The National Hunt Diary
The road to the Festival – by Chris Price
As we approach the run-in to the Festival, trainers either side of the Irish Sea put the finishing touches on their charges, with bubbles burst and several enhancing their claims of success next month during the recent trials. The outbreak of Equine Influenza now appears to be under control thanks to the swift action of the BHA, and we can all look forward to the four irreplaceable days of action at Prestbury Park. Here we study many of the key races and the main contenders.
The Gold Cup
Since his impressive success in the RSA last term, Presenting Percy has been the name high on many lists for the feature event. The Sir Percy gelding has been seen just once this season, winning the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park for the second consecutive year. It will be a big ask to win the Gold Cup without a run over fences in twelve months, but connections have stuck to the plan of looking out for their stable star.
Clan Des Obeaux on the other hand has been much more active, adding the Denman Chase to his King George triumph over Christmas. It’s clear Paul Nicholls has got the best out of him this term, with the 7yo in the form of his life. His jumping has been almost faultless and looks a big player should he continue to produce this form, his yard could hardly be in better form leading into the Festival.
Native River ended up missing the rescheduled Denman Chase, with connections opting to keep last season’s winner fresh for the defence of his crown. He was put in his place by Clan Des Obeaux in the King George, however Cheltenham will be much more up his street with stamina his main forte. He looks a very fair price against the front two in the betting on last seasons run.
Willie Mullins, hitting the crossbar with Djakadam in the past has another live chance in Kemboy. He was foot-perfect in the Savills Chase during the Leopardstown Christmas meeting, pulling clear of Monalee, last years Gold Cup fourth Road To Respect, and Bellshill. The former landed the Red Mills Chase last weekend, while the latter two served up a cracker in the Irish Gold Cup, separated by just a nose. The form looks fair and Kemboy hasn’t done a great deal wrong at this point. Monalee would be of much more interest over the Ryanair trip, and I’m hoping connections go down that route.
Of the rest at bigger prices, Thistlecrack put in a vastly improved run in the King George when second, I still have slight stamina doubts in a truly run Gold Cup, but is a fair price if producing his very best. While Frodon continues to prove the critics wrong and should give Bryony Frost a great spin, for all that he goes into the unknown over the extended 3m 2f and may not have things his own way in front.
The Champion Hurdle
Two-time Champion Hurdler Buvuer D’Air blotted his copybook in the Christmas Hurdle, a bad mistake three out left him vulnerable and he was worn down by Verdana Blue. He proved his well being at Sandown in the Contenders Hurdle a fortnight ago, and is the correct favourite at this stage, for all this could be a very good renewal.
Apple’s Jade heads his competition, the Gigginstown mare has gone from strength to strength this term, winning three Grade 1’s from 2m – 3m. Her destruction of the competition in the Irish Champion Hurdle was a stunning effort, and Gordon Elliott rightly fancied a crack at this race, with his other stable star Samcro disappointing ante-post backers. Apple’s Jade was not at her best when only third in the Mares Hurdle last season, however connections will hope the mare avoids coming into season this time around.
Laurina did her job in the listed Mares Hurdle at Sandown in the new year, and is the most unexposed of the three market leaders. She was one of last years most promising novices and is set to take in the Quevega Hurdle as her final prep as I write this.
Outsiders include last years close runner-up, Melon. No match for Apple’s Jade at Leopardstown last month, he will need to reproduce last terms effort at the very least to make the frame here. Sharjah landed two Grade 1’s at the back end of last year and the 6yo is a fair each-way price, for all that Ruby Walsh appears to favour Laurina at this stage. The Nicky Henderson pair of Brain Power and Verdana Blue have shown enough to warrant respect at double-figure prices if your looking for a little extra value and hoping one of the main protagonists fluffs their lines.
The Champion Chase
Wednesdays feature race is likely to be the least well represented at the current time due to the dominance of Altior. Another three wins during this campaign have the son of High Chaparral as an odds-on favourite. At this point it looks like only a mistake, or an incredible effort from a rival that can halt his progress in this division as he establishes himself as the best horse in training. Footpad started the year as the main challenger, but fell when struggling at the last fence at Naas before being worn down by the ever-game Simply Ned at his favourite track in the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase over the festive period. At his very best, he could offer Altior a challenge, but i’d have been much more optimistic with a clearer passage to date.
Both Min and Un Des Sceaux are top-class opposition, but both have suffered defeat to Altior in the past twelve months and could end up going the Ryanair route with plans yet to be finalised, the former in particular would be extremely tempting over the intermediate trip on good ground, while the latter would love the heavens to open on festival week.
Of the British trained challengers, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados were unable to land a blow in the Tingle Creek, and it would take a huge reverse in fortunes for them to play a part on what we’ve seen so far.
The Stayers Hurdle
Paisley Park cemented his place near the top of the betting with a four-timer this term, including two key trials in the JLT Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle over course and distance either side of the new year. He races behind the bridle on occasions and can hit a flat spot, but he has been faultless at the finish and will be piling on the pressure when others have cried enough.
He looks my idea of the winner, but perhaps that is recency bias, having not seen last years champion, Penhill, since going down to Faugheen at Punchestown last spring. Last terms race was a falsely run affair, but Penhill came out a very strong winner, going away up the famous hill. Willie Mullins is no stranger to giving horses a slow build-up and running at the Festival first time out, so it’s far from a negative.
Faugheen brought the house down in that Punchestown Stayers Hurdle, and he would surely do the same if he repeated the trick at Prestbury Park next month, he will however arrive in Gloucestershire having taken a crashing fall behind Apple’s Jade over the same trip at Leopardstown in the 3m Christmas Hurdle.
Samcro has been given the option of this race, having recovered well from a lung infection which Gordon Elliott believes held him back in three below par runs during the first half of the season. He would need to show all the exuberance shown during his Ballymore win a year ago, but it’s a wide open division and you can be sure if he turns up, he will run his race, at the current prices, i’d prefer one of the three formerly mentioned horses.
Supasundae wasn’t beaten far last term into second here, but has since suffered more seconditis during the 2018/19 campaign. Whilst this race offers his best chance of success, I can only imagine him playing for place money at best when push comes to shove.
Novices to note – Hurdles:
The Supreme is the traditional curtain raiser for the four days and Al Dancer looks set to arrive at the head of the betting after landing the Betfair Hurdle at Ascot this past weekend, readily drawing clear after the final flight off a mark of 141. A mark in the ballpark of 150 gives him strong claims given the rating of past winners heading into the race (Summerville Boy 150, Labaik 144, Altior 155, Douvan 155).
The same connections have another live chance with Angels Breath. The Nicky Henderson trained charge could run at Kempton this weekend or take in a standard novice hurdle, with the Seven Barrows handler wanting to get some more experience in before his Grade 1 assignment.
Joseph O’Brien appears to hold all the aces in the juvenile department, so much so that Fakir D’oudaries, impressive when landing the Triumph Hurdle Trial at jumps HQ, could be re-routed to the Supreme, receiving 8lb from his elders. Sir Erec, under the same connections, has done little wrong in two stars recently, the former Long Distance Cup 3rd has taken to timber with the minimum of fuss, staying on best of all in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle a fortnight ago.
The best of the British 4yo’s appears to be another progressive horse from Paul Nicholls and Team Ditcheat with Quel Destin putting up a five-timer this winter, including the Grade 1 Juvenile Hurdle. As tough and genuine as they come, he may be found wanting by the challengers over the Irish Sea, but is a tempting price with frame possibilities as we countdown to March.
In the Ballymore there is another favourite owned by JP McManus in Champ. Very much raw and a work in progress when seen at Ascot last January, connections remained patient and kept his novice status for this campaign, not running again until Perth in May. A handicap win off 139 on his seasonal reappearance made plenty stand up and take notice, before confirming that was no fluke in a slowly-run Challow Hurdle at Newbury. Comfortable off a strong gallop, or now wise enough to win a tactical battle, he leaves few boxes unmarked.
The Arkle has quite possibly seen the most ante-post movement off all the Grade 1 markets. Dynamite Dollars looked to be heading to Cheltenham with most of the British form-lines taken care of, before a setback ruled him out for the remainder of the season.
Lalor was impressive on reappearance for Kayley Wollacott in the Arkle Trial at the November meeting, but was beaten over ten lengths in the Grade 1 Henry VIII three weeks later. A return to this course, potential good ground and being freshened up will hopefully be the key for him. For what would surely be one of the most emotional wins of the weeks after the sad passing of the Richard Wollacott last year.
Le Richebourg, another from the green and gold battalion, has taken a giant leap forward in two Grade 1’s at Leopardstown recently, including when comfortably landing the Irish Arkle at the Dublin racing festival. It’s difficult to pick holes in what he’s achieved to date, and I like a horse that travels as well into races as he does.
Glen Forsa has been a revelation in Britain since starting over fences, only rated a moderate 120 over hurdles, he secured a hat-trick over the larger obstacles when landing the Kingmaker from Kalashnikov. Last season’s Supreme runner up was under pressure a long way out, and surely would be better suited by a step-up in trip on that evidence. The winner has now won races over 3m, 2m 4f and the minimum trip, looking a natural in the process. His bold jumping and enthusiasm make him a key player wherever he lines up, personally I’d love to see him in the Arkle.
Defi Du Seuil was not a horse I had originally thought of writing about in novices to note, but the 2017 Triumph winner has regained that old spark, winning two of his last three, including the Grade 1 Scilly Isles earlier this month. He gave Lostintranslation 3lbs when narrowly beaten in the Dipper on the New Years Day and on that evidence he would have more than solid claims in the JLT on Day 3.
As for the stayers it looks increasingly likely the popular mare La Bague Au Roi will bypass the Festival and head to Aintree, leaving the RSA open for three horses in particular. Santini could only manage third in the Kauto Star, but he stayed on from the second last better than anyone else (confirmed by timings), the more stamina inducing test of this race promises to suit, however it is a concern that the trainer wanted to get a prep race into him , but he fell foul of the new vaccination rule meaning he missed Ascot this past week.
Delta Work also missed his intended prep due to faster ground than ideal during the Dublin Festival, last years Pertemps winner has looked foot-perfect in three chase starts so far, including last time over at Grade 1 level over 3m, and appears to have the best chase of the Irish raiders.
Topofthegame narrowly missed out to La Bague Au Roi in the Kauto Star, but is another who should relish the Cheltenham hill, having ran a very creditable race when runner-up in the Coral Cup twelve months ago. With Paul Nicholls getting the best out of another young and improving horse in the hope of breaking his recent Grade 1 drought at the Festival, he should not be far away.
Written by Chris Price
Images from file