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.

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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.

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.

Destination Dublin – Equine Elite flock to Leopardstown

It’s the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend from Leopardstown with jump racing fans in for a real treat.

Proposed by the racecourse and enthusiastically backed by Horse Racing Ireland, the decision to combine three stand-alone meetings into a two-day extravaganza appears a masterstroke. The festival is ideally positioned between Leopardstown’s Christmas gathering and the Cheltenham Festival in March, with the intention of attracting equine elite from Ireland and hopefully the UK.

It’s fair to say that trainers this side of the Irish Sea have yet to grasp the nettle, though in years to come many are likely to add this to their winter schedule. Despite something of a UK ‘no show’, many of Ireland’s leading lights will be on duty, aiming to land prestigious prizes and further advertise their Cotswold credentials.

Leopardstown tends to attract the best at this stage of the campaign. Petit Mouchoir defeated Footpad in the Irish Champion Hurdle last year. The pair are set to meet over fences this weekend in what could prove the clash of the meeting. In recent years Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and Istabraq have all landed Ireland’s showpiece hurdle.

The Flogas Novice Chase (formerly Dr P.J. Moriarty) is often a target for Ireland’s best young staying chasers. Disko took last year’s renewal, defeating Our Duke and Balko Des Flos in the process.

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The Irish Gold Cup will be one of the highlights this weekend, having gone to Sizing John a year ago. Jess Harrington’s powerful chaser followed up at Cheltenham, though that double had not been completed since 1993 when Jodami was at the peak of his powers. Harrington has Our Duke primed for a return in Sunday’s renewal.

The Deloitte Novice Hurdle also takes place on Sunday and has gone to numerous high-class performers over the years. Nichols Canyon, Vautour and Champagne Fever are recent winners, whilst Brave Inca and Istabraq also have their names engraved on a stunning roll of honour.

The action starts on Saturday with the Grade One Irish Champion Hurdle the feature. The mighty Faugheen is due to run and heads the market with stable companion Melon. ‘The Machine’ is on a recovery mission after his unexplained flop last time at Leopardstown. There must be a concern as to how the ex-champ will react when put under pressure, and one wonders if time spent on the sidelines is finally catching up with him. Melon travelled like the best horse for much of the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time, before being out-battled by the more experienced duo of My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

Defi Du Seuil is set to travel over for the race and like Faugheen, needs to get his campaign back on track. Last year’s top juvenile ran a shocker on return at Ascot but is expected to show his true form on Saturday. He’ll need to go close if he’s to be considered a realistic Champion Hurdle contender back at Cheltenham in March.

The Arkle Novice Chase looks a straight duel between Footpad and Petit Mouchoir. The former has a slight edge on experience and race fitness. He’s looked terrific on his two runs over fences and is a short-priced favourite for the corresponding race at Cheltenham. Henry De Bromhead’s chaser has been off the track since his impressive debut in October. You’d expect him to improve for the run and the likelihood is that he’ll come off second best this time. That may not be the case back at Prestbury Park.

Another cracker on the opening day is the Grade Two Dublin Chase. Min, Special Tiara and Yorkhill are set to clash, with the latter looking to get his chasing career back on track. Undoubtedly hugely talented, this looks a mighty test for the unpredictable eight-year-old. Min is a classy racehorse and we all know what Special Tiara can do. This is a terrific renewal with plenty of questions waiting to be answered. The winner will likely endorse their position towards the head of Cheltenham’s Arkle Chase market.

Sunday’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, with Our Duke looking to re-establish himself as one of Ireland’s leading staying chasers. He’ll have plenty on his plate as Mullins arrives double-handed with Djakadam and Killultagh Vic. Outlander and Valseur Lido are Gigginstown’s dynamic duo, whilst Jonjo sends Minella Rocco back to Ireland. Sizing John and Road To Respect are missing, but this remains a mighty renewal.

The Grade One Flogas Novice Chase also looks hugely competitive. This appears to be a strong division in Ireland with the main protagonists set to clash. Monalee and Al Boum Photo both hit the deck last time, whilst Invitation Only, Snow Falcon and Sutton Place all impressed. The Storyteller is no mug, in a race that could prove an absolute thriller.

Others to watch for during the two-day spectacular are Espoir D’Allen, Samcro and Sharjah. This trio of young hurdlers all look capable of careers at the top table. This weekend’s thrilling action will tell us more.

Young Bowen gets a good tune from ‘Old Fiddle’ Raz De Maree

Age proved no barrier to the evergreen Raz De Maree, as he stormed to victory in the Coral Welsh National on Saturday.

After numerous untidy leaps during the first circuit, Gavin Cromwell’s 13-year-old chaser found himself towards the back of the pack. His inexperienced jock, 5lb claimer James Bowen, refused to panic. The old timer responded to the urgings of his young apprentice and gradually weaved his way through the field and into contention.

Turning for home it’s fair to say that Bowen was going for everything in the hope of landing a blow. At the third last fence he’d just about latched on to the front four, and by the penultimate fence had drawn alongside fellow pensioner Alfie Spinner at the head of affairs. Though in a little close at the last fence, Bowen and his willing partner had done enough, and galloped on relentlessly for a six-length success.

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Alfie Spinner made it a one-two for the equine wrinklies, with Final Nudge a further nine-lengths back in third.
The Co Meath handler spoke of the successful duo: “He (Bowen) gave him a peach of a ride. He was flat to the boards down the back, but he didn't panic. This is fantastic, just brilliant. He's the oldest horse since the war apparently and only the second Irish winner. He's such a pleasure to have, it's fantastic. He's only a small horse but has such heart.”

At just 16, young claimer James Bowen is a terrific talent, and gave the old stayer a cracking ride. Simply bursting with pride, he said of the gutsy partner: “He's only a few years younger than me! We didn't travel anywhere at all and I thought we'd do well to get round and pick up a place. Once he passed a few horses he locked on and we ended up getting there too soon. It's amazing to win. You grow up watching these races at home and to win it in my first season riding is amazing.”

Kerry Lee had trained the winner in 2016, and must have fancied her chances halfway up the home straight. Thrilled with the performance of the runner-up, she said: “Leading three out and two out was quite heart-stopping. I thought Richard Patrick (another 5lb claimer) gave the horse the most fantastic ride. It's his first Welsh National, as it is for James Bowen. We saw two young jockeys at the top of their game.”

David Dennis was targeting the Grand National at Aintree for third home Final Nudge. The nine-year-old ran a cracker under the burden of 11-6, and appeared to see out the trip well.

Heading the under-card at Chepstow, was the Grade One Future Champions Finale Juvenile Hurdle. The race has gone to numerous talented horses over the years, and 12 months ago was won by the Philip Hobbs-trained Defi Du Seuil, who went on to take the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

That is likely to be the target for Saturday’s winner, the Nicky Henderson-trained We Have A Dream. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, the youngster is now three from three in the UK, having got the better of Gary Moore’s Sussex Ranger in a thrilling finish.

The front two in the market had the race between them approaching the last flight. Both were slick over the obstacle and fast away, but it was Henderson’s youngster that had the necessary gears to stretch a length and-a-half clear at the line. The runner-up lost little in defeat, and both are likely to put in bold displays at Cheltenham in March. We Have A Dream Is currently second favourite for the Triumph behind stablemate Apple’s Shakira. Whilst Sussex Ranger is as low as 14s for the juvenile showpiece.

Cue an Aintree Tizzard Treble

The Randox Health Grand National Festival kicks-off today, with Cue Card’s appearance in the Betway Bowl the undoubted highlight.

Cheltenham had promised so much for trainer Colin Tizzard. Indeed at Christmas, the Dorset handler had the top three in the betting for the Gold Cup, and many were talking of a ‘blue riband’ clean sweep. Injury to Thistlecrack was a major blow, and when the big day arrived, Cue Card came down at the third last, whilst Native River, though putting up a brave performance, could only manage a third-place finish behind Sizing John.

Tizzard’s team suffered another pre-Cheltenham blow, when leading Neptune Novices’ Hurdle contender Finian’s Oscar, was ruled out due to a minor setback. And further frustration was forthcoming, when the fast finishing Fox Norton came within a whisker of capturing the Grade 1 Champion Chase.

Last year’s successful Aintree assault was led by Cue Card, with Thistlecrack and Native River adding further gloss to a wonderful few days. Tizzard will be hoping for more of the same, though the protagonists differ slightly.

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His stable star is favourite for today’s Betway Bowl Chase, having romped to success 12 months ago. Empire Of Dirt may prove to be his toughest challenger, though Cue Card at his best, or anywhere near, would surely win this with the minimum of fuss. And I expect him to do so.

Part two of a potential Aintree treble is the Champion Chase runner-up Fox Norton. He runs in the Melling Chase on Friday, and is currently the market leader. This step-up in trip should surely suit the gutsy young chaser, who finished with such a rattle at Cheltenham.

He faces tough opposition, especially in the form of Tom George’s nine-year-old God’s Own, who landed this event 12 months back. He was half a dozen lengths behind Fox Norton at Prestbury Park, but arguably has stronger form at Aintree. He’ll also enjoy the trip, and a sound surface, though I can’t see him reversing the Champion Chase placings.

Sub Lieutenant will look to build on an outstanding campaign, and could prove a sterner test for the favourite. Runner-up to Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair last time, he filled the same spot behind Sizing John in the Kinloch Brae in January, and ran a cracker when third to Djakadam in the John Durkan back in December. Those performances are outstanding, and I’d expect him to be ridden aggressively by Bryan Cooper, and prove hard to pass.

This looks a hugely competitive renewal, with Uxizandre looking to bounce back from a disappointing Cheltenham, and Kerry Lee’s pair of Top Gamble and Kylemore Lough both capable of going close. But it’s Fox Norton for the Tizzard’s that looks to possess the class to come out on top in a battle-royal with Sub Lieutenant.

A win there for Tizzard and owners Ann and Alan Potts, will raise hopes of a famous double for connections, when Finian’s Oscar goes for the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday. No doubt gutted to have missed Cheltenham, the team have a potential star in this undefeated novice hurdler. He’s been impressive in his three starts under rules, especially when a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle earlier in the season. This better ground should suit the son of Oscar, as should the two-and-a-half-mile trip.

Messire Des Obeaux brings strong form to the table, having finished third in the Neptune behind Willoughby Court and Neon Wolf. Alan King’s five-year-old carries the familiar silks of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, and is without doubt a classy sort. But I’d be surprised if Finian’s Oscar were turned over, though this is certainly his toughest test to date.

A ‘Tizzard Treble’ at the home of the Grand National would be no less than the handler deserves, after such a sparkling campaign. The Cotswolds in March may have proved a little disappointing, but Merseyside in April could once again prove a whole lot more satisfying.

He Who D’Airs – Henderson Switch Pays Off

Nicky Henderson shuffled the pack before playing a pair of aces at Sandown on Saturday.

Early in the week, Buveur D’Air looked set to contest the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, before heading for a shot at the JLT at Cheltenham. But after a change of heart, he was switched to the smaller obstacles, and duly strolled to victory in the Contenders Hurdle. That left the Munir and Souede owned Top Notch to step in, and out-class the opposition in the Grade 1 showpiece.

He’s certainly not the biggest, but that hasn’t stopped Top Notch from being extremely slick and accurate at his fences. He made one mistake out the back, but otherwise put in an immaculate round of jumping. Always travelling powerfully, Daryl Jacob held on to his mount until the last, before sweeping past Baron Alco and pulling five lengths clear. The disappointment of the race was Clan Des Obeaux, who having been sent off a short-priced favourite, failed to cope with the intensity of the event. His jumping became ragged, and he ultimately faded tamely to finish last of the five runners.

Daryl Jacob and connections were winning the Scilly Isles for the third consecutive year, and the jockey said: “It was a great performance. That was a real test for him. He's not the biggest in the world but he makes up for it with his heart. He deserves it. He's very, very consistent and he always tries his heart out. This was a big step and it told us a lot.”

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An emotional Nicky Henderson said of the winner: "This is a real favourite. He's nearer a pet than a racehorse. He came as a juvenile hurdler and I thought that was all he ever would be. He had a good year last year. He won the Morebattle (Kelso) and was fifth in the Champion, and had nowhere to go so we tried him over a fence. He was beaten first time out, and then we found him two lovely, easy races, and you could see him grow in stature and confidence. Daryl says the two and a half miles suits him well. It will probably be the JLT he'll go for at Cheltenham.”

Top Notch is now widely available at 7/1 for the JLT, with connections having finished second in the race 12 months ago, thanks to Bristol De Mai.

Earlier in the day Buveur D’Air had put his Champion Hurdle credentials to the test, and ran-out an easy winner of the Contenders Hurdle. In truth, only Irving looked to be any sort of meaningful opposition, and Nicholls’ hurdler is far from reliable. He had one of his off days, which left Rayvin Black alone in the task of stretching Henderson’s classy youngster. Oliver Sherwood’s eight-year-old did his best from the front, but Barry Geraghty cruised alongside just yards from the post, winning ‘hard-held’ by a length and a half.

Buveur D’Air was a classy novice hurdler, finishing third in the Supreme before beating Petit Mouchoir at Aintree. He forms part of a JP McManus double-act heading for the Champion Hurdle in March, along with Alan King’s Yanworth. Geraghty will have a tough decision to make as the opening day of the Festival draws near. Speaking to ITV Racing, he said: “He did it well. He was very slick over his hurdles. He was a bit sticky at the first, but after that he did it well. The ground is tough, but he obviously did it easily.” And when asked if the horse was a realistic Champion Hurdle contender, Geraghty added: “You'd like to think so.”

Henderson spoke of the winner, and of the switch to hurdles, saying: “I think that has earned him his (Cheltenham) ticket. He's done nothing wrong over fences, but he is very good at this and very talented. I thought it was worth a shot and he had to do what he did. We didn't learn a lot, I just think at this stage of his life he might just be a sharper hurdler than chaser.”

The trainer added: “Barry said he can make a length or two over hurdles with him but not so over fences. He is very quick, slick and pacey. He likes soft ground, but good ground will be fine. It was good enough ground in the Supreme last year, but they just all got first run on him. With a bit of luck, he would have finished second and anything that finishes second to Altior is a good horse.”

Henderson has an outstanding Cheltenham Festival record. Performances at Sandown show that Seven Barrows are assembling another powerful squad that will head to the Cotswolds in March.

Top Notch the type for Sandown Test

Best Mate was the most famous winner of Sandown’s Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, back in 2001.

The three-time winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup was a short-priced favourite, when cruising to a stylish victory. Foot and mouth put-paid to the Festival that year, and to Best Mate’s hopes of an Arkle Chase success. But the young chaser was to develop into one of the greats, taking Cheltenham’s ‘Blue Riband’ three years in a row.

Paul Nicholls enjoyed a dominant period in the race from 2006 until 2009. It’s fair to say that none of the winners shot to fame, though Silverburn went on to finish fourth in the RSA behind Albertas Run.

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In three of the last season renewals, the prize has gone to Nicky Henderson. Punchestowns, Captain Conan and Oscar Whisky were all classy types, though again, none of the trio hit the heights over fences. The 2010 winner Punchestowns, looked to have a bright future over the larger obstacles, winning this race in stunning fashion before heading to Cheltenham and a tilt at the RSA. Sent off a 2/1 favourite, he faded tamely out of contention, finishing a hugely disappointing fifth behind Weapon’s Amnesty.

The last two renewals of the Scilly Isles have gone to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. The pair were responsible for Gitane Du Berlais in 2015 and Bristol De Mai 12 months ago. The latter was a stunning winner at Haydock last month and is now viewed by many as a serious Gold Cup contender. Connections are responsible for one of Saturday’s fancied runners, when they team up with Nicky Henderson and the six-year-old Top Notch.

The master of Seven Barrows will have been pleased with the progress made by his young chaser. Third on debut at Uttoxeter, he has won his last three, and proved a step-up in trip was no issue when winning at Ascot last time. That effort at a right-hand track can only enhance his chances here, and he’s always proved adaptable to ground conditions. He’s not the biggest, but has been neat over his fences thus far. He’s a gutsy sort, with a touch of class, and should go well.

Paul Nicholls has plenty entered, though appears to be favouring Clan Des Obeaux. He looked a little unfortunate to lose out to Whisper at Cheltenham last time, when meeting the second last fence wrong and losing momentum. He’s a big, raw looking five-year-old, who looks sure to improve over time. He’s won twice since arriving in the UK, and both victories came at Newbury. It’s likely that the flat galloping track suits him at this stage of his development, and how he copes with the railway fences will be of interest. He may well prove the best of these in the long-term, but at some stage on Saturday, his ability to shorten-up into a fence will undoubtedly be tested.

Le Prezien is currently third best in the betting, and should Nicholls allow him to take his chance, he’ll prove an interesting contender. He chased home Yorkhill at Aintree in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle in April, and has coped well with the switch to the larger obstacles. Just ahead of Top Notch in the Uttoxeter race, he has won his last two, though both at a shorter trip than this. He’s looked capable of going further, though jumped slightly to his left at Exeter last time, which clearly would be less than ideal here.

Baron Alco looks likely to take his chance for local trainer Gary Moore. He has two wins over fences at Plumpton to his name, and has also finished behind Whisper this winter. He’s likely to make the running, and has been neat at his fences thus far. He’s not exceptional, but he’s no mug, and I’d expect him to put up a bold show. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he didn’t find one of these a little too good for him.

In a competitive renewal, I’m coming down in favour of Top Notch. I fancy that Clan Des Obeaux will prove a long-term project, and that Henderson’s chaser will be a little more battle-hardened. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Gordon’s a Game Changer

Gordon Elliott has had an outstanding season, capped by the triumph of Don Cossack in the Gold Cup.

The Cheltenham Festival proved a huge success for the County Meath trainer, with wins for Diamond King and Cause Of Causes adding to that of the ‘Don’. Prize money is now in excess of €2.3m, and he has proved the only trainer in Ireland to get within spitting distance of Mr Mullins. He now turns his attention to Aintree, a meeting that proved extremely rewarding last year.

It was at the Grand National meeting 12 months that Don Cossack truly announced himself as one of the leading staying chasers. He put in a devastating performance to win the Grade 1 Betfred Melling Chase. He put 26 lengths between himself and the runner-up Cue Card, though Tizzard’s fella was admittedly not at his best.

There was also a cracking double on the opening day with victories for Clarcam and Taglietelle. The former impressed when winning the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase whilst the latter lumped plenty of weight to victory in the Grade 3 three-mile handicap hurdle. Elliott looks set to launch a sizable raiding party from across the Irish Sea, with plenty of horses capable of striking gold.

Hopes on the opening day lie with the talented yet frustrating chaser Bright New Dawn. On the face of it he looks to have plenty on his plate in the Betfred Red Rum Handicap Chase. He has to give weight to all bar one of his rivals, and odds of 14/1 look a fair reflection of his chances. He ran a stinker at the Cheltenham Festival, though bounced back to some kind of form when winning last time at Clonmel. This two-mile contest on lively ground may prove a little on the sharp side, though if he’s on a ‘going day’ it would come as no surprise to see him go very close.

The opener on day two sees Elliott represented by another carrying the famous Gigginstown silks. Tycoon Prince has not been sighted since chasing home Bellshill at Navan back in December. Better ground and a wind operation may well prove key to his performance, and he is known to be highly thought of by the yard. He won three of his four bumpers before the switch to hurdles, and though his future lies over fences, he has the opportunity to sign off in style in this 2m4f handicap hurdle.

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The same connections are responsible for Ball D’Arc in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle. He’s hard to fancy in what’s likely to be a tasty renewal. The Supreme winner Altior skips the race but Nicky Henderson looks set to run Buveur D’Air with Alan King looking at this for Yanworth in the hope of dodging a rematch with Yorkhill.

Elliott looks likely to let Clarcam take his chance in the Melling Chase with Vautour a possible opponent. As mentioned earlier in the piece, Clarcam was successful at the meeting 12 months ago, and though his form has been incredibly disappointing so far this winter, I still find it incredible that he is priced up at 50/1. Take Vautour out of the field and you are left with a handful of exposed performers. If running to his best, Elliott’s horse is more than capable of finishing second.

One that arrives at Aintree in tip-top shape is his novice hurdler Fagan. A 33/1 runner-up in the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, he looks set to run in a competitive looking Sefton Novices’ Hurdle. The grey has been a model of consistency throughout his brief career, with top two finishes in his last eight appearances. As long as Cheltenham didn’t take too much out of him, he looks sure to run another cracker.

Another that performed admirably at Cheltenham was Gigginstown’s classy novice hurdler Tombstone. He lacked the gears to land a blow on the front three in the Supreme Novices’ though stayed on well to snatch fourth. He’ll be stepping up in trip to tackle the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday, and the extra half mile should suit. He certainly has place claims.

One Elliott contender that I’m certainly interested in is The Game Changer, who looks set to contest the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase. He showed his liking for Aintree when second at last year’s National meeting, and after a long break ran a race full of promise in the Arkle. The hill at Cheltenham would not have suited this strong traveller, who needs to be produced late in his races. He’ll run a big race at Aintree.

Whether Prince Of Scars is allowed to run is questionable. He’s entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle and has looked a hugely talented horse, though seemingly best on testing ground. He defeated Alpha Des Obeaux last time, and that form received a huge boost at Cheltenham. If he was to turn up he has to be considered a major contender, though nothing will beat Thistlecrack.

So finally to the main event, and Elliott’s Grand National hope Ucello Conti. Formerly trained in France, the eight-year-old has run three times since the switch to Ireland. Elliott won the race with Silver Birch in 2007, and almost won the Irish version just over a week ago with Bless The Wings.

This fella had plenty of chase experience in France and has run well to be placed in two hugely competitive staying events over the winter in Ireland. Some have questioned his ability to get the national trip, having faded late on in both the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown and the Thyestes Chase at Gowran. However, those runs came on very testing ground, and with a more conservative ride on a sounder surface, he looks a real contender.

He carries the familiar Munir and Souede colours having been owned in France by Simon Munir. Much will depend on how he settles, having occasionally looked a little keen. Clearly if he gets ‘buzzy’ during the preliminaries his chances will be compromised.

“He lost his way and became disappointing, and the last roll of the dice was to go to see if Gordon Elliott could rekindle him a bit”, said racing manager Anthony Bromley. “Gordon had him over a year before he got him on the track. He's been a bit of a surprise package. Daryl Jacob rides and this horse is a half-brother to Silviniaco Conti.” Jacob of course won the race on Neptune Collonges back in 2012.

With an incredibly tight battle for the Trainer’s Championship continuing to play out, it’s likely that Mullins and Nicholls will glean much of the attention during the three days. However, Gordon Elliott has rapidly become a potent force in National Hunt racing, and he looks set to play a leading role in yet another major spring festival.

Triumph Test For Nicholls Newcomer

The BetBright Adonis Juvenile Hurdle is the last recognised trial for four-year-olds with ambitions of heading to contest the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival.

It has a habit of producing talented winners with two of the last 10 following up with victory in the Triumph at Prestbury Park. It’s an event that has favoured lightly raced youngsters rather than those with plenty of hurdling experience under their belt. Indeed, Zarkandar took the Grade 2 in 2011 on his hurdling debut before heading to Cheltenham three weeks later and winning the juvenile feature on just his second hurdles start.

A year earlier Soldatino was making his UK debut when taking the Adonis prior to winning the Triumph at the Festival.

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Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have shared six of the last 10 renewals. They have become the dominant force in juvenile events in recent times, having also struck in five of the last 10 Triumph Hurdles. Those bred in France also feature strongly with six wins from the last 10 renewals. And juveniles contesting under a penalty have also fared well in recent years.

It pays to side with a fancied runner in the Adonis. The top two in the betting account for almost 70% of the winners over the past two decades. Favourites have a terrific record with 9 wins from the last 19 renewals. Zarkandar was the biggest odds winner in the past decade when sent off at 8/1.

Alan King’s Gibralfaro looks sure to go off favourite having impressed in his two hurdles wins to date. Though bred in Ireland, he arrived in King’s yard having run on the flat in France. He has plenty of racing experience and has taken well to the change in codes. He beat Nicholls’ Connetable at Ascot last time, and that form has taken a boost since. He is owned by the McNeill family, and their famous silks were carried to third in the Triumph Hurdle of 2012 by Grumeti.

Paul Nicholls has several entered with the shortest priced being the hurdles newcomer Zubayr. Formerly owned by the Aga Khan, he ran twice on the flat at Longchamp as a three-year-old before being purchased for a huge sum at the Arqana sales in July. Anthony Bromley of Highflyer Bloodstock along with Harold Kirk representing Willie Mullins and Tom Malone, on behalf of Paul Nicholls, were all bidding for this exciting youngster, and his hurdles debut has been eagerly anticipated.

Pilansberg is another possible newcomer from Ditcheat. Also arriving from France, he was group class on the flat and has some outstanding form in the book. He got to within two lengths of Erupt at Chantilly in June, and that colt went on to finish fifth in the Arc. If he can transfer that kind of form to his hurdling career he could be a really exciting prospect.

Of the remainder, it is always sensible to take note of any juvenile carrying the Munir-Souede silks. Nicky Henderson has a couple entered for connections, with Omessa Has looking the most likely to run. He has plenty of experience having run eight times at Auteuil in 2015. His form is solid rather than spectacular, and although his profile rather goes against the typical Adonis winner, he has to come under consideration when representing such powerful connections.

On what we have seen over hurdles thus far, Gibralfaro is the rightful favourite. However, I’ll be taking a chance with the Paul Nicholls newcomer Zubayr. Ditcheat’s expensive juvenile is finally set to be unleashed and we will find out if the huge outlay was money well spent.

Hells Bells-hill – Saturday Shocker

Saturday proved something of a reputation buster, with upsets on either side of the Irish Sea causing inevitable shockwaves on the Cheltenham Festival markets.

Ireland had more than their fair share of shocks with numerous hotpots hitting the buffers. The opener at Leopardstown very much set the tone for the afternoon. Ivanovich Gorbatov had started the day as the Triumph Hurdle favourite on the back of an impressive hurdle debut at the track over Christmas. Strongly fancied to follow up, he struggled to go with the strong pace set by Jer’s Girl and Let’s Dance. In trouble turning for home he failed to land a blow and finished 10 lengths back in fourth.

The Willie Mullins trained Footpad stayed on best of all for a surprise win, further strengthening the juvenile stronghold of owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. They now have three of the top six in the Triumph Hurdle betting, having taken first and second in last year’s renewal. The winner is built for fences and appeared well suited by the testing conditions. Quicker ground at Cheltenham would prove problematic, though he’ll be flying up that hill.

Let’s Dance stayed on well for third in Saturday’s race, despite having done much of the donkey work up front. Her action suggests she’ll be suited by a sounder surface and I was taken by her performance. She’s lightening quick over her obstacles and looks to have a bright future.

The demise of Ivanovich Gorbatov will have surprised many, but he had surely been over-hyped on the evidence of just one run. Bellshill on the other-hand had a strong bumper campaign and several impressive victories over hurdles on his CV. Challenging Yanworth at the head of the Neptune market, he was sent off strong favourite for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Nevertheless, he too had his inflated reputation punctured when trailing home third, behind surprise winner Bleu Et Rouge and Gordon Elliott’s Tombstone.

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Sent on by Ruby Walsh he led until approaching the final flight, but had no answer to the powerful finishes of the front two. Tombstone loomed large at the last, but it was the McManus owned runner, also trained by Mullins, who found most for pressure, scooting clear for victory. He’d run with great promise when finishing behind Tombstone and Long Dog at Christmas, but was ridden more prominently this time round by Barry Geraghty.

The jockey is already set to partner Neptune favourite Yanworth at Cheltenham, but Mullins suggested that race would be the likely target for Bleu Et Rouge, saying: “He ran very well here at Christmas and he learned an awful lot so after talking to Mark (Walsh), Barry went out there with a bit of confidence. The horse looked a bit green going to the last, but Barry thought if he could keep a little bit up his sleeve for after the last, he might beat Tombstone, which he did. All the jockeys are saying the ground is very testing so another two or three furlongs of the Neptune might suit him.”

It was a taking performance from an improving sort, though the win probably only served to strengthen the confidence in a Yanworth success in March. The result was however another boost for the form of the Future Champions Novice winner Long Dog. He’s likely to head for the Neptune with spring ground at Cheltenham sure to suit.

Gigginstown jockey Bryan Cooper had voiced concerns over the testing ground as the Irish Gold Cup approached. And so it proved when race favourite Road To Riches appeared unable to cope with the testing conditions, finishing a well-beaten second to last year’s winner Carlingford Lough. Noel Meade’s charge lacked his usual zest and though showing plenty of guts to be involved in the finish, never looked like coming out on top.

The race appeared to be going the way of Gigginstown’s Valseur Lido, but a last fence blunder plunged Ruby Walsh into the dirt, leaving the way clear for the strong finishing McManus owned runner.

After the race a deflated Meade spoke of Road To Riches, saying: “Watching the race I was never happy and Bryan came back and said the horse was never really carrying him. We always feared the ground and maybe that contributed to the way he ran. We'll see how he comes out of it and then make plans.”

On Sunday the trainer appeared more enthusiastic when saying: “He seems to be OK, which is good. I think they just went too quick. He never got into a rhythm, and was back and forth a bit in the race. He was only just beaten in the Gold Cup last year so I think he should go back there again. Good ground would help him but it's up to the owners which race they want to go for.”

It’s clear that Meade feels his horse has a chance in the Gold Cup, but the owners have Don Poli, Don Cossack and Valseur Lido all vying for a place on the starting line. Road To Riches has proven himself capable of winning over shorter, and the bookies probably have it right with the horse as short as 5/1 for the Ryanair.

Many pushed him out to 20s for the Gold Cup and they were doing the same with Peace And Co after his lacklustre performance at Sandown. Henderson’s Champion Hurdle hope has done little right so far this winter, and this latest setback surely ends all hope of a win at Cheltenham in March. Or so you would think.

Despite another desperate performance his trainer refuses to throw in the towel, and a check on Peace And Co’s breathing is now on the agenda, with Henderson saying: “It's been a bit of a hotch-potch preparation in that, as you know, we were trying to run a fortnight ago and although we mended it pretty quick, when you miss three days you might as well miss a week. It wasn't ideal. I'm not making excuses; he will come on for the race quite a lot. But that's not the point really - he switched off, he jumped well, he travelled well, he just didn't come home.”

Time of course is running out with The Festival just a month away. The Irish are coming, and they’ll take some stopping.

Henderson’s French Connection

Nicky Henderson will be hoping that Buveur D’Air can build on his hugely impressive hurdles debut when turned out at Huntingdon this afternoon.

He thrashed the since unbeaten Wait For Me at Newbury back in November, marking him down as a realistic contender for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. He’d performed admirably in bumpers last season when only a four-year-old; twice chasing home the impressive Barters Hill.

He’s a French bred youngster from a family Henderson knows only too well. He is by French stallion Crillon, who currently stands at the Haras de la Baie Stud in Northern France. The former middle to long-distance performer started his stud career back in 2004. He’s been responsible for numerous winners in France, though few of his progeny have travelled across the Channel.

Henderson’s first experience of the sire came with Ranjobaie back in 2009. He arrived in the UK unbeaten from three runs on the flat for French trainer Yannick Fertillet. He was a more than useful hurdler, running Menorah a close second at Warwick on his British debut. He came close to winning the EBF Novices’ Handicap Final at Sandown in March 2010. He changed hands and was sent over fences the following season, but failed to make an impact over the larger obstacles.

Crillon continues to produce quality jumpers in France. Alex De Larredya is a promising young chaser who has already tasted success at Auteuil. It is interesting to note that he is owned by Simon Munir. Jemy Baie is another young chaser by Crillon, who is performing well in graded events over fences.

But not only is Henderson familiar with the sire of Buveur D’Air, he has also had considerable success with the gelding’s dam. The French mare in question is History, and she was responsible for the yard’s classy gelding Punchestowns. He was a powerful racehorse who had a terrific strike-rate, winning seven of his 14 starts under rules. He so nearly lifted the World Hurdle in 2009 when defeated by one of the greatest staying hurdler’s of all time in Big Bucks.

My, how the Lambourn trainer will be hoping that this latest French import can become as successful as Punchestowns. The early signs are certainly encouraging.

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