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Roksana raring to go in bid to reclaim Mares’ Hurdle crown

Dan Skelton is convinced he has made the right decision in running Roksana in the Close Brothers’ Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Skelton could have switched his talented nine-year-old to Thursday’s Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, but he resisted the temptation even after the news that leading fancy Thyme Hill will not run.

Roksana bids to win the Mares’ Hurdle for a second time after scoring in 2019, when she benefited from the final-flight fall of Benie Des Dieux.

Since then she has proved she can be competitive against geldings at the highest level, only being beaten two lengths when third to Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December.

“We were always going for the Mares’ Hurdle really. I just confirmed her for the Stayers’ to satisfy myself that we were making the right decision and to give us a little bit longer to make sure that we were right after Thyme Hill came out,” said the Alcester handler.

“We just wanted to make sure we were happy, and we are. She’s in great form at home and brings some very strong form into the race.

“She’s obviously coming back in trip as she’s done her racing at three miles this year. She stays very strongly.

“I don’t think there’s any need to talk about whether she has better form than Concertista or not. We’ll find out on Tuesday.

Concertista, trained by Willie Mullins, took the Grade Two mares’ novice hurdle at last year’s Festival and has won both her starts this season. Mullins is also represented by Great White Shark and My Sister Sarah.

Minella Melody has yet to get the better of Concertista, but connections of the Henry de Bromhead-trained seven-year-old expect her to run well.

“I can’t get over her price, to be honest. It’s hard to see her beating Concertista, who has beaten her twice, but I think she’s the forgotten mare of the race,” said Peter Molony, racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander.

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“Black Tears is half her odds. The last day we ran against her we were giving her 6lb and beat her six lengths, so I’m not sure she’s a much shorter price than Minella.

“Hopefully she can do the talking on the day and run a good race.”

Nicky Henderson reverts to hurdles with Dame De Compagnie, after a brief spell chasing.

“She won the two-runner race at Ayr and we were a bit short of opportunities then and I had to throw her into a Grade One, which was a bit of a baptism of fire really and it was just a bit too much of her,” said the Seven Barrows handler.

“She’s in very good form and the fall (in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase) did her no harm. I don’t see why she shouldn’t come back over hurdles and two and a half is her trip, as she showed in the Coral Cup last year.

“She’s not ready for the Mares’ Chase as yet, especially after the incident at Sandown. We can always go back over fences next year.”

Dame De Compagnie was victorious at the Festival 12 months ago
Dame De Compagnie was victorious at the Festival 12 months ago (Simon Cooper/PA)

Henderson said of his other runner, Floressa: “She has been running good races at two miles in graded company and we’ve always felt two and a half would suit her.”

Aye Right bids to land a deserve success in the Ultima Handicap Chase after going close in three decent prizes this term.

Harriet Graham’s eight-year-old has finished second in the Ladbrokes Trophy and Sky Bet Chase, and third in the Charlie Hill Chase.

With his regular rider Callum Bewley suspended, Richard Johnson takes the mount.

“He’s a lovely ride to pick up, but obviously it’s a great shame for Callum he’s suspended and can’t ride him,” said Johnson.

“His run in the Ladbrokes Trophy behind Cloth Cap, the way he won at Kelso the other day that form looks very solid and his run at Doncaster a few weeks ago was good.

Aye Right (right) ran a cracker behind Grand National favourite Cloth Cap at Newbury
Aye Right (right) ran a cracker behind Grand National favourite Cloth Cap at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Obviously he’s higher in the weights now, but that is because his form is so good and he’s one of the class horses in the Ultima. He goes there with a really strong chance in a very competitive race.

David Bass is looking forward to continuing his association with the Kim Bailey-trained Happygolucky after their victory in a novice chase at Cheltenham in December.

“I think he’s got a great profile for the race. I’ve always really liked him and he’s a true professional,” said Bass.

“He’s a good traveller, he jumps well and while it’s his first handicap chase, I’m not concerned about that as he has a great temperament.

“He ran a very good race in the Martin Pipe last year and was fourth, but he’s always been crying out for three miles. We stepped him up last time and he won at Cheltenham. He’s so straightforward and handles any type of ground.”

Happygolucky goes for glory in the Ultima Handicap
Happygolucky goes for glory in the Ultima Handicap (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Skelton believes Alnadam will be suited by going up in trip after winning over an extended two and a half miles at Sandown.

“He’s a progressive novice and I think the step up to three miles is a real positive,” said the Alcester trainer.

“I’m looking forward to getting him out there, to be honest with you. It’s a massive step up for him, but he deserves to have a pop.”

Skelton expects Cabot Cliffs to run a decent race in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, having won his last two races at Warwick in good style.

“He’s a very tough an consistent horse,” he said.

“This is a totally different type of race to what he’s been running in, but some juveniles you suspect might not give their running – it’s a hard season for them.

“One thing with Cabot Cliffs is, he’s a very tough horse.”

Next Destination is a leading player in the National Hunt Chase
Next Destination is a leading player in the National Hunt Chase (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Paul Nicholls sprang a minor surprise at the weekend when opting to run Next Destination in the San Vestey National Hunt Challenge Cup Novices’ Chase rather than the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase on Wednesday.

He told Betfair: “I spent a long time on the phone on Saturday night with his owner Malcolm Denmark weighing up all the options before we decided to go for the National Hunt Chase rather than the Brown Advisory a day later.

“Three miles on nearly good ground would not be ideal for Next Destination who is a stout stayer, so with Royale Pagaille heading for the Gold Cup it made sense to go for the race that suited us best on what is likely to be the slowest ground of the week.”

The same owner/trainer combination also run Soldier Of Love.

“Malcolm has a useful second contender in Soldier of Love who made giant strides in the summer and has enjoyed a nice little holiday while waiting for ground conditions to come in his favour,” Nicholls added.

Dan Skelton confirms Mares’ Hurdle target for Roksana

Dan Skelton has announced Roksana will try to regain her title in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle next week at Cheltenham.

The nine-year-old also had the option of running in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle and when Philip Hobbs revealed on Friday that Thyme Hill had met with a setback and would miss the race, her price began to contract for the longer contest.

However, the in-form Skelton has opted to stick to his original plan with Roksana and she will take on her own sex, including the impressive Concertista, on Tuesday.

Skelton explained: “I always said she was going to the Mares’ until she wasn’t and at the 11th hour yesterday with Philip Hobbs’ horse not being able to run, I just needed a little bit longer to talk to the owners and talk to Harry (Skelton) to confirm that we were still doing the right thing by going to the Mares’.

“I confirmed her for the Stayers’ just to give us a little bit more time. My thoughts at the time were ‘nothing has changed’.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make – it was actually a hard decision, but we made it two weeks ago. We just wanted to satisfy ourselves that we were doing the right thing.”

Roksana won the race two years ago when taking advantage of a fall at the last by Benie Des Dieux.

Paisley Park tops 18 in contention for Stayers’ Hurdle prize

Paisley Park is the star name among 18 confirmations for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Following the defection of market rival Thyme Hill on Friday morning, Emma Lavelle’s stable star will be a hot favourite to regain his crown in Thursday’s Grade One showpiece, having suffered a heart problem when bidding for back-to-back victories 12 months ago.

The nine-year-old has bounced back to form this season – filling the runner-up spot behind Thyme Hill in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, before reversing the form in a thrilling renewal of the Long Walk at Ascot the following month.

Dan Skelton has confirmed Roksana off the back of the news Thyme Hill will miss out due to injury, but is still favouring an outing in Tuesday’s Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle – a race she won in 2019.

Roksana retains a Stayers' Hurdle entry
Roksana retains a Stayers’ Hurdle entry (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Skelton said: “I wasn’t going to confirm her for the Stayers’, but when I saw the news (about Thyme Hill) I did, because it just gives us a little bit more time to consider and look at forecasts etc.

“I don’t think Thyme Hill coming out is going to make any difference, but at the same time, I have confirmed her to give ourselves the option.

“We are still leaning towards the Mares’ Hurdle as things stand.”

Denise Foster – who has taken over the licence from the suspended Gordon Elliott – has a trio of interesting contenders, with dual Pertemps Final winner Sire Du Berlais joined by The Storyteller and Fury Road.

Other potential challengers from Ireland include Gavin Cromwell’s Flooring Porter and the Willie Mullins-trained Bacardys.

Last year’s shock Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar is in the mix again for Rebecca Curtis, while Kim Bailey looks set to saddle both Vinndication and Younevercall.

Beacon Edge, Diol Ker, If The Cap Fits, Lil Rockerfeller, Main Fact, Reserve Tank, Sam Spinner and Heaven Help Us are the other hopefuls.

Late call for Skeltons on Roksana’s Festival target

Dan Skelton is likely to make a late call as to which race Roksana will contest at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Alcester trainer will keep a close eye on the weather as the meeting approaches before making his decision.

Should conditions be soft or worse for the start of the four-day fixture, Skelton would be tempted by the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle on the Tuesday – which Roksana won in 2019.

However, if the ground is good to soft then Roksana could wait for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle two days later.

The nine-year-old has leading claims for both races, and showed her well-being with a convincing victory over Magic Of Light at Ascot last month.

“I’m really happy with her,” said Skelton.

“She’s come out of Ascot well and she will either run in the Mares’ or the Stayers’. It will depend a little on the ground.

“If the ground was just good to soft, then I think she’d have to go three miles. If it was a very wet forecast in the build-up, and we were going to get very wet ground on the Tuesday, she could go to the Mares’.

“It’s a hard thing just to say ‘yes, definitely’ we’ll go for one or the other, at this point.”

No rush to decide Cheltenham target for Roksana

Dan Skelton believes Roksana is at her best after the nine-year-old ran out an impressive winner of the Grade Two Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot.

However, the Alcester trainer is no hurry to decide which race will be her target at the Cheltenham Festival.

Roksana could stick to her sex and go for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, which she won in 2019 and was fourth in last year, or take on the geldings in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.

She easily brushed aside Magic Of Light on Saturday to run a second successive big race at the Berkshire track, having finished third to Paisley Park in the Long Walk Hurdle last month.

“I was really happy with her. She’s coming of age and is a strong filly and is probably at her best,” said Skelton.

“I’m delighted with how everything has gone with her.

“She’s got two entries at Cheltenham, in the Stayers’ and the Mares’, and we’ll have a bit of a think closer to the time.

“We’ll sit quiet for now. Her next run will be at Cheltenham – 100 per cent.”

Roksana makes light work of Ascot rivals

Roksana returned to the scene of her fine effort in the Long Walk Hurdle to readily outclass her three foes in the Matchbook Betting Podcast Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot.

Ridden with cool confidence from off the pace set by Magic Of Light and Coded Message, the 8-15 favourite turned into the home straight with jockey Harry Skelton holding a double handful.

Waiting until approaching the final flight, Skelton let out an inch of rein and Roksana sprinted clear of Magic Of Light, with Eglantine Du Seuil back in third just ahead of Coded Message.

Trainer Dan Skelton will look at two options at the Cheltenham Festival, including the World Hurdle for his impressive winner, who was third to Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Long Walk. But for now the mare will enjoy a well-earned easy few days.

Skelton’s assistant Tom Messenger said: “It was always the plan to give her three races – at Wetherby, the Long Walk and this race – before letting her down ahead of a possible trip to Cheltenham. It’s now up in the air whether she runs in the mares’ race there, the Stayers’ Hurdle or waits for Aintree.

“You would like to think she wouldn’t be far away if we headed for the Stayers’, and it looks up for grabs in an open year. You have to be in it to win it, and she’s a tough individual that can be kept in hard training.”

Roksana out to uphold Long Walk form back at Ascot

Dan Skelton is hoping Roksana can repeat her excellent Long Walk performance on her return to Ascot for the Matchbook Betting Podcast Mares’ Hurdle.

The nine-year-old was beaten only two lengths when third to Paisley Park in the Grade One over an extended three miles in December and runs against own her sex again on Saturday.

However, it will be no walkover – because the opposition includes Magic Of Light, winner of this race for the last two years.

“I’m delighted with her – it was a great run in the Long Walk over the course and distance,” said Skelton.

“Obviously Magic Of Light is the one to beat, but I’m also respectful of the others in there.

“I think it’s a strong mares’ race, but I’m very happy with ours.”

Magic Of Light, trained in Ireland by Jessica Harrington and runner-up to Tiger Roll in the 2019 Grand National, has already made a successful visit to Britain this season to win a Listed mares’ chase at Newbury for the third year running.

“She is going for a hat-trick in the race and is in great form,” said Kate Harrington, assistant to her mother.

“She is entered in the Gold Cup and the Mares’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, and mum is thinking of running her in the Gold Cup.”

Magic Of Light is bidding to win Ascot's Grade Two hurdle for a third time
Magic Of Light is bidding to win Ascot’s Grade Two hurdle for a third time (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Paul Nicholls believes Eglantine Du Seuil can give a good account of herself, with the help of a 6lb concession from the big two.

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“She ran a cracker on her latest start for us six weeks ago in a competitive mares’ handicap hurdle at Cheltenham, where she came from off the pace to be second to The White Mouse,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“This is a new trip for her – and although I can’t be sure she stays three miles, she was keeping on well at the finish at Cheltenham.

“I’m hopeful Eglantine Du Seuil can run tidily, getting 6lb from two smart mares Magic Of Light and Roksana.”

Jeremy Scott is on a discovery mission with Dashel Drasher, who lines up for the bet365 Handicap Chase.

The Somerset trainer wants to find out if his lightly-raced eight-year-old can mix it with seasoned campaigners off his current mark in a competitive race such as this.

What Dashel Drasher has in his favour is a course-and-distance success on his latest start, albeit a three-horse affair.

“He’s come out of his last race really well. It’s very much to find out whether he’s at that level,” said Scott.

“We’ve only ever raced in those novice chases and a graduation chase, so how solid his handicap mark is we don’t know.

“It’s very much in a decent-sized field. I hope he runs well. I was pleased with the way he raced last time, but this will be a different proposition.”

Rose Dobbin has had this race in mind for Jonniesofa for some time – but did not expect it to be as competitive as it has turned out.

However, she reports the 11-year-old to be in good shape following his victory at Carlisle last month.

“He’s doing really well. He’s in great order. I’m very happy with him,” said the Northumberland trainer.

“We picked out this race a while ago, thinking conditions would suit him. Unfortunately, it seems to be quite a competitive renewal, but we’ll go and take our chance and see how he gets on.”

Skelton reports Bennys King to be in prime condition as he attempts to go one better than 12 months ago.

“He won there last time, (and) two-miles-five is a great trip for him,” said the Alcester trainer.

“He looks fantastic – this is the perfect race for him.

“He’s gone up in the handicap, which is making life harder, but I couldn’t be any happier with him.”

Nicholls was delighted to see Capeland return to winning ways at Wincanton, although it means he must race off a career-high mark.

Capeland is up to a career-high mark on Saturday
Capeland is up to a career-high mark on Saturday (PA)

“I was thrilled to see him bounce back to form with a stylish success a fortnight ago off a mark of 149 at Wincanton, back up in trip to two and a half miles,” he said.

“Capeland is now up to a career-high mark of 153 at a track which we know he likes, but he is another who wouldn’t want any more rain at Ascot.”

Tom Lacey is looking forward to having Kateson back on the track in the Matchbook Better Way To Bet Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle, for the first time in seven weeks.

The Herefordshire trainer believes the eight-year-old runs well when fresh, so has given him a break since he was successful at Aintree.

“He seems in good order. I think the trip on that ground will be right up his street, fingers crossed,” said Lacey.

Tom Lacey has given Kateson a break since his Aintree victory
Tom Lacey has given Kateson a break since his Aintree victory (PA)

“He’s a horse that runs best fresh. We’ve just been waiting to find the races for him.

Nicholls is confident of a strong performance from Danny Kirwan.

The Ditcheat handler said: “He has had one or two issues that have interrupted his career but is now in as good a place as we’ve had him for a long time, and it was great to see him show what he can do with a fluent victory over this trip at Ascot two months ago.

“Next time at Cheltenham he didn’t stay three miles. Danny has been working with Politologue and will be much happier back at this trip on testing ground that he relishes. I am expecting a big run from him in a competitive race.”

Roksana returns to winning form with stylish Wetherby success

Roksana quickened up impressively to win the bet365 Hurdle at Wetherby in fine fashion.

Dan and Harry Skelton have an impressive strike-rate at the West Yorkshire track and their well-backed 13-8 favourite further augmented their tally with a taking success.

Having been dropped out towards the rear, Roksana loomed up looking a huge threat at the third last and the only question was how much she had left in the locker.

Stayers’ Hurdle winner Lisnagar Oscar and Next Destination, having his first start for Paul Nicholls, both looked to be travelling well, but neither had an answer to the mare.

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Roksana put the race to bed in a matter of strides, scooting eight and a half lengths clear of Next Destination, with Kildisart in third and Lisnagar Oscar fourth.

Skelton said: “She’s magic. We were always going down the Mares’ Hurdle route last year as she’d obviously won it the year before. She ran well and we were looking forward to Aintree, but obviously Covid put a stop to that.

“We always knew three miles was going to come one day. We’re probably six months behind it happening for obvious reasons.

“I’m delighted with her today. She was getting the allowances and we’re under no illusions about how much the likes of Lisnagar Oscar and others are going to improve as the season progresses, but she did everything right.

“We’ll let the others scrap it out in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and we’ll perhaps aim for the Long Walk at Ascot. We might enter her in Ireland (Leopardstown) as well, just in case the restrictions lift for the Christmas meeting.

“We’ll see what the spring brings. The owners aren’t set on Cheltenham, so there’s every possibility she could miss Cheltenham and go straight to Aintree.

“It’s potentially her last season, but we’re under no illusions about how good a racemare she is and if we think there’s another good year in her, then she could come back.”

Roksana returns to the winner's enclosure
Roksana returns to the winner’s enclosure (Ashley Iveson/PA)

Nicholls said of Next Destination: “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am with that – it was an awesome run.

“He’s been off an awful long time. I couldn’t take him away anywhere to gallop because the ground has been too firm, so that’s probably the first time he’s worked on grass since the last time he ran.

“He travelled beautifully and jumped beautifully – he’ll be a right chaser.

“We’ve schooled him over fences and I think that (novice chasing) will be the plan now.”