Matt Brocklebank's second Cheltenham Festival antepost preview of the year focuses on two of the biggest chases of the week - the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Ryanair Chase.
Recommended bets: Cheltenham Festival 2019
Going for Gold with former hero
It’s hard to be completely convinced by any of this season’s winners of the traditional Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup trials.
Which goes some way to explaining why Presenting Percy – a horse who hasn’t been seen since last year’s Festival – tops the antepost market at a price no bigger than 9/2.
His was a rather unconventional preparation ahead of the Pertemps Final in 2017 (put up 16lb for winning his prep, as a novice, over 2m4f) and last year things took an even stranger turn as he was switched to hurdles for the Galmoy at Gowran, before dropping back to 2m4f for the Red Mills Chase, when beaten a length by Our Duke.
Each year, come the Festival, the result has been the same; he defied the British handicapper in the Pertemps two years ago, and he took his profile to a new level entirely by bolting up in the RSA Chase last spring.
Sadly, Al Boum Photo was a faller when just about still in contention two out in the RSA, while fourth Ballyoptic and fifth Black Corton perhaps haven’t quite gone on as hoped this season.
But the third, Elegant Escape, has finished a staying-on second in the Ladbrokes Trophy before winning the Welsh National. And the runner-up, Monalee, has built on his comeback run at Down Royal to finish a creditable second behind Kemboy in the Grade One Savills Chase at Leopardstown.
So there is serious substance to the form and, having just turned eight, there’s every chance Presenting Percy’s best days are still ahead of him providing Pat Kelly can work his magic once more and get him cherry-ripe for the big target this term – the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
If things go smoothly between now and March 15, then it’s hard to argue that Presenting Percy isn’t the horse to beat and he could obviously make the current 9/2 look generous.
As things stand, however, the price is just too short and, more specifically, it is far too short in relation to the 20/1 about SIZING JOHN.
Just one year older than Presenting Percy, we already know that Sizing John is good enough to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, having done just that two years ago, and those 2017 Festival heroics came on the back of finishing third in the 2015 Sky Bet Supreme, and second in the 2016 Racing Post Arkle.
After winning the Gold Cup, Jessica Harrington’s star won the Punchestown Gold Cup the following month and he returned the next season with a seven-length demolition job of Djakadam in the Grade One John Durkan.
The 2017 Leopardstown Christmas Chase, when a disappointing odds-on favourite, was his last public outing as he suffered "a hairline non-displaced fracture" of the pelvis in the run-up to last year’s Cheltenham Festival, but reports this season have been encouraging – despite a delayed return due to the unusually dry ground – and he’s got options over fences and hurdles in the coming weeks, according to Harrington.
There’s a significant leap of faith required when it comes to Sizing John’s fitness and overall readiness for the return to top-level competition, but he’s the one proven class act who has been underestimated in the market.
There is clearly some potential for Al Boum Photo, or even stablemate Bellshill, to establish themselves in the top category, but the Willie Mullins factor is at play in their respective odds (16/1 and 20/1), while it could be a similar story with Savills Chase winner Kemboy and his price relative to that of Clan Des Obeaux.
The latter was an impressive winner of the King George at Kempton and while the flat, right-handed track appeared to be play to his strengths on the day, his Cheltenham record from four previous visits reads 2622, so it’s not like he can’t put one foot in front of another on a more undulating course.
He is a perfectly fair 10/1 shot with the prospect of more to come, while Road To Respect is the other one high on the shortlist as he bids to follow in Native River’s hoofprints in winning the race after finishing fourth in the previous year’s edition.
The ground went against Noel Meade’s chaser last March and he was unlucky not to finish much closer in the Savills over Christmas, having almost come down on the bend.
There doesn’t appear to be much between the major Irish contenders, aside from the mercurial Presenting Percy, and if you’re a fan of Road To Respect then Monalee has to come under consideration at 33/1.
Henry De Bromhead has always felt he’s a stayer in the making and he at least has a couple of runs under his belt this season after being firmly second best in last year’s RSA. He also looks to be progressing still, having left his Down Royal comeback well behind when second at Leopardstown.
With just seven chase starts to his name, Monalee is another with scope to progress into a genuine Grade One chaser.
But with a genuine Grade One chaser already staring us in the face, and widely available at 20s, I’m happy to look no further than Sizing John.
Take two in Ryanair Chase
Sizing John's entry in the Ryanair Chase, as well as the Gold Cup, is eye-catching to say the least.
Here is a horse who has had a lot of time off the track, may only get chance for the one prep run before Cheltenham, and clearly isn't short of natural pace at his very best.
It was the drying ground and relatively slow tempo of the 2017 Gold Cup which appeared to suit him so well and that was a season in which he started out as one of Douvan's most likely dangers in the Queen Mother Champion Chase picture.
Sizing John - in hindsight - clearly stays the extended three miles, two furlongs really well, but there must be a small chance of him being re-routed to the Ryanair if he shows some of his old dash in something like the Red Mills Chase. Or, equally, if he doesn't.
When it comes to a staking plan, taking the much shorter 12/1 (NRNB), rather than 25/1 without the money-back safety net, seems a sensible approach in this instance, given the last time Jessica Harrington spoke publicly on the subject she stated that the Gold Cup remained the intended target.
Willie Mullins holds the key to the Ryanair market with Min (6/1), Footpad (8/1) and Un De Sceaux (10/1) all prominent across the board.
It's not obvious at this stage which is likely to end up being the number one representative but they're all mid-to-high 160 horses who would have to be accorded plenty of respect.
There's probably no standout superstar in this division this season, however, and the likes of Frodon and Aso are right there on the periphery following respective impressive handicap victories.
MISTER WHITAKER doesn't have a huge amount of time to convert himself from 'smart handicapper' to 'Grade One performer' ahead of the Festival, but Mick Channon's seven-year-old looks a potential sleeping giant and is worth having on side at the 33/1 (NRNB) on offer with Sky Bet and bet365.
He's a horse that Channon, the Radfords (owners) and Henrietta Knight (heavily involved in his development from the outset) have always thought highly of, and that was clear when he shone in March last year with victory in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
Success in the Colin Parker Memorial at Carlisle on his comeback resulted in Mister Whitaker being sent off 6/1 favourite for the BetVictor Gold Cup but he couldn't get into it from the rear in a race dominated by Baron Alco and Frodon at the head of affairs.
He was staying on quite nicely to finish fourth and the handicapper opted to leave him alone on a mark of 152.
That's almost a stone shy of the required level to be seriously competitive in a Ryanair Chase, but a return to Cheltenham Trials Day - a fixture at which he won in the run-up to the Festival last year - followed by a possible crack at the Ascot Chase, could change the outlook completely.
He's got significant scope to carry on progressing with age, is versatile ground-wise and looked more at home on the New Course (used on the Thursday of the Festival) when winning at Cheltenham last January, than he did in both the Close Brothers and the BetVictor.
Having burgeoning talent Mister Whitaker, and the proven class of Sizing John, both onside with the NRNB concession makes plenty of appeal ahead of the 2019 Ryanair Chase.
Antepost Angle: Cheltenham Festival schedule
- Monday January 7 - RSA Chase
- Monday January 14 - Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup & Ryanair Chase
- Monday January 21 - Unibet Champion Hurdle & Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle
- Monday January 28 - Racing Post Arkle & JLT Novices' Chase
- Monday February 4 - Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Ballymore Novices' Hurdle & Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
- Monday February 11 - No preview this week...
- Monday February 18 - National Hunt Chase & JCB Triumph Hurdle
- Monday February 25 - OLBG Mares' Hurdle & Trull House Mares' Novices' Hurdle
- Monday March 4 - Cheltenham Festival handicaps - including Ultima Handicap Chase, Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle and Grand Annual Handicap Chase
- Thursday March 7 - Any other business, including current positions and additional selections
Antepost Angle - 2018/19 National Hunt season record
- RSA Chase (07/01/19) - 1pt win Vinndication at 16/1 (General)
- Cheltenham Gold Cup (14/01/19) - 1pt win Sizing John at 20/1 (General)
- Ryanair Chase (14/01/19) - 1pt win Sizing John at 12/1 (NRNB, General), 1pt win Mister Whitaker at 33/1 (NRNB, General)
- King George VI Chase (27/11/18) - 1pt win Politologue at 9/1
- Ladbrokes Trophy (13/11/18) - 1pt win Sizing Tennessee at 33/1 (WON)
- BetVictor Gold Cup (04/11/18) - 2pts win Baron Alco at 12/1 (WON)
- Unibet Greatwood Hurdle (04/11/18) - 1pt win Hunters Call at 16/1 & 1pt win Off You Go at 12/1 (BOTH NOT DECLARED)