Might just may on opening day- If Gold Cup hasn’t left mark

There’s no fewer than four Grade One’s on the opening day of the Grand National meeting, with the Bowl Chase and the Aintree Hurdle the feature events.

Might Bite will be a short-priced favourite for the Betway Bowl, following his runner-up finish in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham and victory in the King George over Christmas. He’s without doubt the class act in a field of eight, though his performance will surely hinge on how he has recovered from those Festival exertions. It’s less than a month since he had that prolonged battle with Native River in testing ground, although his campaign had been light prior to that.

Might Bite landed the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at the corresponding meeting a year ago, following up on his success in the RSA. Both track and trip look ideal for this talented young chaser, and Henderson isn’t one for taking risks with his horses. The Seven Barrows handler must believe that the nine-year-old is fighting fit. If so, he’ll take all the beating.

Last year’s surprise winner, Tea For Two, looks to emulate Silviniaco Conti in achieving back to back victories. Cheltenham doesn’t appear to suit this fella, and he looks more at home on a flatter track. He ran well when third to Might Bite in the King George, and though I don’t fancy him to beat Henderson’s charge, he should run a decent race.

Double Shuffle was runner-up in the Kempton showpiece and will arrive here fresher than most. Tom George had a terrific Cheltenham Festival and this eight-year-old looks a rapidly improving sort. He’s another that has his work cut out to reverse King George form with Might Bite, though missing that arduous encounter in the Gold Cup should work in his favour.

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Definitly Red appeared slightly outclassed at Cheltenham, and I’d be surprised if he wins this. Nevertheless, he has course form and if the ground is testing enough, he has the guts to run into a place. Brian Ellison was insistent that better ground would suit his horse, but I struggle to believe it.

Clan Des Obeaux could prove the surprise package. Paul Nicholls has captured three of the last eight renewals, and I can see this young chaser running a cracker. He looks a King George sort to me, and this race should suit. The six-year-old is taking on more experienced rivals but looks hugely talented. This step up in trip appears the main concern, though he didn’t appear to be stopping last time at Cheltenham over 2m5f.

Bristol De Mai is back on a flat left-handed track in testing conditions. He probably needs the ground to be bottomless, nevertheless, we can probably expect an improved performance from the seven-year-old. Nigel Twiston-Davies has also given him a wind-op and, should his jumping hold together, he could prove a serious challenger.

Might Bite is a cut above these, and as long as the Gold Cup hasn’t left a mark, I’m confident he’ll win. If it has, then Clan Des Obeaux is the one I fancy to take advantage.

Sadly, we will not be seeing Buveur D’Air in the Aintree Hurdle. His absence leaves Jess Harrington’s Supasundae a short-priced favourite. Runner-up in the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, the eight-year-old had previously landed the Irish Champion Hurdle at two miles. This trip ought to prove ideal for this grand looking son of Galileo.

Henderson sends 11-year-old My Tent Or Yours into battle. Runner-up in the last pair of renewals, he looked as good as ever when winning the International Hurdle at Cheltenham back in December. He was no match for Buveur D’Air in last year’s race, though I fancy Harrington’s fella is not in that league. This could be his final race and he rarely disappoints. It’s a tough ask at 11, though this race looks more open than the odds suggest.

The New One was a place behind My Tent in last year’s race. This appears his optimum trip, though he is undoubtedly a better horse going right-handed. The soft ground should suit him, and he looks a leading contender. He’s likely to be jumping out to his right all the way up the straight, and that must be a huge concern.

L’Ami Serge is sure to go well for much of the race and may well look a huge player approaching the last. However, he’ll need to battle at some stage, especially against the likes of The New One and Supasundae. And that will surely be his undoing.

Supasundae is progressive and should win, though his odds (currently evens) look a little skinny to me. On this ground I’d probably risk a punt on The New One.

RSA no two-horse race – whilst Sam’s the Man for the Stayers’

For today’s piece I’ve decided to preview a couple of Festival races, and in doing so, will focus on only those that I believe are realistic contenders.

The RSA Novices’ Chase looks to be a competitive renewal, with an Irish pair currently heading the market.

Monalee was a gallant runner-up in last year’s Albert Bartlett and has won two of his three starts over fences. His one defeat came when falling in a Grade One over the Christmas period, though he put that mishap behind him when jumping brilliantly on his way to winning the Flogas Novice Chase in February. It looked a strong renewal and though the pack were hot on his tail he battled bravely to claim victory. That success came at 2m5f, and there’s some concern as to his ability to see out the 3m trip at Cheltenham. He looked the quicker horse in the Flogas, but the following three were all gaining at the line. I’m not convinced that a three-mile slog with a stamina sapping hill to finish will suit him. I fancy he’d have won the JLT.

I’d argue that Presenting Percy was given a slightly inflated handicap mark over hurdles, following his victory in last year’s Pertemps at Cheltenham. He was certainly put in his place at Punchestown the following month when beaten some way out by Ireland’s best staying novice hurdlers. Nevertheless, he was always likely to make a better chaser and that appears to be the case. His last run was his best, when getting close to Our Duke in the Red Mills chase at Gowran (was in receipt of 7lbs). The trip was too short that day, and unlike Monalee, he looks sure to appreciate the rigors of the RSA. I still have a nagging doubt that he’s not quite as good as some believe.

Dounikos, trained by Gordon Elliott, and the Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo, were hot on the heels of Monalee last time at Leopardstown. The pair clashed at Limerick over the Christmas period, with Dounikos appearing a fortunate winner as Al Boum came down at the last fence. The Mullins contender is only a six-year-old and whether he’s quite ready physically is a slight concern. I have a feeling that he’ll prove the best of these long-term and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go very close.

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Dounikos is my idea of the winner. He was squeezed out at the last in the Flogas before staying on strongly for fourth. He lacks gears, but both the trip and that stiff Cheltenham finish should prove ideal.

Black Corton certainly deserves a mention having improved throughout the winter. He’s eight from 11 over fences, including a couple of wins at Cheltenham. He’s a slick jumper and has proved a gutsy stayer. But I’d be surprised if he has enough class to win this. Testing conditions will help his cause, but I’d rather have seen him in the four-miler.

I’ll be taking on the front two in the market and hoping that Dounikos gets the better of the younger Al Boum Photo.

Supasundae heads the market for the Stayer’s Hurdle, with Jess Harrington convinced that he’s a better horse this season. He won the Coral Cup at the meeting 12 months ago, before losing out to Yanworth at Aintree. He was also ‘done’ late on by Apple’s Jade at Leopardstown over Christmas, though the mare was in receipt of 7lbs, and is exceptional. The trainer believes that this fella needs better ground, and as an eight-year-old he’ll likely be at the peak of his powers. Some see the Apple’s Jade defeat as a negative, but I fancy trying to give that much weight to the mare is nigh-on impossible. Supasundae has a huge chance in this.

As does the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner. His victory in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot confirmed his status as one of the leading stayers, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t go well at Cheltenham. He was 10-lengths ahead of Unowhatimeanharry that day and looked full of running as he crossed the line. Six-year-olds have a great record in the race, and this fella will take some pegging back.

Yanworth looks sure to go close and I’m convinced that this is the right race for him. Solwhit and Nichols Canyon both stepped-up in trip to win this in recent years and Yanworth looks a similar type. He’ll be travelling powerfully turning for home, and it’s then a case of whether the stamina holds out, or the likes of Sam Spinner can draw the sting out of him.

The New One, though older, has a similar profile to Yanworth. He’ll likely take a lead from Sam Spinner and will be played as late as possible. Stamina is also a concern with this fella and having run at two miles for most of his career, he’ll need to settle off a slower pace. He ‘ran on strongly’ to defeat future Grand National winner Rule The World, in the Neptune of 2013, and at that point in his career you’d probably have said that three miles would prove ideal. I think we’d all love him to win. He’s certainly got a chance.

This is an incredibly difficult race to call. It should also prove to be a magnificent race to watch, with Sam Spinner setting the fractions, shadowed by speedier rivals waiting to pounce. I’m backing the front-running warrior to fend off all-comers in a thriller. It’s Sam Spinner for me, with Yanworth and Supasundae best of the rest.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

A Clarence House Cruise – Un De Sceaux Easy

Un De Sceaux cruised to victory in the Clarence House on Saturday and remains at the head of the market for the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

The Willie Mullins-trained chaser was completing a hat-trick of victories, though will rarely find it easier to win at the highest level. The opposition for such a prestigious event was mediocre at best. Decent handicapper Speredek chased him home, whilst Nicky Henderson’s novice, Brain Power, once again failed to spark over the larger obstacles, before coming down two-out. The victor is without doubt an outstanding chaser, but it’s a shame that the record-breaking achievement should come in such a poor renewal.

Speredek did his best to make a race of it. Ridden boldly from the front by Sean Bowen, he maintained a lead until turning for home. Un De Sceaux swept past approaching the second-last, with Brain Power driven to get involved. The latter had jumped erratically throughout, and hit the fence hard, crumpling on landing. The favourite gradually pulled clear for a seven-length success.

Paul Townend was aboard the winner, in the absence of injured Ruby Walsh, and said of the victory: “I rode my horse to suit him, and the further we went the more confident I was getting. It was hard work, but it was job done today. It's great to get the opportunity to ride these horses. I spoke to Ruby (Walsh) this morning. He's always helpful when he's on the sidelines and I'm grateful to Willie and all the owners. He has a massive heart.”

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Mullins looked on from Navan and added: “It looks like he's racing a lot more relaxed nowadays which means we can ride him differently. I was very happy with his jumping. I'd be happy enough to go back for the Ryanair Chase after what he did last year. But let’s see what happens with all the other horses first.”

Nico de Boinville felt Brain Power was struggling with his breathing, and the horse will be tested before further plans are made. Connections were made to sweat, as the horse took some time to rise from the tired looking fall. Henderson has said that he thought the horse ‘jumped and travelled great’, but having watched the race again, I find it hard to concur.

Despite having the size and scope for fences, he’s no natural. At times he makes an ugly shape over the obstacle, and though he remains a novice, and should therefore be judged as such, he has a long way to go if he’s to become competitive at the highest level.

The winner will head to Cheltenham and attempt to defend his crown in the Ryanair, though he’ll have a hell of a lot more on his plate with the likes of Top Notch, Fox Norton and Waiting Patiently in the line-up.

As Un De Sceaux completed a famous trio of victories in the Clarence House, so The New One was landing a stunning four-in-a-row at Haydock, with yet another gutsy success in the Champion Hurdle Trial. The popular hurdler has made this race his own in recent times, and though victory looked unlikely as Ch’Tibello cruised alongside, the Twiston-Davies stable star refused to accept defeat. He’ll now head for the Stayers’ Hurdle in March, whilst I still give the runner-up an each-way chance in the Champion Hurdle. Skelton’s seven-year-old jumped and travelled beautifully throughout before being ‘out-slugged’ by the ultimate slugger. He’ll be no match for Buveur D’Air, but a place finish is up for grabs.

As ever, the winning trainer was full of praise for a horse he so clearly adores, saying: “We know he's not at his best here in heavy ground, but that is the fourth time he's won it now - surely they must name the race after him. He carried a 6lb penalty too, so if they were off level weights he'd have done it comfortably. He appears to be better than ever at the age of 10, which tells you all you need to know about him.

“He's just so tough, we love him and while he'll get an entry in the Champion Hurdle in case the wheels fall off the others, it will be straight to the Stayers' now. He's never been that impressive in this race, in a way that's probably his best win. I've certainly never won the same race four times, never mind a Grade Two. Quite simply he's the horse of a lifetime.”

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

It's now just two months until the tapes rise on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, so it's high time we had a look for some betting value in the antepost markets. The feature race on Day One, Tuesday, is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over just beyond two miles. Lasy year's Champion Hurdler, Buveur D'Air, is a strong favourite to retain his crown, but is his odds-on quote justified? Let's take a look...

Champion Hurdle 2018 Trends


Five-year-old Katchit in 2008 was the first of his age group to win this race since See You Then in 1985. None has won since, from 27 to try, though Celestial Halo and Binocular did round out the trifecta behind Punjabi the following year. Another year later, Zaynar ran third for the five-year-olds but, since 2010, just Countrywide Flame has hit the board.

Defi De Seuil, sixth in the betting, is the most high profile five-year-old in the antepost lists, though his participation is subject to an improved performance after flopping on his sole start this season (stable was in poor form at the time).

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged in double digits are 0 from 21 since 1997, though venerable veterans Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours made the frame since 2015. The last double-digit aged winner was Sea Pigeon, whose second victory, aged eleven, came in 1981. That was 37 years ago, which is hardly a boon if you like either Faugheen, the second favourite, or My Tent Or Yours, fifth market choice.

A focus on six- to nine-year-olds would have found all bar one of the winners in the last thirty years, but is a statistic which eliminates three of the top six in the current betting.


Last Time Out

Champion Hurdlers tend to be winners. Obvious, right? Indeed, 16 of the last 20 winners also triumphed on their previous racecourse appearance, from 106 runners. There were 269 horses line up in those twenty renewals, meaning 39.4% of all runners won last time. And yet they accounted for 80% of the winners, and 60% of the placed horses.

If you want to go off road a little, look also to those who finished second last time. They accounted for two of the remaining four victories since 1997 (10% of the wins) from 20% of the runners. Not so hot, but the winning pair were 11/1 Rock On Ruby and 33/1 Hardy Eustace, which would have squirreled the bank out even at Betfair Starting Price.

Still, it's best to focus exclusively on last day winners. As things stand, of the remaining three in the top six of the betting, only Buveur D'Air won last time. This can, and probably will, change between now and March, so tread carefully.


Key Trials

The Ryanair Hurdle, run over Christmas at Leopardstown, has been a key trial in recent seasons, seven Champion Hurdle winners emerging from the race since 2000 to take Festival honours at Cheltenham. This season, with Faugheen pulling up, it was left to Mick Jazz to see off Cilaos Emery.

Kempton's Christmas Hurdle has been a solid pointer too, with this season's festive showpiece falling to Buveur D'air who saw off The New One.

The other kingmaker race is the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will be run at the beginning of next month. Most of that race's Champion Hurdle highlighting lustre comes from Brave Inca and especially Hurricane Fly in recent times.  Faugheen is slated for a bid to redeem his reputation in the race so it will make for interesting viewing and can be expected to have a bearing on the Champion Hurdle market.


Champion Hurdle 2018 Form Preview

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So much for the trends, which seem to put a line through all of Buveur D'air's main market rivals leaving him home free on paper. But, of course, the Champion Hurdle isn't run on paper, and thank the moon and the stars for that. Still, let's consider the compelling case for the jolly before engaging in the potential folly of trying to get him beaten.

Buveur D'Air is unbeaten in most of two years, since running third to Altior and Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He's won eight on the bounce now, including last year's Champion Hurdle, and he's not been seriously tested. His official mark of 169 is clear of all bar the historical perch of Faugheen, a figure that one hasn't run to for two years. The seven year old is in the prime of his life, has seemingly had an uninterrupted preparation and, while a mooted trip to Ireland for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of February may be wide of the mark, he could have another spin before the Festival.

Trying to find reasons to oppose Buveur D'Air is tricky, still more so if taking slightly shorter with the Non Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession. If he gets to the starting line without a hiccup, he is by far the most likely winner. If I was picking holes - or trying to, at least - you could argue his rider asked for a very bold leap at the last in the Christmas Hurdle, a risky tactic. The converse is that the horse responded gamely and cruised away from standing dish, The New One.

It is probably unfair to measure Nicky Henderson's hotpot by the horses in his immediate aftermath - you can only beat what shows up, after all. And B d'Air has mocked not just The New One but also My Tent Or Yours (twice) and Irving in four back-to-back Grade 1 wins. That trio are all card-carrying veterans and are surely susceptible to a younger, more upwardly mobile racer albeit that such a type would be mobilizing from a lower ability base.

I want to be against Faugheen. Another of the double-digit brigade, he's been seen on the track just twice in the last two years, most recently when pulling up for no obvious reason. True, prior to that he hinted at the retention of the terrific talent he formerly possessed; but that was in duffing up a couple of 155 horses, both of whose marks may be considered slightly dubious at that level.

He just has a heck of a lot to prove, and at a top price of 5/1 is no value to do so. It would be genuinely fantastic to see him back to his best but it is very hard to imagine that he's a tight single figure chance of winning the Champion Hurdle in two months time. 3/1 NRNB could be excusable, depending on what shows up for the Leopardstown race. If it's a decent field and Faugheen wins, he'll be shorter and deservedly so. If he gets beaten, that will very likely be that and money back. Although it's hardly romantic, I fear the latter outcome. Either way, he's too risky a proposition at the price at this stage.

A couple of Mullins subs are next in the market. Melon is a weird one. I can only imagine he works like an absolute tank at home, because his form simply does nothing to vindicate a quote of 8/1 best. The only race he's won since a maiden hurdle this time last year was a weak Grade 2 at Down Royal, where he was roughly the same distance in front of Coquin Mans as Jezki was the time before. And he was in receipt of three pounds!

In three defeats around that hollow triumph he's run behind Labaik, Cilaos Emery and My Tent Or Yours (and The New One). I genuinely honestly for the life of me cannot fathom how that is possibly the profile of a single figure chance in a Champion Hurdle, even as shallow a heat as this looks.

If he dots up, fair enough, but it would have to be a major step forward from a rating of 159, which looks generous already.

More interesting, much more interesting, is Yorkhill. 12/1 in the all in run or not books, he's as short as 4/1 NRNB. That differential is explained by the fact he's been chasing for the last season and a bit. As unconvincing over a fence as he can be, he's still managed to win the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival and, before that, the Neptune at the previous year's Festival.

If Faugheen was withdrawn from consideration, Yorkhill is a rock solid deputy, assuming he can still make a hurdling shape. Actually, thinking about it, that's what he's done over plenty of the steeplechase fences he's traversed! Again here, NRNB is the only route in. 5/1 with that money back concession is as close to an each way bet to nothing as is conceivable. Unsexy in the extreme, and probably the sort of play that gets your account restricted, it is very difficult to see him out of the frame if he turns up. But do not be suckered into the 12/1 on offer. He's more likely than not to run in a different race: 12/1 on an un-refunded non-runner won't get the pulse racing!

My Tent Or Yours is 16/1, 12/1 NRNB, and to be honest that's fair enough. Now eleven, he can't possibly win the race, but it's such a weak field that he could sneak into the frame. His form is closely tied in with The New One, another whose overall profile is the same: cannot win, probably runs with merit in defeat. Nigel Twiston-Davies' unfairly maligned warrior - he is a millionaire, after all - may take a different path this term in any case.

A horse I took a punt on in the early part of the season, before he flunked badly, was Defi De Seuil. He was the lad whose form lines were not already demonstrably below those of Buveur D'Air, and who could have conceivably developed into a genuine contender. But then he ran as flat as a pancake on his first and only run so far this season. Very little has come to light since, except the poor form of the Philip Hobbs yard during that part of the season.

He'd probably need to win the Irish Champion Hurdle to book his Chelto ticket and, assuming Buveur D'Air no shows, he has his chance. I've not given up all hope yet. Just most of it!

Wicklow Brave was only seventh in last year's Champion and has been globetrotting on the flat largely since, though his final hurdle run was a defeat of My Tent Or Yours in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. He won't be winning at Cheltenham first time up though, and hasn't got any entries at this stage.

Min is quite interesting. As big a Supreme hype horse as Melon a year before, he ran a better race than that one to split the peerless Altior and Buveur D'air. He's won three of his four chase starts since then, but it was a big shock when he got turned over by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. In the same ownership as Faugheen, he's another Mullins horse that could be diverted to this race. As such, he's another where the 16/1 NRNB is disproportionately more attractive than the 25/1 all in quote. After all, he's one of only two horses to beat Buveur D'Air. Moreover, the reverting from fences to hurdles route has been taken by both Rock On Ruby and Buveur D'Air himself since 2012.

Apple's Jade would be interesting if she came this route, but is far more likely for the Mares' Hurdle; Mick Jazz was the main beneficiary of Faugheen's flop last time but his overall form isn't in the same parish; Ch'Tibello wasn't too far behind My Tent but gets a bit outpaced on quicker ground; and before you know it, it's 50/1 your choice.


Champion Hurdle 2018 Tips

There are still a number of trials to be run, time enough for horses to shine a light on their credentials. But, as things stand, it is very (very!) hard to see past BUVEUR D'AIR. I can also confirm that night should follow day later, and that it will be February after January... So far, so bleedin' obvious.

Where, then, is the leftfield play? Well, this looks a superb 'without the favourite' race, and I'll be paying close heed to that market when it's eventually priced up. For now, however, we can do no better than muck about with the the Non Runner No Bet concessions.

In that context, Yorkhill is bombproof each way. He is unlikely to show up here if either Faugheen or Min do, in which case it's cash back in time for some 'without the fav' action. In the same vein, Min looks over-priced NRNB. Again, the likelihood is that we'll merely get our quids back; but, should he get the go ahead, he'll surely be a single figure price on the day.

Most likely winner (by a country mile) -

Buveur D'Air 8/13 NRNB Skybet

Best NRNB each way alternatives -

Yorkhill 5/1, Min 16/1 both Skybet (1/5 1-2-3)


Twiston Shout – The New One goes for Fab Four

We’re back to Cheltenham this weekend for their two-day International meeting.

Thankfully the cold snap has passed and any lying snow in the Cotswolds has now melted away. The ground at Prestbury Park is described as soft, good to soft in places, with the likelihood of soft all round by the off.

The action begins on Friday, though it’s the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and the International Hurdle, both on Saturday, that are sure to provide the headlines. Nigel Twiston-Davies may prove a central figure as he’s responsible for three-time winner of the International, The New One, along with last month’s BetVictor Gold Cup winner Splash Of Ginge in the feature chase.

The former has been a stable star for many years, and has become one of the most popular hurdlers in training. Should he win Saturday’s Grade Two, it’ll be a record-breaking fourth victory in five years. He’s currently tied with Birds Nest and Relkeel with a trio of victories apiece.

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The trainer appears as bullish as ever, saying: “He's in really good nick, it's his race and has been for three of the last four years. We gave My Tent weight last year and we've got to do it again this season, but he hasn't run this season so maybe he won't be quite as sharp. Richard Johnson rides and I thought it was a brilliant effort in the Greatwood. He was beaten only five lengths giving tons of weight away. He seems as good as ever.”

Team Skelton continue to bang-in the winners, with a stunning strike-rate of 24%. Ch’Tibello returns to action, and gets a handy 6lbs from The New One. He was just two-lengths behind him in last year’s Christmas Hurdle off level weights, and the six-year-old is open to further improvement. Skelton said of his leading hurdler: “Soft ground has been very much in his favour, which is amazing because we always thought he wanted better ground. He won at Haydock last season in really heavy ground and ran well in the Kingwell. We haven't been to Cheltenham before with him but that doesn't hold too many fears. We get 6lb off The New One and it seemed a sensible race to aim for.”

Mullins may send young hurdler Melon over for the race, though punters should hold onto their cash until the ferry lands at Holyhead. Runner-up in last year’s Supreme, he looked good when winning the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal, though beat nothing of note. He’ll be giving plenty of weight to My Tent Or Yours and Ch’Tibello, but the opportunity of gaining further Cheltenham experience may sway the Irish trainer.

Twiston-Davies has arguably the better chance of lifting the International over the Caspian Caviar, though the ‘Ginge Army’ may disagree. Splash Of G is up 5lb for his victory last month, and conditions will again be favourable, though you fancy he’s had his day. Le Prezien is better at the weights and could again go close, having finished second and third in his last two visits to the track. Paul Nicholls has won four of the last eight renewals, and has a trio of contenders, including this fella.

Last weekend the Ditcheat handler said of his intended runners: “Romain De Senam wants really decent ground and it turned against him in the BetVictor. Clan Des Obeaux will go on any ground, but cut obviously suits him and he loves really soft conditions. I just want to be sure he's all right as it's not that far along from Haydock. Le Prezien is also likely to be confirmed.”

Clearly conditions have gone against Romain DS, whilst the other pair head the betting. Clan Des Obeaux is lumbered with top-weight, though he certainly has the frame for the job, and his close second to Whisper at Kempton in November reads well after the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy) at Newbury.

Nicholls and Twiston-Davies took the main prizes last weekend, and a repeat performance is certainly on the cards.

Twiston-Davies aims high with De Mai

Bristol De Mai romped to victory in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock on Saturday.

The three-mile trip proved well within his compass, as he sauntered clear of the field to record a 22-length success. Otago Trail did his best to make a race of it, but was brushed aside from three out. The winner is undoubtedly at his best in testing ground, and put in an exhibition round of jumping.

Nigel Twiston-Davies said of the impressive winner: “We'd been a bit disappointed with him this season, until today. But he seemed in really good form at home and we were hopeful. We'd had this race planned-out for a bit of time and he's settling better than he used to. He stays, he settles and he's a proper racehorse.”

Of Festival targets the trainer added: “We don't need to make our minds up yet but there are two races for him and it's nice to have options. I'd lean towards the Gold Cup. It looks like he's a stayer now. But whether we are quite of the class of Thistlecrack will be seen to be believed. Jump racing is about dreams, so we can dream at the minute.”

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Darryl Jacob was the lucky jockey given the armchair ride, and he was clearly impressed when saying: “He's an accurate jumper and has got scope as well. That was nearly back to one of his best performances. He's a six-year-old so I'm hoping he's going to keep improving. We're still some way off Graded level, but he's an exciting horse and a beautiful one to ride.”

Bristol De Mai had been outpaced on better ground in the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham last March. Whether connections go Ryanair or the Gold Cup, his chances will be greatly enhanced should the ground turn soft, or even better, heavy. He’s as low as 10s for the Ryanair, but the trainer certainly gave the impression that the Gold Cup was the preferred target. He can still be backed at 20s for the ‘Blue Riband’.

Much of the pre-race chat had centred on the Tizzard trained Alary. He looked a picture in the parade ring, and appeared to warm to the task after a couple of sticky jumps early-doors. But he started to falter turning for home, and Aidan Coleman was quick to pull him up once any chance of placing had gone. Races in France are often run at a more sedate pace, and it’s likely that this British debut came as something of a shock for the young chaser. He’s a gorgeous looking horse, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t improve a ton for the experience.

It proved a successful day for Twiston-Davies, with The New One completing a hat-trick of victories in the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial. It was yet another gutsy success for the yard’s outstanding hurdler. It appears that the Festival target is still up for debate, with the trainer edging towards another run in the Champion Hurdle, whilst his son Sam would love a crack at the Stayers’. “I think he'd be running around in second gear, and if he had anything left at the last he'd go close,” was the jockey’s assessment.

Sam may well be right. A third or fourth place finish in the Champion Hurdle may satisfy the trainer, but surely it’s worth a crack at the Stayers’. The step-up in trip worked for Solwhit a few years’ back, and it appears that Jess Harrington will be making a similar switch with Jezki.

Arguably the most impressive performance at Haydock came in the Supreme Trial, when Harry Fry’s Neon Wolf demolished a decent looking field. Conditions certainly suited the stoutly bred hurdler, with the emphasis very much on stamina rather than speed. This six-year-old is bred to stay a lot further, and should he head to Cheltenham will surely go for the Neptune or indeed the Albert Bartlett.

He's a tank of a horse, and Fry clearly sees his future over fences. He spoke yesterday of the various options: “He's come out of the race in good order and it was a very exciting performance, not just on the day, but for what it means for the future for him. He's got a lot of options open to him, obviously the Cheltenham novice races and at the same time he's going to be chasing in the autumn. It's a case of doing right by him.”

Fry went on: “The Masterson Family (owners) like Cheltenham and they also like going to Punchestown. He's a big unit of a horse, a tank of a horse really, so he wouldn't want quickish ground.”

The weather will play a vital role in the Cheltenham prospects of both Neon Wolf and Bristol De Mai. Soft, heavy in places may be a necessity if either are to land a valuable prize. For the former, the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle is surely the most likely target. For the latter, a shot at Thistlecrack now looks more than just a dream.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – King’s Theatre

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be taking a closer look at some of the underlying trends that give us hope of finding a few winners at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

My analysis will be less stats driven, (that’s Matt’s speciality) but rather more observational. I’ve been heading to the Cotswolds in March for many years now, and hopefully can put some of that experience to good use, in at least guiding punters in the right direction, if not necessarily singling out individual winners.

Today’s piece will focus on the incredible impact of King’s Theatre progeny on Jump racing’s greatest festival.
Classy, if not top-class on the Flat, he was retired to stud in 1997, standing at Ballylinch in County Kilkenny. He was the Champion National Hunt Sire on a couple of occasions, and forever among the leading half dozen. Sadly, he died in June 2011 at the age of 20, but his influence on jump racing goes on. In recent years, the number of Cheltenham Festival winners that he has produced is quite incredible.

An important factor in the King’s Theatre success story is undoubtedly the drying conditions during the spring festivals. Though the offspring are generally adaptable towards ground conditions, they do tend to prefer a sounder surface. Prestbury Park in March is often ideal.

Cue Card was once a perfect example of the typical King’s Theatre progeny, though in recent years he has developed into a racehorse capable of performing to the highest level in all ground conditions. Nevertheless, in his younger days, a sounder surface was thought ideal, and when he romped home in the Ryanair Chase of 2013, it was his speed that set him apart from runner-up First Lieutenant. He’ll be back for another crack in March, possibly looking to add another Ryanair success to his impressive CV.

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Phillip Hobbs has trained several that have brought Cheltenham Festival success the way of the outstanding jumps sire. Back in 2010, Menorah caused something of an upset in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle when getting the better of Get Me Out Of Here and Dunguib. Captain Chris was another Hobbs inmate that landed a Grade 1 at the showpiece event, when taking the Arkle Chase in 2011. When he returned 12 months later, he could only manage fourth in the Ryanair behind yet another from the prolific sire, in the Nicky Henderson trained Riverside Theatre.

The New One has become something of a National Hunt hero, and he’ll be back at Cheltenham in March, though a target has yet to be confirmed. Yet another from the phenomenal King’s Theatre production line, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts at lifting the Champion Hurdle, yet we must not forget that he did claim a Cheltenham Festival victory when romping home in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle back in 2013, defeating Rule The World and Ponte Alexandre in the process.

AP McCoy gave a riding masterclass, when winning the William Hill Trophy aboard Wichita Lineman at The Festival in 2009. The horse was far from orthodox over a fence, but the Champion Jockey cajoled, bullied and up the famous hill, threw everything at Jonjo’s fella to get him home by a neck in a truly thrilling three-mile chase. Yet it’s easy to forget just how good a hurdler Wichita was, as that was his second Cheltenham Festival win, having captured the Albert Bartlett, (then the Brit Insurance} by a country-mile in 2007.

Another King’s Theatre hurdler that took the Albert Bartlett by storm, was the ill-fated Brindisi Breeze. Tragically killed when escaping from his paddock just months later, he had looked a future star having defeated the well-touted Boston Bob at The Festival in 2012.

Others from the prodigious bloodline to strike at Jump racing’s greatest meeting include; Fingal Bay, Balthazar King, Diamond King and the classy mare Glens Melody. And there’s numerous others that have come frustratingly close in recent years. Southfield Theatre got within a nose in the Pertemps Network Final. Voler La Vedette was unfortunate to run into the mighty Quevega in 2010, then lost out to the almighty Big Bucks two years later.

If those were luckless in not appearing on the Cheltenham Festival roll of honour, then spare a thought for the Willie Mullins trained Shaneshill. Currently a three-time runner-up on the main-stage, could he make it fourth time lucky in March. Chances are that he will be running in the World Hurdle. Like so many by King’s Theatre, he appears at his best when the ground dries out, and undoubtedly raises his game at the ‘home of jump racing’.

And there’s other fancied types that will be hoping to add to the prolific King’s Theatre Festival record.

It’s hard to imagine Shaneshill not going close once again, but what of stable companion Bellshill? Another owned by festival regular Graham Wylie, he has failed to spark on his previous two ventures to the track, but a step-up in trip may well help to put the record straight. He’s made a seamless transition to fences, and looks set to contest either the JLT or the RSA in March. The latter appears most likely, and his pair of victories thus far over the winter, suggest that he’s one of Ireland’s leading novice chasers.

I mentioned earlier in the piece that Diamond King was already a Cheltenham Festival winner. He took the Coral Cup last year, and has one victory from his three starts over fences. Highly tried in his last two, he looks just short of top-class, though was running a huge race in the Drinmore Novice Chase, before getting in close at the last and losing all momentum. He’s now on a handicap mark that could make him competitive in the Festival Plate over 2m5f. He’s currently best-priced 25/1 for the race. Better ground is vital for this fella, and he will be an interesting each-way proposition wherever he turns up.

In my review of Warwick on Monday, I commented on the performance of Peregrine Run, in conditions he would have hated. He’s undoubtedly a King’s Theatre progeny that requires a sounder surface. I’m of the opinion that this year’s Neptune lacks depth, and I maintain that Peter Fahey’s fella is a live each-way proposition. I’ll certainly be throwing a little ‘Keeling-Cash’ at him.

Born Survivor, William Henry and Royal Vacation will also be of interest, when a battalion of King’s Theatre offspring gather for the four-day extravaganza. Last year, of the 21 horses representing the stallion, a third finished top four in their respective races, though only Diamond King struck gold. In a few weeks, selecting the winners from the also-rans will once again become an all-consuming task.

Christmas Va Va Vroum

If the Irish don’t win it, then recent history suggests that Nicky Henderson will be victorious in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Since 2000, Irish trainers have seven victories to their name, whilst the master of Seven Barrows has half a dozen. My Tent Or Yours made it four-in-a-row for Henderson in 2013, when edging out The New One in a thrilling finish. Willie Mullins has won the last two, thanks to the mighty Faugheen. Sadly he misses out on the chance of making it three on the bounce, though the Closutton team still have an outstanding contender.

Vroum Vroum Mag suffered her first defeat in two years when pipped at the post by Apple’s Jade last time on her seasonal bow. She ought to strip much fitter this time, and if taking her chance would take some beating. She finished five lengths clear of My Tent Or Yours when they last met in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. She’s a high-class mare.

“She'll have to work again tomorrow. I think declarations are Friday,” said Walsh. “She seems well. She came out of her race nicely when Apple's Jade beat her, but there's obviously Yanworth and The New One. It's going to be a small field, but she looks to be in good order. I suppose when a horse gets beaten it takes the shine off them a little, but we still think she's a very good mare and she'll give a good account of herself getting 7lb from the geldings.”

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JP McManus also has an outstanding record in the race, and has two chances of lifting the prize. My Tent Or Yours is yet to shine this season, though better ground at Kempton will certainly help the powerful traveller. However, the main hope for the Irish owner appears to be the Alan King trained Yanworth. He was one of last winter’s leading novice hurdlers, though looked sure to be stepped-up in trip for this campaign. Plans changed due to the exceptional form of Unowhatimeanharry, also JP owned.

King said in his Weekender column: “Obviously it's going to be a big test for him, but we need to find out if he's a Champion Hurdle contender and I think this will give us some idea. There will probably be a few big guns in opposition, but Yanworth is well. We've not really trained him any differently since switching targets from the World Hurdle and he breezed on Saturday, which we were very happy with.

“The big question is whether he'll be effective over two miles at Kempton, but the one thing I can say is he's never been beaten over that trip over hurdles. I genuinely don't know how he'll fare, but we've got nothing to lose by trying so let's see what happens.”

He defeated Lil Rockerfeller on his seasonal debut, though had to dig deep to do so. This will certainly be tougher, but he’s unexposed compared to several of these.

Another for whom plans have changed dramatically, is The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. With 14 victories from 22 starts over hurdles, this fella is considered a hero by his handler, and by many National Hunt followers. He looked set to be switched to fences, but stormed to victory in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, when dominant from the front.

The Naunton trainer said of his favourite horse: “He was only beaten a whisker by My Tent Or Yours three years ago. He made a mistake at the last otherwise he probably would have won. He's in very good form as you've seen. We want to apply the same tactics as at Cheltenham, more forcing tactics. Sam (Twiston-Davies) will ride him this time, I'm sure. It was lovely to see him back at his best last time, although really he has never been away from his best.”

The Christmas Hurdle field is set to be completed by massive outsider Gray Wolf River and Dan Skelton’s progressive youngster Ch’tibello. The former will be hunting for prize money, and hopefully won’t cause a delay to the start of the King George, just half an hour later.

Skelton’s contender is of far more interest. He was impressive at Haydock last time in a small field on heavy ground. He had My Tent Or Yours and Old Guard behind him on that occasion. He clearly has plenty of speed, and is a big strong individual. Connections were worried about the ground at Haydock, and he’ll likely be more effective on a sounder surface at Kempton. He gave Altior a run for his money a year ago at Ascot, and may well prove competitive again.

Faugheen set for Lead Role

The Champion Hurdle picture is set for a shake-up this weekend with major events at Haydock and Leopardstown.

On Sunday Ireland’s leading two mile hurdlers are set to clash in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It’s a race dominated in recent times by the wonderful Hurricane Fly. Unbeatable at Leopardstown, ‘The Fly’ was an incredible racehorse.

Willie Mullins has the three leading protagonists for this much anticipated renewal, and they just happen to be the top three in the market for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. For all that Faugheen is the reigning Champion hurdler and a short priced favourite to follow up in March; this weekend’s race is far from being a formality.

He faces two exciting opponents in Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon. The former chased him home at Cheltenham last March; whilst the latter caused a major shock when beating him on their seasonal bow in the Morgiana Hurdle. Nichols Canyon followed up with a hard fought win over Identity Thief at Leopardstown. Faugheen travelled over to Kempton and proved completely dominant in the Christmas Hurdle.

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As for Arctic Fire, it appears that Mullins was keen to test him out in the staying hurdles division. After victories at two and a half miles over Monksland and then Alpha Des Obeaux, he was stepped up to three miles for the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. However, the experiment backfired when he trailed home in fourth place, a dozen lengths behind the impressive Prince Of Scars.

He has a little to find with Faugheen on all known form, and dropping back from three miles is hardly the ideal prep for this. Whatever he does here, I’d expect him to perform better at Cheltenham, when the stiff finish off a strong pace is sure to suit.

The tactics should prove intriguing, as numerous experts now believe the ‘Champ’ needs an uncontested lead in order to prevail. I’m not sure I buy into that theory, and am of the opinion that Faugheen will have improved sufficiently from his seasonal debut to reverse placing’s with Nichols Canyon. Chances are that he has the extra gears needed to win on this track, in this deep winter ground, over this minimum trip.

A day prior to that ding-dong battle in Ireland, the best that Britain has to offer is set to clash at Haydock in the Champion Hurdle Trial. The New One and Peace And Co appear the only two from this side of the Irish Sea capable of challenging the might of Ireland. It’s fair to say that both are on something of a recovery mission.

The New One was well beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton though that was his seasonal opener and trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies was at odds to point out that his fella would improve plenty for the run. Earlier this week he said: “He's been really good so far. He'll be much fitter than on Boxing Day, so he should be a lot better. He's been to Haydock twice and won twice, so conditions should be all right for him, and all being well he's going to the Champion Hurdle.”

A spinal issue curtailed last season’s campaign and Twiston-Davies will be hopeful that his stable star can get back to the form he showed in 2014, when many thought him unfortunate not to win the Champion Hurdle.

Oozing class and travelling like a dream through his races, Nicky Henderson’s Peace And Co looked a future star when winning the Triumph Hurdle last March. The wheels came off quite dramatically at Cheltenham in December, when he refused to relax during his seasonal opener and went out like a light from the second last. It was a pretty disastrous return, though Henderson refused to be overly downbeat.

He is to be fitted with a different bridle in an attempt to settle him in the race, and has been showing all the right signs at home. He is clearly a hugely talented horse, but needs to run well on Saturday if he is to be considered a contender for the Champion Hurdle in March.

We have an exciting and intriguing weekend ahead. Two British trainers will certainly have fingers crossed that their Festival dreams remain intact.

The Neptune Novices’ Hurdle – Stars Will Shine


Forpadydeplasterer with Adoring Fans

The ‘Neptune’ has become a feeding ground for Cheltenham Festival Read more

Twiston-Davies had dad’s support if top job comes along

T-DsSam Twiston-Davies has quickly established himself amongst the top half dozen professional jockeys. He’s improved his tally of winners in each of the three seasons since he turned pro and is well placed to notch his first century this time round.

Most of his winners have come for his dad, Nigel, but there are signs that might change before too long. Last week Sam rode three winners for Paul Nicholls in the space of three days, and with first jockey Daryl Jacob not yet back from a fall at Wincanton last month (though he hopes to be riding by the weekend) there could soon be more opportunities for Twiston-Davies to raise his standing with the Ditcheat trainer.

Dad says he’d be proud if the 21 year old were to be offered a place at one of the top stables, and says he should go for it. “I won’t stand in his way. If he can get top jobs he must take them. I very much hope he’ll get one. We are very small compared to the top trainers. We have only got 70 horses and they are all cheap. I would like him to go where he’s got more chance of becoming champion jockey.” His horses may be cheap. The New One, for example, only cost €25,000, but it’s what you make of them that counts, and the T-Ds are doing plenty with him.

Talk of a championship is a forlorn hope while Tony McCoy continues riding, so there’s plenty of time for young T-D to hone his riding and tactical race reading further, though dad thinks he’s not far off having mastered that. He added, “I couldn’t be more proud of Sam. He does very little wrong.”

Champion Hurdle contenders shake off the summer

Jezki - Champion Hurdle contender?

Jezki - Champion Hurdle contender?

The early winter market for the Champion Hurdle next March is starting to take shape, with The New One firmly established as favourite for the race on the opening day of the Festival. Read more

Rock On Sunday as Ruby and The New One clash

Rock On Ruby - out early this season

Rock On Ruby - out early this season

The first big names of the jumps season are out on Sunday, when Rock On Ruby and The New One are set to take each other on at Kempton. Harry Fry and Nigel Twiston-Davies, the respective trainers, had rather different ideas about the clash. Read more

Sprinter Sacre – ready to better Kauto?

Sprinter Sacre - rated within 2lb of Kauto Star

Sprinter Sacre - rated within 2lb of Kauto Star

The publication of the Anglo-Irish National Hunt classifications on 21 May confirmed Bobs Worth, Sprinter Sacre, Big Buck’s, Hurricane Fly, The New One and Simonsig as the top horses across the seven categories. There were no major surprises, and with the exception of top novice chaser Simonsig, all the winners were rated four pounds or more ahead of their nearest rival. Read more