Cheltenham plays host to Trials Day on Saturday but which – if any – are the key races when looking for winners at the Festival in March?
During the past five years, no fewer than 16 Festival winners had contested a race on Trials Day.
Admittedly, that figure is enhanced somewhat by the additional races which were staged in 2017 (more of which shortly), but even ignoring those, 13 winners from the past five years shows that the meeting is living up to its name.
Year - Number of Festival winners
- 2019 - 3
- 2018 - 2
- 2017 - 5
- 2016 - 2
- 2015 - 4
Starting with last year, and the trio of subsequent Festival winners were all successful on Trials Day. Siruh du Lac won the 2m4½f Grade 3 Trophy Handicap Chase, beating Janika by a head, and repeated the trick at the Festival, when beating the same rival by three-quarters-of-a-length in the ‘Plate’ with Spiritofthegames back in third. He had finished filled the same spot in the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase on Trials Day.
The other pair were Frodon, who won the Cotswold Chase before landing the Ryanair Chase, and Paisley Park who became the fifth horse in the past 12 years to complete the Cleeve Hurdle/Stayers’ Hurdle double.
In addition to the three Cheltenham Festival winners, two Aintree winners were also in action on Trials Day last year, with Kildisart winning the aforementioned Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase, and Aux Ptits Soins finishing seventh in the Cleeve Hurdle. The former finished fourth in the JLT before reverting to handicap company at Aintree and winning the Betway Handicap Chase on Grand National day, whilst the latter headed straight to Aintree, where he was also successful on the final day of the meeting, in the Gaskells Handicap Hurdle.
Cheltenham Festival winners
- Siruh du Lac (Brown Advisory & Meriebelle Stable Plate) - 1st, Trophy Handicap Chase
- Frodon (Ryanair Chase) - 1st, Cotswold Chase
- Paisley Park (Stayers’ Hurdle) - 1st, Cleeve Hurdle
Two Festival winners were spotted in action on Trials Day 2018, with Mister Whitaker the only horse to win at both fixtures. He landed the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase, before following up in the Close Brothers, whilst Coo Star Sivola finished fourth in the Trophy Handicap Chase, before landing the Ultima.
There were actually more Aintree winners to come out of Trials Day two years ago, with the Classic Novices’ Hurdle proving to be a key piece of form in the spring. Santini beat Black Op by three-quarters-of-a-length and after both horses had placed at the Festival (the former finishing third in the Albert Bartlett and the latter runner-up to Samcro in the Ballymore), they were successful in the Sefton and Mersey Novices’ Hurdles, respectively. The other Grand National meeting winner was the ill-fated Finian’s Oscar, who was pulled-up in the Cleeve, before bouncing back to form in the Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree.
Cheltenham Festival winners
- Mister Whitaker (Close Brothers Nov H’cap Chase) - 1st, Timform Novices' Handicap Chase
- Coo Star Sivola (Ultima Handicap Chase) - 4th, Trophy Handicap Chase
Racegoers on Trials Day three years ago were treated to a bumper nine-race card and the two additional races actually chucked up a trio of festival winners. Firstly, the re-routed Clarence House Chase was won by Un de Sceaux, who followed up in the Ryanair, whilst fifth home Special Tiara relished the better ground a month-and-a-half later, when winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The second rescheduled race was the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase (which was lost earlier in the season, due to unsafe ground), in which subsequent festival winner Cause Of Causes finished fifth on what was his first try on the unique track.
As for the ‘genuine’ Festival winners to hail from Trials Day in 2017, Triumph winner Defi Du Seuil – who currently heads the betting for this year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase after Saturday’s impressive display at Ascot – was winning at the track for the third time, when landing the Finesse Juvenile Hurdle (now known as the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle) by 9 lengths. And, sixth in the Cleeve Hurdle, Un Temps Pour Tout would win the Ultima on his next outing, beating Singlefarmpayment, who was a faller in the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase.
No Aintree winners came out of the meeting that year.
Cheltenham Festival winners
- Defi du Seuil (Triumph Hurdle) - 1st, Finesse Juvenile Hurdle
- Un Temps Pour Tout (Ultima Handicap Chase) - 6th, Cleeve Hurdle
- Un de Sceaux (Ryanair Chase) - 1st, Clarence House Chase *
- Special Tiara (Queen Mother Champion Chase) - 5th, Clarence House Chase *
- Cause Of Causes (Cross-Country Chase) - 5th, Cross-Country Handicap Chase *
*races had been rescheduled and are not usually staged on Trials Day
Four years ago Thistlecrack justified favouritism in the Cleeve Hurdle, before going on to do the same in the Stayers’ Hurdle, and also in the Liverpool Stayers’ Hurdle at Aintree. He was the only winner on the card to follow up at the Festival (and also the sole Aintree winner in action on Trials Day), whilst Un Temps Pour Tout warmed up for the first of his back-to-back wins in the Ultima, by finishing fourth in the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase.
Cheltenham Festival winners
- Thistlecrack (Stayers’ Hurdle) - 1st, Cleeve Hurdle
- Un Temps Pour Tout (Ultima Handicap Chase) - 4th, Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase
Ignoring the ‘imposters’ who won in 2017, 2015 was the best year (during the past five) in terms of horses going on to win at the Festival, having run on Trials Day. Four Festival winners were in action at Cheltenham on Saturday January 24 2015, with Peace And Co the only winner. He landed the Finesse Juvenile Hurdle, before leading home a Nicky Henderson-trained 1-2-3 in the Triumph itself.
The Cleeve Hurdle was, again, a key race that year, with both Cole Harden (4th) and The Druids Nephew (5th) finishing out of the frame, behind Saphir Du Rheu. The former would reverse form with the winner in the Stayers’, whilst Saphir Du Rheu then reverted to fences to win the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree. The Druids Nephew won the Ultima on his next start and he was the first of four successive winners of that race to have been in action on Trials Day.
Irish Cavalier was the other Festival winner who ran on the card that year, with Rebecca Curtis’ Close Brothers winner finishing third in the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase. That race is clearly a good guide and Rajdhani Express finished seventh in the 2013 renewal, before winning the Close Brothers.
There was one more Aintree winner in action that year, with Thistlecrack – who won the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle on his first start at 3m – finishing only seventh in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle. His stablemate and subsequent Gold Cup winner Native River also contested that race, falling when holding every chance two out.
Cheltenham Festival winners
- Peace And Co (Triumph Hurdle) - 1st, Finesse Juvenile Hurdle
- Irish Cavalier (Close Brothers Nov H’cap Chase) - 3rd, Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase
- Cole Harden (Stayers’ Hurdle) - 4th, Cleeve Hurdle
- The Druids Nephew (Stayers’ Hurdle) - 5th, Cleeve Hurdle
As you can see from the results above, the Cleeve Hurdle has been the most informative trial in the past five years, throwing up five subsequent Cheltenham Festival winners, and a quartet of Aintree winners, too. Going back a little further, four more Stayers’ Hurdle winners used the Cleeve as a prep between 2007 and 2012 and, overall, seven of the past 12 Stayers’ Hurdle winners ran in the Cleeve Hurdle.
Only three Triumph Hurdle winners since 2007 contested the Finesse Juvenile Hurdle, but all three were successful. Other than the pairing detailed above, Katchit won both races 13 years ago, so if you are looking at this race as a guide towards the Festival (which we all should), it is probably worth focusing on the winner.
Finally, the Classic Novices’ Hurdle produced five Festival winners between 2007 and 2013. In two of those years, two horses emerged to win at the Festival, starting with Wichita Lineman (won Albert Bartlett) who had Massini’s Maguire (won Ballymore) back in third. Similarly, At Fishers Cross (also won Albert Bartlett) beating The New One (also won Ballymore) in the 2013 renewal. Subsequent RSA and Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth won both the Classic and the Albert Bartlett nine years ago.
KEY RUNNERS THIS WEEKEND
IMPERIAL AURA - Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase
Following his defeat over 3m1½f at the December meeting, this race immediately sprung to mind as a likely next port of call for Imperial Aura and despite the fact that there are plenty of potentially smart opponents among the 24 entries, he has to be shortlist material off a mark of 136.
Third in the Silver Trophy on his reappearance, he won a non-event at Fakenham on chasing debut (sent off at 1-25), so was lacking in experience when going down by 8 lengths to Pym last time. He travelled really well for a long way, suggesting the drop in trip should suit, and he can be ridden more aggressively over this intermediate trip. The Close Brothers and the Plate – a race that Kim Bailey won with Darna in 2015 – are possible festival targets, although his mark will need to go up, if he is to get into the former. It is worth noting that Imperial Aura was declared to run at Huntingdon recently, when he was a heavily-backed favourite, before the meeting was abandoned.
Of the potential opposition, Champagne Court has improved considerably since going chasing and would warrant respect, while Gordon Elliott has – rather surprisingly – entered three horses, including Samcro and Dallas des Pictons. Perhaps it is merely a case of testing the water and seeing how the English handicapper assesses each of them, although either of the Gigginstown-owned horses would be a fascinating contender if travelling over.
PAISLEY PARK - Galliadhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle
A rather obvious name to include, Paisley Park is, however, much the most likely festival winner (according to the ante-post markets) to be on show on Saturday and, therefore, has to come under the spotlight. If the likes of Apple’s Jade, If The Cap Fits (who has yet to race at Cheltenham, incidentally) and Summerville Boy take him on and are beaten, Emma Lavelle’s stable-star could be very short indeed for the Stayers’ Hurdle by 3:45pm on Saturday afternoon.
SANTINI - Paddy Power Cotswold Chase
Saturday will be a big day for many a festival contender, but perhaps none more so than Santini, who is expected to put his Gold Cup claims on the line in the Cotswold Chase. Runner-up in the RSA last season, we have seen Nicky Henderson’s giant eight-year-old just once this season, when he scrambled home in unconvincing fashion at Sandown. Being a huge horse, he might well have needed that and could step forward considerably, fitness wise. He will need to, but even when putting Jumpers To Follow together during the summer, I thought this could be the ideal race for him this season, with the soft ground on the stiff New course likely to prove ideal. A winner on this card in 2018 (Classic Novices’ Hurdle), he will need to go very close if he is to enhance his Gold Cup claims, although going forward, it should be noted that no Gold Cup winner since 2000 contested the Cotswold Chase, when Looks Like Trouble completed the double.
Again, of the potential opposition, the Gordon Elliott/Gigginstown House Stud entrant Delta Work is intriguing. Less than a couple of lengths behind Santini in the RSA, he has since won two Grade 1s and would arrive here on the back of a career-best in the Savills Chase.
SPORTING JOHN - Classic Novices’ Hurdle
In truth, the one horse who I was most looking forward to seeing on Saturday was The Big Breakaway in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle, but rather surprisingly, he hasn’t been given an entry. The one who now most interests me among the 15 possible runners is the Philip Hobbs-trained Sporting John, who is unbeaten in three runs; an Irish Point-to-Point and a brace of Exeter novice hurdles.
The five-year-old impressed me with the way he won at Borris House, after which he cost JP McManus £160,000 (at last year’s festival sale), and he has done little wrong in two starts under Rules to date. A snug winner from Harry Senior (won at Chepstow since and could re-oppose here) and several other subsequent winners, he followed up in comfortable fashion under his penalty. Third home, Le Cameleon (beaten 16½ lengths) advertised that form by winning at Chepstow recently, and although a lot more will be required here, I remain convinced that the son of Getaway has plenty more to offer. Already rated 146, the step up in distance looks sure to bring about further improvement and he will be bidding to provide his owner with a sixth win in the race since 2007, following on from Wichita Lineman, Aigle d’Or, At Fishers Cross, Yanworth and Birchdale.
Paul Ferguson is the author of the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, which is published in association with Sporting Life. The Guide, which also includes Aintree for a second successive year, is due to be published on Friday February 21 and can be pre-ordered now https://bettrendsshop.co.uk/weatherbys-cheltenham-festival-betting-guide-2020/
As well as all the key stats/trends, there is plenty of additional editorial content, including Paul’s Spring Horses To Follow and a look at the leading contenders for the major Grade 1 contests. Guest authors include Rory Delargy and Donn McLean, and our very own Ben Linfoot and Matt Brocklebank also add weight to an in-depth publication. This will be the 21st year of the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide.