In contrast, this all boils down to the horse who has had a crystal clean season and preparation so far, and the horse who should be seriously rated after his 12-length romp at the Dublin Racing Festival
1:30 BALLYMORE NOVICES’ HURDLE (GRADE 1)
This is perhaps the most intriguing race at the Festival with so much anticipation surrounding Samcro all season long. The Gigginstown horse is unbeaten in six racecourse starts and put some substance to the hype with a cake-walk performance in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown. While he easily beat a decent field that day, he didn’t beat NEXT DESTINATION, who himself is a Grade 1-winning novice this season and is a huge player here. The Willie Mullins-trained gelding has plenty going for him. He was seriously impressive when accounting for Cracking Smart at Navan earlier in the season, won his Grade 1 at Naas despite a muddling slow pace and we know he handles Cheltenham, with the evidence of his third place finish in the Champion Bumper last season. Samcro deserves to be favourite, but at around 4/1 Next Destination looks worth a play.
The main British hope Black Op is respected but he seems short on experience while the same can be said of Duc Des Genievres, who has failed to lay a glove on both Samcro and Next Destination, albeit he was having his first two runs for Mullins.
Scarpeta, another Mullins inmate, is worth considering at a huge price. He bolted up over two miles on his previous run at Gowran Park, beating a subsequently impressive winner in Cartwright. He has won over a mile and six furlongs for Mark Johnston on the flat, so coming up to this distance could improve him more, as could the drying ground (it was bottomless when he won at Gowran).
SELECTION: NEXT DESTINATION ALTERNATIVE: SCARPETA
2:10 RSA INSURANCE NOVICES’ CHASE (GRADE 1)
PRESENTING PERCY looks like the one to beat. Pat Kelly’s seven-year-old is returning to the scene of his Pertemps Final romp last year and, though he will race on vastly different ground, he is more than proven on a soft surface based on some of his runs this season. Some people are crabbing his preparation, pointing to the proximity of his most recent start at Gowran Park, but it seemed as if Davy Russell was at pains not to really get into him, and if anything he enhanced his profile by only just losing out to a major Gold Cup contender in Our Duke, with the pair of them clear of a decent field. The seven-year-old is proven around Cheltenham, proven on soft ground and on ratings he is the best horse in the race.
Monalee, Al Boum Photo and Dounikos renew rivalry from the Flogas Novice Chase, where they all finished in a bunch - Henry de Bromhead’s horse prevailing. That form looks somewhat suspect, considering the aforementioned three horses finished so close together but Monalee is respected, having run very well in the Albert Bartlett last season. Of the British horses the improving Black Corton is the shortest price. However at a bigger price, Colin Tizzard’s Elegant Escape caught the eye, considering how closely matched he is with the Paul Nicholls-trained runner. He beat the aforementioned horse at Newbury earlier in the season but then failed to run him down in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. Colin Tizzard’s horse is all about stamina so Cheltenham could potentially bring him closer, especially given the fact that he was initially being aimed at the four-miler.
SELECTION: PRESENTING PERCY ALTERNATIVE: ELEGANT ESCAPE
2:50 CORAL CUP HANDICAP HURDLE
Max Dynamite will likely start favourite and, though he undoubtedly has the potential to be well handicapped, everyone thought the same about him when he disappointed in the Galway Hurdle and the soft ground is probably not in his favour.
There has been only one winner priced below 10/1 in this race in the last nine renewals so it might be worth looking down the market. BARRA has an interesting profile. She doesn’t win much, but she was a useful novice last season and she ran a cracker to finish a staying-on second to Let’s Dance in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle here last season. She disappointed on her first two runs this term but, significantly, she hit form with a good second to the very well-handicapped Alletrix at the Dublin Racing Festival. She might have hit form at just the right time and it would be no surprise to see her run a big race on her return to this track.
The other one worth consideration is the very unexposed Le Breuil, who many have flagged up as a potential improver. He has been laid out for this race and his trainer Ben Pauling thinks he is well handicapped on his best form - which probably was his nine-length win over the very useful Benatar at Newbury this time last year.
SELECTION: BARRA ALTERNATIVE: LE BREUIL
Douvan makes his fourth appearance at the Cheltenham Festival
3:30 BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE (GRADE 1)
The race that has seen more twists and turns than a Funderland rollercoaster. Douvan was in, then he was out, then he was back in, then he was back out, and now he is back in. Altior was a doubt, then he came back, then he was doubt and now he is definitely running. Yet, you won’t actually fully believe it until you see the pair of them jump off and run down to the first!
Altior looked flawless on his comeback but this is a big step up now and, for sure, he could have done without his small injury scare this week. Douvan is one of the best horses we’ve seen in recent times but it is still a huge ask to win this first time out. In contrast, this all boils down to the horse who has had a crystal-clear season and preparation so far and the horse who should be seriously rated after his 12-length romp at the Dublin Racing Festival - MIN. Significantly this will be just his sixth run over fences and it is very much feasible that he is an improving horse, especially when you consider the improvement from his penultimate run to his latest effort - a 12-length turnaround with Simply Ned. The unofficial line from the Mullins camp has been that they think it will be hard for Min to bridge of gap of seven lengths from Altior when the pair met two years ago but surely a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then, even before the dramatics of this week.
It was a tough decision for Ruby to make to ride Douvan but Min will lack for nothing from the saddle with Paul Townend, who was excellent on Melon in the Champion Hurdle, on board. He just looks by far the best bet in the race.
SELECTION: MIN ALTERNATIVE: DOUVAN
4:10 GLENFARCLAS CHASE (CROSS COUNTRY)
Cause Of Causes returns to Cheltenham in his bid to record a remarkable fourth Festival success. He was an impressive winner of this unique race last year and this has been his target all season but there is no doubt this is a deeper race with a few of the usual suspects back again and the likes of Tiger Roll and The Last Samuri new additions.
In some ways, Tiger Roll is what Cause Of Causes was last year, trained by the same trainer in Gordon Elliott, coming back to the Festival where he has already done so well to take on the cross-country course, having received a taster earlier in the year. Elliott gives him a huge chance and he should go well.
Despite the upgraded win of Josies Orders here in 2016, Enda Bolger does not have the best recent record in this contest, having dominated in the late ‘noughties’. He is always respected, however, and runs three horses this time around. There is little between Josies Orders and AUVERGNAT on their Punchestown meeting, but the latter seems to have more scope to progress. Having finished fourth in this race last season, he is surely coming back a better horse having won twice and in the interim. He could put it up to Cause Of Causes at a nice price.
SELECTION: AUVERGNAT ALTERNATIVE: TIGER ROLL
Having looked to be outpaced between the last two flights, The King Of May really stayed on well to close down Act Of Valour, and there is a good chance that the bigger test of stamina he is likely to get at Cheltenham will help the former French-trained gelding.
4:50 BOODLES FRED WINTER JUVENILE HANDICAP HURDLE
This 22-runner juvenile handicap hurdle is something of a minefield for punters and you could quite easily make a case for over half the field. Both Nube Negra and Look My Way each bring in separate form with Triumph Hurdle favourite Apple’s Shakira over this course and distance. Their handicap marks look fair enough in that context but another form line of equal interest is that of We Have A Dream’s Musselburgh win over potential favourite here Act Of Valour and THE KING OF MAY. Nicky Henderson’s 145-rated horse, who was unfortunately ruled out of the Triumph Hurdle earlier this week, was a 1/5 favourite on the day but had to work hard to see off the aforementioned pair, with Act Of Valour four lengths away, and in turn two lengths ahead of The King Of May. However there is good reason to believe the third horse can reverse form. Firstly it was his first ever run in Britain and for his new trainer Brian Ellison, whereas Act Of Valour was appearing for the third time Paul Nicholls. Secondly, having looked to be outpaced between the last two flights, The King Of May really stayed on well to close down Act Of Valour, and there is a good chance that the bigger test of stamina he is likely to get at Cheltenham will help the former French-trained gelding. Thirdly, having only received 3lbs from Act Of Valour at the Scottish track, The King Of May will instead receive 8lb here. Both horses are improving and both have chances, but at the prices, The King Of May looks worth siding with.
SELECTION: THE KING OF MAY ALTERNATIVE: LOOK MY WAY
5:30 WEATHERBYS CHAMPION BUMPER (GRADE 1)
The introduction of a Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival adds another dimension to this race as it provides a significant sighter into the Irish form. The winner of that race, Blackbow, stayed on well, holding off the reopposing Rhinestone, and he just about sets the standard. Rhinestone should get close to him again with Barry Geraghty taking over in the saddle. However the British have fared much better in this race in recent seasons and they have a number of interesting contenders this time around, the pick of which looks to be ACEY MILAN. Anthony Honeyball’s four-year-old has plenty of experience, having run four times already and he goes from strength to strength, with his most impressive performance coming on his latest start when bolting up in a listed bumper at Newbury. Previous to that he won over this course on heavy ground so he already ticks a lot of boxes.
Of the other Irish-trained horses Felix Desjy has been the one for money but he is probably underpriced now, for all that it seems a pointer in itself that he is turning up here, given his owners have never been overly keen on this contest.
At a fancier price, it might be worth taking a chance on David Pipe’s Know The Score, a £380,000 purchase from the Irish point-to-point scene who won on his British debut without much fuss. He doesn’t have the profile of those ahead of him in the market but is clearly talented and represents the same trainer-jockey combination who took this contest with Moon Racer in 2015.
SELECTION: ACEY MILAN ALTERNATIVE: RHINESTONE
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