Alex Hammond: Clues galore
What a day we have to look forward to on Saturday with many Cheltenham prospects having their final run outs before the Festival both in the UK and Ireland.
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Once again the domestic action seems to be a battle between the all conquering stables of Messrs Nicholls and Henderson.
Appropriately the former saddles the favourite for the Denman Chase in Silviniaco Conti. The horse is currently 6/1 with Sky Bet for the Gold Cup next month and he is highest rated in this 3 mile Grade 2 Chase.
He has a sparing campaign as he goes much better when fresh and so far this season has won the Charlie Hall Chase back in November and the Betfair Chase that same month. The break since then will suit and this race shouldn't take too much of the edge off him with the Gold Cup still 5 weeks away.
The Giant Bolster is a threat on drying ground and this track will suit him better than Haydock (Betfair Chase) and Kempton (King George). Mail de Bievre is an interesting contender for Tom George. This is his first start in the UK, but he is a three time chase winner at Auteuil in his native France. He hasn't won since April 2010, although he has only had the one run since then, back in September 2011. He is still only 8 years old and is held in some regard by his new trainer who rates him as a live Gold Cup contender.
Sky Bet have him at 40s for that race, so now may be the time to have a couple of pounds on him if you think he can run well on Saturday, which George expects he will. I'd be tempted to make him my each way selection in this even though he is bound to come on for the outing and there are a few ifs buts and maybes surrounding him.
It definitely looks like the Game Spirit Chase is a Henderson benefit as he has young chasing star Simonsig in it who can further enhance his reputation here.
There is no point trying to be clever and oppose him as he will take all the beating once again despite taking on more experienced horses for the first time over fences.
He won't face a proper test until the Arkle where I hope one of my favourite horses, Overturn, will give him a run for his money. Overturn is 3/1 for the Arkle and I'd be tempted to back him at that sort of price.
The Betfair Hurdle is dominated by Seven Barrows inmates with 6 of the 23 declarations trained by Henderson. AP McCoy is on board Sky Bet's 7/2 favourite My Tent or Yours, who I feel is plenty short enough in such a competitive field. Connections of this horse deserve a boost after the tragic events at Doncaster on Monday which saw them lose star hurdler Darlan who suffered a fatal fall.
This horse is 9/1 for the Supreme Novices' at Cheltenham but he won't have things easy in this handicap off his rating of 149. He is quite a racy individual who can be keen in his races, but the way this race is run will undoubtedly suit him and he deserves to be favourite.
Of Nicky Henderson's other entries Barry Geraghty rides Cash and Go (a 10/1 shot), the horse he was unseated from in the Ladbroke last time out. He is a smart performer who joined the yard from Ireland after a successful novice season that saw him win a Grade 1 for his former trainer Edward O'Grady.
Prior to his mishap at Ascot he was 2nd in the Racing Post Hurdle on his first start for Henderson and that run gives him excellent claims here.
It's going to be a sparse week for Timmy Murphy as he has a light weight to do on board the David Pipe trained Swing Bowler (12/1). This mare has a great chance of proving her trainer with a belated 40th birthday present in a race his father, Martin, did well in when he held the licence.
She is a daughter of the brilliant Lady Cricket and has to defend an unbeaten record here. Pipe also has bottom weight Home Run and another strong fancy in 10/1 shot Ronaldo des Mottes.
Paul Nicholls will be hoping one of his three runners can emulate last year's winner Zarkandar. He is represented by Pearl Swan (8/1), Dark Lover (16/1) and Caid du Berlais (20s).
Ruby rides Pearl Swan who had a sharpener in a jumpers' bumper at Kempton last month (he was 2nd). That was his first run since last year's Triumph Hurdle which didn't go to plan as he fell at the last flight of hurdles.
You would have to be encouraged with that Kempton run which should have helped put him right for this. This is his first handicap run and he could be fairly treated.
John Ferguson's Cotton Mill has his first start of the campaign and is a 9/1 shot. He is another handicap debutante and runs off a mark of 145, a 1lb lower than Pearl Swan. He was a mile and a quarter winner on the flat, so the drop back to this extended 2 miles shouldn't inconvenience him, although he is yet to run over it over hurdles.
Gordon Elliott's Cause of Causes is a 10/1 chance. He has plenty of weight, but he does come here having won the Ladbroke on his penultimate start and he just prevailed at Navan last time out too. If he is to win here it will be off a mark 10lbs higher than he won off at Ascot.
Claret Cloak is another with a decent racing weight with Dominic Elsworth having to do 10.3 on the Emma Lavelle trained 6 year old. He ran an excellent race at Ascot on his first run of the season and it looks like his trainer has been waiting for some better ground with this horse. He could have a lucrative spring - he is 14/1. So, as you can see it's tough one to call.
At Warwick the Kingmaker Novices' Chase is the feature and >b>Fago is the one for me here. Paul Nicholls trains the 5 year old who won on his British debut at Newbury last month. He is 8/1 fourth best in the Arkle market with Sky Bet thanks to that win and he should be fitter for that outing too as he hadn't been with the champion trainer for long when he won there. I don't expect he will be much of a price mind you!
Two chasing heavyweights clash in the Irish Hennessy at Leopardstown on Saturday. Bookmakers are finding it hard to split Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs.
Sky Bet give the former the favouritism tag, he is 6/5 and Sir Des Champs is 5/4. Last time out they met over the same course and distance in the Lexus Chase and Flemenstar emptied out in the final stages having travelled strongly. He still finished in front of his rival, but Sir Des Champs was staying on strongly from the rear and looks well capable of turning that narrow margin round if his jumping has improved.
I'm sure Willie Mullins will have done plenty of schooling with his horse and with a better round of fencing will be tough to beat. Flemenstar could well be helped by the fitting of earplugs this weekend as he got stirred up in the preliminaries before the Lexus, but despite that I still think he is more effective over shorter despite his connections being bullish about his chances this weekend.
For me Sir Des Champs is the one for the Gold Cup too and I backed him last Spring for the Cheltenham Blue Riband. He is currently 9/2 with Sky Bet and his stamina can see him dominate next month. I'm confident my ante post voucher is a good one.
Good luck to the People's Horse, Gud Day, at Uttoxeter on Saturday. He has had the job of carrying me up trainer Fergal O'Brien's gallops on a couple of occasions recently and he returns to the track that was the scene of his last win back in September.
Mail de Bievre in the Denman Chase (each way)
Simonsig in the Game Spirit Chase
Swing Bowler in the Betfair Hurdle @ 12/1
Claret Cloak in the Betfair Hurdle @ 14/1 (each way) if ground good to soft or better
Fago in the Kingmaker Novices' Chase
Sir Des Champs in the Irish Hennessy @ 5/4 with Sky Bet
Sir des Champs in the Gold Cup @ 9/2 with Sky Bet