2018 Ryanair Chase ante-post preview

Run over 2m 5f on the New Course, the Ryanair still has its detractors, but like I say every year, it’s a race I like and it’s a race I’ll continue to enjoy. Since its inception back in 2005, the contest has only grown stronger and stronger.

Some of the biggest names in jumps racing have won the Thursday Grade 1; greats like Imperial Commander, Albertas Run, Cue Card, Vautour and last season’s hero, the wonderfully gallant and tough Un De Sceaux.

The latter named looks like he’ll be back this season, but is Willie Mullins’s inmate beatable at the age of ten? On paper, the 2018 renewal looks extremely competitive. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the field.

Ryanair Chase ante-post preview

Un De Sceaux (7/2) winning last season’s Ryanair Chase was one of the most jaw dropping and fun races I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t quite up there with Our Conor’s Triumph victory or Vautour’s JLT success, but it wasn’t far behind.

Having run away with Ruby Walsh before going out on the final circuit – making the great jockey look like a passenger – the tearaway’s relentless performance had his field cooked and beaten four from home.

Given the brisk fractions he set in the early and middle parts of the race, it was natural for him to tie-up a touch close home, but he never looked remotely like getting beaten, his speculator jumping applying further pressure on his rivals. He was value for more than his 1 ½ lengths success.

Willie Mullins’s charge has understandably only raced twice this season – his free-going character meaning he rarely has an easy race, connections correctly choosing to keep him fresh – and they have produced facile wins in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, a contest he won for the third year in-a-row.

Both have come on his favoured soft surface, but to be fair to the ten-year-old, he’s shown plenty times at Cheltenham, faster terrain doesn’t deter. He’s not getting any younger – none of us are – but he remains in great order.

While the case, on paper, and depending what turns up, he’ll need a career best, but he’s not too far below the level of last season and there is every chance, given his trainer, he’ll be peaked for March once again.

Depending where you look, Fox Norton (11/2) appears to be the favourite’s biggest danger. Colin Tizzard’s stable star had a fantastic campaign last season despite picking up an injury mid-way through. He was just touched off in the Champion Chase before he went on to Aintree and Punchestown to win Grade 1s.

He started his 2017/18 campaign well, winning the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham by 8 lengths before just being beaten half-a-length in the Tingle Creek at Sandown where poor tactics and some hesitant jumps cost him.

The son of Lando was then asked to back up 17 days later in the King George at Kempton – a race I stupidly backed him in – but this run clearly came too soon after Sandown and he was pulled up. While it’s admirable connections had a go, taking up their plan ‘B’ clearly backfired.

We haven’t seen Fox Norton since that dismal effort, but I have no doubt he’s a lot better than that. Obviously. There is more to come, but it would be nice to see it on the track. More positively, the step back up in trip here will be a big plus for him. There is no doubt he can win the Ryanair, but connections must get him back in good order.

Being out of form is something Top Notch (11/2) hasn’t experienced this campaign, Nicky Henderson’s pocket rocket being two for two since switching back to the larger obstacles having started the season with a hurdles prep behind Unowhatimeanharry at Aintree.

His next run saw Grade 2 success in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot in beating Double Shuffle and Frodon by 8 and 10 lengths, respectively, now looks like top-class form with the former finishing second in the King George and the latter bolting up off 149 in a competitive Cheltenham handicap.

Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s horse is not even close to being flattered by that victory. He oozed class at Ascot and simply had too many gears for horses now rated officially rated 166 and 164. If you believe those numbers – I’m still sceptical – there is a school of thought that the seven-year-old should be favourite.

Three weeks later he added the Peterborough Chase to his CV although he was workmanlike in doing so. A quick turnaround from a big Ascot effort and slower ground may have been to blame, but even so, his Ascot run marks him down as a bold player for this contest.

At the current stage of entries, Willie Mullins has a strong hand. The Irish Champion Trainer houses the current race favourite, but has also entered the likes of Bachasson, Douvan, Min, Killultagh Vic and Yorkhill.

Douvan, Min and Yorkhill have been discussed in previous blogs – the Champion Hurdle piece and the Champion Chase piece – but Bachasson and Killultagh Vic haven’t. It remains to be seen if both run here – the same can be said for the other trio – but Bachasson (20/1) is a horse floating under the radar a touch this season due to the tracks he has won at.

The seven-year-old has raced twice this campaign and won both starts in great style, at Thurles and Tramore. I really get the feeing there is more to come, but whether he can replicate those efforts on faster ground in more competitive races remains to be seen.

Killultagh Vic (20/1) was a horse I felt would deliver Willie Mullins the Gold Cup that he so badly seeks, but that was before injury intervened back in January 2016. The son of Old Vic returned from a lengthy layoff to win at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve, but is he still up to this level?

Since I got lazy and didn’t finish off this piece pre-Dublin Racing Festival, the above question has been answered. Killultagh Vic looks to have maintained a fair amount of his ability despite the serious nature of his past injuries. I suspect he would’ve just got home in the Irish Gold Cup before his final fence fall. He’ll probably head for the Gold Cup now.

Therefore, Douvan, Min and Yorkhill are more likely winners, but Yorkhill (12/1) is really the horse of interest. If you’ve read the other blogs, it’s clear how high I rate him. His victory in last season’s JLT was sensational and that form now looks top notch. See what I did there?

This free-spirited eight-year-old is not the type of horse to go and win 15 lengths, he’ll always only do bare minimum to get over the line, and that’s a trait I love. While his one length victory over Top Notch at last year’s Festival may look just satisfactory on paper, the reality is he was an easy winner of a race that continues to work out. Bookmakers are taking a small risk offering 12/1 about a horse of his ability.

Plenty obviously feel he won’t run here, but this looks the race for him. Ok, I understand Willie Mullins has the race-favourite, but given the number of quality animals in his care, Mullins will simply have to run two of his big names against each other, should they all get to Cheltenham in good order.

With Un De Sceaux being a ten-year-old, Douvan not looking likely to run in March and Min giving the impression he’s an out-an-out two-miler, Mullins may choose Yorkhill to bolster his chance here and win more of that dastardly Michael O’Leary’s money (I of course joke).

All the above was written before Yorkhill flopped at the Dublin Racing Festival. Having taken a big drift in the market before they jumped off, he ran accordingly. The usual hold he gives his rider never really materialised, and in truth, he just looked flat. This does curb the enthusiasm I had.

It seems crazy we’ve come this far down the preview and not mentioned the highly progressive and classy-looking Waiting Patiently (8/1). Formerly trained by Malcom Jefferson, who sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago, this seven-year-old son of Flemensfirth just looks a quality, young chaser heading firmly in the right direction.

He had some smart novice form last season, beating the likes of Forest Bhian and Politologue, but his latest 8 lengths success in a Kempton novice chase looks a career best in every sense of the word. In form, in style and on the clock, he is getting better. He jumps well; he’s economical, maybe too much so for two-and-a-half miles, but he is at least quick away from his fences.

The problem where Cheltenham lay, is Waiting Patiently needs to improve further. To be fair, I think that is certainly on the cards. The other issue may be ground related; connections don’t seem willing to risk their stable star on unsuitably quick terrain.

He appeared to handle decent conditions comfortably at Kempton last time out, but that came against inferior opposition. There is a good chance of much faster sod come March in unison with him taking on genuine top-class opponents. With that being the case, his price of 8/1 only looks fair.

A horse in a similar mould to Waiting Patiently – and also by Flemensfirth – but more proven is Coney Island (12/1). Trained by the underrated Eddie Harty and owned by JP McManus, this seven-year-old had some top-class novice form last season behind the likes Our Duke. In an interrupted campaign, he would also have the measure of horses like Anibale Fly, Disko and Road To Respect.

Coney Island would miss the 2017 Cheltenham Festival through injury and only made his belated return to action in December at Ascot in winning a conditions race by 9 lengths, hard held. The bare form probably flatters him a touch, but I’d still say it was a career best. When you factor in the distinct possibility of more to come, he’s an exciting horse.

The likes of Ar Mad (40/1), Balko Des Flos (12/1), Frodon (16/1) and Sub Lieutenant (20/1), for various different reasons, are interesting. Ar Mad is a horse I like, because he’s one of few who actually deserves his official rating, 159. We haven’t seen him since the Tingle Creek however, and while he’s overpriced, it’s hard to see him winning a Ryanair, especially given reservations about him running left-handed.

Balko Des Flos was a classy winner of the Galway Plate before seemingly going AWOL in his next two starts at Gowran Park and Clonmel. Maybe Henry de Bromhead gave his inmate a good rest after his summer exploits, and was slowly working him back to full fitness? Proper soft Irish ground is probably also a negative for him now, but back on a firmer surface last time out in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, the seven-year-old son of Balko bounced back to form and produced a career best.

Under Denis O’Regan, Balko Des Flos jumped beautifully. He was fortunate in that he had plenty of space to be accurate at his fences, but he was deadly, and coming to two out, he had plenty of the field cooked. He was just outstayed late by a better horse on the day in Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Road To Respect, but the drop back in trip accompanied with a good gallop, could see him being the ideal Ryanair horse.

Frodon too, must get a positive mention on the back of his progressive, high-class handicap form which looks extremely solid. His latest success in the Crest Nicholson Handicap Chase at Cheltenham was impressive, the 17 lengths he won by telling that story. That did come on heavy ground however, and the handicapper has surely overreacted with his new rating of 164.

The question is, can he produce a similar performance against top-class horses on much faster ground? I have my doubts.

Finally, last year’s runner-up, Sub Lieutenant looks a big price at 20/1, for all he has been a big disappointment this season. He’s only run three times, but his first two efforts, especially his second run, were bitterly disappointing.

Last time out in the John Durkan, on ground that was surely way too soft to show him at his best, he took a significant step in the right direction. He hasn’t been seen since however, but it is encouraging he’s been left in the Grand National, so hopefully all is well.

At his best, he’s a genuine 160+ horse and as I say, on last season’s running in this, 20/1 is more than fair.

The Final Verdict

At this stage, the 2018 renewal of the Ryanair looks as exciting a race as we could have all season, and on the biggest stage. Now, we are sure to lose a couple of big names for one reason or another, but it’s a race full of strength in depth. There are so many 160+ horses entered, and they are followed by a handful of young guns who have the potential to explode onto the scene.

When you look at the race like that, it’s easy to take on the favourite, Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins’s ten-year-old has showed this season in his two races that the fire still burns, but he’s won at prices of 4/6 and 4/9. He’ll take on his deepest field yet over this trip and at the prices, factoring in his age, you have to be against him at the stage.

I’d have Top Notch much closer in the betting to Un De Sceaux, based solely on his Grade 2 Christy 1965 Chase victory at Ascot. That form is phenomenal. The problem I have with Nicky Henderson’s inmate is there is every chance he could leave his Cheltenham race behind in running in the Ascot Chase on Saturday February 17th.

Having won the 1965 Chase, he went to Huntingdon three weeks later for the Peterborough Chase, but didn’t look anywhere near as impressive. Why? I think the quick turnaround didn’t suit him, and given he is not a robust horse, something similar could play out at the Festival.

At the prices, given his poor preparation, Fox Norton is easily avoided. At the start of the season, I thought he was the winner of this contest, but after a good opening pair of efforts to the campaign, his form tailed off and his training has been interrupted. He’s without doubt got a strong chance if at his best, but it’s not worth rolling the dice for now at circa 5/1.

Coney Island and Waiting Patiently could clash at Ascot this weekend, and that will tell us plenty. I’m a big fan of both horses, and when I said in the above intro to this section, “young guns who have the potential to explode onto the scene”, this pair top that list.

My gut feeling is this race could come too early in their careers, against proper, battle-hardened 160+ chasers. Neither have Cheltenham Festival experience either, so it makes sense to duck them now. Saturday’s brilliant Ascot Chase will tell us more.

Therefore, potential bets come in the form of Balko Des Flos, Sub Lieutenant and Yorkhill (Yes, him again – I must be as mad as him!). The most solid of the trio is BALKO DES FLOS, who will be coming here on the back of a career best.

Henry De Bromhead’s charge will also come here fresh, inform and with younger legs compared to respective rivals, meaning, at the prices, he looks a value bet against Un De Sceaux, Top Notch and Fox Norton.

At the prices, I’m also going to suggest backing the first selection’s stablemate SUB LIEUTENANT, who at 20/1 with the non-runner no bet concession looks a chance worth taking with the safety net there.

On this season’s efforts, he warrants to be that big, but his second in this race last season is some of the best form on offer here. He’ll only run if he’s right, and if he’s right, 20/1 is too big about a horse who at least took a big positive step last time out.

A quick final mention must go to Douvan and Min. The latter put down a strong Champion Chase marker when winning at the Dublin Racing Festival a couple of weekends ago, but with Douvan today been given an entry for this weekend’s Gowran Park card, should the former Supreme and Arkle winner make Cheltenham, a shuffling of the back could be seen. It’s just something to bear in mind.

Advice

2pts each-way Balko Des Flos @10/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, bet365, Paddy Power, Sky Bet – all NRNB)

1pt each-way Sub Lieutenant @20/1 (Coral, Ladbrokes, Paddy Power – all NRNB)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 Champion Chase ante-post preview

The highlight race on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Run over 2m on the Old Course – just like the Champion Hurdle – it’s very much a test of jumping and travelling at speed.

Before the season started, on paper, this was shaping up to be one of the races of a lifetime, and I don’t say that lightly, but plenty of water has flown under the bridge, as we will discuss in more detail below.

Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview

At the start of the season, the 2018 Champion Chase lured race fans into a potential clash with two of the game’s heavyweights, Altior (5/4) and Douvan (6/1). The former, the young pretender with an air of Sprinter Sacre about him; the latter, the unofficial king of the division on the comeback trail from injury.

Sadly, the perfect seasons that we wished for both leading into the Cheltenham Festival haven’t materialised. Altior was found to have a wind issue and was subsequently operated on. Douvan was all set to reappear in the Tingle Creek before being pulled out; his trainer Willie Mullins not fully happy with the gelding’s wellbeing.

Nicky Henderson has always said there is a sound chance of Altior making it back for Cheltenham, and he may run in the Game Spirit at Newbury in February. Willie Mullins on the other hand ruled Douvan out for the season before Christmas, but has since done a U-turn on that call, and there is a small chance of Rich Ricci’s star horse getting to Cheltenham.

With still so much up in the air concerning that pair, focus should be put on those horses fit and well. We’ll start with Paul Nicholls’s Politologue (9/2).

He was a horse I was lukewarm on throughout his novice campaign last season. I knew he was a graded animal, but at no stage did I feel he was top-class. I also had a small doubt about his ability to find off the bridle which is maybe not a surprise given the ease at which he travels.

Even after he had the Grade 1 Maghull Novices’ Chase at the Aintree Festival wrapped up before falling at the last, I still questioned him competing at the highest level. This season however, has proved my analysis of him all wrong. Why? Because he was being campaigned over the incorrect trip.

Since the team at Ditcheat have dropped the strong-travelling and quick-jumping grey back to 2m, he hasn’t looked back. His victories in the Haldon Gold Cup, Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid have proved three things.

One: he’s now a top-class horse. Two: he idles badly when he hits the front, and three; he finds off the bridle and battles, as we saw in the Tingle Creek in beating Fox Norton.

With so many horses struggling to make the track, this progressive seven-year-old must be fully respected. He’s a horse tailormade for the Champion Chase test.

He’s a different colour, but in many ways, Min (5/1) reminds me of Politologue. In fact, he’s Politologue, but Politologue on cocaine (or Lucozade for the kids reading). Willie Mullins’s inmate is himself a strong-traveller, but maybe too strong. He’s also a quick jumper, but maybe too bold. He does everything his peer does, but in excess.

Rich Ricci’s horse has only been seen twice this season so far. On the comeback trail from an injury that ruled him out of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, Min made his eagerly awaited return at Gowran Park. He would win a poor race on heavy ground at 1/9.

Much more was expected of him when upped in class to Grade 1 company at Leopardstown over Christmas. However, at odds of 2/7, he would be turned over by the gallant (essentially) 11-year-old Simply Ned. He did finish in front of the ‘winner’, but was correctly demoted having badly hampered his rival.

There is little doubt in my mind that Min was below his best this day, and while it was disappointing he lost, it was impressive how he quickened away from horses like Ordinary World and Ball D’Arc off the home bend before ‘losing’.

He at least travelled well, jumped boldly and battled late. I just get the feeling there is more in the tank and we may see it in his next run which could come at the Dublin Racing Festival.

In a race that has more questions than answers to the very top of the market, it’s a similar scenario as we go down the prices. For example, last year’s runner-up Fox Norton is an 8/1 shot, but he looks more a Ryanair horse and would be of interest in that race. The fact he disappointed in the King George at Kempton in his last run is also off-putting.

Un De Sceaux (12/1) is a horse that still looks to be in decent order at the age of 10. He’s only ran twice this season but he’s won both times; at Cork in the Hilly Way and at Ascot in the Clarence House. He’s another that looks more of a Ryanair type at this stage of his career. He’s the reigning Ryanair champion and I suspect that’s the race he’ll run in come March, unless we get bottomless ground.

Going down the list of remaining entries and I’m just not sure there are any horses with the capabilities of the above-mentioned sextet. Great Field (14/1) is intriguing but he has yet to race this season because of a setback and he may not make the Festival.

Ar Mad (33/1) could run a big race here especially if he got into a nice jumping rhythm, which he didn’t do the Tingle Creek, but he doesn’t look good enough in truth and there are questions to be answered about him running left-handed.

Charbel (25/1) is another classy horse – especially on quick ground – but he’s below the top bracket and jumps too hesitantly for a Champion Chaser. The likes of Politologue would eat him up jumping and constantly take lengths out of him.

Favourable mentions must go to the old boys Gods Own (50/1) and Special Tiara – both Grade 1 winners -who have achieved more than the likes of Ar Mad, Charbel and Great Field. The former is a spring horse who was fifth in this race last year, but in a likely stronger renewal with advancing years, he’s best watched.

Defending Champion Special Tiara (20/1) is now 11, but there is still plenty life left in the old boy, especially when he encounters his favourite fast surface. He’s classy and gallant enough to outrun his price of 20/1, but father time is not on his side and there is a fair chance of this year’s renewal being far stronger. On the other hand, should Altior and Douvan both miss the race, that 20/1 would look huge, especially from an each-way perspective.

Just like the ante-post Champion Hurdle blog, there is a potential fly in the ointment in this race, and it again comes in the shape of Yorkhill (5/1). Willie Mullins’s charge is a supremely talented, but nutty individual.

However, give him a left-handed track over two to two-and-a-half miles, and he’s a match for any horse in training. The chestnut son of Presenting has been to Cheltenham twice in March and won both times.

His Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and JLT Chase successes really got your pulse racing. With the form of last season’s success here working out so well, I find it incredibly hard to leave him out of any Cheltenham race he is entered for.

The Final Verdict

This year’s Champion Chase is a pretty tough race to be confident on in terms of having an ante-post bet. Altior and Douvan look a notch or two above the rest of the field at their best, but are by no means guaranteed to run. That’s true of all those entered, but their aforementioned problems mean it’s less likely they turn up or arrive in top order.

With that being the case – just like the Champion Hurdle – I really don’t see the point in swinging the bat at horses with sexy prices. Special Tiara was the only one of interest, but even that was limited, especially at the age of 11.

Reading between the lines, it really does look like Altior is more likely to make the race then Douvan. Whether he comes to Cheltenham on the back of a prep or straight here is to be decided, but given his wind issues and the likelihood of soft ground at Newbury for the Game Spirit, Nicky Henderson may choose a direct route to the Champion Chase.

If the case, I do feel the brilliant son of High Chaparral could be vulnerable. To win a Champion Chase or any race at Cheltenham, you need to be sharp and on your game; there is no room for error.

Furthermore, and call me crazy for suggesting it given his Cheltenham Festival record on the track, but I really don’t think the Old Course shows Altior off at his very best, and last season’s Arkle form is substandard because of that.

He’s such a long-striding horse who takes a while to get into top gear, the sharp nature of the track doesn’t allow him to fully use himself. If this take longer as he gets older? He could be got at. Tracks with long straights and stiff climbs like Newbury and Sandown are ideal for the eight-year-old, as we’ve seen in the past.

Therefore, at the prices, I’m willing to take Altior on, especially as he’s not certain to line up.

Douvan it seems is an unlikely runner, but the 4/1 non-runner no bet about him looks generous with the safety net there. Should he run, he’ll likely be half those odds, and if he does show, he’s likely to be in good order; no risks will be taken with his wellbeing.

The problem lay in Willie Mullins also having Min and Yorkhill in the race. There could still be a fair bit of juggling done yet, but what is noteworthy is how little faith the Mullins camp have lost in Douvan, despite him currently working his way to full fitness.

Should he not run, Min is likely to sub in for his stablemate, but Yorkhill could also run here. If Min, Un De Sceaux and Yorkhill all get to the Festival in good order, Willie Mullins will be left with no choice but to run two in the one race – in either the Champion Chase or Ryanair – but it’s tough to work out.

Given how exuberant Min is, it makes sense to keep him to two miles. Yorkhill is better equipped and has shown far more stamina compared to Min, so the Ryanair may end up being his destination. Un De Sceaux is almost certain to line up in the race he won last season, but at the age of 10, Willie Mullins may look to the Ryanair for a two-pronged assault, with Yorkhill.

This leaves us with Min and Politologue as potential bets. Like we discussed earlier, apart from their colour, these two are very similar in how they approach the game, and in ability. Both travel well and both jump accurately.

There is a feeling we may have seen the best of Politologue already this season and on his favoured underfoot conditions. Min on the other hand, still reeks of untapped potential who could prove even better on spring ground.

With that being the case, MIN gets the nod. I realise he must bounce back from a disappointing effort at Leopardstown over Christmas, but he disappointed in running to around 160. That’s a good level to disappoint at.

Now, time may prove that’s as good as he is, but getting him on some spring ground around a sharp track like Cheltenham could see him go close. He’s exactly the type of horse to worry Altior, who got a small fright, a very small fright albeit, off Charbel in last season’s Arkle. Min is without doubt a better horse than Charbel, and he could have more to offer.

I’m also going to suggest backing Douvan with the NRNB concession. Should he run, he’ll halve in price and we’ll get our money back on Min. If he doesn’t, nothing will be lost and Min could win it for Rich Ricci.

Advice

1.5pts win Min @4/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, bet365, Paddy Power, Sky Bet) – all Non-Runner No Bet

1pt win Douvan @4/1 (bet365), 7-2 (Betfair Sportsbook, Sky Bet) – all Non-Runner No Bet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2018 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

Entries have yet to be revealed for the 2018 Unibet Champion Hurdle, January 16 I believe is the date connections must enter, and the public can expect to see those names in the following days. Run over 2m½f on the Old Course on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, the race is a test of strong-travelling and quick-jumping ability around the Prestbury Park undulations.

2018 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

Despite not getting a feel for what may line up in this year’s Champion Hurdle with preliminary entries not out, it’s safe to say the 2018 running is not shaping up to be a vintage renewal. As the market suggests, last year’s winner Buveur D’Air (4/6) is the horse to beat. Given the prices, there is little point wasting time on covering Nicky Henderson’s inmate for a blog of this type.

Essentially, on what we’ve seen this season – and last – he has the best form, is healthy and is maybe even still progressing. His two victories this campaign in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton came on the bridle; in the latter race he beat a 160+-rated The New One with ease despite conceding race-pace and position to his inform and classy rival.

He’s the horse to beat and he’s the right price.

Second-favourite is a previous Champion Hurdler (2015) in Faugheen (5/1), a horse who in his pomp was one of the greatest hurdlers of his generation, maybe even the greatest. His Irish Champion Hurdle thumping of Arctic Fire (beaten 15 lengths) and Nichols Canyon (beaten 28 lengths) is probably the best hurdling performance I’ve ever seen, but since that day in January 2016, Willie Mullins’s stable star has only run twice, due to injury.

He returned this season after an enforced 665-day break to win the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle by 16 lengths. On paper and visually, it was a sensational comeback, but I don’t think he was anywhere near the 170+ horse he previously was. In fact, I’d say he was a good stone below his best.

Subsequently, the ten-year-old fluffed his lines in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, pulling up at odds of 2/11. Thankfully, the son of Germany was not injured and recent reports from Closutton are positive(ish). While the case, I find it hard to recommend a horse on the back of being pulled up, especially with a potentially downward spiralling profile.

A bigger threat – albeit one I doubt JP McManus and the Nicky Henderson will lose much sleep over – may come from Faugheen’s stablemate Melon (8/1). A readily held second behind Labaik in last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, although he was beaten the son of Medicean deserves great credit for running so well on just his second ever hurdles start.

It was very much a baptism of fire and although he didn’t win, the fact he pulled eight lengths clear of the third was impressive. He was subsequently beaten at the Punchestown Festival, but that race didn’t go his way and in the circumstances he did well to finish second.

His seasonal debut victory at Down Royal in the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle left me a bit cold, but the six-year-old took a huge step forward when running 3rd behind classy sorts in the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Despite racing too keen, being hampered at a crucial time and conceding weight to most of the field, to finish on the tails of My Tent Or Yours and The New One was a good run. He’s going the right way.

The above three horses aside, at the moment, I find it very tough to see another horse winning the Champion Hurdle, should the aforementioned trio get to Cheltenham in good order. The wonderfully admirable My Tent Or Yours (16/1) surely can’t win a Champion Hurdle at the age of 11.

To his credit, he could do no more than win the International on his seasonal debut, but the fact he got 6lb from The New One (2nd) and Melon (3rd) is off-putting, especially where the latter is concerned.

Can he run well and maybe hit the frame? Sure, he can, but it looks like he might be battling for one each-way spot should they all turn up and his price is only fair from that point of view.

There are quite a few in that boat, who could run into the frame. In that regard, I respect the likes of Defi Du Seuil (20/1), Mick Jazz (33/1) and Ch’Tibello (50/1) who are younger horses and should have more to offer.

Defi Du Seuil made a very disappointing start to his season in the Ascot Hurdle where a bad mistake at the third, and Philip Hobbs’s team not firing, didn’t help his cause. He hasn’t been seen since, but it’s encouraging he got an entry in the Betfair Hurdle.

While the case, I find it hard to recommend a horse on the back of such a poor run, despite there being reasons for the poor showing. He was a top-class juvenile hurdler last season, but open company is a different ball game and he had plenty racing for a young horse in the last campaign. The jury is out at the moment.

Mick Jazz and Cilaos Emery clashed in the Ryanair Hurdle that Faugheen pulled up in last month with the former being the main beneficiary, beating the latter, who has this week been ruled out of the Champion Hurdle through injury.

Gordon Elliott’s inmate will now go forward to represent this form, but it’s easily to be dubious about it with Faugheen not running his race and, the fact the winner maybe picked up the pieces from a horse who was in front far too early.

In Mick Jazz’s favour, you can see the sharp nature of the Old Course suiting his ability to travel sweetly. Furthermore, as a seven-year-old, it would be no surprise if he was still improving, especially coming from these (Gordon Elliott) quarters.

Dan Skelton’s Ch’Tibello was the other horse of interest from a betting perspective. The seven-year-old has done nothing but improve over the last two seasons and had some smart form behind Yanworth last season before injury ruled him out of the 2017 Champion Hurdle.

He is another who ran in the International behind My Tent Or Yours when beaten three lengths. On his first start since February, he ran a nice race, especially considering he looked a touch fresh and was also hampered in the straight.

It would be no surprise to see him turn the tables with the Nicky Henderson winner come March, but it’s possibly going to be tough to do so with Melon on 6lb worse terms.

Other horses to at least get a mention, but are not betting propositions for various reasons are Apple’s Jade (25/1) who looks set to run in the Mares’ Hurdle and The New One (40/1) who will surely – and finally – be asked to participate in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Alas, there is a potential fly in the ointment and a horse who could instil fear into the odds-on favourite, the enigmatic and wonderfully nutty chestnut, Yorkhill. Given his trainer (Willie Mullins), I’d expect to see the 2016 Neptune and 2017 JLT winner feature among the Champion Hurdle entries.

At the moment, it’s unlikely he’ll run here, but should Douvan, Min and Un De Sceaux all get to Cheltenham fit and well – and it’s a sizable if – there must be a chance Graham Wylie’s star horse is rerouted, especially if Faugheen didn’t happen to make the Festival.

I agree, it’s all ifs and buts, but stranger things have happen and Willie Mullins has always hinted at Yorkhill being a Champion Hurdler in his eyes.

The Final Verdict

As the prices suggest, Buveur D’Air is the horse to beat. Of the likely runners, I just don’t see any horse good enough to stop him in his quest for a second Champion Hurdle.

Faugheen looked well below, albeit his sky high, best in winning at Punchestown on his comeback from injury and has subsequently failed to complete.

Nothing came to light for that pulled up effort and reportedly, little strenuous exercise has been undertaken since. As connections turn the screw and try to get him to the peak of his powers, it would be surprise to see his huge but fragile frame fail him again. On that trail of thought, he’s impossible to recommend at this juncture.

So is the 11-year-old My Tent Or Yours, who has also had his injury problems. I’m sure he can run well again at the Festival, but running well this year could see him beaten 8 lengths back in fifth. He offers poor value from an each-way perspective.

Much more inviting prices are on offer about the unlikely winning trio of Defi Du Seuil (20/1), Mick Jazz (33/1) and Ch’Tibello (50/1), but should all of those ahead of them in the market turn up, they could all be fighting for one each-way place. In terms of each-way betting, that’s a hard sell in anyone’s book.

Factor in Defi Du Seuil’s poor recent form and Mick Jazz and Ch’Tibello needing to improve significantly, despite sexy prices, they can be left.

To my eye, the 2018 Champion Hurdle is not a race to try and get clever with. I want to be with those to the head of the market despite value potentially looking skimpy. I feel there will be better value bets to come, there are 27 other races after all!

At this time, MELON looks the best betting opportunity and he should be backed in the without Buveur D’Air market. I just can’t see him beating the favourite, but I’m confident in his ability to finish second.

There are so few horses in this year’s Champion Hurdle genuinely on an upward curve, especially with Melon’s type of ability. Like I said above, his seasonal debut underwhelmed me, but his International third was a huge step in the right direction.

He was taking on much more seasoned and at the time, much more classy horses in My Tent Or Yours and The New One. He’ll met the winner on 6lb better terms come March with the distinct promise of more to come. Furthermore, a stronger run race on quicker ground back on the Old Course are three more positives.

In a recent interview with The Irish Field, I was taken by Ruby Walsh’s suggestion that Melon’s last race had made a man of him and he’d come forward for the race. There is every chance of more to come.

Ruby’s full comment read, “He’s come forward for the run in Cheltenham. That was his first run with the big boys. He’s definitely a better horse for it. The Champion Hurdle will be a stronger-run race, and on a different track – it’s on the Old Course – so that will definitely suit him. You’d imagine he’ll go to Leopardstown. He hasn’t a lot of experience and will be improving every day.

With some bookmakers offering Non-Runner No Bet concessions, I’m also going to suggest a saver on Melon’s stablemate Yorkhill. If he was switched to this race, and it’s unlikely at the moment but we have non-runner safety net, he’d likely be second favourite.

Advice

2.5pts each-way Melon ‘betting without Buveur D’Air’ @4/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, Paddy Power) – 1/5 odds 1,2,3 – Non-Runner No Bet

1pt win Yorkhill ‘betting without Buveur D’Air’ @11/4 (bet365), 5/2 (Betfair Sportsbook, Paddy Power) – Non-Runner No Bet

3.00 Leopardstown – Paddy Power Steeplechase (December 27)

Now may be the time to act with regards backing OSCAR KNIGHT for the lucrative Paddy Power Steeplechase at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. With €110,000 on offer to the winner, it’s a race many owners and trainers will be taking aim at, and I’m sure JP McManus and Tom Mullins are high on that list with this eight-year-old.

The former name needs no introduction while the latter is a trainer I have great belief in when he sets his mind on a target with a horse. His exploits with Alderwood case and point.

The selection was an excellent third in this very race last season despite not having a trouble free run. He was badly hampered as the race was just starting to unfold down the far side, but to his credit, he made relentless headway before they turned in, and he remarkably even led jumping the last.

He was outstayed close home by two other horses, his run petering out having made such a big move to get competitive, but it was still a fine run. He returns this year 6lb higher, but given he’s still a relatively light-raced eight-year-old, that rise is not a big concern.

A more pressing worry would be his jumping – he can be slow in parts. Hopefully Barry Geraghty or Mark Walsh take the ride as their experience could prove vital in hunting him round.

The son of Oscar comes into the race in good order on the back of two hurdle runs, the second of which he won. For me, that was a strong race for the grade. I just hope he can transfer that form over fences, I see no reason why he can’t.

It’s possible he goes off a fair bit shorter than the currently available 12/1.Hopefully we grab the early value and bag a nice Festive winner. Ho ho ho.

Advice

1.5pts each-way Oscar Knight @12/1 (Bet Victor, bet365, StanJames, William Hill)

 

 

Ante-post focus: 2017 Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle

Forty-seven horses have been entered for what is now known as the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, formerly the World Hurdle. It’s great to see two past winners make the initial list, 2014 hero More Of That and 2015 victor Cole Harden. It’s also good to see the world “Stayers” appear in the race name again, it fits the race nicely.

It’s unlikely More Of That will bid to recapture his crown, a tilt at the Gold Cup looks on the cards, but Cole Harden is an intended runner. The betting is headed by Unowhatimeanharry, last season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winner who now runs in the JP McManus silks having been purchased during the summer.

Like the Champion Hurdle, Annie Power and Faugheen are both entered in the Stayers’ Hurdle, but won’t run, and having looked at the race in closer detail, despite 47 horses entered, it looks a pretty straight-forward contest to handicap. We’ll just have to try and eke out some each-way value against the hot favourite.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle ante-post preview

Unowhatimeanharry is the 6/4 favourite for the Harry Fry team. I must admit, coming into this season I wasn’t sure he’d be good enough to reach his current level, but he has proved me wrong and taken me by surprise.

The son of Sir Harry Lewis won last season’s Albert Bartlett making that his fifth win-in-a-row. Three further victories this campaign now see him bidding to make in nine on the bounce under new regular jockey, Barry Geraghty.

Two Grade 2 wins and a top-level success in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot have not only seen the nine-year-old progress, but have also shown continuity in the gelding’s versatility as he has climbed the ranks. His strong-travelling and stout-staying ability saw him capitulate into the Stayers’ Hurdle reckoning when winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Faster ground and running the other way round didn’t deter him at Ascot in the Long Walk before he followed up under a Grade 1 penalty in the Cleeve at Cheltenham on soft sod, again travelling into contention effortlessly before putting the race to bed.

There are very few chinks in his armour. Having been held-up in his earlier races this season, Barry Geraghty positioned him far more prominently in the Cleeve and the result was the same. The one slight worry I’d have is if the ground came up good or quicker. I have little doubt he’s much better on soft going, and should it turn soft come March, he’ll be banker material at 6/4.

Debate still rages about where the next three horses in the market will run. Jezki, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag all have multiple entries across the four days and it’s tough to know where they will line up at this time, especially the case of Vroum Vroum Mag.

Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins’s mare holds six entries at the Festival. It’s probably safe to say she won’t run in the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup, the Ryanair would also be a small surprise. The Champion Hurdle, the Mares’ Hurdle or this contest are most likely, but it’s impossible to say where she’ll go.

For that reason, she’s easily ducked at this juncture given the objective of the piece. Should she run here, however, Vroum Vroum Mag (9/1) would be a huge danger to the favourite, especially on good ground in receipt of 7lb. Some have crabbed her ability to stay three miles, but it’s not an issue for me. Her class will take her a long way regardless, but even so, she’s not a bet at this moment in time.

Even less so would be her stablemate Nichols Canyon (8/1). I’d have major doubts about Graham Wylie’s seven-time Grade 1 winner seeing out the three-mile trip. Although he’s had plenty of racing, he still runs keen in his races and I could see the petrol gauge emptying in the latter stages. He’s stuck between trips at the moment so it would be great to see a Ryanair-type Hurdle introduced to the Festival. That’s a joke by the way, let’s hope that never happens!

Jezki (6/1), another JP McManus horse, also has the option of running in the Champion Hurdle, but with his owner having two strong arrows for the Tuesday highlight in Buveur D’Air and Yanworth, it make sense for him to line up here.

An eight-time Grade 1 winner and former Champion Hurdler, the son of Milan has had to fight his way back from injury. Before his return this campaign, Jessica Harrington’s inmate was last seen in April of 2015 fending off the great Hurricane Fly over three miles at the Punchestown Festival.

There is no doubt that the son of Milan stays three miles well, but the question remains, has he returned in as good a shape before his injury? Still only nine, there is every chance physically he could be as good, but his comeback run gave me mixed signals.

In winning a low-key Navan event just over three weeks ago, visually, it was the perfect return. Jezki travelled with enthusiasm, jumped great and found plenty off the bridle over the minimum trip. In terms of form however, that run is just shy of 20lb below what will be required to win this Stayers’ Hurdle should the favourite run his race.

His Festival prep in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park will be defying for the rest of his season, but at the moment, it makes sense to duck him.

Best of the Rest

Cole Harden (14/1) blitzed the 2015 World Hurdle field from the front on good ground, but lost his way the following season, an issue with his knee sighted by his trainer Warren Greatrex. The son of Westerner only ran twice last campaign due to his issues, but that way well prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Cole Harden is an aggressive free-running horse, his style lends him to never having an easy race. Only seeing the track twice last season and just three times in 2016/17, he comes here a fresh horse. Under renewed energy and indeed a sturdier body, the eight-year-old looks to be getting back to his best.

A novice chasing campaign was halted after one attempt before Christmas, but his two hurdle runs since, especially the latest effort, see Cole Harden coming to the boil once more. Over an inadequate trip on soft ground, promise was shown in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham.

His latest second in the Cleeve Hurdle behind hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry was a step up again. Having raced at a strong gallop on the slowest ground throughout, it was really encouraging to see Cole Harden find plenty off the bridle and stay going to finish second. Back on quicker terrain, he’ll be even better.

The Irish have only won this race once in the last ten years, that victory coming via the classy Solwhit in 2013. There is no better man than Willie Mullins to try and improve the Emerald Isle’s record and in Shaneshill (12/1), he has a horse that looks certain to run here.

Second to Douvan in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and again runner up in last season’s RSA Chase, connections have made the right move in reverting him to hurdles. He doesn’t have the natural scope to jump fences; simply put, he’s a much better over the smaller obstacles.

After a tough 2015/16 campaign which saw seven runs, I had my doubts about him coming back strong this season. Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown festivals were all undertaken before a surprising trip Stateside.

Thankfully, his efforts over the last four months have been good. Having blown the cobwebs away on debut, where he finished behind Snow Falcon, an improved run came in the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace. Finishing third behind Apple’s Jade and Vroum Vroum Mag was highly satisfactory and he would’ve been closer only for a bad mistake at the final flight.

Ailments in his jumping would come back to haunt him over Christmas, again at the final hurdle, but this time he would take a heavy fall. He’d never have beaten Vroum Vroum Mag, but second spot was still up for grabs before his exit.

To Shanehill’s credit, he bounced back next time out with the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park, making most of the running and jumping well to just hold off Snow Falcon on soft ground. A return to faster sod will be in his favour and he at least looks to be coming to Cheltenham in good order.

The horse that finished second to Shaneshill in the Galmoy was Noel Meade’s Snow Falcon (16/1). Considering he was giving the winner 5lb and conceded first run on a track that wouldn’t play to his strengths, it must go down as a brilliant run and probably a career best.

The son of Presenting has threatened to be a Grade 1 horse for a couple of seasons now, he was a solid fifth in the 2015 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, but a career blighted by injury has stalled his progress.

A back problem was the cause of much grievance for connections, but that now looks to be sorted, judging on this season’s form. He goes to Cheltenham on the back of a career best, but this has been supported by other solid efforts.

Snow Falcon was a sound third to Vroum Vroum Mag over Christmas at Leopardstown when the slack gallop probably saw him done for toe in the closing stages. The above pair of runs came on the back of a fall at Newbury in November, where the seven-year-old was in the process of running a cracker in the Long Walk Hurdle. Unowhatimeanharry, the race favourite, went on to win that race in some style, leading me to think Noel Meade’s charge was potentially the one horse that could’ve given him a proper race meaning he has to be respected here.

The final horse to get a significant mention in this section is Lil Rockerfeller (25/1), last season’s Champion Hurdle seventh. The improving six-year-old found things happening too quick at last year’s Festival behind the likes of Annie Power.

Before that run on the opening day however, Neil King’s stable star had been plying his trade over intermediate trips and looking much more at home than over the minimum distance.

The Champion Hurdle test on quick ground didn’t suit, but the Stayers’ Hurdle equation may be more to his liking. Connections correctly put him away after his run at Cheltenham last season and in three efforts this campaign, he has looked on the verge of breaking into Grade 1 class.

Just gone six, there is every reason to believe he can make that further step up in class and while maybe 10lb short of winning a ‘proper’ top-level hurdle, time is on his side.

The son of Hard Spun would start the season off positively in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby. Carrying a penalty, it was always going to be tough to turn over the likes of Silsol and Native River, but despite racing with little room at times, his gritty attitude saw him post a solid effort in defeat, finishing a close up third.

Connections would drop the former flat runner in trip for the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle on his next start, where he would again have to carry a penalty. Conceding 4lb to live Champion Hurdle contender Yanworth was always going to prove tough despite the winner making his debut, but in pulling ten lengths of the rest, it was yet another solid effort in defeat going on to run second.

Ascot would again be the scene of his next run, a step back up to three miles in the Long Walk Hurdle saw yet another commendable place. Having had to wait for a run turning for home, Unowhatimeanharry got first run; it made no difference in terms of the result, but maybe he could’ve finished a little closer.

His season took a turn for the worse on his next start however, where Lil Rockefeller ended up a well-held and disappointing fourth in the Relkeel. Neil King’s horses weren’t going well at the time and the six-year-old returned home sick. It’s a run that can obviously be forgiven.

One of my favourite horses in training, Clondaw Warrior (20/1) must also get a positive mention. Willie Mullins’s charge has taken his owners all over the world to compete and given them many special days, there is literally too many to mention, but on the flat and over jumps he has been a star.

He’s getting on now, but the son of Overbury is still holding his form well. At Christmas, he was a sound second to Vroum Vroum Mag on unseasonably nice Irish winter ground before he looked to get stuck in the mud at Gowran Park behind Shaneshill and Snow Falcon.

The faster the ground, the better his chance as it should help him stay the trip in a race run at Championship pace on a stiff track. Stamina is the concern, but you couldn’t rule him out of hitting the frame.

Ballyoptic is the horse I felt could be the one of last season’s staying novice hurdles. He hasn’t improved like Unowhatimeanharry has however, and his run in the Cleeve suggested to me he is not up to winning a Stayers’ Hurdle.

OK, he had a penalty there and sat close to strong fractions, but Cole Harden was on that pace too and held him nicely at the line. Ballyoptic will meet him on better terms come March, but on better ground I’d be confident the Greatrex horse will uphold the form.

Apple’s Jade, Footpad, More Of That, One Track Mind The New One and Yanworth all look like they won’t be running here for various reasons and are best swerved.

The Final Verdict

A race that obviously revolves around the hot favourite Unowhatimeanharry. He has looked bombproof this season, improving on last campaign’s brilliant novice year. There is little doubt Harry Fry’s horse is better on softer ground, the more juice there is in the Prestbury Park sod on March 16th, the better his chance. Good ground just leaves him that tiny bit more vulnerable, but all in all, he is nearing value NAP material of all the hot favourites over the week.

The trio of Jezki, Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag may not run here. Of the three, Jezki is the most likely. I can’t have Nichols Canyon over this trip, but I’d have a healthy respect for the Mullins mare, should she run here.

This is the race for Jezki, but while the case, I’m happy to take him on at the prices at this juncture. He appeared to return in good order when winning at Navan, it was great to see him happy and healthy again, but the quality of that form worries me. There is also a chance he could bounce next time out in the Red Mills Hurdle. On old form, he’s a huge price, but he comes with question marks at the moment.

With those four out of the running for a bet at this time, we have four solid options to choose from; Cole Harden, Lil Rockerfeller, Shaneshill and Snow Falcon. Dealing with the Irish pair first, it’s a surprise to see Snow Falcon a bigger price than Shaneshill based on their Galmoy running.

The Meade horse will meet the Mullins inmate on 5lb better terms come March and given he only conceded the run of the race to Shaneshill, there is an even stronger argument to suggest he should be the shorter of the two. The Willie Mullins factor is clearly at play here, but no doubting the Meade horse offers much better value.

At the prices, splitting the British-trained pair of Cole Harden and Lil Rockerfeller isn’t too tough. The former is half the price of the Neil King horse and to be fair, I can see why. Lil Rockerfeller has to prove his wellbeing, whereas Cole Harden appears to be getting back to some of his old form.

At 25/1, I’d chance LIL ROCKERFELLER at the prices ahead of Snow Falcon. He is due to run at Fontwell in the National Spirit Hurdle, a race he won last year. That will obviously be key in letting us know where we stand, but this guy is a classy horse.

He doesn’t travel too well in some of his races, which makes life tough for his regular jockey Trevor Whelan, but what he does do is find for pressure. He has to bounce back from a poor effort last time out, but his good form ties him in with the race favourite and a live Champion Hurdle contender.

Given the bet, we could really do with Vroum Vroum Mag running elsewhere. Were she to turn up here, punters could well be scrapping around fort third place on their each-way bets, assuming Unowhatimeanharry makes it too.

Advice

1pt each-way Lil Rockerfeller @25/1 (Betfair, Betfred – both Non-Runner No Bet)

1pt win Lil Rockerfeller ‘betting without Unowhatimeanharry’ @12/1 (Betfair), @10/1 (Paddy Power)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ante-post focus: 2017 Stan James Champion Hurdle

Twenty-eight horses were entered for the Stan James Champion Hurdle a number of weeks back, but since the initial entries have been made the race has been dealt two big blows.

Last year’s winner Annie Power and the 2015 champion Faugheen were both ruled out of the race over the last fortnight, dealing their trainer Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci two bitter blows.

Their absence now means we have a wide-open renewal of the Tuesday showpiece. A lot of chopping and changing in prices has gone on and the market now has a settled look to it. We are just under six weeks away however, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if we saw more rumblings.

For example, with the two Mullins hotpots out of contention, the current JLT Novices’ Chase favourite Yorkhill could be rerouted here although, a £20,000 supplementary fee would need to be paid.

Knowing Annie Power was out of the picture and with Faugheen still to prove his race-fitness, at the time, connections of Buveur D’Air cut short an uninspiring novice chase career to tackle the Champion Hurdle. After all the shake ups in the race, amazingly, he is now the favourite.

The Stan James Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

A classy bumper horse in 2014/15 Buveur D’Air (7/2) had a highly successful novice hurdle campaign last season, winning a Grade 1 at the Aintree Festival the highlight. The well-bred son of French sire Crillon only had a trio of runs beforehand, where he bagged two low-key events before going on to finish a credible third in a strong-looking Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

At Newbury and Huntingdon on route, this half-brother to former high-class stayer Punchestowns showed a real liking for soft ground before his Supreme effort behind Altior on the fastest terrain he’d ever experienced.

A big drifter in the market before receiving an usually poor Noel Fehily ride – maybe connections knew he couldn’t beat Altior and had one eye on Aintree – Buveur D’Air deserves plenty credit for making the frame on ground he clearly handled.

His day in the sun would come on Merseyside, ironically, on softish sod where he just got the better of the Supreme Novices’ eighth, Petit Mouchoir. Having looked like he was going to win comfortably, the six-year-old struggled home a touch, maybe indicating he wasn’t at his best or a step up in trip would help.

To be fair to him, that form now looks extremely solid with the runner-up significantly boosting the run and the fourth home solidifying it further.

This season he was switched to fences and won his first two starts before connections had a change of heart and rerouted him over hurdles. His Cheltenham prep came in the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, he and Barry Geraghty went on to win smoothly in what turned out to be a poor contest.

He could do no more, but he hasn’t proved he is an improved performer this campaign and that must be a concern for a current Champion Hurdle favourite who will most likely race on his less-preferred spring ground come March.

Petit Mouchoir (9/2) is another horse that strikes me as being that bit better of softish sod. Formerly with Willie Mullins but now in the care of Henry de Bromhead, this free-going grey has readily improved this season.

The son of Al Namix was a very good novice hurdler in 2015/16, but just fell short of being top-class. His keen nature wasn’t a trait that served him well, but now he’s had another summer to mature, the Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding is seeing his races out much better.

This has allowed Petit Mouchoir to improve, but his progress realistically started from Cheltenham to Aintree last year. A well-beaten eighth in the Supreme behind Altior when still buzzy, he turned in a much improved effort on softer ground at Aintree, making Buveur D’Air pull out all the stops, when more prominent tactics also aided his progress.

He’d go on to disappoint at the Punchestown Festival when probably feeling the effects of a long season and then started this campaign on the back of an eye-catching run at Down Royal. From here he went to Newcastle for the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth, only to fall four out when still bang in contention.

Two subsequent runs in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown have now confirmed him to be an open company Grade 1 horse. In winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas and then the Irish Champion Hurdle, he has firmly put himself in contention for National Hunt’s most-prized hurdling asset.

The question is however, to what level has he improved? It’s hard to get a handle on his two Leopardstown wins when beating Nichols Canyon and Footpad, respectively. What we do know though, is this slick-jumping, strong-travelling type is tailor-made for the Champion Hurdle test on Cheltenham’s Old Course.

The same can’t be said for last season’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Yanworth (5/1). Since that gallant effort behind Yorkhill we’ve only seen Alan King’s stable star run twice this campaign, winning both starts at Ascot and Kempton.

With those victories under his belt it means the strapping son of Norse Dancer has only been beaten once over hurdles, at last season’s Festival, and, there’s a case to say he’s a little bit unlucky not be unbeaten over obstacles.

There are few better big-race jockeys than Barry Geraghty and he’s one of the finest National Hunt riders I’ve ever seen, but his effort in last season’s Neptune is up there with one of his worst ever Grade 1 rides.

The past is gone and we won’t dwell, either will Geraghty with his strong mental approach to the game, but if he feels he got it wrong, there is a good chance to put that right in this year’s Champion Hurdle.

Yanworth is one of those classy horses that continues to divide opinion, but I like him, and so should you. Why? Because he’s a horse that continues to get better and there may well be more improvement to come, in fact, I’d be surmised if there wasn’t. In a depleted-looking Champion Hurdle, his form is right up there with the very best available.

He’s a strong-traveller for a big horse, people feel he lacks pace, but that isn’t the case. OK, he’s a stayer, too, but one quick look down through the most recent Champion Hurdle winners and that will tell you, staying ability is no negative.

The one thing people keep failing to see with Yanworth is he has the natural ability to win this race. There are negatives however; he couldn’t be described as the slickest jumper and he’s had a setback on route to March.

While the case, his gritty comeback win when not fit in the Ascot Hurdle and his beating of The New One on a track that didn’t play to his strengths means I’ll be keeping him firmly on side.

Best of the Rest

Nicky Henderson has a strong-looking hand in this year’s Champion Hurdle and Brain Power (15/2) is another inmate of his to respect. You really get the feeling they’ve liked this horse from day one, that he’s showed plenty at home, but failed to reproduce it on the race track at times.

Mental and physical immaturity surely contributed to some disappointing efforts while his early career over hurdles was blighted by poor jumping. Less than fluent hurdling was seen in his first three novice hurdle starts last season before improvement came in this department at Punchestown.

To connections and the horse’s credit, this progress, in both ability and jumping, came in a Grade 1; the son of Kalanisi improving in all aspects, finishing a highly encouraging third behind Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir.

Brain Power actually shaped like much the best horse in the race, travelling strongly into the lead turning for home before his unfurnished frame laboured late and he was outstayed.

This season started poorly in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham, but he shaped much better than the bare result. Two high-class wins in competitive handicaps have seen the six-year-old climb the ranks since.

Once again, his strong-travelling ability was clear to all, but this season his body is capable of lasting out the latter part of the races. His slack jumping could be seen at times at Sandown while not a lot could be observed at Ascot when winning the Grade 3 Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle in fog.

He is set to go straight to Cheltenham, but I’d like to see him run again for further progress. Apart from that, and a feeling the handicapper has overrated him, there is plenty to like. He could be next year’s Arkle winner.

As short as 6/1 with non-runner no bet firms, the 2015 Champion Hurdler Jezki (12/1) is entered again, maybe with hopes of recapturing his crown. Jessica Harrington’s inmate missed all of last season through injury, but returned in good heart to win a pretty low key event at Navan three weeks ago.

Considering he was coming back from injury, visually, it was a highly satisfactory return. That form is nothing to write home about in terms of winning a Grade 1 however, and I feel he’ll be best served by running in the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.

The Stayers’ is a contest many would like to see The New One (16/1) running in, too. The gallant nine-year-old might still, but it appears connections are leaning towards a run in the Champion Hurdle, the likes of Annie Power and Faugheen’s absence a significant factor.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’s charge has run in the last three Champion Hurdles, his form figures reading 354. On those numbers with him getting older and not showing improvement, you couldn’t really give him a chance, but this year’s renewal won’t be as strong as those won by Jezki, Faugheen and Annie Power, respectively.

While the case, he’s already been beaten by the likes of Yanworth and others look more progressive. I’m sure he’ll run well, but when the taps are turned on approaching three out, he’ll be under pressure. He’s a horse that would love the Champion Hurdle to be on the New Course.

If there is one horse in this year’s Champion Hurdle field capable of hitting the frame at a big price, I think it’s the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad (25/1). The Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned gelding was a two-time top-level winner as a four-year-old, winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown and a Grade 1 in France.

He was also third in last year’s Triumph Hurdle behind the subsequently disappointing Ivanovich Gorbatov and the improved Apple’s Jade. His run here is worth upgrading. Jumped off last by Ruby Walsh, he was given way too much to do and while there is an element of him running on past beaten horses, he did well to finish as close to the front two.

He was clearly off his game at Aintree when he fell next time out before running well (winning one) in three French races. The son of Creachadoir was disappointing in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas where a bad mistake at the first didn’t help his cause before he ran a lovely race to be second in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

There is no doubt he’s a little flattered to get as close to Petit Mouchoir, but I don’t think it was hugely benefitting to be ridden like he was. Daryl Jacob also took an age to get after him proper. It was at least encouraging that he improved massively on his previous run and he now looks to be going the right way.

Last year’s Champion Hurdle third, Nichols Canyon (25/1) is worthy of a mention despite him now looking ready for a step up to two-and-a-half miles and possibly being a little below par this season. Sceau Royal (33/1) is better than his Fighting Fifth effort, where he travelled into the race nicely before fading badly. It wasn’t his true running, but he looks up against it in this field.

The two mares, Apples Jade (20/1) and Vroum Vroum Mag (14/1) are entered here, but I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll see them in the Champion Hurdle.

The Final Verdict

A poorer renewal of the Champion Hurdle with both Annie Power and Faugheen set to miss out. The race has at least benefitted from Buveur D’Air coming back into the hurdling fold, but I’m happy to take him on at this juncture.

While his form over hurdles now looks classy, mostly due to the exploits of Petit Mouchoir, his early season campaign over fences, while successful in terms of wins, hasn’t necessarily told us he’s an improved performer. Proper spring ground could see him tapped for toe and it makes sense to take him on.

The shape of the betting to this year’s Champion Hurdle doesn’t exactly lend itself to being a great ante-post betting heat. Those at the head of the market are mostly priced about right while very few horses at bigger prices look good enough to compete with the market leaders.

With that being the case, I see four potential bets, three obvious and one slightly left of field. The trio of obvious options are Brain Power, Petit Mouchoir and Yanworth. The outsider? Footpad. Given the situation, it probably makes sense to narrow the obvious options down first.

I’m happy to swerve Petit Mouchoir at this time. Like the race-favourite, I suspect he may be a handful of pounds better on soft ground, which is not a given at Cheltenham. He really impressed me over Christmas when hammering Nichols Canyon, but his Irish Champion Hurdle victory suggested his progress may have curbed.

Maybe this was due to the quicker ground or him not being at his very best, I’m not sure. Petit Mouchoir’s aggressive style of racing means he rarely has an easy race and I wonder has he now reached a peak for the campaign.

Brain Power and Yanworth are much tougher to separate. On what we currently know, Yanworth, for me, is around a 5-6lb better horse, maybe more. The market suggests similar, but with the McManus horse having an interrupted campaign with a muscle injury setback, it casts doubts in my mind.

On what we’ve seen this season and on their last two starts, there isn’t much between Brain Power and Footpad. Both will come to Cheltenham on the back of career bests and are young enough to improve.

At 15/2 and 25/1, respectively, a chance is taken on FOOTPAD to prove his Irish Champion Hurdle second was no fluke. He’s in the right hands with Willie Mullins and will most likely be given a patient ride. He’s not good enough to win, but he offers value in the each-way part of the bet.

There is one huge caveat to note in this year’s Champion Hurdle. For me, this is the race for Yorkhill. He is not entered, but Willie Mullins may ask Graham Wylie to stump up the cash to supplement him.

I’m itching to see him in a strong-run race over two miles. Visually, we could see a breath-taking performance, but that’s all ifs and buts at the moment.

Advice

1pt each-way Footpad @25/1 (Betfred, Coral, Ladbrokes)

Ante-post focus: 2017 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Just 28 horses have been entered for the 2017 running of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Twenty-seven of those have the arduous task of beating current race-favourite Douvan. Best-priced 1/3 at the time of writing, that tells you all you need to know about a horse Willie Mullins described as “potentially the best I’ve ever trained”.

We won’t get rich backing Douvan, but with him taking such a sizeable chunk out of the market, we may be able to obtain some each-way value or, possibly explore the route of backing a horse in the ‘without Douvan’ market.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview

At the prices, there is obviously little point wasting time talking about Douvan. At 1/3, it will be the shock of the Cheltenham Festival if he doesn’t win, such is the gap in ability the rest of the field trail him. Quite simply, he’s the full package, a special talent.

The closet horse to Douvan in terms of ability is Un De Sceaux (14/1 in a place), his stable mate and last season’s runner-up in this very race. It’s highly likely the nine-year-old will run in the Ryanair this season however, meaning Douvan’s task will be made easier. It also means Un De Sceaux is an easy swerve in this piece.

Take out the latter of the Mullins runners and we are really thin on the ground in terms of credible opposition to the favourite. I wouldn’t be quick to knock the race for that however, it’s merely a case of racing being in the midst of a special horse. Let’s enjoy him.

God’s Own (20/1) has the quality to run well in this race, but I feel he’s best served by running in the Ryanair this season. Tom George’s inmate was put up as an ante-post bet in the Ryanair ante-post preview, but since that piece, George has made it public that his charge will be aimed here. That’s disappointing news, but there is still plenty of time for change.

Should connections decide to run here, I’m happy to take him on over this trip. As we saw in last year’s Champion Chase behind Sprinter Sacre, he couldn’t lay-up with the field when the race started in earnest before he kept on for a well-held fourth.

Fox Norton (8/1) is one horse who will have little trouble laying up during the heavy skirmishes of the Queen Mother. Now in the care of Colin Tizzard having been bought by owners Alan and Ann Potts, this fast improving seven-year-old has youth on his side in comparison to a number of Douvan’s other rivals.

While the case, he has faced Douvan twice and both times come out badly on the wrong side. The son of Lando has to make up 11 lengths on their Arkle meeting and 32 lengths on their clash at Aintree.

To be fair to Fox Norton, he ran a perfectly good race at last year’s Cheltenham Festival before a combination of soft ground, poor early positioning and never being able to land a blow contributed to his heavy Merseyside defeat.

This season he has looked a completely different proposition, however. He was so far ahead of his 146-rated mark in a handicap at Cheltenham in October, the field couldn’t even lead him to the top of the hill. From there, he coasted to a hugely impressive 11 lengths victory before taking a step up in grade in his stride.

In winning the Grade 2 Shloer Chase by nine lengths on his next start, Fox Norton put himself firmly in the Champion Chase picture. Now best-priced 8/1, we haven’t seen the Tizzard inmate since, connections reporting he tore the hair off the back of a tendon and he needed rest.

He is due to reappear in what could be a blockbuster renewal of the Game Spirit at Newbury against the likes of brilliant novice Altior and former Champion Chase winner Sire De Grugy. We’ll have to see how he goes there on the back of an interrupted training period.

Best of the Rest

Small fields have sadly been a mainstay of recent Champion Chase renewals and this year – especially if Douvan runs – will probably be no different. Of the 28 currently entered, it is highly unlikely the likes of Altior, Black Hercules, Champagne Fever, Sizing John, Un De Sceaux, Uxizandre and Vroum Vroum Mag will run here.

Many entered simply don’t look good enough, have well-being to prove and hold entries in other races. With that being the case, it’s a nice race to play in at this stage and some serious each-way value could be obtained.

The standout value horse on the pick of this year’s form has to be Sir Valentino (40/1). One of two Tom George equines entered – the other being God’s Own – the eight-year-old has returned this season the near complete article.

He’s now run 19 times over fences and looks quite exposed in comparison to some entered, but on his sixteenth chase start, he showed improvement and maturity. A fine, big horse, the son of Early March may just have clicked mentally and physically this season. His win – on top of two other good runs – in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter has officially seen him improve 11lb from 147 to 158.

He has since finished a sound 5th in a sound Tingle Creek and finished second in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid at Kempton. His Sandown run behind Un De Sceaux can be upgraded. A rare lapse of concentration from Noel Fehily saw Sir Valentino playing early catch up in the toughest race of his career, a bad mistake down the far side not helping either before he ran on to be beaten 5 ½ lengths.

A career best came on his next start at Kempton over Christmas, dispelling any doubts about being flattered in the Tingle Creek. Giving last year’s Champion Chase third Special Tiara 6lb, he narrowly went down by half-a-length, a bad mistake two out not helping his cause.

On that form alone, it’s a huge surprise to see a horse that is obviously improving sitting at 40/1. OK, it was a four-runner event and Sire De Grugy unseated early with the third horse tailed off, but on his day, on good ground, on a flat track, Special Tiara is a Grade 1 horse. The time of the race was good, meaning it’s form to respect.

Garde La Victoire (33/1) was the chief sufferer when finishing second behind Sir Valentino in the Haldon Gold Cup. He only went down by a short-head at Exeter, just failing to give the winner 4lb. He’ll meet the George horse on better terms come March, but I’m not sure he’s improving like him.

Philip Hobbs’s charge has a hell of a lot of ability, but his jumping has never convinced. He can be quite low and stiff-looking over his obstacles, too, and that may be found out over two miles on decent spring ground.

A favourable mention must go to Special Tiara (25/1). He’s been sixth, third and third in the last three Champion Chases and is a good horse on his day, but he’s now ten-years-old and maybe hasn’t got the scope to improve any further. Given his Kempton run over Christmas, it’s a surprise he is so much shorter than Sir Valentino in the betting.

A year older again, Sire De Grugy (25/1) is probably best watched at this stage, too. The 11-year-old won this race three seasons ago and has remained in good form this campaign, but father time is creeping up on him.

Like Sire De Grugy, Gary Moore trains the classy pair of Ar Mad (25/1 in a place) and Traffic Fluide (33/1). Both were touched upon in the Ryanair piece and swerved there and it’s the same case again here. These are two quality horses, but they have struggled with injury over the last year.

Uxizandre (25/1) made a brilliant comeback at Cheltenham last weekend and has the ability to run well here, but he looks a Ryanair horse to me.

The Final Verdict

A race that revolves around Douvan meaning ante-post backers taking him on will need an act of mother nature to turn over the brilliant seven-year-old. His presence does mean there are plenty quality horses in double figure prices that could offer some each-way value, though.

Fox Norton is the horse most likely to run second to Douvan with the likes of Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre potentially Ryanair bound. While the case, he’s been well found in the market and must overcome a setback on the run up to the Festival. His fans can take solace in the fact Colin Tizzard reports him to be in great shape – at the time of writing – but it would be nice to see it on the track again.

God’s Own I like, ability wise, he’s near the top of the 28 horses entered, but his effort in last season’s Champion Chase stunk of a horse wanting to go out in trip. His run behind Un De Sceaux in this season’s Tingle Creek also suggested he could thrive over further.

The aging pair of Sire De Grugy and Special Tiara accompanied by the injury-prone duo of Ar Mad and Traffic Fluide don’t offer as good a value as Garde La Victoire and Sir Valentino, but with the former’s jumping still not convincing and the latter looking a progressive horse, SIR VALENTINO gets the nod.

Tom George’s inmate just looks a completely different animal this season and his two runs in the Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid mean he is well entitled to be here. I honestly think he should be half the price he currently is and sitting in front of Special Tiara in the market.

Being eight, there is every chance he could improve again and while his record going left-handed doesn’t inspire, he has jumped left at times this season.

Forget what you’ve seen on the old Sir Valentino and judge him on this campaign’s three impressive runs.

Advice

1pt each-way Sir Valentino @40/1 (general)

1.5pts each-way Sir Valentino ‘betting without Douvan’ @20/1 (Bet Victor), @18/1 (Betfair), @16/1 (Paddy Power)

Ante-post focus: 2017 Ryanair Chase

Forty-eight horses have been entered for the 2017 Ryanair Chase, 18 of those Irish based. In Cue Card (2013) and Uxizandre (2015), we have two past winners in, but the former is highly unlikely to run here – he’s Gold Cup bound.

Since the race’s inception at the 2005 Festival, the first 11 runnings went the way of UK-trained horses; the Irish sponsors unable to bag their own event. The Emerald Isle finally broke their duck in last season’s race, the brilliant Vautour stamping his class and winning for the Ricci, Mullins and Walsh team.

The Ryanair Chase ante-post preview

Mullins and Walsh currently house the race-favourite in six-time Grade 1 and 2015 Arkle winner Un De Sceaux (7/2). With Mullins holding all the aces in the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Douvan, a contest Un De Sceaux was runner-up in last season, it’s increasingly likely the free-going nine-year-old will run here.

The son of Denham Red has only had two starts this season, winning a strongly-run Tingle Creek at Sandown and then following up in the rearranged Clarence House Chase at Cheltenham. At Esher, despite the pace being brisk, Un De Sceaux travelled powerfully under Walsh before showing a great attitude to out battle Sire De Grugy after two sloppy jumps in the straight.

In the Clarence House, he would fend off the returning-from-injury Uxizandre by an easy five lengths on his favoured soft ground. Top Gamble, a solid and inform rival was a further five lengths back in third.

Un De Sceaux didn’t have to be at the top of his game to win here, but in doing so his jumping improved from Sandown and he went through the race like a horse at the top of his game, setting himself up nicely for March.

Stepping up in trip in the Ryanair will be a new test for him over fences however, and will also likely come on his less favoured spring ground. I have no doubt Un De Sceaux will see out the trip and handle decent terrain, but he is susceptible to a horse with gears, as Sprinter Sacre proved in last year’s Champion Chase, although, there’ll be nothing of that quality likely to run against him on current evidence.

Second favourite is another Irish-trained horse, Sizing John (8/1). Jessica Harrington’s inmate was covered in the first ante-post piece – the Gold Cup – and was recommended as a bet there. I think there is every chance he could run in the Gold Cup so; he obviously doesn’t make much appeal in a long-term market here. While the case, should he run in the Ryanair, he’ll go close as he looks on great terms with himself currently and has the requisite class to win.

In 2006 and 2012, Nicky Henderson won the Ryanair with Fondmort and Riverside Theatre, respectively. The master of Seven Barrows looks like he might run Josses Hill (10/1), but he makes no appeal at that price this far out.

While his jumping has undoubtedly improved ten-fold, I feel he is best dominating small fields on right-handed flat speed tracks. He won’t be afforded that luxury here and, even if he was, I’m not sure he’s good enough.

After a brilliant run in the Clarence House behind Un De Sceaux, Uxizandre (12/1) has firmly put himself in the Ryanair picture. A breath-taking and runaway winner of the 2015 renewal of this event in a first-time visor, the horse that gave AP McCoy his last Cheltenham Festival winner hadn’t been seen on the racetrack for the best part of two years before his Trials Day effort.

All the old enthusiasm and spark still appeared to be intact despite racing on ground much softer than ideal over an inadequate trip. Apart from guessing at one down the back, his jumping was also good and he really pleased with how he saw out the race having been outpaced before they started coming down the hill.

On back class, the nine-year-old is good enough to win this year’s Ryanair if bouncing back to that sort of form. A return to positive tactics, quicker ground and two-and-a-half miles is sure to suit, but it’s impossible to say how he’ll perform on his next start having been off the track so long.

Another horse with the undoubted ability to win the Ryanair is God’s Own (25/1), the 2015 Arkle runner-up and 2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase fourth. While comfortably held in both those quality races, I do feel there is a case to suggest he is an improved horse.

Eight-and-a-half lengths Tom George’s inmate would finish behind Un De Sceaux in the 2015 Arkle. That gap, behind the Mullins runner up, was down to five lengths in last year’s Champion Chase behind the brilliant Sprinter Sacre although, it could’ve been closer but for a mistake at the penultimate obstacle.

Having looked outpaced at the top of the hill in the Queen Mother, connections rightly stepped him up in trip at Aintree where he won the Grade 1 Melling Chase. Going right-handed, the direction his trainer is convinced suits him best, the son of Oscar would dethrone the mighty Vautour in the Punchestown Champion Chase.

In three efforts this campaign, God’s Own has yet to win, but his fans can take solace in the fact he has run a trio of highly credible races at Aintree, Ascot and Sandown. He hasn’t been seen since his fast-finishing 1 ½ lengths defeat by Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek, but that’s no surprise given he isn’t a winter ground horse.

He’s good enough to go close here, but there is a chance he could run in the Champion Chase. There is also a case to say he’s not as good over the Ryanair intermediate trip, but of the two races he’s most likely to win at the Festival, the Ryanair is it.

Best of the Rest

Although the Ryanair has been well-supported at this entry stage, many of the real class horses like Cue Card and Douvan won’t be running here and it’s a race that will likely cut up quite badly.

Gigginstown House Stud, otherwise known as Michael and Eddie O’Leary, have entered six horses, but five of those, for various reasons, may not run here and Sub Lieutenant (14/1) looks to be their number horse on paper.

Now in training with Henry de Bromhead, the eight-year-old has done nothing but progress since joining the Waterford handler. Two wins came early in the campaign before he finished behind the likes of Djakadam in the John Durkan and the new-and-improved Sizing John in the Kinloch Brae at Thurles.

Jumping is his main asset and with him now looking good enough to at least hit the frame in a Ryanair, he’s worth considering. An athletic-moving horse, he’s a half-brother to Gold Cup hero Lord Windermere and finally looks to be finding his feet.

Finding his feet is something last season’s JLT Novices’ Chase winner Black Hercules (16/1) is struggling with this campaign. Willie Mullins’s horse has at least improved in his three efforts in 2016/17, but he has failed to trouble the judge.

He was well-beaten on his return behind Djakadam in the John Durkan where Danny Mullins reported him to be “flat” on the way to post. He had little chance of beating Douvan over two miles at Christmas, but at least showed more before nothing much went right in the Kinloch Brae on his last start.

He got behind early and could never really land a blow, running an inefficient race to end up nicely held. He did at least show a glimmer of hope by latching on to the leaders turning in and he is a Cheltenham Festival winner, but he’s just not showed the same appetite this season. There is still time for him to spark however, and if he does, his current price would look more than fair.

The Gary Moore-trained pair of Ar Mad and Traffic Fluide get favourable mentions on the basis that they are good enough to run well in a Ryanair. Both had injuries that ruled them out of last season’s Festival, but the former has at least made one appearance this season.

Having drifted in the betting like a poor run was expected, Ar Mad (25/1) shaped with promise behind Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek. He was only beaten 3 ½ lengths in the end despite over racing early and then threatening to be well-beaten turning for home. The Ryanair intermediate trip could suit, but there still lingers a doubt about him performing to his best in Grade 1 company going left-handed.

Traffic Fluide (25/1) is an easier dodge at this stage given we haven’t seen him this season, but he remains a horse to monitor over the coming weeks.

I’ve been really disappointed with Vaniteux this campaign. His run in the 2016 Arkle, where he fell two out when looking booked for a sound second behind Douvan, has worked out nicely, but he hasn’t gone on. Flat tracks maybe suit him best and with worries about his optimum trip, he can be left alone at this juncture.

Zabana (20/1) was another to cross my mind at the prices, but there is every chance he could run in the Gold Cup if he shapes well on his next start. He has a disappointing effort at Christmas to put behind him, too, so he’s best watched at this stage.

The Final Verdict

In terms of ability and having had a faultless preparation, at the time of writing, I think there is a case to suggest Un De Sceaux could even be shorter than the best-priced 7/2 on offer. Sizing John looks his biggest and most solid danger, but could yet run in the Gold Cup. Uxizandre is another with the past ability to run Un De Sceaux close, but it’s impossible to know how he will come out of his brilliant 2017 comeback.

While the case however, Un De Sceaux must prove he is as good over two-and-a-half miles on potential spring terrain as he is over the minimum on soft ground. With him being an extravagant horse by nature, he could overdo things early and be a sitting duck up the home straight. Horses with a turn of pace could also cause him trouble and it makes sense to duck him now.

Josses Hill is another to swerve. He looks criminally under-priced by the bookmakers.

Three horses that interested me now were God’s Own, Sub Lieutenant and Uxizandre. Of that trio, Sub Lieutenant looks the most solid contender, but on all-known form, is simply not as classy as God’s Own and Uxizandre. He is improving however, and getting better at the right time.

Uxizandre was brilliant on his comeback in the Clarence House. On ground far too soft for his liking over an inadequate trip, to get as close to Un De Sceaux as he did – while finishing ahead of the solid Top Gamble – it must go down as an excellent return.

His price has correctly contracted after that effort and the big-time value has disappeared. It’s also hard to know if he will come forward for the run after nearly two years off the track.

This leaves us with GOD’S OWN who, like Sizing John in the Gold Cup blog, comes with risks. I have no doubt he’s good enough to go close in the Ryanair, but he may well run in the Champion Chase. On the evidence of last year’s fourth to Sprinter Sacre where he was outpaced a fair way from home, connections should strongly consider running him here.

Should the likes of Ar Mad, Josses Hill, Sub Lieutenant, Village Vic, Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre all run here, there could be a serious pace war on favouring those with a hold up style. God’s Own fits that bill, but more importantly has the requisite class to win so, gets the nod. Hopefully we get a bit of luck and connections take in this contest.

Advice

1pt each-way God’s Own @25/1 (general)

Ante-post focus: 2017 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup

We are just under seven weeks away from the Cheltenham Festival and it’s a nice time of the year to try and unearth some ante-post value. Entries for the handicaps are obviously quite a bit off, but initial admissions are now being made for the Grade 1s.

Two weeks back, connections had to put forward horses for the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase and the Ryanair. The big hurdle races are also now in and novice entries will soon be made so, it’s time to get cracking on some ante-post pieces.

Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview

As everyone is well aware, Thistlecrack is now the horse to beat in the Gold Cup. Trained by a man who is currently ruining National Hunt racing, Colin Tizzard’s charge made a seamless transition from novice chase company to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day in astonishing fashion.

On goodish ground around a speed track, the son of Kayf Tara had too many gears for his four rivals. He will face a different test in the Gold Cup, however. As well as having to run an extra two-and-a-half furlongs, Thistlecrack will tackle Cheltenham’s New Course, a track designed to test stamina.

If the ground came up similar to what it was at Kempton, in March, the gelding will have to run for an extra 40+ seconds which equates to around three and a bit furlongs. How will he handle this more demanding test given his exuberance? It would be a slight concern for me.

Tom Scudamore will have an important role in utilising Thistlecrack’s energy efficiently. The 2016 World Hurdle winner has been ridden more forward in his races this season, small fields allowing Scudamore to keep things simple, but come Gold Cup day a switch to more reserved tactics should be employed, especially if the early fractions are quick.

There is little doubt Thistlecrack is the classiest horse in the race and he should be ridden so, particularly, with potential pace spoilers like Bristol De Mai, Many Clouds, Native River and Zabana in.

Nothing in the Gold Cup field can match his raw pace, but the classiest horse with the best gears often lose races and at a best-price of even money, he’s obviously not worth considering backing at the moment.

According to the betting, Native River, the favourite’s stable mate, is his biggest danger. Best-priced at 6/1, those odds look fair at this early stage with the Gold Cup test looking tailor-made for this relentless galloper.

Having made a lovely seasonal debut at Wetherby over hurdles in the West Yorkshire Hurdle, Native River then went on to win the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow.

I had him running to circa 160 in the Hennessy and I don’t think he needed to improve to beat a soon-to-be 12-year-old Raz De Maree in Wales. He didn’t jump as well as he can, but to win in the style he did off top-weight was a classy effort and I certainly respect his chances.

The two Tizzard runners take a sizeable chunk out of the market and are next followed by Cue Card, yet another Tizzard possible, Djakadam and Outlander.

The old boy Cue Card is now 11 and will find it tough to win against horses with youth on their side. While the case, he still has to be respected and could easily run into the frame. With connections last week confirming him for the race, his price (10/1) has detracted and is now no more than fair.

He also needs to bounce back from a slightly below par effort in the King George behind Thistlecrack. He was beaten over three lengths there, but on a sharp track that rode quicker due to the ground, it didn’t play to his strengths.

Some sloppy jumps and him having to navigate three and four wide at various stages didn’t help either, nor, being the only horse to take on the brilliant winner before the straight; those exertions softening him up for the remaining pack to close.

On softer ground around Cheltenham’s New Course, it wold suit better, but winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game and father time is as much a nemesis as the likes of Thistlecrack.

It feels like Djakadam (10/1) has been around nearly as long as Cue Card, but Willie Mullins’s inmate is still only eight! Rich Ricci’s horse has been second in the last two Gold Cups behind two very good winners in Coneygree and Don Cossack.

A reproduction of those efforts – one coming on soft, the other on good – would see him go very close. Softer ground would blunt the finishing kick of potential speedier types and I feel his chance would be helped by rain-softened sod on March 17.

Djakadam started this campaign in adequate style when beating Outlander readily in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown. It came as a shock to see the aforementioned runner-up turn the tables just over two weeks later in the Lexus Chase.

A lack of an end-to-end gallop and a keen-going Djakadam contributed, the son of Saints Des Saints looking paceless turning for home before staying on strongly. The fact he still finished his race out despite being keen was a great sign and off proper Gold Cup fractions I could easily see him turning the form.

Outlander (14/1) surprised me in winning the Lexus, but the step up to three miles obviously helped him and given the pace, he deserves great credit for getting up to score given his early backward position. He’s a horse I’ve never really warmed to in terms of winning at the major festivals.

He’s obviously good and maybe he’s just an improved performer this season; the switch to Gordon Elliott’s yard unlocking further progress, but I do wonder how he’ll cope in a proper-strong run race?

Best of the Rest

Nigel Twiston-Davies’s Bristol De Mai (20/1 in a place) threw his hat into the Gold Cup ring with a brilliant performance in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, bolting up hard on the bridle for a 22 lengths success.

Visually, it was devastating, but I’m finding it hard to believe he ran to a mark nearing the 170s – if you think the second home didn’t significantly run below par, which I don’t think he did.

He has earned his Gold Cup place, no doubt, but Haydock’s flat three miles where he could get into beautiful rhythm will be a far cry from Cheltenham’s New Course where pace pressure will come early. A young horse and just gone six, this test may also come a year too early in his career.

Six other horses remained that I thought were potentially worth backing at this stage. Three fall under ‘soft ground is key’ and three fall under ‘nice ground is key’. Predicating ground conditions this far out is impossible, but Bobs Worth’s Gold Cup (2013) aside, the race tends to be on nice terrain.

With that being the case and Donald Trump still not believing in Global Warming, it’s safer to assume we’ll get nice sod come March.

On soft ground, the likes of Don Poli (33/1) and Many Clouds (40/1) would be huge prices while, to a lesser degree, Minella Rocco (33/1) would be of interest. The aforementioned pair may also take the Grand National route meaning they come with risks attached.

Don Poli ran a credible third in last season’s Gold Cup on ground that was far too quick for his liking. Many Clouds was a brilliant Grand National winner and has a distinct touch of class while Minella Rocco is still an unknown in this sphere despite already being a Cheltenham Festival winner. We must remember, it was less than 12 months ago he beat Native River in the National Hunt Chase.

Just like the ‘soft ground is key’ horses, a now National Hunt stalwart figures among two potential horses in this ‘section’. At their current prices Sizing John (50/1), the experienced Road To Riches (50/1) and Zabana (40/1) are worth considering.

Of that trio, on current form, Sizing John looks the safest option on the back of an excellent Kinlock Brae success at Thurles. There was no Douvan to take on this time and on his first try over two-and-a-half miles on nice sod, he created a big impression, staying on strongly to win by 2 ½ lengths from Sub Lieutenant.

At the line, he was well on top of the runner up, a horse who on his previous effort finished third behind Djakadam and Outlander in the John Durkan. There is no doubt in my mind Sub Lieutenant ran his race and the form looks strong and reliable.

The one big question with Sizing John is if he will stay, but on his Kinlock Brae performance, on nice ground, I feel he has every chance of seeing out three miles, after that, who knows? His pedigree and laidback approach to life add further positives and Jessica Harrington’s inmate is live outsider, if connections decide to take this route.

Zabana is another Irish horse to consider for trainer Andrew Lynch. On his 2 lengths defeat of Outlander at last year’s Punchestown Festival, he looks a big price. His seasonal debut at Down Royal was a pipe opener before he won in the fog at Gowran Park.

His last run in the Lexus Chase behind Outlander was disappointing, but he just looked off his game, for whatever reason. Maybe they didn’t go quick enough with him and the fact he travelled wide throughout is also a potential negative. Despite his flat pedigree, the son of Halling looks like a proper stayer and the Gold Cup test could unlock further improvement.

Having finished third in the 2015 Gold Cup behind Coneygree and third in last season’s Ryanair behind Vautour, Noel Meade’s Road To Riches has the back class to run a big race. Things haven’t got swimmingly since however, a crunching fall last campaign at the Punchestown Festival maybe leaving its mark.

Then pulled up in the Galway Plate before a well-beaten second behind Ballycasey at Gowran Park, I thought he shaped OK in the Lexus when beaten around 17 lengths. He wasn’t fully primed that day and the hold-up tactics used may suggest connections are just trying to get his confidence back.

A better run in the Irish Gold Cup could see his odds tumble for March and while he is ten, he’s no pensioner. He clearly likes Cheltenham in the spring and with the Meade team in much better order this season, he could run big.

The Final Verdict

At the prices, despite being comfortably the best horse in the race, Thistlecrack has to be taken on at this juncture. His charming zest for life and voracious bravery to attack obstacles could see his petrol gauge starting to empty in a strong-run Gold Cup on the New Course, especially on ground with juice in it.

I have an awful lot of time for Native River and to be honest, before sitting down to do this piece, I felt he was criminally under-priced. But, having gone over his form, I now feel it’s fully justified. He is a huge threat to Thistlecrack, especially on, say, soft (good-to-soft) ground. His price is the problem, however.

Winning Gold Cups is a young man’s game and Cue Card will bid to become the first 11-year-old since Mandarin (1962) to score in the Blue Riband. I could easily see him hitting the frame, but he offers no value each-way.

Either does Outlander who could be outclassed in a strong-run contest. Bristol De Mai impressed me in winning the Peter Marsh, but I’m struggling to get to grips with that race and as a six-year-old, I can leave him.

Djakadam I too can leave. He’s another that has strong each-way claims, but the place part of the bet doesn’t offer value. So with the front six in the market all looking about right in terms of their price, it’s worth swinging the bat in this year’s Gold Cup.

Don Poli and Many Clouds are far too big in the betting, but their chance really relies on softish ground. The percentage call is to assume we’ll have nice terrain come March. This pair may also take in the Grand National instead of coming here.

Looking at the early entries for this year’s Irish Gold Cup, it may not be a race run to stretch stamina and with that in mind, it could set up nicely for SIZING JOHN. It will be a first try for Jessica Harrington’s inmate over three miles, but he has a great chance of seeing it out.

A laidback back attitude and a by a sire (Midnight Legend) laden in stamina, Sizing John’s visual impression in winning the Kinlock Brae suggests he is well worth a go. After that victory, his winning rider, Robbie Power, said:

“He is so laid-back. I knew I had plenty left. He has that bit of speed. When I gave him a squeeze, he really quickened up. I think he would stay any trip. He is so lazy. The Ryanair would look tailor-made for him”

Positive words about a potential step up in trip although negative news in terms of mentioning another Cheltenham target, the Ryanair Chase. Given his owners however, Alan and Ann Potts, a good run in the Irish Gold Cup would almost certainly secure his place at Cheltenham on March 17.

A good third in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and second in last campaign’s Arkle, Sizing John’s festival form is another plus. He’s only had two runs this season, too, another positive as he’ll hopefully be fresher than most.

It’s a risky proposition, as he may not run in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but at 50/1, I’m willingly to take a chance.

Advice

1pt each-way Sizing John @50/1 (Betfred, Bet Victor, Boylesports, StanJames, William Hill)

2016 Cheltenham Festival ante-post previews

In the build-up to the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, I will be doing previews of the big Grade 1 races for BetBright. When new pieces go live, I’ll put the links here. If following the advice in the blogs, please shop around before placing any bets as better odds and terms may be available elsewhere. (Sorry BetBright)

2016 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-2015-ante-post-champion-hurdle-preview/

2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-2016-queen-mother-champion-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 Ryanair Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-ryanair-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 World Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-world-hurdle-ante-post-preview/

2016 Cheltenham Gold Cup ante-post preview

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-gold-cup-ante-post-preview/

2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle ante-post preview

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2015-supreme-novices-hurdle-preview/

2016 Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle ante-post preview

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-neptune-investment-management-novices-hurdle-ante-post-preview/

2016 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-albert-bartlett-novices-hurdle-ante-post-preview/

2016 Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-2016-arkle-challenge-trophy-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 JLT Novices’ Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-jlt-novices-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 RSA Chase ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-rsa-chase-ante-post-preview/

2016 Triumph Hurdle ante-post preview:

http://blog.betbright.com/horse-racing/cheltenham-festival/cheltenham-2016-triumph-hurdle-betting-preview/