The dystopian nightmare that is the barren grandstands and remote desert winning posts that surround the Cheltenham Festival 2021 shadow the usual boisterousness from the absent crowd, restrained from the global pandemic coronavirus that reared it’s ugly head on top of last years festival. But while the attendance maybe fractional, the talent on show is sensational. There is something to be said about the expanse of opportunities from a four day festival but while we may not see Monkfish v Envoi Allen in a Brown Advisory Festival Novices Chase, the chances of watching them show their class is worth savoring. Furthermore, the emptiness of the stands would favor the chances of the many short priced favorites throughout the four days. Willie Mullins holds a strong hand as per usual, and with Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls having good teams to send to Prestbury Park the talent will be plentiful. Gordon Elliott may not have his license nor Cullentra’s stables their strongest team, guided by Denise ‘Sneezy’ Foster in the interim, but there they will still have big chances. Henry de Bromhead will send a lorry load of superstars headed by top mare, Honeysuckle. The seven pound mares allowance is a ridiculous concession in this day and age but it’s there and gives the advantages to mares of the class that Honeysuckle and her chief rival, Epatante, will receive. Al Boum Photo’s attempt to emulate Arkle, Cottage Rake, Golden Miller and Best Mate with a triumvirate of Gold Cups (at least, in five timer Golden Millers case) should be lauded as the great attempt that it is—regardless of the outcome. The resurgent Paisley Park no longer has the new kid on the block, Thyme Hill, to worry about in what would have been round three of their epic battle. Could the supremely talented, yet fragile, Chacun Pour Soi finally get to showcase his talent at the festival? And then there is the Ryanair Chase, so often looked upon as a consolation race in preview but regularly found to be one of the meetings highlights in real-time. Cheltenham 2021 does look to be the year of the novice chaser, above all else. The mercurial Shishkin takes on a seemingly simple bit of work in the Arkle Trophy—with his chief concern, Energumene a late absentee. Envoi Allen—a bottomless pit of superlatives—has the Marsh Chase at his mercy. The infallible Monkfish takes his latest step towards Gold Cup 2022—of which he is already the favorite—in the Brown Advisory Festival Novices Chase. Royale Pagaille is a potential Gold Cup runner but more likely to carry the burden of favoritism in the stamina sapping National Hunt Chase—a race of which he qualifies as a novice but hardly is worthy of the tag with nine chase runs already to his name. The novice hurdlers seemed to have bottle necked into the Ballymore Novices Hurdle, spearheaded by Bob Olinger. In the Triumph Hurdle for four year olds, Quilixios reminds us that the juvenile championship race is not restricted to novices—and again it’s de Bromhead that holds the aces. Add in two quality mares contests, the best bumper in town, a Foxhunters Chase to make legends of minnows, and a banks race that will see a dual winner overshadow his success with two Grand National victories and we are to feel far from solitary in the warm comfort of equine superstardom, as absent as we are but not in entertainment of the highest quality of action to grace turf. Although sittingastrideadeadhorse-gate has stolen the headlines in the lead up to the festival—with due punishment being issued upon the western cowboy instigator—the racing community bubble lest not forget their adoration for the tailsman (or horse) of the sport. We all were appalled by the actions of one of the games leaders, most particularly, and a deserved ban and fine is one punishment that is welcomed—though hardly to apease the god of uptight social media combatants. However, let it not be forgotten that Gordon Elliott built his vast empire from the thin air that required borrowing money to pay for a deposit on the yard the day it was due. Three Grand Nationals and a gazillion winners later and it seems the only result the unforgiving public want—bar sacrificing him a blaze inside a giant wickerman—is for the carpet foundation of his success to be pulled from under his feet and for him to eternally sit on the naughty step and think about what he’s done while the rest of those who are adrenaline fuelled enough to give a damn, have forgotten all about it and of him in the same blinding flash that brought him to the attention so disgracefully. As bad as it was and as disgusted and sickened as I was to his disregard for the 141 rated and 36,311 pounds winning Morgan, I can’t stress enough that this man’s success is not built on any horse welfare issues. His remarkably turned out string year on year don’t succeed as highly as they have on the track without the top class care and attention to keep them heathy and happy from the master of Cullentra and his superb team. And as much of the disgrace he brought upon himself—of which I’m sure he is dually remorseful—I feel it is penance enough for him to lose his shining star and potential super horse, Envoi Allen. There will be a lonely absence of the customary Cheltenham roar as the starter’s flag falls to the Supreme Novices Hurdle field. There will be no hero’s welcome in the hallowed winners enclosure but there will be the finest equine talent on show at the greatest of the great festivals and in not too distant times the glory of going racing again will return but for now roll on the uniqueness of this dystopia………..
What could prove to be a very profitable meeting for trainer Willie Mullins kicks off with the short priced favorite in the SKy Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle with Appreciate It. The Jeremy gelding is unbeaten over hurdles in three starts, twice at Grade One level. He stayed on comfortably to beat subsequent handicap winner, Master McShee, in a maiden hurdle at Cork on heavy ground before putting nine lengths between himself and Irascible in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. On the tighter inner track at the Dublin course, he made all to beat Grade One winner, Ballyadam, by three and a quarter lengths, prompting some commentators to suggest that the Supreme may not be to his liking. The reason behind this suggestion was based on the theory that Appreciate It may not possess the final third race speed needed to kick on down the hill and that he looked uncomfortable in front, having to do all of his own donkey work at the Dublin Racing Festival. Oddly, I agree on both counts and here is why. It’s true that this horse is more reliant on his stamina than any quick change of speed and that he wasn’t as impressive having to make all in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle. However, he is by far the most talented horse in the race and while the same detractors referenced the Ballymore a more suitable assignment—and it would most likely be on the agenda had it not been for the absence of the stable mate, Ferny Hollow—but those also have the short memory of how valuable a trial the Ballymore has proven to be for the Champion Hurdle, which is over the Supreme course and distance. Also, the likelihood of better ground would allow the strong galloper to stretch himself out more rather than the high action that heavy ground has asked of him. It should not be mistaken that this horse is slow because he wants a trip—Jeremy’s are generally a fast bunch—but although he’s out of a Saint des Saints mare diluting the pedigree with stamina, the same mare has a grand dam on the dam line by Secretariat, the fastest race horse of them all. Appreciate It is a very forward horse who is quiet full for a young novice hurdler. He is a seven year old so physically he’ll have an advantage. He was well advanced to race against Envoi Allen in a point to point—even going off favorite. He may prove too strong physically for his rivals. Another concern by the skeptics is that Appreciate It didn’t get home in the Champion Bumper but I never felt like the horse was slowing and rather a better horse, Ferny Hollow, finished stronger. If there are any worries about Appreciate It, it may be worth reminding that he has the best profile and pedigree for the race that doesn’t look the strongest. Metier has looked impressive in his unbeaten hurdling career—including the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle. He put twelve impressive lengths from himself and the runner up Shakem Up’arry that day and is worthy of his place high up the market as a result. Having said that, Shakem Up’arry is a far from flattering second season novice. He’s by Mastercraftsman with an inverse influence of the great Galileo-Danehill cross, with close mix of Sadler’s Wells 4 X 4 on the dam line—Danehill appears there too. With the Galileo influence also mixing with the Danehill daughter, Speirhean, on the Grand dam. It’s a beautiful pedigree, which also includes the dam being a daughter of Derby winner Authorized—a son of Montjeu. Montjeu took some time to make an impression on the Cheltenham Festival, with Hurricane Fly breaking the duck in the Champion Hurdle of 2011. Mastercraftsman shares a similarity with Montjeu in that as he has yet to sire a Cheltenham winner. At a big price, Third Time Lucki should not be discounted, despite a poor result at Musselburgh recently. That race was farcical in it’s steady pace and sprint finish which benefited the winner, Bareback Jack—who made all. If anything, I found more respect for the beaten favorite on the day as I wondered if he was more relevant on a flat speed track rather than an undulating course like Cheltenham. He beat Flic Ou Voyou by nine lengths on good to soft at Kempton but was comfortably beaten by For Pleasure in a trail for this race in November. Arcadio’s tend to go well around Cheltenham—even siring a winner in 2020 through the Harry Whittington trained Simply the Betts. I think better ground will certainly suit and a 40/1 ante post, he represents great value as that Kempton form is of a strong time. Also, he came from the back of the field in last year’s Champion Bumper where he kept company with the winner, Ferny Hollow and seemed to make his move a bit too soon. If he leaves his challenge a bit later, his quick turn of foot could cause something of an upset. Ballyadam is another who should improve for Cheltenham. I do like Appreciate It, however, it took Blue Lord .29 seconds (1,16 lengths on that ground) slower to complete the Chanelle Pharma race than it took Appreciate It and Blue Lord finished stronger too by .02 miles per hour/.16 lengths. He had been prominent in his previous races but showed to be plenty green and so they opted to hold him up at Leopardstown. Willie Mullins has since admitted that was a wrong move and he will be forwardly ridden here. Weighing up all the sectionals, he was only a length behind Appreciate It but had about ten lengths to make up. There’s little doubt that he will improve with better ground and at the prices, he is very tempting. Expect Appreciate It to be up front with Blue Lord dropped in along with Keskonrisk and Gowel Road. Ballyadam and Metier should be mid-division with Irascible and Third Time Lucki and Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory coming from off the pace.
The best two mile chasers have something a kin—the ability to lift their shoulders and keep their backs straight at their fences. Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin possess’ that very trait. He’s an immaculate jumper and he is so quick with his fores, galloping away from a fence on landing. His Wayward Lad win at Christmas was so impressive that I, like so many others, felt the Arkle was over and done with even before the turn of the year. However, nothing is so straight forward when it comes to Cheltenham and so it was to be the case with the sensational performance by the Willie Mullins trained, Energumene, in the Irish Arkle equivalent at the Dublin Racing Festival with a quicker pace and stronger finishing speed recorded—and Paul Townend struggled to pull him up afterwards. Sadly, he is a late absentee and the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices Chase Shishkin should be of a different class to Allmankind. The free going front runner has done nothing wrong over fences but the quicker he goes, the more likely it is to suit Shishkin. Allmankind’s only two defeats of his jumping career have come at Cheltenham—although he won a juvenile event at the track in 2019—and it looks as though his tactics will be hard to see through in an event with such a formidable opponent, a strong and speedy finisher in Franco du Port and also, a nuisance on Captain Guinness egging him on to go quicker. Henry de Bromhead won this last year and with any chink in Shishkin’s armory—there is none—on the day, and a better round of jumping, he looks the most likely to benefit but there’s a lot to hope for in a race where mistakes are unforgiving. I find it hard to see passed Nicky Henderson’s favorite but I think he will be a better horse for a speedier track. Nonetheless, he should be a difficult horse to catch and Willie Mullins quietly ridden Franco du Port is the most attractive each way angle. He’ll be finishing strongly from the back of a field that looks like it wants to be handy. Allmankind is going to make it with Captain Guinness prominent. I see Shishkin following them and getting a lovely lead into the race. Darver Star needs to improve but on previous form—particularly his third in last season’s Champion Hurdle—he would have a squeak of a place from behind the big guns, a tactic sure to employed by Grade 1 winner Franco de Port who could be a sneaky one staying on off a furious pace.
The first handicap of the festival comes in the form of the Ultima Handicap Chase overthree mile chase. The horses that grab my attention in this are Pym and Escara Ten. Pym looks to have three pounds up his sleeve on course and distance form when beating the Ryanair Chase favorite, Imperial Aura. That was over fourteen months ago and he pulled up at the Festival last year—albeit in the hotter company of the RSA Chase. He is a horse who wants better ground, which he is almost certain to get at Cheltenham this year. His fifth to Yorkhill at Newcastle off of 154 doesn’t read well these days. However, at Sandown in November he beat the very talented, If the Cap FIts by two and a half lengths giving him six pounds. That horses second to the 161 rated Yala Enki recently would suggest that he is 156 and therefore that would put Pym towards a 165 horse—yet he runs in this off of 153. Considering that Imperial Aura is at least rated 163 now, then the eight lengths that Pym beat him has a very attractive look to it with regards this race. He handles the course, is well in and will stay the trip on ground he relishes. Escara Ten has the option of the National Hunt Chase for Sneezy Foster but prior to the removal of his license, Gordon Elliott had suggested that this was the race for him and it’s hard to imagine Sneezy tinkering too much considering how close to the festival it was when she took over the yard. This horse placed in a Grade 3 on soft ground having previously won over the same trip of 3 miles and 1 furlong. He is very well handicapped of upwards of half a stone (eight pounds, I reckon). Novices have a great record in open handicaps for the very reason that the handicapper can’t grasp their ability in open company, usually.
The ridiculous advantage that the seven pounds mares allowance brings is such a handicap to geldings and in this years Unibet Champion Hurdle, it appears that the likes of Sharjah will once again be worse off for the outrageous benefit that the mares get. Last year he gave Epatante the weight for a three length beating..i.e, Sharjah comes out of the race the higher rated horse but not the winner. It’s hardly fair and this year, he will not only concede to the reigning champion but also the Henry de Bromhead superstar, Honeysuckle, and it is the latter that he should most fear. I was hoping she’d run in this last year but de Bromhead correctly campaigned her to win the Mares Hurdle and worked backwards this year from the Champion Hurdle. She was sensational when winning a second Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival—a success of ten lengths. It was her jumping on the day that stood out. Known to be a mare to take a few hurdles with her in the past, she was quick and low like a true champion hurdler and won by such a distance that she showed that off of level weights she’d have still won handsomely. I do fancy Sharjah to get closer at Cheltenham—especially on better ground. On unsuitable soft ground, he made up ten lengths from off the pace and finished a good second to Epatante twelve months ago. This year he will have fewer lengths to make up in what looks to be a smaller field of about ten or twelve to last year’s seventeen. Furthermore, he will be facing a field of six front runners and five horses who want to be ridden handy. Therefore, Sharjah will be the only one from off the pace and will be passing tiring horses on the ground he acts strongest on. If you compare the sectionals of the Mathewson Hurdle which he won and the Irish Champion Hurdle, won by Honeysuckle, over the same course and distance, Sharjah wins all over the race. He races to the last, quicker by 4,56 lengths and also gallops home quicker by a massive 7,88 lengths on identical ground descriptions which would favor the mare more than the Rich Ricci owned Doctor Dino gelding. For some reason, he never shows up at the Dublin Racing Festival and therefore his 0-2 score against honeysuckle can be somewhat ignored. On drying ground. I fear that the guaranteed hot pace will be very hard to keep up and with Sharjah flying home, he is massively tempting at 14/1 as the highest rated hurdler in the race—not withstanding James de Berlais’ 168 rating from his French form. Also, Sharjah is only eight—despite 28 career runs thus far—and only now coming to his physical peak. This is further backed up by his Mathewson win which according to the time and sectionals was a career best. Epatante looked a shadow of her former self when going down to Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Nothing untoward came of her well being post race which surprised me as her awkward and uncharacteristic high head carriage suggested to me that she was struggling with her wind. If she was in good health, then that gives me even less of a chance to fancy her. She got beaten by a decent sort but a horse who was a distant third at best in the 2019 Champion. Goshen’s return to winning ways was great to see but flattering as well. The clock made it an average speed of 28 miles per hour which falls well short of what will be needed even to lie up in a Champion Hurdle—even on heavy ground. A soft to heavy ground Champion Hurdle would require an average race speed of 30 mph to achieve a rating of 163. Sharjah ran to an official rating of 166 by the BHA in last year’s race when second on soft ground that he doesn’t do his best work over. Aspire Tower is an improving horse which I like but off of level weights, he will need to step forward again and his jumping can be sketchy. He will also be one of the sextet front runners. Abacadabras has been solid for most of his career around the low to mid 160’s and in last year’s Supreme, he came off a blistering pace to finish a neck second to the magnificent Shishkin, pulling eleven lengths clear of Chantry House in third. He’s another who will improve for the better ground as he is a good moving horse. I have given him every chance to convince me that he has a chance to over turn the Mares in this but even comparing the strongly run Supreme last year to the Mares Hurdle from the two mile pole and lapped at the last to the line, Abacadabras would only come out five lengths better than the Mares’ winner Honeysuckle and he has to give her seven pounds in this race. It still puts him in with a shout—particularly on the dryin ground—but his 27,37 miles per hour finish last year was 91,87% race efficiency and this will be a blisteringly run renewal of the Champion Saldier has disappointed twice this season and is hard to fancy but his best form gives him a serious chance. It has been suggested that the County is the more likely target and he is favorite for that race in the ante post markets. Potential ‘fly-in-the-ointment’ is the French recruit, James du Berlais. It is rumored that a small fortune was needed to get him across the channel to Willie Mullins’—courtesy of race heavies Issac Soude and Simon Munir—and as part of the deal, he wouldn’t move until after his autumnal campaign, therefore arriving at Closutton at the peak of fitness. As Mullins wanted him for chasing, he will be next year’s horse. However, such is the level of his fitness that connections have decided to pitch him into the best race of which he is qualified—if for nothing else to try to reclaiming some of the money that it cost for him. I am not sure I see this horse winning the Champion Hurdle, even though he will officially be the highest rated on 168. French hurdles are more like British fences and I’m not convinced that he will be educated to tackle speedier obstacles. The better ground would also be a bog concern for him. Secondly, I handicapped the French race at Auteuil that gave him the lofty mark—Prix Pierre de Lassus Hurdle—and found that a mark of 158 was more realistic. I’m not doubting his ability but rather his credentials for the assignment but here’s watching this space… It looks set to be a fascinating tactical race, with plenty of pace from Not So Sleepy, Goshen, Aspire Tower, Petit Mouchoir, Silver Streak and Honeysuckle. For Pleasure, Epatante and James de Berlais will be handy too with Saldier not too far away. That leaves Abracadabras and Sharjah to wag the tail of the field and under patient rides they could spring a surprise. If Honeysuckle can produce her best on the ground, then I think she will win comfortably by five or six lengths but it is a big ‘if’ to consider in a race that will be as reliable on tactics as it is on form. With the absence of Honeysuckle and Benie des Dieux in the Close Brothers David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, Concertista has a penalty kick. On her first run over hurdles, she was caught on the line in the Dawn Run Mares Novices Hurdle. She didn’t run again that season to retain her novice status and bolted up in the same race last year by seventeen eased down lengths. This season, she is unbeaten and as well as being the best mare in the line up, she absolutely loves Cheltenham. In the ante post betting, four of the next five in the betting are very unlikely to line up. The exception being 2019 winner, Roksana. She was a length and three quarters behind Paisley Park in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle before Christmas which is arguably the best form in this race. However, her best form since winning this two years ago has come over three miles and she was nearly twelve lengths beaten in last year’s race having never looked threatening.
There is a lot of talk of Saint Sam in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle but I’d be surprised if he lined up here rather than the Triumph. On the off chance that it happens, he would be my selection—see the Triumph for reasoning. As it stands, Joseph O’Brien’s Busselton sticks out at me and he will certainly run. His run behind Quilixios gives him eleven pounds to mess around with through the time. He got to three and three parts of a length to Triumph favorite, Zanahiyr, on Boxing Day at Leopardstown and is already a Listed winner in France. Mastercraftsman has yet to sire a Festival winner, however, Wolf of Windlesham was a course winner as a juvenile. The trainer also knows his way around juvenile winners at the meeting. Band of Outlaws won this race for him in 2019 and although the name wasn’t yet over the door when Ivanovich Gorbatov won the Triumph Hurdle in 2016, he did oversee the training of the winner. Nigel Hawke’s Historic Heart was four and three parts of a length behind Adagio over course and distance in December, giving the winner three pounds. However, Fiveandtwenty beat him by four lengths in receipt of four pounds at Musselburgh in the Scottish Triumph Hurdle since then. Nevertheless, he would be ten pounds well handicapped for this race and of obvious interest. Balko Saint is well treated by ten pounds through the race over course and distance behind the very talented Duffle Coat and Adagio. He has since took on slightly older rivals who should be more physically mature and beat 11/10 fav Robin’s Dream by a neck with 21 lengths back to the third, Earth Lord. That race came less than two weeks before this and even though he got weight that day and also claimed off of it, it was a good win against a solid rival who had been a length and a quarter behind the useful Gallyhill at Newbury in January but took a fall in between at Sandown.
A cloudy ante post picture for the Sam Vestey National Hunt Chase is due to the uncertainty of runners lining up. Top of them is Rich Ricci’s Royale Pagaille who is the clear favorite in the four miler—or three mile six furlong and so many yardser thanks to animal rights exaggerations. The Venetia Williams runner is a novice in name because he has the experience of nine chase starts. He is in the Gold Cup also and he wouldn’t be out of place in that based on his destruction of the Peter Marsh field. He gave 16 lengths beating and twenty pounds to the 134 rated Potters Legend. The form took a hit in the Grand National Trial back at Haydock when the runner up in the Peter Marsh was beaten by almost forty lengths off of the same mark. However, the time of the Peter Marsh backs up the performance of Royale Pagaille and he got a mark of 166 by the handicapper after the race. While I would like his Gold Cup chances on his ability, his unorthodox jumping would see me favor him running in this and it looks as if connections will run here. He ran a lot of steeplechase’s in France and the French fences are far more demanding than regulation fences in Britain. He puts plenty of air at some of his obstacles and in a Gold Cup that would be unforgivable for his chances. In the National Hunt Chase, however, he would get away with it over the trip and against the inferior opposition, at least potentially. He would be a mile clear on ratings and the trip should be no issue after that Peter Marsh win. Should he go for the blue ribband, then this turns into a saucy contest. Coko Beach is sure to line up and his Thyestes Chase victory puts him firmly in the picture. He wasn’t beaten awfully far by Envoi Allen in the Drinmore—16 1/2 lengths to be exact. That’s decent form against the mighty talent of Envoi Allen. He stayed well over three and a quarter miles at Gowran that day and would have to be respected. One of the best novice chases run in Britain or Ireland this season was the Mongey Communications Beginners Chase at Naas in late November. Janidil won it but he misses Cheltenham. Longhouse Poet, January Jets, Espanito Bello and Mr Hendricks all won subsequently. Longhouse Poet sticks out most of all because he won next time beating Run Wild Fred (second in the Thyestes) and The Big Dog (won the Grand National Trial) over three miles and over a furlong. He could go very close in this race and without the favorite would be a tempting bet. Galvin qualified for this race early by winning a three mile chase at Cheltenham last October. He’s been kept fresh for this and he has good course form—second in the Northern Trust Novices Handicap Chase at last year’s festival and he is unbeaten since. The horse that beat him—Imperial Aura—is vying for favoritism in the Ryanair Chase so the form is strong. I like Galvin a lot but I have a slight concern about the trip for him. He was ridden to get all of three miles at Cheltenham and while the pace will be strong in this through Next Destination, Longhouse Poet and possibly, Lord Royal, there will be enough of dour stayers ahead of him too in the favorite and Coko Beach with the Welsh National winner, Secret Repreive keeping Galvin company throughout the race and Secret Reprieve is a horse who has proven he has the stamina for the trip. Run Wild Fred will stay all day and would be another for the shortlist but he would be more likely to run in the Kim Muir and even though he would be close top weight, he’s have a huge chance there and connections may want to spread the chips. I’ve been a Lord Royal fan since day one and although his chasing career got off to a dramatically slow start—thanks to a spectacular fall and a distant fifth second time up. Upped in trip to three miles brough out the best in him and he was only narrowly denied by Mr Hendricks most recently with Grand National Trial winner, The Big Dog, four and a quarter lengths back in third. With a clear round, Lord Royal could threaten with the extended trip to play to his strengths.
The high end of the novice hurdlers have bottle necked into the Ballymore Novices Hurdle. Gaillard du Mesnil, Bob Olinger and Bravemansgame all hold big chances and it is hard to separate them for a variety of reasons. Gaillard du Mesnil won a hot contest—Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Novices Hurdle (Grade 1)—by a keeping on five lengths from Gentlemansgame and Albert Bartlett favorite, Stattler (a short head behind the runner up). His maiden hurdle win at Christmas, over two and a half miles, was a demolition job, beating next time out winners, Mr Incredible (9 1/2 lengths), and Magic Daze (18 lengths) back in third. He has a major chance on the form of his last two runs. He’s by Saints des Saints so he won’t be lacking for stamina up the Cheltenham hill. The phrase ‘could be anything’ firmly applies to Henry de Bromhead’s Bob Olinger, a Grade One winner at Naas in January. He destroyed Dunboyne in a maiden over two and a half miles, and he has since broke his maiden tag. It is the Naas win—Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle—that catches the eye, mainly through the clock. It was such a strong time that this horse would be warranting an extremely high rating—of which I abstained to offer over the volatility of the form, in that Blue Lord and Gabynako (second and third, respectively) haven’t franked it to the extremity of the rating. Blue Lord was a good third to Appreciate It, dropping back to two miles at the Dublin Racing Festival, whereas Gabynako trailed home eleventh of twenty two—beaten over eighteen lengths—in the Ladbrokes Handicap Hurdle, albeit after a crucial mistake. That’s why he falls under the ‘could be anything’, rather than confirming that he is the real thing. I do give him the benefit of the doubt and he is of great interest. Bravemansgame was beaten on hurdling debut by the subsequent Betfair Hurdle winner, Soaring Glory, but hasn’t looked back since—particularly when upped in trip. He was a a ten length winner of the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle, most recently, beating a previous Grade 2 winner by ten lengths. He’s been likened to Denman but that is more due to the similar campaign that his trainer is taking with him to that he took with the mighty Presenting back in 2005/6. The kiss of death cliche ‘whatever he does over hurdles is a bonus’ has been lauded around the Brave Mansonnien five year old but he does shape as if a summer’s grass and the prospect of fences next season will play to his strengths. In the mean time, the sectionals of his victories have been very impressive—to the point that I think he is the best novice hurdler so far this season (although Bob Olinger’s aforementioned Naas victory could be huge). It’s a tough race to call for all the right reasons and I am eagerly waiting this contest. Another to mention at a price is Kim Bailey’s course and distance winner, Does He Know. He was well beaten in a Pertemps qualifier having run out in the Challow but he has won twice around the course and distance of the Ballymore. He beat twice since winner, Midnight River, in October, and recent handicap hurdle winner, Polish, at the Open Meeting. That rival ran to about 136 in the Newbury handicap, upped to three miles, which on back handicapping would rate Does He Know in the high 140’s (although the time would suggest even higher). Bravemansgame is the highest rated in the race on 150, so on ratings alone Does He Know would have to have a massive each way chance. I woouldn’t be surprised if Gaillard du Mesnil were to force the pace with Bob Olinger handy and with Bravemansgamea Lao wanting to be up there it will prove to be a strongly run race.Brown Advisory Festival Chase sees the flawless Monkfish lining up. He keeps on improving and looks impossible to oppose in the three mile novice chase of the meeting. A festival winner over the trip in 2020 (Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle), his fencing has been superb and he stays all day and isn’t slow. This is a horse worthy of Denman comparisons for all those traits. His biggest danger looks to be Latest Exhibition of whom he has beaten on all three occasions and with a widening gap each time. I don’t get the queries by commentators that he might not stay. They obviously have a very short memory as he fought with the heart of a lion to stay the stamina sapping Albert Bartlett to win against some formidable rivals, having been headed at the back o the last. There’s also been ghost claims of sketchy jumping whereas Monkfish has been sensational—considering he’s a novice—up to this point. I even would go so far as to say that Monkfish has shown to be the most talented horse in training at the moment. He has to prove something to convince the masses, I’m sure, but the times of his wins and the overall performances on the eye have blown me away. I can’t see him beaten. Latest Exhibition may not even show up, with connections suggesting that they will try to avoid Willie Mullins’ Stowaway gelding. If he were to run here, you’d have to imagine he’d be second again at best. There is a question about his jumping but perhaps the impeccable leaper, Monkfish, has been showing him up in races. Next Destination was a very good novice hurdler for Willie Mullins and has trained on well for Paul Nicholls as a chaser. He keeps plenty to himself and will never win in the style of Monkfish. It’s hard to fancy him to beat the favorite but he’s a quality horse in his own right and may just be one of those horses that just does enough, in which case his chances would be greater than obvious. I have actually rated him to parity with Latest Exhibition and he seems to jump well so perhaps he has better credentials than Monkfish’ adversary to finish second best. Royale Pagaille is an almost certain non runner unless something happens to Monkfish. I would just like to mention that in the favorite’s absence, this is the horse of which I would fancy—presuming he would be a super sub for owner Rich Ricci. There is something to say about his unorthodox jumping—almost like an old Supreme Leader. However, his background in France is more likely the source of this. He learned his trade jumping Auteuil’s daunting fences and came to the U.K wanting to jump much bigger than regulation fences require. His Peter Marsh Chase win by 16 lengths puts him not only in the picture for whatever novice race he runs in, but the Gold Cup itself if he is to go down that route. Pound to pound rating suggest he would now be revised to a mark of 170—the time brings it to 173—but the BHA were a bit more lenient on 166, nevertheless a high rating. Eklat de Rire took Grade 3 honors at Naas recently and easily saw off Pencilfulloflead that day but had Escara Ten closet to him by a length and three quarters. The horse stays very well and on only his third career start he will test Monkfish from the front. Longhouse Poet is also most likely a National Hunt Chase runner but for reasons mentioned in that section, he’d be given a chance if he were to line up, in the absence of Monkfish of course. Eklat de Rire and Next Destination will no doubt be forwardly ridden with Monkfish taking a lead off of them. The minefield that is the Coral Cup is a good advert for the difficulty with previewing a handicap with uncertainty as to what will actually line up. Especially with the introduction of the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle. The whispers in the preview circuits—which can be deafeningly misleading at the best of times—are suggesting that at least two of my antepost fancies will line up elsewhere but in handicapping relevance both Ganapathi and Gabynako should be taken seriously. Grand Roi is a worthy favorite. He ran with great credit behind the evergreen and very much in form, Bachasson in the Limestone Lad Hurdle—conceding seven pounds and beaten under five lengths. His close third to an in form Beacon Edge also looks good. Grand Roi beat the very useful Wolf Prince by eight lengths at Limerick in a Grade 2 over Christmas and on three separate occasions, I have found this horse to be rated 156 which makes him seven pounds well handicapped. The wheels have fallen off of the early season promise shown by Kim Bailey’s Does He Know. He ran out in the Challow Hurdle and was tailed off in a Pertemps Qualifier—though the race conditions of a Coral Cup should be more up his street. The old adage of ‘horses for courses’ applies to this horse, who is two from two on this course and distance. He beat Midnight River by four and three quarter lengths in October with the runner up winning for Dan Skelton on the Ascot Chase Card. The second of his two wins came in beating subsequent handicap winner, Polish (3rd) by eight lengths—both runs should put him six pounds well in. Another course specialist is Botox Has, though he has to prove his likening for the trip having won twice and finsihed second once over two miles at Cheltenham. He reversed course form on Allmankind by two pounds in the space of a year but like Does He Know, he needs to draw a line through a few poor runs. Having said that, he ran well off of 144 at Ascot last time and he has been dropped by two pounds since. Of last year’s form, Alfa Mix comes off the best, coming a length closer to the front—that is if Bachasson doesn’t line up as expected. In which case, he improves by some twelve lengths. Reigning champion Politologue, is a horse that has been under appreciated. Not only has he won the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase last season but he also has a Melling Chase victory over Min, and two Tingle Creeks to his name. The win in this last season and his second Tingle Creek win in December, were victories out of the top drawer. I suspect the reason he is not getting the recognition that he deserves is because the quality of fields that he beat were not of the standard usually associated with the respective races. However, in beating Dynamite Dollars and Bun Doran (both rated 160), he attained the quality of performance figure deserving of a 170 mark through his near ten lengths win. The time of the race was also very impressive. He made his seasonal reappearance in the Sandown show-piece and beat Rouge Vif (164) by eight and three parts, with nine more back to Castlegrace Paddy (154) giving an honest look to the place distances. This would put Politologue above the 170 threshold and into 173 territory, again backed by the time. It was his Clarence House Chase defeat in January that left the majority of racing commentators to suggest that he had been over-rated but that to me is shockingly bad race reading. As well as the fact that he didn’t strip well in the paddock pre-race, but he didn’t get a great ride from Harry Cobden. I’m not one to criticize jockeys—particularly when I rate one as highly as Cobden—but I feel the rider is capable of far better than kicking on at such a rate and allowing himself to be collared by First Flow so far out. First Flow is a fair horse but while he was an impressive winner on the day—and a great result for the legend Kim Bailey—the rating he achieved in handicap company on his penultimate start, as well as the time at Ascot, suggest that he is a 156 horse and unlikely to win the Champion Chase but further more it reflects on bad analysis from pundits as even if they truly believe Politologue to be overrated, one couldn’t possible consider that he is seven lengths inferior to First Flow—making the reigning champ a 154. My concern for Paul Nicholls’ grey is one of a different source and the presence of a potential superstar in Willie Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi. Like many, I was concerned that this horse was a weak finisher but in the Dublin Chase, he belied those fears with an authoritous display while seemingly running at a canter. The Policy Maker gelding was almost half asleep under Paul Townend until approaching the final fence where he jumped quickly to the lead and put five lengths between himself and runner up Fakir D’oudaries, in just two strides. The horse has never had a clearer run than this season and judging by his improvement from run to run—this being the only season he has run three times—it seems evident that he takes time to be ripe. Also, the stronger pace improves his jumping and he is assured that at Cheltenham. I don’t think there has been much between Politologue and Chacun Pour Soi on all known evidence but I’m confident that the Chacun has more up his sleeve, after analyzing that Dublin Chase closely. It’s hard to really fancy Altior as there is enough evidence that he is on the decline—albeit from very lofty heights. Of course, even on recent runs he is capable of winning this for a third time but it appears that others are in a better place than him now. Furthermore, he has had a poor preparation with only the one run this season. That was in defeat to Nube Negra at Kempton in the Desert Orchid. Altior did concede weight that day, to the tune of six pounds for a three and a half length defeat so there is every reason to believe that off of level weights he would turn the form. The addition of cheek pieces is a good move in my opinion. Nube Negra is just a six year old and is on the up so it could also be argued inversely. I would love to see a big run from Nube Negra, if for nothing more than the avenues it opens up in the breeding and buying and selling circles. This horse is by Dink out of a Highest Honour mare which makes his pedigree very much on the French side. Mixing the Sadler’s Wells and Kenmare bloodlines proved hugely successful with dual Champion Hurdler, Hurricane Fly. Unlike the ‘hurricane’, Nube Negra was bred in Spain and raced on the flat there. He raced seven times on the flat at La Zarzuela racecourse in the north of Madrid. A big run in a Queen Mother Champion Chase would be huge for the industry in Spain—akin to when Willie Mullins sourced from the AQPS system in France. It looks to be a great race and I think everything points to a Chacun Pour Soi victory, giving Willie Mullins his first Queen Mother Champion Chase. The strong pace and likelihood that a lot of these will be forward ridden will allow Chacun to follow at ease and make his move as late as he can. The hill will always be a question until he races there but there should be plenty under the bonnet for this easy traveling, strong galloper. The pace is likely to come from First Flow with Politologue not far away. There will be no rush with Chacun Pour Soi and Nube Negra will be waited with. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Altior forcibly ridden.
In 2019 and 2020, the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase was run on ground described as ‘soft’. The difference between Tiger Roll’s performances between 2019 and 2020 is 169.28 lengths in arrears. It should be taken with a pinch of salt the genuineness of time in a banks race, however, that it some swing. Furthermore, the reigning champion Easysland, had previously won a course and distance handicap off of 139 with 13 lengths back to Out Sam (140), which would review the performance as a 153 to the winner. It’s hard to imagine that Tiger Roll—as inferior as he was last year to 2019—is 17 lengths behind Easysland at a figure of 136. Easysland subsequently failed to land a blow off of 167 in a course and distance handicap. He was beaten nine lengths by the 127 Kingswell Theatre, who ran from out of the handicap. The runner up was rated 132, so by compensating the weight and the four lengths distance, Easysland realistically ran to 150. Suffice it to say, I don’t trust an inch of last season’s race. While twice Grand National winner Tiger Roll is surely receding at his sensational talent at the age of 11—I am willing to give him every chance of regaining his Cross Country title if he can show up in good health and on better ground. After all, it is a race where veterans and former winners can strike in the latter years—Spotthedifference, Native Jack, Garde Champetre, A New Story, Sizing Australia and Balthazar King fall into either/or category. I’ve been an Embittered fan for some time now and his form in novice chases suggest that the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase could be his long awaited big day, off of a generous mark of 146—Chosen Mate won the race last year off of a pound higher. While he has been no match for the likes of Franco de Port and Energumene in a couple of Grade 1’s at Leopardstown, he has steadily improved in those defeats and he did likewise over hurdles last year before finishing a close third in the County Hurdle off of the same rating and behind a supposedly well handicapped Willie Mullins runner. The better ground will benefit this horse who is out of a Classic Cliche mare and from a Sadler’s Hall dam. Tamaroc du Mathan may not line up so soon after his Pendil win and he has acted best on flat tracks but he would be ten pounds well handicapped in the race if he did line up for Paul Nicholls. I didn’t just figure that out from Kempton but also his second to Shishkin—albeit a distant 13 lengths but to an exceptional animal.
The Weatherbys Champion Bumper seems to be all about the new stablemates Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard. The latter has usurped the former as favorite and I can only assume that this has been the case due to the preview evening circuit as it seems everyone is out to pick on Kilcruit. Kilcruit bolted up in a peculiarly run race at the Dublin Racing Festival where they went far too quick and he stayed on best. The question is whether or not that he would have the pace required for a Champion Bumper as they will also finish quickly rather than just staying on. Kilcruit is most definitely bred to stay much further, whereas Sir Gerhard would be a speedier type but the Champion Bumper is often won by stayers rather than quicker horses. Three Stripe Life represents Sneezy Foster and he beat a Mustameet gelding of Shark Hanlon’s by nine lengths with the runner up carrying a seven pound claimer. It was a heavy ground Bumper around Navan which would suggest that Three Stripe Life will have no problem with the Cheltenham Hill and being by St Leger winner, Leading Light, he will stay strongly. It was also his one and only run and therefore there should be plenty of improvement to come. He is out of a Doyoun mare and his page is all about better ground. Three Stripe Life is a fascinating runner against two very strong favorites. With twelve career starts—including a point to point—Envoi Allen has never tasted defeat. Four Bumper wins, four over hurdles and three over fences with two Cheltenham Festival wins in the first two disciplines. He gots for Chase start number four in the Marsh Novices Chase and despite the ‘trade’ papers ridiculous claims that he is “not that good”, the fact of the matter is that the Beginners Chase that he “only” won by seven lengths was to beat January Jets—who came third next time out where all the first six have now won over fences—a winner, himself, at Christmas to break his chasing maiden to the tune of fifteen lengths. Envoi Allen has beaten all before him, including when getting the better of the short price favorite in his point to point—a certain Supreme Novices Hurdle clear favorite, Appreciate It. Sadly, there is no Davy Russell to partner the Muhtathir gelding but in able deputy, Jack Kennedy, Sneezy Foster’s charge has little to worry about in terms of the pilot. Envoi Allen is a superb jumper—very like Douvan—in that you sometimes don’t even realise he is coming up. His hurdling form shows his fantastic change of gears with the stand alone performance in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle advertising the strong stamina he possesses. He seems to have all the attributes to be a proper Gold Cup horse. Like Monkfish in the Festival Novices Chase, not only is he a superb candidate for his assignment this year but the opposition is not of the greatest quality. The next two in the betting for this race are Monkfish and Energumene, neither of which will show up. Therefore, Kauto Star Novices Chase winner, Shan Blue, is the likeliest biggest challenger in terms of the market. He has twenty seven lengths to find on the favorite based on Cheltenham Festival form from last year but he does appear a bigger and stronger horse for a summer’s grass. I’m not sure that his form over fences comes close to even worrying a fully fit and healthy Envoi Allen. At Kempton, he beat The Big Breakaway. The Colin Tizzard string were in woeful form at the time and The Big Breakaway was beaten on his previous start by Bold Plan who finsihed last of seven next time— beaten 31 lengths by a horse rated 129. On his next start, Shan Blue was collared close home in the Scilly Isles by Sporting John under an inspired Richard Johnson ride. Sporting John is far from a comfortable jumper of a fence and as admirable as he is for what strengths he has to his game, jumping looks to be something that will let him down on the big day and yet he still won at Sandown. As well as Sporting John, JP McManus also owns Chantry House. I’d fancy his claims more as he jumps well and will need to in a fast unfolding race like this. He also stays well, as he showed when winning over two miles and five furlongs at Wetherby recently. 20/1 Allart would be next and he has tipped up recently when odds on for a Haydock event. Chatham Street Lad will represent the colorful, Mick Winters, and he has course and distance winning form in the big December Handicap—Caspian Caviar Gold Cup. However, he failed to capitalize on a seemingly generous mark of 151 in the Dan Moore and that get within an ass roar of Envoi Allen. In fact, I don’t think any of these lays a glove on him. Envoi Allen looks a superstar and I think it is a case of how far he wins by and set up a mouthwatering clash with Monkfish in the future. Recent last minute stable moves have been a concern but Henry de Bromhead reports him in great form and that’s enough for me.
The Pertemps Final Handicap Hurdle is a particularly rewarding handicap comparison and I have found the winners three times since first handicapping in 2016. They came through Presenting Percy (when an entire nation with stubborn patriotism refused to believe he was well assessed), Delta Work and Sire du Berlais (predicting the one two, The Storyteller was next best in). The only year of which I failed to find the winner in comparison handicapping was 2019 when I only came as close as sixth—albeit with the 25/1 shot, Theclockisticking. The mostly likely contender to continue the trend is Paul Nolan’s mare, Mrs Milner. She came to a neck in defeat behind On the Blind Side over the course and distance in November and followed that up with a qualifying run behind Dandy Mag at Leopardstown in December—finishing fourth and beaten eleven lengths. It’s her course form that is most noteworthy and would give her an advantage of nine pounds in the Final. There will be sixteen pounds between her and long time favorite, The Bosses Oscar, whereas the gap was nine at Leopardstown in the qualifier. Obviously, it would mean that Mrs Milner would still need to improve three lengths on that run but again, her course and distance run in November gets her not only there but ahead of the fav by six lengths. The Bosses Oscar is a good prospect also, but his conqueror Dandy Mag would still be more favorably treated at the weights from Leopardstown. Storm Arising continues to defy the handicapper and has won off of two pounds higher that his close second in his qualifier. He keeps enough to himself in his small margin victories leaving the handicapper snookered to justify in promoting him significantly and is only up four pounds from his recent Chepstow win.
The Ryanair Chase is one of my favorite races of the week, although it can quiet often be late before it forms itself. This year seems to be an exception and Willie Mullins looks set to hold a all the aces. Reigning champion Min, heads at least a three strong attack from Closutton with perennial festival runner up Melon looking to atone his narrow defeats in the past and likely favorite Allaho hoping the drop back from three miles to play to his strengths. The issue for the Mullins team is that all three want to make the running and this may lead to them cancelling each other’s attempts out. That certainly seems to be the opinion of a lot of shrewd judges, however, I feel that in Allaho that Mullins has a horse that has a huge stride and can cruise at the pace of the likely strong gallop. Furthermore, he stays further than this and I feel he will out gun the other two. I’m a big fan of the other two but Allaho for me looks the one best designed to win of this trio. Had the RSA Chase 2020 been over this trip, Allaho would have beaten Gold Cup fancies Champ and Minella Indo but as it was he didn’t see it out over three miles. It isn’t just Willie Mullins that has a strong hand in this. Kim Bailey sends festival winner, Imperial Aura, back for more glory. He is certainly a decent horse and would be unbeaten since last year’s win the Novice Handicap Chase were it not for a fall in the Silvinaico Conti Chase. Such was the commanding win by Master Tommytucker that it would have had to been something special from Imperial Aura to win and as good as he is, I don’t think that there is a single piece of known form that puts him in Min, Allaho and Melon’s league. Saint Calvados was a very close second last year and he doesn’t seem to stay the trips of which he has been campaigned over this season. At eight years of age, eh looks to be a horse where progression is very likely and at 9/1 has to be in with a shout. Real Steal has a chance on his Gold Cup run in 2020. He cantered into the race before failing to see out the extended trip but it was a very steady Gold Cup last year and this will be a frenetic pace. Samcro is the dark horse in the race and it is hard to imagine using that descriptor for a horse who in 2018 was the second coming. He won the Marsh last year from the aforementioned Melon but this seasons form is stink and it would be a brave call to fancy him on that. Dashel Drasher deserves respect too after his win the Grade 1 Ascot Chase but I think Allaho ticks all the boxes and looks the best value of the week.
The precursor to the Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle has been Paisley Park V Thyme Hill and in many ways, the British form looks key. However, with the latter now a non runner the Irish form has been reconsidered to find an alternative to the 2019 winner and rightly so as some of the the traveling team should be discounted at your peril. Firstly, the form tells us that the market is correct. Paisley Park is a former champion who was returning from a minor issue when getting his season off at Newbury behind the Phillip Hobbs trained Thyme Hill. He was also conceding weight on the day so defeat was excused. He only went down by a length and a half for a three pound concession on the day. Secondly, the rematch in the Long Walk Hurdle saw Paisley Park fly home to catch Thyme Hill in the shadows of the post. Sire du Berlais was beaten by Flooring Porter at Leopardstown over Christmas but there are so many holes to pick on that form. Not only was Flooring Porter beaten in a handicap off of 131 two starts previous but Sire du Berlais’ Cheltenham course and distance winning form (twice in the last two running’s of the Pertemps) would vindicate him as a 161 horse and far superior to the winner on the day. It was a very strangely run race but was allowed to be dictated by the winning rider, Jonathon Moore, who went unchallenged in front and could dictate the fractions as he chose. I think a truer contest would definitely see a different result. Fury Road was back in fourth but he was found to be unwell and suffered a colic after the race. He was ahead of Thyme Hill at Cheltenham in the Albert Bartlett last season, when he finished third to Monkfish—beaten only a neck and a head. He returned to good health and in February’s running of the Boyle Hurdle, he was narrowly denied by progressive Beacon Edge when giving him two pounds for a neck defeat. It was run close to his best and with no shame in being beaten by the horse that beat him. It was also short of his best. That rival looks set for a trip to Liverpool over the Cotswolds but Fury Road will go here. The form of that Albert Bartlett is the stand out bit of form that would give him a big chance here off of a big price. Lisnagar Oscar was my secret weapon going into Cheltenham 2020 and he obliged at huge prices—eventually 50/1 SP. Trouble with his wind was rectified after poor runs at Wetherby and Newbury, and he returned to something close to his best in the Rendlesham at Haydock when fighting bravely off of a huge pace, giving the winner Third Wind six pounds. He only lost out by three parts of a length and will no doubt come on for the run. The challenge of the Stayers Hurdle will play to Rebecca Curtis’ stable stars strengths and he stays well. I think the 25/1 about him is huge each way value again and I believe he will run his best race of the season in this. The Storyteller has a big following and is sure to be supported for place claims and I can see him running on late to pick up the pieces and I’m sure his rider will be keeping close tabs on Paisley Park from a similar position. It looks to be a strong pace and expect several big guns to be off the bridle early but that is the true test of a stayer—see Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s over Thistlecrack. Beacon Edge is an intriguing runner for Noel Meade. He beat Fury Road a neck in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan—though he was in receipt of two pounds—and I am fascinated as to how it would have played out over three furlongs further because we know Fury Road stays, based on last seasons Albert Bartlett third, but does Beacon Edge stay better? He disappointed in a drop back to two miles behind Bachasson in the Limestone Lad, having been only beaten a half length and a head by Honeysuckle in the Hatton’s Grace, giving the super mare the seven pounds mares allowance. Furthermore, he was eleven pounds superior than Grand Roi at Galway in October but a length/pound behind him over the minimum distance at Naas. The pedigree suggests that Beacon Edge may come up short over three miles. Both the dam and granddam produced winners up to two miles and five furlongs and Doyen is equal known for his two, to two and a half milers but his best National Hunt produce is Battleoverdoyen who has won a Grade 1 chase over three miles and Beacon Edge could still be seen of a potential each way value. Lisnagar Oscar nearly made all at Haydock last time and if he goes out in front again here he won’t be an easy horse to pass off of a strong pace which Paisley Park may drift back on but he will stay to the line.
Of all the handicaps at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, the closest I came to the BHA on ratings was in the Paddy Power Plate Handicap Chase with only 1,42 pounds median difference. Of all those, Fils D’oudaries is the most roguish at the weights for his second place behind Envoi Allen in the Killiney Novice Chase. He was more recently stuffed by Monkfish but the sinisterly of sides to me concerned my attention at the timing of the race well prior to the handicappers publications for the Festival. He is twelve pounds well in on previous form and Joseph O’Brien—who comes to this year’s meeting with plenty of dark horses—could have a sneaky one for a big handicap here. Espoir de Guye also looks well treated (four pounds) and was only a length and three parts second to Espoir de Teilee at Warwick recently, carrying only two pounds less. A concern would be that he pulled up at the festival last year behind Imperial Aura in the since disbanded Novices Handicap Chase. Willie Mullins has won all five renewals of the Dawn Run Mares Novices Hurdle through Limini, Let’s Dance, Laurina, Eglantine du Seuil and Concertista. This renewal is by far the best so far and of significant strength and depth in the form of Gauloise, Hook Up, Roseys Hollow, The Glancing Queen, Royal Kahala, Skyace and Glens of Antrim heading a strong field. It’s hard to really get to grips wit the novice mares as mares don’t over race themselves, in general and the true extent of the form can often be cloudy. The one with the most eye catching form, for me, is Hook Up—Mullins again. She beat Gars de Sceaux by twelve lengths in her maiden win, before credit in defeat behind Appreciate It at Grade 1 level at the Dublin Racing Festival. In between those runs she was beaten by Royal Kahala, when it looked as though she didn’t stay the extra three furlongs. She will need to stay around Cheltenham’s New Course, but she did run to the line at Leopardstown to claim a very good fourth. She’d be very attractive in handicap company on that run but I would expect her to run here. The aforementioned, Royal Kahala, came second in the Solerina to Roseys Hollow but there was a difference of four pounds in the winners favor and not enough in the winning distance to suggest the runner up didn’t come out with more credit. Peter Fahey’s runner looks to give him a good day out and won’t be far away on the day. The form also ties in Gauloise, who was only a length and a half behind Royal Kahala in the Solerina. She doubled her advantage over Mighty Blue from their previous meeting so she is seemingly going the right way. The Glancing Queen was eight in last season’s Champion Bumper—-having been fourth the previous year, beaten seven lengths by Envoi Allen—and she has run six times in the interim of which four were hurdle runs and two All Weather starts. She has won two of those hurdle starts and ran with credit behind Wilde About Oscar last time but I feel the Irish mares have the upper hand on her on all known form. Queens Brook was third in that Bumper and she was beaten by Skyace who gave her four pounds when a head separated them at Down Royal in October. The winner won again at Punchestown since then, taking the Voler la Vedette Hurdle but despite the good look of the Down Royal win, the form form Punchestown doesn’t have the greatest of shines to it. Glens of Antrim’s second to stablemate Stattler, has a great read to it now—the winner is the favorite for the Albert Bartlett—and she has a massive chance on that run to emulate stablemate Concertista by breaking her duck over hurdles in this event.
With Run Wild Fred and Truckin’ Away ruled out late for the Fluke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase I had to go back to the drawing board for the race. Of what stands, the key looks to have fallen on last year’s form. The winner, Milan Native, isn’t back but the next four are. The twice runner up, Kilfilum Cross is three pounds better off than twelve months ago and is now guaranteed a run—making it an inferior race to twelve months ago on the ratings of the bottom weight. Of course, he would have an outstanding chance as he would be the winner without Milan Native. Plan of Attack needs to find almost five lengths on Kilfilum Cross but he has been given a good chance off of two pounds lower this year. However, Bob Mahler for Warren Greatrex is five pounds better off and only needs to find a length and a half on last year’s second. It means it is very tight between Kilfilum Cross and Bob Mahler this year. So then it comes to recent form and Bob Mahler comes into this race having finished a distant third in the Edinburgh national, having won it last year. The fifth home in 2020 was Deise Aba. He came into the race having won the Virgin Bet Masters Handicap Chase off of 135 and this year he won it off of 137 and yet will still run off of last year’s mark of 142 and as mentioned, it’s likely to be a lower grade of handicap this year. It could be argued that even though he has seven lengths to find, he is the most obvious form horse of last year’s race. If you played the devil’s advocate handicap, Deise Aba is where the focal point of last years race is and therefore the others have regressed to his level but Cheltenham can flatten recent form with a power packed punch of past course form.
Zanahiyr has long been the clear favorite for the JCB Triumph Hurdle until the recent rise of Tritonic. His Adonis win by ten lengths to Casa Loupi was a massive step up from his debut as he beat the same rival by a length at Ascot. Thirty four lengths back in fifth at the Berkshire track was Stepney Causeway who won next time out, beating Designer Destiny by fourteen lengths with a pound in benefit. By a son of Sea the Stars, in the improving National Hunt sire Sea the Moon, and out of a Selkirk mare, the pedigree would suggest that Tritonic may be more suitable to a flat track—although Selkirk did sire a Champion Hurdler in Sublimity. Of Sea the Moon’s top six National Hunt progeny, only Allmankind has acted around Cheltenham and in his three experiences at Prestbury Park since,he has the sole victory. Allmankind was third in this last year as one of the favorites and would have been a distant fourth but for the unfortunate exit of Goshen at the last with the race at his mercy. Quilixios is a rarity as he runs in the Triumph hurdle without a novice tag. In fact, I was unaware that the race was open outside novice company. He is unbeaten in four starts over hurdles and won impressively at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle—a race that has proven a huge trial over the years. Like the many horses that moved from Gordon Elliott’s so close to the festival, the concern is not the form or credentials to win the race—of which he holds strong claims—but rather the sudden change of surroundings and potentially feed and routine. Otherwise, he has a huge chance. Zanahiyr is representing Sneezy Foster and the ease of his triumvirate of success’ in an unbeaten campaign make shim of obvious appeal. The Nathaniel gelding easily brushed aside Busselton at Leopardstown over Christmas having previously annihilated Saint Sam at Fairyhouse. I’d have a slight concern that Saint Sam is getting closer to him on their progression of meetings and I am not sure he is the banker that so many in Ireland believe that he is. I think that Saint Sam is an improving horse who had a lot of ground to cover in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle and ran better than the finishing distance suggest. He overturned form on Busselton—improving ten lengths—behind Quilixios and the improving Saints des Saints gelding will relish the test of the Triumph Hurdle and it’s emphasis on stamina as well as the speed of two miles. I can see him getting much closer to Quilixios and if the above concerns come to fruition then Saint Sam deserves plenty of respect. French Aseel won by twenty two lengths at Leopardstown over Christmas and did so by beating Colton back in second, who disappointed at Punchestown before getting off the mark at Naas in January. He moved from Ellmarie Holden’s to Willie Mullins after that win and he has given him time to come right with Cheltenham in mind—a move that resembles a Mullins masterstroke. French Fifteen hasn’t sired a horse rated over 122 in the jumps game but his sire, Turtle Bowl, had the success of a 160 rated, Bapaume, and a 153, Ivan Grozny, and it is easy to see why Mullins has subscribed to the line. Furthermore, Ivan Grozny was a Suave Dance mare who was a son of Green Dancer and French Aseel is out of another granddaughter of Green Dancer, by Green Tune. He also has similarities to Bapaume’s page in that the dam line of the mare goes back to two powerful sires of broodmares in Kenmare and Blushing Groom. Ivan Grozny bolted up in a four year old maiden hurdle at Naas but found Cheltenham’s undulations too demanding when finishing twelfth in the Fred Winter, albeit in handicap company. Similarly, Bapaume enjoyed a strong juvenile campaign in keeping strong company in the ultra tough triumvirate of Landofhopeandglory and Mega Fortune but Defi du Seuil was too strong for them in the Triumph. My suspicions lead me to think that if the similarities of pedigrees reach to parity on the track, then French Aseel may be one for a track like Aintree—as was Ivan Grozny—rather than Cheltenham, though his future looks bright nonetheless, courtesy of the careful campaigning of the Master of Closutton.
At the time of writing, Third Time Lucki was looking more than likely to swerve the Supreme Novices Hurdle and run in the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle instead and he would be well handicapped in this race by almost a stone—thirteen pounds to be precise. He will relish the better ground that will be fresh on this track for Gold Cup day. As well as a good time in winning at Kempton on Boxing Day, he has decent course form too. In last year’s Champion Bumper, he kept Ferny Hollow company throughout the race, anchored in rear. He made his move marginally sooner than the eventual winner and actually gave him a nice lead from a half mile out. He eventually finished fewer than five lengths back in fourth. There will be no Ferny Hollow or, indeed, Appreciate It in this race and off of 143, this horse looks very well handicapped for the County Hurdle expert, Dan Skelton—who has trained three of the last five winners of the race. In defeat at Musselburgh, I had more respect for Third Time Lucki because the farcically run race eliminated any fear that this horse was a speedier type without the pace for a hot contest like this. He couldn’t quicken with the winner in Scotland and therefore, his previous form looks more battle hardened. Galopin des Champs is likely to race in the Martin Pipe but wherever he runs, he will be well handicapped. It’s his stablemate, Ganapathi, that is intriguing. The high level of company that he has kept shows great faith from his trainer, Willie Mullins. He was a three lengths second to Dreal Deal in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle and then a distant fifth in the Nathaniel Lucy and Partners Novices Hurdle but on both occasions, he was extremely free running and with the obvious strong pace guaranteed in a County Hurdle, he should settle and will certainly stay the distance. He is entered in five races at the festival but one would be forgiven for believing that this would be the most suitable race for him for the said reasons. The aptly named son of Dylan Thomas, Milkwood, is also on the handicappers good side by about five pounds.
The Nathaniel Lacey and Partners Novices Hurdle threw up a couple of lively candidates for the stamina sapping contest, Albert Bartlett Spa Novices Hurdle. Stattler (3rd) and Fakiera (4th) stayed on with pace behind Gallaird du Mesnil and shaped as though the extra couple of furlongs would suit. In fact, Stattler led until the run to the last and it was only the quicker horses that went passed him at that stage. He plugged on well and in a galloping race which can become a war of attrition that would be an asset. He won his maiden at Leopardstown over Christmas by three lengths to Glens of Antrim and that day he showed all the signs of wanting a trip, keeping on strongly to the line. For a horse who liked to lead over shorter trips and still stays on with the same strong pace without winning by a huge margin clearly shows that he wants further. I don’t think the distance to Fakiera had any fluke to it and I made it eight pounds between them. The horse has finished further down the field the more he has gone up in trip but I don’t think that should be taken as a detraction of his ability at longer trips as he has kept better company in those races too. He’s by a son of Robin des Champs out of a Network mare, so I’m not sure how much he will rely on stamina in this contest and he may be worried out of it by Stattler again. Torygraph may be a better representative from the Gordon Elliott team. He has won twice over two miles and seven furlongs and he won his maiden at that trip—plus half a furlong—in beating the twice since winner Velvet Elvis (a winner at three miles) by thirteen lengths giving him eight pounds. The Mahler gelding will stay the trip. He is also in the Martin Pipe off of 143 and while that would be far more tempting, the shorter trip won’t play to his strengths as this contest would. Barbados Buck’s is on a winning run for Paul Nicholls of three starts over three miles plus and being a Getaway, he’ll be a genuine sort in this race. He won over three miles and a furlong at Kempton last time out by beating Slipway (3rd) who was a close second next time over three miles and a furlong and a half so by outstaying a dour stayer looks good for him, furthermore. He has also beaten next time out winner Fantastikas at Southwell in December, with Mr Harp eighteen lengths (and seven pounds profit) back in third. He finished second in a Grade 2 over three miles since. He’s a half brother to twice three mile chase winner, More Buck’s and his full sister is in training with Nicky Henderson—Barbados Blue. She won a mares novice hurdle over the furthest she’s gone, two miles and five furlongs, but she is lightly raced with only the seven runs in nearly three years—the most recent was filling the runner up spot at Doncaster, giving the winner six pounds. Alaphilippe won the Grade 2 that Mr Harp was second in and he put fourteen lengths between them in the Haydock contest. The soft ground at Aintree would have taken plenty of getting and he would hold high rank here too for the Fergal O’Brien team. N’golo is a dark horse in this having only raced at two miles thus far—his third to Ballyadam in the Royal Bind is the stand out performance at that trip. Three miles looks interesting for him as he represents the great cross of Galileo with Danehill mares, a cross that brings with it endless courage and a big heart. I think two miles is too quick for him and so if he stays the trip, I think he can be competitive. His full brother, Successor, wanted a miles and six on the flat for Aidan O’Brien—winning a maiden in Killarney—so therefore the pedigree looks to want far further than two miles. Fantastikas lost out to Threeunderthrufive by three parts of a lengths at Musselburgh with the winner carrying eight pounds more on soft ground. Being a Shantou he would appreciate a cut in the ground which is unlikely. If it does prove a dour test of stamina, Bothwell Bridge could outrun his odds. He beat Anax by 39 lengths giving him six pounds over three miles and a furlong and a half on soft ground. Even though he was ten lengths behind Bravemansgame, the high level of form the winner showed is no shame on Bothwell Bridge who will represent Nicky Henderson. The Seven Barrows runner is all about stamina and it seems he is well over priced at 25/1. Al Boum Photo was very much to my attention following his Tramore success in January 2019, however, his subsequent Irish Gold Cup defection deferred me from his side, wrongly so. Furthermore, I went against him again in 2020 despite an identical prep by the legendary trainer, Willie Mullins. I’m afraid that once again I am against him but this time I feel I have grounds to oppose him in the Cheltenham Festival showpiece, the Wellchild Cheltenham Gold Cup. The Buck’s Boum nine year old won last year’s race by a whisker to Santini, who would have got up a stride later. Back in a close third (a neck and a length and a part away) was Lostintranslation, with Monalee a neck back and Real Steel five and a half lengths back from him (Delta Work was in between). None of these horses have done anything since this race. In fact, it is all the way back to Kemboy (7th, beaten twelve lengths) before we find a subsequent winner and only Bristol de Mai has since been a winner aside form the Mullins pair. There are excuses all the way down the field—Santini doesn’t go the pace, Delta Work isn’t the soundest jumper, Real Steel doesn’t stay, Clan des Obeaux isn’t effective around Cheltenham, Presenting Percy falls when going well at the second last, and Bristol de Mai needs a cut in the ground (although he was third to Al Boum in 2019) and yet the winner only just holds on, as good as he is. Bristol is a good place to start. The comparison from 2019 to 2020 is interesting. The time is 11,32 seconds slower in 2020 which on identical ground is over fifty lengths. That can’t be taken literally—especially in a tactical race like a Cheltenham Gold Cup—but it isn’t completely discounted either. The form of last year looks stink and while you can use the old adage of ‘he can only beat what’s in front of him’, the point is that he just held on. What’s more is that this years renewal is much stronger—and not in the sense of potential as was the case before but in the evidence. That comes in the form of course specialists (Frodon and A Plus Tard), an RSA winner in serious form (Champ) and potentially a novice with huge evident ability in the handicap (Royale Pagaille) rather than a collection of could be anything’s. I fear that Al Boum Photo has a huge task in front of him to join Arkle, Cottage Rake and Best Mate in a trilogy of success’ in the blue ribband event. If he does win, I believe it will be his career best performance and worthy of being labeled a great, not just by the wonderfulness of the CV but the majesty of the performance required in Also, Al Boum is fancied by just about everyone on the preview evening circuit. He’s had an identical prep to his previous wins, he has won it twice—off of a quick pace and a crawl—and according to his trainer and some of his esteemed staff, he is burning up the gallops at home…… So why is he a 5/2 shot? When Best Mate came back for a third win in the Gold Cup, he was 8/11. Kauto Star fell at 8/13 to bring up the hat trick. Long Run was 7/4 to win a second Gold Cup. Bobs Worth was 6/4. Big Buck’s went off odds on in his three subsequent World Hurdle wins having first claimed it in 2009. Honeysuckle is shorter (9/4) to win the Champion Hurdle—a race she’s never run in—, Chacun Pour Soi has critics suggesting he won’t get home up the hill but he’s odds on for the Champion Chase. All of the novices bar the Albert Bartlett have shorter priced favs. Even the Bumper favourite, Kilcruit, is shorter odds than a horse who has won two Gold Cups and has had a perfect and identical preparation for round 3 at the physical prowess of nine years of age. As much as Al Boum Photo is being talked up to win once again, it appears that the money is either not following the mouth or the layers—yes, all of them—have grown balls of steal where they’d usually be timidly hiding behind their grasping satchels. Let’s start with one of the dangers in the form of Henry de Bromhead’s 2019 festival winner, A Plus Tard. He bolted up in the Close Brothers Handicap Chase off of a mark of 144. On revision, that should at least be a 160 but he then came out and beat the odds on Champion Chase favorite, Chacun Pour Soi, over what now looks an inadequate trip of two miles. He needed every inch of three miles at Leopardstown at Christmas when winning the Savills Chase, following two defeats over shorter trips. In beating Kemboy (who won the Irish Gold Cup next time with an almost identical run when compensating for the ground and track differences) he showed a desire for further and the Gold Cup looks tailor made to cater for his strengths. I must admit, I was not in the Champ fan club until reviewing the sectionals of his Game Spirit Chase second. While the overall performance would fall short here, the distance of two miles, which surely was against him, made it more admirable. His suspect jumping in the past was almost excellent in the Newbury contest and the speed of the race would have knocked any freshness off him, having his first run since his dramatic RSA Chase win. The fact that Champ raced competitively at a high speed stands him in good stead for when the pace of the Gold Cup picks up so far out and we know he stays well. He holds a very strong claim in the race and being out of a half sister to Best Mate, he is bred for the challenge posed by the great race. If I could have one result in this race it would be a Frodon win. I adore the horse and he has strong claims. He loves the track and is twice a course and distance winner—from two attempts. He won the King George on Boxing Day and all things considered he would have to be fancied. There is some suggestions that in taking Native RIver on, that Frodon will end up racing too early but I see it differently. The weather forecast suggests that the Gold Cup day going could end up on the better side and in which case I think it is Native River (another horse that I love) that will be more inconvenienced by a Frodon strong gallop. Frodon has a tendency to spit the dummy out when he doesn’t get his way but if it comes down to a battle up the hill, only the Nickname gelding will win—see his 2018 Ryanair Chase win when Aso passed him but got reeled in. I believe that Royale Pagaille will run in the National Hunt Chase but he would be a fascinating runner in the Gold Cup based on his Peter Marsh Chase win—see the National Hunt and Festival Chase or Brown Advisory Festival Chase sections for the reasoning. There will be a strong pace in this year’s race, with Native River and Frodon both keen to get on with proceedings and with A Plus Tard and Champ playing their cards late it could turn in to a fascinating tactical race.
Of all the races at the Cheltenham Festival, the St James’ Palace Foxhunters Chase is the one of which I am least knowledgeable. It may sound queer to fancy Billaway by suggesting he is in better shape this year than last because his prep run for this year was the same to last except with a much tighter winning distance this year, to the same horse—Staker Wallace. My impressions was that he showed more maturity this year and rather than win easily as he did in 2020, he fought bravely off of level weights to win with a good attitude. I think he is more ready physically and mentally this season.
Elimay’s performance in the Horse and Jockey Chase was as significant as Benie des Dieux’ defection as the grey Montmartre mare staked her claims for the inaugural Mrs Paddy Power Mares Chase—a long overdue contest at the festival. She’s three from four over fences and the second to Allaho at Thurles reads as good, if not better, than her victories, racing in designation to her sex. In beating Shattered Love (152) in the Opera Hat Chase by five and a half lengths carrying five pounds more, she was running into low 160’s figures and her rival’s devastating win over the Kerry National winner, Cabaret Queen—prior to Naas—should at least vindicate the handicappers 152 assessment. She has solid claims and from a strong yard that will be well represented in this race. Colreevy will be another one of the Willie Mullins string that will line up here. Her form is rock solid and out of the top drawer. She won her beginners at Punchestown by fifteen lengths with twelve more back to Grand National Trial winner, The Big Dog—who won off of 136. She then won the Grade 1 Faugheen Novice Chase at Limerick on Boxing Day and while Pencilfulloflead was as close as half a length away in second, the third placed Janidil was sixteen away—albeit giving her seven pounds. The Big Dog would be three lengths behind Longhouse Poet in a beginners chase before his Grand National Trial success and the winner was five behind Janidil prior to breaking his duck. That makes Janidil eight pounds better than The Big Dog, of who Colreevy was twenty seven lengths clearer of and so the Faugheen Novices Chase makes clearer reading to it, in terms of where the horses finished and of the separating distances. She then went to Thurles in a Grade 3 Mares event and put twelve lengths between herself and a previous winner—Mount Ida. Last year’s Arkle winner, Put the Kettle On, would be more at home in this than in the Queen Mother Champion Chase—even with the allowance. She is three from three at Cheltenham—all coming in three of her last four starts—all coming at two miles, including when winning last season’s Arkle Trophy. She needed every yard of it to get to Duc des Genievres in the Shloer Chase and the step up to two and a half miles looks right up her street. Her love for the track gives her a huge chance in this. It may look a strong Irish hand but the home challenge is headed by Annie Mc. She’s won five of her eight chase starts and comes in to this with a winning trend over two and half miles at Doncaster and Warwick. Her form suggests she would be a mare around the 150 ballpark and that would allow her a chance of a place at best if the Irish mares are on song. Willie Mullins is arguably the best handler of mares in the game and his strong hand extends to Salsaretta, whose recent form doesn’t bring the house down but a return to last season’s best gives her every chance of winning. Her eight length beating of Galvin in November 2019’ is where she needs to return to but the recent form is a concern.
The Martin Pipe Conditional Riders Handicap Hurdle is always a very competitive affair and the left overs from the Coral Cup are usually the make up—though it has produced some big winners in Sir des Champs and Don Poli. The common denominator amongst those two horses was trainer Willie Mullins and he has a very well treated gelding in this again in Galopin des Champs. His second to Arthur Moore’s Sea Ducor, giving him seven pounds for a narrow half length defeat, looks very good now based on that horses fine second to Master McShee over Christmas. Galopin des Champs was 100/1 in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle but was only beaten by nine lengths to Supreme Novices Hurdle clear favorite, Appreciate It—and for the record, he finished seven lengths ahead of Master McShee. He is a quickly improving horse and off of 142, he would be very well treated. The same has to be said for Gabynako for Champion Hurdle winning trainer, Gavin Cromwell. This horse was nine lengths behind Bob Olinger—and two and a quarter behind Blue Lord—when third in the Grade 1 Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle. He disappointed in a Ladbrokes Handicap Hurdle at the Dublin Racing festival but he made an early mistake in that race and never recovered. Based on his Grade 1 form, a rating of 141 is extremely lenient and I feel the Naas race could be one we come back to at the highest level of form.
CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL 2021 SELECTIONS
Selections Table UPDATE 17/3/2021