1.30 JLT NOVICES’ CHASE
Bristol De Mai was beaten by Garde La Victoire on his chase debut but he has progressed since and won the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown last time out. The step up to this trip has been the making of him. The news that Killultagh Vic was missing the race promoted him to favouritism, but he’s not for me. One horse that is very well fancied is the Willie Mullins trained Outlander, who is a better chaser than he was a hurdler. He’s 3/3 over fences and looks to be getting better all the time.
Garde La Victoire has had three untroubled starts over fences this season for Philip Hobbs and I am glad he missed the Arkle to wait for this. It looks like he’ll have no trouble staying two and a half miles and it will probably suit better. He has won over the trip and is a smart novice. Black Hercules was unfortunate to fall at the last at Navan in February, but heavy ground seems to suit best. I can’t split Garde La Victoire and Outlander.
2.10 PERTEMPS NETWORK FINAL
This is a race where you are looking for a likely plot! Irish trainer Charles Byrnes is shrewd and knows how to train a horse for the Festival. He has Leave At Dawn in this, who won at Cheltenham in November on his penultimate start and is owned by JP McManus. The money has come for him. Cup Final is trained by Nicky Henderson and is another for McManus. He is progressive and stays well. Warren Greatrex trains Missed Approach who qualified for this in November at Newbury and hasn’t been seen since. That was his first run for almost a year and he is unexposed and open to improvement. Greatrex is keen on his chance and wasn’t too fazed by a 20lb rise in the handicap.
If In Doubt is trained by Hobbs for McManus. He was raised 6lbs for winning at Wincanton on Boxing Day and hasn’t been seen since, as I guess they didn’t want him to be raised further in the weights once he had managed to qualify for this. He was 9th in this two years ago and 5th in the RSA last season and is now rated 146. Box Office is another McManus-owned horse, this time with Jonjo O’Neill. He is yet to win since coming over from France, where he won three from four, and was beaten by six lengths in the Fred Winter at last year’s Festival; he should be competitive off 135. He didn’t enjoy bad ground at Haydock when pulling up latest and is dangerous to discount. Arpege D’Alene comes here in good form after a win at Chepstow recently and is also rated 146. He has had a breathing op and, as he didn’t appear to be hugely fancied last time, there could be more to come. For me, I’ll be on both Leave At Dawn and Missed Approach.
2.50 RYANAIR CHASE
I think Vautour may have ended up in the race that suits him best. Rich Ricci had been keen to go for the Gold Cup with last year’s impressive JLT winner but he couldn’t win the King George and I couldn’t see him staying in the Gold Cup. I think he’s a shoo-in here. As for the Gigginstown horses, Valseur Lido is at his best over further distance than this trip, but has a chance despite that. He was desperately unlucky to unseat in the Irish Gold Cup and fell in the King George prior to that. Let’s not forget he was a dual Grade 1 winning novice chaser.
Road To Riches needs to bounce back from a defeat in the Irish Gold Cup behind Carlingford Lough (when Valseur Lido unseated at the last and was very unlucky). He has shown his effectiveness at this trip, but Noel Meade made no secret of the fact he would have preferred to run in the Gold Cup, as he feels this trip might be too sharp for him. Al Ferof has had his limitations exposed at the very highest level but is going well for new trainer Dan Skelton and can’t be ruled out, maybe this is his year. Josses Hill is another that falls short at the highest level, but he did have a confidence booster at Kempton last time out and has his backers. Smashing probably needs testing ground to show his best.
3.30 RYANAIR WORLD HURDLE
I was confident of a Cole Harden win in this last year and win he did….at 14/1! I’d love to see him win again and don’t think it’s unrealistic for him to repeat the performance. The ground should be spot on for him by Thursday, so that ticks that box. He has been trained purely with this race in mind and has had another breathing operation. Trainer Greatrex feels that hot favourite Thistlecrack has largely been bullying horses on bad ground this winter and said last week that he “won’t bully Cole Harden”.
Having said that, Thistlecrack has looked pretty formidable this season and his overall record is outstanding. He deserves to be hot favourite, but is short enough in the market. Saphir Du Rheu was runner-up in this last year, but hasn’t fulfilled his potential over fences this season and reverted to hurdles when well beaten behind Thistlecrack in the Long Walk at Ascot. I’m going to stick with Cole Harden again and he’s an attractive price to boot.
4.10 BROWN ADVISORY & MERRIEBELLE STABLE PLATE
This is a tough race to find the winner of, with big priced winners often the norm. Johns Spirit has dropped to an attractive mark for O’Neill and is a regular at this track with 13 outings here resulting in three wins and a second. Stilletto is rated 142, which is up 10lbs since winning at Leicester, but I think he can still be competitive off his revised mark as his form stacks up and he is a progressive novice.
4.50 TRULL HOUSE STUD MARES’ NOVICES’ HURDLE
I have mixed feelings about this race. The charity race, the St Patrick’s Derby, was always the final race on the Thursday, but that has been lost to make way for this race and with it hundreds of thousands of pounds in sponsorship raised for charity, and the thrill for ordinary folk like myself of riding at the Festival. Back to the matter in hand, though, and many people will have the Mullins-trained Limini as a banker here. She was useful on the Flat in France and is now 2/2 over hurdles for Mullins. There look to be some better priced alternatives to finish in the first three, particularly as the favourite doesn’t appear to be the slickest of jumpers. Bloody Mary for Henderson comes here with a stretch of seven races unbeaten, just one of those for Henderson since coming over from France. The one I like is Smart Talk, she’s the model of consistency and won a Grade 2 at Doncaster last time out for Brian Ellison. She’s got bags of scope, is progressing, and shouldn’t be out of the frame.
5.30 FULKE WALWYN KIM MUIR CHALLENGE CUP HANDICAP CHASE
Jockey bookings are worth taking note of here, with the leading Irish amateurs usually snapped up for the fancied runners. Cause Of Causes has been well supported for this for McManus, so he’s no double figure price. He has winning Festival form, having landed the NH Chase last term. He hasn’t won since, was eighth in the National, and is likely to have had this as his target for a while. He runs off a rating of 142 and is another leading contender for trainer Gordon Elliott. Doctor Harper got off the mark at the third attempt at Leicester last time out and is a progressive novice. He has smart form and rates as one of David Pipe’s best chances at the meeting. The yard won it last year with The Package. I think it’s between those two, with Cause Of Causes getting the nod.
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