy-tale success. Leading novice Rachael Blackmore takes the ride, and the horse tuned-up for this with a gutsy win in the Leinster National at Naas. The nine-year-old looks a thorough stayer, and is ideally weighted.

I’m a huge fan of Our Duke, and if he runs well I’ll be thrilled, but I can’t have him for this at 5/1. Mullins versus Elliott will remain the theme for the remainder of the season, and there’s every chance that they’ll be battling it out for this valuable prize. I’m keen on Haymount and Tiger Roll, and will be backing both. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Fairyhouse – An Easter Extravaganza

Fairyhouse is the next stop-off for the National Hunt Express, with its Easter extravaganza featuring the Irish Grand National.

The three-day meeting is one of the highlights of the Irish Jump racing calendar, and regularly attracts classy sorts for the valuable and prestigious cards. Easter often falls closer to the Cheltenham Festival, but the gap of a month this year will undoubtedly help in raising the level of talent on display. Yorkhill is one of Ireland’s leading lights, and is expected to compete in the opening day feature; the Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase.

The Willie Mullins trained JLT winner is likely to face Gigginstown’s Road To Respect, who also won impressively at the Cheltenham Festival. It could prove a testing race for Yorkhill, especially with his tendency to leap to his left. Though a comfortable winner at the track in December, those jumping quirks were glaringly obvious. There’s no pilot better than Ruby Walsh, but he’s sure to be sweating over this one.

One of the highlights on Sunday will be the Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final, with British interest thanks to Fergal O’Brien and his talented mare Colin’s Sister. The drying ground may be a slight concern for this gorgeous looking six-year-old, who is yet to taste defeat over hurdles. I can’t wait to see her jump a fence, but in the meantime, she faces a battalion of talent from the Mullins yard, including Cheltenham winner Let’s Dance. Sporting the silks of Rich and Susannah Ricci, the five-year-old is undefeated in four starts this winter, and will prove hard to beat.

The Irish Grand National is the feature on Easter Monday, with leading novice Our Duke currently heading the markets. I’m a huge fan, though Jess Harrington’s youngster is likely to have plenty of weight on his back. Rogue Angel took the race last year for Gigginstown, and the team are likely to be mob-handed once again, with Cheltenham winner Tiger Roll sure to prove popular with punters. Jonjo O’Neill has a great record in the race, and looks likely to send Another Hero into battle. The eight-year-old is without doubt suitably named for the task.

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The Grade 2 Stawberry Hurdle could well prove one of the highlights of the meeting, with Jezki and Shaneshill, set to take on Gordon Elliott’s new sensation, Sutton Place. The state of the ground is sure to play a part in the leading contenders participation, but this has the looks of a cracking renewal. Jezki looked a non-stayer at Prestbury Park, and this 2m4f trip should prove more to his liking.

Flemenstar stole the show on the final day of the meeting 12 months ago. The wonderful old chaser, landed the Grade 2 Normans Grove Chase. We can also expect classy sorts to contend the EBF Novice Hurdle Final, which last year attracted the talented pair of Coney Island and Road To Respect, both now strutting their stuff to great effect over fences.

The ongoing battle for the trainers’ crown, adds an extra dimension to the Fairyhouse meeting. Though both Mullins and Elliott will look to hold back numerous stars for Punchestown, there’s sure to be plenty of bullets fired at valuable targets over the coming days, with the Closutton outfit still almost €400,000 adrift. Expect valuable handicaps to be crammed with Mullins and Elliott contenders, as both go all-out for the title.

Henderson Holds the Aces as Mullins Draws A Blank

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2017 went to Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson.

Altior landed the Arkle Chase for Seven Barrows, forging clear from the last fence for a six-length success. He jumped beautifully throughout, and was pressing Charbel for the lead, when Kim Bailey’s chaser came down at the second-last. The fall left Cloudy Dream and Ordinary World in hot pursuit, though neither could match the favourite up the famous hill. The victory was workmanlike rather than flashy, though there’s no doubting Altior’s class.

Just over an hour later, the form of his Supreme Novices’ win in 2016 was handsomely franked, when Buveur D’Air ran away with the Champion Hurdle. Henderson trained the first pair home, with My Tent Or Yours running a cracker to finish runner-up. But the winner proved to be in a class of his own. Petit Mouchoir had set the pace, and heading downhill had several of the field struggling, including the disappointing favourite Yanworth. The Henderson duo launched their challenge turning for home, with Buveur D’Air showing a clean pair of heels to lead at the last. He stretched four lengths clear at the finish.

Nicky Henderson was winning his sixth Champion Hurdle, and said after the race: “He won his two novice chases, but I just knew there was more there over hurdles. It was a very open race, but I knew he was a very talented horse. I wondered if I'd got it wrong (switching back to hurdles) but it's proved the right thing to do and it's worked on the day.”

Willie Mullins could only manage fourth with Footpad, and his luck was no better throughout the opening day, with Gordon Elliott proving to be a thorn in his side. The pair are in the midst of a tense battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, and Elliott was once again on top, this time in an arena where Mullins has become virtually invincible.

Melon was all the rage for the Supreme Novices’ and ran a cracking race, looking the likely winner turning for home. But it was Labaik, so often the bad boy on the track, that having decided to join in, showed he had the talent to go with the attitude. Elliott’s fella had refused to take part in four of his last six, but when it mattered most he tagged on to the back of the pack, gradually working his way through the field, and launching his challenge turning for home. He cruised to the front before the last under an ultra-cool ride from talented young jockey Jack Kennedy, and though Melon battled on gamely he was a couple of lengths adrift at the finish.

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Elliott joked after the victory: “He hasn't jumped off the last three times and I was wanting to go to Naas on Sunday to spare the embarrassment of him not jumping off at Cheltenham. The owners, who are friends, wanted to go. He has an engine, this horse, and there isn't another that can work with him in the yard. I don't know where he'll go next.”

A thrilled Jack Kennedy said: “Words can’t describe it - I’ve dreamed about this day for as long as I can remember. Everyone wants more, but I'll be going home a very happy lad at the end of the week now, however things go.”

Mullins would have been confident of landing the Mares’ Hurdle, but again it was Elliott that put a spanner in the works. Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were strongly fancied, but Apple’s Jade proved a gutsy winner, out-battling the Ricci owned pair in a thrilling finish. VVM looked to be getting on top at the last, but the winner found more for Bryan Cooper, pulling more than a length clear. The winning trainer looked chuffed to bits when saying: “This was her Gold Cup. I put the tongue-strap on her and I thought it would work out. I knew she'd have to improve a good bit from her last run but she did. She'll stay three miles next year and will go to Punchestown now.”

Elliott made it three for the day when Tiger Roll stormed to victory in the four-miler. Despite the marathon trip, the seven-year-old was cantering turning for home under Lisa O’Neill, and won comfortably. Edwulf proved the only challenger, but appeared to suffer a seizure after the last. He was quickly pulled-up, and at the time of writing is back in the stable, hopefully on the road to recovery. The victory was the second of the day for owner Michael O’Leary, who said: “Tiger Roll loved it. He has his own way of doing things. I don’t know what to do now for the rest of the week. Normally I start to get nervous by Thursday when we can’t find a winner any way. Two-in on the first day, I think I should fly home, as it’s not going to get any better than this.”

It could get better for Elliott, with several outstanding horses still to launch their Festival challenge. Mullins will be praying that a blank opening day is not a sign of things to come. He has Douvan going to post tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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