Never write off Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh. After two quiet days they burst onto the festival scene with a four-timer that included a spectacular round of jumping from Un De Sceaux to land the Ryanair.
Yorkhill got their day off to a winning start in good style, just holding off Top Notch, who made a bad blunder two out. They took the feature race – the Stayers Hurdle with Nichols Canyon staying on strongly to beat Lil Rockerfeller in a race that had the bookies rubbing their hands with Unowhatimeanharry only third.
Let’s Dance completed the four-timer in the Mares’ Novices’ coming from the rear to beat the well-supported Barra.
Overall a good day for Ireland with six winners after Presenting Percy won the Pertemps and Road To Respect, who bolted up in the Stable Plate making a mockery of his handicap mark.
13:30 – Top Notch (2nd – 7/2)
14:10 – Rocklander (Unplaced)
14:50 – Uxizandre (Unplaced)
15:30 – Snow Falcon (Unplaced)
16:10 – Henryville (Unplaced)
16:50 – Let’s Dance (WON – 11/8)
17:30 – Doctor Harper (Unplaced)
Can we have more races for Mares? That’s two from two in them after Apple’s Jade on the opening day. If Top Notch hadn’t clouted two out and pecked on landing he would have asked more of a question of Yorkhill. Snow Falcon ran his race to finish fifth but a few untidy jumps cost him.
13:30 – JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1)
Many will be banking on the unbeaten Defi Du Seuil making it six from six here. He is the obvious one here and sets a clear standard after winning the Finesse here in January making it two Cheltenham wins. He’s 4lb clear on ratings and does look the one to beat. You can’t really crib how he’s gone about his business to date but you do have to look at what he’s beat compared to some of his opponents here. He’s a strong travelling type and looks to have continually learnt from mistakes he’s made, especially at Chepstow.
Nicky Henderson has always spoken highly of Charli Parcs but he came down in the Adonis when not looking entirely comfortable. Sometimes a fall can damage the confidence of a juvenile, so it’s going to be interesting to see if Noel Fehily puts him in a position to get a sight of his hurdles early on. He slammed Mister Blueyes at Kempton on his UK debut under Fehily plus the vibes have been positive since his fall. He’s still a nice prospect and if getting back on track is a big player.
There are a couple of Irish types I like in this and they have inter-linking form. Landofhopeandglory got stuck in the mud at Fairyhouse last time when behind Dinaria Des Obeaux in a race that saw the winner demoted. The ground that day wasn’t in his favour but today is something that will definitely suit this son of High Chaparral. Like most of these he has been learning on the job but now he’s got plenty of experience under his belt, which is something that should be useful in the hustle and bustle of a race of this nature. I liked the way he won a Juvenile Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December when quickening nicely and when the tempo was lifted his jumping was better, so with this likely to be run to suit he looks overpriced for Joseph O’Brien, who trained the winner last year.
The other horse was second to him that day on his debut for Willie Mullins. Bapaume did the donkey work in that race at Fairyhouse and was prominent when reversing that form at Leopardstown where he settled nicely and found a good rhythm. His jumping is an asset to him as he looks so slick when attacking his hurdles and in that contest he found more on the run-in to assert close home. He was beaten by Mega Fortune last time when not able to quicken on the soft ground, so once again the good ground on offer here is likely to suit him and he comes here as one of the top Irish juveniles. He and Landofhopeandglory are closely matched; so have to be the two to take on the favourite with.
Master Blueyes won the Adonis and he looks a very straightforward type. He’s kept improving over hurdles but the concern here has to be the stat I used the other day. Alan King has a poor record with hurdlers at the festival and that has to be a concern here. The grey ended up recording an 11 length win in the Adonis after the fall of Charli Parcs and it was Evening Hush who came home second best when not jumping well enough. The grey travels well and has built up plenty of experience, so it would be understandable to see him backed however he’s not for me.
14:10 – County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
Recent renewals of this race have seen first or second season hurdlers picking up the honours. It is 12 win in the last 13 years plus the last 11 winners have all been officially rated in the 130s. It’s worth noting that only one horse has won off a rating higher than 145 since 1998.
That doesn’t bode well for Arctic Fire who returns to the track here and has been dining at the top table in recent years. He’s got work to do as top weight back in a handicap. Ivanovich Gorbatov has form links with Petit Mouchoir, Champion Hurdle third, Apple’s Jade who won the Mares’ Hurdle and Nichols Canyon, who won the Stayers yesterday. His form looks strong and is a second season hurdler but has to defy a mark of 150.
Diego Du Charmil bought home a Nicholls 1-2 in the Fred Winter last year and he’s done alright this season, especially last time when not looking particularly at ease at Musselburgh but still getting the job done. He’s proven he can handle big fields but the 9lb rise for that success could be on the high side. North Hill Harvey has been teed up for the race having won the Greatwood here in November and he’s been off since. That form is decent with Modus winning the Lanzarote when upped in trip. The Skelton’s won this last year and he has form ties Buveur D’Air, Petit Mouchoir and Limini from Aintree, so has to be respected.
Joey Sasa holds appealing claims in this having run the last twice in Grade 2 Novice hurdles. Beaten by Let’s Dance, a winner yesterday, and Kemboy, fifth in the Neptune when running over 2m4f at Leopardstown two starts ago and then bumped into Forge Meadow who relished the testing ground at Naas last time. On Boxing Day this eight year old beat Barra by just over two lengths and we saw Barra run well by finishing second in the Mares’ Novices Hurdle. Despite his age there aren’t many miles on the clock and his form overall ties in nicely in generally, so off a mark of 140 looks to have good claims here.
Flat types don’t have a good record, which is somewhat off-putting for the chances of Wakea. Well beaten in graded company last time in a race won by Labaik but back in a handicap has big claims, especially on this sort of ground. Rated as highly at 104 on the level, so has the speed and has done well over hurdles.
Song Light has contested some of the bigger handicaps this season and hasn’t been discredited. Third in the Greatwood behind North Hill Harvey and fourth in the Betfair give him strong claims here off what could be a decent mark. The way the course has been going it’ll suit something off the pace, so if Kevin Jones can get him into contention down the outside then he has each-way potential.
Air Horse One completed the hat-trick at Ascot last time when proving he keeps progressing after wins at Exeter and Taunton. The grey stays further than this, so if they go a good gallop it could play into his hands with stamina on his side. Mohaayed looks to be the second string for the Skelton yard in this contest but there are reasons to believe he should go close. He has only had three starts over hurdles for Skelton after moving over from Kevin Prendergast after been a useful flat type. He started at Kempton when second to the useful Elgin and then race in the Rossington Main won by Neon Wolf. The form of his easy win at Taunton isn’t anything special but there looks to be more to come from him and after just creeping into this race off a mark of 134 can’t be discounted lightly on what is his handicap debut.
Joey Sasa (28/1)
14:50 – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Gordon Elliott’s Death Duty has taken to hurdles beautifully and he’s been impressive in the majority of his races.
Who knows what the result would have been when last seen with Augusta Kate coming down at the final flight when in contention but it kept his recorded unblemished.
He’s yet to run over three miles but the way he travels and finishes his race suggests it could actually bring further improvement out of him.
Elliott has said this test is ‘ready made’ for him and in time he’ll make an excellent chaser going forward. This race has been the target for a while now and everything looks set for him to be one of the festival bankers.
Augusta Kate looked to be travelling just as well as Naas last time but came down, so it is understandable why this pair are close in the market. It’s fair to say that Willie Mullins thinks highly of her after running her in the Champion Bumper last season. So far she’s done well over hurdles despite that blip last time if that doesn’t knock her confidence then you think she’d see market support. Being a mare she receives a 7lb weight allowance from her male counterparts and that could to be valuable. Mullins is yet to train the winner of this race plus horses that have run on the flat have a poor record.
Wholestone has had his last four runs at this venue, so should know it like the back of his hand. He won his novice hurdle here in October and has gone on to bigger and better things. This six year old won a trial for this race over course and distance back in December when he saw out the trip thoroughly in the soft conditions. The ground isn’t a worry here however the form of the stable is. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horses didn’t come into the festival in the best of form and so far they haven’t ran as anticipated.
Tom George’s The Worlds End bolted up in a Grade 2 trial for at Haydock last time. This well built type put in a very assertive performance and if able to replicate that effort then this progressive sort could go very close here. The fourth from the race has since come out and won when stepped back down in class giving the form a nice look, as does the form of his Chepstow win in December that has thrown up plenty of subsequent winners. He attacks his hurdles and could well have more to offer; he could prove to be the each-way play into the race.
Ami Desbois has been a revelation for connections and looks a big price for what he has produced on the track. He nearly made all over track and trip when only beaten a length by Wholestone in December. The son of Dream Well then produced a decent effort over a shorter trip at Newbury in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle when beaten by Messire Des Obeaux, who was third in the Neptune, and Baltazar D’Allier. That wasn’t over his best trip and to have ran so well was encouraging, as it proved for his run in February when a comfortable scorer when back in a handicap. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is a front-running sort, so we know Kielan Woods will take him to the front of the pack to try and dictate.
Death Duty (9/4)
15:30 – Gold Cup (Grade 1)
There are plenty against Cue Card mainly because no 11 year old has won the Gold Cup since Mandarin achieved the feat back in 1962. It is a race where the older horses have struggled in recent years but there is still plenty of quality in this lovable veteran as he’d proved this campaign.
Who knows what might have happened last year if he hadn’t have fallen three from home when looking to be tanking along.
He’s looked as good as ever this season when winning the Betfair Chase and the Ascot Chase; the latter was done in style despite the weak nature of his opponents but the perfect build-up in terms of when the race came.
Bar that hiccup in last season’s showpiece he overall is a reliable jumper given that’s the only fall in his career.
He’s progressed from a Champion Bumper winner back in 2010, to a second in an Arkle and a Ryanair winner, so this would cement his place in Festival history.
Even at his age he still retains his enthusiasm and all the vibes surrounding him are positive, so he can go and re-write that little trend by proving age is just a number. One slight negative would be his trainer Colin Tizzard is 0-25 in the month of March with only nine of them hitting the frame.
There is a list of absentees that include the last two winners Don Cossack and Coneygree plus Don Poli and the exciting Thistlecrack.
That gives it an open feel and one horse we know who will stay is Native River after his successes in the Hennessy Gold Cup and the Welsh Grand National, which are stamina sapping tests.
He won the Denman Chase as prep for the race seeing off two rivals; the more fancied Bristol De Mai ran flat that day.
The seven year old is another Tizzard representative and under Richard Johnson is likely to be amongst the early pace and at Newbury last time he proved he had a change of gears with the way he quickened in the closing stages.
In all Native River jumps for fun and stays, so ticks plenty of boxes for this sort of race, so is likely to be strongly supported.
With the defections this year it could prove to be the ideal opportunity for Djakadam who has finished second in the last two renewals behind Coneygree (2015) and Don Cossack (2016).
He’s a spring ground horse, so should be suited by the underfoot conditions because the dead ground in the Lexus Chase didn’t look to suit him despite staying on stoutly and finishing third.
The Willie Mullins charge looks to have had the ideal prep having had two runs in December and everything adds up to another bold showing. After yesterday’s success I’d expect that he will be strongly supported once again.
Henry de Bromhead’s Champagne West has seemingly improved for the stable switch. He was with Phillip Hobbs last season but joined the Irish handler for this campaign.
He started his season with a third in the fog at Gowran but since then he’s gone from strength to strength.
The nine year old was joint top weight in the Thyestes but defied that when making all and overcoming one bad blunder in his jumping. Sometimes one mistake can knock a horses confidence but this one didn’t and this galloping sort can’t be discounted if running here.
He’ll challenge Native River for the lead, so they could light each other up and set a strong gallop, which might suit those in behind.
The son of Westener has plenty of course form when with Hobbs having won twice and two seconds to his name on visits here. He is one that has gone under the radar coming into the race and looks like an underrated outsider, so would be the each-way angle into the race.
Cue Card (5/1)
16:10 – Foxhunter Challenge Cup Hunters’ Chase
Not my expert field this but then again I said that last year and gave you the 14/1 second Marito.
It was Jamie Codd, who can do no wrong at the moment, who piloted On The Fringe to success last year by the narrowest of margin to take the crown for a second successive year. He followed that up by completing a hat-trick when winning the Hunters’ Chase at Aintree and Punchestown festival. He returned to the track 33-days ago when second to Foxrock and he’ll have come on for that, so Enda Bolger will have him tuned up with this his main target.
Paint The Clouds has been third in this race in its last two runnings. He has had the same preparation that involves a run at Doncaster, which he won once more albeit against limited opposition. That should have him straight for this and he has a good record here plus Barry O’Neill has won on him before at Stratford when overcoming some sketchy jumping. At his current price he looks a lovely each-way play.
Pacha Du Polder was given a quiet ride by Victoria Pendleton last year and was a fast finishing but never nearer fifth, Bryony Frost won on this ten year old last time when victorious over a shorter trip at Bangor. The way he finished last year suggested he had plenty of running left to do if put in the race or asked a serious question, so I’d rate him as the danger.
Wonderful Charm has won his two Hunter Chases very nicely and he adds a touch of class to the race given what he achieved under rules. At the peak of his powers he was rated 159, so should be better than most of these if performing to that sort of level. The drying ground is a big plus for him. Ask The Weatherman have won eight of his nine starts, including his first start in a Hunter Chase at Wincanton. That takes some jumping, especially in heavy ground, so it was impressive but expected. He could have more to offer.
One at a huge price that might be of interest is Balnaslow. He was second in a point when last seen under today’s rider Derek O’Connor, who’d be one of the tidier jockeys in this line up. He was on board in December when second to Foxrock at Down Royal and that winner has won three more times since, including defeating On The Fringe on his return. His form figures under O’Connor are 322, so he knows how to get the best out of him. The ten year old could prove to be a complete plodder but there are parts of his form that look good.
Paint The Clouds (12/1)
16:50 – Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
No Comment travelled strongly and got the job done at Plumpton and comes here on a four-timer. The form from that win at the start of the year has been franked with the second and fourth winning since. The six year old has continually improved and could have more to offer off 137.
Coo Star Sivola gets the nod for a trainer that had his first festival winner on Wednesday. This five year old has plenty of course form after finishing third in last season’s Fred Winter. He raced here in a Neptune Trial and put his rivals to the sword. The son of Assessor ran flat in a Grade 2 event here later but there was no doubting his quality when romping home at Warwick last time. The fact he’s been running for the majority of time in graded races and comes into a handicap here off 138, which is only 4lb higher than his New Year’s Day win, so doesn’t look too badly treated.
Nicky Henderson has had a good festival and there is plenty of positive chatter surrounding Thomas Campbell. The yards top conditional is on board and this son of Yeats should appreciate the step up in trip. The five year old is a course winner and is one that looks likely to have more improvement to come. Verni comes here as an improving type but a 10lb rise for that Taunton win looks harsh and may find him out. He’s a nice type and one to keep an eye on going forward.
I Shot The Sheriff wasn’t given a difficult time when returning from a 675-days absence at Leopardstown That run 13-days ago is likely to have gotten him in shape but the bounce factor is a worry. It was an encouraging return in third and probably with this in mind wasn’t given a tough time. Tony Martin can plot a horse, so if the money is down then expect a big run.
Castello Sforza could have his form franked earlier in the day by Joey Sasa and Willie Mullins’ charge has done well in three starts over hurdles. He was fourth in last season’s Champion Bumper and this better ground should suit him better than what he’s encountered in maiden hurdles. Dadsintrouble has won his last two over further at Haydock, so stepping down in trip is interesting. He could be high enough in the weights while Remiluc has to be mentioned. He carries a penalty for a win at Newbury but has to prove he stays. Trainer Chris Gordon is in red-hot form having saddled ten winners from 14 runners in the past fortnight – a 71% strike rate.
Coo Star Sivola (12/1)
17:30 – Grand Annual
I had two main ante post bets for the handicaps at the festival and here we are at the last race; the other was Singlefarmpayment, 2nd, Ultima.
Le Prezien held an entry for the Arkle but Paul Nicholls stated that Altior’s presence in the race made it look one sided meaning he heads here.
He needs to bounce back after a disappointing effort in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles at Sandown where he didn’t look completely in love with the track and that proved with a lacklustre round of jumping, plus the trip didn’t seem ideal.
There is plenty to like here though. This son of Blue Bresil has already recorded a win around Cheltenham when winning an Arkle Trial by four lengths, so we know he acts well on the course and the good ground will help to see him jump well.
He’s a promising novice and adds a touch of class to the race and with this likely to be a big field they should go a good gallop, which will suit him given he’s a strong traveller. Paul Nicholls saddled the winner of the contest last year, so I’d be expecting a big run because of the quality he has against these handicappers.
This six year old doesn’t look too badly treated and has form links with Top Notch, second in the JLT yesterday, and Charbel, would have pushed Altior in the Arkle if not falling, so that looks solid. He is still improving and most of these are exposed types.
Velvet Maker looks like the main danger. Alan Fleming has had a winner at the festival and a couple of his have been gambled. This eight year old looks to have been laid out for the race in complete honesty.
He ran here last year when finishing 12th since then he has only had one run, which came at Leopardstown 33-days ago suggesting that was a prep race for this. He made the running that day but faded because of the lack of fitness. Now he has that edge he should be competitive off a mark of 144.
Last year’s second Dandridge should be suited by the good ground, as he is a spring ground horse and has claims on his run at Aintree in April but he hasn’t shown much since; he’s 1lb higher than last year. Pairofbrowneyes was second over this trip in a race ran on the old course in November when beaten by a neck by Un Beau Roman. Barry John Murphy’s charge has raced consistently, so is easy for the handicapper to read but given he’s done alright over slightly further then this could be ran to suit.
Former Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets (2015) could be lurking on a good mark for Paul Nicholls and tries here in a handicap while Upsilon Bleu has returned to form in this year and could offer a decent chance to the north.
Le Prezien (6/1)