1.15 Cheltenham – Velcourt Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle
This race gives a chance for the conditional jockeys to shine and there aren’t many in better form at present than Mitchell Bastyan who has already ridden 18 winners this season. He partners Wylde Magic here for boss Evan Williams, who may just have found 3m stretching his stamina at Chepstow a couple of weeks ago. He has plenty of form over 2m4f including when third in the EBF Final at Sandown in March. The yard from which he hails have also made a fast start to the season and I expect them to be right in the mix here.
Another conditional who has been making waves in recent weeks is James Bowen who partners Potters Story here for his father Peter. The five-year-old does have something to prove having been well-beaten on his return to action in October but that being his first run since March, he is entitled to improve. On his best form, he looks to have a good chance but there might be more reliable performers in the field.
Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles two runners and the pick of his pair looks to be Another Frontier who made a promising reappearance at Aintree three weeks ago. He held every chance until the final flight but he weakened soon after and I would imagine he will strip fitter for that run. He drops back in trip here and cheekpieces are fitted for the first time so I would say he is primed for a big run.
Black Ivory finished ahead of Another Frontier at Aintree, being narrowly denied by Bon Chic in the closing stages. He was trying 3m for the first time that day and whilst he seemed to see it out well, I don’t think he will be inconvenienced by dropping back in trip. He has gone up 4lb for that latest run but he is still lightly-raced over hurdles and I expect there is more to come from him.
However, the one I like the look of is MELROSE BOY who represents Harry Fry, the trainer who has saddled the last two winners of this race. This five-year-old had three runs last term and although he couldn’t get his head in front, he bumped into some smart rivals on more than one occasion, Mount Mews at Wetherby and River Wylde at Ludlow. He doesn’t have many miles on the clock and he looks to have a similar profile to the last two winners of this race so he makes plenty of appeal. His jockey Kieron Edgar is also no stranger to success in this contest having won three of the last four renewals and I anticipate a big run from him on Sunday.
MELROSE BOY – 1pt e/w
1.50 Cheltenham – Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices’ Chase (Grade 2)
Only four face the starter for this Arkle Trial but a case can be made for all four, and it promises to be a cracking contest.
River Wylde heads the market at a best-priced 6/5 with William Hill at the time of writing. Winner of the Dovecote at Kempton he came up short on both occasions in Grade 1 Novice Hurdle company, both here and at Aintree, and made a winning chasing debut at Uttoxeter. Sent-off at 10/11 he won as expected but I’m surprised he’s trading at around a similar price with some firms for this contest. Based on his hurdles form, and one chase run, I don’t think he deserves to be so short and I’m happy to oppose him.
Paul Nicholls has saddled six of the last 10 winners of this race, and Capitaine flies the Ditcheat flag here. He was readily held by River Wylde in the Dovecote but as with many of the stables youngsters, was always waiting to switch to fences. He has since won twice with any amount in hand at Newton Abbot and Market Rasen respectably, and it will be here where we can truly gauge his potential in this sphere. Already rated 10lbs superior over fences he ought to be competitive in this grade.
However, the one that excites me the most is Dan Skelton’s NORTH HILL HARVEY. I actually saw him win his only start between the flags when he hosed up Chaddesley Corbett, so it was no surprise to see him take so well to chasing. He really impressed me with his jumping over course and distance last time out, and like he did in the Greatwood two years ago, displayed a tenacious attitude up the famous Cheltenham hill, repelling the charge of Sceau Royal. Admittedly he was in receipt of 5lbs on that occasion but there was a lot to like about the performance, and don’t forget Alan King’s runner had race fitness on his side. That victory does mean he has to surrender 3lbs to his three rivals here, but I think he is capable of doing so. River Wylde travelled well in the Surpreme before being found out by the rising ground, and I have my reservations about Captiaine’s resolution when the going gets tough. I expect North Hill Harvey to be prominent and really test his rivals jumping, and I think it will take a brave performance to out-battle him up the hill.
Ozzie The Oscar is the final runner in the field and despite being 16/1, isn’t a complete no-hoper. He turned over Shantou Rock last time out, and was 3rd in County Hurdle in March off 135, so clearly has ability. It would be a surprise if he came home in front but he deserves to take his chance.
NORTH HILL HARVEY – 1pt win @ 11/4 (bet365)
2.25 Cheltenham – Shloer Chase (Grade 2)
Fox Norton is favourite for the race as he returns in an attempt to defend his crown for Colin Tizzard. His performance in this contest last year, on his first start for the trainer, confirmed him to be serious challenger for the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He put up an impressive display that day as he had too much for his rivals to win by nine lengths, with Special Tiara back in third. Unfortunately the gelding suffered a cut during the success and was not seen again until February in the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Giving weight to the mighty Altior proved to be too difficult a task as he finished a well-held runner-up, although he would have needed his comeback run. This set him up for the Champion Chase, where Special Tiara managed to turn the tables as the pair fought out one the most exciting finishes of the 2016 Festival. Fox Norton finished strongly but just failed to get the better of his rival by a head. The way he saw out his race suggested that a step up in trip may suit and connections had been considering the Ryanair Chase later in the week. Upped to two and half miles for the Melling Chase at Aintree next time out, he landed a deserved Grade 1 success in good style, before following up back over two miles in the Punchestown Champion Chase. This was a fine performance to get the better of the Willie Mullins-trained Un De Sceaux. Fox Norton won on his seasonal reappearance in 2016/17 and looks likely to make a bold bid to win the Shloer Chase for a second year in a row.
Special Tiara arrives back at Cheltenham as the Champion Chase hero for trainer Henry De Bromhead. In the race, he employed his usual front-running tactics to fine effect with regular partner Noel Fehily giving him a fine ride. The ten-year-old managed to hold off the challenge of Fox Norton in the closing stages to go two better than he had done in the 2015 Champion Chase, where he had finished a close third to the mighty Sprinter Sacre. His trainer knows how to prime him for the Festival and has more chance of getting his favoured better ground in the spring. Special Tiara has tended to need his first run of the season so he may find it difficult to confirm the form of the Champion Chase with Fox Norton this time around.
A chance is taken on CLOUDY DREAM who can provide a challenge to the two at the head of the market. The partnership of trainer Malcolm Jefferson and jockey Brian Hughes has developed into a strong one and CLOUDY DREAM has been a consistent performer at the top level for the pair. The seven-year-old has not finished outside of the top three in his fifteen-run career so far and showed his ability as a chaser last season. In a busy 16/17 campaign of eight runs, he won three times and finished runner-up on the other five occasions. His big win of the season came in April when he landed a deserved success in the Grade 2 Future Champions Novices’ Chase at Ayr, but his second-place finishes include behind Altior in the Arkle and then in the Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree. On his first run of 17/18, CLOUDY DREAM went down narrowly to Alan King’s Smad Place in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree. He travelled nicely that day and just failed to catch the leader. Although the seven-year-old has a bit to find on ratings, he has had the benefit of a run and can put up a good performance on Sunday.
CLOUDY DREAM 1pt e/w @ 5/1 (bet365, Betfred)
3.00 Cheltenham – Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3)
Perhaps the strongest trend associated with this race is that looking at age and whilst no one age group has dominated, those aged between four and six have proved best to follow. The seven-year-old Khyber Kim is the only winner in the last decade to sit outside the desired bracket which doesn’t bode well for the trio of older horses in this year’s line-up, the seven-year-old Chesterfield and the two nine-year-olds The New One and Top Othe Ra.
In competitive handicaps fine margins can often make the difference and improving horses can often come out on top. The Greatwood is no different as seven of the last ten winners had no more than six starts prior to lining up here. Applying that stat to this year’s field leaves us with three horses, namely Jenkins, Mohaayed and Misterton.
However, that is not to say that lower-rated horses win this race, in fact the opposite is true. An official rating of 140 appears to be the benchmark as six of the last ten winners sat on or above this mark. In terms of this year’s field, the only qualifiers are the top eight as they appear on the racecard, The New One, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Tigris River, Old Guard, Chesterfield, Elgin, Project Bluebook and Flying Tiger.
In terms of weight, 11st 6lb appears to be the limit as only three winners in the last decade have carried more than that to victory. Of this year’s field, only the top-weight The New One, who carries 11st 12lb here, has such a burden to carry.
Good recent form is something that has served many punters well down the years in handicaps and this race is no different. To narrow it down, six of the last ten winners had achieved a top four finish on their most recent outing. Of this year’s line-up, there are only three who miss the cut on this basis, namely Ivanovich Gorbatov, Project Bluebook and William H Bonney.
The final factor worthy of consideration is the betting and although there have been big-priced winners in the past, generally this race tends to centre around those towards the head of the betting. In fact six of the last ten winners were sent off at single figure SPs and with no winner in the last decade having been sent off any bigger than 12/1 it is probably best to let the market guide your selections.
MOHAAYED – 5/6
Jenkins – 5/6
Flying Tiger – 4/6
All things considered, none of our contenders matches all of the trends but the one who gets the nod is MOHAAYED. On a rating of 137, he just misses out on the 140 benchmark but his overall form suggests he is up to this level. Also, despite having had only the six runs over hurdles to date, he has already run in the County Hurdle and the Scottish Champion Hurdle so the hustle and bustle of this race should pose no problems to him. Dan Skelton took this prize twelve months ago and he looks to have another leading fancy this time around.
Just missing out on the top spot is the likely favourite Jenkins. Nicky Henderson’s five-year-old has always been highly thought of by connections but his jumping let him down on a couple of occasions last year as he failed to live up to expectation. However, reports suggest his hurdling is much better now and despite being the least experienced runner in the field, he has to be respected.
Of the remainder, it would be no surprise to see Flying Tiger go well having won the Fred Winter over course and distance back in March. He ran well for a long way at Wincanton in the Elite Hurdle last week before getting tired in the ground and I think this sounder surface should help him turn in an improved effort.
MOHAAYED – 1pt win @ 6/1 (Paddy Power)
3.30 Cheltenham – Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2)
This race has gone the way of some talented performers in recent years including the likes of Moon Racer and Altior and connections of this year’s runners will no doubt be hopeful that they can reach similar heights.
Nicky Henderson saddles the likely market leader in the shape of Dame De Compagnie who won on her British debut at Uttoxeter at the beginning of the month. Given the number of potential runners that Seven Barrows have at their disposal it has to be considered significant that she heads here and she looks to have a leading chance.
However, she could have her work cut out to get the better of SLATE HOUSE who made a good impression when winning over course and distance at the Showcase meeting. He cast aside some useful rivals that day with some ease and although he has to concede weight to the filly, I think he is the one to beat.
Of the rest, Bedrock has to be considered despite being turned over at short odds here last month. The ground may just have been a little quick for him that day and considering his form prior to that, he could have a say.
SLATE HOUSE – 2pts win @ 7/4 (Paddy Power