Cheltenham’s Festival Trials Day takes place tomorrow with the prospect of numerous pointers as the main event looms on the horizon.
Apple’s Shakira should prove hard to beat in the Triumph Hurdle Trial. Whilst a hugely competitive field go to post in the Cleeve Hurdle, a renowned trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle at The Festival. Beer Goggles, Wholestone and Finian’s Oscar are all fancied to go close. We’re also likely to see exciting young novice hurdler Santini stretching his legs in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
But it’s the Cotswold Chase that I’ve decided to focus on, ironically a race that rarely shines a light on a live Festival contender.
Many Clouds won last year’s renewal in dramatic fashion, defeating Thistlecrack after a mighty duel. Tragically, the wonderful staying chaser collapsed after the race and was unable to be saved. It was the second success in the Cotswold Chase for the Grand National winner of 2015. A firm favourite with jump racing fans, he’d also won the Hennessy Gold Cup back in 2014. Cheltenham Racecourse are to put on a fitting tribute to the gallant chaser after racing tomorrow.
The Giant Bolster did come close to following up in the Gold Cup having won this in 2014, when finishing a close third to shock winner Lord Windermere. Exotic Dancer was another that almost achieved the double, though that was back in 2007. He hammered Our Vic in the Cotswold Chase before finding Kauto Star too hot to handle in the main event at the festival. Looks Like Trouble was the last to land both races back in 2000.
Bristol De Mai looks the one in tomorrow’s field with the ability to land a blow come March, though he’s on a recovery mission after a tame performance in the King George over Christmas. He’ll have his ground this time (the softer the better), though the test will come as he turns for home and faces the climb to the finish. He ran well for a long way in last year’s Gold Cup on unsuitably quick ground, until mistakes late-on saw him fade to a seventh-place finish. Those jumping errors have proved less costly in testing ground at Haydock, when horses are unable to get away from him. That may prove the same tomorrow, though doubts remain over his ability to get up the hill over this extended trip. He also needs to overcome the shocking record of favourites in the race.
One that will have no problem seeing out the 3m1½f journey is the Grand National contender, The Last Samuri. Last seen running a cracker behind Blaklion in the Becher Chase at Aintree, he was giving the winner 6lbs on that occasion. A son of Flemensfirth, he’ll love testing conditions, and if able to keep tabs on Bristol De Mai he should be finishing to great effect. He’s been hauling top-weight around for some time now and will no doubt appreciate the feel of just 11 stone on his back. He looks a major player in this. 10-year-olds have won five of the last ten renewals, which is another plus for Kim Bailey’s experienced campaigner.
Experience has proved a major asset in taking this race, with nine-year-olds successful in a further four of the last ten. Definitly Red is another that will love testing conditions and arrives after a decisive victory at Aintree in December. He defeated The Last Samuri back in March, though was in receipt of almost a stone on that occasion. It’s also a concern that he was thrashed at Wetherby by both Bristol De Mai and Blaklion in the Charlie Hall Chase. It’s possible that he’s unable to cope with a step-up in grade and may therefore finished placed at best.
Tea For Two has continued to surprise many when thrown in at the deep end. He was again terrific in the King George, when a close third to Might Bite. He only got as far as the second fence in last year’s Gold Cup and was pulled-up in his only other start at the track. His best performances have tended to come when going right-handed, though he did run a cracker to win the Betway Bowl at Aintree, defeating Cue Card in a thriller. He looks a serious challenger, and there’s a danger that once again punters are underestimating this talented horse. Of the 10 entered, he is rated second only to Bristol De Mai.
Coneygree is once again on a recovery mission and it would take a brave man to side with the one-time top staying chaser. Soft ground will help his cause, as will a return to Prestbury Park, where he’s three from four. It would come as no surprise should he run a belter, but I’m afraid that I am unable to trust him with my hard-earned dosh.
American is also looking to put a poor performance behind him. A talented novice chaser last term, he ran no sort of race when behind early in the Ladbrokes Trophy in December. He’ll also have plenty of competition on the front end, and this looks a tough ask for one so inexperienced. The ground should prove ideal, but this looks an enormous step-up for the eight-year-old. It’s a brave call from trainer Harry Fry, but I can’t see it coming off.
Bristol De Mai does look the most likely winner, but there’s enough question marks that lead me to side with The Last Samuri. A rock-solid performer with a touch of class, he’s the right age, will love the ground, and will be storming home up the famous hill. Tea For Two may prove a greater danger to my selection.
Best of luck to those having a punt and keep that notepad ready for those festival clues.