Weatherbys Cheltenham Previews: 22nd Feb
Week-by-week Paul Jones of Weatherbys reviews this year's Cheltenham Festival's hopes progress. Read his thoughts following this weekend's action.
SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE
Get Me Out Here's chances of lining up here rather than in a handicap took a turn for the better after the handicapper whacked him up 15lbs for his latest win which means he is now rated 150 - a mark that disappointed Jonjo O'Neill which could suggest they will stick to a novice race rather than run off that mark.
Given he is officially rated 150, that means he is already good enough to win this race as Go Native was given a mark of 147 when winning this race last season. Oscar Whisky won his final prep race at Sandown very comfortably to set himself for this race alongside the same stable's Bellvano.
However, Menorah, who was expected to do likewise in his final prep-race was beaten at Ascot by Lush Life who I doubt Henderson rates in his top half a dozen novice hurdlers. I didn't think it was a great ride from Richard Johnson as he was slow in realising he had a challenger on the run-in after he got the last flight wrong and lost his momentum. Menorah just races with the choke out a little too much for me and as far as winning a Supreme Novices' Hurdle is concerned.
No news to report at all this week with no realistic challengers running and very little word from the main pretenders' to read between the lines. I can see Sports Line shortening up though and especially if Ruby Walsh prefers him to Tataniano. There has be a strong of chance of that given Tataniano was most disappointing in his final prep whereas Sports Line looks like a horse that will improve with experience.
Not a good week for Nicky Henderson, firstly he had to endure the defection of Binocular who is out for the season with muscle problems and then witness the defeat of Zaynar at odds of 1-14 and then the Kingwell Hurdle was abandoned meaning Punjabi may have to go to Cheltenham without the benefit of another run.
This is not good for Punjabi if they can't get another run into him as he is a stuffy horse that needs to race but Henderson did say it was not as important he ran in this season's Kingwell Hurdle as it was for him to run in the same race last year and there is talk of adding a two-mile conditions hurdle to Saturday's Kempton card.
As for Zaynar, I know the ground was bad and they will slap cheekpieces on come the day to whizz him up but he never looked happy with Geraghty having to shake the reins at him three times down the back straight before coming under real pressure in the straight going down to the huge Quewetoo who was having his seasonal debut.
I can't believe he will not be be trained with the World Hurdle in mind next season if they stay hurdling and this defeat would have to increase the chances of Geraghty staying loyal to Punjabi.
DAVID NICHOLSON MARES HURDLE
I noticed Tom Segal was virtually pleading in his Weekender column for Colm Murphy to change his mind and run Voler La Vedette in the Champion Hurdle as he had put her up for that race in a previous column so it will be interesting to see if that has any effect.
One mare not coming over is the Doncaster winner Zarinava who was fifth-favourite in some lists as Jessica Harrington is worried she won't stay 2m4f. Her stablemate No One Tells Me had her prep race last week when only fifth but maybe she was just blowing the cobwebs away and only has two lengths to find with Voler La Vedette on Leopardstown form at Christmas.
I am not sure how much we should read into these things but when Ruby Walsh was asked in a recent interview which Irish trained horse he fancied his chances on most for the Festival, he nominated Quevega for this race.
NEPTUNE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT NOVICES' HURDLE
Rite Of Passage passed his test over 2m4f last week, after which, Dermot Weld all but confirmed him for this race rather than taking on Dunguib in the 'Supreme'. He was long odds-on to win at Punchestown and he didn't have to come off the bridle and it was also encouraging to see him handle the undulations okay as some felt he didn't come down the hill at Cheltenham that well last season in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper.
I am not sure about that, I just think he has developed very quickly in the last 12 months and is now a proper physical specimen. One horse most unlikely to take him on is Coole River who beat Quel Esprit last time out as Jessica Harrington rates him too big a baby to come over to Cheltenham.
Finian's Rainbow outclassed his rivals at long odds-on at Ascot to set himself up for a bid. Overall he was pretty good but he did dive at a couple of his hurdles in the first half of the race and, alongside Peddlers Cross (if this is his aim over the 'Supreme'), then I rate this pair as the best of the home challenge. Although Paul Nicholls said he was favouring this race for Najaf, the Albert Bartlett may end up being the race for him.
Seriously beware if you fancy Bensalem. Alan King has sussed out this is a really hot year and has stated he will enter him for the William Hill Handicap Chase which is interesting for two reasons in that he won this race with a novice six years ago in Fork Lightning off 136 and two more novices have won this race since then.
It is my strong opinion that the handicap route will be his chosen option especially as he would near enough be favourite for the William Hill Trophy and there is also a big bonus for Plumpton winners at the Festival and that is where he won his chase debut.
Bensalem is rated 143 and I am sure he rates him in a different league to Fork Lightning so we could easily see him swerve the RSA Chase for the staying handicap on the opening day but he will have to brush up on his jumping as a bad mistake put him on the deck at Haydock and another bad mistake cost him victory over Diamond Harry at Newbury last time out in my opinion.
Weird Al's form just doesn't look enough following Knockara Beau's run in the Reynoldstown Chase when second to Burton Port, who himself made hard work of winning at odds-on until the run-in.
Henderson hinted afterwards that Burton Port is more likely to be aimed at Aintree than Cheltenham. The disappointing aspect of the race was the non-declaring of Punchestowns who now will head to the RSA Chase off just two chase runs like Diamond Harry and Uimhiraceathair unlike the last ten winners that had three or more runs.
QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
Forpadydeplasterer is now back in the picture after his trainer ruled him out of the Festival two weeks ago with lameness. Not ideal. If he does line up which now looks likely, the last 11 Arkle winners to run here the next season have been placed at worst but to win a championship race surely a horse has to have a trouble-free preparation so he wouldn't be for me and, besides, Kalahari King really should have won the Arkle anyway.
As for Kalahari King, Ferdy Murphy commented this week he may not improve all that much on his Doncaster win as he commented that the state of his fitness surprised him and clearly his work on Redcar beach had him fitter than he realised.
It looks like McCoy will either ride Petit Robin or Big Zeb. Both horses are Geraghty's ride so I imagine McCoy will ride whichever Geraghty doesn't as he hasn't got a mount in the race at the moment and Henderson and Murphy both like using him when he is available.
Tranquil Sea was due to have his final prep race at Naas on Sunday which was abandoned so it will be interesting to see if they try and squeeze another run into him. Planet Of Sound had a far from ideal prep when taking a crashing fall early on in the Ascot Chase and I know from my stats just how hard it is to win at the Festival directly off the back of a fall.
That part of his game has been a problem as a bad mistake cost him the Amlin Chase back in November and a poor first-fence jump shuffled him back to rear in last season's Arkle Trophy so it was always an uphill task from then.
As such, I really can't him for the Ryanair. Monet's Garden won the race for the second time but looks like waiting for the Melling Chase at Aintree but the runner-up Albertas Run looks like taking his chance but if he couldn't beat a near a 12-year-old I can't really have him on my mind here. Paul Nolan confirmed that Joncol definitely doesn't travel which was no great surprise and he will wait for Punchestown.
Mouse Morris was so disgusted with War Of Attrition's weight for the Grand National that he has said he won't run so it will be the World Hurdle. After he has calmed down, it wouldn't surprise me if they did still go to Aintree but it does now appear that he will take his chance here first and then they will decide.
At the end of the day, War Of Attrition has next to no chance of winning the World Hurdle but he could win a Grand National so I hope common sense prevails and he does go to Aintree. The Rendlesham Hurdle used to be an excellent guide but not of late and I can't believe this season's renewal in which Souffleur beat Kayf Aramis and Bouggler will have any effect at all on proceedings at Cheltenham.
I have to say I was impressed with Alaivan's 17 lengths' win on Saturday. Held up on this occasion rather than making it when appearing to run too freely when easily beaten by Carlito Brigante at Leopardstown, I did feel he benefited from an overly-strong pace up front but he did look classy, as he should being rated 109 on the Flat which makes him by far the best Flat horse in this season's Triumph Hurdle.
Me Voici was the top rated juvenile in training rated 140 before winning the Victor Ludorum Hurdle at the weekend but whether he runs will depend on the ground. Originally ruled out of the Triumph after winning the Grade 1 at Chepstow on Welsh National day, there had been rumblings he may turn up at Cheltenham but connections argued after his easy Haydock win that he is still a big weak horse with a high knee action so is it a sensible thing to muck him up on faster ground for one race when he has his whole future in front of him?
It would have be soft ground for them to even consider a crack and that hasn't been the case on the final day at the Festival for a long time. Olofi has been confirmed for this race rather than the Fred Winter which strikes me as bonkers as he is plainly not ready for the Triumph at this stage of his career.
I would be amazed now if Notre Pere travelled over after a disappointing run in the Bobbyjo Chase which he should have won comfortably on official figures but he didn't jump well and looked booked for only third when finally getting rid of Andrew Lynch at the final fence.
Paul Nicholls once again reiterated he will run five horses in the race, in other words meaning that What A Friend is not an intended runner as Tricky Trickster, Taranis and My Will are confirmed as joining Kauto Star and Denman.
Regards Denman, paddock judge Ken Pitterson told me he just wasn't fit at Newbury which explains why he couldn't shake off Niche Market and led to his early tiring which led to those two mistakes. It appears likely he will wear some kind of concentration aid whether it be a noseband, blinkers or cheekpieces and I thought it was interesting the "lairy" label came out again as that was how Walsh described him before he was beaten in what is now the 'Neptune'.
Two more unlikely to run are Money Trix after Nicky Richards ruled him out and David Pipe seemed cold on running Madison Du Berlais favouring keeping him to flat tracks with the Racing Post Chase on Saturday followed by Aintree swerving Cheltenham altogether which seems sensible given his appalling record at the track. In other news, Paul Townend has been confirmed as Cooldine's jockey and he has won on him over fences before last season at Thurles.