Ben Linfoot's Monday racing column: Festival countdown

Last Updated March 07 2017, 16:21Racing

With just seven days to go until Cheltenham Festival Eve, Ben Linfoot highlights seven things to look out for at this year’s jumps racing jamboree.

1. Grade One form in handicaps

The standard of the Festival handicap is going up and it’s getting harder to sneak an improver in at the bottom of the weights. 

Last year, the handicaps were dominated by horses that had run in Grade Ones earlier in their careers: Un Temps Pour Tout, Ballyalton, Cause Of Causes and Solar Impulse all won handicaps at last year’s Festival having previously competed at the very top level.

This year the list of Grade-One-horses-entered-in-a-handicap is a long one. Last year’s Albert Bartlett third Champers On Ice has options in the Ultima and Kim Muir if he doesn’t go for the four-miler, while the same stable’s Un Temps Pour Tout could end up in the Ultima again if he doesn’t take his chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

In the same race Aintree Grade One second Henri Parry Morgan could take part following a luckless campaign over fences, while former Albert Bartlett winner Martello Tower looks a big player on his best form off a mark of 144.

Gigginstown have former Lexus winner and Gold Cup third Road To Riches as a handicap option - he’s in the Grand National too - while the same owners have A Toi Phil, last seen trailing behind Disko in the Grade One Flogas Novices’ Chase, in both the Ultima and Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate.

Others in the Plate with Grade One form are Diamond King, last year’s Coral Cup winner and twice since tried at the top level, while the same owner, Diana Whateley, also has four-time Grade One runner Garde La Victoire as an option.

In the Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase Martello Tower’s owner Barry Connell has an interesting contender in Tully East, a horse that has twice been tried at the top level over both hurdles and fences.

In the same race Dan Skelton’s Value At Risk and Its’afreebee both fit the criteria. Value At Risk was fifth in Martello Tower’s Albert Bartlett, while Its’afreebee was third in last year's Neptune behind Yorkhill.

Meanwhile, in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual, we could have two former Champion Chase heroes in the mix with Dodging Bullets and Sire De Grugy holding entries for the Festival closer.

Vaniteux, four-times tried at the top level, and that man O’Connell’s Velvet Maker, twice beaten by Douvan in Leopardstown Grade Ones, could also make the final line-up.

There’s a similar list of star names amongst the entries for the handicap hurdles. 

In the County Hurdle there’s last year’s Sky Bet Supreme fourth Tombstone, likely rerouted here from what would’ve been a supplementary Champion Hurdle entry due to a lenient mark of 149. Fellow Irish raiders Arctic Fire, a Grade One winner and second in a Champion Hurdle, and last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Ivanovich Gorbatov, are also possibles for the same race off marks of 158 and 150 respectively.

Nicky Henderson’s Peace And Co, the 2015 Triumph winner and still only six-years-old, is another fascinating contender off 144 in the same race.

Champion Bumper runner-up Modus has multiple entries in the County and the Coral Cup, while Bleu Et Rouge, last year’s Deloitte winner, Supasundae, a three-times Grade One runner, and Taquin Du Seuil, a dual Grade One winner, are also in the latter race.

I’m sure I’ve missed a few and sifting through them isn’t easy, but judging by the aforementioned horses last year’s tally of four Grade-One-horses-that-won-Festival-handicaps could be under threat.

2. Jonjo O’Neill’s handicappers

It has been a testing season for Jonjo O’Neill. A win strike-rate of 10 per cent for the current campaign is his lowest in 20 years and though there is time to improve things yet plenty will be riding on the Festival.

The good thing is, after a trying time he could have a team of well-treated handicappers to go to war with – and he might just be hitting form at the right time after a double at Huntingdon on Sunday.

The just-mentioned Taquin Du Seuil must be a real tempter in the Coral Cup. He’s most famous for his exploits over fences and he has won at the Festival in the JLT as well as at the track this season in the Bet Victor Gold Cup.

But his hurdles mark of 148 is 12lb lower than his fencing one and he shaped pretty nicely over the smaller obstacles when beaten just three lengths by Ballyoptic at Chepstow on his seasonal return.

Taquin Du Seuil is also in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, but I wonder if stablemate Go Conquer has been pencilled in for that race?

He’s number 65 on the list and will need plenty to come out, but his mark of 137 would’ve got him in comfortably last year and with many above him having multiple entries he could well sneak in towards the bottom.

He himself has an entry in the Ultima, but dropping back in trip could be the key to him. He’s finished second three times this season, including narrow defeats to Double Shuffle and Present Man, while he shaped like he didn’t get home over three miles in soft ground at Ascot last time.

More at home on better ground, I’d be particularly interested in this fellow if Jonjo reached for the first-time headgear.

And then there’s Holywell. Twice a winner at the Festival and second in the Ultima last year, he’s going for another crack at his second win in the race on the back of a series of uninspired efforts this campaign.

Those wins at the Festival came off marks of 140 over hurdles and 145 over fences, while he was rated 163 at his zenith and 153 when second last year.

This time he races off 148. You pay your money and take your choice…

3. Bryan Cooper’s Festival mounts

Gigginstown have put together an awesome Cheltenham Festival team again, despite not employing the services of Willie Mullins anymore.

And one person who will be getting positively Giggy at the thought of this assembly of horses is retained jockey Bryan Cooper, a man who has had to sit on the sidelines and watch Jack Kennedy boot home big winner after big winner while he recovered from a fractured pelvis.

But, as the slogan of his national beverage says, the best things come to those who wait.

Just look at this list of Cooper’s potential rides.

Petit Mouchoir, A Toi Phil, Apple’s Jade, All Hell Let Loose, Shattered Love, Alpha Des Obeaux, Tombstone, Dinaria Des Obeaux, Disko, Sutton Manor, Empire Of Dirt, Lord Scoundrel, Barra, Death Duty, Outlander, Tell Us More. Other Gigginstown horses, too, and the odd handicap spare.

What do you reckon amongst that lot. Three winners? Maybe four?

Ruby Walsh has a couple of bankers, but it won’t be anywhere near as easy for him to slot home six or seven winners this year.

Considering Cooper’s book of rides, I can’t help but feel the 12/1 about him becoming the first new name on the ‘Boodles Leading Jockey Award’ roll of honour in five years is a price worth getting on side.

4. Rich Ricci’s phoenix from the flames

With no Vautour, no Faugheen, no Annie Power and no Min, you would’ve forgiven Rich Ricci for booking an exotic holiday next week rather than four days in the Cotswolds.

But with the sudden emergence of Limini he has a real chance of winning the three most prestigious races at the meeting.

She’ll need supplementing in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, but if she is that’s a clear indication that Willie Mullins thinks she’s up to the task. Judging by her impressive dismissal of Apple’s Jade and a potentially crucial 7lb mares’ allowance, I’d find it difficult to take her on.

Then there’s the banker of the meeting, possibly via a Vroum Vroum Mag cruise in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Douvan has looked imperious over fences and there’s simply nothing capable of getting near him in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.  

Moving swiftly on we get to the third leg of Ricci’s big three and Djakadam, in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Twice second in the big one, he didn’t jump a fence between falling on trials day and the first obstacle in last year’s Gold Cup. Yet still he managed to battle to second behind a fabulous winner in Don Cossack.

With an uninterrupted preparation this time around, and his whole season centred around this race, he could be the one to finally strike Gold for Willie Mullins.

A Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and a Gold Cup for Ricci after all of those big-name absentees? It could be THE story of the week.

5. The dodgy bankers

No, not what you're thinking...

And certainly not Douvan, or Unowhatimeanharry for that matter. Or Altior, obviously. But these ones, beware these ones:

Neon Wolf In The Neptune

I’ve nothing against Neon Wolf, really, apart from his price. But 5/2 for the Neptune seems very short to me. 

He was impressive in a race that has been a good pointer to Festival success in recent seasons, but main rival Elgin wouldn’t have been suited by a Haydock slog and we’ve still no evidence that Neon Wolf will be as good on better ground.

And, even though he’ll be stepping up in trip in the Neptune, that race often favours speedier types that drop back to two in time and the Wolf looks like a future RSA Chase horse.

Considering the Irish challenge, the ground, Finian’s Oscar and solid yardsticks like Messire Des Obeaux, Neon Wolf is one red-hot favourite I’d be looking to take on.

Might Bite In The RSA

I realise that everybody at every preview evening up and down the land wants to take Might Bite on, but it’s with good reason.

He looks potentially top-class, there’s no doubt about that considering what he would’ve done in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton, but I have my doubts that he’s a Cheltenham horse.

He’s been well beaten on his last two visits to the course, all of his best efforts have come on flat tracks and that confidence booster at Doncaster failed to convince that his jumping is reliable enough for a Grade One event at the Festival.

Admittedly it’s not the greatest RSA we’ve even seen, but there’s enough in there against him to take him on at a very skinny-looking 11/4.

Yorkhill In The JLT

This horse is going to split opinions going into the JLT. In fact, my own opinion is split. Half of me can see him tearing off and doing a Vautour, winging every fence like a unicorn on his way to a head-in-chest seven-length success.

But the other half of me, I’ll call him the cautious half, says he’s quirky, he probably wants to go faster than two-and-a-half mile pace and his jumping hasn’t been good enough to warrant him being 7/4.

And it’s turning into a pretty hot JLT for my money. I like Disko. I like Politologue. And I like Top Notch. My gut feeling tells me Yorkhill would be in the Arkle were it not for Altior, too.

So, at the prices, I’d rather be a layer than a backer.

6. The sexy handicappers (three and you’re in)

Three runs in non-handicaps and then… bang! Handicap winner. That could be the plan with these three anyway…

Castello Sforza in the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe

Beaten three lengths by Ballyandy when fourth in last year’s Bumper, Willie Mullins’ Castello Sforza has run three good races in defeat over hurdles to attain a mark of 138. It’ll be touch and go whether JP McManus’ horse gets in the Coral Cup, but the Martin Pipe is a nice back-up and he’ll be of interest wherever he turns up. 

Brelade in the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe

I guess Castello Sforza could’ve slotted into the very first section at the top among the Grade-One-horses-running-in-handicaps list and so could Gordon Elliott’s Brelade. He won on his hurdling debut in a 30-runner maiden from Joey Sasa and has been placed in two Grade Ones since behind Mullins’ Saturnas and Bacardys. Elliott foresees improvement when he steps up in trip in handicaps and he’s also in the Martin Pipe and Coral Cup for owner Des Sharkey, whose colours were made famous by that enigmatic Festival legend Harchibald.

Starchitect in the Grand Annual

If there is an obvious one for the handicap chases it’s David Pipe’s Starchitect in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual. Rated 150 over hurdles, he’s been allotted a mark of 143 over fences after three qualifying runs that include a couple of defeats around Bangor and Plumpton and a last-time-out victory at Ayr. Matt Brocklebank’s Antepost Angle is all over him, and it’s easy to see why.

7. But wait until the day if you’re…

Backing Petit Mouchoir for the Champion Hurdle

With Limini set to be supplemented and punters looking back on last year’s Sky Bet Supreme form where Petit Mouchoir was a well-beaten eighth, I’d be surprised if Henry de Bromhead’s improver doesn’t drift in the run-up to the day one highlight.

Backing Cole Harden for the Stayers’ Hurdle

The 2015 World Hurdle winner is a live player for the rebranded race this time around following a return to form when second to Unowhatimeanharry in the Cleeve Hurdle last time. However, he got 8lb that day, and a reversal of that form is dependent on the ground. No rain… Cole Harden’s gain.

Backing Bristol De Mai for the Gold Cup

His Peter Marsh form was emphatically franked by Definitly Red on Saturday and his no-show at Newbury last time was excused by a knock to his near fore. Bristol De Mai could be the Gold Cup dark horse, but he’d only really come on the radar if there was enough rain Cheltenham week to have significant ‘Soft’ in the going description on the Friday.

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