Warrior-like performance expected from The Last Samuri

Cheltenham’s Festival Trials Day takes place tomorrow with the prospect of numerous pointers as the main event looms on the horizon.

Apple’s Shakira should prove hard to beat in the Triumph Hurdle Trial. Whilst a hugely competitive field go to post in the Cleeve Hurdle, a renowned trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle at The Festival. Beer Goggles, Wholestone and Finian’s Oscar are all fancied to go close. We’re also likely to see exciting young novice hurdler Santini stretching his legs in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

But it’s the Cotswold Chase that I’ve decided to focus on, ironically a race that rarely shines a light on a live Festival contender.

Many Clouds won last year’s renewal in dramatic fashion, defeating Thistlecrack after a mighty duel. Tragically, the wonderful staying chaser collapsed after the race and was unable to be saved. It was the second success in the Cotswold Chase for the Grand National winner of 2015. A firm favourite with jump racing fans, he’d also won the Hennessy Gold Cup back in 2014. Cheltenham Racecourse are to put on a fitting tribute to the gallant chaser after racing tomorrow.

The Giant Bolster did come close to following up in the Gold Cup having won this in 2014, when finishing a close third to shock winner Lord Windermere. Exotic Dancer was another that almost achieved the double, though that was back in 2007. He hammered Our Vic in the Cotswold Chase before finding Kauto Star too hot to handle in the main event at the festival. Looks Like Trouble was the last to land both races back in 2000.

Bristol De Mai looks the one in tomorrow’s field with the ability to land a blow come March, though he’s on a recovery mission after a tame performance in the King George over Christmas. He’ll have his ground this time (the softer the better), though the test will come as he turns for home and faces the climb to the finish. He ran well for a long way in last year’s Gold Cup on unsuitably quick ground, until mistakes late-on saw him fade to a seventh-place finish. Those jumping errors have proved less costly in testing ground at Haydock, when horses are unable to get away from him. That may prove the same tomorrow, though doubts remain over his ability to get up the hill over this extended trip. He also needs to overcome the shocking record of favourites in the race.

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One that will have no problem seeing out the 3m1½f journey is the Grand National contender, The Last Samuri. Last seen running a cracker behind Blaklion in the Becher Chase at Aintree, he was giving the winner 6lbs on that occasion. A son of Flemensfirth, he’ll love testing conditions, and if able to keep tabs on Bristol De Mai he should be finishing to great effect. He’s been hauling top-weight around for some time now and will no doubt appreciate the feel of just 11 stone on his back. He looks a major player in this. 10-year-olds have won five of the last ten renewals, which is another plus for Kim Bailey’s experienced campaigner.

Experience has proved a major asset in taking this race, with nine-year-olds successful in a further four of the last ten. Definitly Red is another that will love testing conditions and arrives after a decisive victory at Aintree in December. He defeated The Last Samuri back in March, though was in receipt of almost a stone on that occasion. It’s also a concern that he was thrashed at Wetherby by both Bristol De Mai and Blaklion in the Charlie Hall Chase. It’s possible that he’s unable to cope with a step-up in grade and may therefore finished placed at best.

Tea For Two has continued to surprise many when thrown in at the deep end. He was again terrific in the King George, when a close third to Might Bite. He only got as far as the second fence in last year’s Gold Cup and was pulled-up in his only other start at the track. His best performances have tended to come when going right-handed, though he did run a cracker to win the Betway Bowl at Aintree, defeating Cue Card in a thriller. He looks a serious challenger, and there’s a danger that once again punters are underestimating this talented horse. Of the 10 entered, he is rated second only to Bristol De Mai.

Coneygree is once again on a recovery mission and it would take a brave man to side with the one-time top staying chaser. Soft ground will help his cause, as will a return to Prestbury Park, where he’s three from four. It would come as no surprise should he run a belter, but I’m afraid that I am unable to trust him with my hard-earned dosh.

American is also looking to put a poor performance behind him. A talented novice chaser last term, he ran no sort of race when behind early in the Ladbrokes Trophy in December. He’ll also have plenty of competition on the front end, and this looks a tough ask for one so inexperienced. The ground should prove ideal, but this looks an enormous step-up for the eight-year-old. It’s a brave call from trainer Harry Fry, but I can’t see it coming off.

Bristol De Mai does look the most likely winner, but there’s enough question marks that lead me to side with The Last Samuri. A rock-solid performer with a touch of class, he’s the right age, will love the ground, and will be storming home up the famous hill. Tea For Two may prove a greater danger to my selection.

Best of luck to those having a punt and keep that notepad ready for those festival clues.

Clues abound on Festival Trials Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tizzard Star to Shine at Kempton

The King George VI Chase from Kempton is the highlight of the Christmas period, and one of the most prestigious events of the winter.

Its roll of honour is the stuff of legends, simply oozing quality, jam-packed with steeplechasing heroes. Jumping goliaths, Mill House and Arkle, won the race in the 60’s. In the 1970’s Pendil and Captain Christy were simply sensational. In the early 80’s the Kempton masses were thrilled by Silver Buck, Wayward Lad and Burrough Hill Lad. It was then the turn of the glorious grey Dessie.

Desert Orchid dominated the Kempton Christmas cracker in the latter part of the eighties, with four victories. Only in 1987 did the bold front-runner find one too good, when beaten by the Francois Doumen-trained Nupsala. He was taken-on for the lead for much of that renewal, and arguably set the race up for the French raider.

Doumen was back again at the start of the 90’s with The Fellow, followed closely by a quick-fire double from another wonderful grey, One Man. Best Mate added his name to the wondrous list with victory in 2002, and Kicking King struck for Ireland in 2004 and 2005. Then came Kempton’s greatest, Kauto Star. Five victories from 2006 to 2011 saw him surpass the achievements of Dessie. He truly is Kempton’s King George King.

Last year’s race went to Thistlecrack, a horse with the potential to emulate some of those former greats. A novice at the time, he was scintillating throughout the three-mile contest. It was a display of pace and authority that left his talented opponents powerless. The rigours of a King George aren’t for every staying chaser, but it proved ideal for Thistlecrack. Injury cut short his first season over fences, and his return over hurdles at Newbury proved underwhelming. Nevertheless, the sounds from Team Tizzard are positive, and if he’s back to the form of 12 months ago, he’ll prove hard to beat.

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The favourite for Boxing Day’s showpiece is the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite. He too looked sensational at Kempton 12 months ago. That is, until a final-fence blunder sent him crashing to the turf when clear of the field in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. He put that mishap behind him when winning at Cheltenham and Aintree, and returned to action in November with a comfortable victory at Sandown.

He looks hugely talented, though this is by far his toughest test to date. He got the better of Whisper as a novice chaser, and you’d fancy he has the potential to maintain that advantage. Whisper was beaten 30-lengths and 46-lengths by Thistlecrack over hurdles, and though comparison of codes isn’t always reliable, I’d fancy Might Bite needs to improve a ton to beat a match-fit Tizzard stable-star.

Bristol De Mai is second-best in the betting, having demolished the opposition in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. In testing ground he absolutely rocks, but can he prove as dominant on a sounder surface? There’s also a feeling that Haydock brings out the best in the Twiston-Davies chaser, and his record at the track certainly supports that theory. He came up short in the Gold Cup back in March, and again failed to spark at Aintree the following month. He may be a vastly improved horse after a summer in the field, but I’m not convinced. I also have issues with his jumping, which will be severely tested in a ‘full-throttle’ King George. Unless we get a substantial amount of rain over the weekend, he’s not for me.

I’m anticipating a huge run from Fox Norton. He was runner-up in the Champion Chase and filled the same spot in the Tingle Creek earlier this month. The tempo of this race should prove ideal, though whether his stamina will last into the latter stages is the crucial question. He’s never looked a true two-miler, always running-on strongly at the end of such events. Arguably his best performance to-date came in the Melling Chase at Aintree over 2m4f, when running away from Sub Lieutenant. He’d looked out-paced in that until getting on top in the latter stages. He certainly wasn’t stopping at the line.

Though Whisper ran a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy), I cannot see him turning the tables on Might Bite. He was clearly second-best to his stable companion last season, and I cannot see that changing. I’ve always thought that Whisper, though clearly a talented horse, is just shy of the very best. He may well run admirably, but I’d be shocked if he wins.

Repeat victories are common in the King George, and I’m convinced that a back-to-his-best Thistlecrack will be too hot to handle. Might Bite is a chaser of huge potential and may well pick up the pieces should Tizzard’s star fail to shine. Of the remainder, I fancy Fox Norton to run a huge race at a trip that should be to his liking.
Enjoy this Christmas cracker. And best of luck to those having a punt.

A Thrilling Kempton Christmas Gathering

I went out and bought the Christmas TV magazine yesterday, and have started circling all the programmes that will excite me during the holiday period.

The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio and Shrek 2, instantly caught the eye. However, there’s no doubting the highlight at this time of year, and I don’t mean Christmas Top Of The Pops.

The channel may have changed, but Boxing Day racing from Kempton remains my ‘numero uno’ (The Wizard Of Oz is a close runner-up). The King George VI Chase is one of the most thrilling races of the winter with a truly wondrous roll of honour. Last year’s renewal was truly ‘Joyful and Triumphant’ for Team Tizzard, as Thistlecrack swept far more experienced chasers aside, to win in the style of a superstar. Things haven’t gone to plan since, but one of Jump racing’s major player’s is back for more, with his jockey at Kempton hopeful of a repeat performance.

Tom Scudamore told At The Races: “It felt like he had all his old spark, but just got tired from going to the second last (Newbury Long Distance Hurdle). He'd suffered an injury at Cheltenham and had plenty of time off the track. He'd been showing everyone the right signs at home. Joe and Colin (Tizzard) were happy with him, but unfortunately the time he had off just got the better of him at Newbury. Colin and Joe tell me he's been going very well at home, but the proof in the pudding will be on Boxing Day.”

Ruby Walsh knows a thing or two about Kempton’s showpiece, having ridden Kauto Star to a record-breaking five victories. Still recovering from injury, he believes that Nicky Henderson has the leading contender. Speaking to Racing UK he said: “Strictly going on novice form and the performance he was putting up in last year's Feltham, I'd be leaning towards Might Bite. I rode in his RSA and the gallop he went was phenomenal. Kempton will suit him, going right-handed. I think he'll be very hard to beat.”

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Walsh also spoke of the Betfair Chase winner, Bristol De Mai, saying: “If we were to get a drop of rain and the track was to get a bit slower, then Bristol De Mai would have a chance. I would say he is an unbelievably strong stayer and that’s why, on testing ground, he just goes the same speed as he would on good ground and it kills off the opposition. I’m not saying he won’t go on good ground, it’s just can he burn the opposition off to the same effect as he does on soft ground?"

Should trainers and connections hold their nerve, this looks to be a thrilling renewal, with a feel of the ‘changing of the guard’. We have a pair of six-year-olds in Bristol De Mai and Disko. The former fresh from that stunning success at Haydock, and the latter highly regarded by his trainer Noel Meade, and talked of as a Gold Cup prospect. There’s a trio of seven-year-old's, including Tizzard’s classy Tingle Creek runner-up Fox Norton, who steps-up in trip having come-up just short at two-miles. The race favourite; Henderson’s Might Bite, is just eight, and though Thistlecrack and Whisper are both nine, they have very few chase outings to their name.

The decision not to send Sizing John over for the prestigious event came as no surprise. But arguably the biggest name lacking from this year’s line-up is that of trainer Paul Nicholls. He’s won the race seven times in the past 11 years, with Kauto Star and Silviniaco Conti proving Kempton heroes.

Politologue’s win in the Tingle Creek at Sandown would have come as a huge relief to the Ditcheat handler, but the lack of a quality staying chaser in the yard will be hugely frustrating. The performance of Clan Des Obeaux last week at Cheltenham, will give hope of a Nicholls renaissance in this division. By next Christmas, he could be the one making his presence felt in the Christmas showpiece.

Colin Tizzard and Nicky Henderson have shared four of the last seven renewals and both have a pair of strong contenders this time around. Nigel Twiston-Davies will hope to spoil the party, but there’s no doubting that the staying chase landscape, and to some extent the Grade One picture, continues to change, with Team Ditcheat rarely invited to the gathering.

Kempton’s King George Giants

We’ve just a couple of weeks to go before the King George VI Chase, and I thought I’d take a nostalgic look back at some of the equine giants that added their names to a stunning roll of honour.

First run in 1937, it was 10 years later and just after the war that the King George was established as a Boxing Day feature. The Gold Cup at Cheltenham is the pinnacle for staying chasers, though there’s no doubting that this unique Kempton test of speed and stamina has resulted in exceptional performances from racing goliaths.

Pendil was one such beast, capable of slick jumping at a relentless gallop and then accelerating in the latter stages of the race to pull clear of the opposition. Fred Winter’s classy chaser took the race in 1972 and 73. On both occasions he comfortably defeated The Dikler, himself the winner in 1971. When the pair met in the Gold Cup of 73, Pendil looked sure to win again as he swept to the front two from home. But it was The Dikler that found that famous hill to his liking, and in a dramatic finish got his nose in front as the post loomed.

Many heroes of the King George have failed the Cheltenham stamina test. One Man was another who excelled around Kempton, and indeed at Sandown (race switched in 1995 due to weather), when winning the Christmas showpiece in 1995 and 96. Ridden by one of the greats in Richard Dunwoody, this wonderful grey owned by John Hales, was often given a bold ride, jumping spectacularly at the head of affairs.

That was certainly the case in 1995 at Sandown when Dunwoody sent him to the front on the final circuit, and the grey duly galloped and jumped the field into submission. The race was never in doubt as the eight-year-old hit the line 14 lengths clear. He was no less impressive a year later when sweeping past Mr Mulligan at the third-last, before bold leaps at the final two sealed victory. Able to win a Hennessy in 1994, he simply couldn’t see-out the trip in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He did however return to Cheltenham in 1998 and famously captured the Champion Chase. Spring-heeled throughout, it was a stunning success.

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It could be argued that Kauto Star was never at his best in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, despite winning it twice. That certainly couldn’t be said of Kempton and the King George, where he was utterly dominant. This outstanding racehorse possessed that perfect blend of stamina and speed. Good enough to win a pair of Tingle Creek’s alongside those two Gold Cup’s, he captured the King George on five occasions, with his final success at the age of 11.

Only Dessie (Desert Orchid) has come close with four victories. He also managed to capture the Gold Cup, when in his first attempt in 1989 he bravely slogged his way through the mud to defeat Yahoo. He also managed to win the Irish National despite giving away lumps of weight. Effective at any trip, Dessie was another equine phenomenon.

Multiple winners are a common feature of the King George. Mandarin, Silver Buck, Wayward Lad, The Fellow, See More Business, Long Run and Silviniaco Conti have all cracked the Kempton showpiece on more than one occasion.

The Irish have also landed the spoils, with one father and son combo particularly enjoying the trips across the Irish Sea. Pat Taaffe trained the relentless galloper Captain Christy, who romped to victory in 1974 and 75. His first success came at the expense of the top-class Pendil, whilst a year later he beat Bula by half the track (slight exaggeration). He also captured the Gold Cup in 74, thrashing The Dikler by five lengths.

In 2004 and 2005 it was Taaffe ‘the younger’, son Tom, who trained Kicking King to complete a thrilling double of King George victories (one at Sandown). And like his father before, he guided the dynamic chaser to victory in the Gold Cup, also winning by five lengths. Kicking King’s career was curtailed by injury, and that was a crying shame as he was still only a seven-year-old when landing his second King George and that Gold Cup.

In a couple of weeks Thistlecrack will look to become yet another multiple winner of Kempton’s Christmas Cracker. Other talented staying chasers are set to take up the challenge, in the hope of adding their names to a dazzling roll of honour.

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.

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.”

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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.

Cue a Glorious Finale

Could Thursday at Aintree be the last time we see the wonderful Cue Card on a racecourse?

Though nothing has been said publicly, the 11-year-old’s trainer Colin Tizzard, and proud owner Jean Bishop, must be mulling over the option of retiring the wonderful chaser. And should he repeat last year’s success in the Betway Bowl, it would prove a perfect way to bring the curtain down on a dazzling career.

Cue Card launched his long and illustrious career with victory in a Fontwell bumper back in January 2010. The four-year-old had ‘quickened clear’ to win ‘readily’, in the style of a talented young horse. A few weeks later, Tizzard and his team were celebrating a Cheltenham Festival success, as the youngster ‘romped clear’ to win the Champion Bumper at odds of 40/1. It was a stunning victory.

A year later he returned to Cheltenham, and was far from disgraced when fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. In a stellar renewal, the race went to Al Ferof, with Spirit Son second and a young Sprinter Sacre in third. A month later, he then chased home the talented Spirit Son at Aintree in the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle, with Rock On Ruby eight lengths back in third.

A decision was then made to send him over fences, and he opened his account with a comfortable win at Chepstow in October 2011, beating Silviniaco Conti in the process. Tizzard had to decide whether to campaign Cue Card at the minimum trip, or target the RSA the following March. A defeat to Bobs Worth at Newbury, when appearing to be out-stayed, and getting tagged on the line, sealed the deal. A young Cue Card was not short of gears, and the Arkle Chase looked the right fit at this stage of his development.

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Unfortunately for Team Tizzard, a certain Sprinter Sacre was lying in wait, and when the pair met in March there could be only one winner. Cue Card ran a cracker in defeat, just seven lengths off the winner, and miles clear of the remainder.

The following season started with a romp in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter, before a failed first attempt at three miles in the King George. He took the Grade 1 Ascot Chase en-route to Cheltenham, and understandably dodged a clash with Sprinter, instead taking in the Ryanair Chase. It proved the right decision, as he ran-out an impressive winner at his fourth festival.

His next outing, though ending in defeat, was arguably one of his best. He again locked horns with the greatest chaser of his generation, as the pair clashed in Aintree’s Melling Chase. Many remember the race for the way Henderson’s fella performed, but Cue Card was awesome that day. He finished just four lengths adrift of one of chasing’s all-time greats, with the rest of the field out of sight.

A stunning victory in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase later that year, saw him arrive for the King George of 2013 as joint-favourite. A certain winner two fences from home, became a three-length defeat at the line, with Cue Card appearing to run-out of gas. Injury prevented him from attempting to retain his Ryanair crown, and when he returned to action, his 2014-15 campaign proved disappointing.

A wind-op prior to his return in late-2015 turned his career around, and the nine-year-old Cue Card became unstoppable. With the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase in the bag, he headed to the King George, and a shot at redemption. In a thrilling renewal, he mugged Vautour in the shadow of the post for a sensational victory. He may have added a Gold Cup to the CV but for a fall three-out, though Don Cossack was a terrific winner. He then hammered a strong field in last year’s Bowl, before a tired looking finale at Punchestown.

This season has again proved profitable, thanks to Grade 1 victories at Haydock and Ascot. He was runner-up to his talented stablemate Thistlecrack in the King George, and again came down at the third-last in the Gold Cup.
He retains tons of ability, and is the short-priced favourite for Thursday’s showpiece. But with £1,340,230 in the bank, it’s possible that we may be witnessing the final chapter in Cue Card’s incredible National Hunt story. A victory this week at Aintree would without doubt, be one of the season’s highlights. Loved by all, it would surely prove a fitting finale to the career of a jumping legend.

The Stayers’ Hurdle – Fry’s Favourite Vulnerable To Irish Speedsters

He’s proved peerless over the winter, and is understandably a short-priced favourite, but is Unowhatimeanharry vulnerable to a speedier type when he lines up for the Stayers’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival next Thursday?

He took the Albert Bartlett a year ago, and is four from four at the course. He’s spent the season sweeping-up the usual trials, and has looked impressive in winning the Long Distance, the Long Walk and the Cleeve. Previous staying stars such as Baracouda, Inglis Drever and the mighty Big Bucks, often travelled a similar path towards Cheltenham glory, as did Thistlecrack during his dominant campaign over a hurdles a year ago.

The Irish have a shocking record in the Stayers’, with Solwhit the sole winner this century. And with Harry Fry’s nine-year-old having accounted for all the British contenders during his dominant spell, he starts to have the look of a ‘Festival Banker’. If you add to this the strong record of favourites, and that only Cole Harden has won at double-figure odds in the last 10 years, then we are amassing a pretty strong case for Unowhatimeanharry landing his ninth straight victory.

The intriguing aspect of this year’s race is the likely assault of speedier Irish contenders, similar in type to 2013 winner Solwhit.

Vroum Vroum Mag now looks unlikely to head here, instead going for the Mares’ Hurdle. Nevertheless, Willie Mullins could have both Nichols Canyon and Shaneshill challenging for this, with both possessing plenty of natural speed. The former was third in the Neptune of 2015 and filled the same spot in last year’s Champion Hurdle. He won at Aintree over 2m4f in 2015 and then demolished Alpha Des Obeaux over the same trip at Punchestown. It was a little surprising that he was then dropped in trip last year, though he ran well in smart company. Whether he’ll get the three miles is questionable, but on good ground at two and a half he’s looked impressive.

Shaneshill has become a Festival stalwart, having finished runner-up in his three visits. He chased home Douvan in the Supreme of 2015, proving that he has plenty of speed, and last year came within half a length of winning the RSA Chase. Cheltenham in March clearly sparks this son of King’s Theatre, and he won his prep at Gowran over the trip. He’s a horse I like, and is probably better trusted to get the trip than Nichols Canyon.

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The other Irish contender of interest is the 2014 Champion Hurdle winner Jezki. He returned from injury to win at Navan over two-miles, but was beaten by Tombstone last time at Gowran. Connections are yet to commit to this, and the open nature of this year’s Champion Hurdle is probably tempting, especially on better ground. If he heads here, he has to be a serious contender, though the year off the track is a nagging concern.

The 2015 winner Cole Harden is fancied by many to go close, especially after his promising performance in the Cleeve on unsuitable soft ground. He came off second best to Unowhatimeanharry that day, in receipt of 8lbs, so he has his work cut out to reverse placings, even on a sounder surface. Warren Greatrex had sent him over fences at the start of the season, but a mediocre performance at Wetherby brought about a change in direction. I think he’s held by the favourite, though he could run into a place.

Ballyoptic is another that appears to be well-held by the favourite. He was running a huge race at Ascot in December when coming down at the last, but was disappointing at Cheltenham in the Cleeve. I fancy he’ll make a better staying chaser, and he’s not for me.

Of those at a bigger price, there are two that catch my eye as each-way propositions. Lil Rockerfeller can’t beat Unowhatimeanharry on all-known form, but at 25/1 looks a fair bet to run into a place. He missed his intended prep at Fontwell, but that could prove a blessing, having looked a little jaded when finishing fourth in the Relkeel on New Year’s Day.

The horse that won that day is Agrapart, trained by Nick Williams. He was behind Zarkandar last time at Haydock, but was giving the winner 8lbs, and I fancy that 40/1 for the Stayers’ is wildly underestimating his chance of hitting the frame. He wasn’t stopping at Haydock last time, and I’m sure he’ll run far better than his odds suggest.

Everything points to the favourite in this, and often a punter can be guilty of trying too hard to find a chink in the armour of something that appears bulletproof. Unowhatimeanharry ticks every trend box and is rightly a short-priced favourite. Nevertheless, you occasionally need to go with a ‘gut feeling’, and this is one of those occasions. I think Shaneshill will have the gears to ‘out-kick’ the favourite from the last. And I take Agrapart at the prices to creep into the frame for each-way backers.

As always, best of luck to those having a punt.

Mullins Mare Shows Star Potential

The loss of Thistlecrack from the Gold Cup line-up came as a real bombshell, in a winter that has proved disastrous for ‘Blue Riband’ contenders.

The 2016 winner Don Cossack, had to be retired, and then the 2015 winner Coneygree was ‘pulled’ due to ongoing injury concerns. Each-way prospect Many Clouds tragically died after his sensational win in the Cotswold Chase, and now a potential star of the sport has been struck down.

Colin Tizzard was philosophical as ever when saying: “He had a bit of heat in his leg last night and was a bit sore. We had the leg scanned this morning and he has a slight tear on his tendon. We've seen it at every yard and it happens every year.” The trainer still has the top two in the betting, with Native River now taking over as race favourite.

The setback for Thistlecrack will be particularly galling for jockey Tom Scudamore. The King George success was a special occasion, and he would have been confident of another thrilling spin around Prestbury Park. He said: “It's something that happens in racing unfortunately, look at Willie Mullins this season, he's lost a handful. Even still, it doesn't make it easy to swallow, it makes you feel sick. It's worse for the owners, John and Heather (Snook), and the lads that see him every morning. Look at Olympians, they get their dreams shattered and have to wait four years, hopefully we'll get another chance next season.”

It’s become something of a theme throughout the build-up to this Cheltenham Festival, with the Champion Hurdle suffering a similar amount of upheaval. As in the Gold Cup, the hurdling showpiece has lost its last two winners, with Annie Power and Faugheen both sidelined. Yanworth looked likely to go the staying route but is now a leading contender, whilst Buveur D’Air was sent over fences, and then returned to the smaller obstacles.

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Willie Mullins has dominated the Champion Hurdle in recent times, though the loss of his two leading hopes suggested the run of success would end. However, at Punchestown yesterday, we may have witnessed the arrival of a new Closutton contender, with last year’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Limini, running a cracker to defeat Apple’s Jade.

Both Mullins and Ruby Walsh looked stunned by the performance, with the trainer saying: “I don't know what way to take that run, but Apple's Jade is a triple Grade One-winning mare and Ruby never even stirred on our mare - he just gave her a shake-up going to the last. Our mare was coming back after a year off and we've had our troubles trying to get her right. The race conditions didn't suit us and the ground didn't suit us, so we came here thinking it was all in Apple's Jade's favour. She has run a stone better than I thought she would.”

Walsh was also impressed, saying: “We kind of steadied up from the fourth-last, it turned into a bit of a sprint to the last and we always knew she wasn't short of pace. It was a good performance, and onwards and upwards. I'd say she jumped better than last season. She was very slick and very accurate. Fingers crossed she'll come out of the race well and she can start her prep for Cheltenham next week.”

The stable has Vroum Vroum and Let’s Dance for the Mares’ Hurdle at The Festival, and it would come as no surprise if they were to supplement this speedy looking six-year-old to a very open looking Champion Hurdle, as they did with Annie Power 12 months back. VVM has looked a stouter stayer, and I’d anticipate Mullins keeping her to the longer trip. Limini is currently 8/1 with those offering NRNB for the two-mile showpiece.

As always, you pays your money, you takes your chance. And second guessing Team Mullins is never an easy pastime. But in a year when so much has gone wrong for the Closutton stable, yet another Mullins mare shows the potential of delivering further Festival glory.

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Festival Jocks with Added Value

It’ll come as no surprise should Ruby Walsh or Barry Geraghty land the ‘Top Jock’ spot at the Cheltenham Festival in March.

It’s been a tough winter for Willie Mullins and the team, but despite the well documented setbacks, he will head to the Cotswolds with a powerful team, and Ruby will get the leg-up on a host of talented beasts. Geraghty too, will find himself spoilt for choice, as he selects from a plethora of JP McManus contenders. Winners are virtually guaranteed, but value will often be hard to find.

Two jockeys that have found plenty of Festival success in recent years, and that are more likely to give the punter a decent return for his or her hard-earned cash, are Ireland’s Davy Russell, and Gloucestershire’s Tom Scudamore.

The latter is having another solid season, with every chance of making the top five in the Jockeys Championship. He’s spent much of the campaign riding for David Pipe and Colin Tizzard, and is given the enormous responsibility of guiding Thistlecrack to the pinnacle of the chasing division.

For much of the winter, ‘Scu’ has played down the pressure of such a task, and instead highlighted the thrill of being able to partner such a wonderful racehorse. He rode a perfect race at Kempton when capturing the King George, and in fairness did little wrong in defeat at Cheltenham last time. Nevertheless, flying down the hill towards the third last in the Gold Cup is sure to set the heart racing, and his decision making will need to be precise if he is to steer Tizzard’s star to success.

Scudamore landed the World Hurdle on Thistlecrack at last year’s Festival, adding to his win earlier in the week aboard Pipe’s Un Temps Pour Tout. The latter took the Ultima Handicap Chase at odds of 11/1. He also had a couple of third-place finishes during the week, on-board Kings Palace and Champers On Ice at prices of 11/1 and 20/1 respectively.

The Cheltenham Festival of 2015 brought success on Moon Racer and Next Sensation. The latter was an emotional victory on the horse trained by his brother Michael, whilst Moon Racer is a fancied runner for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in March.

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In 2014 Scudamore bagged a trio of triumphs when winning on Western Warhorse, Dynaste and Ballynagour. The latter won at 12s whilst Western Warhorse shocked Champagne Fever in the Arkle Chase at 33/1.

Thistlecrack, Moon Racer, Champers On Ice and Starchitect, are just a sample of the exciting rides available to Scudamore at Cheltenham in March, and it looks likely that he will once again be ‘booting-in’ some high profile winners.

Davy Russell is another top-class jockey with Cheltenham Festival pedigree. Losing the top job at Gigginstown to Bryan Cooper could easily have had a hugely damaging effect on a lesser jock. But Russell rolled up his sleeves, and continues to be one of the most sort-after riders in the business.

Always with a full book of rides, he has spent much of the winter flitting between the likes of Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead, and Jess Harrington. He’s had a couple of jaunts over to Prestbury Park during the campaign, and ridden for Rebecca Curtis and Nicky Henderson. He got the leg-up on progressive chaser Shantou Flyer a few weeks back, and may well be in line to maintain the partnership at the Festival.

Last year, wins on Diamond King and Mall Dini at odds of 12s and 14/1 showcased his undoubted talent. He came mighty close to steering Fagan to victory in the Albert Bartlett at 33/1, and was again runner-up on-board Arthur Moore’s Dandridge in the Grand Annual.

In 2015 Russell had a pair of victories on the Wednesday of the meeting, steering home Windsor Park and Rivage D’Or. Both rides were exquisite.

Back in 2014, he had possibly his finest success, when getting up in the shadow of the post to win the Gold Cup aboard Lord Windermere. That victory formed part of a treble on the day, with further success on Savello and Tiger Roll. 20/1, 16/1 and 10s were the generous winning odds.

It’s inevitable that Russell will have the leg-up on a number of fancied Gigginstown contenders. But also expect him to partner his share of Tony Martin handicappers, along with a handful for De Bromhead, Harrington, Curtis and Henderson. He rode William Henry to a second place finish on Cheltenham’s Trials Day, and with the firepower at Seven Barrows disposal looks sure to pick up a number of decent spares.

His skills are in demand, and his ability to guide a horse through traffic, and deliver it at just the right moment, is possibly second to none. If Tony Martin’s Mydor heads over to the Cotswolds, and Russell keeps the ride, I’ll be selling the family heirlooms to ‘lump on’.

Both Russell and Scudamore are jockeys to keep on-side during the ‘Greatest Show’, though plucking those all-important gems from the also-rans, as ever, will prove the toughest task.

Dark Clouds Cast Shadow Over Cheltenham

Jubilation turned to despair, as Many Clouds fought like a lion to defeat the mighty Thistlecrack, before collapsing and dying on Cheltenham’s hallowed turf.

In a pulsating finish up the famous hill, Oliver Sherwood’s Grand National winner went toe-to-toe with the young pretender, overhauling the Gold Cup favourite in the shadow of the post to win Saturday’s Cotswold Chase. Smad Place had set the fractions, with Many Clouds taking up the running approaching the third last. Turning for home Tizzard’s star joined the older warrior, and the two tussled all the way to the line. It was a thriller, and yet no sooner had the result of the photo-finish been announced, a tragic twist saw the winner fall to the ground.

Sherwood gave a moving tribute to an outstanding racehorse: “We've got to look forward and not look back. He's been the horse of a lifetime and I always said he would die for you and he's died for me and the team today doing what he does best. He wanted to win that race, he was beaten and then fought back in the last 50 yards to win.

“We've got to be philosophical and celebrate the Hennessy and National wins and that was almost a career-best performance. I thought, hand on heart, having had a wind op that he might have been struggling for oxygen and hence the reason we did it. He was better on his first run back at Aintree this season. The public get to know the horses, especially horses that try for you, they appreciated what he had done and he captured your imagination, really. Leighton is in bits and has gone home.”

Colin Tizzard summed up the mood when saying: “Poor old Many Clouds. My initial thought when we got beat was that I was disappointed but it's as sad as can be, he was a lovely horse and he beat us on the day. We ran our race, we're not making any excuses - today, on winter ground, we were beaten by a better horse, no question. They had a battle and it's just a tragic end to the race. This is what happens in our sport occasionally and you've got to face up to it.”

Despite the sad end to the race, thoughts inevitably turn to the result itself, and the shock defeat of Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack.

His jumping throughout was solid rather than spectacular. He got in close at the fourth last, and found himself several lengths adrift coming down the hill. Despite the error, he was back alongside Many Clouds at the second last and we waited for him to stretch clear. But when Tom Scudamore asked the favourite to find another gear, the response was probably as surprising to him, as it was to the thousands watching from the stands.

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Thistlecrack has not been asked a serious question for the best part of a season and a half. We’ve become accustomed to seeing him gallop clear of opponents with his head in his chest. But on soft ground at Cheltenham, with that stiff uphill finish, at the end of a truly run three-mile plus graded chase, and against experienced battle-hardened opposition, it’s fair to say that he failed his toughest test to date.

Better ground may well have brought about a different result. Conditions appeared to favour Many Clouds, putting an emphasis on stamina rather than speed. Thistlecrack’s major weapon is his ability to tank-along at speed, gradually burning off the opposition. That asset was wonderfully displayed at Kempton in the King George, but there now has to be a concern as to whether he can apply the same pressure over such a demanding trip, at a track that serves up such a unique test.

Though Thistlecrack somewhat fluffed his lines, giving hope to those likely to take him on in March, the season’s best three-mile hurdler proved less charitable.

The Harry Fry trained Unowhatimeanharry maintained his phenomenal run of success, in winning the Cleeve Hurdle. He travelled powerfully throughout, and saw off a rejuvenated Cole Harden, with Tizzard’s talented novice, West Approach, back in third. It will take a good one to lower his colours in March, though a sounder surface at the Festival could leave this gutsy galloper vulnerable to a speedier sort.

Another huge performance from West Approach, coupled with another victory for Wholestone in the latest Neptune Novices’ trial, serves to reaffirm the lofty standing of this pair. The latter has twice finished ahead of the former during the winter, though both were beaten by Peregrine Run at Cheltenham on decent ground in November. I fancy that all three will perform well at the Festival in March, though their targets are yet to be confirmed. I’d imagine both Wholestone and West Approach will line up in the Albert Bartlett, whilst Peregrine Run has the speed for the Neptune.

Un De Sceaux put in another polished performance in taking the re-routed Clarence House Chase for Willie Mullins. He proved five-lengths the better of Alan King’s returning Ryanair hero Uxizandre. It would come as no surprise to see both in the Ryanair come March, and a reversal in positions is a distinct possibility. I’d be amazed if either were to tackle Douvan in the Champion Chase.

Mullins will have been buoyed by the success of Un De Sceaux and of Vroum Vroum Mag at Doncaster, though the mare failed to impress. Sadly, both Faugheen and Min missed Leopardstown yesterday, after suffering minor setbacks. Both are expected to be fighting fit in no time, though Faugheen may now need to head straight to Cheltenham for the Champion Hurdle. Heading there without a prep-run is far from ideal, and it’s worth remembering that his only defeat came off the back of a break when sunk by Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle of 2015.

In his absence, Petit Mouchoir took a sub-standard looking Irish Champion Hurdle. It was another bold, front-running display from the six-year-old, though Footpad got to within a length of him at the line. You’d have to think that a fit Faugheen would chew these up and spit them out.

And so, a weekend that promised so much, turned out to be truly dramatic for so many reasons. Glory and tragedy ride side by side in this wonderful sport. Participants put everything on the line in search of the former, yet the latter occasionally steals the show.

‘Power Failure’ latest blow for Mullins

The Cheltenham ‘Trials Day’ takes place on Saturday, and will once again attract a host of high-class horses, putting their Festival credentials to the test.

The meeting is always a classy affair, and this time has the bonus of the rearranged Cross Country along with the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase which was transferred from a frozen Ascot. The eagerly anticipated clash between Un De Sceaux and Ar Mad will sadly now not take place, as trainer Gary Moore decided against sending his young chaser to the Cotswolds.

When contacted by the BHA, and asked about the likely switch to Cheltenham, Moore is quoted to have said ‘It's not a fair track or a conventional racecourse’, and he suggested a move to Sandown would be best. Moore added: “If they run the race at Cheltenham I think they might get only two or three runners. I'd say it's unlikely we'd be one of them.”

Now there’s no doubting that Ascot has more in common with Sandown than Cheltenham, and Moore has a terrific record at his local track. But I’m amazed that he isn’t taking this opportunity to test Ar Mad at the recognised ‘Home of Jump Racing’. Kauto Star won a Tingle Creek at Sandown, a King George at Kempton and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, all within a four-month period. I don’t recall Nicholls saying that he’d give the Gold Cup a miss because of those awkward undulations and tricky fences.

Ar Mad is a hugely talented chaser with the potential of becoming a star of the sport. To do that, Moore will surely need to bite the bullet at some stage, and send him to Prestbury Park in search of the most prestigious prizes. We know the horse has a tendency to jump out to the right, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t ‘win big’ at jump racing’s major festival. Captain Chris famously overcame such tendencies to win an Arkle in 2011.

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In time, it’s possible that Moore will regret making such a hasty decision, as it appears he did when removing the horse from the King George at Christmas. As we approach February, the yard’s most talented horse has now run just once this winter. The ‘have a go’ attitude of Colin Tizzard has been one of the most refreshing aspects of this jump racing season. He sets an example that others may wish to follow.

Of course, owners and trainers have every right to send their horses wherever they wish, and many would argue that the obsession with Cheltenham is unhealthy for the sport. That’s a debate for another time I fancy.

In the absence of Ar Mad, Un De Sceaux will go off a short-priced favourite for the Clarence House. Willie Mullins appeared happy to take on the new challenge, when saying yesterday: “He is great and I could not be any happier with him. The travelling did not seem to take anything out of him and I am pleased with what I have seen from him at home. I am looking forward to the race.”

I don’t wish such a contentious start to the article to detract from the thrilling action that will take place over the coming weeks. This weekend we hope to see Thistlecrack, Faugheen, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and the aforementioned Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins, in particular, will be stoking-up the furnaces, with those spring festivals fast approaching. He’s also in the unusual position of having a serious challenge to his trainers’ crown.

There’ll be plenty of tension in the air at both Cheltenham and Leopardstown this weekend. Thistlecrack continues his education at the toughest jumps circuit, whilst Faugheen returns from injury, with racing fans hoping and praying that the ‘Machine’ can return to his former glory.

One major Mullins asset that will miss proceedings, is the wonderful mare Annie Power. Thought to be on the verge of a return, it seems she has been struck down by a leg injury, and may well miss the remainder of the season. It’s yet another setback for the master of Closutton, during a winter that has tested his disposition more than most.

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.”

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’.

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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.

Don Gone! – Elliott Calls Time on Cossack Career

Kempton may have captured most of the headlines for obvious reasons, but for me, the major news from yesterday was that of the retirement of Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.

Gordon Elliott’s top-class staying chaser had been off the track since his devastating performance at Cheltenham last March. Hopes were high of a return, and only in December Elliott said of his Gold Cup hero: “He’s been coming along nicely over the past few months. In addition to cantering away, he swims twice a day and it's so far so good with him. It's still a case of taking one day at a time, but if things continue to go well the plan will be to give him one run before the Gold Cup.”

Sadly, yesterday the County Meath trainer revealed that the horse had met with a further setback, and the decision was made to call it a day. On his Betfair blog Elliott announced: “It's a real sickener for Gigginstown, myself, Bryan Cooper and the whole yard. We knew it was never certain we would get him back to the racecourse and even after that, to get him back to his best, but we were hopeful and he was on track for a run at Gowran Park next month.”

Elliott went on: “He's a horse of a lifetime and he owes us nothing. I said all season that if he had any sort of setback at all we would not abuse him and retire him straight away. He's won Grade Ones at Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Down Royal. He was the top-rated horse in Britain and Ireland for the last two seasons running, and we'd have loved to see him take on Thistlecrack in the Gold Cup. It was one of the highlights of my career when Don Cossack won the Gold Cup for us last year and he retires a champion.”

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It’s been a tough week for lovers of the Gold Cup, with the news that Coneygree will also miss the race in March. On Monday, Sara Bradstock appeared to admit that time had run out for the Gold Cup winner of 2015, when saying: “We're not going to enter him. If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement him, but I'm not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he will not run.”

She added: “It's all too quick. It's only two months from now and he's still only walking and we're not going to be there in top form. He'll definitely have some spring target and could go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong. We just need to do this right.”

For Jump racing fans, all of this is of course hugely disappointing. The best races need the best horses in opposition, and unfortunately this year’s Gold Cup now looks a little threadbare. Colin Tizzard’s grip on the ‘Blue Riband’ now looks tighter than ever, with Thistlecrack a shade of odds-on across the board. His stablemate, Native River, is generally a 5/1 shot, and another from the Tizzard yard, Alary, continues to be supported, despite never yet stepping hoof on a British track.

The French recruit was a top-class performer in France. A huge chestnut gelding, with an eye-catching white flash down his face, he was last seen going down by half-a-length in a Grade 1 at Auteuil. He’s only a six-year-old, and that appeared to be his best run to date. Tizzard has made no secret of how much he thinks of the youngster, and he remains an intriguing ‘dark horse’ for the main event in March.

Power Struggle Continues as Elliott Captures Lexus

The last few days have done much to ignite the trainers’ championships either side of the Irish Sea.

In Ireland, Team Mullins have been in astounding form. On Monday, a trio of victories at Leopardstown was matched by a treble at Limerick. On Tuesday, the Closutton guys bagged a stunning five-timer at Leopardstown. And yesterday a further four victories were added to the incredible haul. Douvan, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and Bellshill, have been among the high-profile winners, as Mullins unleashed the ‘big guns’.

With such a flurry of success, it was vital that Gordon Elliott struck back, and this he certainly did when winning the valuable Paddy Power Chase on Tuesday, and yesterday capturing the Grade 1 Lexus Chase in a truly thrilling renewal. With the combined winnings of almost €200,000, Elliott has managed to maintain his advantage at the head of the Trainers’ Championship.

In the Lexus, it came as something of a surprise when Elliott scooped first and second with Outlander and Don Poli. The former was trying three miles over fences for only the second time, whilst the latter was returning from a truly stinking effort at Down Royal. The Mullins trained Djakadam was sent off favourite, and held a prominent position throughout. But as the leaders quickened turning for home, Walsh needed to get serious to keep the favourite in touch.

At the last, a trio of Gigginstown horses appeared to have the race between them, with Bryan Cooper on Valseur Lido making a race winning move. But somewhat surprisingly, he wilted in the heat of battle, leaving Don Poli, Outlander and the staying-on Djakadam tussling for major honours. And it was Outlander that found most for pressure, pulling clear for a two-length success.

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The trainer was understandably thrilled with both when saying: “Don Poli was brilliant, David was brilliant, Outlander was good and Jack was great. I feel a bit sorry for Bryan, who had to make the decision, but he'll be back. We've been out hunting with Don Poli and took the headgear off to try and sweeten him up today and it looked to have worked, then Jack was riding Outlander to be placed and coming to the last I started to get excited.”

Elliott went on: “I thought Outlander's last run was his career-best and, sure, he improved again today, didn't he? It was touch and go whether he ran here, but with the ground drying out we decided to come. He was only beaten about a length by Djakadam at Punchestown the last day, and one jump made the difference between winning and losing. I suppose the obvious race is to come back here for the Irish Gold Cup. I'm delighted with Don Poli, and I'd say the Grand National is the plan with him.”

Interestingly, with the trainers’ title in mind, Mullins spoke of sending Djakadam straight to Cheltenham, thereby missing the valuable Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. Elliott currently leads the title race by almost 300,000 euros. And his firepower in valuable handicaps, both over hurdles and fences, coupled with the dramatic ascent of Outlander, give renewed hope that he may well take this title-tussle to the brink.

If Elliott versus Mullins continues to thrill, then the Tizzard v Nicholls dual also took a twist or two over the Christmas period.

It’s fair to say that the depth of talent at Ditcheat continues to give them the edge. With 99 wins from more than 300 runs, Nicholls probably has the numbers to cling to his title. Yet Colin Tizzard remains a huge threat, thanks in the main to his three outstanding chasers, Cue Card, Native River and Thistlecrack. With the Welsh National and King George VI Chase secured, the gap at the top of the title table was reduced to just £200,000.

Whilst Tizzard had a Christmas full of joy, Mr Mix at Wincanton was Team Ditcheat’s lone winner from nearing 20 runners. Frodon and Present Man were also-rans in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton. Marracudja was kicked aside by Altior in the Wayward Lad Chase, and though Silviniaco ran a cracker in the King George, he never looked like winning. At Chepstow, Vicente was a distant sixth in the Welsh National.

The season ending festivals will play a huge part in the outcome of this year’s championship, and you’d have to say that it’s Team Tizzard that appear to hold the stronger hand. It’s an enthralling season on so many fronts, but these training power tussles, are arguably proving to be the most captivating narrative of all. The dominant forces of Mullins and Nicholls find themselves in a mighty scrap, and neither make a habit of coming off second best.