Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott continue to boss affairs at Cheltenham, bagging five races between them on day three. It was Mullins who took the Stayers’ Hurdle courtesy of last year’s Albert Bartlett winner, Penhill.

Off the track since that success 12 months ago, Mullins had the seven-year-old tuned to perfection and aided by a ponderous pace he was able to out-kick Supasundae up the infamous hill. Sam Spinner had been sent off the short-priced favourite, with the responsibility of setting a searching yet controlled pace, resting in the hands of Joe Colliver. Such a task had proved too much for more experienced jockeys during this Festival (Davy Russell-Petit Mouchoir) and sadly for his trainer and connections it appeared the case once again, as virtually the whole field queued up waiting to land a blow as they turned for home.

From the pack Penhill and Supasundae came to the fore and battled out the finish, with the former possessing the gears to land the prize. It was a terrific training performance from Mullins, and after the race he spoke of the frailty of the seven-year-old that had prevented the team from getting a run into him prior to the meeting. Jess Harrington’s Supasundae ran a cracker but found one with a little too much zip at the finish. Despite the rather pedestrian pace of the race, The New One and Yanworth failed to see-out the trip. Sam Spinner battled on bravely for fifth and there’ll be many more opportunities for this gutsy six-year-old.

Willie Mullins went on to land a double on the day, with the talented young mare Laurina romping to victory in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. She cruised through the race before powering up the Cheltenham hill to win by just shy of 20-lengths.

Gordon Elliott added another treble to the one on Wednesday, with Shattered Love arguably the star turn as she powered to victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. He again proved the master of the handicaps winning the Pertemps and the Brown Advisory, with Davy Russell in the saddle on both occasions. Russell gave The Storyteller the ride of the week, as he weaved his way through the field to challenge approaching the last. And when his mount drifted across the track, seemingly unimpressed with the whip, the jock was quick to get at him under hands and heels, driving him to a thrilling victory.

Elliott now lies one adrift of Mullins over the three days, with six winners. The pair have captured 13 of the 21 races thus far and have plenty more leading contenders for the final day of the Festival. Indeed, the pair account for more than half of the field in the opener, the Triumph Hurdle. Mullins runs four, including the talented filly Stormy Island. She won her debut in Ireland by more than 50-lengths, though has another talented filly to beat, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Apple’s Shakira.

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Elliott and Mullins then have the joint-favourites for the ultra-competitive County Hurdle, though it’s a Mullins 14/1 shot, Whiskey Sour, that takes my fancy.

Nicky Henderson appears to hold all the aces in the Albert Bartlett, with Santini and Chef Des Obeaux expected to go close.

Mullins arrives mob-handed as he goes in search of his first Gold Cup success. Djakadam has another crack, though it’s Killultagh Vic that looks to have the best chance for the Closutton team. Hugely talented, yet frighteningly inexperienced, this nine-year-old won at the Festival back in 2015 and has only run five times since. He fell at the last when looking the likely winner of the Irish Gold Cup last time. It looks a tall order for both horse and trainer, though the same could have been said for Penhill as he attempted to win the Stayers’ Hurdle on seasonal debut.

Mr Mullins appears capable of almost anything during these four-day gatherings at Prestbury Park.

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

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There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

Henderson and Mullins launch Anti-Samcro Assault

Often won by a future star of the sport, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly the Neptune) gets the action underway on day two of the Festival.

Istabraq took the race at the age of five back in 1997. He’d already announced himself as a horse of huge potential by winning the Royal Bond, the Future Champions and the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. What followed was a period of utter dominance from one of the all-time great hurdlers. He won a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles and won the Irish version four years in a row.

Hardy Eustace had also landed the Royal Bond prior to winning this event at Cheltenham (then known as the Royal & SunAlliance) in 2003. Like Istabraq before, the success proved a launchpad for a period of two-mile dominance. He won thrilling renewals of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 05, gaining a reputation as a front-running warrior.

Nicanor defeated Denman in the 2006 renewal and Massini’s Maguire got the better of dear old Tidal Bay in 2007. The pair had Imperial Commander behind them in seventh that day. First Lieutenant edged out Rock On Ruby in 2011, with the latter returning 12 months later to win the Champion Hurdle. Simonsig and The New One followed, before ‘the machine’ Faugheen romped to victory in 2014. He too returned a year later to win the Champion Hurdle and but for injury would surely have become the dominant force of two-mile hurdling.

Yorkhill has become something of an enigma over the winter, but he too followed his 2016 victory in this with further Festival success last year, when winning the JLT Novices’ Chase. Both he and Faugheen are likely to return to Prestbury Park next week in search of further Cheltenham glory.

But what of the Ballymore? And are we likely to witness the crowning of a new Jump racing star?

One horse that has the industry and its viewing public as excited as any other, is the undefeated Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro. Touted as the new sensation, the six-year-old is three from three over hurdles, including a devastating performance in winning the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. That victory came at two miles, though connections were adamant that the horse needed further and would head for the Ballymore. He has a high cruising speed and had far too many gears for a classy looking field last time. He’s looked stunning thus far, though there’s a couple in this that should give him his sternest test.

Willie Mullins has won four of the last ten and has a leading contender in Next Destination. Also three from three over hurdles, he’s another strong traveller though perhaps lacks the acceleration of Samcro. He does, however, look a powerful stayer and is likely to be storming up the hill, probably attempting to peg-back a slicker, swifter Samcro. He too has impressed over the winter, beating many of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland. He’s a major player.

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Elliott and Mullins lead the way in the Emerald Isle and it’s therefore a thrill to see a Nicky Henderson-trained On The Blind Side taking on the Irish raiders. Undefeated under rules, and also three from three over hurdles, this son of Stowaway was mightily impressive when last seen at Sandown in December. He was giving a couple of decent horses 5lbs that day and thumped them out of sight. It’s a slight concern that he’s not had a prep-run, though Henderson had said that he was happy to go straight to the Festival. Expect him to be niggled along as they come down the hill, but I fancy he’ll be powering up the famous climb to the finish as he attempts to overhaul Samcro.

Willie Mullins has another contender in five-year-old Duc Des Genievres. Rumour has it that this youngster may be aimed at the Albert Bartlett, though I’d be surprised if they send such a young and inexperienced horse to one of the Festival’s most gruelling events. This fella has a huge amount of potential, having finished third to Next Destination and runner-up to Samcro in his two starts in Ireland. The Deloitte trip was clearly too short, but he ran a cracker when third in the Grade One Lawlor’s at Naas having been off the track for seven months. This is undoubtedly the race he should be heading for, and I fancy he’ll put in a huge performance. At 14/1, he looks an obvious each-way proposition.

Kim Bailey’s Vinndication is yet another undefeated challenger. He’s a lovely looking son of Vinnie Roe and will likely make a smashing chaser in time. He possibly needs testing ground to be seen at his best, and I’m not sure he’ll have the gears to challenge the leading contenders. That’s just an assumption of course, as there’s no doubting he’s a talented sort. He defeated Western Ryder last time at Huntingdon, and that looks strong form. He’s not easy to dismiss, but I just fancy there’ll be quicker horses in the race and he’ll be tapped for toe late on.

Black Op is another that looks certain to make a cracking chaser. French Holly was the last seven-year-old to win this race in 1998, though this fella could put up a huge challenge. He’s a smasher to look at and travelled beautifully last time at Cheltenham when chinned late-on by another beauty in the Henderson-trained Santini. The pair pulled miles clear of the remainder and look to have exciting futures. Black Op is a powerful galloper who really sticks his neck out. He’ll run well, though again may lack the gears of a few of these.

Of those at a bigger price I remain interested in Western Ryder. I tipped him up each-way for the Supreme and I think that race is an easier option. This renewal has greater depth, yet I would still be tempted to have a little on him each-way, with better ground likely to suit and his fondness of the track already proven.

I wouldn’t be upset if Samcro romped home and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I’m taking On The Blind Side to finish the race stronger and nail the favourite up the famous hill. Despite Samcro’s reputation, I’m convinced that this race will be competitive, with several talented types taking their chance.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

De Bromhead novice can Sparkle in the Arkle

It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.

The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.

Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.

So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?

Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.

Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.

Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.

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One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.

Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.

Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.

North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.

This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.

Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.

Get-on Getabird – the First Festival Banker

With less than a fortnight to go until the Cheltenham Festival, the time has come to start previewing some of the action.

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle opens the show and is a race that has been kind to Willie Mullins in recent times. With three wins and a trio of runners-up finishes in the last five renewals, the Closutton team are the ones to watch in the Festival opener.

Many of those Mullins winners have carried the silks of the Ricci’s, and this year’s race favourite Getabird is hoping to continue that successful run. He’s a six-year-old, which is handy, as those aged five and six dominate the race. Unbeaten under rules, he’s two from two over hurdles and owes his place at the head of the market to the devastating performance last time at Punchestown in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.

Getabird sprinted clear of Mengli Khan that day (was in receipt of 6lbs) causing connections to change focus from the Ballydoyle to the Supreme. He’s slick over the obstacles and clearly has gears. He’s also a beautiful mover, and I’d be stunned if better ground (he’s been winning on heavy) was to cause any concerns. His odds of 13/8 look skinny, but he ticks so many boxes, especially the Mullins/Ricci box.

Mengli Khan is not your typical Gigginstown contender. He learnt his trade on the flat under the guidance of Hugo Palmer. He’s taken a while to get the knack of hurdles, however is now maturing into that sizeable frame. A decent juvenile though some way off the best, he’s improved plenty this winter and may well take another step forward on better ground at Cheltenham. I don’t think he has the gears to cope with Getabird, but he may well be good enough to hit the frame. Gordon Elliott was responsible for last year’s surprise winner Labaik.

Many pundits believe that Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov is the main danger to the favourite. Three from four over hurdles, this five-year-old (box ticked) suffered his only defeat in testing ground at Sandown. He bounced back to form with an impressive victory at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle, defeating Bleu Et Rouge by four and-a-bit lengths.

A son of Kalanisi out of an Old Vic mare, he has the size and scope for fences, but therein lies my concern for this contender. He’s a huge unit and can take some time to get stoked up. Though there’s the famous hill to climb, Cheltenham’s Old Course (used on day one and two) is a sharper track than the New, and Kalashnikov may find himself too far back when it counts. He’ll be charging home, but I fancy the bird will have flown.

Summerville Boy defeated Kalashnikov at Sandown in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle and is a major player if the ground on the opening day is testing. He’s already suffered two defeats at Cheltenham this winter, though reversed form with one of the adversaries, Western Ryder, in the Sandown race. A fast run two-miles will help this fella, but he needs the ground to be in his favour if he’s to land a telling blow.

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At a decent price I quite fancy Tolworth flop Western Ryder. Prior to the Sandown run, this Warren Greatrex-trained six-year-old had landed a couple of races, including the win at Cheltenham in December (Summerville Boy almost six-lengths back and receiving 6lbs). He clearly likes the track, having finished fifth in last year’s Champion Bumper, despite interference late in the race. He’s already run 11 times under rules, which suggests he’s somewhat exposed. But I fancy that experience will prove useful and at 33s I think he’ll run well.

Like Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson has a cracking record in the opener, though his Claimantakinforgan looks set for a place finish at best. He was third in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and was two from two over hurdles until disappointing somewhat last time at Musselburgh. He lacks gears and though a decent sort I’d be surprised if he had the ‘Va Va Voom’ for this.

Henry De Bromhead could have an exciting opening day (has Petit Mouchoir in the Arkle), and his Paloma Blue looks capable of running well in this. He travelled like a dream last time at Leopardstown before being outgunned by Samcro late-on. He was a little keen that day and should appreciate a faster run race on a sounder surface. He’s an each-way player.

I’d also give Vision Des Flos a mention, following his return to form last month after having a wind-op. He was a seriously good bumper horse in Ireland but had disappointed in his three starts over hurdles this term. An operation in January coupled with a drop back in trip at Exeter last month seems to have brought about an improved performance. He probably didn’t beat much, but at 33s, Colin Tizzard’s five-year-old is sure to attract each-way money.

I’ve already got a few quid riding on Getabird and I think he’ll win. Mullins has a terrific record in the race and this fella looked special last time. I fancy Mengli Khan will get nearer and I’m also a fan of Paloma Blue. The Irish have a great record in the Supreme, and I can’t see this year’s race being any different. The one UK contender that could break their stranglehold is Western Ryder. I’m hoping he comes here rather than taking in the Ballymore. If he does, I’ll be having a bit of that 33/1. He may be bigger on the day, and there’s a chance that a bookies special may give us an extra place for our each-way cash.

Best of luck to those having a punt in what is sure to be a fabulous curtain-raiser to this wonderful festival.

Festival Fever – Decisions to be made

With the Cheltenham Festival now less than three weeks away, news on intended targets for the leading contenders will likely be released daily.

Yesterday, it was several of Colin Tizzard’s team that came under the microscope. A decision on Cue Card is yet to be made, with the trainer saying: “Whether he goes for the Ryanair or Gold Cup, if you read Monday's paper it was all decided but it is not. We will let that run for a while. Jean (Bishop, owner) is coming down for three days to have a little holiday with the family and we will make a decision then for sure. There is no reason why we shouldn't go for the biggest one. Is that harder to win than the Ryanair? Possibly, yes.”

Of another Gold Cup contender, Native River, the Dorset handler said: “We are a lot stronger this time round. He has just had the one run, but we had him ready at Christmas to run. He was equally as good (at Newbury) as he had ever been. He has got a wonderful chance. I think at the moment we have got it dead right with him. We've had a little skirmish round Newbury and sprinted for half a mile up the run-in over the last three fences, and that should put him spot on. He was ready to run first time, but he is bound to improve, as every horse does. How much he has got to improve, we will find out.”

Though not quite certain, Tizzard appears to be favouring the Ryanair Chase for Fox Norton. Last year’s Champion Chase runner-up has been absent since a disappointing performance in the King George. The trainer explained: “After he ran in the Game Spirit last year he was lame in his back and we had to give him a few injections for a kissing spine. He had that after this year's King George. That is why he didn't jump at all. He is absolutely fine now. We missed the Game Spirit with pus in his foot.

“I expect we will go for the two-and-a-half-miler, unless Altior frightens everyone off, then we might take him on. He does look the business, but we must not run away from one horse.”

The trainer looks likely to send Elegant Escape to the RSA Chase, though the four-miler is still under consideration. Tizzard said: “This is a beautiful young horse. Black Corton is a very good horse, but he beat him at Newbury and we were closing on him fast at Kempton as well. I think Cheltenham will be right for him. At the moment we are definitely leaning towards the RSA, but if a top Irish jockey (amateur) became available, that might change it.”

Nicky Henderson has also been mulling over the fact that he has favourites for three of the championship races. The Seven Barrows handler said: “I think of the three, Might Bite probably has the most to prove, whereas the other boys are proven. He has got to stay and make sure no funny quirks develop.”

He added: “It’s a nice position to be in, of course it is, and I’m a lucky boy. I’m fortunate these horses have come around at the same time.” Nevertheless, having such a powerful team heading to the Festival puts a huge amount of pressure on him and the team. He went on: “I’d rather have the pressure, or the responsibility of minding these guys, to get them there and get it right, than having nice peaceful nights and not worrying about it all.”

Alan King will be hoping for a better Festival than 12 months ago. Messire Des Obeaux, Who Dares Wins and Dusky Legend all managed third place finishes, but this year’s team looks stronger. The Barbury Castle handler has confirmed that Yanworth will line up in the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’d won a couple of races over fences during the winter and the RSA had looked likely. But having defeated Supasundae (currently favourite for Stayers’) at Aintree in April the team can’t resist another crack at the Irish raider in March.

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The team have also announced that Who Dares Wins is being aimed at the Pertemps Final. Third at 33/1 in last year’s Coral Cup behind Supasundae, the six-year-old filled the same spot in a qualifier at Kempton in November. He ran a cracker in the Ascot Stakes during the summer and is sure to be suited by decent ground at Cheltenham. Expect him to be available at a tasty each-way price.

King is also set to parachute Elgin into the Champion Hurdle. This vastly improved six-year-old took the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last week and has won three of his five starts this term. He’s no Buveur D’Air, but in a very open looking Champion, he’s possibly an each-way player.

One of the team’s most exciting Cheltenham prospects is the unbeaten juvenile hurdler Redicean. An easy winner of his two starts to date, he’ll be running this Saturday in the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton. It’s a recognised Triumph Hurdle trial, and this fella has huge potential.

All doubt over Samcro’s Festival target was removed on Monday when Gigginstown racing manager Eddie O’Leary confirmed the horse would head for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. “He runs in the Ballymore and that’s final,” said O’Leary. “We think he will be a nice chaser over three miles for next season so, even though he won the Deloitte over two miles, he won’t be running in the Supreme.” Now odds-on across the board, the undefeated six-year-old is seen by many as the banker of the meeting.

Another well-fancied festival contender is the Jed O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. As short as 4s for the Stayers’, he was taken to Newcastle on Tuesday for a spin. The trainer remains pleased with his preparation, saying: “It was a strong canter really, just to get him away for the day and do something different. We were really happy with him. It wasn't a serious workout. He's very fit already. It was just to stretch his legs and go somewhere a bit different.”

The trainer added: “It's fairly straightforward what we'll do between now and Cheltenham. He'll have a few easy days after being away and then just one or two easy pieces of work at home. He'll have a school, maybe two, as we get closer to the Festival. He's basically ready now. I'm counting down the days - nervously and anxiously.”

The main event is coming around fast. Plans for many will no doubt change and then change again. We’ll do our best to keep Geegeez readers updated as the opening day draws near.

Stat of the Day, 21st February 2018

Tuesday's Result :

4.40 Wetherby : Lunar Flow @ 4/1 BOG 5th at 9/4 Led to 2nd, led again before 5th, headed 5th, weakened after 5 out...

Next up is Wednesday's...

5.10 Ludlow :

Before I post the daily selection, just a quick reminder of how I operate the service. Generally, I'll identify and share the selection in the evening before the following day's race and I then add a detailed write-up later on that night/next morning.

Those happy to take the early price on trust can do so, whilst some might prefer to wait for my reasoning. As I fit the early service in around my family life, I can't give an exact timing on the posts, so I suggest you follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook for instant notifications of a published pick.


War Creation @ 9/4 BOG

A Class 4, 2m5.5f handicap hurdle on soft ground worth £5,263 to the winner and a shorter priced pick than I'm usually comfortable with...


Because it's pretty poor stuff out there and most of those that I like from stats angle are even shorter!

But the reasons why this one ticked some boxes begin with the excellent start she has made to her racing career, making the fame in four of six starts, picking up three wins along the way. Amongst those races so far, she is...

  • 3 from 4 in fields of 4-9 runners
  • 2 from 3 going right handed
  • 1 from 1 here at Ludlow
  • 1 from 1 on soft ground
  • 1 from 1 under today's jockey Ned Curtis

In fact, Ned was on board last time out, when she won at Haydock by six lengths 53 days ago over 2m3f on heavy ground at this grade, so stamina hopefully won't be her undoing.

That LTO win also qualifies her for one of my LTO winner micro-systems, whose rules/criteria seem more complicated in print than they are in practice, but here goes...

Class 2 to 5 handicap hurdle races over 3 miles or shorter / horses aged 5 to 11 yrs old / won a hcp hurdle LTO by 4 lengths or more and are now running under the following conditions : same class or up one grade from LTO / off a mark (OR) equal or up to 14lbs higher than LTO and at a trip ranging from 4.5f shorter to 3.5f longer than LTO.

Since the start of 2013, we've had 987 qualifiers fitting the above criteria, so it's a decent sample size that has yielded 303 winners (30.7% SR) for profits of 341.7pts at an ROI of 34.6% and include of relevance today...

  • same class as LTO : 194/565 (34.3%) for 194.72pts (+34.5%)
  • won by 5 to 10 lengths LTO : 139/451 (30.8%) for 193.17pts (+42.8%)
  • at Class 4 : 138/439 (31.4%) for 118.75pts (+27.1%)
  • 6 yr olds are 81/277 (29.2%) for 55.5pts (+20.1%)
  • on Soft ground : 73/246 (29.7%) for 74.76pts (+30.4%)
  • in Feb/March : 60/207 (29%) for 93.45pts (+45.1%)
  • up in trip by 1.5f to 3.5f : 59/187 (31.6%) for 90pts (+48.1%)
  • and here at Ludlow : 12/28 (42.9%) for 10.77pts (+38.5%)

I think most people are aware of trainer Nicky Henderson's decent record here at Ludlow in the last few years (his hurdlers are 21 from 64 here since 2013), so I'm not going to bore you with those details, but I'm going to end with a quick note (or two!) about War Creation's father, Scorpion, whose offspring are 13 from 75 (17.3% SR) for 134.75pts (+179.7% ROI) in handicap jumps races on soft ground or worse since the start of 2017.

Those figures don't actually include Tuesday's results where one of his three progeny running went and won at 10/1 (Hoo Bally Diva at Taunton), but do contain the following...

  • over trips of 2m to 2m5.5f : 12/51 (23.5%) for 154.91pts (+303.8%)
  • on soft ground : 7/50 (14%) for 121.15pts (+242.3%)
  • over hurdles : 6/47 (12.8%) for 114.24pts (+243.1%) soft ground handicap hurdles over 2m to 2m5.5f : 4/21 (19.1% SR) for 128.18pts (+610.4% ROI) us...a 1pt win bet on War Creation @ 9/4 BOG which was available from Bet365, SkyBet and a couple of minor payers at 5.45pm onTuesday. To see what your preferred bookie is offering, simply... here for the betting on the 5.10 Ludlow

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P.S. all P/L returns quoted in the stats above are to Betfair SP, as I NEVER bet to ISP and neither should you. I always use BOG bookies for SotD, wherever possible, but I use BFSP for the stats as it is the nearest approximation I can give, so I actually expect to beat the returns I use to support my picks. If that's unclear, please ask!

Cheltenham Festival Shorties – Thrash or Crash

For today’s piece I’ve decided to take a closer look at the Cheltenham Festival ‘shorties’ and assess whether they will thrash the opposition or unexpectedly crash and burn in the cauldron of Prestbury Park.

Year after year horses arrive at the Cotswolds in March with a huge reputation. They’ve often impressed in slowly run affairs, with small fields and usually in deep winter ground. Some duly arrive and conquer, confirming their status as potential stars. But others find Cheltenham an inhospitable place. The ground proves too quick and the opponents run too fast. They feel crowded in the larger fields and the fences are much trickier than those they have encountered before.

You only need to look back to last year’s Festival to see how Cheltenham in March can prove an immense assignment.

Yanworth lined-up as the 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle having won three from three during the winter. Nevertheless, he came-up short when it mattered. Never slick enough over the obstacles, he was then badly outpaced coming downhill. By the time the field had turned for home his race was run.

Douvan was injured during his attempt to land the Champion Chase, but was he also a victim of a soft campaign? He arrived at Cheltenham having defeated 138-rated Realt Mor in a Grade Two at Punchestown. Thrown in at the deep end, in arguably the most intense National Hunt race of the calendar, the 2/9 favourite was forced to go a yard or two faster than at any time during the winter. He stood off way too far at the third and fourth fence, before putting in a short one at the fifth. Those early errors may have caused the physical damage which ultimately led to his demise, though there can be little doubt that chasing Special Tiara on Spring ground played a significant part.

Death Duty looked a non-stayer before coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett, though during a dominant winter campaign in Ireland had looked sure to appreciate a step-up in trip. He’d ‘kept on well’ to thump Monalee at Navan in December, yet at Cheltenham, when sent-off a 13/8 ‘sure thing’, was run off his feet and had nothing left when faced with the infamous hill. His pedigree shouts stayer! Yet quicker ground and the inevitable stronger pace of a Grade One at The Festival proved insurmountable for the talented young hurdler.

Unowhatimeanharry had swept all aside en-route to last year’s Festival. He’d looked hugely impressive in taking the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot and then the Cleeve at Cheltenham. A 5/6 favourite for the Stayers’ at the off, Harry Fry’s hurdler did little wrong, travelling powerfully through the race, but lacked gears on the livelier ground and was beaten into third.

Each year these stories are repeated and without doubt there’ll be several ‘shorties’ turned over in March. The difficulty comes in predicting which of the ‘Festival bankers’ will fail to deliver.

Getabird is already a 7/4 shot for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If Samcro heads to the Ballydoyle as anticipated, the Mullins-trained six-year-old will be hugely popular with punters, especially of an Irish persuasion. He’s arguably the sort that we should be taking on. His pair of hurdles victories have come in heavy ground, and as a point-to-point winner, we know he’ll stay much further in time. He could be tapped for toe in a quick-fire Supreme. Nevertheless, at this moment in time I’m a believer rather than a doubter. He’s looked slick and destructively quick in winning those two races. The Mullins/Ricci combo have a tremendous record in the opener and with no Nicky Henderson contender to beat, I’m taking this fella to thrash the opposition much to the delight of the Irish contingent.

The Mullins team have another short-priced favourite for the second race of the meeting - the Arkle Chase. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Footpad has been brilliant over the winter, winning all three chase starts and taking to fences like a duck to water. An even-money favourite with most bookies, he’s earned the right to top the market and will be many punters banker of the opening day. Despite a faultless campaign to date, I’m taking Footpad to crash in a renewal that looks hugely competitive.

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Petit Mouchoir, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados could ensure that this is the race of the festival. A strong pace is guaranteed, and the winner will need to travel powerfully before staying on strongly up the famous hill. You could argue that Sceau Royal’s performance in winning the Henry VIII at Sandown was the most impressive by any novice this winter. I just have a slight concern as to whether he’ll be strong enough when faced with Cheltenham’s stiff finish. Saint Calvados was devastatingly good at Warwick last time, though needs to prove himself on a sounder surface. But it’s Petit Mouchoir that I fancy can turn the tables on Footpad. He should improve a ton for the run at Leopardstown last time. And producing two-mile chasers is Henry De Bromhead’s speciality.

Buveur D’Air is a certainty in the Champion Hurdle. Sure to thrash his challengers, those with plenty of cash can still get on at around 4/9.

I’m taking a huge risk with the next ‘Festival banker’. Samcro will look to maintain his perfect record under rules, with plenty believing that he cannot be beaten. Hugely impressive last time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, he’s odds-on to take the Ballymore. Spring-heeled at his obstacles, he has gears and is bred to appreciate this trip. Those winter wins have come on heavy ground, but he’s by Germany, a stallion that has produced previous festival winners Faugheen and Captain Cee Bee. He has the credentials, but in On The Blind Side and Next Destination, the opposition looks strong.

The former is trained by Nicky Henderson and is also unbeaten under rules. He was mightily impressive at Sandown in December and is highly thought of by his trainer. The Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination is unbeaten over hurdles and ran well in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He’s accounted for some decent sorts over the winter and looks sure to run a huge race. Samcro has looked awesome thus far, but I fancy the opposition is strong enough for him to be vulnerable here. Despite a huge amount of talent and a colossal reputation, he’s a crash rather than a thrash.

Like Buveur D’Air, Altior cannot be defeated. A two-time Festival winner, he’s in a different league to the rest. Min may be challenging approaching the last, but Altior will no doubt surge clear approaching the line. This fella is sure to thrash all-comers in the Champion Chase.

Though I’m stretching it a little in calling him a ‘shortie’, Might Bite has dominated the Gold Cup market since his King George success at Christmas. Hugely talented, though undoubtedly quirky, Henderson’s young chaser will face by far his toughest assignment at Cheltenham and I fear the infamous hill will prove his downfall. Almost chinned late-on in last year’s RSA, he faces better horses in March and arguably stronger stayers.

Sizing John needs to bounce back to form, but last year’s winner will probably do so. Native River has been aimed at this one race and looks sure to go close. Road To Respect is a Festival winner and has improved a ton during the winter. And there’s no doubting that Minella Rocco will be charging up the hill as others cry ‘enough’. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Might Bite proved me wrong, but for me he’s likely to crash when challenged by talented and more proven stayers.

So there you have it. Some will leave the Cotswolds with huge reputations intact, whilst others head home having found Cheltenham a place where dreams fail to come true.

Lalor to land an emotional Betfair Hurdle

Known as the Betfair Hurdle since 2012, the race was originally the Schweppes Gold Trophy and first run in 1963.

Nicky Henderson has enjoyed his fair amount of success with five victories, dating back to 1998. That sparked a run of four wins in seven renewals. His recent victory came in 2013, when classy hurdler My Tent Or Yours landed the prize en-route to a second-place finish in the Supreme Novices’ at the Cheltenham Festival.

That trend of talented novices taking the race has proved a theme of the Betfair Hurdle in recent times. Get Me Out Of Here, Recession Proof, Splash Of Ginge, Agrapart and last year’s winner Ballyandy were all first season hurdlers. Five or six-year-olds have won the last 10 renewals, with the age groups notching five apiece.

A maximum field of 24 go to post on Saturday with Nicky Henderson responsible for five. Jenkins heads the market and the six-year-old is currently on the crest of a wave. Always highly regarded by the Seven Barrows team, the application of blinkers appears to have worked the oracle. He’s won his last two, ably assisted by James Bowen last time at Ascot. The pair are re-united tomorrow with Jenkins off top-weight. The horse must cope with a 5lb rise in the handicap, with the jockey now only able to claim 3lb as opposed to five last month. It’s a tough ask to keep this run going, but both horse and jockey are firing on all cylinders.

Irish Roe is battling for favouritism and like Jenkins arrives in sparkling form. The seven-year-old mare was last seen getting within a length of Maria’s Benefit in a Grade Two at Doncaster. That was a cracking performance and suggested that her handicap mark should be some way higher than the current 134. She’s clearly progressing at a fair rate of knots and a race weight of 10-12 looks ideal.

Only three of the past 10 winners have carried more than 11 stone, with 11-2 the biggest weight carried in that time.

Kalashnikov is one of the younger brigade and the five-year-old has impressed in his three outings over hurdles. Having won his first two over timber, he lost out to Summerville Boy last time in the Tolworth Hurdle, though the pair pulled clear of some talented rivals. He has the right sort of profile for the race and his handicap mark looks fair for what he has achieved thus far.

Henderson has another fancied pair in Kayf Grace and Verdana Blue. The former is a classy mare and despite now being an eight-year-old has few miles on the clock. Good enough to beat Augusta Kate in the mares’ Grade Two bumper at Aintree in 2016, she’s proved fragile since, but won cosily last time at Kempton and seems to be back on track. Nevertheless, a handicap mark of 140 is possibly high enough and she’s not for me.

Verdana Blue is yet another mare and was last seen finishing third in a competitive handicap at Ascot (had several of these behind). Despite her form reading stronger, Nico De Boinville has chosen to partner Kayf Grace. She looks an improving sort, though off 145 I fancy there’ll be others in the race with a more lenient mark.

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Lalor is one such sort and is back from a wind-op. The novice hurdler was a leading bumper horse last term and is now trained by Kayley Woollacott after the tragic recent death of Richard. The six-year-old has run well but failed to win any of his three starts over hurdles. He’s looked a little weak in a finish, hence the operation. His form stacks up and a handicap mark of 137 looks fair. He should be a leading contender.

Gary Moore has a decent record in the race and runs the eight-year-old Knocknanuss. A decent bumper horse in Ireland, he arrived at Moore’s in 2015, but only got to the track back in May of this year. Twice a winner and twice runner-up from four starts over hurdles, he’s unexposed and on the upgrade. This is a much tougher assignment than his last win at Fontwell, but he’s an interesting contender.

Henderson’s Lough Derg Spirit gets in off 138 and that looks fair enough. He was a good novice last term and returned with a second-place finish in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton. Of all the Seven Barrows contenders this fella looks the one who could be well-in.

Moon Racer is an intriguing challenger and another back from a wind operation. Hugely talented as a youngster, he took the Champion Bumper back in 2015. He beat Ballyandy in his first run over hurdles but failed to be competitive when somewhat thrown in at the deep end in last year’s Champion Hurdle. Ballyandy ended his hurdling campaign off a mark of 147, whilst Moon Racer gets in here off 142. He has plenty to prove but the Pipe’s now how to prepare one, and he’s a horse that goes well fresh. His odds of 25s are tempting.

Divine Bere is another at a price that could run a huge race. The five-year-old only just lost out in last year’s Fred Winter before getting close to Defi Du Seuil at Aintree. He showed nothing on return at Ascot but was duly dropped 4lb by the handicapper. He’s probably carrying a little too much to win but he’s a stonking 40/1.

You’d expect a handicap of this nature to be competitive and it certainly is. Any of the above could win, plus a few that I’ve failed to mention. I’m going with Lalor in the hope that the wind-op has done the trick. He has the right profile and his bumper form was outstanding. I fear Kalashnikov, as he could be the class act in the field with plenty more improvement to come. The one for the each-way punters has to be Moon Racer. He could just as easily finish last, but a wind operation, coupled with an interesting handicap mark, makes his odds of 25/1 too tempting to turn down.

Best of luck to all those having a punt in this head-scratcher.

Definitly Red runs riot on emotional day at Cheltenham

Definitly Red landed the Cotswold Chase on Saturday, leaving trainer Brian Ellison dreaming of Gold Cup glory.

Revelling in testing conditions, the nine-year-old stormed up the famous hill for an eight-length victory. Harry Fry’s young chaser American had travelled powerfully throughout and heading downhill looked to be going best of all. Bristol De Mai and Definitly Red challenged from three-out, but by the second-last Ellison’s charge had taken command. American rallied as Bristol De Mai began to paddle, but there was no catching the winner. The Last Samuri closed on the front three as the line approached, though at no point looked like landing a serious blow.

“That was brilliant,” said Ellison after the victory. “He's class, isn't he? Danny gave him a great ride, he gets on great with him. He’s probably one of the best jockeys riding. He had to use his head down the back.”

The trainer was winning at the course for the first time in 16 years and added: “I thought the other horse (American) was going better, but Danny took a pull to lie a couple of lengths off him and when he gave him a kick in the belly he took off. He's just got better every year and the plan this year was to keep him fresh. Today would tell us if we went for the Gold Cup, so we'll go now.”

Cook can now look forward to a first ride in the festival showpiece. He said of the winner: “He stayed on really well. He got a bit lonely in front and had a good look. This horse is going from strength to strength, he gave me a nice feel today.”

On an emotional day at Prestbury Park, the jockey added: “I'd like to dedicate that to my grandad, who is not very well, we don't know how much longer he's got, he said he'd love to see me ride a winner at Cheltenham and he has.”

Bristol De Mai failed to shine and is simply not the same horse away from Haydock. Nigel Twiston-Davies said: “I'm disappointed, what else can I say? Something might come of it.”

Anthony Bromley is the racing manager for BDM’s owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He said of the disappointing performance: “We've asked him a few questions and we've found them out. We came here hopeful, but it doesn't look like we've got a Gold Cup horse on that run. He will get an entry to the Grand National on Tuesday, and it might be the National more than the Gold Cup.”

Harry Fry’s American ran a cracker, and the trainer was full of praise, saying: “It was a huge run, I'm absolutely delighted. I was thinking 'here we go again' (when started slowly) but he warmed to the task and relished the conditions. He jumped his way to the front and for a long way I thought he was going to do it. He didn't have a proper run in the Ladbrokes Trophy and maybe that cost us. It was a huge run. He's not in the Gold Cup, but if conditions come up like that we might have to think about supplementing him.”

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In my piece on Friday, I’d plumped for The Last Samuri, but Kim Bailey’s gutsy stayer was never going quick enough to land a serious blow. He stayed on well to finish a close fourth and his trainer seemed happy enough, saying: “He’s never been to Cheltenham before, and better ground would have suited him today. He’s run a proper Grand National trial and all he was doing was staying at the end. He’ll go straight from here to Aintree and fingers crossed he’ll have a great chance.”

The Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle shared main billing and much of the lead-up centred on the tragic death of Richard Woollacott. The young trainer succumbed to mental health issues earlier in the week and Cheltenham Racecourse paid tribute to him with a minute’s silence during the meeting. Beer Goggles had given him his greatest day on the track when taking the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December. He was fancied to go close again but having set the fractions for much of the contest, faded turning for home before finishing fifth.

It was left to Agrapart and Wholestone to battle-out the finish, with the latter travelling powerfully approaching the last. However, when push came to shove it was Lizzie Kelly’s mount that found more for pressure to win by three-lengths. It looked as though Wholestone failed to see-out the three-mile trip, and if mine, I’d be thinking of a crack at the Coral Cup in March rather than the Stayers’. Agrapart may miss the festival, as testing ground is key to his chances. His trainer Nick Williams said: “We haven't even made an entry for March, the ground is so important. There's a 90 per cent chance the ground won't be soft enough, even soft isn't soft enough for him so he's quite hard to place.”

A thrilled and hugely emotional Lizzie Kelly said of the winner: “This horse has helped shape my career, the owners have been so good to me. I'm delighted their faith in me has paid off. They started using me when I was a 10lb claimer. I love riding this horse, as he tries so hard. He travelled so well, I got to the front too soon. Once this horse gets his head in front he doesn't like being beaten.”

Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls were responsible for other notable performances on the card. Apple’s Shakira landed the Triumph Hurdle Trial, though had to work hard to maintain her perfect record. She found plenty up the stamina sapping hill in ground that was plenty testing enough for the lightly framed filly. She remains favourite for a hot renewal in March.

Seven Barrows was also responsible for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle victor Santini. He battled bravely in conditions that clearly didn’t suit, to get up very late and deny the Tom George-trained Black Op. The pair pulled miles clear of a decent field and the winner is now around 10s for both the Ballymore and the Albert Bartlett in March. He’s a stunning individual who should progress into a smashing chaser.

It also proved to be another great day for young Bryony Frost. She rode the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon to a stunning success in a competitive looking Grade Three handicap chase. From the second-last to the line the fast improving six-year-old put 17-lengths between himself and the field. Shantou Flyer came off second best for another outstanding claimer in James Bowen. The pair of young jockeys are making quite a name for themselves.

As for the winning horse, he’s likely to head for the Ryanair at The Festival. Should conditions be in his favour (best in testing ground) he’d be a fair each-way proposition.

Clues abound on Festival Trials Day

Saturday’s Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham is often a source of pointers for the main event in March.

The opening Triumph Hurdle Trial went to Defi Du Seuil 12 months ago, and the Philip Hobbs-trained juvenile followed up in the festival’s four-year-old showpiece in impressive fashion. In 2015 the Trials Day opener went to Peace And Co. He too was successful at the festival, though Henderson’s talented hurdler failed to progress, much to everyone’s surprise.

Nicky Henderson is responsible for Saturday’s favourite. Apple’s Shakira has already won twice at the track and is one of the leading contenders for the main event in March. A daughter of Saddler Maker, she’s looked a future star and will have conditions to suit this weekend. She’ll take all the beating.

The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly Neptune) is another that’s likely to reveal leading festival contenders. Wholestone continued his Cheltenham love-affair when winning comfortably a year ago, before a cracking third place finish in the Albert Bartlett some six weeks later. He’s back on Saturday contesting the Cleeve Hurdle.

In 2016 it was Yanworth who romped to success in the trial, before meeting his match at the Festival when chasing home Yorkhill in the Neptune. Back in 2013 a stellar renewal was won by At Fishers Cross. He was chased home by The New One, with Coneygree back in third. Whisper was a distance back in fourth. At Fishers Cross went on to win the Albert Bartlett, whilst The New One landed the Neptune. A couple of years later it was Coneygree’s time to shine, when as a novice chaser he led all the way to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He too is back this weekend contesting the Cotswold Chase.

As for Saturday’s renewal, it’s the master of Seven Barrows that again appears to hold the aces. Henderson has three entered, though Santini and Pacific De Baune look most likely to line up. The former is priced-up as favourite having impressed at Newbury in December. He defeated stablemate Chef Des Obeaux on that occasion, and he has since romped home at Kempton.

The Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle is one of Saturday’s features, and is regularly a pointer to the Stayers’ at The Festival. Unowhatimeanharry was successful 12 months back, though could only manage third behind the ill-fated Nichols Canyon when returning in March. Thistlecrack made no mistake when taking the trial in 2016 before destroying the field in the main event several weeks later. In 2015 it was Saphir Du Rheu that landed the Cleeve, though he too came up just short in the ‘big one’ when runner-up to the surprise package Cole Harden.

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None-other than Big Buck’s was twice successful in the Cleeve Hurdle during his dominant period as leading staying hurdler. Beer Goggles would prove an emotional winner this weekend, following the tragic loss of trainer Richard Woollacott. Cheltenham regular Wholestone is also fancied to go close. The Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained seven-year-old comes to life at Prestbury Park.

Another intriguing contender is Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar. He’s back over hurdles after failing to impress over the larger obstacles. There’s no doubting he’s a talented racehorse, but he has plenty to prove, not only his ability to see-out this sort of trip.

The trainer’s son Joe Tizzard, said yesterday: “He's in real good form and runs in the Cleeve on Saturday. He hasn't really done a lot wrong over fences, but he's a young horse and there will be plenty of time to go back chasing with him.”

One race on Saturday that rarely proves insightful with the Festival on the horizon, is the Cotswold Chase. Many Clouds was a thrilling winner 12 months ago, only to collapse and tragically die moments after one of his most memorable victories.

Though competitive, it’s hard to imagine a Gold Cup winner coming from this latest renewal, despite one of the contenders being the highly rated Bristol De Mai. Ground conditions will be in his favour, and should he win well, there’s no doubting he’ll be back on many peoples fancied list for the ‘Blue Riband’ in March. Coneygree looks to get back on track, though punters faith in the ex-champ is shaky at best. The Last Samuri looks an intriguing proposition and receives weight from plenty of his opponents. The Grand National is the target, but he’ll likely run a huge race here.

It’s sure to be a cracking day, with pointers aplenty as The Festival draws ever near.

The Festival looms large on the horizon

Though I know it upsets a fair few folk when Cheltenham becomes the only topic of conversation, I must admit that it’s becoming a little difficult for me to think of anything else.

Admittedly, there’s still plenty of top-class racing between now and March 13, though most of the racing news will be dominated by ‘Festival Fever’. At this point in the National Hunt calendar, even races that carry huge prestige, tend to be viewed more as Prestbury Park pointers.

This weekend’s Clarence House Chase is such an example. The Grade One is worth £85,425 to the winner, and the race has a stunning roll of honour. Desert Orchid won an epic 1989, when the race was still a handicap. Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre were modern day two-mile goliaths, with the former winning this twice. Un de Sceaux has captured the last two, but should he make it a magnificent three in-a-row, much of the post-race chat will focus on his form as he heads to defend his Ryanair crown in March.

Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power is also in the line-up on Saturday, with Nicky Henderson hoping for an improved performance in a race he feels should suit his novice chaser. Via his Unibet blog, the champion trainer said: “With Un De Sceaux, the race is likely to be run at a decent gallop. He wants dropping-in and doesn't want to be doing silly things like going out and making the running like he did at Sandown. It was the wrong way to ride him in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase, so a good gallop around Ascot might well suit him better than if you run in a small four-runner novice at a little track. The Arkle is obviously where we'd like to end up.”

In little more than a week we have the aptly named Festival Trials Day from Cheltenham. The Grade Two Cotswold Chase is the feature, and though the roll of honour is another tasty one, its timing lends itself to the role of Gold Cup prep-race. It’s fair to say that in recent times it’s rarely given many clues towards the blue riband in March.

The same cannot be said of the Cleeve Hurdle, which takes place on the same card. Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s and Thistlecrack have all won this prestigious staying hurdle in recent years, prior to heroic performances when returning to the track in March.

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From Cheltenham, attention will turn to Ireland in early February, when Leopardstown play host to the Dublin Racing Festival. The two-day event has certainly captured the imagination, and is a terrific effort by organisers to make this a ‘stand-alone’ treat for Irish racegoers. Indeed, there’s plenty of Jump racing fans from the UK who, if not travelling over this time, will be watching with interest and making a note in diaries for future reference.

The Irish Champion Hurdle headlines on day one, a race that both Istabraq and Hurricane Fly made their own. The following day’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, won last year by Sizing John, prior to his glorious excursion to the Cotswolds. The card is packed with high-class action, and of course those vital Cheltenham Festival pointers. Nevertheless, the quality of racing is such that those attending may give little thought to the looming presence of the Prestbury Park gathering. Along with the equine talent on display, racegoers will be treated to comedy, music and the best of Irish food and drink. It sounds like a cracking event.

Newbury is next on the radar, with the valuable Betfair Hurdle its centrepiece. Established in 1963, this is rarely a race won by elite hurdlers, though Make A Stand took this in 1997 en route to Cheltenham glory. My Tent Or Yours was another high-class winner, when landing the spoils in 2013.

Far less valuable though arguably of greater significance, is the Denman Chase, which takes place earlier on the Newbury card. In its relative short history, the race has been won by See More Business, Kauto Star, Denman, Long Run and Coneygree. Native River landed the pot 12 months ago, prior to going close in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. I’d expect another powerful line-up come February as trainers look to ‘fine-tune’ their talented staying chasers.

Buckle-up as we accelerate to the inevitable. Outstanding racing is still to be had, as Cheltenham looms on the horizon.

The Bird has flown – Mullins youngster sets Supreme standard

Waiting Patiently provided one of the weekend’s most eye-catching performances.

Malcolm Jefferson’s exciting seven-year-old made it five from five over fences, and handed out a thrashing to several quality opponents. He also proved that he’s not simply a soft-ground bully, as he quickened clear of God’s Own, Josses Hill and Smad Place, on ground described as good to soft.

Speaking after the victory, Jefferson’s daughter, Ruth, said: “There’s not a lot of races about for him and we will have to look at the next step up. If the ground is good to soft or soft we will give it a go (Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase, February 17). Smad Place and God’s Own are getting on a little bit, but they do set a nice standard. He has done really well on soft ground and he has looked really well on soft/heavy ground. He has had to run on something a bit quicker today and prove he was as good. I like the way he quickened between the second-last and the last and galloped to the line.”

He’ll now be entered for both the Champion Chase and the Ryanair, and is as short as 10s for the latter. A decision on which option to take will surely depend on ground conditions at the time. Though connections may also be swayed by the name Altior appearing in the Champion Chase line-up.

Kempton’s opener went to Alan King’s smart juvenile hurdler Redicean. The result was never in doubt as he stormed to a 10-length success. His hurdling lacked fluency at times, but there’s no doubting he has a mighty engine. He’ll head for the Triumph Hurdle in March, and although this looks a strong division this season, he’s not without a chance at Cheltenham.

Whilst Nicky Henderson landed a treble at Kempton, it was his Warwick winner, Mr Whipped, who arguably left the most lasting impression. The Leamington Hurdle tends to go to a classy sort, and this fella looks capable of success at the highest level. He travelled powerfully throughout, and though idling after the last, ran out a comfortable winner. He’s now priced at 10/1 for the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in March.

Nico de Boinville did the steering on Saturday, and was clearly pleased with the performance: “I was very impressed with him because he's still a big, raw baby. After he jumped the last he thought that was the job done and started to ease up a bit, but if something had come to me I think he would have gone on again. He had plenty left in the tank. His form is rock solid.”

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Despite these numerous eye-catching performances, it was Getabird’s victory in Ireland that had the most dramatic effect on the Cheltenham Festival markets. Available at 16/1 on Friday for the Festival opener, Mullins’ young hurdler is now as short as 3/1 in places for the Supreme Novices’ in March.

Mullins has won the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle on numerous occasions, and has been especially successful with those sporting the silks of Susannah and Rich Ricci. Getabird was accurate over his hurdles throughout the contest, and scooted clear from the last for a convincing nine-length victory over the well-touted Mengli Khan.

Patrick Mullins was the lucky pilot, and clearly excited by the performance, when saying: “That was great. He was quite worked up in the parade ring, which isn't like him, and he jumped off as if he was going to run (away with me). But after he jumped the first he kind of backed off a bit and I was actually going a bit slower than I wanted. I wanted to make it a good test as he's a point-to-point winner and Mengli Khan is a Flat horse.

“I was a bit worried when we turned out of the back that we hadn't gone fast enough, but the gears he's shown from the back of the second-last, he didn't have those when I rode him as a bumper horse. That performance was better than I was expecting to be honest. He jumped fantastic - he was rapid - and I'd say he has lots of options now.”

Willie Mullins will be hoping the winner can replicate Douvan and Vautour in following success in the Moscow Flyer with victory in the Supreme. He said of the win: “Patrick getting down to 11st 2lb paid off! He jumped fantastic and way better than on his first run. I was a bit worried whether he would be able to jump at the speed they would be going here. He jumped out, made his own running, and jumped very well. I'm very happy to have won that race with him.

“I don't know what route we're going to go, but you'd have to think as a Supreme Novices' trial that he'd be good enough for that, but he'll certainly be entered for the other races like the Ballymore. Jumping the way he did, that brings the Supreme into the picture. After his first run I was a little bit worried, but certainly the way he was there he'd be well able to jump with any novice. The speed he showed was very good. He got a nice bunch of horses off the bridle. I don't know yet if he'll go straight to Cheltenham. We'll see how he comes out of it.”

The Lanzarote Hurdle – Nicky to nick-it from Nicholls

Kempton’s Lanzarote Hurdle was established in 1978 and originally run over two miles. In 2007 the race was extended to its current trip of 2m5f.

In the 10 renewals since the change in trip, just three winners have carried more than 11 stone to victory. Paul Nicholls and Nick Williams have landed three apiece in that period, with Modus winning for team Ditcheat 12 months ago.

Six-year-olds have been dominant in recent times, with the race tending to favour a progressive type with few hurdling miles on the clock. Three of the past 10 winners had only run three times over hurdles, prior to landing this valuable event. Despite the race usually attracting a fair-sized field, shocks have proved rare. Of the past nine renewals, Micheal Flips at 9/1 was the biggest price winner.

Nicky Henderson is responsible for the front two in the betting for tomorrow’s renewal. Diese Des Bieffes is only a five-year-old, and has had just three outings over hurdles. He was runner-up to classy novice If The Cap Fits last time at Kempton. Outpaced during that two-mile contest, he stayed on strongly in the home straight, and it would be a surprise if this extended trip didn’t prove ideal. He’s by popular French stallion Martaline, responsible for classy types including Dynaste, Disko and Agrapart. Leading juvenile hurdler We Have A Dream is also among his progeny. Henderson’s youngster is set to carry 11-2, though 5lb claimer Mitchell Bastyan appears booked for the ride. This fella looks to have a huge chance.

William Henry will carry top-weight and is challenging his stablemate at the top of the market. He came down on chase debut and has reverted to hurdles. A classy novice last term, he was runner-up to Wholestone at Cheltenham last January, with Poetic Rhythm five-lengths back in third. The strength of that form has been well advertised this winter, and of those at the top of the handicap, he looks the class act.

Bags Groove joins him at the top of the pile. Harry Fry’s seven-year-old won a Pertemps Qualifier at Kempton in November, but is raised 5lbs for that effort. This looks more competitive, and I’m far from sure that he has enough improvement left to win off this latest mark.

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Paul Nicholls has enjoyed plenty of success in the race, and has another leading contender in Topofthegame. The six-year-old is lightly raced, with just four starts under rules, and is another reverting to hurdles after falling on his only chase outing. He was some way behind William Henry in the race at Cheltenham, though was a huge raw baby at the time. There’s every chance that he can turn that form on its head, especially as he gets 6lb from that rival. He’s by Flemensfirth, and as such should have no problem with conditions. He should go close.

Nick Williams has a couple lurking at the bottom end of the handicap. With such an outstanding record in the race, the Devon trainer cannot be dismissed. Dentley De Mee looks the one to keep an eye on. The five-year-old has had just three outings over hurdles, and though he’ll need to improve plenty to be competitive here, there’s every chance that he could do exactly that. He gets the best part of a stone or more from the leading protagonists, and it would be no surprise to see him sneak into a place.

Owner JP McManus captured last year’s event, and has one of the favourites this time in the Alan King-trained River Frost. He was fifth in a strong renewal of the Silver Trophy at Chepstow in October, and that form certainly gives him a chance here. He too is lumbered with top-weight, and will be ably assisted by Barry Geraghty; twice a winner of this race in the last five years. This six-year-old is clearly a player, but I’m not convinced he’s quite good enough.

Siding with Paul Nicholls or Nicky Henderson is often a sensible decision, and I think the pair have this race between them. I’m just favouring Diese Des Bieffes over Topofthegame, though I fancy it’ll be close.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

Weekend Pointers – Cheltenham Champs from the Aintree also-rans

Decent meetings take place at Warwick, Punchestown, Kempton and Wetherby at the weekend. And there’ll likely be plenty of spring festival pointers, with numerous talented individuals being put through their paces.

One For Arthur was successful at Warwick a year ago, prior to his glorious trip to Aintree and victory in the Grand National. Willoughby Court was also a winner on the card, and went on to take the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

For today’s piece, I thought I’d seek out the potential ‘Cheltenham Champ’ from the ‘Aintree also-rans’.

Warwick’s most prestigious meeting is a good starting point. The Ballymore Leamington Novices’ Hurdle looks a tasty renewal, and often produces a top-class winner. Inglis Drever, The New One and Willoughby Court, are all notable names on the roll of honour. Nicky Henderson’s Mr Whipped heads the market having defeated a fair yardstick in Gowiththeflow at Newbury last time. The son of Beneficial looked to be idling in front that day, and was probably good for a wider winning margin. Clearly talented, it’s impossible to say just how good he is, but he looks a leading contender for this.

Chooseyourweapon may head here, though his trainer Evan Williams has stated a quiet campaign was likely for this son of Flemensfirth. He also has a victory over Gowiththeflow to his name, though he only just got the nod at Chepstow. He’s a raw looking chaser in the making, but is without doubt talented, and I’d fancy him capable of going well on Saturday if taking his chance.

Tikkanbar is the other in the field that looks to have a huge amount of talent. Though lightly raced, this fella is already a seven-year-old, and as such may have a limited amount of improvement in the locker. Nevertheless, his jumping is certainly open to further development, as he won well at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day despite a patchy performance at his obstacles. Testing ground holds no fears, though the proximity of his last run is a slight concern. He looked useful at Prestbury Park.

Kempton’s opener looks a decent juvenile hurdle, assuming the main protagonists arrive. Gumball looked an exciting French recruit for Philip Hobbs, but was thrashed by Apple’s Shakira last time at Cheltenham. The yard was just entering a huge dip in form, and it’s possible that this youngster is a fair bit better than his last run suggests. Nevertheless, he’ll be giving plenty of weight all-round, and this may not be his day. I’d still see him as a horse to follow in the spring.

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Alan King’s Redicean would likely go off a short-priced favourite, but his trainer may well send him to Huntingdon on Friday. He was impressive on hurdling debut at Kempton over Christmas, and is as short as 14s for the Triumph Hurdle in March. King has had numerous classy juveniles over the years, and this could be another.

Also of interest in the field is the Warren Greatrex-trained Aardwolf. A decent performer on the flat for Mark Johnston, he was last seen in a handicap at Pontefract in October. It was soft ground that day, and though he wouldn’t want it too testing, he should cope with conditions at Kempton. He could be a useful recruit to the jumping game. We’ll know more on Saturday.

Chef Des Obeaux is the eye-catching entrant in the three-mile novice hurdle. Henderson’s youngster, by Saddler Maker, will look to build on his Uttoxeter success, and is a horse full of potential. Team Seven Barrows have so much talent at their disposal, but this fella looks a nice one. A strong performance here, would set him up for a crack at the Cheltenham Festival.

Waiting Patiently is set to return to action at Kempton, but will have his work cut-out to protect that unblemished record over fences. Soft ground is essential for this Flemensfirth offspring, and he’ll need a personal best to defeat the likes of Josses Hill, Smad Place and God’s Own.

I’d also expect a huge run in the Lanzarote Hurdle from Nicky Henderson’s Diese Des Bieffes. This young hurdler was beaten by If The Cap Fits last time at Kempton, but this step-up in trip looks sure to suit. Inexperience in such handicaps is always a slight concern, but his mark of 135 could prove a gift.

At Punchestown the showpiece event is the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle. The Willie Mullins-trained Getabird is the youngster with star-appeal, and though Mengli Khan had looked useful prior to his Leopardstown mishap, I fancy the Mullins/Ricci contender will enhance his reputation as a top-class novice. He’s currently available at 16s for the Supreme in March. That certainly looks a tempting price.