11:40 JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 179yrds
I think Scriptwriter has been underrated in the early market for this four-year-old contest. Already a course winner in a Grade 2 event, he missed a clash with Comfort Zone in Chepstow’s Finale, but was impressive in winning a handicap at Wolverhampton off a BHA mark of 102.
The runner-up has won since, and the form is strong, especially as Scriptwriter wasn’t well placed when the pace picked up. He showed a battling attitude there, and has clearly progressed since leaving Aidan O’Brien, so ought to be favourite here.
12:10 Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase 2m 4f 127yrds
Fire Dancer faces a much stiffer task than when winning narrowly at Ludlow on his return from a lengthy absence, but he looked well ahead of his mark that day until Charlie Deutsch took the decision to nurse him home, and that almost backfired, with the runner-up catching him a stride after the line.
This is a different sort of track, and he’s facing much better rivals, but I take the view that he ought to rate much higher and he is the pick on that basis.
12:40 Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase 3m 6f 37yrds
A case can be made for several here, with a number of previous course and distance winners in opposition, but the fact is that Rob James is much too good a rider across country to be able to steal a 7lb claim, and it’s a brave man who would oppose the top-class Delta Work with just 11st 7lb on his back.
None of James’s 293 point-to-point wins are counted in determining his claim, while wins in the Kim Muir and Scottish National show that he’s a top-notch rider in staying events.
13:20 Albert Bartlett Clarence House Chase (Grade 1) 2m 62yrds
Energumene should prove too strong for Edwardstone in a race which should boil down to a match unless they let Editeur Du Gite steal an easy lead.
There is an argument that Edwardstone could be rated higher for beating the 171-rated Greaneteen in the Tingle Creek, and that would make it look a good match, but comparing the time figures the pair have produced would make Energumene look to have a distinct edge, and he can prove that point.
13:50 Paddy Power Cheltenham Countdown Podcast Handicap Chase 2m 4f 127yrds
With extra places, several of the outsiders can be considered to offer a bit of value, but I was absolutely blown away with the manner in which Fugitif disposed of some very useful rivals at Chepstow over Christmas, and while he’s always possessed loads of ability, he now looks to have harnessed that fully, having matters firmly in hand some way from home at the Welsh venue.
He chased home Amarillo Sky over two miles here in November, and a 10lb rise is unlikely to stop him here. In fact, I think he’ll be racing in Grade 1 company come the spring.
14:25 Paddy Power Cotswold Chase (Grade 2) 3m 1f 56yrds
Protektorat is the pick on form, and he ran well enough in the Gold Cup last year to suggest he should have a bit too much class for today’s rivals. His easy win in the Betfair Chase needs to be taken in context, with A Plus Tard clearly amiss, but even his defeat of Eldorado Allen and Frodon reads well here.
Noble Yeats impressed when winning the Many Clouds at Aintree, but Protektorat was even more impressive when winning that race by 25 lengths last season, and looks hard to oppose on balance.
15:00 Dahlbury Stallions At
Chapel Stud Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 7f 213yrds
Dashel Drasher is one of the most reliable horses in training, and should again get an easy lead here.
He’s not as stout a stayer as one or two of his rivals, but if Rex Dingle can take a leaf out of the Danny Mullins playbook by slowing the pace and stacking his rivals up, then he should prove hard to pass, as he always is.
15:35 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 4f 56yrds
I do like Pembroke here, and he was hugely impressive at Ludlow last time in a race which has worked out well already, but I’m not sure whether an extended two and a half miles is what he needs given the pace he’s shown over shorter to date.
He was due to run over two miles last weekend, and there’s a possibility that Dan Skelton is being forced to run here to some degree. Despite those concerns, and in the absence of Blenkinsop, Pembroke still appeals as the likeliest winner, and a horse of considerable potential.
13:35 MND Association Lightning Novices’ Chase (Grade 2) 2m 78yrds
Tommy’s Oscar is taken to make the most of the weight he receives from Boothill in this Grade 2.
Although beaten by the reopposing Since Day One at Newcastle last time, Tommy’s Oscar was conceding that useful rival 19lb, and was eased in the final 100 yards when unable to reel the all-the-way winner in.
I put the true margin between them at less than half the eventual four and a half lengths, and the selection was also successful off a mark of 155 on his chase debut.
Few raw novices would be asked to contest handicaps based on smart hurdles form, so it’s all the more meritorious that Tommy’s Oscar has done so with credit both times he’s been asked, while a defeat to Banbridge in the Arkle Trial at Cheltenham’s November meeting is likely to look particularly good form in the fullness of time.
The handicapper tells us that Tommy’s Oscar is 5lb superior to Boothill, and that’s a fair assessment, given both have had opportunities to show exactly how good they are.
That means he’s 10lb well in here and, while you can debate the numbers to some extent, it’s very hard to argue that Boothill is superior on what he’s shown. As such, the early market has the pair the wrong way around.
14:05 Sky Bet Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 2) 2m 128yrds
Epatante should get the job done here, with only Martello Sky to worry about on paper. I can see Lucy Wadham’s game grey stepping up on this season’s efforts, but the gap between them is a wide one on paper, and she will need Epatante to underperform, even if back to her best.
14:40 Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2) 3m 84yrds
Stay Away Fay is hard to weigh up, and could be smart, but the firms are taking no chances with his price, and clear preference is for Grand Soir, who promises to be ideally suited by this particular test.
John McConnell won this last year, and rarely misses the target by much, if at all, when sending horses over to England. Grand Soir is already the best of these on form, but I think his superiority is also masked by a tendency to race lazily. Grand Soir certainly had more than the bare margin in hand when beating Level Neverending at Thurles (2m7f) last month. Although not seeming to travel as well as the pair in front of him on the home turn, Grand Soir swept past them between the last two hurdles after getting a flick of the whip from Simon Torrens.
He then proceeded to prick his lugs when in front and allowed the runner-up to get closer than he deserved. Clearly a thorough stayer, he should find the long straight at Doncaster ideal, and really should be heading the market, in my opinion.
15:15 Sky Bet Handicap Chase (Premier H’cap) 2m 7f 214yrds
Cloth Cap had had a few issues in recent seasons, but he remains a smart sort when conditions are in his favour and that means good ground and trips around three miles.
He didn’t get home in the Becher Chase last month but looked on very good terms with himself, despite doing plenty in front along with Snow Leopardess.
He’s now just 2lb higher than when running away with the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury two seasons ago and has only raced on good or quicker ground once since, when running well under a big weight at Cheltenham on last season’s return.
That came off a mark of 156, and he’s simply too well treated to ignore with the ground and trip likely to put less stress on his suspect wind.
Scriptwriter 11:40 Cheltenham – 2pts win at 3/1 (Ladbrokes, Coral)
Fugitif 1:50 Cheltenham – 1pt e/w at 9/2 (SkyBet, Paddy Power – 6 places)
Grand Soir 2:40 Doncaster – 2pts win at 9/2 (Ladbrokes, BetVictor, Coral)
Cloth Cap 3:15 Doncaster – 1pt e/w at 10/1 (Bet365, Hills, 4 places)