Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup 3m2f Chase (Grade1) Cheltenham March 16

With racing prospects looking extremely doubtful for the weekend due to the Arctic weather, it is an opportune time to look forward to Cheltenham’s Blue Riband in just sixteen days time.

Nicky Henderson, who trained the 2011 winner, Long Run, and the 2013 Victor, Bobsworth, is hoping to bring up the treble with current market leader, Might Bite, and following a highly satisfactory racecourse workout at Kempton Park last Saturday, the master of Seven Barrows expressed himself highly delighted with the condition of his challenger. Currently available at around the 4/1 mark he has won his last five races, three of them at Grade1 level, culminating with victory in the 3m King George V1 Chase last time. However his win at Kempton, again raised some doubts about his stamina, as his seven lengths advantage over the 50/1 runner up, Double Shuffle, turning into the straight, was reduced to a length at the post. Pilot, De Boinville, is convinced that the horse wasn’t tiring, only idling in front, a view I’m inclined to agree with, remembering the courageous way he fought back in last year’s 3m 1/2f RSA Chase at The Cheltenham Festival, where having got the last wrong, and hanging violently right, he still found the reserves to get back up in the shadow of the post. However the fact remains that the furthest he has won over is 3m1f and that was over the flat Mildmay course at Aintree, and despite his stamina laden pedigree, ( By the stayer Scorpion out of the Presenting mare, Knotted Midge, whose own dam, Bula Beag, got that strong staying chaser Drombeag ) the jury remains out, and its anyone’s guess how he will cope with the demands of a Gold Cup, invariably run at an attritional pace.

The record of Irish stables in the first twelve renewals of the new millennium, with only two wins, Kicking King 2005, and War Of Attrition 2006, was hardly impressive, but the last four years has seen a dramatic improvement in the fortunes of The Emerald Isle runners, with three of the last four Gold Cups going across the Irish Sea, and with messers Harrington, Mullins and Meade, fielding strong challenges, it wouldn’t be long odds against the trend continuing this year.

Jessica Harrington runs both last year’s winner, Sizing John (pictured), and her impressive Irish Grand National winner, Our Duke. The former marked himself down as a really exceptional performer last term when becoming the first horse to achieve the amazing treble of winning the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February, The Cheltenham Gold Cup the following month, and The Punchestown Gold Cup in April. He carried on the good work on his reappearance seven months later in December, beating Djakadam by seven lengths at Punchestown, but was a bitter disappointment eighteen days later in The Christmas Chase at Leopardstown, trailing in 32L behind the winner, Road To Respect, in seventh place, at the cramped odds of 9/10. As well as the race coming “too soon” and some other non specific illness being blamed, no one really knows what caused the upset, but given a complete rest, he is reported to have put his problems behind him, and delighted Jessica with a scintillating workout last Tuesday. If he is indeed fully recovered, he will make them all go on the 16th.

Mrs Harrington’s other contender, Our Duke, was a hugely impressive winner of last year’s Irish Grand National, winning the 3m5f contest by 14L from Bless The Wings. He let his supporters down badly when trailing in 51L behind Outlander, when sent off the 5/6 fav for a Grade1 Chase at Down Royal, on his reappearance, seven months later. However a back problem was diagnosed and the 8yo subsequently underwent corrective surgery. He was less than convincing again with his jumping, three months later in The Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, making a real howler at the penultimate fence when in contention. However he did show what an engine he has, by getting going again, and running on to finish fourth. Obviously short of match practice, Jessica ran him again two weeks later over an inadequate 2m4f at Gowran Park, where despite some sticky jumping he got the better of the evens favourite, the talented Presenting Percy. Our Duke was foot perfect in the Irish National, a race run at a good even clip throughout, and outstanding trainer Harrington, feels that given the pace at which The Gold Cup is invariably run the son of Oscar, wont have any trouble at the obstacles, and if she proves to be correct, it will take a good one to beat him.

The one glaring omission from the Mullins C.V. Is The Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Willie would dearly love to emulate father, Paddy, who won with the great mare, Dawn Run, in 1986. His two likeliest candidates look like being Djakadam and Killultagh Vic and as the former, despite some brave efforts, runner up twice, and fourth last year, doesn’t seem to quite get up the famous hill, his best chance of correcting the deficiency in the C.V. would seem to lie with the lightly raced Killultagh Vic. Considering it was only his third race over fences, Killultagh Vic was in the process of running a super race when coming down at the last in The Irish Gold Cup, when travelling like the winner. He has gone well over Prestbury Park’s undulations in the past, finishing 5L behind Silver Concorde in The Champion Bumper in 2014 and winning over hurdles at the 2015 Festival. A strong stayer, (outstayed Thistlecrack to win the Grade1 3m Hurdle at the 2015 Punchestown Festival) if fully over his fall at Leopardstown, could be the one to end the Mullins “Drought”.

The Noel Meade trained Road To Respect beat Baron Alco by 6L in a Grade3 Handicap Chase (2m5f) at last year’s Cheltenham festival off a mark of 145, and four weeks later, took the step up to Grade1 level in his stride, winning by a neck from Yorkhill at Fairyhouse ( 2m4f) earning a rating twelve pounds higher. He made a highly satisfactory return six months later, winning comfortably at Punchestown, (3m1f) and two weeks later, was sent off at 7/2 for a Down Royal Grade1. Clearly uncomfortable on the right hand track, and never jumping fluently, I thought he put up an excellent effort to only go down by 1/2 L to the enigmatic Outlander, earning a mark of 163. Further progress was made when he won the Grade1 Christmas Chase at Leopardstown comfortably from Galway Plate Victor, Balko Des Flos, and he is now rated 22lbs higher than he was for that Cheltenham victory. Clearly an improving animal, shrewd trainer, Noel Meade has kept him away from the exhausting winter ground, and he will be one of the freshest animals lining up at the start on the 16th.

Selection : Road To Respect

E.W. : Sizing John

John Gray

Weatherbys Champion Bumper

Weatherbys Champion Bumper – 2m N.H. Flat. Cheltenham March 16th‏

First run in 1992, it has been a contest dominated by Irish stables, who have won seventeen of the twenty three renewals, with that man Mullins hitting the back of the net on eight occasions. It usually takes a very decent animal to win, and the roll of honour features some really outstanding horses, such as Florida Pearl and Cue Card to name but two. Last years hero Moon Racer did this column a favour, so let’s hope we can keep the ball rolling and point us in the right direction again.

Top rated of the Mullins brigade (eight entries at the time of writing) is the 6yo Avenir D’Une Vie and with four runs under his belt is one of the more experienced. A winner at Navan in December he was beaten by Jessica Harrington’s contender, New To This Town, in January by 1 3/4L, but was conceding 10lbs. He was impressive last time winning by 14L from the well fancied Tamlough Boy, and if owners, Gigginstown stud allow him to take his place he must be a serious contender.

Not far behind on the ratings is the second highest of the Closutton troops, the 5yo mare, Augusta Kate, owned by a syndicate formed at “The Masters” and including the soccer pundit Alan Shearer, and those two mainstays of “Get me out of here” Ant and Dec. Augusta Kate is out of that superb Grade 1 winning mare, Fethard Lady and by the redoubtable sire Yeats, so certainly lacks nothing on the breeding front, and she fully lived up to her stellar pedigree when hacking up in a listed contest at Listowel on her debut last September. She followed up two months later at Navan in equally impressive fashion, and was then wisely put away, avoiding the attritional heavy ground that we have been racing on for all of this “Monsoon”winter. She is reported to be a very lazy worker at home but obviously retains her best for the racecourse. She will arrive at the post a fresh horse on Wednesday and looks the one to beat.

2015 Weatherbys Champions Bumper preview.

Having won a modest Class6 Worcester number in October, the Twiston-Davies trained 5yo Ballyandy went to post an 8/1 shot to win a much hotter Class1 contest at Cheltenham twenty five days later. He stayed on well up the hill and won comfortably. He was a 7/2 shot to repeat the dose at Ascot five weeks later, and, while running well, couldn’t quite manage the concession of 10lbs to another of next Wednesday’s opponents, Coeur Blimey, losing by a length. He may well have been in front too long at Ascot but made no mistake a Newbury two months later winning comfortably carrying his penalty. With four runs under his belt, he goes to post one of the most experienced in the field, a definite advantage in a race that can be pretty rough, with inexperienced young horses rolling about on Prestbury Park’s undulations. One for the shortlist!

Multitalented John Ferguson went close to winning this in 2012 when his New Years Eve came second to Champagne Fever, and fields an interesting runner in the 5yo High Bridge. He was second to O’K Corral on his debut at Kempton in February 2015, and third behind Aurillac at Cheltenham last October. He then won nicely at Huntingdon in November showing plenty of pace over the 1m5 1/2f course. He really seemed to step up a gear last time at Catterick when hosing up by 13L and 3L from the two subsequent winners, Atomix and Shambourg. He again showed plenty of pace in a race that was run in a decent time for the conditions. The form looks solid and it would come as no surprise to see those famous black colours well to the fore at the business end of Wednesday’s contest.

With New To This Town having already taken the scalp of Avenir D’une Vie, Jessica Harrington must be harbouring hopes of adding to her success with Cork All Stars in the 2007 renewal. It can be argued that the Mullins horse was giving weight, but equally the Harrington animal did seem to run a little green under his claiming rider, and ran on with some resolution to win totally on merit.

Selection. :  Augusta Kate

E.W.          :  High Bridge (if abs) New To This Town

Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase Tips

Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase Tips – 3m2 1/2f 70y March 18th.

This year’s race looks to be one of the most open, competitive, and exciting renewals, since Major Wyndham’s 5yo Red Splash stormed up the hill to beat Conjuror by a head in the inaugural running of the great contest way back in 1924. Team Mullins is mob handed at the time of writing and at least four of them have to be considered, Djakadam, Don Poli, Valseur Lido, and Vautour. Add to these top class animals the wonderful Cue Card, in line for a £1,000,000 bonus if successful, Alan King’s grand warrior Smad Place, and top rated of them all, Gordon Elliot’s 9-y-o Don Cossack (pictured above), and we must surely have one of the most intriguing contests of the modern era in prospect.

Read some of last year’s Cheltenham Festival tips from the Oddsguru.

What a great performance for a 6yo, Djakadam put up in last years contest when finishing second to Coneygree! Always up with the pace, and maintaining a relentless gallop throughout, he had every chance but hit the last and lost vital momentum. He got back on an even keel and stayed on again to secure second place. After such a hard race for a young horse, many felt that stumps should be drawn for the season, but he was back in action six weeks later, and ran well finishing second, seven lengths behind Don Cossack in a Grade1 at Punchestown. He put stable companion Valseur Lido firmly in his place when reappearing at Punchestown in December (2 1/2m) and was then sent off the hot 5/6 fav to take the BetBright chase at Cheltenham in January. He travelled well but blotted his copybook at the 10th taking a nasty fall leaving a suturing job necessary on his chest. It has hardly been the ideal preparation but last year’s performance for a 6yo was outstanding, and it would come as no great surprise to see Rich Ricci leading this one in to the winners enclosure.

Also sporting the Ricci colours is the exciting 7yo Vautour. Going down by a head to Cue Card in the King George, he looked the winner coming to the last, but couldn’t resist the late challenge of the Tizzard horse. However his tendency to jump left was no help and he is definitely a better performer going anti-clockwise. The memory of his victory in the 2014 Supreme Novices hurdle, where he led the field a merry dance, remains fresh in the memory. He won by a long looking 6L and beat the great Istabrraq’s course record into the bargain. He also never put a foot wrong when cruising up by fifteen lengths in last years JLT over 2 1/2m at the Festival, running on strongly up the hill. While there must be some doubts about his stamina credentials, this four times Grade1 winner is the class act in the field, and given decent ground is going to take a lot of stopping.

Like stablemate Vautour, Don Poli boasts a 100% course record having won the RSA last year and the “Martin Pipe” the year before. His failure behind Valseur Lido at Punchestown six weeks after Cheltenham last April was too bad to be true and is easily excused. He has won both outings this season in workmanlike fashion, most recently the Lexus, where he had to work hard to get the better of First Lieutenant. He is an animal that races very lazily and it is hard to know how good he is. However you don’t win three Grade1 contests without plenty of talent, and his win in the “Martin pipe” demonstrated how much pace he has. He has had an ideal preparation and goes to post a fresh horse who is guaranteed to stay. If it turns into a real stamina test he must have great prospects of giving Willie his long awaited first win in the race.

There would be no more popular winner should Cue Card add this to his Betfair and King George victories and bag that £1,000,000. bonus. He is another about whom there have been stamina issues in the past but following a “breathing” operation is enjoying some thing of a renaissance. He certainly hasn’t been stopping at the business end of his three starts this term, and as we saw, outstayed Vautour at Kempton. It is hard to believe that it is six years since he flew up the hill to win the Champion Bumper and three years since his victory in the “Neptune” but if he really does stay he could be the first ten year old since Cool Ground in 1998 to collect.

Many observers feel that Gordon Elliott’s 9-year-old Don Cossack might have won the King George but for coming down at the second last, where having run indifferently for most of the race, and not the recipient of the greatest of rides, he was just beginning to stay on, and had gone into second place when falling. He got back on track last time with a facile win at Thurles and if back to the form that saw him beat Djakadam by 7L and Cue Card by 26L in Grade1 chases at Punchestown and Aintree last April, this five times winner at the top Grade, looks to have an awful lot going for him.

A wind operation and a change to front running tactics has transformed Alan King’s 9yo Smad Place. He was hugely impressive when making all to win the Hennessy by 12L. Held up in the King George he was a disappointing 4th,but reverting to front running he again impressed when taking the BetBright chase over the course in January. He Probably needs to find 10lbs from somewhere to win, but coming from this yard that is not impossible.

Last years third, Road To Riches, seems to be the forgotten horse of the race. The apple of his trainer’s eye, he ran a great race last year and given good ground he could spring a surprise.

Selection: Don Cossack

E.W. : Vautour

Champion Bumper Cheltenham Festival Betting Preview

Pylonthepressure

Another of the Mullins Brigade to have impressed has been the 5yo Pylonthepressure who has won his three races to date with considerable ease.

Preview : Weatherbys Champion Bumper, Wednesday.

First run in 1992, the Champion Bumper has been dominated by Irish Stables who have won seventeen of the twenty two renewals, a trend strongly emphasised last year, when the first six home came from stables from across the water. Willie Mullins has been the dominant trainer in the contest, winning eight times. Philip Hobbs and Colin Tizzard are the only two successful home based handlers since Martin Pipe in 2003.

The Willie Mullins trained Bordini heads the market at 6/1. Having finished only third in his sole point to point, he has impressed in his two bumpers, winning both of them with considerable ease. His last win was particularly eye catching, where responding to pressure, he ran on very stoutly up Navan’s demanding uphill finish to win comfortably. The third horse Rock on the Moor (recd 4lbs) who was twenty lengths behind, came out and won his next race, so the form looks solid.

Another of the Mullins Brigade to have impressed has been the 5yo Pylonthepressure who has won his three races to date with considerable ease. He trotted up in his sole point to point last May, and won equally readily when easily winning his first bumper at Thurles in December. It was his latest race (2m3f sft Naas Feb7) that impressed this observer. Second choice in the market to the highly regarded, Gordon Elliot trained, Space Cadet, to whom he was Conceeding 7lbs, Pylonthepressure made all, galloped all over the opposition, and stayed on stoutly to win by 8 1/2L from the Elliot horse. This performance had Cheltenham written all over it, and it would be no surprise see another similar effort on Wednsday.

The David Pipe trained Moon Racer hasn’t been seen since winning over the course and distance ( gd/sft) back in October. While the form was ordinary, he did win with his head in his chest in a respectable time. Connections have probably avoided the bad winter ground, so this 6yo who won his only previous race, a very competitive Fairyhouse bumper, last April, at odds of 50/1 is Definitley one for the short list.

Selection : Pylonthepressure

Danger. : Moon Racer

Supreme Novices Hurdle Cheltenham Festival Betting Tuesday

Nicky Henderson's L'Ami Serge

Nicky Henderson’s L’Ami Serge is our Cheltenham betting tip for the Supreme Novices.

Originally run as The Gloucester Hurdle, which was divided into two divisions, this race’s roll of honour contains some of the most iconic names in the whole pantheon of national hunt racing, such as Saffron Tartan (1963), Buona Notte, (1963) Flyingbolt, (1964) L’Escargot, (1968) Bula, (1970) and the ill fated Golden Cygnet, (1978) to name but a few. It has always been a contest kind to the Irish, with the great Vincent O’Brien winning ten times in the fifties, a trend which has continued to the present era with Irish stables winning nine of the last fourteen renewals. Willie Mullins has been successful four times, ( including the last two runnings ) while Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson have won it twice. Rather surprisingly it is twenty three years since Henderson last hit the back of the net, so what are the prospects of his French import L’Ami Serge of ending the long Seven Barrows drought.

Having only been placed in five of his six French races, he made an immediate impact on his first appearance in this country. He trotted up in the Gerry Fielden at Newbury in November, where racing off a mark of 132 he had subsequent Betfair hurdle winner Violet Dancer (rec. 3lbs) fifteen lengths back in third. He has won his only two subsequent starts with equal authority and now boasts an R.P.R. Of 159 (only one of the last ten winners were rated higher). As all his wins have come on a soft surface reservations have been expressed about his ability to handle a faster surface. However with safety paramount, it is highly unlikely that the Festival will start on anything quicker than Gd/Sft, and besides, being by Theatrical, there is a strong possibility that he could even improve for a faster surface.

Another import from the French provinces, Douvan, trained by the all conquering Willie Mullins, has been most impressive in his two Irish runs. He won very easily on his Irish debut at Gowran Park in November (2m hvy.) beating subsequent Grade1 winner Sizing John by a dozen lengths, with the future Boyle Sports Hurdle second Modem back in fifth. He never came out of a canter in his only other race, (Grade2 Punchestown 2msft) easily accounting for Alpha Des Obeaux. While his ability to act on a possibly faster surface on Tuesday has to be taken on trust, He did demonstrate that he could cope with the hurly burly of a big field, when coming from midfield to win a sixteen runner affair at Compiegne. A very worthy favourite!

Now trained by the very competent John Ferguson, Qewy, a classy ex flat racer ( rated102) looks interesting. He showed some promise on his debut over hurdles, finishing third behind Aso and Kiama Bay ( Haydock 2m hvy) and confirmed the good impression three weeks later at Newbury, comfortably accounting for Nicky Henderson’s 138 rated Cardinal Walter by six lengths. With further progress likely, it would be no great surprise to see him involved on Tuesday.

Warren Greatrex’s Seedling has won his last three races, and on his most recent performance, certainly comes into the argument. He comfortably accounted for subsequent scorer Some Plan ( rec 4lbs ) at Cheltenham in December earning himself an R.P.R. Of 151. It is worth noting that his win at Cheltenham was acheived on the New Course, and Tuesday’s contest is staged on the Old. This can be very significant as the tighter Old Course leaves horse and pilot much less time to get organised, in contrast to the more galloping nature of the New. However Seedling handled the famous hill well last time and must be considered.

Selection : L’Ami Serge

Danger : Douvan