Weatherbys Cheltenham Previews: 8th Feb
Paul Jones of Weatherbys previews this year's Cheltenham festival, read his thoughts on this year's major runners below.
SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE
Few will deny that Dunguib was anything other than sensational in the Deloitte Hurdle where the only points to crab were two sloppy jumps in the early stages but they can be put down to him being put to sleep at the back and he jumped well when asked to warm to his task. In terms of form, he didn't do much different to when beating Some Present by a similar distance for a third time but he had even more of a swagger on this occasion and Philip Fenton has ended all speculation where he runs at the Festival confirming him to this race where he it is odds-on he will start at odds-on. That awesome performance was probably enough to frighten a few more off rivals to the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle over 2m5f to ease his task further. Grey Soldier, who had previously chased home Rite Of Passage, also won at the weekend which increased his chances of travelling over but, other than that, it was a very quiet week on the Supreme Novices' Hurdle front.
Everything went smoothly for Captain Cee Bee in his final prep bar a minor blip at the final fence and connections couldn't have really wished for a better performance as he was neat and polished up until the last fence and won at his leisure beating some useful types without taking much out of himself. Somersby missed Doncaster and heads straight to the race in the end which means that he will also skip a clash with Long Run in the Kingmaker Novices' Chase at Warwick on Saturday that has been a cracking Arkle guide when it has beaten the weather. The very fact that Long Run heads for an Arkle trial has got punters latching on to him for this race rather than the RSA Chase even though his trainer says the 'RSA' is the more likely option at this stage. If he blows them away at Warwick, housing the 'RSA' favourite in Punchestowns, the huge temptation would be to run in the Arkle. Woolcombe Folly entered the picture with his nose defeat of I'm Delilah in the Grade 2 Lightning Chase on his seasonal and chase debut so may end up being the Nicholls number one after Tataniano's shock defeat the previous week but that form looks well short of what is required in a year featuring many high-class ex-hurdlers. Mad Max had no excuses back in third which appears to have burst his bubble as far as being a fringe Arkle player is concerned and similar comments apply to Bedlam Boy who was beaten by a three-miler over 2m3f on the same card.
Only one Champion Hurdle prospect was in action during the last week where Binocular was the centre of attention and didn't impress everybody when outclassing two inferior rivals at Sandown and McCoy came back and reported he is still not giving him the same feel as last season so maybe that hard race he endured in the Champion Hurdle has really taken the edge off him. Nicky Henderson was more bullish than the jockey about his performance and two recent third-place finishers in the Champion Hurdle in Brave Inca and Punjabi has lifted the crown the following season so it can be done but I have to say that of the five horses priced at single-figures for the race, he would be vying for the one I least fancy alongside Khyber Kim. The more and more I think about this race, although I feel our ante-post each-way interest Punjabi will run his usual good solid race, I am coming down to the thinking that Solwhit will win if it comes up on the soft side of good-to-soft and Go Native could defy the stats if it were to come up the other way round - those stats being the terrible record of the reigning Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Christmas Hurdle winner. With Philip Fenton finally confirming Dunguib to the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, it doesn't look like we will have any novice representation in this season's race so it will be interesting to see if he is left in at the next forfeit stage to back up what they have said.
DAVID NICHOLSON MARES HURDLE
Doncaster on Saturday was supposed to be when the Brits put down a serious marker for this race but Alegralil got found out moving up in class and My Petra was caught close home by another Irish horse in Zarinava therefore tightening the Irish stranglehold on the race. Jessica Harrington's grey was trimmed after that victory over two miles but her trainer is greatly concerned whether she is as effective over 2m4f and she was comfortably put in her place at Leopardstown over that distance on her previous start by Voler La Vedette giving Colm Murphy's mare a form boost. The eye-catching performance from the home team over the last week was Candy Creek winning in style at Musselburgh for Nicky Henderson. Still a novice, but so was Whiteoak when she won the inaugural running in 2008, she won the valuable mares' bumper at the Grand National Meeting last season when trained by John Kiely in Ireland and then switched hands for £200,000. This season Candy Creek has won two of her three novice hurdles, the defeat coming at Newbury on testing ground and she looks the most upwardly mobile of the British defence though the Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle has also been mentioned as a Festival target, a race the same owners won last year.
NEPTUNE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT NOVICES' HURDLE
None of the market leaders strutted their stuff over the last week but an interesting contender here could be Fionnegas who chased home Dunguib on Sunday and would have run out an impressive 11 lengths' winner without the season's star novice in the race so he is a serious contender for whichever novice event they head for between this contest and the Albert Bartlett Hurdle as Willie Mullins seems to have already conceded it is a futile exercise taking on Dunguib again. The stable have a number of staying novices to juggle around notably Quel Esprit and Enterprise Park so it remains guesswork. I would rate Finian's Rainbow as the best of the Brits at this stage ahead of his stablemate Quantativeeasing although he is the bigger-priced as he shaped like the best horse in the Challow Hurdle to me before heavy ground brought Reve De Sivola's greater stamina into play but, again, we can not be sure about his Festival target.
Weapon's Amnesty did nothing wrong with a good second in the Dr P J Moriarty Chase and I thought he ran a perfectly respectable RSA Chase trial as the drop down in trip would not suit this strong stayer and he also much prefers decent ground so the testing surface would have also been against him. He did take a while again for his jumping to warm to the task which has been a trait in his races and that is the area that would worry me. As for the surprise all-the-way winner, Citizen Vic, Willie Mullins won this race with Cooldine last season before winning the RSA Chase and he is clearly improving at a rate of knots so it would be dangerous to overlook him but, as far as ante-post action is concerned, his trainer also mentioned the Powers Gold Cup at Fairyhouse as a possible objective so he is no certain runner here as yet. The injury to Mighty Man has ruled him out for the season which has strengthened Punchestown's position at the head of the market after his win at Sandown. As far as his RSA Chase chance is concerned, it is noticeable that bad error occurred at the first downhill fence he has jumped in a race and there are at least four of those in the 'RSA', two of which during the hottest part of the race - three out and two out. The fact that his stablemate and second-favourite, Long Run, heads to an Arkle trial this weekend has heightened speculation that he may bypass the race but no one really knows, not even the connections apparently. Weird Al confirmed his victory over Knockara Beau in the Towton Novices' Chase from when they met at Cheltenham in November. I felt the latter may have gained his revenge on 8lbs better terms but it shows just how nicely Weird Al is progressing to give him a more comprehensive beating on worse terms this time and he looks like being the only serious contender with winning chase form at the course going into the race, a feat he has achieved twice. Three fairly recent winners of that Wetherby Grade 2 race have also finished second here which is another pointer in his favour. Another performance that was hard to fault was Tazbar's defeat of some useful types by 14 lengths over 2m3f given the trip would have been plenty short enough for the Feltham Chase runner-up. That was a form boost for Long Run who beat him with considerable ease at Kempton and it could be his best chance of picking up a top staying chase may be at Aintree over 3m1f.
QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
I thought it was a terrific performance by Kalahari King to win on his seasonal debut allaying his trainer's fears he would need the run and be happy if he finished in midfield. The is now challenging Twist Magic hard for second-favouritism though on ratings he should be a significantly higher price in comparison to the rejuvenated dual Grade 1 winner this season but, of course, we can not be sure that Twist Magic will run to those same figures at Cheltenham. That victory was off a mark of 157 and I am guessing he will go up to around 165 so that now puts him in the ball park of what is required. His conqueror in the Arkle Trophy, Forpadydeplasterer, on the other hand has been taken out of the betting following news from his trainer that he is almost certain to miss the race due to lameness. That may not sound like a serious injury, but Tommy Cooper clearly feels it will impact sufficiently on his training regime so he wouldn't be cherry ripe on the day and there is no point taking on the likes of Master Minded off the back of a far-from-ideal preparation. As for the two-time defending champion, hopefully we shall know a lot more about his wellbeing on Saturday when he is set to contest the Game Spirit Chase. I say hopefully as the forecast for the week is to get colder and colder and this meeting was lost last year. His stablemate, Free World, now looks increasingly more likely to miss the Champion Chase now that Master Minded in the same ownership is back on track and he would have little chance of placing on his run behind Kalahari King at the weekend anyhow.
Joncol and Schindler's Hunt did their Ryanair Chase chances no harm at all in the Irish Hennessy but just a word of warning though if you think that Joncol's class and progression can see him through and win a third Grade 1 of the season, his trainer stated afterwards that he is only 50-50 to run here as they have the Guinness Gold Cup at Punchestown also on his agenda. A giant of a horse standing over 18 hands tall that bypassed hurdling altogether, he did well to win having running down the final fence and can develop into a live Gold Cup hope for 2011 but, recognising this is a year too soon, connections took away any temptation by not even entering so it's the Ryanair or nothing as far as this season's Festival is concerned. What Schindlers Hunts wants is 2m5f on decent ground so his third behind Joncol in the Irish Hennessy, where he looked the most likely winner at the final fence until his stamina gave way over three miles on testing ground, was a screamer of a run where he didn't help himself again with a last-fence mistake. The only time he has had his ground this season was at Ascot in November when he was a disappointing fourth behind Albertas Run but the trip of 2m3f would have been short enough for him. Beaten in his last 12 attempts in Grade 1 company, and no spring chicken with 25 chase starts on the board, although he could conceivably place again, it is hard seeing him going all the way. Looking at collateral formlines, Kalahari King's win at Doncaster can be viewed as a positive for Planet Of Sound as he only finished a place behind in last season's Arkle despite a series of mistakes, notably at the first fence which shuffled him back to rear from the start.
Nothing of note has occurred on the track in the last week with the possible exception of Cousin Vinny could get the chance to redeem his reputation having failed to shine over fences and Willie Mullins mentioned he is still in this race after his latest disappointment so this may well be his Festival target. We saw how much of a lift Tidal Bay received when he was sent back hurdling and Cousin Vinny was rated the best bumper horse of all time by Timeform two seasons ago and such horses usually end up being three-milers so he is one to consider from left field.
According blew out big style on his hurdling debut at Sandown having been punted into second-favourite for the Triumph which totally bemused Nicky Henderson who stated after his grey ran as green as grass that he was one of a few juveniles they had to come out in the coming weeks but he certainly didn't give the impression he felt he was unquestionably their best. Also well beaten in that race was Prince Pippin who is now the third horse from Advisor's race at Ascot to run below expectations next time out so that look form is looking very dodgy for Paul Nicholls' charge. Both Irish winners at the weekend, Carlito Brigante and Pittoni advanced their claims and the former won the Scottish Triumph Hurdle at Musselburgh with some panache. It was a convincing performance from Gordon Elliott's charge as the runner-up, Ultimate, looks a real speed track specialist but was comfortably brushed aside with the race surely coming too soon for last week's Finesse Hurdle winner, Baccalaureate. Pittoni also took the eye winning what is traditionally Ireland's best guide to the Triumph Hurdle but their shortest three in the betting for Cheltenham at the time bypassed the race so it looked weaker than usual but the winner put the race to bed very nicely.
With the weather planning to take a turn for the worse as the week progresses, I wonder whether connections will regret not running Denman in the Argento Chase should Newbury fall to the elements for the second year running? Also last week, the owners confirmed what the bookmakers seemed to have known for a while that A P McCoy will take the ride in the AON Chase and Gold Cup. I am not sure what Sam Thomas did wrong as he appeared to carry out instructions to the letter in the last two Gold Cups and I think he gets on great with the horse whereas as I am not totally sold on the idea McCoy will do a better job. One thing I am sure of is that the Irish Hennessy witnessed the return to form of Cooldine and I did need a little persuading he had got over his brutal win in the RSA Chase and this fine effort confirmed it. Willie Mullins had stated beforehand he felt he would fail for lack of match practice from two out but a slower than anticipated gallop meant he almost held on to the death and he is certain to improve for the race. Given he would have won the RSA Chase by even further had it been run over the two-furlongs longer trip of the Gold Cup, I would be very hopeful he will also improve for the step up in trip in the blue riband and, if one horse can mix it with the big two, I believe it will be him as I don't think he knows when to lay down when he is at the top of his game. For those reasons, I would have him ahead of Imperial Commander in the betting. The one horse the slow first two miles in the Irish Hennessy certainly didn't suit was the out-and-out stayer Notre Pere and why they didn't make it a test I don't know. He would need heavy ground to have any hope of reaching a place.