13:30 JLT Novices’ Chase 2m 4f
Top Irish handler – Willie Mullins – has targeted this race with a lot of success, winning it 4 times in the last 7 years and he looks to have another strong hand again.
Yorkhill won the prize for him 12 months ago and in Invitation Only he’ll have a horse running for the same connections. This 7 year-old sets the standard too after running third behind the useful Monalee at Leopardstown in the Flogas Novices’ Chase in February. Prior to that he won over this trip at Navan and Punchestown. We can expect the slight drop in trip to be a plus after getting run out of things over 2m5f last time, while with just 9 career runs there should be more to come.
6 of the last 7 winners of this race have been Irish-trained too, while 7 year-olds have won 5 of the last 7 runnings.
However, I would be a tad worried about getting up the hill after seeing him get tired over 2m5f last time out – especially if the ground remains soft/heavy. Yes, he’s certainly a big player, especially with the Mullins record in the race, but if he gets into a battle with something up the hill might just get outstayed – we’ll have to see!
From the British-trained runners the Gary Moore-trained Benatar has done nothing wrong this season – winning all three chase starts. He had a real slog to beat Finian’s Oscar at Ascot back in December, but connections have given him plenty of time to get over that. He’ll come here fresher than most and certainly looks a better chaser (rated 149) than he was a hurdler (rated 130 hurdles). It will be his first run at Cheltenham, but there is no reason why it won’t suit. He looks a big rival to Invitation Only but it might be interesting that no winner of this race has come here off a break of more than 54 days – Benatar’s last run was 83 days ago.
Returning to FINIAN’S OSCAR, and with the Colin Tizzard yard in much better form now then this 6 year-old would be silly to ignore. He’s had a wind-op since his last run and the word is he’s been schooling great since. He’ll also sport the cheekpieces here and being a proven winner at the track over fences then if the vibes are right then there is a lot to like about this tough campaigner.
TERREFORT looks to have a huge say too. This Nicky Henderson entry has won both starts since coming over from France and looked to have more in the locker than the neck winning margin from last time. He’s had plenty of experience in France and won on Heavy ground which is also a huge plus – certainly one to have on your radar with Daryl Jacob riding.
The other UK runner to note is Modus and to me he looks to have a fair chance too. This Paul Nicholls-trained 8 year-old was a 156-rated hurdler and having won 3-from-4 over fences has certainly translated that form to the bigger obstacles.
Yes, he took a tumble at Exeter two starts ago, but that track doesn’t always suit horses and he quickly bounced back with an easy win at Kempton. He was a fair 6th in the Coral Cup last season and has plenty of track experience. In fact, this will be his fifth Cheltenham Festival and his 7th run here at Prestbury Park. He won a bumper here back in 2014 and has run some decent races in defeat since. Winning form in soft ground is a plus but if it came up heavy he’s raced on it twice and been beaten both times.
14:10 Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle 3m
Another huge and competitive field, so no harm having 3 or 4 running for you here as the prices are sure to allow it.
Yes, I don’t think we’ll be seeing another Presenting Percy (won the race 12 months ago) this year – but you never know and, as always, it’s a super-tough renewal. With ALL of the last 7 winners rated 138 or higher this is a decent stat to have on your side.
Trainers, Jonjo O’Neill, Nigel Twiston-Davies, Willie Mullins and David Pipe are yards that have done well in this in the past but, in contrast, the Paul Nicholls camp are currently 0-from 17 – they have had two seconds in the last 4 runnings though!
Another interesting stat is that horses aged 7 or younger that were also priced in at a single-figure (so well-fancied) are only 1 from 34 in recent years.
With that in-mind the Gordon Elliott-trained Glenroe and the Hobbs runner Louis’ Vac Pouch – who have both been well supported for the race – are overlooked. We’ve also only seen one winning favourite in the last 12 years.
It’s often a race JP McManus likes to target too so we can expect a flurry of his green and gold silks in the race, but one of those that stands out is the Edward Harty-trained SORT IT OUT. Yes, the yard has been a bit quiet this season, but a winner here would certainly make up for that. This 9 year-old is one of the older runners in the race, but with 7 of the last 12 winners aged 8 or older that’s not a worry. This horse has won 4 times from 15 hurdles starts but it was the way ran he improved over 3m last time at Punchestown that caught the eye.
He ran on well to take third that day and with the stiff Cheltenham finish there could be even more to come. He has also tasted the Festival in the past as some might recall him finishing 2nd in the 2015 County Hurdle. Softer ground is also fine and with 8 of the last 11 winners rated between 132-142 this horse also fits in here off a mark of 141.
If getting in, WHO DARES WINS, is another I’ll be playing here. This 6 year-old is a decent flat performer that – don’t forget – was third in the Coral Cup 12 months ago. He’s only 3lbs higher here but this looks a slightly easier option for him. He’s not been seen since November so comes here fresh and well, while if the ground remains desperate then he’s got winning form in heavy.
The Organist is another interesting McManus runner from the Oliver Sherwood yard, who can be expected to be better for a few months off, however, it’s a horse that finished second to him this season – FORZA MILAN that also stands out. This Jonjo O’Neill-trained 6 year-old has only had 7 runs and would have had this race as a target all season. He ran the fancied Louis’ Vac Pouch to 2 ¼ lengths at Aintree in November, and backed that up with a solid second at Newbury next time. As mentioned it’s a race the loves – he actually had his first Festival runner in it in 1991! He’s since gone onto win the prize in 2003, 2004 and most recently in 2013 with Holywell. Soft ground is fine, while it’s interesting he’s not been out since early December so he can head here fresh and also protect his handicap mark of 138 – we’ll see.
Of the rest, I was impressed with CALETT MAD last time out at Musselburgh. The word is that he’s come out of that race well and being a proven course winner at the track then this Nigel Twiston-Davies runner looks value of those at bigger odds.
14:50 Ryanair Chase 2m 5f
The popular Cue Card is a welcome addition to this year’s Ryanair Chase after connections decided to swerve the Gold Cup. This 12 year-old was as good as ever last time too when second in the Ascot Chase and being a past winner of this race (2013) then he’d be foolish to overlook. If he did win, he’d probably get one of the biggest receptions of the week but although I think he’ll run well the fact remains he’s not getting any younger. He’s also won just one of his last seven races and been second four times, but you have to go back a long way to find the last 12 year-old winner of a Grade One at the Cheltenham Festival – the 1960’s I think.
The horse that beat Cue Card last time was the Ruth Jefferson-trained Waiting Patiently but this improving chaser will NOT run in now, with connections preparing him for Aintree next month where he’s sure to be very popular. The Jefferson camp could still have a chance though with the consistent Cloudy Dream, but this horse seems to prefer to finish second (last 4 times) than win so could be one for the placepot players!
Therefore, with no Waiting Patiently everything looks in place for last year’s winner UN DE SCEAUX to go in again. This popular 10 year-old ran a blinder from the front to beat Sub Lieutenant by 1 ½ lengths 12 months ago and after winning twice this season, including the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, he’ll head here again in tip-tip order. Those against him might look at his age (10), while despite winning by 7 lengths last time didn’t really impress. Having said that, he’s never really been a flashy sort – more of a horse that will grind things out or do it the hard way. This will be his fourth Festival while with overall form figures at the track that read 1-2-1-1 then he clearly loves this place too.
It goes without saying that the Gigginstown House Stud would love to win this race being Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary sponsors the race, but they are yet to win it. They often fire a lot of bullets, with Sub Lieutenant, who was second last year, looking a worthy outsider.
For me though, their BALKO DES FLOS looks their most interesting and could be the biggest danger to the champ. This 7 year-old was second in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and so far has finished in the first three in 9 of this 10 chase starts (winning 2). At 7 years-old we’ve probably not seen the best of him yet. Yes, he fell in the JLT Novices’ Chase here last season but was in the process of running a big race that day. He was also 5th in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in 2016 so knows what the Festival is all about, while he stays 3m well. Connections can be expected to make full use of that proven stamina and exploit any staying doubts the main players might have with this trip certainly at the high-end of Un De Sceaux’s range, especially in testing conditions. Another fascinating renewal but I’ll be sticking with Un De Scueax to land this race for the second year in a row.
15:30 Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle 3m
Of the four Championship races this is the only one that we’ll unfortunately not get a chance see last year’s winner defend its title. Sadly, Nichols Canyon, who would have again been a huge player here, suffered a fatal fall at Leopardstown back in December.
So, who’s going to be the new champ this year?
For much of the build-up, the new kid on the block in the staying hurdle division – Sam Spinner – topped the market. This rapidly-improving 6 year-old has won five of his 7 starts over hurdles and was a 2 ¾ length winner of the Long Walk Hurdle – a decent trial for this – at Ascot back in December.
He’s done little wrong and beat a decent field that day that also consisted of last year’s second and third in this race – Lil Rockerfeller and Unowhatimeanharry. With the expected improvement there should be even more to come from this 5 year-old and he looks set to run a big race, especially if the ground came up soft. However, having never raced at Cheltenham is a bit of a negative for me. Yes, there is no real reason to think the track won’t suit but with all of his main rivals having proven form here then at least we can rule that doubt about when looking at their chance.
The horse that overtook him at the head of the market was last year’s Coral Cup winner – SUPASUNDAE, and, for me, it’s easy to see why. This 8 year-old was last seen winning the Irish Champion Hurdle over an inadequate 2m trip, but really this horse is a stayer. He ran the classy Apple’s Jade to ½ a length over 3m over Christmas and was giving that mare 7lbs too, while the way he won last time suggests he’s heading into the Festival in peak form.
I agree that his price is a bit on the skinny side, especially as there is quite a lot of opposition in the race but he’s clearly a better horse than the one we saw powering up the hill to win the Coral Cup last March. If the ground came up really soft on the day that would be a concern as despite running close over 3m he’s yet to win over this trip and desperate conditions would really test his stamina. I still think he’s the one to beat.
16:10 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate 2m 5f
Gold Cup fancy, Road To Respect, won this prize a year ago but it’s worth pointing out he was one of just 3 Irish-trained winners since 1951. We’ve also had just the one winning favourite in the last 12 years, while surprisingly winning course form here isn’t that important – past winners over fences at Cheltenham in this race are 0 from 71. Having said that, experience of this meeting is a plus with 20 of the last 26 winners having raced at the Festival before – 5 of the last 7 winners were also having their Festival debuts.
The last 9 winners carried less than 11-0, plus 16 of the last 17 winners returning a double-figure price then it’s been a good race for the bookies.
Williams yards have been big players too – especially the Pipe’s who have won this 7 times in the last 20 runnings. They have KING’S SOCKS in the race and this looks a typical Pipe plot horse. This 6 year-old has only run once for the yard but wasn’t disgraced to be 8 lengths behind Modus, while when racing in France he ran a certain Footpad to 2 ½ lengths back in 2016. Yes, these Pipe handicap horses can sometimes be over bet but it’s hard to get away from their good record in the race, while off a mark of just 140 this lightly-raced 6 year-old could easily be thrown-in.
Guitar Pete landed the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup here in December and is only 5lbs higher here and despite unseating last time out he still had a shout at the time and the Nicky Richards camp have given him plenty of time to get over that (54 days). Last season’s Close Brothers Chase winner at the Festival – Tully East – is another that is sure to popular. This 8 year-old should have more to come and ran well last time over 2m1f when third at Leopardstown. He is, however, 10lbs higher than when running at the Festival last season but after also running 4th in the Martin Pipe Hurdle in 2016 then he clearly goes well here.
One horse that has raced at Prestbury Park though is MOVEWITHTHETIMES. This Paul Nicholls-trained 7 year-old has run three times over fences and they’ve all been here at Cheltenham! Okay, he’s yet to win over the bigger obstacles but was wasn’t beaten far behind the likes of North Hill Harvey, Finian’s Oscar and Kalondra – all decent sorts. Yes, he might need to brush up his jumping but it’s interesting Nicholls has kept him off the track for around 3 months – no doubt to keep him fresh and also to get plenty of schooling into him.
Don’t forget, he was a decent hurdler that finished a close second in the 2017 Betfair Hurdle – there should be more to come from him. All of the Venetia Williams runners should be given a second glance, but if getting in WILLIE BOY could be the most interesting. He’s won 2 of his 4 chase starts but despite flopping last time at Newbury he was still sent off favourite that day to suggest better was expected. He’s only 6lbs higher than when winning well at Newbury in November, plus he’s a horse that’s gone well fresh in the past so it’s interesting the yard – who, don’t forget have a good record in this race, have a good record in – have kept him off the track since early December. The longer trip and stiff finish are also big pluses.
16:50 Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices Hurdle 2m1f
Maria’s Benefit will be flying the flag for the smaller yards and this Stuart Edmunds-trained 6 year-old looks to have a huge say. She’s won 5 of her 6 starts over hurdles and since October has improved around 30lbs! She’s a rapidly progressive 6 year-old that travels well in her races but this will be by far her biggest test to date. It will also be her first run at the track and although there is no obvious reason why it won’t suit, I’d also be worried that she had a very tough race last time at Doncaster.
Yes, she’s had 6 weeks to get over that but we’ll have to see if that ½ length win over Irish Roe has left it’s mark. The fact the second has since been pulled-up in the Betfair Hurdle suggests it might have been a hard race for both horses.
Nicky Henderson’s Countister is another with a leading chance. She’s won well the last twice and being a Group Two winner on the flat in France brings a lot of class to the race.
However, based on the current ratings the Willie Mullins-trained LAURINA looks the one to beat. It’s no secret connections like this one and with the yard having won the only two runnings of this newest race then she’s got a lot going for her. Another French recruit, that is 2-from-2 over hurdles. She has won over 2m2f as well so staying up the Cheltenham Hill won’t be an issue. Yes, she’s yet to race on quicker ground, but there is likely to be some degree of cut underfoot so I can’t see conditions being an issue.
Mullins is already talking in high regard about this horse and despite not owning it, in a recent interview with Rich Ricci he told me (name drop) this was his best bet of the Festival and one Willie likes an awful lot. Mullins also has Stormy Island and Salsaretta in the race, but it’s clear he feels Laurina holds the edge over that pair.
17:30 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase 3m 1½f
The Kim Muir has not been the best race for the Irish over the years – with just 2 wins from the last 34 runnings but it is worth pointing out those two victories came in the last 4 years so the Emerald Isle handlers might just be turning this stat around. A race for the amateur riders too and really having one of the more experienced jockeys riding can be the difference.
Nina Carberry has been placed 6 times in the race, while Derek O’Connor has been second three times. However, the main man in this race in recent years has been the ‘Codd Father’ – Jamie Codd. He’s ridden the 4 winners in the last 9 years! It’s also interesting that claiming jockey have a bad record – you’d think the extra weight off would help but it seems experience actually outweighs that in this race. And that applies to most of the amateur riders’ races at the Festival.
Therefore, the main thing to remember here is it’s all about the jockeys – it’s as simple as that! You really can’t go too far wrong in backing a jockey, rather than a horse in this race. The cream always seems to rise to the top in these amateur riders’ races and, as mentioned before, perming these top pilots up in forecasts and tri-casts can pay-off. Trainers Donald McCain, David Pipe and Nicky Henderson have done well in the race in the past too so anything they run commands respect, while in contrast the Nicholls yard have only had 1 placed horse in the last 19 years.
Missed Approach was a decent second in the 4m race at the Festival 12 months ago and is certainly one for the shortlist, while the 9 year-old THE YOUNG MASTER is another that caught the eye as being well-handicapped. This Neil Mulholland runner is now rated just 135 but a few years back was winning the Bet365 Gold Cup off 148 – 13lbs higher. He was 3rd in the 2016 Ultima and 6th in that same race 12 months ago so knows what the Festival is all about – those efforts came off 149 and 150! He’s had some form of wind surgery since being pulled up at Newcastle in early February, so there is a chance that can help recapture some of this old form. If so, this former course winner looks extremely interesting.
Squouateur, Doing Fine, Pendra and Sugar Baron are all others that shouldn’t be overlooked but really, it’s hard to get away from MALL DINI. This 8 year-old had a few Festival options this year but has opted for this race and it’s easy to see why. Off a mark of 143 he looks weighted to run very well considering he’s been running in much better races that this of late. He’s not been beaten far behind the likes of Invitation Only and Presenting Percy this season but certainly won’t find anything of that class running here. He was also 5th in this race 12 months ago off this 143 mark but did well to only be 3 lengths off the winner after being hampered two out.
Don’t forget, he also landed the 2016 Pertemps Hurdle so from two Festival runs he’s won once and been an unlucky fifth – not bad! With a bit more luck in-running and at just 8 years-old then everything looks in place for another top Festival display from this Patrick Kelly-trained runner.