1:40 Alder Hey Handicap Hurdle
The only novice to win in the first 13 runnings was Ninepins (a pretty experienced youngster who had the busiest campaign of any winner) but since then novices have become an increasing force in this event with a run of seven victories in the 13 runnings from 2002. We should also not forget that the luckless grey, Special Envoy, another novice, fell at the last when about to hose up in 2007. Novices this season are Rock On Rocky, Some Buckle, The Saint James, Knight’s Parade, Mile House and Snake Eyes. A P McCoy rides The Saint James of the two J P McManus-owned novices (Snake Eyes being the other albeit a second season hurdler) and this is a race that McManus has won on five occasions in the last 17 years. The Saint James was an eye catching third in the Fred Winter which was a big improvement on his Sandown run after he came over from France and there is likely to be more to come up in trip.
Of the 26 runnings to date, exactly half of winners ran at the Cheltenham Festival. The Coral Cup has been run since 1993 and seven winners here contested that viciously-competitive handicap which is a fairly healthy return, the latest being Clondaw Kaempfer last year. Baradari was my fancy for that race and he wasn’t given much of a chance being held up in rear in a race dominated by horses ridden prominently so I am tempted to give him another each-way chance. Vasco Du Ronceray, Mijhaar, Lyvuis and Daneking were also unplaced in that contest.
The Gordon Elliott-trained novice Knight’s Parade appeals as the best of the Irish. Unbeaten in three starts this season and also a winner on the Flat in February, believe it or not, he is only 6lb higher than at the start of his winning run. Theinval, on the other hand, has shot up 10lb for winning well at Kempton last time out so Lyvius might be the pick of the Henderson quartet having run Baradari to half a length at Ascot on his previous start. Malcolm Jefferson won this race with Attaglance and he runs the hat-trick chasing Enchanted Garden who has not run since he was last seen on the Flat 191 days ago.
The Saint James
I like novices in this race and J P McManus has a good chance of registering a sixth win in this contest with THE SAINT JAMES who travelled well for a long way in the Fred Winter finishing third and now takes on his elders off a 2lb higher mark. This longer trip could bring around further improvement. KNIGHT’S PARADE is still potentially nicely treated just 6lb higher than when he won four races on the spin and we know Gordon Elliott’s record in big handicaps in this country is very good. BARADARI and LYVIUS both finished in midfield in the Coral Cup when not best placed to challenge given how the race was run and there is little between them on Ascot form so both are worth a second look for each-way purposes.
2:15 E-Lites Top Novices’ Hurdle
Exactly half of the last 16 winners posted a top-six finish in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the John Ferguson-trained Qewy will be bidding to extend that run having finished fifth. Mind you, he was beaten 18½l. Whereas ex-bumper horses have won the last nine runnings of the Supreme Novices Hurdle, seven of the last 12 Top Novices’ hurdle winners started their career on the Flat. Ferguson also runs Commissioned who wasn’t as good as Qewy on the Flat but he is experienced having finished fourth in the Grade 1 4yo Hurdle at this meeting last year.
Nicky Henderson has trained the last three winners and when his Darlan, My Tent Or Yours and Josses Hill won they were gaining compensation here for finding just one too good in the traditional Cheltenham Festival curtain raiser in the Supreme with impressive successes. Henderson also trained the 2010 winner, General Miller, who unseated his rider at the first flight in the Supreme and is represented by Cardinal Walter who bypassed Cheltenham and won either side of finishing a 6l second to Qewy at Newbury. He needs to improve. Glingerburn bypassed the Cheltenham Festival for this prize which is not unlike Nicky Richards and, being officially the highest rated novice hurdler in Britain, that may turn out to be a smart move rather than taking on Douvan last month. Impressive when winning at Kelso on his last two starts over 2m2f, he travels so well that the drop in trip should not be a problem.
Vago Collonges missed Cheltenham after he was second in the Dovecote Hurdle and this course can suit him but whether he is good enough is the main sticking point as the Classic Novices’ Hurdle form from January hasn’t worked out as well as hoped. Cyrus Darius has won his last two starts for Malcolm Jefferson very easily in small races in the north so this is crunch time to find out how good he is. Similar comments apply to Endless Credit for Micky Hammond. Jolly’s Cracked It was a good fifth in the Betfair Hurdle but was beaten 30l in the Martin Pipe finishing ninth and easily put to the sword by L’Ami Serge in the Tolworth.
The front four in the market have won 19 of the last 24 runnings so best not to stray too far away from the obvious, if at all. In fact I won’t as GLINGERBURN is the best horse in the race on official figures and unbeaten in four starts since turning his attention to hurdling and has been trained for this race rather than Cheltenham so I fancy he can outclass his rivals. QEWY looks the main threat on his last two runs but lacks the scope of the main fancy who could develop into a top notcher next season. I would be slightly surprised if one of this pair didn’t win.
2:50 Betfred Mildmay Novices’ Hurdle
First run in 1981, this year’s running of the Mildmay Novices’ Chase will be its second running as a Grade 1 event and it has been a good race for punters with nine favourites (including joint-favourites) and three second-favourites winning in the last 18 years. In fact, only one of the last 26 winners started at bigger than 10/1 so this is not a race to go in search of an upset. Surprisingly the RSA Chase is unrepresented this season but we do have a Cheltenham Festival winner in Irish Cavalier taking his chance and I am sure this winner of the 2m4½f novices’ handicap chase at the Festival will relish this longer trip and I see him being a leading candidate for the Hennessy next season. It was his stamina that won him the day last month finishing his race off extremely powerfully despite making a mistake three out and having to be switched around rivals to get a run. He has not won over 3m like 21 of the last 24 winners but that is because he hasn’t tried yet and I think he is crying out for it.
The other contender to run a big race at the Festival was Saphir Du Rheu who was second in the World Hurdle and is back to fences here, which was the plan at the start of the season but two incompletions in three starts meant he was sent back over timber at the Festival. These fences are no gimmes and he jumps a bit flat so he will need to be very accurate. Paul Nicholls also runs Irish Saint but his stamina will come under pressure for a horse considered to be the yard’s main Arkle hope four months ago. He is better than he showed in the JLT where some have suggested it looked like he was trying to keep Vautour honest to soften him up for Ptit Zig. If so, it didn’t work!
Eight of the last 13 winners had won a Graded chase and two of the last five winners contested the Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase which was won easily by Ainsi Fideles. It was a poor renewal however beating three rivals though Virak (not at his best in third) has won a handicap off top weight since then. Two of the last three winners ran in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton in which Carraig Mor fell early on and he has bounced back with a good win since. This looks like his kind of race being a strong, out and out galloping type. Carole’s Destrier has won twice since he was fourth in a novice handicap chase at Cheltenham in January one place behind Irish Cavalier and he meets Rebecca Curtis’ Cheltenham Festival winner on 8lb better terms for 5l so a case can be argued for him.
It took 18 years for the Irish to first register a victory when Boss Doyle justified 5/4 favouritism in 1998. Since then Like-A-Butterfly and Quito De La Roque have added their names to the Roll of Honour but, on the whole, they seem to bypass this meeting with their best staying novices waiting for Punchestown. Their sole contender this year is Rawnaq who beat Gilgamboa (since won a Grade 1) two starts back before finishing third in the Plate against seasoned handicappers. Close Touch has been disappointing on his last two starts and has an action that suggests he will want softer ground than this. One of those poor runs was behind Wakanda in a weak Grade 2 at Haydock and the winner has since been turned over at long odds-on at Newcastle.
I like IRISH CAVALIER’s chance most and hopefully Saphir Du Rheu, who has something to prove in the jumping stakes, can make the market for the Cheltenham Festival winner over 2m4½f who promises to be even better over a proper test of stamina. Staying is also what CARRAIG MOR is all about and he has long been the apple of Alan King’s eye. He has had a breathing operation since he was pulled up at Haydock and won well since then and he appeals as the type to just keep on galloping, which is what this race has been all about down the years as it is even more of a stamina test than the RSA. CAROLE’S DESTRIER would have been a sneaky each-way fancy if he ran in the RSA with a rating of 152 after winning in handicap company and might be flying under a little under the radar but his stable know how to handle and place staying chasers.
3:25 Betfred Melling Chase
For all the high-class racing at this three-day meeting, this is the race that the purists really look forward to boasting a Roll of Honour that is the who’s who of 2m-2m4f chasers since its inception in 1991 including ten individual winners of the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Last season’s Champion Chaser, Sire De Grugy, bids to make that 11 this afternoon but faces a stern Irish-based challenge from Champagne Fever and Don Cossack who are likely to dominate the betting and, during the last 20 runnings, the favourite or second-favourite has won on 14 occasions. Gary Moore blamed the faster ground than he enjoys for his fourth place in a distinctly average Champion Chase (I’m being kind) but it won’t be much softer here but he clearly hopes the extra distance can offset that. Many punters take the view that it is easier to stay longer distance at flat courses like Aintree and Kempton but there is rarely any respite in the gallop at courses such as these so horses have to stay very well to win. Of the 24 winners, 18 had won at least 2m4f which is something that Sire De Grugy, Simply Ned and Croco Bay have failed to achieve as yet. Simply Ned was one place behind Sire De Grugy when fifth in the Champion Chase but although the 2m championship has been a good guide, 12 of the last 20 winners were placed in that event and this pair weren’t and it was also a moderate renewal to say the least looking at the full result.
Since the Ryanair was upgraded to Grade 1 status in 2008, it has had a stronger bearing on the Melling Chase than the Champion Chase featuring four winners. Contenders this year are Don Cossack (third), Johns Spirit (fifth), Balder Succes (seventh) and Wishfull Thinking (pulled up). I would be surprised if Don Cossack doesn’t confirm placings with those he beat and he was a little unlucky pitching on landing losing ground and momentum at a crucial stage at the top of the hill and then being squeezed out at the penultimate fence or otherwise he would have finished second. Ten of the last 12 winners had won a Grade 1 race earlier in the same season and only Don Cossack has achieved that distinction in today’s field. The last winner not to have won a Grade 1 race earlier in their career was Fadalko during the Foot-and-Mouth ravaged spring of 2001 which is against Johns Spirit, Simply Ned, Wishfull Thinking and Croco Bay.
Only two of the 24 winners bypassed the Cheltenham Festival the previous month specifically for this prize, Blazing Walker in the inaugural running and the Irish-trained mare, Opera Hat, in 1998. Both Al Ferof and Cue Card, third and fifth in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, have not run since Boxing Day both requiring surgery that ruled them out of Cheltenham. As far as three-mile form is concerned, only the King George has mattered and four of the last 12 Melling Chase winners were beaten at Kempton. Champagne Fever unluckily also missed Cheltenham after being bitten by a stable mate in transit to the course. I fancied Champagne Fever for the Champion Chase as felt forcing it over 2m would be ideal for him but he was going to be beaten fair and square by Don Cossack over this trip until he tipped up at the final fence in January so I prefer the Gigginstown horse again. As for Cue Card, he has disappointed me both times this season and I have to question whether he is the same horse since he cracked his pelvis in the build up to last season’s Gold Cup.
Ascot form has also come to the fore recently. Three of the last eight winners either won or finished second in the Ascot Chase back in February won this season by Balder Succes, three of the last four winners contested the Clarence House Chase over 2m miles finishing 121 (no representatives this year) and Albertas Run and Master Minded both completed the Amlin 1965 Chase-Melling Chase double up in the last five years won this season by Al Ferof. Paul Nicholls’ grey does run Ascot well though, and Cheltenham to be fair, but I am just not sure he is an Aintree type.
An eye-catching 17 of the 24 Melling Chase winners had won or placed at this three-day fixture before. Balder Succes won last season’s Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase beating Simply Ned into second and Don Cossack was runner-up in last season’s Betfred Mildmay Novices’ Chase behind Holywell. Balder Succes was really impressive last year but is best bullying small fields and his record in fields of 10+ is awful reading FU0855447. An early mistake in the Ryanair virtually ended his chance there and then. No horse beaten in the 24 runnings of the previous season’s Melling Chase has gone on to win it a year later which would be against last year’s eighth, Wishfull Thinking. Cue Card was runner-up in this race to Sprinter Sacre two years ago.
Front runners have an excellent record in other chase races on the Mildmay Course at this meeting so it is with some surprise to note that no Melling Chase winner has ever made all the running in its 24 years.
If you want a trends horse then it is unquestionably DON COSSACK who has a lot in his favour being the only Grade 1 winner from earlier this season in the line up who ran a good third in the Ryanair Chase which has been the best recent guide despite making a mistake at a crucial stage of that race. He also finished second in a high-quality renewal of the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at this meeting last year and he should start in the first two in the betting like the good majority of winners in the last two decades. If you want the best horse then I would also argue that is Don Cossack who was getting the better of CHAMPAGNE FEVER in the Kinloch Brae Chase when the grey tipped up in the race. With ground and stamina doubts over Sire De Grugy, general wellbeing concerns about Cue Card and this being a bigger field than Balder Succes likes, I have no hesitation in suggesting that Champagne Fever is the danger and wouldn’t put you off a reverse exacta as there is not a lot between them on Thurles form. Al Ferof can be best of the home contingent.
4:05 Crabbie’s Topham Chase
Six Topham winners since 1995 ran in the Plate at the Festival (though only three since the turn of the century) and the eye catcher was Rajdhani Express who finished eighth as he was fairly tenderly handled to my eyes until the run-in. Given how well Sam Waley-Cohen rides the Grand National Course and his owner is his father who also has a love affair with races over these fences (won this race twice before and owned and trained the dual Fox Hunters winner, Katarino, plus this year’s Becher Chase winner and Grand National second, Oscar Time), I am taking the view it was a run to keep him ticking along before his main spring aim of this race and he represents the Nicky Henderson yard that have won the last two runnings and four renewals in total. The winner and runner-up in the Plate, Darna and Monetaire, are also in the field and the runner-up was a shade unlucky as he was flat-footed from a standing start and had to work his way through the field so I don’t think a 5lb raise for being beaten is unfair at all.
Another huge eye catcher at Cheltenham was Eastlake who was set far too much to do in the Grand Annual over 2m and finished very strongly to claim second place. Third in this race last year, he has clearly demonstrated he enjoys this test and he is only off a 2lb higher mark and he would be my pick of those with previous course experience. A run over these fences before has been a factor with last season’s Topham Chase featuring as many as six winners in the last 11 years. In fact, eight of the last 11 Topham winners had run over the Grand National fences in any race over this course. Poole Master won the Grand Sefton over these obstacles in December and is just 5lb higher. Interesting that Paul Moloney has been booked to ride him given he has finished placed in the last six Grand Nationals.
Bless The Wings was no match for The Package in the Kim Muir but he was a good second and Gordon Elliott’s charge can be best of the Irish who have registered five victories in total, going back to 1952, but since 1979 they have only hit the target twice. The lightly-raced Ruben Cotter won in a breeze at Kempton on his only start this season and is very much a contender for Paul Nicholls with the promise of more to come.
Of the last 33 winners, only two were given hold up rides in that they were not prominent from half-way so this has been a big race for those that like in-running betting. horses near the pace don’t tend to come back in this race and the Fox Hunters’, so look to a horse who likes to get out there and enjoy itself. Until 2007, the Topham was limited to horses rated no higher than 150 but now it is open to all comers and a very fine handicap it has become too. Since 2000 only two winners have carried more than 11st to victory and nine of the last 12 winners carried no more than 10st 7lb.
As soon as the Plate was over I have had a ring around this date to back RAJDHANI EXPRESS for this race who looked like he was having a tee up for this prize that his connections like to target. He does have to carry 11st 9lb however and since 2000 only two winners have carried more than 11st to victory and nine of the last 12 winners carried no more than 10st 7lb so he might be more of a place-only option, especially with a jockey as adept as Sam Waley-Cohen around this course doing the steering. EASTLAKE makes obvious appeal given his run in this race last year and a good second at the Cheltenham Festival but he is also in the higher echelons of the handicap so I am leaning towards RUBEN COTTER and MONETAIRE. Ruben Cotter wasn’t that fancied for his first run in almost 19 months when he bolted up at Kempton jumping like a bunny judged by his SP of 14/1 so there could easily be a deal more to come from Paul Nicholls’ charge. Monetaire might have won the Plate with a faster start so I maintain he is a well handicapped horse even off a 5lb higher mark.
4:40 Doom Bar Sefton Novices’ Hurdle
Between 2008-2011 all four winners bypassed the Cheltenham Festival but Lovcen and At Fishers Cross won the 2012 and 2013 renewals after running big races in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle where they finished fourth and first respectively. However, last year’s winner, Beat That, came here fresh having missed Cheltenham and beat the subsequent World Hurdle winner, Cole Harden, into second. The Albert Bartlett form is represented this season by Thomas Brown and Blaklion, who were both fancied, but both pulled up in what was a stern test of stamina in testing ground dominated by the Irish. At least they were spared a very hard race and this better ground and lesser Irish challenge gives them a chance. Foryourinformation was balloted out of the Albert Bartlett but has won well since over 2m4f and looks a smashing 3m chaser in the making so I am very interested to see how he gets on at this first attempt at 3m for a trainer who excels with staying types.
When there was no three-mile novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, it was the Neptune over 2m5f that was previously the principal guide with the likes of Rustle (1988), Cardinal Red (1993), Forest Ivory (1997) and King’s Road (1999 – the last time any Neptune representative was successful here) winning here after finishing second, third or fourth in the Neptune. However, the last 15 horses that have tried the three-furlong longer Sefton Novices’ Hurdle after filling the frame in the Neptune have all been beaten. Vyta Du Roc would have been second but for a last-flight mistake and he had Ordo Ab Chao back in seventh whose Classic Novices’ Hurdle win has not been franked since. Vyta Du Roc was going to contest the Albert Bartlett until a late switch to the Neptune so this step up in trip could see him in an even better light. He was previously second in the Challow Hurdle one place ahead of Blaklion and although that Newbury Grade 1 takes place over 2m4f, rather than head for the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle over the same distance, the last four winners of that Grade 1 event run at Newbury over Christmas to run at this three-day meeting all contested this half-mile longer test instead, three of which finished second.
The Irish are represented by Roi Des Francs who was third in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle after being sent off favourite and Alpha Des Obeaux in the same ownership who has not run since he was second to Douvan over 2m but he stays this far having been second to Black Hercules over 3m. Roi Des Francs had no excuses that I could see but he stayed on in a manner that suggested this longer trip would suit.
Minella Rocco is the interesting one yet to be tested at pattern race level. Unbeaten in three starts (a point-to-point over 3m and two easy novice hurdle successes over 2m4f at Grade 1 tracks) for Jonjo O’Neill, he is the unknown quantity of the race and hard to get a handle on. Flintham beat the subsequent Pertemps Final placed The Tourard Man when he won at Ascot over this trip and this half-brother to Coneygree and full brother to Carruthers is another horse waiting to go chasing. He will keep plugging on but whether he is classy enough at this stage of his career is the question. He may well be when he is sent over fences.
Vyta Du Roc
Roi Des Francs
Alpha Des Obeaux
I felt before the Neptune that VYTA DU ROC might struggle for toe but he would have been second in a steadily-run renewal but for an awful last-flight error and I fancy this is the trip where he will excel. FORYOURINFORMATION was balloted out of the Albert Bartlett but it is interesting that his connections wanted to try him over 3m there and he too can find improvement for the step in distance. Sticking with the same theme and ROI DES FRANCS is another who looks ready for a move up in distance but don’t dismiss his owner-mate ALPHA DES OBEAUX who unsurprisingly found Douvan too sharp over 2m and his stable had two horses run belters in the Irish Grand national on Monday. He wouldn’t be the first Gigginstown second string to win a big race this season by any stretch of the imagination if successful.
5:15 Weatherbys Wealth Management Champion Bumper
Not a bad renewal three years ago with The New One beating My Tent Or Yours into second I guess. Over to you last season’s 1-2 Ballybolley and Relic Rock! Ballybolley and The New One were two of four winners trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies in the last 16 years from just ten runners and this year is represented by Kerisper who won an Irish point-to-point but was beaten into second by Armchair Theatre on his only British run. The winner was making it 2-2 for Evan Williams beating Kerisper under a penalty and is clearly useful.
Five of the last 15 years winners were unplaced in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham and just two take their chance this year, Bellshill (10th) and Davy Doubt (14th). Bellshill’s second to Vigil at Leopardstown on his previous run is smart bumper form.
Barters Hill for the very-much-going-places Ben Pauling was being considered for Cheltenham after he won the Listed Bumper at Newbury where he went 3-3 under Rules but runs here instead. He was very game that day but had a hard race with it. Others to catch the eye last time out were Western Rules who won under a penalty at Newcastle and Archive won battled well to win at Leopardstown on Irish Hennessy day in what is often a good bumper. Nicky Henderson runs Brain Power (won his only start at Newcastle) for Michael Buckley who likes this meeting and Buveur D’Air who was second in his hat-trick bid to Barters Hill. Paul Nicholls runs Persian Delight who made a winning debut at Taunton at 12l and we must respect Alan Swinbank given his record in this race having supplied a winner and a runner-up in two of the last seven seasons and he runs Virnon who has been well beaten on his last two starts on better ground under penalties having twice won on soft so the going might be against him. Jurby could be the pick of the northern team for Malcolm Jefferson who won his sole start at Newcastle.
Not a race to be dogmatic about but BELLSHILL has to be respected for Willie Mullins and he wasn’t disgraced at Cheltenham and also have a look at fellow Irish raider ARCHIVE for Eoin Griffin. BRAIN POWER and JURBY appeal most of the home team.