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Tony Keenan: Reserve-ations about the system

Galway rarely goes off without some sort of controversy and this year it was Ballycasey being declared a non-runner in the Plate, a decision which facilitated his stablemate and ante-post favourite, Patricks Park, getting into a race where he ultimately finished second, writes Tony Keenan. A high-profile withdrawal like this always brings the reserve system and its flaws/benefits into focus as does the Galway meeting generally; this is a fixture where everyone wants a runner and reserves are declared with the intent to run much more so than other times of the year. Per Horse Racing Ireland, there have been 136 reserves that have run in Ireland thus far in 2018 with an amazing 26 of them at Galway last week; one won, Rovetta first time round last Wednesday, though four (Davids Charm, Andratx, Bubbly Bellini and Athenry Boy) were successful at the meeting in 2017.

The reserve system is run by the IHRB rather than HRI and works as follows : trainers are typically required to confirm their non-runner by phone which opens at 9am on the day of the race; they can do this any time up to ninety minutes before the off of the first race. Per the IHRB, ‘where a trainer knows sufficiently early that a horse trained by him will not be a runner in a race in which reserves have been listed, he should take steps to so inform the trainers of any horses listed as reserves.’ After this, it is up to the trainer of the reserve to contact the non-runner line to confirm their participation. The opening hours of the phone line is the first issue here; if it only opens at 9am on the day of the race, there are 22 and half hours of dead time from declaration stage at 10.30am the previous day, or more in case of 48-hour declarations which is every Sunday in Ireland, where a trainer can do little. That it is only a phone number they can contact is backward too; perhaps it should be done via the online entry system all trainers use. At the other extreme, if someone is only declaring their non-participation the official 90 minutes before the first then the trainers of the reserves in most cases will get no opportunity to run; if the meeting is at Down Royal and your yard is in Tipperary then an hour and half notice is nowhere near enough. Few, if any, trainers are going to travel their horse with cost and hassle to have to turn around and come home without a run unless it is a meeting like Galway.

Then there are concerns about how well protocol is being followed, again to quote the IHRB: ‘trainers [are notified] that proper use of the reserve system can only be achieved with their full co-operation.’ Let’s take a situation where trainer A has a horse that is being declared a non-runner but he doesn’t get on with trainer B who has the first reserve; does he really want to help trainer B out? Furthermore, let’s say trainer X (or owner Y) has five runners in the race, hardly an outlandish situation in Irish national hunt racing currently, and one of theirs is coming out. Do they really want to let a reserve in at the bottom that could potentially be a danger to their other four runners or are they happy to let the field go to post less one runner? Perhaps they would hold off until the last possible moment to declare their non-participation. Protocol and etiquette may be one thing but the reality looks somewhat different.

Does this etiquette change with big yards and owners? When interviewed last Tuesday about the possibility of Patricks Park getting into the Plate, Willie Mullins commented that he would be the last to know if another yard was going to have a non-runner in the race. Perhaps this is a case of other, smaller yards maintaining some competitive advantage over the superpowers, minimal though it may be. The big operations have all sorts of other advantages, their multiple runners allowing them to control the pace and shape of races and they also have the facility to run horses that may not be ideally suited by race conditions in order to keep potentially dangerous rivals out of the field, a tactic used by Gordon Elliott in both the 2017 Thyestes and Irish Grand National. The Galway Hurdle saw JP McManus run nine horses, four of which finished in the last five when the likes of On The Go Again and Top Othe Ra (who fought out the finish of a race the following evening) just missed the cut.

For big trainers to contr0l the shape of the race they need co-operative owners who are willing to have their horses run in sub-optimal conditions for the greater good of the yard. We saw in the recent Tim Brennan BHA case that Willie Mullins makes basically all the decisions around the running of his horses though this was hardly in much doubt judging on the past few seasons. Perhaps Rich Ricci was devastated when Ballycasey was taken out of the Plate last Wednesday but I suspect he was hardly bothered by an out-of-form 33/1 shot coming out when his trainer had landed the Galway Mile for him with Riven Light and gotten Limini back to the track the previous two evenings. Taking one for the team has long been a feature of being an owner at Closutton which might be why Michael O’Leary no longer has horses there.

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Objectively, the use of the going as the reason for Ballycasey not running in the Plate rang very hollow. The ground was yielding when he was declared then was changed to good on the morning of the race before extensive rain brought it back to yielding before racing and it may have been softer than that. Still, this was a horse who had put a near career-best on soft-heavy when winning the Normans Grove in April 2017, had done likewise on soft at Killarney the following month, and was being taken out on summer yielding ground. A horse’s going preference may change as time passes but for national hunt racing this was basically no excuses ground. The issue of field size felt similarly weak; the horse had run in the 2016 Grand National, the race that attracts the biggest field in the sport, while he was considered well able to handle the hurly-burly of a 22-runner Plate field just the previous day. Despite this, the stewards did accept these reasons though there is a very rarely-used facility for them not do so in the case of races worth more than €60,000 as the Plate is; in these situations the trainer may be fined ‘not more than 1% of the advertised value’ as happened when Montjeu didn’t pitch up in the 1999 Irish Champion Stakes but ran in the Prix Niel the following day.

Of course, a trainer needs an excuse to take a horse out other than ‘we prefer a better-fancied runner’ and Mullins was doing nothing wrong strictly speaking within the rules; there is a rule where trainers can take a horse out with the ground as an excuse when it changes from declaration time though that was questionable in this case. But it looks like gamesmanship rather than sportsmanship and people generally don’t like to see the powerful throw their weight around like this. Mullins has a ruthless streak and perhaps the Galway Plate prizemoney could be the difference between winning and losing the trainers’ championship come next May but it is not good for the perception of the sport. Furthermore, the trainer’s tone in his comments about the stewards enquiring into why his horse didn’t run were all wrong, saying that ‘I was surprised to be called in and disappointed that we couldn’t take him out here on the track…I don’t understand where racing is going when we just can’t do things like that…When we saw all the rain we wanted to ask them to take him out and they couldn’t so we had to go and ring some central number.’ Aside from Mullins wanting to bypass the system that he and every other trainer uses, he seems to be questioning the right of the stewards to enquire about why his horse was a non-runner when the ground didn’t seem like a viable excuse. Had they not asked those questions, they would not have been doing their job.

All of this could have been avoided had Mullins simply made sure Patricks Park was in the top 20 the previous day when declarations were made as he had five runners in the race at that time; Alelchi Inois (beaten a combined 207 lengths on this two Galway outings this year) was an obvious one that could have run elsewhere. Instead we have a situation where no one knows if the ante-post favourite will get a run but many suspect he will though bizarrely this didn’t negatively impact the take with one major bookmaker; Paddy Power report that the race was in their top ten Irish races bet on to this point in the year in both 2017 and 2018, using volume and bet count as a measure and actually increased year-on-year. But this is hardly the first time a situation like this has unfolded in a feature race; Dun Doire got in the 2006 Thyestes after a non-runner, Beautiful Sound didn’t get into the 2011 Irish National when nothing came out, Carlingford Lough won the 2013 Plate after Like Your Style was taken out under the ‘unsuitable ground’ excuse.

Punters are the obvious losers in all these cases but it is hardly news that Irish racing is not run for them. The only time the reserves system will work in the favour of punters is when a reserve makes a race a full field for each-way betting, boosting a 15-runner field back up to 16. But in all other instances it works against them. There is the obvious confusion around studying form and if you’re a lazy punter like me, you give scant regard to horses’ numbers R21, R22 and R23 when you get that far. That said, I do wonder if odds compilers are similarly lazy in pricing them and make obvious form chance reserves too big and there could be a case for backing such horses, even if it might be a long time between drinks and lots of stakes returned. Further confusion is added by different bookmakers having different terms around reserves and non-runners; some bet without them, some apply rule 4s to them, some do neither. But the biggest problem is a case like last Wednesday’s Plate where the one that gets in has a leading chance and is replacing an outsider, in this case Patricks Park was around 9/2 while Ballycasey was 33/1, a 14% difference in implied probability, and if you placed a bet at early prices you were by definition on at a bad value price. There is almost a case for a reverse Rule 4, difficult though that may be to implement!

The question then comes down to whom the reserve system serves, with owners and trainers being the obvious answer. That is no bad thing with owners pumping so much money into the sport and if they want to have a runner in a certain race they should probably be given every chance to do so. The problem is the whole timing of the non-runner declaration; 90 minutes before the first is far too late and if the system is to work better the cut-off point needs to brought back. In almost all cases, trainers will know early on the morning of the race whether or not their horse is running and it is not unrealistic to have all fields confirmed by 10am for a day meeting or midday for an evening card. At the very least, it should be improved upon for these major races that attract so much attention and betting turnover. What we have now is a system that feels like racing from a bygone era where no one has any clue what is running until you get to the races: that is clearly not fit for purpose.

Grading the Trainers: Irish National Hunt Season 2017/18

Whatever your thoughts on the overall health or otherwise of the Irish jumps scene, the 2017/18 season will go down as a memorable one: Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott slugging it out from one big meeting to the next, though the culmination at Punchestown was ultimately underwhelming, writes Tony Keenan. Prior to this season, no trainer had reached €5 million in domestic prizemoney but both broke that total, Mullins with €5,968,275 and Elliott on €5,158,751. They are worthy of their top grades but how about the rest?

Willie Mullins – Grade: A (Last season: B+)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Mullins’s season was how much he changed his approach; where once he had been quite risk-averse in terms of campaigning, often putting the strongest horses in the weakest races, he now has to run them more often and in races that may be less suitable. Elliott is the reason for this and it was his sustained challenge for a first title that forced the champion to find another gear. Consider his winners, runners and prizemoney totals over the past four seasons:

 

Season Winners Runners Strikerate Prizemoney
2017/18 212 797 27% €5,968,275
2016/17 180 571 32% €4,580,200
2015/16 185 557 33% €4,489,105
2014/15 187 554 34% €4,225,253

 

In the three seasons prior to the last one, there was a comfort level with how Mullins was operating judging on the above figures though the 2016/17 totals took some getting in light of not having the Gigginstown horses. More of basically everything did mean a lower winner-to-runner ratio than previously however, falling from 59% in each of the last two seasons to 54%.

 

Season Individual Winners Individual Runners Strikerate
2017/18 131 243 54%
2016/17 109 184 59%
2015/16 121 191 59%
2014/15 109 179 61%

 

To go from 184 to 243 individual runners is a massive jump but he was still well-clear in terms of winner/runner ratio among all trainers with a meaningful sample. The table below shows the top ten with a minimum of 20 individual horses being the cut-off point.

 

Trainer Winner/Runner Ratio
W. Mullins 54%
C. Byrnes 46%
P. Dempsey 40%
G. Elliott 40%
J. O’Brien 40%
A. Fleming 36%
N. Meade 36%
H. De Bromhead 33%
J. Harrington 29%
D. McLaughlin 28%

 

Punchestown, as ever, was a triumph for Mullins and he would have broken the €6 million figure but for Paul Townend/Al Boum Photo-gate. It seems early to consider what might happen next season but he has started this new season quite strongly in terms of number of runners and will be keen to be well-clear should a late-autumn, early-winter lull kick in as it did last season. His hunger for retaining the title shows no sign of abating though perhaps winning a championship chase at Cheltenham could be even higher on the pecking order, Footpad looking his main hope in that regard.

Best Bit(s): A close run thing between Un De Sceaux and Faugheen. Memories of an ultra-keen hurdler seem long ago with Un De Sceaux and the ten-year-old who took in hard races at both Cheltenham and Fairyhouse was perhaps never better than when winning the Champion Chase at Punchestown; he isn’t as classy as a peak Douvan but has been much more durable. Following 665 days off, Faugheen won the Morgiana before bouncing at Christmas but the bounce-back is always the hardest part; it took three starts to get him back to Grade 1-winning level and while he wasn’t as good as the old Faugheen, he was probably up to the standard set in the Morgiana in November.

Worst Bit: The ‘where will he run next’ act with Yorkhill almost became a parody this season as the four-time Grade 1 winner never got within 30lbs of his best and landed the unique four-timer of going from a three-mile chase to a two-mile chase to a two-mile hurdle to a three-mile hurdle.

 

Gordon Elliott – Grade: A (last season: A-)

Only the most recency-biased critic would say Elliott had anything other than a magnificent season, recording the second highest winner total in Irish jumps history, winning two Grand Nationals and becoming the top trainer at Cheltenham for the second year running. The raw numbers of his season-on-season improvement are worth repeating:

 

Season Winners Prizemoney
2017/18 210 €5,158,755
2016/17 193 €4,380,705
2015/16 123 €2,568,750
2014/15 92 €1,546,070

 

This really was a case of losing nothing in defeat and while again priced as the outsider for next year’s championship, it sounds as if Michael O’Leary is going to double down on trying to help him win a title. I have no idea what he spent on new horses in the last year as those figures are only partly in the public domain but one gets the sense that whatever that number was, the next number will be bigger. Elliott is getting very reliant on Gigginstown at this point and below are the top 15 prizemoney horses for both he and Mullins in Ireland this past season; where 12 of the Elliott horses are owned by Gigginstown, Mullins has 12 different owners represented. With that in mind, it is hard to consider him an underdog of any type despite how he is sometimes represented.

 

Elliott – Top 15 Horses Mullins – Top 15 Horses
General Principle Un De Sceaux
Potters Point Faugheen
Apple’s Jade Bellshill
A Toi Phil Footpad
Outlander Next Destination
Doctor Phoenix Isleofhopendreams
Monbeg Notorious Meri Devie
Shattered Love Patricks Park
Folsom Blue Min
Mengli Khan Total Recall
Samcro Kemboy
Hardline Coquin Mans
Diamond Cauchois Rathvinden
Dortmund Park Djakadam
Dinaria Des Obeaux Al Boum Photo

 

What Elliott really needs to win a championship is more horses that can win open Grade 1 races; in 2017/18 he won three such races with Outlander, Mick Jazz and Apple’s Jade where Mullins won eight. Not only are these contests valuable during the season but they are the key to ‘winning Punchestown’ where each of the four big races are worth €275,000. The source of these horses isn’t obvious however; Samcro looks like he could be one but only if he stays hurdling (the prizemoney in novice chases is largely insignificant in the grand scheme) and possibly the two best Gigginstown horses – at least in terms of ratings – are in other yards, Road To Respect and Balko Des Flos. That pair respectively won €163,450 and €189,050 in Irish prizemoney last season which wouldn’t have been enough to bridge the ultimate gap of €809,524 but it would certainly have made things more interesting.

Best Bit: Doctor Phoenix cost £10,000 last May and was the value buy of the season, winning a Dan Moore and a Naas Grade 3, and he could well have beaten Un De Sceaux at Easter as he was trading odds-on before falling two out. Rising from a mark of 137 to 156, his prizemoney was maximised along the way which isn’t bad for a horse that used to have a Timeform squiggle.

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Worst Bit: Everything went to plan for Death Duty in the early part of the season as he won three times but the decision to run him over 2m1f at Christmas on yielding ground worked out badly. Taking on Footpad there looked an early shot in the championship rather than what was best for the horse in the long term and it came at a high cost.

 

Joseph O’Brien – Grade: B (Last season: no grade)

O’Brien is a different type of trainer to the Big Two, reliant more on JP McManus and being a dual-purpose yard in the truest sense, but the leap he took in prizemoney this past season is almost Elliott-like.

 

Season Winners Runners Prizemoney Champ. Position
2017/18 67 473 €1,419,319 3rd
2016/17 38 269 €710,244 5th

 

He basically doubled his prizemoney total but it needs pointing out that he had 48 winners by the end of October and managed only five domestic winners from January on; like so many, he was a bit player in the Mullins-Elliott drama of the winter season proper. Against that however is the fact that he had two big-priced Grade 1 winners at the Dublin Racing Festival in Edwulf and Tower Bridge and there are plenty of good prospects for the future here in the likes of Early Doors, Speak Easy, Rhinestone and Us And Them.

Best Bit: Rekindling is by far the high point during the period covered but, seeing as this should be jumps only, basically bringing Edwulf back from the dead to win an Irish Gold Cup was the other big achievement.

Worst Bit: The campaigning of Tigris River. Since he won the Galway Hurdle, he has been beaten: 22ls, 16ls, 27ls, 26ls, pulled up and 110ls. Last time at Punchestown was better and perhaps it’s all about the ground with him but a novel idea might be to run him less frequently on going that doesn’t suit. In any case, the handicapper hasn’t cut him much slack, still 4lbs higher than his Galway win.

 

Henry De Bromhead – Grade: B (Last season: B)

Despite seeming to go missing for various chunks of the season, overall it was a decent campaign for De Bromhead; he was good through the summer, had a quiet November, bounced back in December especially at Christmas before having a quiet end to the season at home. He did however win a Galway Plate with Balko Des Flos and manage to upgrade him into a Ryanair winner and became one of only two other Irish trainers along with Pat Kelly to have a Festival winner. Monalee too was good if unfortunate, falling twice in Grade 1s, while Ellie Mac winning the first race of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting was one of the more heart-warming stories of the season.

Best Bit: He may have been found a bad race at Aintree but getting Identity Thief back to a high level over three miles was an impressive achievement given how he’d looked gone at the game when reverting to hurdles in the spring of 2017.

Worst Bit: The blame for the campaigning of Petit Mouchoir this spring has to be laid somewhere though perhaps this isn’t the right spot; someone was responsible for riding tactics in the Arkle which looked overly-aggressive even if the horse can be very free. The decision to run him at both Aintree and Punchestown was a poor one in light of the hard races he had already had along with an injury and it is only sensible to wonder what mark this will have left.

 

Jessica Harrington – Grade: C (Last season: A+)

The most notable feature of Harrington’s season was a marked drop off in strikerate; the figures here refer to runners in both Ireland and the UK over jumps.

 

Season Strikerate
2017/18 9.1%
2016/17 13.9%
2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16 combined 15.1%

 

I had initially suspected that last season – when she seemed to win every big race in sight from the turn of the year – was an aberration in terms of win rates but having combined the three seasons previous it is this past season that was different in the negative sense; 2016/17 had just been Harrington maintaining her previous standards albeit in better races. It didn’t help of course that she was without Sizing John from Christmas, staying chasers being the most fragile cohort of the fragile body of horses that are jumpers, but at least he had been maximised the previous season.

Best Bit(s): Supasundae danced every dance and to a degree made his own luck this past season; the trainer spotted a vulnerable Faugheen over two miles in January and her likeable hurdler duly ran to his level and won while things also fell his way at Punchestown. Forge Meadow also deserves a mention for an excellent middle part of the season; a hot mare that can lose it in the preliminaries, Harrington did well to get her back to form after three poor runs to start the season.

Worst Bit: Sizing John thrived on racing in 2016/17 but the decision to back him up at Leopardstown 18 days after winning the John Durkan is one connections might like to take back. Whether it played any part in the ‘hairline non-displaced fracture’ that ended his season is unknown but there was no real upside to running him over Christmas when he was already proven in such races. Supasundae may have revelled in such a campaign but he is a hurdler not a staying chaser.

 

Noel Meade – Grade: C (Last season: B+)

Meade now occupies a weird underdog position in Irish jumps racing which is strange for an eight-time champion trainer; the coverage of Bel Ami De Sivola’s win at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting reflected this as the RTE commentators seemed thrilled that he had managed a winner on the big stage even in a handicap. He managed only one runner at Cheltenham Festival in Road To Respect and in truth his season seemed to revolve around that horse.

Best Bit: Road To Respect winning at Christmas. Things didn’t go right for him after that win with the ground against him in the Gold Cup and his jumping not up to scratch at Punchestown but a Grade 1 win was a decent yield overall.

Worst Bit: His Down Royal return was very promising but Disko failing to make the track despite repeated assurances that he would be in the next big staying chase was disappointing.

 

The Rest

It very much is ‘the rest’ at this point and Pat Kelly probably deserves main billing; he has the best horse not trained in the top six yards with Presenting Percy who remarkably is 1lb away from being the best both over hurdles (rated 156) and fences (rated 165), Anibale Fly rated ahead of him for chases. There’s no doubt who’d be favourite for a race between that pair however and he deserves extra credit for taking a completely unorthodox route to the RSA and winning with bags in hand.

Charles Byrnes was one of the big risers from 2016/17 to 2017/18, going from nineteenth up to seventh, and having the second best winner/runner ratio. He won the Coral Hurdle at Leopardstown with Off You Go and bumpers were a big part of his season, winning seven such races from a total of 29 runners. Byrnes is a good trainer but almost certainly a better punter, not only knowing what he has but also getting a good gauge on the opposition. Consider his bumper winners below and the make-up of the fields they took on:

 

Winner Opening Show Starting Price Mullins Runners Elliott Runners
Balliniska Band 11/4 11/8 0 0
Balliniska Band 6/4 7/4 0 1
Minnies Secret 9/4 6/4 0 1
Mary B 9/4 5/4 0 1
Van Humboldt 11/10 8/13 0 1
Alpine Cobra 6/1 6/1 2 1
Thosedaysaregone 5/1 9/2 1 1

 

The opening show here refers to the on-course market but it is notable that he managed to find five bumpers all season where there were no Mullins runners and landed a late punt in four of them. He is clearly more concerned about runners coming from Closutton than Cullentra!

Another big riser was Denis Hogan, going from twenty-third in 2016/17 up to eighth this past season. He didn’t do it with particularly good horses either which is to his credit, Youcantcallherthat a standout with five wins but the likes of Eiri Na Casca winning thrice was a victory for good placing more than anything. Some better stock is coming into the yard, not least the siblings Moskovite and Moyhenna, though a recent win for Inis Meain remains elusive.

Philip Dempsey had a decent winner/runner ratio and good period between September and November when he had 11 winners while Alan Fleming maintained a high strikerate though lacked a really good horse. The whole Barry Connell operation remains a rather inscrutable one, willing to spend plenty on good prospects but not so keen on using the major trainers to handle them.

- Tony Keenan

Monday Musings: The Irish Oligarchy

I was looking around for a middlingly-busy English trainer to make a point, writes Tony Stafford. Apologies to Jeremy Noseda for singling him out, but his situation amply puts into focus the absurd strength of the top two Irish jumps stables. Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott play out a year-long private numerical and prizemoney battle, to be resolved by five days’ head-to-head clashes with fortunes to be divvied up between them and their owners every spring at Punchestown.

And what sort of owners? After Elliott once again succumbed to the even more excessive resources of the Mullins hordes, his principal owner, Michael O’Leary of Gigginstown fame and the countless Ryanair millions, said: “We will have to strive even harder to catch up with Willie”. Actually his words were probably a little different, but that was the tenor of his argument.

One element which I did catch properly was that he thinks it is good for Irish racing that Gordon Elliott’s stable has grown to be competitive with the top man. That it has is entirely due to the Gigginstown horses’ switching from Mullins two years ago over O’Leary’s refusal to pay more for training fees than hitherto. Otherwise, he says, it would be a case of Mullins winning everything.

Last week he didn’t quite win everything, but 18 wins from 117 runners over the five days, including most of the Grade 1’s, was as fair an approximation to complete domination as you would wish to encounter.

Is it good for Irish racing? Is it good that overnight declarations for several of the top races were confined almost entirely to the Mullins/Elliott brigades? When the always-supine press applaud say Mullins or, less often last week Elliott, for a major winner with his fifth-string, do they worry about the impossibility it offers racing fans to come up with the 25-1 shot that happened to be the one that prevailed from the depths of the multiple candidates.

I mentioned Jeremy Noseda earlier. Over the past decades he has shown exceptional ability for various major owners, winning major races and placing his horses shrewdly. Sadly for him, a good number have gone elsewhere, often to the domestic big shots like Gosden, Stoute or the like, or joined the frequent yearning for the fashionable newer talents of whom Archie Watson is an obvious current example.

Yet Noseda still has the skill to plan major projects, like next weekend’s – now sadly ill-fated – challenge for the Kentucky Derby with the much-improved Gronkowski, who qualified for the Run for the Roses via a cleverly-conceived race at Newcastle. Victory there obviated the need to go for one of the North American Classic trials that would have provided a far more testing examination for earning qualification points for the big race. Alas, he misses out due to a setback.

In the whole of 2016, Noseda won 19 races from a total of only 109 runs. Last year, slightly more active, his 28 wins came from 122 runners – in the former case eight fewer total runners in the calendar year than Mullins sent to the track at a single fixture last week. In 2017, his total exceeded the Punchestown Mullins hordes by a mere five.

In all, Mullins’ tally for the whole of the 2017-8 jumps season in Ireland was 212 wins from 797 runs (243 individual horses) at a win percentage of 27. Level stakes losses for all runners was only 80 points, testimony to the fact that the “wrong ones” often win. Additionally, he won ten races from his 74 runners in the UK during the same period.

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Of course he’s a master trainer. His father Paddy was likewise a top trainer and his brothers, former sister-in-law (Mags) and the next generation of son Patrick, plus nephews and cousins form a pretty strong starting point for the country’s horse-racing aristocracy.

Then take the Walsh’s and the Carberry’s, leavened with the still-exploding Aidan O’Brien dynasty, with plenty more to come, and you can see why racing over there might seem to be something of a closed shop. Indeed, without the long-established practice of the formerly all-conquering J P McManus to spread a decent percentage of his horses around many of the smaller stables, the oligopoly would be even more intense.

It doesn’t happen here, even in jumping. Nicky Henderson might have been the pre-eminent stable this season with at least £1 million earnings more than anyone else and 141 wins, coincidentally, like Mullins in Ireland, at 27%. He had four wins on this country’s end of season climax day at Sandown on Saturday, but the ten horses he sent out there might just as easily have been routed to Punchestown in other seasons.

Four years in succession when Nicky trained Punjabi, he followed his Cheltenham runs each year by sending him to Punchestown. The first time (2007) his fourth in the Triumph and second at Aintree were followed with victory in the Four-Year-old Grade 1 at the Irish fin de saison jamboree. When he was third in the following year’s Champion, he crossed the Irish Sea and won their Champion Hurdle.

The next year he won at Cheltenham but was narrowly beaten in Ireland, while declining health (a breathing problem) caused unplaced efforts in both races in 2010. Yet even after his disappointing effort in his unsuccessful title defence, he still found his way across the Irish Sea those few weeks later. Happily he’s still fit enough at Kinsale Stud to make a yearly appearance at the Cheltenham Festival Parade of Champions.

In those days, Punchestown was Nicky’s Holy Grail, so much so that when I suggested we aim Punjabi at the Chester Cup the year he won the Champion – he’d won his only two Flat races for Ray Tooth and Hendo at Newmarket and Sandown the year before – the idea was given short shrift. As I said at the time (under my breath of course), we win another race in Ireland? So what! This is the Chester Cup, one of the great historic races. Wish we had something good enough to go for it now.

I’d have loved Gronkowski to give Jeremy a big run on Saturday at Churchill Downs, and in his absence I have to go along with Mendelssohn. His run on dirt in Dubai was astonishing, but as yet the signs are that the O’Brien team is not quite in top form. The way the market on the 2,000 Guineas has been going, it seems that Gustav Klimt, rather than Saxon Warrior, might be the one to be on from Ballydoyle.

Can you believe that both those massive races are already with us? I haven’t forgotten that a few weeks back I suggested it would be good for the sport if the home-bred Tip Two Win could do just that for the Roger Teal stable. Certainly it would be good for Roger and the colt’s owner-breeder Mrs Anne Cowley anyway. [And also for geegeez.co.uk, as Tip Two Win’s jockey is none other than our sponsored rider, David Probert – Ed.].

After that, next week it’s Chester for three days, then a week later the Dante meeting at York. It’s all just too much. Before the season gets going it seems it’ll be Epsom and Royal Ascot.

There has been quite a lot of comment about the switch from a general structure of maiden races with a few conditions events sprinkled in, to the almost total obliteration of the former by the newly-extended novice races. The big stables love them. They can have horses that won a race the year before, or in some cases, two years earlier and had gone through a campaign of Group or even Classic races, yet are still qualified to take on maidens if they hadn’t won again.

So take the example of Ray’s promising horse Sod’s Law. Second, beaten narrowly on debut in December at Kempton, he returned there for a novice race a couple of weeks back and finished fourth. The winner Fennaan, trained by John Gosden, had won a 16-runner novice last September and after the narrow win here – from a decent Richard Hannon type called Magnificent, was given a rating of 93.

It seems all the novice races, and there are few enough open to our horse when you include maiden auctions – he’s home-bred, so didn’t go to a sale, median auctions for less than £19,000, and fillies’ only contests. Hughie Morrison is looking for a satisfactory third race, but he’ll need to get cracking and we’re already into May. It’s another case of Sod’s Law. Whose idea was it to get that name?

Power and the Glory – Mullins, Henderson and Cracksman are Weekend Wonders

The curtain came down on another Jumps season with familiar trainers crowned King on either side of the Irish Sea.

There’s no doubting that Gordon Elliott has made great strides and is now a serious threat to the Mullins dominance. He does, however, still lack the quality that will finally see him fulfilling the dream of a trainers’ title. He needs several more Samcro’s if he is to wrestle the title from his rival. This was blindingly evident at Punchestown, as Mullins monopolised Grade One events thanks to the likes of Un De Sceaux, Bellshill, Faugheen and Footpad.

The Closutton master was clearly relieved, saying: “It’s nice to do it. It’s tough, as I feel for Gordon. He’s had a fantastic year and he was hoping this year would be his year. Certainly coming out of here on Tuesday evening I thought our chance was totally gone. It’s a little bit cruel, but I suppose Gordon has ended the year with over 200 winners and over 5 million euro in prize-money, so it’s probably not too bad! I’m happy to win it and I’m very happy for my staff. It’s great competition and great for racing. It’s been a huge narrative throughout the year and it’s better for the game.”

Whilst the Elliott/Mullins battle went down to the wire, over here in the UK Nicky Henderson has surged clear of the pack. Buveur D’Air, Might Bite and the phenomenon that is Altior, ensured that Henderson scooped the major pots. Paul Nicholls was again, best of the rest, though he continues to struggle in his search for new stars. Politologue was impressive at times, though lacks the X-factor. Clan Des Obeaux is a horse of huge potential and may be one for the King George at Christmas.

Henderson was thrilled to land the title and said of his powerful battalion: “They have delivered. Like always, you have your ups and downs and it started with downs before ups when we had to stop with Altior. That was a pity, really, as it took him out of the first half the season and it was a rush to get him ready for Cheltenham, but it has been good. It has been a long, wet winter and it has been hard work, but I’ve got a great team that has in some ways swam their way through it and we are now out at the other end.

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“Everything was good, the horses have been good across the board. Might Bite, Altior and Buveur D’Air had to show up again and they did, within reason. It’s not been easy (winning the title once more). Cheltenham was good and that put us at a bit of an advantage and plenty more came in at Aintree. It wasn’t until the Scottish National was over, that is when we thought we were safe.”

Of the big three he said: “I think Might Bite’s performance at Aintree was the outstanding moment as he came back from such a battle at Cheltenham (runner-up in the Gold Cup) and to come back from that was a great performance. Altior (Champion Chase) and Buveur D’Air (Champion Hurdle) were great at Cheltenham and if picking other moments, they would be two other highlights.”

The concern for the chasing pack is the strength in depth of the Seven Barrows squad. Henderson added: “They (Altior, Buveur D’Air and Might Bite) have to deliver on the big stage and if you have got them you are the guy that is under pressure, but they have been great. They are still young and some pretty good ones have come through with them, like Santini, We Have A Dream and Terrefort. There is plenty to back them up. I think Santini could be a very exciting novice chaser and I think he could be a very exciting horse.”

With the Jumps season proper, now closed for the Summer, we can look forward to the first Classics at Newmarket, less than a week away. And yesterday at Longchamp we were reminded of just how thrilling the latest Flat season could be, as Cracksman made a stunning return in landing the Group One Prix Ganay.

Sent off a short-priced favourite, Gosden’s four-year-old powered clear in the latter stages of the race, with Cloth Of Stars and Rhododendron among those swept aside.

Gosden spoke to At The Races immediately after the victory, saying: “He’s a stronger horse this year and is still growing. It was a nice pace, without being anyway near crazy. Frankie knew he was going to use the pacemaker and I particularly liked standing over a furlong down and seeing how he stretched past me. It’s a lovely run. There’s Cloth Of Stars and Rhododendron in there and we’ve shown them a clean pair of heels and the race will bring him on a lot.”

Conversation turned to the inevitable clash with Gosden’s wonder-filly Enable. The trainer confirmed that she was on target to run in the Coronation Cup at Epsom, and that the stable stars will likely meet, assuming all is well with both, in the Arc at Longchamp. For Cracksman, a trip to Royal Ascot now appears likely, with the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes a short-term target.

Missed Approach can land Sandown’s prestigious Gold Cup

A stunning six-timer on Wednesday, followed by a faultless display from a Mullins monster on Thursday, leaves poor old Gordon Elliott facing yet another frustrating finish to an otherwise sensational campaign.

Now apparently lacking the ‘zip’ for two, Mullins stepped Faugheen up to three miles to contest the Champion Stayers Hurdle. Sent to the front by young David Mullins, the 10-year-old absolutely tanked along, jumping like a stag throughout. He had the field in trouble from some way out, with only Cheltenham Stayers winner Penhill, putting up any sort of resistance. But Faugheen was not in the mood for company, and given a shake of the reins, pulled effortlessly clear for a 13-length success. Penhill and Shaneshill made it a one-two-three for Mullins.

He received a hero’s welcome in the winners’ enclosure, where an emotional owner, Rich Ricci, spoke to At The Races: “I’m absolutely delighted. It’s been a tough old season for him and for us. All of a sudden, he’s done that today and it’s magic. It’s credit to Willie as well. He’s amazing, as is everyone in the yard. While Cheltenham may have been disappointing, this makes up for it. This is fantastic and the reception he got here was brilliant. It’s a magic day.”

Little more than an hour after fantastic Faugheen, Punchestown was treated to fabulous Footpad. Foot perfect throughout, this outstanding novice chaser romped home by 12 lengths. His stunning display put the Closutton master more than 420,000 euros clear of a shell-shocked Gordon Elliott. Even a victory for the mighty Samcro over Mullins’ Melon in the Champion Hurdle today is unlikely to put the brakes on the Closutton express. Somewhat resembling King Canute, Elliott looks set to drown under this tsunami of Mullins winners.

Punchestown concludes on Saturday, as does the UK Jumps season, with a cracking finale at Sandown. Nicky Henderson will be crowned Champion Trainer for the second year running and his star chaser Altior will no doubt thrill an expectant crowd in the Celebration Chase.

The result of the Bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase looks far less assured, with a competitive field of 20 likely to go to post. Known as the Whitbread in the good old days, it’s a prestigious race that’s been won by some of the best. Arkle and Mill House landed the pot in the 1960s, whilst Diamond Edge became a Sandown superstar as the 70s became the 80s. Dessie won the race in 1988 and a few years back we were treated to a thrilling victory from a personal favourite of mine, when Tidal Bay hauled top-weight to an astounding 15-length success.

Following a first fence mishap at Aintree, Blaklion is tasked with heading the handicap for this assignment. Though he’s undoubtedly a warrior in testing ground, his chances of success under top-weight are surely enhanced by the current drier conditions. Nevertheless, this is a tall order, with only Tidal Bay lumping 11-12 to victory since the turn of the century. Only two others have managed to win with more than 11-stone on their backs in the past 20 renewals. The 2016 RSA winner is undoubtedly a classy staying chaser, and though he heads the betting, I fancy he’ll struggle under the welter burden.

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The same can probably be said of Regal Encore, who is a horse that has continued to surprise me this winter. His run in the Ladbrokes Trophy (finished third) was most unexpected, and that he then won a competitive handicap at Ascot in February proved that on a going day, he has a touch of class. Nevertheless, he’s now on a career high mark of 154 and though going right-handed will suit, he can be prone to jumping errors, when getting very low at his fences. It’s tough to be confident about this fella, though his odds of 16/1 are tempting.

The rest of the field carry 11 stone or less, and the trends suggest that this is where we should look in our search for the winner.

Missed Approach is currently tussling for favouritism and was last seen winning the Kim Muir at the Cheltenham Festival. Noel McParlan will once again be onboard and claims a valuable 5lbs. He gave the horse a beautifully judged ride at Prestbury Park, leading from the off, yet saving enough for a titanic battle up the final hill. The Cheltenham success followed a wind operation and though the eight-year-old is up 8lbs for that victory, he is only 1lb higher than when running a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase back in November.

Along with Blaklion, Nigel Twiston-Davies has Bigbadjohn towards the head of the market. Formerly trained by Rebecca Curtis, this nine-year-old unseated his rider in the Topham last time, having previously won at Kempton. A mark of 138 lands him an attractive race weight of 10-3, though it has to be said that he’ll need to improve on what he’s shown so far this season. Despite his prominence in the market, he’s not one for my shortlist.

The Young Master won this race in 2016 and is now on a 13lb lower handicap mark. Fancied to go well in the Scottish National (tipped up by me), his race only lasted to the first, where Sam Waley-Cohen was bounced out of the saddle. Prior to that he put in a reasonable performance at Cheltenham, though will appreciate the better ground at Sandown. There’s no doubt that his jumping is a concern, but he now looks to be incredibly well handicapped.

Nicky Henderson has had a terrific winter and will be hopeful of a decent performance from Sugar Baron. He ran well in last year’s race, before being swamped by challengers after the last fence. A year older, it’s likely he’s a little stronger and certainly a little more experienced. He clearly performs well at the track, having finished a close runner-up in the London National back in December. This better ground is a must for the son of Presenting and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t on the premises.

Paul Nicholls has captured two of the last six and is likely to let Present Man take his chance. He’ll be partnered by winter sensation Bryony Frost. She rode him to victory in the Badger Ales at Wincanton last November on soft ground, though whether she can guide him to see out this extended trip has to be a concern. He didn’t appear to get home in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and was pulled up in this race 12 months ago. Despite all that, I fancy he’ll go well under the talented claimer.

Another horse that enjoys his trips to Sandown is Rathlin Rose. Trained by David Pipe, the 10-year-old has won three times at the course, and though he’s up 5lbs since his win at Ascot in March, a mark of 133 appears reasonable. This will be his toughest task to date and he’s no progressive youngster. Nevertheless, his course form gives hope of a strong performance.

Competitive as ever, this valuable and prestigious handicap is a tough one to call. I fancy that Missed Approach will go very close, especially with the assistance of 5lb claimer Noel McParlan. Those that take to Sandown often return and go well. Benbens and Sugar Baron may well go close, but it’s Rathlin Rose that I’ll be siding with for the each-way money.

Best of luck to those taking a punt.

Dramatic day at Punchestown hands initiative to Elliott

Gordon Elliott must count himself fortunate that a trainers’ title lead of €520,000 remained relatively healthy at just over €400,000 by the end of a dramatic day one of the Punchestown Festival.

Willie Mullins dominated the early exchanges, with Draconien causing an upset to land the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle. Getabird was sent off a short-priced favourite but as at Cheltenham the Mullins-trained six-year-old disappointed. Elliott had hoped for a huge run from Mengli Khan, however, a scrappy jumping display put paid to his chances as he came home third. It was left to the unconsidered Clossuton contender, Draconien, to make a late and successful challenge, guided to victory by the classy Noel Fehily. The winner had previously been beaten out of sight by the talented yet unpredictable Getabird at Fairyhouse.

Momentum was with Mullins, and continued as he took first and second in the Champion Chase. The race had been billed as a three-way tussle between Douvan, Un De Sceaux and Min. At the drop of the flag, the former was a shade of odds-on. But Douvan isn’t quite the force of old and several jumping errors meant that he was unable to keep tabs on a forcefully ridden Un De Sceaux. The winner jumped beautifully throughout and had almost four-lengths to spare at the line. A Toi Phil grabbed some much-needed prize money for Elliott in third, with Min coming home fourth.

With €162,250 awarded to the winner and €52,250 to the runner-up, this result did much to reduce the gap between Mullins and Elliott. And at this stage of day one, Elliott must have been fearing the worst.

The County Meath handler began the fightback in the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, with his trio of runners filling the first three places. Commander Of Fleet proved an impressive winner and looks a tasty prospect.

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Next came a truly incredible Growise Champion Novice Chase. Henry De Bromhead’s Monalee was installed as favourite, following his runner-up finish in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham. He travelled well throughout, shadowing the Mullins-trained Invitation Only for much of the race. As the pair approached the second-last they were joined by another Mullions contender in Al Boum Photo. But that penultimate fence was where the drama began.

Monalee stepped at it, hit the deck, and in doing so brought down Invitation Only. The incident appeared to hand the race to Paul Townend aboard Al Boum Photo, though Finian’s Oscar was raising a late effort under a power-packed ride from Robbie Power. As the pair approached the last, Townend glanced behind him and suddenly veered to his right, seemingly attempting to swerve around the final fence. In doing so he carried out a bewildered Robbie Power and his mount.

That late drama left a Gordon Elliott trio to pick up the pieces, headed by the grateful Davy Russell aboard The Storyteller. Having looked likely to come home last, Monbeg Notorious charged late to snatch second, with Jury Duty coming home third. Rarely have we witnessed a race with such changing fortunes from the second last fence. Any of four looked likely to win, yet a fifth was left to take the spoils.

Elliott could hardly believe his good fortune, saying: “We got a bit of luck on our side and we needed it with the way the day started off. I don’t know what happened to Paul Townend, it all happened that quick. I was standing at the last and when I saw Paul going I wasn’t sure if it had been bypassed. It worked out great for me, so I can’t complain.”

That unlikely result put almost €90,000 into the Elliott war chest, whilst Townend received a hefty ban from the Punchestown stewards. There’s sure to be more twists and turns as the week progresses, though we’re unlikely to witness a more dramatic finish to a race.

The Elliott Express Keeps Rolling On

Gordon Elliott’s outstanding season continued with success in Saturday’s Grand National, thanks to his diminutive equine star, Tiger Roll.

The eight-year-old is a three-time winner at the Cheltenham Festival and arrived at Aintree having recently captured the Cross-Country at Prestbury Park. The trainer had used the same prep for Silver Birch, before capturing his first National in 2007. And just last year, Cause Of Causes romped home in the Cross-Country prior to a runner-up finish in the ‘big one’ at Aintree.

And so, it was no surprise that the tried and tested plan was put into operation again. With Cheltenham conquered, the question for many was whether Aintree’s prodigious fences would prove too much of an obstacle for a horse lacking somewhat in stature.

Such concerns proved unfounded, with Davy Russell given a dream ride aboard a foot-perfect staying chaser. Positioned just behind the leaders for much of the marathon contest, Russell made a forward move heading for the second-last fence, taking up the running from long-time leader Pleasant Company. At the last, he appeared to make the winning manoeuvre, stretching some five-lengths clear by the elbow. In true dramatic Grand National fashion, Tiger Roll’s petrol tank began to run empty and Pleasant Company finished with a rare old rattle. At the line, just a head separated the pair.

The front duo were 11-lengths clear of third-placed Bless The Wings, also trained by Gordon Elliott. Whilst Anibale Fly ran a cracker under the burden of 11-8 to finish a neck further back in fourth.

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Elliott was clearly thrilled to win his second Grand National and said: “I was nervous. I thought I had it, but you're so nervous watching it. I said I didn't appreciate it first-time round. I'm definitely going to appreciate it now. It's great for my family and everyone at home. He's an unbelievable horse. I was really worried about the ground. All the way round I couldn't believe how he was going. It's unbelievable for Davy Russell. He's lost his mother and I'm sure his father Gerry is very proud at home watching.

“Coming after the Cheltenham we had, we didn't dare dream this. We only beat him (Mullins) last week in the Irish National and now we've beaten him again, I can't believe it. Having to beat Willie is tough, he's an amazing man and sets the standards, one of the greatest of all time and to be training at the same time as him is unbelievable.”

Of being beaten a head, in the world’s most famous race, Mullins said: “That’s twice Gordon has done that to me, he did it in the Irish National too. He (Pleasant Company) seemed to get a little bit tired and then get a second wind. I never actually thought he’d got back up, but he ran a fantastic race. He jumped from fence to fence and you couldn’t ask for any better. He was only beaten a head and at the last fence I thought we were going to be beaten eight or 10 lengths. I’m really proud of him, he jumped fantastic and he’s one for next year.”

Gigginstown were winning the Aintree showpiece for the second time in three years, and following a successful Cheltenham Festival, Michael O’Leary looked rather pleased: “We were panicking at the line. It was a well-judged ride by Davy. It’s a phenomenal training feat by Gordon. We bought him for the Triumph, which he won. But then to win the Cross-Country, the four-miler and now the world’s greatest steeplechase is phenomenal. It’s beyond my wildest dreams.”

Mullins and Elliott continue to battle for the trainers’ crown in Ireland, with the latter currently more than €500,000 ahead. However, the situation was similar going into the Punchestown Festival a year ago. On that occasion it was Willie Mullins who finished the stronger, with numerous victories and placed finishes, including a success for Wicklow Brave in the Champion Hurdle which proved pivotal.

In little more than a week the pair will again lock horns for the season finale, with the title in the balance. Elliott has edged-out his rival several times so far this winter and will hope to do the same for one final historic success.

Meade can land Irish National with ‘well-in’ Moulin

Before we get stuck-in to the world’s most famous horserace at Aintree, we must first call in at Fairyhouse on Easter Monday for the Irish Grand National.

The country’s richest steeplechase has again attracted a strong and competitive looking field, with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott likely to throw plenty of darts at the financially desirable target. The pair are once again locked in a titanic battle for the Trainers’ crown, and victory at Fairyhouse would be of huge benefit to either team.

It’s hard to believe that neither have yet landed the prestigious prize, though it’s surely only a matter of time before that omission from the pairs CV is rectified.

The race has tended to go to talented young chasers in recent times, with those aged seven and eight winning 10 of the last dozen. Novice chaser Our Duke romped to victory a year ago and in doing so scored a rare success for an Irish National favourite. Only two have prevailed in the last 10 renewals; a period that has seen winners at odds of 33/1 (three), 25/1 and 50/1.

Elliott’s association with Gigginstown is a huge advantage, with O’Leary’s Maroon silks crossing the line first in three of the last 10. The team are once again mob-handed, with Elliott’s trio of Folsom Blue, Monbeg Notorious and Dounikos the shortest priced. The latter pair fit the profile of young progressive chaser, both are seven-year-olds with limited chasing miles on the clock.

Monbeg Notorious has three victories from his five chase starts and was an impressive winner of the valuable Thyestes Handicap a couple of runs back. That came off a mark of 137 and he now stands on a lofty 152. The inclusion of Outlander ensures a race weight of under 11 stone, nevertheless, that handicap mark looks on the high side. He does look a thorough stayer and is certainly not without a chance.

Dounikos flopped in the RSA Chase and will need a dramatic return to form. He looked badly outpaced at Cheltenham and ultimately outstayed before being pulled-up. The fractions during an Irish National are sure to be less demanding, but I’m no longer convinced that this fella needs a trip. And having fluffed his lines just a couple of weeks back, he’s far from certain to make the start.

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Folsom Blue is a regular in this type of event and landed the Grand National Trial at Punchestown in February. He’s up 9lb for that success and is hardly a progressive type at the age of 11. With handicap mark blown, I can’t see him figuring on Monday.

A stronger Gigginstown contender may prove to be Joseph O’Brien’s Arkwrisht. He was fourth in the Cork National back in November, when looking to have a huge chance before tiring late on. Prior to that, he’d looked unfortunate when runner-up in the Kerry National in September. He’s off a 1lb lower mark than at Cork and will probably be played slightly later this time. He looks to have been aimed at this, arriving fresh off the back of just one run in the past four months.

The Willie Mullins-trained Bellshill heads the market and has always promised plenty. He won the Bobbyjo Chase in February on his seasonal return but is lumbered with a sizeable handicap mark of 158. He was hammered by Whisper and Might Bite in last year’s RSA, having previously been badly beaten by Disko and Our Duke in the Flogas Chase. He may have improved since that novice campaign, though he’ll need to have done to win off his current mark. I’m not convinced.

The Master of Closutton also has his recent recruit, Pairofbrowneyes, tussling for favouritism. Stepped up in trip under Mullins for his stable debut, he was quite impressive in winning the Leinster National at Gowran Park. He beat a fair yardstick that day, in the Gordon Elliott-trained Space Cadet. He’s also taken a hefty hike in the handicap, though is less exposed at this new trip.

Mall Dini ran a cracker in the Kim Muir at Cheltenham a few weeks back, when having travelled wonderfully well through the race, he only just failed to reel in Missed Approach. Prior to that he’d run with great promise in Ireland, finishing fourth to Presenting Percy over course and distance. Though by no means generous, his mark of 143 has remained the same throughout the winter, and he looks to be improving. Much will depend on how he has recovered from the Cheltenham effort. Despite not yet winning over fences in 10 starts, I fancy this eight-year-old is a major player.

Finally, a mention for the Noel Meade-trained Moulin A Vent. This unexposed novice certainly has the talent to go close, though his jumping can be erratic at times. His best performance this winter came in December, when comfortably accounting for Monbeg Notorious in a novice chase at Fairyhouse. That form was reversed at Navan in February, when a series of errors proved his undoing. His handicap mark of 145 could prove generous if he can get the jumping right, and at 33/1 it’s probably worth taking a punt on this talented youngster.

Hugely competitive as ever, Monbeg Notorious looks to be Gordon Elliott’s best hope of success. But the pair I fancy to go close are Mall Dini and Moulin A Vent. The latter must brush up on his jumping, but if he does, he could be thrown-in off this handicap mark.

Best of luck to those having a punt on this Irish showpiece.

To Chase or not to Chase? That is the question.

The dust continues to settle on the latest Cheltenham Festival. For today’s piece I thought I’d look at the novice hurdlers that impressed during the week and attempt to second-guess future targets.

I covered a little of this in yesterday’s review of the meeting, but I wanted to expand on a few points.

Trainers and owners will have plenty of tough decisions to make and many will get it wrong. Yorkhill appeared the type that would flourish over fences. Indeed, just a year ago he landed a JLT Chase at the Festival. Yet his subsequent demise is undoubtedly down to his loathing of the larger obstacles, with the result that the great Willie Mullins has been left clueless as to what to do with him.

Much the same can be said of Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar, a horse touted as a future Gold Cup contender. As a novice hurdler he landed a Grade One at Aintree last April, but the switch this winter to fences has proved difficult. He’s looked awkward at his obstacles and at one point his trainer took the decision to send him back over hurdles. That move backfired with the horse pulling up in the Cleeve Hurdle. He was given a wind-op before returning to fences at the Festival, but again disappointed when trailing home fifth in the JLT. His trainer will now be scratching his head as to the direction to take.

Both horses were top class and their faltering careers are testament to the importance of that decision-making process. Are they bred for chasing? Do they possess the desired size and scope for the task? Having been schooled, do they look a natural fit? Such questions will be asked and of course a leap of faith is often required.

The Supreme Novices’ runner-up, Kalashnikov, looks the perfect type to make the grade over fences. He’s a sizeable unit with plenty of scope and makes the right sort of shape over his hurdles. He’s out of an Old Vic mare and I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a talented chaser, though I fancy he’ll need to go up in trip to make an impact.

Summerville Boy lacks both size and scope and though some horses jump a fence better than a hurdle, I’d be surprised if this fella becomes a natural over the larger obstacles. We may well see him spend another season over hurdles, though I fancy he’ll need to go up in trip if he’s to progress. He’s out of a Carroll House mare (a source off mud-lovers) though his apparent liking for testing ground may be more a result of his lack of gears. I can’t see him living with the best two-milers and if he does remain a hurdler he may well end the next campaign at three rather than two miles.

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Mengli Khan is a big beefy sort and particularly tall. Though don’t be fooled by his size. Gigginstown love their chasers, but I’m convinced that this fella will make a top-class two-mile hurdler. He travelled better than any in the Supreme, despite the testing ground. Highly rated on the flat, there’s plenty more to come from this youngster. He’s 33/1 for next season’s Champion Hurdle and I’d much rather take that than the 20/1 available on Summerville Boy.

Henry De Bromhead has a habit of uncovering two-mile chasers and in Paloma Blue he may have another. By Stowaway out of a Supreme Leader mare, the pedigree suggests he’ll stay further, but he is a keen going type. He certainly has the size and scope for fences and is under the same ownership as Ordinary World, himself placed in an Arkle Chase.

Samcro has undoubtedly become the season’s star novice and was hugely impressive in winning the Ballymore. He’d previously hammered Paloma Blue at Leopardstown, suggesting he’d have won the Supreme had connections fancied the shorter option. He’s athletic rather than large and scopey, though connections have said all along that he’s a staying chaser in the making. He’d probably go close in a Champion Hurdle and the same could be said of the Arkle, the JLT and the RSA. The likelihood is that connections will not ‘waste time’ in staying over hurdles and will instead target the Arkle Chase. That could change depending on decisions over Mengli Khan. Samcro looks more adaptable and is without doubt the more talented.

Black Op got closest in the Ballymore and looks sure to go chasing next term. He’s similar in stature to Kalashnikov and should prove an ideal sort for the larger obstacles. He certainly jumped his hurdles like a chaser and looks a JLT or RSA contender in the making.

Next Destination flew late-on in the Ballymore and looks sure to become a decent staying chaser. He’s out of a Flemensfirth mare and though by no means huge, he attacked his hurdles like a chaser. I’m also a fan of another Mullins youngster, Duc Des Genievres. Just a five-year-old, this son of Buck’s Boum (sire of Al Boum Photo) has plenty of scope for a fence and should strip stronger with another summer on his back. I’m uncertain as to how far he’ll stay, though the JLT and RSA seem the most likely options.

The Albert Bartlett is usually a breeding ground for decent staying chasers and in Santini we look to have a potentially high-class one. Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old is a gorgeous looking son of Milan, out of a Sleeping Car mare. He’s only run three times under rules and looks sure to progress when sent chasing. I’m far from certain that he’ll make an out-and-out stayer and am more inclined to think that his optimum may rest at around two-and-a-half miles. He looks a classy sort.

Kilbricken Storm landed the Albert Bartlett and looks a four-mile chaser in the making. It was noticeable that he leapt the last with feet to spare whilst others battled wearily through the Cheltenham mud. He’s not huge, but looks big enough to make his mark.

Henderson’s OK Corral has proved difficult to keep right and that may have a bearing on the decision-making process. He’s a lovely big horse and his pedigree suggests that fences will prove ideal. Out of a Flemensfirth mare, this was only the fourth run over hurdles for the eight-year-old. He’s clearly talented and if kept right should make a lovely chaser.

I’ll also be interested to see if Topofthegame and William Henry are sent over fences. Second and fourth in the Coral Cup, the former is a huge son of Flemensfirth, whilst the latter is a more athletic type by Kings Theatre out of a Bob Back mare. Topofthegame has continued to improve throughout the season, seemingly strengthening as he’s filled that huge frame. Paul Nicholls will be hoping he can take high order.

There’s plenty of decisions to be made by excited connections over the coming months. Many will take the right course and go on to bigger and better things. For some the inevitable disappointment of huge potential sadly never fulfilled.

Elliott and Mullins Dominant at Cheltenham

Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott continue to boss affairs at Cheltenham, bagging five races between them on day three. It was Mullins who took the Stayers’ Hurdle courtesy of last year’s Albert Bartlett winner, Penhill.

Off the track since that success 12 months ago, Mullins had the seven-year-old tuned to perfection and aided by a ponderous pace he was able to out-kick Supasundae up the infamous hill. Sam Spinner had been sent off the short-priced favourite, with the responsibility of setting a searching yet controlled pace, resting in the hands of Joe Colliver. Such a task had proved too much for more experienced jockeys during this Festival (Davy Russell-Petit Mouchoir) and sadly for his trainer and connections it appeared the case once again, as virtually the whole field queued up waiting to land a blow as they turned for home.

From the pack Penhill and Supasundae came to the fore and battled out the finish, with the former possessing the gears to land the prize. It was a terrific training performance from Mullins, and after the race he spoke of the frailty of the seven-year-old that had prevented the team from getting a run into him prior to the meeting. Jess Harrington’s Supasundae ran a cracker but found one with a little too much zip at the finish. Despite the rather pedestrian pace of the race, The New One and Yanworth failed to see-out the trip. Sam Spinner battled on bravely for fifth and there’ll be many more opportunities for this gutsy six-year-old.

Willie Mullins went on to land a double on the day, with the talented young mare Laurina romping to victory in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle. She cruised through the race before powering up the Cheltenham hill to win by just shy of 20-lengths.

Gordon Elliott added another treble to the one on Wednesday, with Shattered Love arguably the star turn as she powered to victory in the JLT Novices’ Chase. He again proved the master of the handicaps winning the Pertemps and the Brown Advisory, with Davy Russell in the saddle on both occasions. Russell gave The Storyteller the ride of the week, as he weaved his way through the field to challenge approaching the last. And when his mount drifted across the track, seemingly unimpressed with the whip, the jock was quick to get at him under hands and heels, driving him to a thrilling victory.

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Elliott now lies one adrift of Mullins over the three days, with six winners. The pair have captured 13 of the 21 races thus far and have plenty more leading contenders for the final day of the Festival. Indeed, the pair account for more than half of the field in the opener, the Triumph Hurdle. Mullins runs four, including the talented filly Stormy Island. She won her debut in Ireland by more than 50-lengths, though has another talented filly to beat, in the Nicky Henderson-trained Apple’s Shakira.

Elliott and Mullins then have the joint-favourites for the ultra-competitive County Hurdle, though it’s a Mullins 14/1 shot, Whiskey Sour, that takes my fancy.

Nicky Henderson appears to hold all the aces in the Albert Bartlett, with Santini and Chef Des Obeaux expected to go close.

Mullins arrives mob-handed as he goes in search of his first Gold Cup success. Djakadam has another crack, though it’s Killultagh Vic that looks to have the best chance for the Closutton team. Hugely talented, yet frighteningly inexperienced, this nine-year-old won at the Festival back in 2015 and has only run five times since. He fell at the last when looking the likely winner of the Irish Gold Cup last time. It looks a tall order for both horse and trainer, though the same could have been said for Penhill as he attempted to win the Stayers’ Hurdle on seasonal debut.

Mr Mullins appears capable of almost anything during these four-day gatherings at Prestbury Park.

Cheltenham Festival Halftime ‘Pep Talk’ required

We’ve reached the halfway point in this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and from a personal point of view, I’m in need of a much-improved second half performance.

I’ve taken on far too many favourites for my own good, and whilst many punters will be dancing with joy, I’m left wishing I’d played the obvious, rather than over-complicating matters.

The usual suspects have proved dominant, with Mullins, Elliott and Henderson capturing nine of the 14 races thus far. Mullins landed an opening day hat-trick, though Getabird proved disappointing in the opener. The team made amends, when Footpad cruised to victory in the Arkle Chase. Ruby rode an intelligent race, sitting some way off the crazy pace set by Davy Russell on Petit Mouchoir. Aidan Coleman kept him company aboard Saint Calvados, and the pair were cooked some way from the finish. Footpad is without doubt a classy chaser, though his task in winning this was made that much easier by the inept tactics of others.

It was inevitable that Ruby would side with Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle, hopeful of one last hurrah from the great champion. Sadly, time waits for no man, or horse, and the ex-champ faded turning for home. Stable companion Melon was left to tackle the new champion Buveur D’Air, and the pair locked horns in a thrilling duel from the second-last to the line. Henderson’s returning hero was headed just after the last but rallied bravely to wrestle the prize away from the young pretender. The Gordon Elliott-trained Mick Jazz filled the frame, though he was three-lengths adrift of the main protagonists.

Gordon Elliott’s classy mare, Apple’s Jade, was surprisingly beaten into third in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux staying on powerfully for the win. But there was no such shock in the opener on day two, when Elliott’s latest stable-star, Samcro, lived up to the hype in landing the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Travelling powerfully throughout, the six-year-old cruised to the front on the turn for home, quickly putting distance between himself and the field. Only the Tom George-trained Black Op put up any kind of resistance, finishing just shy of three-lengths off the favourite.

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Samcro is likely to be sent chasing next term yet appears to have the tactical speed to become an elite hurdler. Numerous Ballymore winners have dropped back in trip to become Champion Hurdle contenders. Several have been successful. From the same sire as Faugheen, Samcro cruised through this race, as he had when winning at two miles in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle a month earlier. He’s owned by Gigginstown, who tend to target the Gold Cup with their most talented horses. Nevertheless, a conversation will be had in the close-season and it will be interesting to see what path is taken in the short term.

There’s no doubting the future target for the impressive RSA winner, Presenting Percy. Not unlike Samcro, this fella cruised through the race, before being unleashed by Davy Russell approaching the penultimate fence. The race was quickly put to bed and by the time he hit the line he’d stretched seven lengths clear of Monalee. Prior to this victory he’d found Our Duke a little too hot to handle at Gowran Park, suggesting Jess Harrington’s chaser will play a huge part in the Gold Cup on Friday. Nevertheless, this fella looks a powerful stayer and is sure to be aimed at the 2019 ‘Blue Riband’. Sadly, Ruby Walsh was again injured in a fall from Al Boum Photo, and may well have ridden for the last time this season.

Later in the afternoon, Nicky Henderson made it two from two in the Championship races, when Altior followed Buveur D’Air into the winners’ enclosure. Douvan was returning from a year off the track, and looked exceptionally well, jumping beautifully at the head of affairs. Much to everyone’s disappointment, he came down in the back straight, seemingly leaving Min and Altior to play out the finish. Henderson’s charge needed to be urged along at various times during the race and turning for home Min looked a huge danger. But rarely have I seen a horse more impressive from the last at Cheltenham. This fella simply devours the infamous hill, and he powered clear of his Irish rival to win by seven lengths. Altior is peerless at the minimum trip and I got to wondering how he would do if targeted at next year’s Gold Cup. He’ll possibly take in the Melling Chase at Aintree next (at 2m4f), a race won by Sprinter Sacre in 2013. Should Might Bite fail in his bid to capture the Gold Cup this week, Mr Henderson may be tempted to move this awesome racehorse up in distance.

Gordon Elliott took two of the last three, making it a treble on the day. Tiger Roll was an impressive winner of the Cross Country, further enhancing his Festival reputation. Cause Of Causes had been sent off favourite but floundered in testing conditions. It was no surprise to see Willie Mullins capture the Bumper, taking the Closutton team to five winners for the Festival thus far.

Mullins and Elliott have the favourite in five of today’s races as they look to press home the Irish dominance.

Our Duke has The Power for Gold Cup Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henderson and Mullins launch Anti-Samcro Assault

Often won by a future star of the sport, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly the Neptune) gets the action underway on day two of the Festival.

Istabraq took the race at the age of five back in 1997. He’d already announced himself as a horse of huge potential by winning the Royal Bond, the Future Champions and the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. What followed was a period of utter dominance from one of the all-time great hurdlers. He won a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles and won the Irish version four years in a row.

Hardy Eustace had also landed the Royal Bond prior to winning this event at Cheltenham (then known as the Royal & SunAlliance) in 2003. Like Istabraq before, the success proved a launchpad for a period of two-mile dominance. He won thrilling renewals of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 05, gaining a reputation as a front-running warrior.

Nicanor defeated Denman in the 2006 renewal and Massini’s Maguire got the better of dear old Tidal Bay in 2007. The pair had Imperial Commander behind them in seventh that day. First Lieutenant edged out Rock On Ruby in 2011, with the latter returning 12 months later to win the Champion Hurdle. Simonsig and The New One followed, before ‘the machine’ Faugheen romped to victory in 2014. He too returned a year later to win the Champion Hurdle and but for injury would surely have become the dominant force of two-mile hurdling.

Yorkhill has become something of an enigma over the winter, but he too followed his 2016 victory in this with further Festival success last year, when winning the JLT Novices’ Chase. Both he and Faugheen are likely to return to Prestbury Park next week in search of further Cheltenham glory.

But what of the Ballymore? And are we likely to witness the crowning of a new Jump racing star?

One horse that has the industry and its viewing public as excited as any other, is the undefeated Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro. Touted as the new sensation, the six-year-old is three from three over hurdles, including a devastating performance in winning the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. That victory came at two miles, though connections were adamant that the horse needed further and would head for the Ballymore. He has a high cruising speed and had far too many gears for a classy looking field last time. He’s looked stunning thus far, though there’s a couple in this that should give him his sternest test.

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Willie Mullins has won four of the last ten and has a leading contender in Next Destination. Also three from three over hurdles, he’s another strong traveller though perhaps lacks the acceleration of Samcro. He does, however, look a powerful stayer and is likely to be storming up the hill, probably attempting to peg-back a slicker, swifter Samcro. He too has impressed over the winter, beating many of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland. He’s a major player.

Elliott and Mullins lead the way in the Emerald Isle and it’s therefore a thrill to see a Nicky Henderson-trained On The Blind Side taking on the Irish raiders. Undefeated under rules, and also three from three over hurdles, this son of Stowaway was mightily impressive when last seen at Sandown in December. He was giving a couple of decent horses 5lbs that day and thumped them out of sight. It’s a slight concern that he’s not had a prep-run, though Henderson had said that he was happy to go straight to the Festival. Expect him to be niggled along as they come down the hill, but I fancy he’ll be powering up the famous climb to the finish as he attempts to overhaul Samcro.

Willie Mullins has another contender in five-year-old Duc Des Genievres. Rumour has it that this youngster may be aimed at the Albert Bartlett, though I’d be surprised if they send such a young and inexperienced horse to one of the Festival’s most gruelling events. This fella has a huge amount of potential, having finished third to Next Destination and runner-up to Samcro in his two starts in Ireland. The Deloitte trip was clearly too short, but he ran a cracker when third in the Grade One Lawlor’s at Naas having been off the track for seven months. This is undoubtedly the race he should be heading for, and I fancy he’ll put in a huge performance. At 14/1, he looks an obvious each-way proposition.

Kim Bailey’s Vinndication is yet another undefeated challenger. He’s a lovely looking son of Vinnie Roe and will likely make a smashing chaser in time. He possibly needs testing ground to be seen at his best, and I’m not sure he’ll have the gears to challenge the leading contenders. That’s just an assumption of course, as there’s no doubting he’s a talented sort. He defeated Western Ryder last time at Huntingdon, and that looks strong form. He’s not easy to dismiss, but I just fancy there’ll be quicker horses in the race and he’ll be tapped for toe late on.

Black Op is another that looks certain to make a cracking chaser. French Holly was the last seven-year-old to win this race in 1998, though this fella could put up a huge challenge. He’s a smasher to look at and travelled beautifully last time at Cheltenham when chinned late-on by another beauty in the Henderson-trained Santini. The pair pulled miles clear of the remainder and look to have exciting futures. Black Op is a powerful galloper who really sticks his neck out. He’ll run well, though again may lack the gears of a few of these.

Of those at a bigger price I remain interested in Western Ryder. I tipped him up each-way for the Supreme and I think that race is an easier option. This renewal has greater depth, yet I would still be tempted to have a little on him each-way, with better ground likely to suit and his fondness of the track already proven.

I wouldn’t be upset if Samcro romped home and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I’m taking On The Blind Side to finish the race stronger and nail the favourite up the famous hill. Despite Samcro’s reputation, I’m convinced that this race will be competitive, with several talented types taking their chance.

Best of luck to those having a punt.

De Bromhead novice can Sparkle in the Arkle

It’s possible that the Arkle Novices’ Chase could prove the highlight of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Both the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Gold Cup have a wonderfully competitive look to them and are likely to provide thrilling finishes. But it’s the Arkle that has Jump racing purists smacking their lips in anticipation.

The front four in the betting have made a seamless transition from hurdles to fences. Footpad has been dominant in Ireland, though defeated a ring-rusty Petit Mouchoir last time at Leopardstown, with the pair expected to be more closely matched at Cheltenham. Sceau Royal has set the standard in the UK and was particularly impressive when slaughtering the opposition in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown. And then there’s Saint Calvados – the beast from the south-east (just over the English Channel in France), now under the guidance of Harry Whittington and fresh from three destructive performances over the larger obstacles.

Money has come in recent days for Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power, suggesting that this is not merely a battle of the Fab Four, but possibly a clash of the Famous Five. This fella certainly looks a chaser, though has blotted his copybook of late with mishaps at Sandown and Ascot.

So, which of these can add their name to a stunning roll of honour that includes two-mile chasing goliaths Moscow Flyer and Sprinter Sacre?

Six and seven-year-olds have proved dominant in recent years, though Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were both eight, whilst Voy Por Ustedes and Well Chief were just five when landing this prestigious prize.

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Of the main protagonists, Saint Calvados is the ‘spotty-faced teenager’, though arguably arrives with enough experience to do himself justice. Three from three over fences, he’s a sizeable unit for a baby, and has been simply sensational in romping to victory at Newbury (twice) and then in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick. Those wins came in testing ground and there had been a concern as to whether he’d adapt to a sounder surface at Cheltenham. However, the great British weather has done its best to accommodate this French-bred son of Saint Des Saints. He’s sure to be bounding along at the head of affairs, more than likely shadowed by race favourite Footpad. The pair have been electric over obstacles thus far and could provide a spectacular display for an expectant crowd.

Footpad has been foot-perfect throughout the winter and would make it three wins from the last four renewals for Willie Mullins. He forms part of two-pronged assault from owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede along with the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal. This fella was slightly better over hurdles and has the requisite size and scope to excel. He’s demonstrated the ability to stand-off a fence but also the aptitude to ‘shorten-up’ when required. He looks to have a high cruising speed, which was seen to great effect when accounting for Petit Mouchoir last time. There’s the potential for a heated battle at the front end, with the possibility that this may benefit a contender that sits a little off the pace.

One that looks sure be held up is the Munir/Souede UK entrant, Sceau Royal. This fella isn’t the biggest but has been wonderfully slick over fences this winter. He jumped as well as any novice when simply sensational at Sandown in December. His only defeat over fences came at Cheltenham when runner-up to North Hill Harvey. He was giving the winner 5lbs, though looked in control approaching the last, before being out-battled during the final climb to the finish. He certainly wasn’t stopping that day, but connections would have been a little disappointed that he couldn’t nail the winner late on. Sixth in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Petit Mouchoir third, Footpad fourth, Brain Power eighth), I have a feeling he may find one or two of these possess a little more firepower during that final climb.

Henry De Bromhead saddled Sizing Europe to win in 2010 and has a leading contender in Petit Mouchoir. Brilliant on his chasing debut in October, the seven-year-old then suffered a minor joint injury which kept him off the track for almost four months. He returned at Leopardstown and was thrown in at the deep end when trying to keep tabs on Footpad in the Irish Arkle. Certainly rusty early on, he undoubtedly warmed to the task, jumping well for the main part despite Footpad setting a searching gallop. Fitness surely played a part in the five-length defeat and after the race connections looked thrilled. The question is whether he can improve enough to turn the tables at Prestbury Park.

Nicky Henderson’s attempt at four wins in the last seven renewals rests with Brain Power. He’s failed to finish in two of his three starts over fences and has undergone wind-surgery since his fall at Ascot in January. Something of a ‘bridle horse’, he’s often looked a little weak in a finish. If the operation is successful, he has the talent to be a major player. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if he powers up the famous hill to victory.

North Hill Harvey remains an interesting contender should the ground at Cheltenham dry-out enough prior to the off. He has a terrific record at Prestbury Park and has won both his chase starts at the track. He probably lacks the gears to beat the main protagonists, though could pick up the pieces as warriors fade up the final hill, or should one or two of the favourites underperform.

This looks a fabulous renewal and I’ve spent many hours considering the likely outcome. Footpad has looked exceptional over the winter, sweeping up the races that tend to point to an Arkle winner. But I was impressed with Petit Mouchoir’s return and will put my trust in De Bomhead’s ability to produce high class two-mile chasers. Best of these in last year’s Champion Hurdle, it’s Petit Mouchoir for me. If testing conditions prevail on the opening day of the Festival, I would fear the relentless power of Saint Calvados. His age and lack of Cheltenham experience are a negative, though he has looked mightily impressive over the winter.

Best of luck to those having a punt. I think we’re set for an absolute thriller.

Weighing up the Festival Handicap eye-catchers

The Cheltenham Festival handicap weights were announced yesterday. The Irish landed seven out of 10 last year, including all three on the final day of the meeting. I thought for today’s piece I’d take an early glance and try and pinpoint a few eye-catchers.

Singlefarmpayment came within a whisker of winning the Ultima Handicap Chase 12 months ago and runs off just a 3lb higher mark (145) this time. He was in the process of running a huge race in the Ladbroke Trophy when coming down three-out, and in his most recent outing again blundered badly before being pulled up in the Cotswold Chase. That had all the hallmarks of a warm-up run with this race in mind. He has a cracking record at Cheltenham, and if he cuts out the mistakes looks sure to go close.

The Irish haven’t got the best of records in this, but Gordon Elliott had a sensational Festival last year, and has numerous chasers primed for the trip. Monbeg Notorious and The Storyteller are a pair of novices that have been going well throughout the winter. The former has been allotted a mark of 152 having won three of his five chase starts. There’s no reason why a sounder surface shouldn’t be ideal, being a seven-year-old by Milan, out of a Presenting mare.

The Storyteller struggled in Grade One company last time, though was only seven-lengths behind Monalee at the finish. His pedigree (by Shantou out of a Bob Back mare) suggests he’ll appreciate a trip, and a mark of 147 looks interesting. He’s always looked a talented sort and there’s a chance that better ground may see a marked improvement in performance.

Coo Star Sivola has finished third and fourth on his two previous visits to the Festival. If he rocks-up here off a mark of 142 he’s sure to go close.

The Irish ended a lean spell in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, when Tully East landed the spoils last year. The upper handicap limit has been raised from 140 to 145 for this year’s race, with De Plotting Shed given 143 and installed as favourite. His first run over fences was a cracker back in October when he chased home Presenting Percy. That fella is now the RSA favourite off a mark of 157. Better ground, coupled with this intermediate trip, look ideal for this Gordon Elliott chaser.

Any Second Now is another Irish raider of interest. He gets in off the top mark of 145, having spent much of the winter trying to keep tabs on Footpad over an insufficient minimum trip. He did finish a creditable second to Invitation Only back in December when running over this distance, and I fancy he has more to give.

I’m also a fan of Mount Mews, who is yet to fulfil his huge potential. He’s a giant son of Presenting out of a Bob Back mare and was last seen struggling to land a blow on Black Corton in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. Better ground and this trip look ideal, but his mark of 140 leaves Ruth Jefferson sweating as to whether he’ll get in.

The Pertemps Final, like all the Festival handicaps, will prove hugely competitive. A pair that interest me are Calett Mad for Nigel Twiston-Davies and Sort It Out for Eddie Harty. The former reverted to hurdling this winter with a fair degree of success. He won at Cheltenham in October before disappointing behind On The Blind Side in November. He then had a wind-op before a return to the track at the end of January. Beaten some way in an Albert Bartlett trial, his sights appeared to have been lowered when impressing in a Pertemps qualifier at Musselburgh.

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In March 2015, Sort It Out finished second in the County Hurdle at the Festival. He was then stepped-up in trip to win at the Punchestown Festival, defeating some decent types in the process. He missed the 2016/17 season and returned over fences this winter, when campaigned at the minimum trip. Never sighted in four outings, he was suddenly switched to hurdles in February when making eye-catching late headway in a Pertemps qualifier at Punchestown. He’s been given a mark of 141, and though now an exposed looking nine-year-old, he’s the type of JP McManus contender that warrants close inspection. The bookies are taking no chances as he’s currently priced up at 16s or less. Nevertheless, that makes him a decent each-way proposition.

Tully East is expected to head for the Brown Advisory Chase on the Thursday of the meeting, and having won at the Festival last year, looks likely to be sent off favourite. He’s off a mark of 148, which is plenty high enough when comparing to Road To Respect (A Gold Cup contender) who won last year’s renewal off 145.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Le Prezien would interest me more if arriving here. He’s run several crackers at the track over the winter and has been dropped a couple of pounds to 150 following his defeat in December, when stumbling badly at a crucial point in the Caspian Caviar Chase. Nicholls also has Romain De Senam entered off a mark of 142. He’ll need decent ground and is not certain to make the cut.

Another of interest is Foxtail Hill for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He won at the track in October and having since battled through ground he hates, is now back on an attractive mark of 143.

Gordon Elliott’s Squouateur is currently priced up as favourite for the Kim Muir, though may well miss the cut. Mall Dini is again interesting, having finished a close fifth in this 12 months ago (on the same mark of 143). He won the Pertemps in 2016 and as a returning Festival winner he must be considered a serious contender.

Cogry remains on a fair handicap mark of 138 and could run well for Nigel Twiston-Davies. He beat Singlefarmpayment at the course back in October and clearly enjoys the stiff finish. He’s proven over further and is adaptable with regards to ground conditions.

I also feel the need to mention Road To Riches, who is entered here off a mark of 142. Twice placed at the Festival, he’s now an 11-year-old and clearly past his best. If he arrives here, and if he gets an interesting jockey booking, and if the ground runs decent, then he would become a tempting each-way punt. There’s a lot of ifs, but he’s worth looking out for.

The Irish love the County Hurdle, with Willie Mullins having a particularly good record. The Closutton master has nabbed four of the last eight and has this year’s favourite, Max Dynamite. The eight-year-old hasn’t been seen over obstacles since finishing down the field in the Galway Hurdle last August. He’s only won once over the birch in eight career starts and though this is Mullins were talking about, I find myself looking elsewhere.

Of more interest is the young novice Whiskey Sour, also trained by Mullins. He’s two from three over hurdles and was last seen finishing fourth to Samcro at Leopardstown. He’s not good enough to win a Supreme or a Ballymore, and a mark of 141 makes him an attractive prospect for this handicap. He comfortably accounted for the Galway Hurdle runner-up, Swamp Fox, last summer and will therefore likely appreciate better ground at Cheltenham.

I’d also be interested in the Paul Nicholls-trained Divin Bere and Nick Williams’ Flying Tiger. The pair fought out last year’s Fred Winter and look reasonably handicapped at 141 and 140. Ground looks key to the Nicholls runner, whilst Flying Tiger has performed well in all conditions over the winter.

Gigginstown have a strong record in the Martin Pipe. Gordon Elliott’s Champagne Classic won last year and in 2014 Don Poli landed the prize. Sir Des Champs also won for connections in 2011 and I fancy Hardline could run a huge race if taking up this option. His pedigree suggests he’ll cope with a step-up in trip despite having performed well over the minimum throughout the winter. He’s four from nine over hurdles and his mark of 140 looks tasty enough to me.

Finally, the Grand Annual appears to be a race target for Don’t Touch It, trained by Jess Harrington (won last years with Rock The World). He’s yet to spark this winter but is expected to improve plenty for better ground.
Vaniteux is also of interest, having seen his handicap drop from 158 to 151. He moved to David Pipe at the start of this campaign, and it’s likely that this race has always been on the radar. He needs decent ground to perform at his best. If he has conditions to suit, he should go close.