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Craig Porter 2nd Feb 2010 - 10:48

Weatherbys Cheltenham Previews: 1st Feb

Paul Jones of Weatherbys brings you his regularly updated reports on how the hopefuls for this year's Cheltenham Festival have fared in the week.

It was supposed to be the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown on Monday that was going to give us some clues on whether there is anything to take Dunguib on with but Saludos and a desperately-disappointing Hollo Ladies, who had previously fought out a tight finish to the Grade 1 event at Leopardstown’s Christmas Meeting, were both turned over by at the tough Luska Lad who was only fourth in that same race.

Luska Lad’s trainer put the improvement down to returning to a right-handed track so therefore he all but virtually ruled out going to the Cheltenham Festival with him and his big aim will be back at Punchestown in the spring. The most relevant action on the same card with regards to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle was the victory of Willie Mullins’ Blackstairmountain in the maiden hurdle. Weak beforehand in the market, he cruised to an impressive victory on his hurdling debut and the stable have twice won the ‘Supreme’ before and arguably should have won it three times if Adamant Approach had not capsized at the final flight in 2002.

If we go back to last February, Blackstairmountain walloped Hollo Ladies to win his first bumper by 18 lengths but arguably of more interest is that he was then second to Universal Truth on his next run last March and that horse topped the market for this season’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper until his trainer hinted he would not run.

In a year where we seemingly have few realistic challengers to the favourite, Blackstairmountain has finally added some much needed interest into the race. General Miller looked to get outstayed over an extended 2m4f at Cheltenham on Saturday which suggests that if he is to go anywhere at the Festival, it should be in this race but I am not sure how strong that form is and would rate him not good enough wherever he goes which, in turns, means that Ghizao, who he beat at Cheltenham, also looks a notch below what is required.

Tataniano’s long odds-on eclipse at Newbury was the major talking point surround the Arkle Trophy during the last week as he had been pushing hard for second favouritism. Paul Nicholls put his shock defeat down to soft ground and told us we will see a better horse on spring ground at the Festival but he still couldn’t win last week even after the eventual winner let him back in by making a mess of the final fence and the first-day ground at the Festival is usually the softest of the week anyway.

What was supposed to be Somersby’s final prep at Hereford was lost to the weather so Henrietta Knight’s charge will now have his final warm-up race next week in the Lightning Chase at Doncaster (abandoned last weekend but have been rescued) or the Kingmaker Chase where he will very likely face RSA Chase hope Long Run at Warwick, the course over which Somersby made an impressive jumping debut.

Willie Mullins has intimated he wants to get another run into Sports Line after his second placing in the Irish Arkle – a smart move I think as he still looks green and gawky to me and we will soon see Captain Cee Bee bid to cement his place at the head of the market when he contests the Opera Hat Chase. One horse to look out for this week is Paul Nicholls’ Woolcombe Folly who he described as “his secret weapon” not so long ago who was 5-10 over hurdles and has an entry for Taunton on Tuesday.

There was no relevant action on the track with regards to the Champion Hurdle in the last week though anyone who followed in the Voler La Vedette punt appears to have done their dough as Colm Murphy confirmed at the weekend that his mare will go for the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle.

Connections of Khyber Kim were considering running him off top weight at Newbury in two week’s time for a valuable handicap but sense has prevailed for once with this yard as a hard race under a big weight on testing ground would surely have had a detrimental effect on a horse with an excellent best-fresh record. Other than that it has been a very quiet week and we wait for Binocular to run at Sandown on Saturday, Zaynar to contest the Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso and Punjabi to take on Starluck in the Kingwell Hurdle for final clues as Solwhit, Go Native and Medermit are freshened up at home.

Recent Champion Hurdle winners can be broken down into two categories; the grinders and the quickeners, and it has been the grinders that have run the finish out of the quickeners far more regularly in more recent times. Looking at those towards the head of the betting, there is an even sprinkling of both sets of horses but the only horse I would suggest has a combination of both is Solwhit and that could be the determining factor.

Now that Colm Murphy has confirmed Voler La Vedette to this race at least connections of Quevega know that they will have a race on their hands this year as she is a class above the mares that failed to live with Willie Mullins’ mare 12 months ago. The ground is going to be important though as soft ground will make Quevega a very strong favourite as she loves it that way and Voler La Vedette does have some stamina questions to answer and you can be sure that Ruby Walsh will know that and test that element of her game to the full.

With Doncaster being abandoned at the weekend, the British challenge lost an opportunity to give us a line to their pecking order as it featured a mares’ pattern race though it has been rescued to this weekend’s Doncaster card. One mare that attracted a little interest over the last week is Emma Lavelle’s Easter Legend who was beaten a length by Sweetheart at Ascot the previous weekend. The winner is likely to miss Cheltenham so she looks best set to represent that race and is on the upgrade and maybe would have won that Ascot race had it transpired she did not lose both her front shoes during the race.

All the money this week has been for Rite Of Passage so punters have decided he will bypass a clash with Dunguib and head here instead. Maybe. Dermot Weld doesn’t strike me as man who likes to shirk a challenge without good reason. I thought he was mega impressive on his hurdling debut and also on his final start on the Flat and think he has a great chance of beating Dunguib if he takes him on. I hope they go for the ‘Supreme’ as it looks like the presence of Dunguib will mean we get a backable price about him as I can see him ending up very short here if he wins his final prep race in equally emphatic style.

Part of the reason for his continued shortening is the lack of impressive novices as Royal Charm blew out at the weekend as did General Miller as did Quel Esprit the previous weekend. The first-named pair were comfortably rolled over by the ‘Albert Bartlett’-destined Restless Harry who had previously been beaten a close second in the Challow Hurdle. His win unquestionably franked the form of Reve De Sivola and Finian’s Rainbow who would be two of the home team’s stronger contenders though Quantitiveeasing is the shortest-priced British contender at present for reasons unknown as his form does not add up to much though he has been undeniably impressive.

Very little has occurred on the track in the last week but, off it, Nicky Henderson has had a change of heart and runs Punchestowns in this weekend’s Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown therefore re-routing Long Run to the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick over two miles as his trainer he feels he has the more speed to cope with that race.

Other final-prep plans are that the third-favourite Diamond Harry has been pencilled in for Newbury in two weeks’ time, Weapon’s Amnesty is due to run in Sunday’s Grade 1 Dr Moriarty Chase which was won by last season’s ‘RSA’ winner Cooldine and Bensalem will have another run but Alan King is undecided as yet. The Nightingale, on the other hand, could easily be a Grade 1 horse and impressed on his chasing debut over 2m2f easily beating Chariot Charger by 16 lengths who gave Bensalem a real race on his chasing debut.

Paul Nicholls’ French-bred was reportedly all wrong last spring so it may be wise to overlook his sixth in the last season’s Ballymore (now the Neptune) and his trainer says he will now step up in trip and mentioned both this race and the Jewson as likely targets but he will need to get two more quick runs into him if it is to be the latter which suggests to me the RSA is where we could see him if he runs at the Festival.

It is now looking more and more likely that Master Minded will contest the Game Spirit Chase a week on Saturday following comments made by Paul Nicholls in his column so expect his current odds to start shortening. I think he will start odds-on on the day and can still win if only operating to 90% of his true worth.

Big Zeb got his season back on track winning the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown but it would be wrong to treat his seven lengths’ defeat of Golden Silver at face value as the runner-up had a real off day to these eyes jumping slowly and carefully at many of his fences. Perhaps he just goes better for his regular pilot Paul Townend who was at Limerick instead? As for Big Zeb, he did everything right and that will have been a confidence booster after his Sandown blip and he will surely head to the race as Ireland’s number-one hope. Kalahari King’s much-anticipated seasonal debut is planned for Saturday at Doncaster in a hot handicap where he will take on Oh Crick amongst others.

When are we going to start seeing some contenders for this? Where are all the Willie Mullins horses?

I know he said they are behind this season but if they don’t come out soon he will run out of time. Then again, having raced just once hasn’t stopped five of his six winners of this race who had such a profile whereas no other trainer has managed that feat at all. The mover over the last week has been Dermot Weld’s Elegant Concorde as punters has worked out that he will probably rely on him rather than the four-year-old Hidden Universe and he has virtually halved in price as a result.

Disputing second-favouritism are Tavern Times for Tom Mullins who supplied last season’s runner-up, Up Ou That who looked all legs to me for Willie Mullins and I will be surprised if he doesn’t have at least a couple of better unraced ones and Araucaria for John Kiely but she is a mare and the yard had the 1-2 in the mares’ bumper at the Grand National Meeting so you wouldn’t be shocked if she went there instead. A British challenger to take the eye was Gary Moore’s Dragon’s Roost who won at Newbury but his trainer was non-committal afterwards about plans for him.

Supporters of the mud-loving (and therein could lie his problem at the Festival) Tranquil Sea, would have liked to have seen Golden Silver, who beat him last time out over 2m, run a whole better than he did at Punchestown at the weekend and he looks set to be joined by fellow Irish raider Newmill who is now getting too long in the tooth to attempt a second Champion Chase win and he won the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles last week.

After missing last weekend’s Argento Chase it would now appear that Barbers Shop alongside the current ante-post favourite Poquelin will head to the race without another run though we are expected to see the William Hill Gold Cup winner Planet Of Sound put his final preparations together in the Ascot Chase towards the end of the month. After winning the Cleeve Hurdle, I think it is fair to say that chasing is now off the agenda for the time being for Tidal Bay but an overlooked horse for this race appears to be last season’s second Voy Por Ustedes who remains the best horse in the race on official figures whatever way you look at it.

He has run below par on his two outing this season but the stable were out of sorts at the time and he is a horse that simply blooms in the spring so expect his price to contract and especially if he puts in a good run in the Game Spirit Chase a week on Saturday to put him right for the Festival.

If anyone was looking for a runaway winner of the Cleeve Hurdle to find a realistic challenger to Big Buck’s, we didn’t find one and something is going to have to go seriously awry with him not to collect. Karabak is the obvious second-best choice in but he missed the Cleeve Hurdle as didn’t quite scope right in his final preparations and, like Big Buck’s, he will now head straight to the Festival.

Tidal Bay won the ‘Cleeve’ comfortably but whether I trust him to do it again is another matter plus he was receiving 4lbs from Time For Rupert and ridden more conservatively than the runner-up who was always in front rank in what was an end-to-end gallop.

Under a less aggressive ride I would fancy Time For Rupert, who travelled tremendously well in the race, to reverse placings back off level weights. Katchit ran well back in third but that is as good as he is now and he had no excuses. He will run a game, honest race but I think he may struggling to hit the frame. As for the also-rans, Willie Amos has suggested that maybe Lie Forrit had duped him at home believing he was fitter than he actually was but, even so, he was beaten a long way from home and never travelled at any stage so maybe he is better on flat tracks where he can keep up his gallop better.

What really impressed me about Mille Chief last week was his super-slick jumping but I also like the gears he showed during the race and he was running away passing the line showing that his Kempton win that didn’t impress everyone was indeed little more of a getting-back-to-the-racecourse exercise. He will now head to the Adonis Hurdle which three Triumph Hurdle winners have won since 1997 and, if he impresses there, I think he could go off at something close to 2/1 as serious opposition is thin on the ground.

Pistolet Noir was second-favourite heading into the weekend but he looked almost un-rideable at times in the Finesse Hurdle and was beaten by the 100/1 shot Baccalaureate. Nigel Twiston-Davies admitted after the race that the winner was basically having a third run to qualify for the Fred Winter but would now be rated too highly so his hand is forced to go for the Triumph Hurdle but he was only a 10f horse on the Flat and looked to be tying up in the final half-furlong to me and that was in a slowly-run race so I don’t think he has a cat in hell’s chance of staying the Triumph Hurdle trip at the gallop they usually go in that race.

Nicky Henderson’s According continues to be supported even though he has yet to jump a hurdle in public so his first run should be interesting and Advisor may prove to be Paul Nicholls’ number one hope as he was very sweet on him in his latest column telling us he is improving fast but the form of his latest Ascot win received a knock when the second, Barwell Bridge, was beaten at odds-on at Doncaster on Friday and the fourth ran terribly at Plumpton on Sunday.

The big mover this week was the Robin Dickin-trained Restless Harry after his convincing win the Classic Novices’ Hurdle where he beat sexier rivals in General Miller and Royal Charm looking better and better as the race went on. Royal Charm was second-favourite for the ‘Neptune’ prior to this start and looked all quality in the prelims and the first three-quarters of the race but looked soft when pressure was applied and I am sure Paul Nicholls left the race feeling deeply disappointed.

Afterwards, Dickin told us that Restless Harry was not fully fit when running so well in defeat when second in the Challow Hurdle on his previous outing and that he expected him to better upped in trip to three miles and that the ‘Albert Bartlett’ would be his target. Given his unfashionable connections, he may well start a couple of points bigger than his form entitles him to on the day and the Classic Novices’ Hurdle has been a good guide to this race as Wichita Lineman and Moulin Riche both contested it before winning here.

Top of the market is Tell Massini who is likely to head straight here without another prep-run ahead of the Irish challenge of Quel Esprit (target undecided) and Shinrock Paddy (this is the aim). There was good money last week for The Betchworth Kid prior in anticipation of him winning the River Don Hurdle which was abandoned which was interesting.

The odds on a second Paul Nicholls 1-2-3 in three years was slashed after Taranis looked all class in defying a lengthy layoff to win the Argento Chase in the absence of Denman.

He may have been receiving weight but he would have won regardless and he travelled and jumped like a top-class horse and Nicholls, who was cool on him beforehand, confirmed he would improve for the run. A former Ryanair Chase winner, he badly injured himself in the William Hill King George VI Chase of 2008 and some will argue he still has his stamina to prove but the further he went at the weekend, the better he looked and he has firmly put himself in the mix to finish third.

What the Argento Chase confirmed to us was that Madison Du Berlais detests the place and Carruthers is short of top class. I fancied Madison Du Berlais to put up a big run as figured he is best in small fields but he was being niggled when going uphill on the first circuit and was never happy afterwards. I do think he is becoming quirky as that is third time in three starts this season he has not travelled sweetly. Carruthers ran a game, honest race but you have to say that is as good as he is.

The Irish Hennessy on Sunday should shed light on the Irish challenge and it is hoped that Cooldine bounces back to form as, for me, he is the one horse I would be slightly worried about if I was Paul Nicholls as he was very impressive in the RSA Chase, loves a battle and still could be out of the top drawer. In other Gold Cup news, Henrietta Knight has gone on record stating she will let Calgary Bay take his chance.


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