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Our Duke has The Power for Gold Cup Glory

News came last night that Sizing John would not be defending his Gold Cup crown.

As the bombshell dropped, I was in the process of writing how surprisingly rare it is that horses complete back-to-back victories in the ‘Blue Riband’. Keeping these equine stars fit and well is an incredibly difficult task. Getting them on the racecourse year-in year-out is hard enough, but training the equine elite to maintain such a high level of performance is quite something else. Along with Sizing John, the likes of Faugheen, Douvan and Thistlecrack are just a few names that instantly spring to mind.

Though Harrington will clearly be gutted at the untimely injury to her Gold Cup hero, it does mean that jockey Robbie Power will now be reunited with stable companion Our Duke. The partnership landed the Irish National back in April but occasional jumping errors since his return from a back operation have been a source of concern for those siding with the giant chaser, as he heads for his greatest challenge to date at Prestbury Park. Power is surely best placed to get the most from Our Duke, and that may well prove to be enough for a horse that looks tailor-made for the job that lies ahead.

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Might Bite heads the market following success in the RSA last year and a somewhat underwhelming victory in the King George. Turning for home at Kempton, the eight-year-old pulled clear of the pack and looked sure to romp to an impressive winning performance. But at the line he had just a length to spare over Double Shuffle with a further two back to Tea For Three. Henderson’s talented chaser may well win the Gold Cup next week, but his inability to focus throughout the race, from the fall of the flag to the finish, may yet prove his downfall. Better horses than Whisper, Double Shuffle and Tea For Three will be waiting to pounce, should he take his eye of the prize.

Native River will ensure that the contenders stamina is fully tested. Richard Johnson will set the fractions, firing the gutsy eight-year-old at every fence as he attempts to mirror a Coneygree style performance. Tizzard’s contender has had this race as his sole target this season, and as such, will arrive a fresh horse. He ran a cracker in finishing third a year ago, when arguably not ridden aggressively enough. Sizing John had the gears, and enough left in the tank to use them. It will be down to Johnson to ensure that the sting is drawn from the chasing pack, in much the same way as Sam Spinner in Thursday’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He looks sure to go close.

Road To Respect won the Brown Advisory Handicap at last year’s Festival, and has continued on a steep upward curve throughout this campaign. He took the Leopardstown Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander, though several leading contenders underperformed that day. Off the track since, the lack of a prep-run is a slight concern. He’s a second-season chaser, clearly on the upgrade, and therefore ticks plenty of boxes for trend followers. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that he’s ‘the one’ and am far from certain that he’s robust enough for this extended trip with that infamous concluding climb.

The joker in the pack is the Willie Mullins-trained Killultagh Vic. He looked likely to win the Irish Gold Cup when falling at the last. Such jumping errors must be a huge concern for a horse with so little chasing experience. Despite being a nine-year-old, he’s only had three races over fences. It’s testament to how highly he’s regarded that he’s fourth favourite at 10/1, and he does have a Festival success to his name, having won the Martin Pipe Hurdle back in 2015. Three years have passed, and in that period, he’s only been on the racecourse five times. If he wins we will all marvel at the training prowess of Willie Mullins coupled with the incredible talent of the horse. However, trend followers will say that he can’t win, and I’m prepared to go with them.

One that will outrun his odds is Minella Rocco. Runner-up last year and winner of the four-miler in 2016, this fella thrives at Cheltenham in March. He’ll likely be outpaced at some stage prior to charging up the hill when others cry enough. As Native River’s tank starts to read empty and Might Bite drifts across the track to inspect the Guinness Village, Jonjo’s fella will be making his move. I’m sure he’ll go close.

Gold Cup winners rarely stagger over the finishing line, rather, they charge up the hill devouring the Cheltenham turf, out-staying and over-powering their opponents. In the absence of Sizing John, I’m convinced that Our Duke has what it takes to complete back-to-back victories for Jess Harrington. At 25s, the each-way money will be lumped on Minella Rocco.

Expect the unexpected in this ‘anything could happen’ renewal. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Outlander to continue Leopardstown love-affair

Who’d be a tipster? Things haven’t gone according to plan in recent weeks, so I’ve decided to travel across the Irish Sea (not literally) in search of a winner.

The Dublin Festival at Leopardstown begins on Saturday and it’s Sunday’s Irish Gold Cup that I’ve decided to scrutinize for this week’s preview. It’s a competitive renewal though many will be disappointed not to have Sizing John and Road To Respect in the line-up. The former took this race 12 months ago prior to his successful trip to Prestbury Park, whilst the latter landed the Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus). They’re arguably Ireland’s top two staying chasers, although many would fancy Our Duke as a potential star.

Established in 1987, the first winner was the classy, if sometimes unpredictable, Forgive ‘n Forget. The 10-year-old had captured the Gold Cup at Cheltenham two years earlier but was often apt to put in an erratic round of jumping. A strong traveller through a race, when he did get it right he proved to be mighty impressive. His victory at Leopardstown in ‘87 was one such occasion.

Jodami completed a hat-trick of wins in the 1990s along with a single victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And at the turn of the century Florida Pearl matched that success with his own trio of wins. Trained by Willie Mullins, the horse became an Irish chasing goliath. He captured a fourth Irish Gold Cup (then the Hennessy) in his final start at the age of 12. Although never cracking Cheltenham’s Gold Cup, he did manage to land the King George at Kempton in 2001.

Mullins has found it impossible to win Cheltenham’s Gold Cup but has a terrific record in Ireland’s equivalent. He landed three-in-a-row from 2011 to 2013 (bringing his total to nine), with Sir Des Champs taking the latter. Much to the trainer’s frustration, he too came up just short back at Prestbury Park when losing out to Bobs Worth.

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The champion trainer has two entries in Sunday’s renewal with a huge disparity in experience. Djakadam has been contesting these top-class events since 2015 and has proved wonderfully consistent. He’s won or been placed in 10 Grade One’s, though his two victories came in the John Durkan at two and-a-half miles. It would be wrong to say he isn’t effective at three miles, but he tends to find one or two a little too strong in a finish. I’d forgive him his last poor performance at Leopardstown over Christmas, when appearing to be suffering the effects of his previous clash with Sizing John. Nevertheless, on all known form he looks set to be placed at best.

Mullins’ second challenger is Killultagh Vic who only has two chase outings to his name. It’s quite incredible that a horse with so little experience and having only had one outing in the past two years (that was over hurdles) can find himself second in the betting. There’s no doubting the nine-year-old is talented, but it probably says more of the doubts surrounding other contenders. I’d be astounded if he wins and of the pair I’d be siding with Djakadam.

Jess Harrington trained Sizing John to win a year ago and has eight-year-old Our Duke primed for the challenge on Sunday. Ireland’s best novice chaser last year, his return in the JNwine.com was a disaster. Found to have a back issue post-race, he’s had an operation and is reportedly ready to put his best hoof forward. His Irish National success last April was mightily impressive, though he still must prove himself at the highest level against more experienced campaigners. He’s favourite for the race and needs to go close if to be considered a contender for Cheltenham’s Gold Cup in March.

Gigginstown have three entered though only two are likely to challenge. Outlander and Valseur Lido certainly have the ability to go close, though the former is unpredictable whilst the latter is only recently back from injury. Outlander is four from five at Leopardstown and ran another cracker at the track when third in the Christmas Chase. He’s looked as good as ever this winter and I fancy he’ll go close.

I remain to be convinced that Valseur Lido truly sees out the three-miles at this level. When part of the Mullins team, his trainer was convinced that the horse needed ‘a trip’. But he looked a certain winner approaching the last in the Lexus of 2016 before fading. Then off the track for a year, he returned to contest the same race (now known as the Christmas Chase) and again faded late-on. He’s sure to strip fitter this time and now a nine-year-old may well have the stamina required. He’s arguably the most talented horse in the field and will likely be at the head of affairs approaching the last.

Many are singing the praises of Anibale Fly and it’s true he was impressive in winning the Paddy Power Chase at the track over Christmas. This is a much tougher assignment and his novice form leaves him a little shy of Our Duke. He’s only eight and there’s certainly room for further improvement, but I’m not convinced he’s quite up to this.

This track doesn’t play to Minella Rocco’s strengths. It would come as no surprise to see him staying on powerfully to grab a place, but he needs a stiff finish to be seen at his best. This will serve as a warm up for Cheltenham, where I can see him again going close.

I hope Our Duke wins and he may well do so. A talented novice, he’s the horse in the field that has star quality. However, there’s enough doubt for me to look elsewhere. Outlander’s record at the track is exceptional and I take him to land the spoils.

Best of luck to all those having a punt. And enjoy what is set to be a sensational Dublin Festival.

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.

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.”

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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.

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.

Might Bite Delivers Killer Kempton Performance

Might Bite lived up to the hype, and today it’s the turn of Sizing John to consolidate his place at the head of the Cheltenham Gold Cup market.

Henderson’s classy chaser was sent off a short-priced favourite to land the King George on Boxing Day, and though pressed late-on, he had the race in safe keeping from some way out. Travelling powerfully towards the head of affairs, he comfortably brushed aside long-time leader Bristol De Mai as the contenders turned for home. He’d opened up a three-length gap at the last, and though Double Shuffle and Tea For Two both stayed on strongly, they never looked like getting to the winner.

Thistlecrack, ran gallantly in fourth, but never quite looked his old self. At no point was he taking Tom Scudamore into a challenging position. Indeed, Scu appeared to be half-niggling away to keep him in touch. He’d have a chance in Newbury’s Denman Chase in February, but it’s hard to believe he’d have a hope of winning the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

Bristol De Mai needs Haydock and the mud. He ran well for a fair distance, but was unable to burn-off the field on this ground. His jumping is also an issue when the conditions are slightly livelier. He too may end up at Newbury, and in bottomless ground would have a chance. I can’t see him challenging the best in Cheltenham’s ‘Blue Riband’, and it’s possible Twiston-Davies may now have a rethink on targets for Blaklion. That horse has won three times at Prestbury Park, including the RSA of 2016.

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Of his latest star chaser, Henderson said: “He’s so exuberant. He has sex appeal, loves the showmanship that goes with it. He likes to boss it and says, ‘look at me’. He’s got a lot of presence and has so much charisma” Of the ‘big one’ in March he added: “We’ve got to behave ourselves at Cheltenham. I’m the first to admit it’s a different ball game and he will probably jump the last and want to go right. We will have to think of something. I already have but I don’t want to give it away.”

De Boinville appeared positive, when saying: “He was fantastic. Bristol De Mai was making a few mistakes and he’s took me to the lead. I think he will absolutely fine on it (Cheltenham) and there will be better ground on that Friday as long as the rain holds off. If he is as straightforward as that he has to have a live chance. I have no stamina concerns. He was taking me there the whole way today and doing it very easily. That makes it a lot easier as a jockey. I just had to hold on.”

Earlier in the day, Buveur D’Air looked mightily impressive when winning the Christmas Hurdle. The New One set a searching pace and kicked for home off the bend. Just for a fleeting moment the favourite appeared flat-footed, but in a flash, was up alongside and then sweeping past the Twiston-Davies trained stalwart. Should Altior return in time for The Festival, Henderson has a realistic chance of capturing three of the four Championship races (Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup).

If Altior does make the March appointment, he’ll have Politologue to beat. Nicholls’ young chaser captured the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton yesterday, and is now as short as 3/1 for the Champion Chase. Whilst he put in another solid performance, the Willie Mullins-trained Min was somewhat fluffing his lines in Ireland.

Though crossing the line first at Leopardstown, he’d caused interference with the runner-up Simply Ned on the run from the last, and was demoted to second spot. He’d finished half-a-length ahead of Nicky Richards’ runner, and that performance surely leaves him well short of a fighting fit Altior. It probably leaves him with more to find if he is to match Politologue.

Today’s Leopardstown action centres on the Grade One Christmas Chase, formerly the Lexus. It’s a cracker, with Sizing John facing Yorkhill, Djakadam and Road To Respect. Don’t discount Minella Rocco at 33/1, as he’s more than capable of running into a place. Should Sizing John prevail, as anticipated, he’ll probably shorten ahead of Might Bite in the Gold Cup betting.

Yorkhill is a fascinating contender in this thrilling looking renewal. He defeated Top Notch, Disko and Politologue at Cheltenham in March, and that’s beginning to look extremely strong form. His breeding suggests the trip will be ideal, and he’s a far better horse going left-handed.

Sizing John No Show A Blow

It came as something of a shock when yesterday Jess Harrington announced that her Gold Cup winner, Sizing John, would not be making the trip to Haydock for the Betfair Chase on Saturday.

“Sadly, he's not running because the ground is soft, heavy in places and there's a bit more rain due,” said Harrington. “It's just the ground. I've been a bit worried all week. I didn't mind soft, genuine soft ground, but when they start putting heavy into Haydock, it gets very heavy. Plan B will be the John Durkan and then we'll take it from there.”

There’s no doubting that the trainer has Sizing John’s well-being at heart. Nevertheless, her decision goes against the wishes of the late Alan Potts, who had targeted the £1million bonus offered by the Jockey Club for a horse winning the Betfair Chase, the King George and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in the same season.

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It’s hard to imagine that Alan Potts was solely driven by the thought of a million, but rather by the chance of creating a piece of history in emulating the achievement of the mighty Kauto Star.

Just a couple of days back, Harrington spoke of racecourse gallops, and of having the horse ‘as fit as I can have him’ prior to the trip over. Sizing John has won eight times under rules, with half of those victories coming on testing ground. His first attempt at three-miles came when winning the Irish Gold Cup in challenging conditions at Leopardstown. Those committing to a Haydock trip in November tend to know what to expect, with the last five Betfair Chase renewals being run on soft or heavy.

Fans and punters will be disappointed by the decision, and the withdrawal certainly leaves the race looking a little threadbare on quality. Though the ground is likely to be better for the King George at Christmas, there must now be doubt over Sizing John’s participation in Kempton’s showpiece. The likelihood of the Gold Cup winner staying home throughout the winter has greatly increased since Harrington’s other high-class chaser Our Duke, is now on sick leave. He’s recovering from an operation on his back, and will likely be out until February, leaving an opening for a Harrington contender in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.

With the headline act missing, Colin Tizzard will be far more optimistic that Cue Card can add a fourth Betfair Chase to his CV. Lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, yet a victory for the stable star on Saturday would surely spark scenes reminiscent of those witnessed in 2011. Back then it was Kauto Star, also as an 11-year-old, that captured his fourth Betfair having been dismissed by many as on the wane. Those that were there will never forget the emotional return to the winner’s enclosure.

Last year’s Betfair Chase victory came on heavy ground, and arguably his best performance of last season came in testing conditions when romping home in the Ascot Chase. There’s little doubt that Cue Card now operates as well as any staying chaser when the mud is flying. Harry Cobden is tasked with keeping tabs on race favourite Bristol De Mai, who seems likely to be ridden positively by Daryl Jacob.

The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained seven-year-old also thrives in the prevailing conditions and is unbeaten at Haydock. In his two outings at the Lancashire track, he has won by a combined 54 lengths. He was mightily impressive in the Grade Two Peter Marsh Chase back in January, when cruising to a 22-length success as those around him floundered in the mud. Cue Card will be a much tougher nut to crack, but BDM looks a beast when conditions suit.

Despite the disappointment of a Sizing John no show, the sight of the old warrior pursuing the young pretender should still have pulses racing come Saturday afternoon.

Cobden call-up on Cue Card

Cue Card, Coneygree and Our Duke hit the headlines at the weekend, for all the wrong reasons.

And yesterday it was dear old Cue Card that again made the news, as the Tizzard team decided a change of jockey is required in the hope of resurrecting the chaser’s winning ways. Having hit the deck twice in his last three starts, Paddy Brennan has been asked to step-aside, and it will be young Harry Cobden that takes the reins in the Betfair Chase at Haydock.

The 19-year-old has impressed in his short time in the saddle, and has been riding regularly for both Paul Nicholls and Colin Tizzard. This is a huge opportunity for the young man, and he is clearly thrilled to be given the chance. Speaking yesterday he said: “I schooled him this morning and he felt A1. I'm very much looking forward to riding him. It is a great opportunity for a young jockey to pick up a ride like that and the target is the Betfair Chase. I ride out for Colin every Wednesday and I know all the horses well. I've not really got any commitments in Graded races, so it will be nice riding a horse like that as these opportunities don't come around too often.”

There’s no doubting it’s tough on Paddy Brennan. He’s had some fabulous times on Cue Card, most notably the thrilling King George success of 2015, when getting up in the final strides to defeat the wonderful Vautour. Brennan will still ride for the Tizzard’s, but this will still be a blow for the jock.

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Colin Tizzard spoke of the decision yesterday afternoon: “I spoke to Paddy on Monday and said I thought the horse deserved to have a change of rider as he has fallen twice out of the last three times. He said it was fair enough. It's not a big issue changing jockey as we do it all the time, but it might be on Cue Card because of his profile. It is a different set of hands on board, so we will see what happens.”

The trainer added: “Harry might be available for two or three races, whereas a lot of the top jockeys are already on the best horses. I like the idea of having a younger man on him. I've known Harry all my life and he has got plenty of experience. He has ridden a lot of winners for us and he is a good young rider. I consulted Jean (Bishop, Cue Card's owner) about it and she is a very loyal person, but she thought the horse deserved a new rider. He (Cobden) will be scrutinised, no doubt, but getting on Cue Card when you are 19 years old, he should be chuffed.”

With Tizzard’s older statesman looking to land his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock, the yard’s younger star was among 26 entries for the King George at Christmas. Thistlecrack won Kempton’s Christmas cracker last December, and is on course to attempt a repeat performance.

Speaking on the Jockey Club's Love The Jumps podcast a week ago, the Dorset trainer said: “We had him in first week in August, we're now nearly in November and we're just starting to go a bit faster with him. He's got a month of fast work and he'll be ready to run. He'll have a hurdle before we go in the King George because we can't really go there first time up. I feel his legs once a week now and someone else feels them every other day and they seem absolutely fine.”

Earlier this week Tizzard confirmed that the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury would act as Thistlecrack’s King George warm-up run. He took the race in 2015, and it would leave a gap of almost four weeks before that huge event at Kempton.

Tizzard also spoke of last year’s Gold Cup third, Native River. The seven-year-old is set for a light campaign, with another crack at Cheltenham’s Gold Cup the prime objective. He’ll not be seen until the new year, with connections keen to have him spot-on for the big day.

Might Bite, Sizing John, Douvan and Djakadam were other eye-catching entries for what may well prove to be a stellar renewal of the King George. Nicky Henderson’s Might Bite looks likely to head to Sandown for his seasonal debut on Sunday. The three-mile 188Bet Future Stars Intermediate Chase appears the ideal starting point, giving the young chaser vital practice before taking on the ‘big guns’ over Christmas. The opportunity of having another run on a right-handed track would also have been on Henderson’s mind when choosing this as a pipe-opener.

Sizing John has the million-pound bonus on his agenda for this campaign. He’ll head for the Betfair Chase before a crack at the King George. The cheque will be handed over should he win both and then repeat his Gold Cup success at Cheltenham. Sounds easy enough.

Sizing up the Winter options

With something of a lull on the Flat this week, there’s been news in the past few days, regarding some of Jump racings star performers.

The 2015 Gold Cup winner, Coneygree, looks set to be back in action in the coming weeks. Listowel’s Kerry National is the intended starting point for Sara Bradstock’s exciting chaser, and he appears to be giving the right signals as connections hope for an uninterrupted campaign. “He'll come on for the run, but he's fit enough as we've got our all-weather and he goes to Paul Cole's all-weather as well,” said Bradstock.

She went on: “I'd be worried if the ground in Ireland went heavy, which it can there, but they are hoping it will be yielding to soft, which would be perfect. He's just a bit better since the spring and has got his confidence back - he's feeling great.”

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The plan is to then go for the Ladbrokes Trophy (formerly The Hennessy) at Newbury in December, where he’ll be lumping top-weight and attempting to replicate the likes of Denman. The Kerry National is very much a trial for Newbury, and will give the trainer the chance to assess whether he can give huge amounts of weight away in a handicap successfully. The team prefer the flat galloping track at Newbury, over the tighter course of Haydock which holds the Betfair Chase. They will also be keen to space his races well, as they attempt to avoid injury with the likeable chaser.

One that will be heading to Haydock for their Grade One feature at the end of November, is the current Gold Cup Champ, Sizing John. Jess Harrington spoke recently of targets for her leading chasers, and will be doing her best to keep Irish Grand National winner Our Duke and Sizing John apart, at least until a possible clash at Cheltenham in March.

“Our aim is to start him (SJ) off in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on November 25. He looks fantastic. We're keen to have a crack at the £1 million bonus for winning the three races at Haydock, Kempton (King George) and Cheltenham (Gold Cup). It's exciting to have a horse to run in those races, and the triple crown has always been on our minds since he won at Punchestown.”

Formerly a high-class two-mile chaser, he certainly has the necessary ‘zip’ for tracks such as Haydock and Kempton, and has proved himself adept to going left or right-handed.

That’s likely to ensure an Irish campaign for Our Duke prior to Cheltenham in March, with the Lexus Chase over Christmas an early objective. “Our Duke is back trotting and looks fantastic,” added Harrington. “We'll kick off his season at Down Royal (JNwine.com Chase). That looks the ideal starting point for him.” The first Grade One in the Irish National Hunt season went to Don Cossack in 2015, and the great Kauto Star in 2008 and 2010.

Our Duke is likely to clash with several talented chasers from the Willie Mullins yard, including Djakadam, who came close to defeating Sizing John in the Punchestown Gold Cup in April. It’ll also be interesting to see where the likes of Minella Rocco and Native River head during the winter. The Lexus Chase could prove an ideal target for both as they build towards a possible crack at the Grand National at Aintree.

There’s still plenty of action to come on the Flat over the coming months, but it’s difficult not to get excited as another National Hunt season draws ever closer.

Power Surge both Home and Away

An undoubted star of the three-day Aintree meeting, was Ireland’s Robbie Power.

It’s proved to be an incredible period for the popular jockey, yet he looked set to miss much of it, when struck down by a serious looking back injury at the end of January. At first, his participation in the Cheltenham Festival seemed in doubt, but thankfully Power was back in action in no time, and onboard Sizing John, when the young chaser advertised his Gold Cup credentials, in the Irish version at Leopardstown in February.

Several weeks later, the jockey arrived at Cheltenham in his role as Jess Harrington’s number one, and captured the main prize. Sizing John was part of a treble during a thrilling Festival, with Supasundae taking the Coral Cup, and Rock The World winning the Grand Annual. The victory in the Gold Cup for owners Ann and Alan Potts secured the jockey his spot as retained rider, and he certainly made the most of it at Aintree.

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Sporting the famous green, yellow and red silks, Power made a huge impact at Liverpool for trainer Colin Tizzard, first causing an upset on Pingshou in the Grade 1 Top Novices’ Hurdle. The seven-year-old had finished down the field in the Supreme, but bounced back to form with a four-length success over Malcolm Jefferson’s talented youngster, Mount Mews. He galloped powerfully to the line, and looks to have the stature to make a nice chaser next season.

Power then had a dream ride on the impressive Fox Norton. He ran-away with the Melling Chase, thrashing Sub Lieutenant in the process. He’d only just failed to land the Champion Chase at Cheltenham, and this step-up in trip appeared to suit. Tizzard’s chaser looks to be progressing at a rate-of-knots, and may well be one for the King George next Christmas, with the owners having Sizing John for the Lexus Chase in Ireland. Power may have to forego the Turkey and Christmas pud.

Sizing Codelco was something of a bonus on Saturday, but Finian’s Oscar looks the real deal. The jockey had the opposition covered turning for home in the Grade 1 Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, and the five-year-old stayed on powerfully for a three-length success. There’s every chance he’ll be sent over the larger obstacles next season, with Power then having the prospect of riding Finian’s, Foxy and Sizing John. He must be licking his lips in anticipation.

Arguably his greatest achievement in the saddle, was riding Silver Birch to victory in the Grand National of 2007. The son of an Irish show-jumper, he became champion conditional jockey in 2004, and though better known for success in Ireland, he did partner Boston’s Angel to victory in the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival of 2011 for Jess Harrington.

His top-level victories on home soil have been numerous, and include Grade 1s on Jezki, Big Zeb, Oscars Well, and twice on Boston’s Angel. He also partnered the Harrington trained Our Duke to victory in a Grade 1 chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. It’s this staying chaser, not risked at Cheltenham, that could prove a realistic challenger to Sizing John next season. Power will hope that the pair can be kept apart during the winter, though a clash looks inevitable at some stage, with Our Duke appearing to be this year’s outstanding staying novice in Ireland.

The man from Meath has Fairyhouse and the Punchestown Festival still to look forward to, before a well-earned summer break. He’ll then be counting down the days, desperate to get back aboard several of the best horses in training, and dreaming of yet another winter to remember.

Cheltenham Festival – The Power And The Glory

Like many others, I’m feeling slightly flat this morning, as I come to terms with the reality that another wonderful Cheltenham Festival is over for another year. The build-up and anticipation is quite extraordinary these days, but all too soon the final race is run, and feelings of hope, joy, desperation and frustration are replaced by a rather hollow sensation.

Those that love Aintree, Punchestown, Newmarket, Royal Ascot or Longchamp, will feel that I am overreacting somewhat. But I know many feel as I do, that nothing quite compares to those four glorious days at Prestbury Park. The setting itself, with Cleeve Hill as a stunning backdrop, along with the grandeur of the new stand, and the stunning structural improvements throughout the course, all combine to make Cheltenham an exceptional sporting venue. Around 250,000 racegoers can’t be wrong.

And so, to ease my pain I thought I’d reflect on the racing performances that, in my opinion, were the standouts during four days of top-class action. I could have chosen more, and there’s one or two omissions that will puzzle readers, but the following ‘magnificent seven’ stood out for me.

Despite Gordon Elliott having a sensational opening day, I have chosen a Nicky Henderson duo that oozed star-quality on Tuesday.

I’m of the opinion that Altior proved himself an exceptional talent, in winning the Arkle Chase. Many appeared less than impressed by his ‘workmanlike’ victory, yet he went from a length in-front at the last, to six-lengths clear at the line. He needs rousing to get into top gear, but when stoked-up he is a destructive force. He jumped beautifully throughout, and like in the Supreme a year earlier, was doing his best work at the finish. He may well become a Champion Chase winner, but it would come as no surprise to me, if he were to be stepped-up in trip, with the King George as a short-term target.

Just a short while after Altior’s victory, stable companion Buveur D’Air proved himself the class act in a decidedly average looking Champion Hurdle. Time may prove that he beat very little, but the style of his success may well place him in the same league as Annie Power and Faugheen. He was wonderfully slick over his hurdles, as he cruised through the race, waiting for his jockey to give the signal. And when Noel Fehily said go, the six-year-old quickly put the race to bed. My Tent Or Yours proved best of the rest, though was comfortably brushed aside by the winner.

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The winning time suggests the performance was a strong one, and Buveur D’Air looks capable of becoming a dominant force over the coming period. It’s worth remembering that this victory was only his second run of the season over hurdles, and there is certainly room for a fair amount of improvement.

I skip Wednesday despite solid performances from Willoughby Court, Might Bite and Special Tiara. An injury to Douvan probably robbed us of a dazzling performance, though I’m of the opinion that a rather circumspect preparation left him ill-prepared for this ‘true’ championship test. He defeated 12-year-old Realt Mor in his prep-race at Punchestown.

Willie Mullins had drawn a blank until Thursday, but then answered his critics with a stunning four-timer. The performance of Un De Sceaux in winning the Ryanair was as good as anything during the festival. Try as he might, Ruby Walsh was unable to apply the brakes on the free-going nine-year-old, and was pretty-much a passenger from the fifth fence. Onlookers waited for him to wilt as he turned for home, but Un De Sceaux kept-up the astounding gallop, and with a floorless round of jumping finished a comfortable length and a half ahead of the strong finishing Sub Lieutenant.

It was a cracking performance from the multiple Grade 1 winner, and reminiscent of his ‘all-guns-blazing’ Arkle success of 2015. This fella has been somewhat overlooked in recent years, with stable companions Annie Power, Faugheen, Vautour and Douvan creating the headlines. But there’s no doubting the star quality that Un De Sceaux possesses. He’s a true Champion in his own right.

I was also stunned by the performance of Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle later that day. Shaneshill had been my confident selection, having highlighted my doubts over the gears possessed by Unowhatimeanharry. I expected NC to be a little too keen to see out the three miles, but I was proved wrong. Not only did he storm up the famous hill to victory, but he looked capable of going around again. Beautifully ridden by Ruby Walsh, he was produced between the last two flights, and stayed-on powerfully to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller.

He’s no mug over two-miles, having finished third to Annie Power in last year’s Champion Hurdle. And it’s clear that he appreciates the better ground he encounters in the spring. His owner Graham Wylie was quick to compare him to his previous staying hero Inglis Drever. Similar in stature, and showing the same tenacious attitude up the final hill, there’s every chance that Nichols Canyon can become a multiple Stayer’s winner, assuming Mullins can keep him fit and well.

Friday’s action began with a stunning performance from Triumph Hurdle favourite Defi Du Seuil. He’s a tank of a horse, and he powered through the race like a potential star. There had been some concern over the drying ground, but in the end, nothing could stop the Philip Hobbs trained juvenile. Yet another dazzling hurdler for JP McManus, it will be interesting to see if he goes Champion Hurdle or Arkle Chase next year. Interviewed after the race, Hobbs spoke in glowing terms, hinting that this fella could achieve anything.

A little over half an hour later, Mullins completed another glorious piece of training, by saddling Arctic Fire to win the County Hurdle off top-weight. The eight-year-old had been off the track since January 2016, and it’s easy to forget that he had finished a close runner-up to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle of 2015. Rated 169 at his peak, he’d been given a chance by the handicapper running off 158, and so it proved with a performance that was both classy and tenacious. If coming out of the race fit and well, he’ll possibly head to the Aintree Hurdle, with the likelihood of a clash with Buveur D’Air. That could prove a thorough examination for the new Champion hurdler.

It’ll come as no surprise to see that Sizing John is the final member of my ‘Cheltenham Magnificent Seven’. He’s proved a sensation since being stepped-up in trip, having spent the early part of his career chasing Douvan around various racecourses, including Cheltenham. Never out of the first three over obstacles, this huge son of Midnight Legend won the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time, though many questioned whether the steady pace that day had played to his strengths.

Nevertheless, trainer Jess Harrington remained confident that stamina would not be an issue, and she was proven right, with Sizing John seeing out the extended trip in fine style to win by almost three lengths, from the fast finishing Minella Rocco.

Robbie Power rode a beautifully cool and calm race, having the seven-year-old in mid-division throughout the early stages, with the horse always travelling supremely well. Moving onto the tail of the leaders coming downhill to the third last, only Djakadam appeared to be going as well, but by the second last Sizing John was on terms, and a fine leap saw him sweep to the front. Another superb jump at the last sealed the deal, with Minella Rocco getting up on the line to beat Native River for second spot. Djakadam faded late-on to finish fourth.

This was Jess Harrington’s first runner in the Gold Cup. The horse had formerly been trained by Henry De Bromhead, but was moved to Harrington by owners Ann and Alan Potts during the summer. He now stands at the head of the staying chase division, and with age on his side could well be there for some time to come.

And so the curtain came down on another terrific Cheltenham Festival. Once again, we’ve witnessed four days of sporting theatre, scattered with moments of elation and despair. Jump racing’s Olympics never fails to deliver on the most dramatic stage of all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Festival Form-Keep The Faith

Previous Festival form should never be ignored when assessing the contenders for those four famous days at Prestbury Park.

Year after year, horses return to the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’, and display their true ability, often rewarding those that ‘keep the faith’. A return to Cheltenham’s unique undulations may be the spark, or possibly the chance of running on decent spring ground rather than trudging through deep winter mud. Whatever, the reason, Festival perennials need spotting, and following.

Some of course are higher profile than others. Hurdling hero Hardy Eustace landed the Neptune as a novice in 2003, before returning to become a dual-winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 2005. He continued to enjoy his Cotswold excursions in 2006 and 2007, when third and fourth in the hurdling showpiece.

Denman was another Cheltenham legend that flourished at the track. Runner-up in the Neptune of 2006, he returned in stunning fashion to take the RSA of 2007, before his famous Gold Cup romp of 2008. He was then runner-up on three occasions in steeplechasing’s premier race; behind Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Long Run. That final effort came in 2011 as an 11-year-old.

More recently, Vautour became a ‘Festival Banker’ for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. It’s tragic when we lose such a star, but his Cheltenham heroics will live long in the memory. He followed his Supreme Novices’ Hurdle demolition of 2014, with one of the Festival’s greatest performances, when putting in an astounding round of jumping to win the JLT Novices’ Chase of 2015. He landed the Ryanair last March with the minimum of fuss, and who knows what he would have achieved this time around.

These of course, were National Hunt elite, and always likely to achieve repeated Festival success
if staying fit and well. Though we weren’t to know for sure when they arrived on the scene, indeed Hardy Eustace won his first Champion Hurdle as a 33/1 shot.

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So, the trick is now to find the latest Festival regulars, who are likely to put their best hoof forward, achieving further success on the greatest stage, and leaving punters celebrating in the process. Some are clearly more predictable than others, and as such, hold little value from a punting prospective.

Douvan looks sure to add to his Festival haul in the Champion Chase. Already a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner, the latest ‘Mullins Machine’ appears peerless, and it would come as a mighty shock if he were not to add to his Supreme and Arkle victories.

Similarly, Nicky Henderson’s Altior appears to be starting down the road to Festival immortality. Attempting to mirror the achievements of Douvan, he has looked sensational over fences this winter, and it’s hard to imagine anything landing a blow when the flag drops in the Arkle on the opening day.

Less flashy, yet still likely to make it two from two, is the Stayers’ favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He was something of a surprise winner of the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago, but it would come as no surprise were he to win the staying hurdle crown this time round. Winner of his last eight, he sets the standard, having won all the usual trials en route.

But there’s also those that consistently hit the frame in March, and yet still give plenty of value to those brave enough to take a punt.

Sizing John is one such beast, having finished behind Douvan on his last two visits to Prestbury Park in March. Third in the Supreme Novices’ in 2015 at a stonking 25/1, he then came runner-up to the Mullins hotshot in the Arkle, when again a generous 9/1. Those performances undoubtedly came at trips that were too short for Jess Harrington’s sizeable gelding. His success in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, proved that he could see-out an extended trip, and it’s likely that he will now take his chance in an open looking Gold Cup. There’s every chance that he is once again being underestimated by many, with numerous bookies offering 10s for this perennial Festival achiever.

Jonjo O’Neill makes a habit of landing Festival prizes with horses that peak at exactly the right time. He has a host of contenders that look capable of out-running their current form figures, and would leave punters crying ‘how did I miss that one?’. Minella Rocco took the four-miler last year, defeating Gold Cup favourite Native River, and is currently available at 25s for the ‘Blue Riband’. With two-falls-and- a-submission to his name so far this winter, it would take a brave punter to chuck a fistful of dollars his way, yet many apparently have. He has ‘Festival-previous’, and that counts for plenty.

Another Jonjo regular, who always punches above his weight, is the diminutive 10-year-old Holywell. His Cheltenham Festival record is a cracker, and yet he would be easy to overlook. A Pertemps Final victory in 2013 was followed by a win in the Ultima Handicap Chase (then the Baylis & Harding) a year later. In 2015 he took on the ‘big-boys’ and managed a stunning fourth place finish behind Coneygree, despite the ground being against him. Then last year he returned to the Ultima, with a cracking runner-up finish despite lumping top-weight around the 3m1f. His handicap mark is currently 148, having been 153 this time last year. Bookies are offering 16/1 against him taking the opening day handicap!

Willie Mullins has had his share of upset during the winter, but remains the trainer to follow when the Festival arrives. He’ll have plenty of contenders for major honours, with one hoping to end a run of near misses at Cheltenham’s prestigious meeting. Bumper runner-up; second in the Supreme Novices’ and chinned by Blaklion for last year’s RSA, Shaneshill looks set to contest the Stayers’ Hurdle this time. By leading Festival Sire King's Theatre, he’s 10/1 in places to get the better of Unowhatimeanharry, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t go very close.

Mullins sends a strong team across the Irish Sea, and is joined by Gordon Elliott, who looks sure to have Festival winners among his team. Somewhere in the region of 30 horses are likely to make the journey, with Death Duty and Mega Fortune particularly strong fancies.

Cause Of Causes loves Cheltenham, especially with ground conditions to suit. A sound surface is ideal, and but for a mistake at the last fence in the Kim Muir of 2014, he would have a trio of Festival victories to his name. Elliott is aiming the nine-year-old at the Grand National, but will take in the Cross Country at Cheltenham as a prep. He had a ‘warm-up’ in January on Trials Day, when some distance back in fifth. Expect him to be much closer this time, as he looks to add to his impressive Festival CV.

Cheltenham form and especially previous Festival form is often a key pointer when searching for those elusive winners. There’s sure to be plenty of returning heroes that again land a major Festival success for trainers, connections, and hopefully for us punters, brave enough to keep the faith.

River Romp for Newbury Native

Native River proved far too classy for his rivals in the Denman Chase, and heads to Cheltenham as a leading contender for the Gold Cup. Regular pilot Richard Johnson, was struck down with the flu, but ‘supersub’ Aidan Coleman followed the pre-race plan to perfection, and Tizzard’s young chaser controlled the race from start to finish.

In both the Hennessy and the Welsh National, Native River was ‘hanging-on’ a little at the finish, hence a slightly more conservative approach was tested, with Coleman stepping on the gas later in the race. Native River responded stylishly, scooting clear of Le Mercurey, and the slightly disappointing Bristol De Mai.

Colin Tizzard said of the winner: “I only think he (Coleman) asked him coming down to the second last. He just nursed him along. It showed he was a bit classier. In his last two races, he went a few lengths clear four out and just held on. We wanted to ride him a little differently and have that finishing spurt at the end and it's worked brilliantly. He's gone away at the line.”

Bristol De Mai was ridden patiently by Daryl Jacob, but the tactic appeared to backfire when he was unable to match the finishing kick of the winner. He’s likely to be made more use of when getting to Cheltenham, which in-turn may well help his jumping. It’s possible of-course, that he is simply not quite good enough when up against elite stayers. Nigel Twiston-Davies wasn’t giving up hope, when saying: “He was never at the races. We've got five weeks to get him ready for the Gold Cup and, all being well, that will be long enough to get him back shining.”

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The trainer’s day improved considerably, with Ballyandy landing the valuable Betfair Hurdle in a thrilling finish. The race turned into a head-to-head with Movewiththetimes, and as the pair pulled clear heading for the last both jockeys waited for the moment to strike. And it was Sam Twiston-Davies that came off best, as his partner had a little more zip than Barry Geraghty’s.

“He's been unlucky and hasn't won any of the races we thought he would. What a consolation!” said the winning trainer. “He'll go to Cheltenham now. He's in the Supreme and the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and we'll see how both races are panning out. I don't think he'll have any problem with the trip of the Neptune, so we've got that option if we want it.”

The winning jockey praised his willing equine partner: “I had a smooth passage. He didn't jump as well as I might have liked down the back, but in the straight he came alive. I got there sooner than I would have liked, but with his cruising speed it just happened and he has a good turn of foot.”

It’s impossible to review Newbury without mentioning Nicky Henderson’s latest star, Altior. He took on more experienced chasers in the Game Spirit, and duly demolished them. Allowed to stride-out in front by Nico De Boinville, the young chaser was scintillating at his fences, and powered clear down the home straight. The finishing time was impressive, and it’s hard to imagine anything getting close when he heads for the Arkle at Cheltenham. Fox Norton ran with great credit on his return from injury, and may be the one to give Douvan a race in the Champion Chase next month.

Yesterday at Leopardstown, Sizing John stepped out from the shadows of Douvan, to capture the Irish Gold Cup. Up in trip, he travelled like a dream and stayed on powerfully to stave off a pair of Gigginstown chasers, and probably book his place in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. “He was brilliant,” said a thrilled Jess Harrington.

“It's fantastic to have a horse like that for Alan and Ann (Potts, the owners), who has finished so close to Douvan on many occasions. That was his first time over three miles and he jumped, travelled and did everything we had hoped he would. Once he went past two and a half miles we knew he was into unknown territory, but we fully expected he would stay three miles and he did.

“I'd say we'll be going for the Gold Cup. I don't know, as I haven't spoken to Alan and Ann yet,” Harrington added.

The likely clash with Tizzard’s trio will no doubt prove an interesting and probably amusing talking point, for connections and trainers as the ‘big day’ approaches, with the Potts’ now such high-profile patrons at the Dorset stable.

Festival Markets In Motion

There’s likely to be a fair amount of movement in the Gold Cup and Ryanair markets over the weekend, with top-class action on either side of the Irish Sea.

At Newbury on Saturday we have the Grade 2 Denman Chase. Run at a shade under three miles, the race was established in 2000 and won by the Paul Nicholls trained See More Business. He was then a 10-year-old and had already captured the Gold Cup and the King George (twice). Nicholls has a fabulous record in the event, having won half of the 16 contested.

His winners in 2006 and 2007 are modern day greats of the sport, in Denman and Kauto Star. Both went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month after victory here. Kauto was of course famed for his incredible record in the King George, whilst Denman became a Newbury hero, winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in 2007 and 2009.

A theme of Gold Cup and King George winners capturing this event has carried on in recent years, with Long Run, Silviniaco Conti and Coneygree adding their names to a stunning roll of honour.

A small field is likely to assemble for Saturday’s renewal, with a clash of rising stars eagerly anticipated. Native River certainly enjoyed his last visit to the track, when winning the Hennessy in November. He also won a novice chase over course and distance in 2016, and is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup in March.

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Richard Johnson has partnered the seven-year-old during this successful period, and his aggressive riding style has proved ideal on a horse that finds plenty for pressure. Earlier in the week, the champion jockey said: “What he’s done this year in the Hennessy and Welsh National has been fantastic - he’s been a really dour stayer but a class act at same time. Hopefully, it’s a stepping stone to the Gold Cup.”

The main threat on Saturday appears to be the recent Peter Marsh winner Bristol De Mai. That devastating success at Haydock prompted Twiston-Davies to target the Gold Cup, and he will hope to build on that stunning display at Newbury. Testing ground brings out the best in the six-year-old, and he is likely to have his optimum conditions this weekend.

Daryl Jacob believes that Saturday’s race will show whether the talented grey is truly Gold Cup calibre. Speaking to Racing UK, the jockey said of his mount: “We’ve been quietly excited by this horse for a long time now and I think Saturday will tell us exactly where we are with him. He was a very, very good at Haydock. I went into the race quite confident he could put up that performance. He beat some really good handicappers and you’ve seen what Otago Trail has since done at Sandown.”

Speaking of the main challenger, Jacob said: “It’s a tough order against Native River; what he’s done so far this year has been exceptional. I thought his performance in the Welsh National was top drawer - going out there with top weight and basically grinding them into submission. For him to go out there and do it the way he did makes him one of the main dangers in the Gold Cup. If we are going to be a live contender we’ve got to be getting close to him.”

Paul Nicholls will hope that he can add to his incredible haul, with the French-bred seven-year-old Le Mercurey. He’s always looked a horse capable of a huge performance, though so far over fences has fallen just short of the best in the division. He chased home Many Clouds at Aintree back in December, and cannot be discounted, though the market leaders certainly appear a cut-above.

There’s four Grade 1s at Leopardstown on Sunday, with the Irish Gold Cup Chase the feature. A prestigious event in its own right, the race is often used by those testing Gold Cup credentials. Jodami and Imperial Call won this before heading to victory at Prestbury Park. Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon were prolific winners of the Leopardstown feature, but both failed in attempts to capture the main prize at Cheltenham. The latter came fourth to Best Mate in 2004, whilst Florida Pearl came closer when runner-up to Looks Like Trouble in 2000.

Carlingford Lough has won the last two renewals, but has proved disappointing at Cheltenham. He’s back to defend his crown, though is likely to face stiff opposition from several less exposed types. Don Poli looked rejuvenated when second in the Lexus Chase at Christmas, and Gordon Elliott will be hoping for more of the same. Third in last year’s Gold Cup at Cheltenham, the target appears to be the Grand National, though a strong run here would likely see him head to the Cotswolds in March.

Minella Rocco and Sizing John are two progressive types, and could yet become serious Cheltenham Festival contenders. This race has been the target for Minella Rocco for some time, and it is hoped that it will prove a springboard towards a tilt at the Gold Cup in March. Last week, Frank Berry, the racing manager to owner JP McManus, said of Jonjo’s chaser: “The Gold Cup is wide open but it's still a hard race. He's going to Leopardstown and we'll learn a lot more from that. That'll be a big day for him. If he puts up a good performance, it'll make it easier to decide if he goes for the Gold Cup or the National.”

Sizing John looked likely to head for the Ryanair at Cheltenham, but plans are fluid, and Jess Harrington is taking a leap into the unknown with her young chaser. He certainly wasn’t stopping when winning the Kinloch Brae last time at two and a half miles. A race Don Cossack won before his successful trip to Prestbury Park 12 months ago. Clearly tired of chasing Douvan around the circuit, the step-up in trip was inevitable. “He's been good, I'm very happy with him. As for Cheltenham, we'll just have to see. The logical race would be the Ryanair, but we'll just see what happens on Sunday, and leave our options open for the rest of the season.”

2016 Arkle Preview, Trends, Tips

Arkle Preview: Douvan to beat all?

Arkle Preview: Douvan to beat all?

2016 Arkle Challenge Trophy: Preview, Trends, Tips

The second race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, the Arkle is a novice chase run over a helter-skelter two miles. It is usually a fiercely run event with speed, class and no little stamina required to see out victory. The roll of honour is of the highest class and the Arkle has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best pointer to future Champion Chase winners.

In this post, we'll review the trends, form of the leading contenders, and I'll offer a suggested bet - heck, let's call it a tip - in the race.

2016 Arkle Trends

A race for class horses, with all four runners returned at 5/4 or shorter since 2003 obliging. Douvan looks set to be a shorter price than any of them - Simonsig was 8/15 in 2013 - and will probably make it five out of five for the shorties.

Arkle Age Trends

Five-year-olds had a good record in the race between 1998 and 2006, winning four times. Their 0 from 10 record since masks the fact that a trio were placed and only two have even run since 2009. Pain Au Chocolat may represent them this time.

[Side note: 5yo's used to get a weight for age allowance, but that was scrapped in 2008. This coincides with the subsequent paucity of runners from that age group]

Six-year-olds can also claim four wins since 1997, including two in the last four years. That, however, is little more than they'd have been expected to achieve on numerical grounds, and there's little in the age data save that the youngest have over-performed overall.

Arkle Age Trends

Arkle Age Trends: Nothing much ado

Arkle Days Since Run Trends

As with most races at the Festival, a rest of between two weeks and three months is the norm, and brings in a majority of the runners. One point of possible note is the record of those absent between two and three months: this group has won five times since 1997 and added a further six places.

In context, that is 28% of the winners, and 21% of the places, from 13% of the runners. Garde La Victoire and Sizing John fit this profile at exciting prices.

Arkle Days Absent Trends

Arkle Days Absent Trends

Other Arkle Trends

All 18 winners since 1997 had won over at least a furlong further than this two mile trip. The ability to stay on such a demanding track is pivotal. Those not to meet this criterion are 0 from 51 since '97, and have just 7 places to their name. That is, from almost a quarter of all Arkle runners, no winners emerged and just 13% of the places.

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2016 Arkle Preview

On the face of it, this race is all about one horse: Douvan. His trainer, Willie Mullins, has suggested he's the best he's ever trained, and that from a man who has won 159 Grade 1's in Britain and Ireland since 2003!

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If the animal is anywhere near as good as his hype, then he's very good. Happily, we don't need to rely on the sound bite because the form book records its own compelling evidence of Douvan's superstar status.

Beaten just once - on debut - in a nine race career to date, he already has four Grade 1 successes on his palmares. That quartet comprises the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival, the equivalent at Punchestown six weeks later, and back to back novice chases in Ireland on his most recent starts.

Douvan was the best of these over hurdles and he is the best of these over fences. His front-running style could be seen as a potential issue but, bluntly, I very much doubt anything will be able to live with him on the speed for long; and any horse that does try to match early strides is likely to seriously compromise its own chance in so doing.

Douvan is 'bar a fall' material. Put another way, he wins or doesn't finish the race. I think, and hope, he wins.

But odds of 4/11 NRNB (4/9 all in, run or not) won't excite many. So what to do? The uninformed and/or unadventurous will say, "just watch the race". And, in fairness, it ought to be some spectacle. But there is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way to win a bet.

If you like exactas, what might follow Douvan home? If you'd rather take a flier on the early markets - exactas being 'day of race' bets - then how about a little 'without' action? I'll write about 'without' betting another day, but suffice it to say it is a tremendous source of value in markets that otherwise looked drained of such punting nourishment.

You do need a view on a horse at the top of the betting. Actually, you need two. By definition if one is looking at this market one feels the jolly is solid but unexciting punting-wise. That perception of solidity will often also betray a feeling of weakness about the chance of another near the top of the list. (Alternatively, you may simply believe the book is spot on and that there's no edge at all. In my experience, this does happen, but it is rare).

So, Douvan wins bar a fall. But what finishes second (or third or fourth - you can bet each way in the without markets too)?

The clear Arkle second favourite is Vaniteux, Nicky Henderson's seven-year-old. Wins at Kempton and Doncaster either side of a second to Ar Mad read well enough... but not strikingly. In Grade 1 company over hurdles, Vaniteux was third in Vautour's Supreme, last in Faugheen's Champion Hurdle, and second last in Jezki's Aintree Hurdle.

In other words, he wasn't good enough to be a top class hurdler, with a rating in the mid-150's. Importantly, he looked exposed over hurdles, perhaps even a touch regressive; and the switch to fencing has come later than for many who rise to the top of the chasing tree.

The Kempton novice chase he won fell into his lap somewhat with two credible rivals falling, and he was then beaten when returning to the same track three weeks later. The gap between himself and Arzal truncated to just three lengths at Donny in a Grade 2, and that form shouldn't be good enough to get second in an Arkle. It shouldn't be good enough to legitimize quotes of 5/1, and 7/4 in the 'without Douvan' market either.

If I'm wrong on that, fair enough, but he looks a very beatable favourite in that latter book and, given it is 4/1 bar, there may be some fun to be had.

That 4/1 without price, and 14/1 all in (12/1 NRNB), is offered against the prospects of Sizing John. His form is good, pretty equal to that of Vaniteux on ratings, and yet he is around three times the price. An overall form string of 6412132112 reads well enough; but if we take out that lad Douvan, it reads 6411121111.

Put another way, only one horse besides Douvan has beaten Sizing John in his last eight starts. That was Shaneshill in last year's Supreme - the likes of L'Ami Serge behind - and Shaneshill looks to be headed for the JLT.

Sizing John hated the ground last time, according to his trainer, and will be better suited by quicker turf. His approach looks likely to be to sit close to Douvan and try to make a move mid-race to take that one on. Of course, if Douvan has already gone clear, he'll be bidding to pick up pieces and, as you'll have guessed, I like his place chance.

L'Ami Serge retains an entry here, and in the JLT, with the Arkle looking more probable. As short as 6/1 a fortnight ago, his odds doubled after a lacklustre defeat by the sadly subsequently ill-fated Violet Dancer in the Kingmaker Chase at Warwick. He was readily outpointed there, but earlier facile trumpings of Doctor Harper (probably not off that day) and Run Ructions Run (rated 135) hinted at a bold showing in the Cheltenham showpiece.

A Grade 1 winner over hurdles, if you can forgive the apathetic Warwick effort, he's a fair price. But he's not a generous price and, after such a poor turn, this eye is cast elsewhere in search of a wager.

Garde La Victoire is a very likable horse, and talented too. There is a strong rumour that the JLT is his Fez destination, so on that basis he's passed over here.

One that could be quite interesting is Gordon Elliott's The Game Changer. He holds other entries, too, but has the benefit of experience over all of his rivals. Shrewdly campaigned, he was invited to lose his maiden tag over fences in May of last year and has since racked up six chase wins in eight starts (running second the other twice).

He may not have had to improve much from the start of that sequence to the end, and the fact that he's not raced in a bigger field than seven, and in an average field size of 4.375, attests to the cheap nature of some of those plundered pots.

Each run in that chasing octet was on good ground or faster. This lad loves it rattling but if there's one day when it probably won't be that - due to either the weather or the watering policy - it is Arkle Tuesday. For that reason, as they say on Dragon's Den, I'm out.

The joy of a very short favourite is that we are now in the realms of the 33/1 shots. In fact there is but one such horse, Outlander, and he is said to be JLT-bound. 40/1 bar brings in Tell Us More, who would have won a couple of weeks ago but for unshipping at the second last. Prior to that he'd won an ordinary beginners' chase and had run third to Zabana at Leopardstown over Christmas.

He was a promising novice hurdler last season - sixth in the Supreme, when a touch outpaced - but the ground might be too fast for him again at Cheltenham.

One who could outrun his price of 50/1 - or 33/1 NRNB - is Arzal. He's run against Vaniteux twice this season, and been beaten five lengths and then three lengths. Vaniteux is 5/1, Arzal is 50/1.

Anything between soft and good should be fine for Harry Whittington's progressive fellow, and there was plenty to like about the way he conceded four pounds and stuck on when Hendo's Arkle second favourite went by him at Doncaster in a Grade 2 last time (Fox Norton and Shaneshill well beaten). Available at 33/1 (20/1 NRNB) in the 'without' market, which would reward each way support down to fourth place assuming Douvan is in the top three, that's not the worst option in the race by any manner of means.

2016 Arkle Tips

Douvan looks very likely to win the 2016 running of the Arkle Challenge Trophy, and at prohibitive odds to boot. But, even if you don't have a big wad of elevens to risk in search of 'easy' fours, there are bets to be struck.

Sizing John is one, and he might be worth playing at 4/1 with Boylesports (if you can get on) or at 7/2 non-runner no bet with bet365.

Elsewhere, Arzal is the sort I'm happy to have a couple of optimistic pounds on. If Arzal runs here, he may get involved in a battle for the lead and that might be a problem. More sensibly, though, his jockey might track the pace and attempt to pick up the pieces, a ploy which would surely thrill his syndicate owners. Rated just three pounds behind Vaniteux, he's worth a speculative each way at 33/1 in the 'without' market.

2 pts win Sizing John without Douvan 7/2 bet365 NRNB (4/1 Boyle)

0.25 pts e/w Arzal without Douvan 33/1 Betvictor 1/5 1-2-3 (20/1 bet365 NRNB 1/4 1-2-3)

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Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews

All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here:

Cheltenham Festival 2016 Race Guide