View from connections ahead of the fourth day of the Cheltenham Festival 2019

Clan Des Obeaux wins at Ascot
Clan Des Obeaux wins at Ascot

Check out what the connections are saying about their leading fancies for the fourth day of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival on Friday.

1330 - JCB Triumph Hurdle

Joseph O'Brien believes Sir Erec has a "favourite's chance" as he targets his first 'official' JCB Triumph Hurdle - three years after supervising the success of Ivanovich Gorbatov in the same race.

His father Aidan's name went into the record books as trainer of the 2016 winner, but O'Brien junior was given credit for the preparation - and now has a major fancy in his own right in the four-year-old championship at Cheltenham on Friday.

O'Brien, who scored his maiden Festival victory with Band Of Outlaws on Wednesday, inherited Sir Erec from his father after the Camelot colt's decent Flat career - which included finishing third to Stradivarius in the Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup at Ascot in October.

He has transferred his smart form to jumps, with highly-promising wins in both his starts.

After beating 27 rivals on his debut in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, Sir Erec returned to the Dublin track to lift the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle by an easy six lengths in February.

A slight injury scare last week failed to dampen enthusiasm for the short-priced ante-post favourite.

"Obviously he has taken to hurdling well," said O'Brien.

"He ran a nice race first time and improved a good bit to his second run. He'll have to improve again, but we're hopeful he's capable of doing so.

"Maybe the (Triumph) field might not be as big as it used to be, but all the good ones will still be there. It's going to be a competitive race - and by far his biggest test so far - and he'll probably have to run a career-best to win it.

"We're very realistic in that sense, but we'd like to think he has a favourite's chance.

"He was visually very impressive the last day, and I've never hidden the regard we hold him in. He's very exciting.

"He's won his last two races on good ground and won a Listed race on heavy ground on the Flat, so he seems pretty ground-versatile."

Tiger Tap Tap was only a neck behind Sir Erec in that Leopardstown maiden hurdle, and he carries plenty of confidence from the Willie Mullins stable.

"I think Tiger Tap Tap has a huge chance. His form with Sir Erec at Christmas is his true form," said Mullins' son and assistant Patrick.

"Sir Erec dominated from the front in a slowly-run race on fast ground the last day, which suited him as an ex-Flat horse.

"We hope in a fast-run race Tiger Tap Tap will be able to get close to him again."

Mullins feels the yard's other two runners, Runrized and French Made, have plenty to find on form.

"The other two need to step up," he said.

John McConnell is hoping conditions dry out to allow him to run Hannon.

"We're still 50-50 about running. We're hoping it's going to dry some," said the County Meath handler.

"He's never gone on ground as soft as it is there now. If good to soft comes back into it by Friday, which is a possibility, then we will probably have a go.

"It's competitive, and the favourite will be hard to beat, but we hope we have an each-way chance.

"He's in great form. We'd like to run, but we're not going to empty him on soft ground."

Leading the British bid is the Paul Nicholls-trained Quel Destin, who has been a revelation in his juvenile campaign.

The French-bred gelding has won the last five of his six starts in Britain, including the Grade One Coral Finale Juvenile Hurdle.

"He just got beat first time out at Chepstow for us," said Nicholls.

"He was a bit green that day and inexperienced in regards to hurdling and British racing. He won a Grade One at Chepstow over Christmas. He has won a couple of Grade Twos, one at Cheltenham.

"He came back at Haydock the other day and won the Victor Ludorum. I was surprised how well he won, because he was big and well and I thought he need the run.

"He is a proper tough four-year-old - what you want in the Triumph. He can make the running if they go no gallop. He can be nice and handy."

Connections in the winners' enclosure with Band Of Outlaws
Connections in the winners' enclosure with Band Of Outlaws

1450 - Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle

Rebecca Curtis is optimistic that Lisnagar Oscar can provide her with a second victory in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

It is six years since At Fishers Cross delighted favourite-backers with a facile success in this three-mile contest - and Lisnagar Oscar appears to hold similarly strong claims on Friday.

Bought for £105,000 after winning an Irish point-to-point, the six-year-old has won his last two starts over hurdles and was particularly impressive on his latest outing in a Grade Two at Haydock.

Curtis said: "He seems in great form at home, so we're quite hopeful about his chances.

"He seems to go on any ground, and we're very happy with him going into the race.

"I suppose he's similar to At Fishers Cross in that he can travel through a race and quicken up, but this horse is a very good jumper.

"I think he deserves his place after his last performance."

Birchdale puts his unbeaten record on the line for Nicky Henderson.

Having won his only start in the Irish point-to-point sphere, the JP McManus-owned five-year-old made a successful debut under rules at Warwick in December, before stepping up in class in a Ballymore Novices' Hurdle trial at Cheltenham in January.

With the same connections electing to run Champ in the Ballymore itself, Birchdale instead steps up to three miles on the final day of the Festival.

Recent Chepstow winner Dickie Diver is a second runner for McManus and Henderson, who said: "I think Birchdale is the better out of the two. Dickie Diver has done nothing wrong, but Birchdale is a very high-class horse.

"He is a bit naive still, and I'm sure over three miles it will give him chance to find his feet. I'm sure he will stay, but he is not slow either.

"Dickie is very solid. It wants to be soft ground for Dickie Diver, but Birchdale won't mind it. I do like Birchdale a lot."

Willie Mullins runs recent Clonmel Grade Three winner Allaho, as well as Dorrells Pierji and Salsaretta.

Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said of the former: "He is a very exciting horse and a big chaser in the making.

"He's in great form, and I think the ground and the trip will suit him well.

"He probably lacks a bit of experience - but coming from France he'll have done plenty as a young horse, so I don't think it's a major worry."

Gordon Elliott's pair Commander Of Fleet and Dinons also feature in a 20-strong field.

Elliott said: "Commander Of The Fleet is a nice big horse, but he is a raw horse for the future.

"He is in good form, and I definitely think it is the right time to be trying him over three miles because as he is a big chaser in the making.

"Dinons is a nice horse and he has won around here before, so he has got experience of the track. He was cantering last time and nearly got brought down three out, and that's why he ended up nearly finishing last."

Derrinross is another interesting Irish contender for the father-son combination of Philip and Luke Dempsey.

The eight-year-old is two from two since returning from almost a year on the sidelines, and is proven over three miles on testing ground.

"He travelled over well, he's been ridden out and he's fine," said the trainer.

"He'll handle the ground, drying conditions. The rain might keep it loose."

Ben Pauling has already been among the winners this week after Le Breuil landed Tuesday's National Hunt Chase, and the Bourton-on-the-Water handler has high hopes for River Don winner Nadaitak.

He said: "He's in very good form. If he handles the track he could run a big race. He's got the right sort of profile.

"He's in good order going into it. It's a tough race. He's up to running well, I believe.

"He's done nothing wrong. We're happy with him and we're looking forward to it."

1530 - Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup

Owner Philip Reynolds admits he is feeling the nerves before Presenting Percy's bid for Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.

Already a dual Festival winner, the Pat Kelly-trained eight-year-old has been towards the head of the market for the blue riband ever since sealing his second victory in the Cotswolds with a scintillating display in the RSA Chase last March.

His preparation for the most prestigious race in National Hunt racing has been far from conventional, however - with his successful defence of the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in January his only competitive start since last year's Festival.

Presenting Percy nonetheless carries the hopes of a nation on Friday afternoon - something that is not lost on his owner.

Reynolds said: "I don't understand the whole 'people's horse' thing, but he's a horse that goes out and gives you everything he's got. He puts it on the line every day he goes out, and I think people admire that.

"Pat is pleased with him, and it would of course be very special to win a Gold Cup on a number of levels.

"He's been favourite for the Gold Cup since he won the RSA last year, and it's very hard to put it out of your mind - particularly when you're on the run-up to a race as well.

"It's easier when he's in Pat's and I know he's being looked after and couldn't be in better hands. But when we're in the parade ring before a race, it's terrifying, to be honest.

"I expect it will be much the same."

Presenting Percy on his way to victory in the Galmoy Hurdle
Presenting Percy on his way to victory in the Galmoy Hurdle

With conditions having turned in his favour, hopes are high that Native River can become the first horse to win back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup since three-time winner Best Mate (2002-2004).

Since his epic victory over Might Bite 12 months ago, Colin Tizzard's bold-jumping chestnut has finished second in the Betfair Chase at Haydock and third in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.

Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: "This race has been the plan all season - it is the first time he is going to get his perfect conditions, and he comes here in great nick.

"People keep telling me it is difficult for horses to win back-to-back Gold Cups, but there is nothing showing us at home to suggest this horse is any worse than last year - and he is going to get his conditions.

"Every Gold Cup is competitive, and Might Bite was certainly no pushover last year. I think this race is wide open, as far as Gold Cups go."

Native River leads a three-strong Tizzard team, with Welsh Grand National winner Elegant Escape and the veteran Thistlecrack also in the mix.

Tizzard added: "I know Thistlecrack is 11, and he is not getting any younger, but he has not got loads of miles on the clock and on his day he is a fair horse.

"It is great to get him there after missing the race the last two seasons. He deserves to run in the Gold Cup.

"Elegant Escape is improving and is a young horse going in the right direction. He is entitled to run as well.

"If he can hold his position at the top of the hill then we know he won't stop, because he will keep galloping all the way to the line."

Paul Nicholls relies on Clan Des Obeaux as he bids to claim a joint-record fifth Gold Cup success.

It is 10 years since the Ditcheat maestro last claimed the most prestigious prize in National Hunt racing with Kauto Star, but he has strong claims of adding to his tally with this season's King George and Ascot Chase hero.

Nicholls said: "He is one of the favourites for the Gold Cup and he has had a great season this year. He ran very well in the Betfair Chase, and we knew he would improve enormously that day to Kempton.

"He won the King George very well and then he won well at Ascot well in the Denman Chase. Touch wood, everything has gone to plan since.

"From the day he won his first three-year-old hurdle, we knew he was going to be a proper chaser. Last year we couldn't train him the way we wanted him because he had babyish issues, which held us up all the time.

"Now we are where we want to be - and of all the horses in the Gold Cup, he is probably the improving youngster.

"Is he good enough to win a Gold Cup? Who knows. He is probably the best I've ever had him, but he will need to be."

Having saddled the runner-up on six occasions, Willie Mullins has a strong hand of four runners as he bids to finally break his Gold Cup hoodoo.

Ruby Walsh is on board Irish Gold Cup winner Bellshill, with David Mullins keeping the ride on Savills Chase victor Kemboy.

Mullins said: "We have four runners - and depending on what happens on the day, any one could win.

"Bellshill put in a huge performance, I thought, the last day - and he's improving. Cheltenham hasn't been his luckiest place. Maybe this is the year that he's going to change that.

"Kemboy is improving too. We didn't run him in the Irish Gold Cup. Maybe we should have done, but I felt he'd done enough at Christmas and we'd just get him ready for this race.

"It's a funny year. Lots of form has been turned upside down - and it's quite an open Gold Cup, I think. He goes there with a good chance."

That pair are joined by stablemates Al Boum Photo (Paul Townend) and Invitation Only (Patrick Mullins).

Mullins junior said: "I don't think the ground will inconvenience any of ours. I suppose Kemboy might prefer better ground, but it will be fresh ground in the Gold Cup.

"I don't think there's a lot between our top three. Bellshill hasn't shown his best form at Cheltenham, but might be better running on the New Course for the first time.

"Kemboy and Al Boum Photo are two improving, young horses and have travelled over well.

"Hopefully one of them can finally deliver the Gold Cup for Closutton."

Last year's runner-up Might Bite has looked a shadow of his former self so far this season, but trainer Nicky Henderson is optimistic he can bounce back following a wind operation.

He said: "We are happy, and the last bit has been great. We've done a few things with him.

"The King George was a disaster, as was the Betfair Chase, but to me that bears little relation to the Gold Cup.

"We think we are in better shape than we were- he is as good as we can get him we think. Soft ground is an issue."


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