Stuart’s thoughts: Cheltenham Festival

January 8th, 2019 | Stu Williams

Traditionally there are already three warm favourites for the Cheltenham Festival’s three Grade 1 novice hurdles by this stage of the season. However this year appears to be the exception. That said, Nicky Henderson has been flexing his muscles in recent weeks and now counts the favourite for both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – namely Angels Breath and Champ respectively – amongst his string.

The former, who was an impressive 12 lengths winner of his solitary start between the flags, made a successful debut under rules when comfortably landing the Grade 2 Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot on December 21st, and he should have plenty more to come with that experience under his belt. While the latter, who is brilliantly named in honour of the great Sir AP McCoy, confirmed himself a high-class performer when landing the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday and now finds himself a clear 6/1 favourite for Cheltenham’s premier two-and-a-half-mile novice contest.

Mister Fisher built upon his satisfactory hurdling debut when running on well to see off a smart field containing previous multiple winners such as Didtheyleaveyououtto, The Big Bite and Thomas Darby on Boxing Day. Altior won this race for Seven Barrows in 2015 and this talented son of Jeremy has always been held in high regard.

Champagne Platinum is yet another exciting youngster who lived up to his lofty reputation when sauntering to a smooth success on the same card as Champ.

The exciting son of Stowaway is now 2-2 under Rules and it was interesting to see just how confident Barry Geraghty was on the four-year-old. He, like Mister Fisher and Angels Breath, could find himself contesting the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle come the spring.

Buveur D’Air tasted defeat for the first time since placing third behind the almighty Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

The dual champion hurdler made a significant mistake three from home but still looked poised for victory before stablemate Verdana Blue swooped in the shadows of the post.

The form of his breathtaking victory in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle has also taken a knock with Samcro disappointing in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown, while Summerville Boy may have been already been feeling the effects of a hairline fracture to his off-hind leg.

That said, Verdana Blue was ideally suited by both the track and conditions and is now being lined-up for a crack at the Melbourne Cup later on this year. However, connections must be tempted to detour to Prestbury Park beforehand.

Sharjah landed the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstwon and must now be considered a live contender for the Champion Hurdle.

Rich Ricci’s five-year-old is improving at a rate of knots and is clearly very well suited by good ground. The son of Doctor Dino has already triumphed in the Galway Hurdle and Morgiana Hurdle this season and is perhaps a shade overpriced for Cheltenham’s premier two mile hurdle at 10/1.

Melon, who could only finish fourth, was having his first outing since Punchestown in April and will undoubtedly come on for the run.

Both Kalashnikov (4/6) and Mengli Khan (7/4) were sent off warm order for their respective targets at Kempton and Leopardstown but both tasted defeat.

Dynamite Dollars, fresh from his Grade 1 success at Sandown two weeks previously, made his fluent fencing and wealth of experience count when lowering the colours of last season’s Betfair Hurdle winner. He must now be considered a genuine Arkle contender and is priced up accordingly.

It’s fair to say that Kalashnikov, who was far from disgraced, was not ideally suited to a sharp two miles around Kempton and although he is bred to get further he could easily bounce back when returned to a more suitable venue.

Mengli Khan couldn’t quicken off a fast pace at Leopardstown where Le Richebourg, who was last seen finishing second behind Delta Work in the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase, clocked a time 2.20 seconds quicker than standard.

Joseph O’Brien’s youngster, who is a half-brother to 2012 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase scorer Grand Crus, is now 2-3 over fences and will most likely head back to Leopardstown to contest the Irish Independent Arkle Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival before boarding the ferry in March.

The horse who finished one place behind Mengli Khan in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in March – namely Paloma Blue – put a disappointing debut effort behind him when comfortably getting the better of Moon Over Germany in a well contested novice chase at Leopardstown.

Henry De Bromhead’s Stowaway gelding ran a number of solid races over hurdles last winter including a smart third placed effort in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novices Hurdle. He could easily meet Le Richebourg in Dublin.

The 2018 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase was easily the classiest renewal for many a year and it took a gusty performance from La Bague Au Roi to see off a determined Topofthegame after the pair were embroiled in a ding-dong battle over the final three fences.

The winner travelled prominently throughout the three-mile contest and found plenty when asked for an effort by champion jockey Richard Johnson.

Lostintranslation boosted the form of his two previous victories when landing the Grade 2 Dipper Novices Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and Warren Greatrex has already confirmed that La Bague Au Roi will head to Ireland to compete at the Dublin Racing Festival in February. However, he has also suggested that she may bypass the Cheltenham Festival as she has never truly flourished in the Cotswolds.

Topofthegame, who briefly led upon turning for home, ran on resolutely and, given his sheer size and previous form, may be seen to best effect with more cut in the ground. That said he ran a mighty race and would certainly be of significant interest in either the JLT Novices’ Chase or RSA Novices’ Chase should the ground come up soft.

Santini was sent off a well supported 11/10 favourite but could only finish a never nearer third.

There were concerns beforehand that Nicky Henderson’s exciting six-year-old would not be suited by such a sharp track and that he may therefore become outpaced by those with more gears. Therefore it was no surprise to see two horses who have solid form over intermediate trips finishing ahead of the exciting young stayer. However, he still ran a fine RSA trial and retains all of his potential.

Delta Work, who landed the Pertemps Final in March, secured his second Grade 1 novice chase success at Leopardstown on Saturday and is undoubtedly the leading Irish contender for the RSA Chase at present.

The Gigginstown House Stud owned five-year-old was badly hampered by the early departure of stablemate Ben Dundee but soon recovered and made stealthy headway before jumping to the front at the third last fence.

Gordon Elliott pinpointed the Dublin Racing Festival as his next port of call before confirming the RSA as his probable Cheltenham target.

The impeccably bred Mortal ran a huge race to finish second on just his second outing over fences and could easily land a graded prize this term. While Blow By Blow, who was suited by the longer trip but lacked the gears of the front pair, could develop into a real contender for the National Hunt Chase.

Altior didn’t put a foot wrong in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton and produced a breathtaking leap at the last to the to seal his sixteenth straight success.

It’s clear for all to see that Patricia Pugh’s star is well and truly in a league of his own over two miles and he will now go to Ascot to contest the Clarence House Chase before heading to Cheltenham in defence of his Champion Chase crown.

Last season’s leading novice Footpad suffered his second defeat of the campaign when Nicky Richards’ gallant 12-year-old Simply Ned swooped late to land the Paddy’s Rewards Club “Sugar Paddy” Chase for the second time in as many years.

Many will start to question just what the scopey six-year-old was beating last season, especially as both the Arkle second and third – namely Brain Power and Petit Mouchoir – have returned to hurdles subsequently. However, the race was run in a fast time (-3.5s) and I am inclined to take the view that Footpad may benefit from stepping up in trip, an idea that was muted by his trainer – who was tempted to run the Simon Munir and Isaac Souede owned gelding in the King George – earlier on this year.

Great Field had taken the field along before being passed by Footpad approaching the final fence.

Whilst he was undoubtedly beaten before coming to grief at the last, it should be remembered that he fell at just the second obstacle on his return to action at Cork three weeks ago and he is therefore entitled to come on for the run.

You would have undoubtedly received some strange looks had you predicted that Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy would land the two premier staying chases on either side of the Irish Sea this festive season. However they both ran out convincing winners and simply have to be considered genuine Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders.

Upon turning for home at Kempton it looked as though the mighty Thistlecrack was going to roll back the years and land his second King George in three years. However Harry Cobden and Clan Des Obeaux stylishly moved upsides and more than had his measure after jumping the last.

Paul Nicholls’ improving six-year-old travelled and jumped with aplomb and could easily have more to offer given as he matures further. While Thistlecrack, who has well and truly confirmed his well-being, has a number of potential options. However given the way he travels through his races I can’t help but feel that he would be some sight dropping back in trip to contest a race such as the Ryanair Chase, where he could go hell for leather from the front and really put-it-up to his rivals.

Native River simply wasn’t suited by this three mile speed test but still ran a big race to finish third thanks to his determined and dogged attitude, while last year’s winner Might Bite, who could only finish seventh, was found to have bled post race.

The former will head to the Denman Chase at Newbury – a contest that he has won for the last two years, while Nicky Henderson has announced that Might Bite will have his palate cauterised and won’t be seen again until Cheltenham.

Kemboy, who missed the Ladbrokes Trophy due to travel issues, gained ample compensation when storming clear to land the Savills Chase at Leopardstown.

The rapidly improving six-year-old made it two Grade 1 victories in as many days for the Supreme Horse Racing Club, who were still nursing the sore heads brought on by Aramon’s success in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle 24 hours earlier. However, as exciting as Aramon may be, it is Kemboy who is set to contest the most coveted prize in National Hunt Racing and Willie Mullins will be hopeful that he has finally found the horse to break his duck in the race.

Monalee ran a big race to finish second and has the scope for further improvement over staying trips this term. However, given his second placed efforts in the 2017 Albert Bartlett and 2018 RSA Chase, he could be ideally suited to the Ryanair Chase as two-and-a-half-miles on the more stamina-demanding new course would potentially suit him perfectly.

Road To Respect can be considered somewhat unlucky as he was squeezed for room when the pace increased and stumbled badly on the approach to two from from home. Therefore his effort can be upgraded and he will head to the Dublin Racing Festival as a main protagonist for the Irish Gold Cup.

Coney Island ran an eye-catching race and should be monitored closely. Both Bellshill and The Stroyteller also performed creditably.

Apples Jade romped home in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstwon following Faugheen’s mishap at the second from home. However, she was leading at the time and deserves full credit for yet another scintillating performance.

The high-class mare is obviously versatile in terms of trip but will most likely – almost certainly – line up in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. However, with Samcro under a cloud, could connections be tempted to run the nine-time Grade 1 winner in the Champion Hurdle?

It was a great relief to everybody that Faugheen rose to his feet and walked away following his extremely heavy fall and Rich Ricci’s pride and joy could easily atone for that unfortunate incident at some stage during the spring.

Elegant Escape displayed guts and stamina in equal measure to see off Chepstow specialist Ramses De Teille in the Welsh Grand National.

The Ladbrokes Trophy runner-up has always given the impression that he would relish a marathon trip on soft ground and confirmed that notion with a smart staying performance.

Life will be tougher off a revised mark of 159, therefore graded races may now be on his agenda.

Glen Forsa defied a market drift when scoring at Kempton on Boxing Day and he could still be well treated off his new mark of 134.

Stablemate Mister Whitaker placed second in the corresponding contest 12 months ago before claiming Cheltenham Festival success in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, so it would be no surprise to see the promising six-year-old go down that same route.

If that is indeed the plan then Glen Forsa would almost certainly have to go in again as his new mark of 134 would likely miss the cut-off. The Timeform sponsored handicap chase on Cheltenham Festival Trials day could be the ideal target.

Lostintranslation displayed a very pleasing attitude when flying up the hill to re-pass Defi Du Seuil in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

Colin Tizzard’s imposing youngster boasts good form over fences having bumped into Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase victor La Bague Au Roi twice and looks an ideal candidate for the JLT Novices Chase, which is run over the same course and distance, in March.

Defi Du Seuil did little wrong but perhaps didn’t see out the trip. Therefore the Arkle may prove a better long-term target.

Sire Du Berlais caught the eye when placing sixth in a Pertemps qualifier at Leopardstown last week.

Gordon Elliott’s charge finished fourth in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle last March and just so happened to qualify in the same race in which stablemate Glenloe – who was very narrowly denied by Delta Work in the Cotswolds – qualified in last year.

He was a 50/1 chance in the immediate aftermath of last week’s race but it now no bigger than 16/1. It would be no surprise to see that price contract further.