12.40 Cheltenham – JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial (Grade 2)
A high-class afternoon of jumping gets underway with a trial for the Triumph Hurdle and the select field of exciting juveniles is headed by Peace And Co who destroyed his rivals on his British debut when bolting up in Doncaster’s Summit Juvenile Hurdle. He currently heads the market for the Triumph in March but you would think he would need to settle better here if he is to get up the hill at Cheltenham; nevertheless he looks likely to go off a short-priced favourite. With that small doubt about how keen he races, it may be better to side with IBIS DU RHEU who makes his British debut for Paul Nicholls tomorrow afternoon. He is a half-brother to Saphir Du Rheu who has shown some good form in France, most notably when chasing home the high-class Top Notch on his final start. He was arguably given too much to do on that occasion and given how well the winner has done since he looks hard to ignore at around the 7/1 mark.
1.15 Cheltenham – Timeform Novices´ Handicap Chase
On Saturdays when the ground in testing, there are few trainers with a better record than Venetia Williams. She has saddled notable winners in the last few weeks including Emperor’s Choice in the Welsh National and Niceonefrankie here in December and the yard continue to be in good form. Here she saddles Astigos who sneaks in at the bottom of the weights under 10st 1lb. He has improved with each of his three runs over fences to date and his latest run came behind Gevrey Chambertin at Newbury in December. He didn’t find a great deal in the closing stages last time so it makes sense than connections are dropping him back to two and a half miles. He is entitled to be improving and with no weight on his back, he looks to have a good chance of going close. The marginal preference is for Alan King’s NED STARK who was successful on his first two starts over fences before being upped in Grade last time. He ran well to keep up with the first two Ptit Zig and Champagne West but weakened up the hill. That was probably a reflection of him doing too much to keep up with them and this looks a more sensible option. The booking of Barry Geraghty catches the eye and for me he looks the one they all have to beat.
1.50 Cheltenham – BetBright Cup Chase (Grade 2)
Formerly known as the Argento Chase, in recent years this race has thrown up the odd clue for the Gold Cup in March. Dynaste currently heads the market but I still have a nagging doubt about whether he is most effective over an extended three miles so I feel it best to overlook him. Many Clouds was successful in the Hennessy Gold Cup back in November and was impressive on the day, staying on well under pressure to win by three and a quarter lengths. He still doesn’t have too many miles on the clock and has earned a crack at a race like this ahead of a possible tilt at the Gold Cup. He has had a good break since Newbury and should be thereabouts jumping the last, giving him every chance of landing the hat-trick. However, he does have to concede 8lb to Alan King’s SMAD PLACE who was narrowly beaten in the RSA here last March. He ran a very good race on his seasonal reappearance to finish fifth in the Hennessy and that should have brought him on. A high-class hurdler, he looks to have transferred that ability well to fences and in receipt of weight all round, he looks to have every chance of getting his head in front.
2.05 Doncaster – OLBG.com Mares´ Hurdle (Grade 2)
This race was won last year by Annie Power en route to finishing second behind More Of That in the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and whilst there doesn’t look to be anything of that quality in the field this time it still looks a good race. Willie Mullins sends another raider over from his Irish base in the shape of ANALIFET who was towards the head of the betting for the Triumph last year before suffering a bad injury at Leopardstown. Having looked out of sorts on her reappearance she looked to be travelling much better last time before falling at the second last. That run suggested that she still retained plenty of ability and that she could make her presence felt here. The main danger looks to be Karl Burke’s Intense Tango who was beaten on her hurdling bow at Aintree in December before an effortless victory at Catterick next time. She was beaten by Alan King’s Nyanza at Aintree who had the benefit of experience and I fancy Burke’s four-year-old to turn the tables on her rival. She receives weight all round here including over a stone from our other selection and looks a likely candidate for the frame.
2.25 Cheltenham – freebets.com Trophy Chase (A Handicap) (Grade 3)
Although Wishfull Thinking bucked the trend by winning this race as an eleven-year-old last year the weight of recent history has favoured eight or nine year olds with 6 winners in the last 10 renewals. That proves a pretty strong pointer to the chances of Easter Meteor and Tap Night When it comes to the older runners (aged 10 and above) until last year they could be opposed with a fair degree of confidence. The Sawyer proved the only other fly in the ointment in recent seasons although both winners were winning the race for the second time. Not great news for followers of Quincy Des Pictons, Dare Me, Walkon, Sew On Target or Big Fella Thanks.
Following on nicely from the paragraph above, it will come as no surprise to learn that lightly raced, second season chasers have tended to dominate. In fact, 6 of the last 10 winners were in their second campaign over the larger obstacles giving them a perfect blend of experience and potential improvement. That implies that Annacotty and Easter Day could be the main protagonists.
Only Wishfull Thinking has carried more than 11st to victory in this race in the last decade, having had 11st 3lb on his back in 2011 and 11st 12lb in last year’s contest. That suggests this this is quite an ask and it would be best to stick with those below that particular ceiling. Of this year’s field only Big Fella Thanks and Tap Night sit below the 11st mark so look to hold an advantage.
The fact that nine of the last ten winners had achieved a top three finish on their most recent start confirms that this is a race that heavily favours those runners coming into the race in top class form. When applying that to this year’s field, the quartet of Quincy Des Pictons, Dare Me, Easter Day and Sew On Target come out favourably.
This race has proved a grave yard for those with unproven stamina – each of the last 10 winners of this race had rock solid form over at least two and a half miles. There are only three of this year’s line-up without this to their name, Dare Me, Easter Meteor and Little Jon, so given the strength of the trend it might be best to steer clear of these three.
Given the competitive nature of this race, it is little surprise that favourites have a poor record in the race having only taken two of the last ten renewals. At the moment, the market leader is Easter Day although he is likely to take up an engagement at Doncaster on Saturday, so Sew On Target would be next best in the betting,
TAP NIGHT – 4/6
Annacotty – 3/6
Lucinda Russell’s TAP NIGHT tops our shortlist having matched all but two of our trends for this race. Now in his third season over fences, he was highly tried as a novice and finished second in Grade 1 company at Aintree. Since then he has shown bits of form including when finishing third in this race last year off a 12lb higher mark. At the weights he looks to be right in there with a chance and at the time of writing is the outsider of the field. He has run over hurdles without success on his last three starts and although he needs to get his act together, a return to his best form would give him a great chance.
He is joined on the shortlist by Annacotty who enjoyed his day in the sun when winning the Grade 1 Feltham Novices’ Chase in December 2013. He ran well for a long way in the Hennessy Gold Cup last time and it is interesting to see him dropped back in trip. Connections have also swapped the blinkers for cheekpieces in the hope of eeking out further improvement. He can take heart from the fact that both The Giant Bolster and Katenko won this race as seven-year-olds and if he can put his best foot forward, he looks to be in with a chance.
2.40 Doncaster – Albert Bartlett Novices´ Hurdle (Grade 2)
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Blaklion has performed consistently well all season in similar events to this one so it would be folly to not consider him here. He won a Grade 2 at Chepstow in October and having finished second to Parlour Games at Cheltenham, went one better up in trip the following month. He was last seen in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle where he ran creditably again to finish third and sets the standard in this contest. However, it might be best to look at one of the less exposed runners in the field and I like the chances of Neil King’s ZEROSHADESOFGREY. The six-year-old was unsuited by the drop back to two and a half miles last time and should appreciate the return to three miles here. Beforethat, he had recorded three wide-margin victories including over course and distance in December. He was entered to run in a Pertemps Qualifier at Huntingdon on Friday but with that meeting called off, this looks a good opportunity for him to make amends for his latest run.
3.00 Cheltenham – Neptune Investment Management Novices´ Hurdle (Grade 2)
Dan Skelton’s VALUE AT RISK sets a pretty high standard having made an impressive hurdling debut at Newbury in December. He beat subsequent winner Foryourinformation by twenty two lengths and did so without ever looking in any sort of danger. That was his first start for the yard having previously been trained in Ireland by Philip Fenton for whom he was third in the Grade 1 bumper at Punchestown. It is reported that the yard think plenty of him and that chasing will be his game long term but for now, he is the one to beat in this trial for the Neptune. Of the rest, with nine runners it looks worth an each-way play in the race and you could do worse than siding with Robinsfirth who chased home Thomas Brown over course and distance on New Year’s Day. That was just the six-year-old’s second start over hurdles and he travelled really well before being outgunned in the closing stages by his more experienced rival. One of Colin Tizzard’s other runners Thistlecrack should also not be dismissed lightly on the back of an impressive victory at Wincanton last time, and at around 20/1 looks overpriced.
3.15 Doncaster – Skybet Chase (Listed Race)
The first place to start is with Keith Reveley’s NIGHT IN MILAN who has a fine record here at Doncaster and whose victories include the Grimthorpe Chase here last March. He had looked out of sorts on his first two starts this year but back over fences with blinkers fitted, he was narrowly beaten by Grandad’s Horse. He stayed on all the way up the run-in and was unlucky not to get his head in front. This is a better race than that but he likes it around here so it is difficult to leave him out of the reckoning. Paul Nicholls has won this race twice in recent years and sends Easter Day up from his Ditcheat base this time around. This lightly-raced seven-year-old claimed the scalp of subsequent RSA winner O’Faolains Boy last term and didn’t do much wrong on his return to action in December. He is entitled to have come on for the run and you can see why he currently heads the market. I must also give a mention to Philip Hobbs’ Royal Player who has won his last two starts over the bigger obstacles. He looks to be heading the right way and has earned this step up in class but this big field over fences will be a different experience for him. Nevertheless, he has plenty of ability and if his lack of experience does not become an issue, he has a worthy place on our shortlist.
3.35 Cheltenham – galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2)
Despite the small field, this looks a pretty competitive renewal of the Cleeve with four horses in with a genuine chance of going close. Cole Harden and Reve De Sivola both look likely to go forward from the tape so there should be no lack of pace in the race. David Pipe’s UN TEMPS POUR TOUT was an expensive purchase from France and having finished second on his British debut, bolted up next time to beat Cole Harden by sixteen lengths. He finished the season off when third at Punchestown in a handicap which was another good run and it will be interesting to see how he fares here. I have no concerns about the lay-off given how well the Pipe yard have done with the likes of Katkeau this year and he looks the one likely to give the favourite most to think about. I don’t think there is much between the Pipe runner and Saphir Du Rheu and have largely come down in favour of the former due to the prices. Paul Nicholl’s six-year-old was very progressive last season, winning three handicaps including the Lanzarote Hurdle and the Welsh Champion Hurdle. This season he has been chasing but following two falls in three starts, connections have opted to bring him back to hurdles for now. He has the potential to be a high-class staying hurdler and as long as his chasing exploits haven’t left a mark, he looks a big player.
4.10 Cheltenham – Steel Plate And Sections Handicap Hurdle
Our final race of the day is a handicap hurdle which was won last year by Lac Fontana, who followed up with victory in the County Hurdle before winning a Grade 1 at Aintree. This race tends to go the way of an improving horse and one such horse could be Donald McCain’s DIAMOND KING. This seven-year-old has long been highly thought of by the yard and won two of his three starts as a novice last year. He has not been seen since running at Doncaster last January which suggests he may have had a few issues but it is interesting that his trainer has decided to pitch him straight in here. It could be that they are looking to take advantage of what appears to be a lenient handicap mark and I fancy him to go close. David Pipe’s Dell’ Arca has had an interesting season starting over fences before switching to Grade 1 company over hurdles in December. The three miles trip seemed to stretch his stamina as did the 2m5f at Kempton on his latest start. He won the Greatwood Hurdle here last season on his first start for the yard and he despite a big weight, he could just outclass some of these.