1.30 JCB TRIUMPH HURDLE
I was always a fan of Aidan O’Brien’s Ivanovich Gorbatov and felt he deserved another chance after his defeat at Leopardstown. However, there are one or two that have raised their heads over the parapet and, if the better ground doesn’t bring about an improvement, he could be vulnerable. I tipped up Paul Nicholls’ Zubayr before he ran in the Adonis at Kempton and he is a serious contender. He has improvement to find to emulate Zarkandar, who took the same route for the stable but, as he cost connections 380,000 Euros, he needs to win this and then go on to win the Champion Hurdle next year to recoup his massive purchase price. Another horse that has been given positive mentions is Sceau Royal, who is progressing with every start for Alan King and brings more experience than some into the race. It’s Zubayr for me as he will have improved significantly for his hurdle debut.
2.10 VINCENT O’BRIEN COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE
Great Field represents Willie Mullins. This will be his handicap debut after one run for Mullins, where he won impressively over 2m 2f despite being too keen. But that was his first run for around 16 months so he may settle better with the freshness out of him and, dropping in trip, they will go much quicker here. Blue Hell won on his debut for Alan Fleming and was raised 22lbs for that success. I imagine they haven’t dare run him again for fear of a further rise in the weights. Dan Skelton’s Superb Story was raised 9lbs for finishing runner up to Old Guard in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle and hasn’t run since. He won on debut for the stable and there looks to be more improvement to come.
2.50 ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES’ HURDLE
Speaking of Ben Pauling, he has a chance of a quick double with Barters Hill in the following race. This horse keeps getting the job done, but gives the impression of being a bit quirky. He’s got a proper engine though and seems as tough as teak. He had to pull out all the stops to win at Doncaster last time and he’ll hopefully have learned from that. This will be a real test of his ability to race prominently and keep finding more over three miles round here though. As a result, I’ll be taking him on with Neil Mulholland’s Shantou Village. He is a horse I really like and the step up to three miles shouldn’t cause him any problems. By running here he avoids a re-match with Yanworth, who beat him at Cheltenham on his last outing. He was unbeaten prior to that and has a likeable attitude. He must have good ground though. Willie Mullins has Gangster towards the head of the market. The horse has no stamina doubts as he won convincingly over this trip at Fairyhouse in December. That was on heavy but he handles better ground too.
3.30 TIMICO CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP
I’ve changed my mind like the weather in the run-up to the Festival regarding this race. One thing I know is I won’t be backing Cue Card, because he won’t stay. Don Cossack is the glamour horse in this, he’s Barcelona FC, Lionel Messi, Novak Djokovic, Sir Ian Botham, Johnny Wilkinson, the Leicester City of the race! I’ve backed Djakadam, but that was before he hit the deck in the trial in January. Last year’s runner-up looked like another season on his back would help him go one better, but he’s got it to prove now. It would be a fairytale for owner Jean Bishop if Cue Card could add to his Haydock and King George wins and pick up the £1m bonus. How is he going to stay up the hill though, and over an extended three and a quarter miles?
The more I look at the race, the more I fancy Don Poli. He has all the attributes of a Gold Cup winner. He is lazy, slow (ish) and keeps a bit for himself. Only joking of course, but he stays and I’m not sure we have got to the bottom of him yet. He has the ideal temperament for a Gold Cup too, as he isn’t highly strung and should take it all in his stride. An added bonus is the fact he has already won twice at the Cheltenham Festival. Smad Place will evoke memories of Desert Orchid if he can win for Alan King. I’d have said he had no chance after the Hennessy and his run in the King George would confirm that. However, his trailblazing win in the trial, with his great attitude to boot, gives connections a glimmer of hope. I don’t think Many Clouds was at his best that day though, so it may not be as strong as it looked on paper. He surely can’t beat a couple of these can he? This blog is taking so much time, as I keep stopping to have a bet! It’s definitely Don Poli in the Gold Cup.
4.10 ST JAMES’S PLACE FOXHUNTER CHASE CHALLENGE CUP
The same course and distance as the Gold Cup, but there the comparison ends. The race that allows the professional jockeys a chance to celebrate/commiserate after the Gold Cup. There are of course a handful of very experienced amateurs and they are usually worth their weight in gold. I’m hoping for a clear round for Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder who has done magnificently to get to the level required to ride in this race. I take my hat off to her.
4.50 MARTIN PIPE CONDITIONAL JOCKEYS’ HANDICAP HURDLE
This often throws up a really good performer and trainers tend to send some smart horses here, so don’t be afraid of a horse towards the head of the handicap. There are not too many of Gordon Elliott’s horses that the bookies are taking any chances with and Squouateur is one of the Elliott horses with a great shout. Talented conditional Jack Kennedy will ride. He’s a progressive horse with just five starts to his name. Qualando is trained by Paul Nicholls and was ridden by Harry Cobden at Taunton last time out in a ‘getting to know you’ mission. He won the Fred Winter at last year’s Festival and should be competitive off 139 here. Better ground than he has experienced of late will suit.
5.30 JOHNNY HENDERSON GRAND ANNUAL CHASE CHALLENGE CUP
The getting out stakes! Next Sensation is bidding for back to back wins in this for Michael Scudamore and he is just 1lb higher in his bid to repeat the win. Jessie Harrington trains Rock The World who won a novice chase at this track back in October and hasn’t run since. He has been freshened up and would appear to prefer better ground. Velvet Maker is trained by Alan Fleming for owner Barry Connell and he has plenty to recommend him on his first ever run in a handicap. He won on his chasing debut back in November and has twice since come up against Douvan in Grade 1 company. This trip suits well as he has plenty of pace and I fancy his chances. Lough Kent is Nicky Henderson’s only entry in the race named after his father. His mark of 138 is attractive and he hasn’t had too much racing since winning his first race in the UK at Warwick back in May. It seems likely that his has been laid out for this race, which is obviously one Henderson likes to target, but it’s Velvet Maker for me in the last race of the week.
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