This week's contributor to our weekly Cheltenham antepost column in the build-up to the Festival is Simon Holt - and he has a tip in the Ryanair Chase.
1pt win Saint Calvados in Ryanair Chase at 10/1 (General)
In the ante-post markets, Allaho is one of the shorter-priced favourites at the Cheltenham Festival in March when he will seek a second Ryanair Chase victory. 2/1 is available but most layers offer only 7/4.
At last year's meeting, this really imposing horse put up one of the most exciting performances of the week, making nearly all the running and dominating his rivals with a spectacular display of jumping.
Fakir D'Oudairies, who chased him home at a distance of 12 lengths, went onto win at Aintree to add further glitz to Allaho's star-studded display even if his task at the Grand National meeting was eased when Politologue, the only horse rated above him, ran poorly and returned bleeding from the nose.
Allaho returned in early December to win the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown but he was nowhere near as good, jumping sketchily at times, coming under pressure some way from home, and he may well have been beaten by Asterion Forlonge but for that accident-prone jumper blundering Brian Cooper away at the third last.
The latter has since run well again in the King George at Kempton where he was staying on in second behind stable-mate Tornado Flyer only to jump too high and topple over on landing at the final fence, one more non-completion in an error-strewn career.
So perhaps Allaho's possibly rusty effort at Punchestown can be regarded more favourably than appearances might otherwise have suggested, but that's the only evidence his backers will have before the Ryanair which will be his next race whereas, last year, trainer Willie Mullins ran him three times before the Festival.
Fakir D'Oudairies (fourth in the John Durkan) will probably be there to take him on again but, for me, the biggest danger will be SAINT CALVADOS who, if he hadn’t been forced to switch on the run-in, could have beaten Min (rated just 4lb below Allaho at the time) in a very strong 2020 Ryanair in which this year’s Gold Cup favourite A Plus Tard finished a length and a half back in third with Frodon, the 2019 winner, well beaten in fourth.
For a horse, who it can be said with some certainty, doesn't stay three miles, it is odd in hindsight that Saint Calvados has not run over two-and-a-half in three starts since; he was a weakening third to Frodon in last season's King George, looked beaten when unseating his rider in the Cotswold Chase (run at Sandown) in heavy ground in February and, on his first run since and first for Paul Nicholls, again failed to get home at Kempton on Boxing Day behind Tornado Flyer.
But his finishing position just over three weeks ago hardly tells the full story as he was travelling stronger than any other rival when committed too early by Gavin Sheehan. In front after a good jump four out in a well-run renewal, Saint Calvados was soon treading water in the home straight as his new stable-companion Clan Des Obeaux went on only to succumb himself to the strong staying winner and Asterion Forlonge going to the last.
Sheehan received plenty of flak for the ride and it remains to be seen if he is back on board the horse again. Harry Cobden has been riding Saint Calvados at home since.
I sympathise with Sheehan to a degree as, so well was Saint Calvados travelling, he was slightly left in front when the runners bunched off a slackening pace while there must be every chance, based on past evidence, that the horse would not have got home however he had played it.
Less disputable is the impression that, at the point he cruised into the lead at around the two-and-half-mile point, he looked like the best horse in the field and soon had all the others off the bridle.
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Clearly, it would be no surprise if the switch to the champion trainer Nicholls (with all due respect to his former handler Harry Whittington) has been beneficial and, while the official handicapper’s ratings suggest he has 12lb to find with Allaho, he has been dropped for running over the wrong trip when his two most competitive career performances over fences have come over two-and-a-half: a second under a big weight, again on Cheltenham's New Course, on January 1st, 2020 as well as his possibly unlucky defeat by Min.
Saint Calvados also holds an entry in the Gold Cup but he must surely go for the Ryanair. Nicholls told me: “He would probably get three miles on good ground but the Gold Cup is another matter. We’ll probably give him a run in February either at Warwick or in the Ascot Chase (over 2m5f).”
There were three leading bookmakers offering 12/1 about Saint Calvados to go one better this time, but with that gone the general 10/1 remains fair.
The evidence from Kempton is that he is sure to run a big race over a course and distance at which he has produced his best form and, if Allaho struggles to repeat what could have been a peak career performance last year, then this is the horse with all the credentials to take advantage.
Preview posted at 0840GMT on 13/01/2021
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