Lydia Hislop: Road to Cheltenham focusing on the chasers including Clan Des Obeaux and Presenting Percy

Paul Nicholls stands with big Gold Cup hope Clan Des Obeaux
Paul Nicholls stands with big Gold Cup hope Clan Des Obeaux

Welcome back onto the Road To Cheltenham after a brief pitstop to refuel. There’s action from a good three weeks to digest here, so now it’s hard down on the pedal until the Festival itself.

This edition contains an update on the current state of play among the chasing fraternity. The hurdling latest follows midweek.

Typically for this time of year, a handful of significant players have sadly fallen by the wayside for various reasons. However, there are still several elements that have and will combine to make the landscape for this year’s meeting rather different.

Although equine influenza did not disrupt British racing for as long as many at one stage feared, it has caused significant upheaval for those yards directly affected and upset the vaccination regimes of many major trainers whose horses will be running at Cheltenham from Tuesday week.

The outbreak also continues to divide the industry – remarkable, I know – on whether the British Horseracing Authority overreacted in its response, largely split along the lines of unconflicted scientists and the usual lead vocalists. Tune in next month when racing debates climate change.

Talking of which, the weather has continued to be as atypically warm and dry as it was wet last season, forcing Cheltenham’s clerk of the course Simon Claisse already to have begun a selective watering policy. Since 2006, his team has committed to providing ground slower than good for the opening day of the Festival but the recent forecast rain might have largely done the job for them.

Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup

Colin Tizzard and Paul Nicholls took differing views on the rescheduling of the Betfair Denman Chase due to equine flu, with the former opting to keep titleholder Native River fresh for Cheltenham and the latter preferring still to run Clan Des Obeaux seven days later than programmed.

Of course, owner Paul Barber would have been keen to support the race that celebrates his 2008 Gold Cup and dual Hennessy hero by running the latest chasing star in whom he holds an interest. As Nicholls hasn’t been champion trainer for two seasons now, I doubt he argued a counter case. Every little counts.

Clan Des Obeaux had a relatively straightforward task but he completed it emphatically, jumping fluently in the main and being produced to lead by jockey Harry Cobden at the last. Terrefort, his only credible rival, had made the running but was already under pressure entering the straight and weakened once headed, rendering immaterial any temptation the winner might have had to idle on hitting the front.


The best coverage of the Cheltenham Festival with Sporting Life
Follow the best coverage of the Cheltenham Festival with Sporting Life


While positioned on Terrefort’s outside, Clan Des Obeaux did jump right. This trait could be seen most clearly from fences five to seven during which Cobden repeatedly had to switch left to reclaim the wider course he’d been steering prior to take-off.

Following his mount’s most marked adjustment at that seventh obstacle, Cobden changed the plan and switched to the inside rail. At this most right-favouring of right-handed tracks, that suited the winner ideally and from that point on his jumping was silky and the race in his total control.

He’s now joint or second favourite for the Magners Gold Cup, which shines a brighter spotlight on such flaws as whether Clan Des Obeaux is at his best racing right-handed and whether he is best suited by a flat track. Cheltenham caters for neither predilection.

You’ll recall that Nicholls argued prior to running him so successfully in the King George that the horse would build on his Betfair Chase fourth for racing right-handed – an assertion that was not at the time supported by the formbook. That Clan Des Obeaux’s two greatly improved performances both took place on right-handed racecourses could equally be explained by a relatively young horse hitting athletic maturity.

His best form last season took place at left-handed tracks and his Cheltenham effort – a fortunate second in the 2017 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup, about which you can argue he was a raw horse hitting the front too soon – was only a couple of pounds shy of that, even if all of his performances were then much of a muchness, in truth.

The flat-track argument – and hands up, this element is a reassessment on my part as a result of watching races again with a refreshed post-holiday mind – is perhaps only slightly more credible. His standout effort of the 2016/17 season actually took place at Cheltenham and Team Ditcheat now know how he must be ridden to extract his best.

Clan Des Obeaux has the measure of Terrefort at Ascot
Clan Des Obeaux has the measure of Terrefort at Ascot

Interestingly, he’s a third-season chaser trying the Gold Cup for the first time – just as Don Cossack, Synchronised and Imperial Commander were when triumphing in 2016, 2012 and 2010 respectively. I can readily believe the argument that he has just come of age.

It’s undeniable he can adjust right at his fences and therefore would be at a disadvantage with any rival who can match his level of form at Cheltenham on Friday week. But which is capable of pushing him to that limit? (And who’s to say what he’s done so far is his limit? Nicholls would hardly have had him primed to the max at Ascot.)

Only Bristol De Mai has comparable form this season – his now-annual standout Betfair Chase triumph – and his ability to reproduce that at Cheltenham is greatly more questionable. Native River’s win in this race last year is at least as good but he hasn’t been operating quite at that level this term, albeit with credible excuses. The outright or joint favourite, Presenting Percy, must improve to match this level of form – which isn’t to say he won’t.

I’ve never been inclined to dismiss the Gold Cup chance of Clan Des Obeaux but I must admit I’ve further examined some too-easy prejudices about his claims in the past few days and found them wanting. It will be interesting to take the temperature of the Preview Season yak and learn whether he’s likely to drift on the day. I think he might.

Terrefort’s sketchy Gold Cup ambitions were erased here, defeated by 11 lengths in receipt of 3lbs from the winner. He had zero response when challenged, having been allowed to bowl along from the fifth flight because restraining him in the lead early on had only resulted in stuttering jumps. He doesn’t appear to be in the tenor of form to make much impact on the Ryanair either.

It made sense for Tizzard to duck Ascot with Native River, whose form does indeed back up the view that he is less effective when racing right-handed. He is perfectly capable when fresh so, unless the eyeballs-out exertions of last year’s Gold Cup and a less sparing campaign since have left a lingering mark, he should run his race. His attacking style of running is the fulcrum on which the whole race pivots.

Bristol De Mai’s absence from the Rendlesham Hurdle was less expected, even if trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies had earlier in the season toyed with the idea of giving him a good break before Cheltenham. Nobody actually believed him and he had appeared to be performing to type when identifying that February stepping-stone.

But in the end the horse was a no-show, causing me to wonder whether there had been an issue. Yet at a recent Cheltenham press conference, the trainer asserted Bristol De Mai “hasn’t had a single problem this term”. I suppose it depends on how one defines ‘problem’ but I’d have said bruising after falling for the first time in a career would qualify. I wish I could forget as quickly as Twiston-Davies. He’s clearly not a Scorpio.

“He’s always been a quite a fragile horse,” Twiston-Davies reiterated, of the grey who has always raced between five and eight times every preceding season. This year he’s raced twice. There’s too much shadow falling between the idea and the reality for me here – shades of The Hollow Men at The Hollow Bottom.

Other absentees have been less miraculous, for all that Presenting Percy’s truancies from the Red Mills and Bobbyjo Chases were somehow greeted with surprise. Trainer Pat Kelly is surely taking a perverse delight in the idiosyncrasy of his preparations for the Gold Cup and the anticipation his horse’s faux reappearances have generated, while all the time owner Philip Reynolds fondly imagined for the media actually seeing his horse race.

Unless the old semaphore flags were in use, Kelly can clearly open his mouth when he wants something because his local racecourse was prepared to reverse its fences, transforming Galway from its usual right-handed layout into a left-handed one for the benefit of Presenting Percy schooling there last Saturday

"The whole crew at Galway did a great job in getting the fences out and, as everyone has seen, they put them going left-handed for us,” said Reynolds. “They also put them going down the dip rather than going up it, so bar going over to Prestbury Park and jumping a few in anger, we couldn't have done much more.

"But that's the Tribesmen [Galway natives] for you. When the chips are down, they pull together. Win, lose or draw we'll be down in Galway after the Gold Cup."

Michael Moloney, Galway’s racecourse manager added: "It's great for Galway to have a horse heading for the Gold Cup and the whole County is behind them all to make the best of it.

"It's nice to be able to provide a little bit of help along that journey. Hopefully, come Friday week, everybody will be celebrating in the west of Ireland."

I’m sure the residents of County Galway couldn’t give a stuff that their talisman has only appeared in public once this term – and that over hurdles, meaning he’ll attempt to become the first horse since Easter Hero in 1929 to win the Gold Cup without racing over fences that season. But viewed as part of a wider trend, the sport’s complacency is less comfortable.

Britain is no less myopic. Jockey Club Racecourses permitted gallops behind closed doors for Trainers Of A Certain Status last week, even if Kempton didn’t go as far as re-siting its fences for Nicky Henderson. Newbury also hosted private schooling for him on Sunday.

At least the plan was for Tom George to gallop God’s Own and Kayley Woollacott Lalor at the end of a day's racing at Exeter – neither horse having raced since December – meaning those members of the public who knew about it could stick around to watch, even if the details of the exercise remained opaque to them. But in the end, Lalor ended up working the following morning due to Richard Johnson's commitments at Catterick the previous day.

Of course, some of these horses had been forced to miss intended outings due to the BHA’s new vaccination rules requiring runners to have had the jab within the preceding six months. The lack of rain this season has also been challenging for many yards, but excuses only stretch so far.

The truth is: a racecourse gallop or schooling session instead of taking part in a race is more and more a service that some trainers, over Jumps and on the Flat, have come to expect – and it’s reaching absurd proportions.

Yet a sport that increasingly conducts in relative secret, at premises which the public directly helped to fund, dealings that were once out in the open – you know, in actual races – and where only the privileged few can either watch, understand and derive benefit is, like Presenting Percy at Galway, going in the wrong direction.

Race fans and the betting public hugely contribute to the purse of contests like the Magners Gold Cup via betting, attending race meetings and watching the race on TV in sufficient numbers for, say, a major drinks company to seek to sponsor it. It’s not sustainable for its participants to hide or be silent in return. That’s not a fair deal. Yet some of the same executives who permit these cloistered practices preach about bringing racing to a wider audience. Humbug.

As far as what it means for Presenting Percy’s chances on Friday week to pitch up without having raced over fences in public, I suspect it amounts to little. He was a fluid jumper of a fence across five chase starts last season, including when winning the 14-runner Porterstown Handicap Chase. That won’t be what beats him, in my opinion, if indeed anything does.

Might Bite both galloped at Kempton – reportedly completing a lap of the track with Top Notch and the Ballymore-bound novice-hurdler Champ – and schooled at Newbury. Henderson’s plan was for him to “jump the five [fences] down the back [straight] first time but if he does that well he probably won’t do it a second time” yet in the end he reportedly jumped all ten.

You’d have to be in the circle of trust – or lurking in the undergrowth as in a Dick Francis novel (it’s come to this) – to be completely certain what actually happened, of course.

Reports on last year’s Gold Cup runner-up have turned notably upbeat of late, with Henderson reporting at his media open day – another nonsense concept but if I digress on everything that irritates me, I’ll set a new world record for Road length – that he has been “thrilled” with the horse’s work of late. Such words are noteworthy from the accurate barometer of Sprinter Sacre’s resurgent health and Binocular’s visit to Lourdes, Co. Tipperary.

While Henderson only again mentioned soft-palate cauterisation, it’s notable that when pressed he was reportedly moved to assert Might Bite’s problems were “definitely not mental”. Previously he had said he didn’t know what the issue was and had only opted to again fiddle with the horse’s breathing for want of any other solution. That suggests to me they’ve found the problem and resolved it.

Granted, he did also quibble about even-more-tiring ground from after the last fence in last year’s Gold Cup (yak, in my view) and how the flu outbreak has caused him to risk repeating what might have been “a mistake last year by not running him after the King George”.

This might detract from the underlying vibes I’m detecting but, at his best, Might Bite is an unfettered talent – if ridden that way – and the ground shouldn’t be anywhere near as testing this year. I still reckon he was being slightly outpointed at all times by Native River in the 2018 edition, however, even if there have been – and will be next week – worse 14/1 shots.

In the absence of Presenting Percy at Gowran Park, Monalee gave weight and a two-length beating in the Red Mills Chase to last year’s (relatively distant) Gold Cup third Anibale Fly – who was again unsuited by a test of speed and as such ran creditably but won’t have conditions to suit at Cheltenham this year. Killultagh Vic guessed round in fourth.

Although winning trainer Henry de Bromhead said afterwards that “whether it will be the Gold Cup or the Ryanair is a decision we’ll make much nearer the time” and hinges on how quick the ground turns out to be, the fact Monalee is best-priced at 5/1 for the Ryanair and 25/1 for the Gold Cup on NRNB terms rather speaks for him. So, this horse is as usual discussed in the next section.

Monalee won a thrilling Flogas Novice Chase
Monalee won a thrilling Flogas Novice Chase last season

Having previously said he wanted to bring a fresher Definitly Red to the Gold Cup party this year, trainer Brian Ellison u-turned and ran him at Kelso last month… where was beaten at 1/6 in a match. Jockey Danny Cook surely did set too slow a pace, as he himself reflected, but this was not a convincing case for improving on their sixth place in 2018.

By contrast, Double Shuffle – who was withdrawn on the day from last year’s Gold Cup with a self-certificate, having “not eaten up” – delivered his best performance since finishing a flattered second to Might Bite in the 2017 King George, filling the same position from a mark of 154 in a handicap chase over the same course and distance last month. He’s still not good enough for this, mind.

Gordon Elliott has reconfirmed this column’s each-way selection Shattered Love is on course for the Gold Cup but admitted she’s “no Don Cossack”. Yet with her 7lb mare’s allowance, she won’t need to match of his 2016 winner to have a shout. She hasn’t raced since well held in a falsely run edition of the Savills Chase in December but freshness is an asset for this race.

“She disappointed at Leopardstown last time and came home with sore shins,” Elliott revealed. “When you look at her, you can see how it would happen as she’s very big. We took a chance and didn’t get away with it but we gave her time to come right after that and she’s back going well.”

At his media open day, Willie Mullins indicated he could be triple-handed in the Gold Cup with Bellshill, Kemboy and Al Boum Photo. Jockey Ruby Walsh has since said deciding which of that trio he’ll ride will be “a hard decision”.

The trainer believes both Bellshill and Kemboy would be suited by a sound surface, suggesting the former is “now becoming the horse we thought he would be” and the latter is better “the further he goes”. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Al Boum Photo yet,” he added, with continuing neutrality.

But he warned that Invitation Only “will have to step up a bit on his form to get involved in a Gold Cup” and, in a reversal of hitherto stated plans, might head to the Ryanair instead.

Having been disappointed by Killultagh Vic at Gowran, Mullins might resort to seeking his owners’ approval to supplement him for the Stayers’ Hurdle whereas Rathvinden – last year’s NH Chase winner and a nrecent Grade Three winner at Fairyhouse (behind whom Outlander again under-performed) – could go straight to the Randox Health Grand National at Aintree.

Mullins withdrew his three other Gold Cup entrants – Acapella Bourgeois, Total Recall and Yorkhill – at the forfeit stage last month when by far the most significant defector was 2017 hero Sizing John, whom trainer Jessica Harrington said had sadly suffered another setback.

Minella Rocco, who finished second to him in 2017 and retains a Gold Cup entry, failed even to qualify for the Pertemps Final when switched to hurdles on his latest start, and Black Corton was beaten at Kelso last Saturday.

But the last word here goes to gallant 2015 Gold Cup winner Coneygree – the first novice to win the prize for 41 years – who retired last month after pulling up at Ascot. “Wear and tear and injuries have just got the better of him now, so we’ll call it a day,” conceded an emotional Sara Bradstock. Plagued by injury all his career, at his best he burned very brightly.

Ryanair Chase

The new best horse in training this season – according, among others, to British Horseracing Authority handicapper Michael Harris – won’t be lining up at Cheltenham. Cyrname, who destroyed a high-class field in the Grade One Ascot Chase last month, would have to be supplemented at a cost of £17,500 on 8 March in order to contest the Ryanair. It really does appear that won’t happen.

After beating Waiting Patiently by 17 lengths – plus fellow Ryanair candidates Fox Norton, Politologue, Charbel and Aso by an ever-increasing scale – his official rating was revised to 178 – 3lbs above that of Altior, the eight times Grade One winner who’s unbeaten over obstacles. Cyrname earned every pound of that.

Harry Cobden claimed pole position from the outset on Cyrname, who outjumped all of his rivals at the first fence and gained ground at most obstacles thereafter. Charbel and Aso, both of whom like to race positively, were soon disheartened. Forced to chase the strong pace prior to attempting to assail the leader on the final circuit, the latter was the first beaten and the former faded from before the home turn.

Those rivals most conservatively ridden were stirred to chase the leader after the third last. Politlogue, who’d raced in mid-division on the outside, lacked his usual zest and after being hard pressed entering the straight could make no impact.

Fox Norton, who’d looked uncomfortable with the pace in the early stages, had come back on the bridle from six out and moved threateningly into contention. But his challenge stopped with worrying abruptness approaching the second last and – just as he had in the 2017 King George, he started to jump left.

Waiting Patiently lasted longest but, once cajoled into within touching distance of Cyrname’s tail two out, he was again outjumped and that finally broke him. He hung right and gave up.

Meanwhile, Cobden allowed Cyrname to extend and the pair absolutely flew the last. This was emphatic. Both visually or if you crunch the numbers, this was an absolutely huge performance and I’d agree that it appears to be better than anything Altior has thus far achieved this season.

Immediately afterwards, Cobden pinpointed the Punchestown Gold Cup and Nicholls the Ryanair. The latter had always maintained Cyrname must go right-handed until, after the horse’s previous wide-margin handicap success at Ascot, conceding that winning this Grade One “well” could prompt a rethink. Intriguingly, the horse even adjusted slightly left at Ascot.

Yet the trainer has since reflected again and resumed Plan A, as reiterated by owners Johnny and Samantha De La Hey: primarily the 2019 King George, with lofty left-handed targets distantly on the horizon.

“He definitely won’t be running at Cheltenham or Aintree this season but we will go left-handed in future,” Nicholls stated. “For now, we will stick to going right-handed and he will either go to Sandown or Punchestown – ground permitting. Next season he will be trained for the King George and the Gold Cup.”

Any prize money won at Sandown – but not at Punchestown – would count towards this season’s trainers’ championship, of course, and that domestic target floats the tantalising prospect of Altior versus Cyrname, albeit Henderson might have other fish to fry with his stable star post-Cheltenham this season.

Defeat was an unambiguous blow to Waiting Patiently’s Ryanair prospects, brushed aside contemptuously in the race in which he’d recorded his career-best performance 12 months earlier. The Festival presents issues previously cited as negatives or doubts by trainer Ruth Jefferson – an undulating track, a relatively quick reappearance and a likely continuing lack of soft ground.

He may be better waiting – a forte – for Aintree but time is marching on. It may be the moment to reflect that a horse with this many prescripts is unlikely to dine often at the top table, so it may be wise to adjust next season’s menu accordingly. I don’t buy the excuse that he might have been rusty after being brought down in the King George – at best, that might account for the odd length.

There was a brief flash of light from Fox Norton here but he didn’t build much – if, indeed, at all – on his return, behind Altior at Ascot in January, from a long absence. However, it might be valid to suggest he’s smidgen better going left-handed and that it’s a long road back from injury. Yet the concern is he might never fully recover his peak form because he did check out worryingly quickly.

Charbel was again exposed as not good enough for Grade One company along with Aso, who also seemed one-dimensional in his need to lead. Nicholls has advised owner John Hales, whom he admitted was “disappointed” in Politologue’s effort here, to wait for Aintree. “I said to John: let everyone get involved at Cheltenham and keep him fresh for Aintree,” he reported.

Have I mentioned that Nicholls hasn’t won the trainers’ championship for the past two seasons? So, it’s not surprising he’s trying to deploy his resources for optimum spread and, in my view, he’s right to direct a flat-earther like Politologue away from an undulating track like Cheltenham.

Similar considerations have surely also influenced Nicholls’ recent backtracking on Frodon’s likeliest Festival destination.

Bryony Frost celebrates her win on Frodon
Bryony Frost celebrates her win on Frodon

“I’ve said all along, I will decide when I’ve looked at the races, see what the ground is,” Nicholls asserted in response to a suggestion from ITV Racing’s Matt Chapman that he’s “running scared” from the Gold Cup.

“If the Ryanair cuts up and I think we can win it, that’s where we’ll run him. If that race is very, very hot and the Gold Cup cut up a little bit and we thought he could run well, we could go with that,” Nicholls added.

If you read those words again, which implausibly entertain the notion that the Ryanair might be the hotter race, the revisionist tepidity of his interest in the Gold Cup becomes quite stark. Compare and contrast with what he said immediately after Frodon won at Cheltenham last time out: “Frodon loves the track and he's already rated 169, which would have put him second in last year's Gold Cup, and in a year that I think is quite open I'm dead keen to go.” The prosecution rests.

Yet – again – I agree with the (presumed) reasoning behind Nicholls’ latest dissidence with his own pronouncements. Clan Des Obeaux’s polished Ascot success augmented his Gold Cup credentials for the yard and Bryony Frost could ride Frodon in the Ryanair with the instinctive alacrity that has characterised their best performances.

She’d have to be more circumspect – as she was in the Cotswold Chase – in the Gold Cup. Yet Native River would have little time for such prudence in the latter contest; in the Ryanair, it would be Frodon inconveniencing his rivals rather than the other way around.

His presence would be the worst news for Monalee, who jumps and performs at his best when able to boss his field. While tracing prominently has proven a great tactic for winning the Ryanair, he wouldn’t have much peace upsides Frodon, who’d be more likely to force one of Monalee’s infrequent but critical lapses of concentration. Another good reason for Nicholls to fly Ryanair.

However, this race remains the right choice for Monalee because his optimum run style is not in my view supported by the bottomless stamina required to mix it with Native River and pals. The depleted Grade Two Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park last month worked out ideally, however. In the absence of Presenting Percy, he was able to dominate over 2m4f against two thorough stayers and a dodgy jumper.

Even if trainer Henry de Bromhead refrained from dismissing the Gold Cup from his Festival calculations, Monalee’s much shorter odds in the Ryanair scream that’s where he’ll go.

Talking of this ante-post market, since last I wrote there’s been a positive move for the more recent of this column’s two NRNB ante-post bets, Footpad. This is interesting because he’s now much more closely aligned with the longstanding shorter odds of stablemate Min, whom the market assumed would instead race here rather than face a third defeat against Altior.

Footpad missed the Red Mills Chase – his second neglected engagement since suffering another over-reach in the course of his Leopardstown defeat by Simply Ned over Christmas. At his media open day, Mullins issued a cautiously upbeat report on his progress.

“Footpad schooled very well lately and he looks more like the old Footpad from last year, so hopefully that is a good sign that he is starting to find his form,” he said. “I want to get a few more gallops into him. It would be no problem pedigree-wise to step him up in trip… I am hoping Footpad can rediscover his form from last year. We have been lucky with horses finding their form coming into Cheltenham and I will try my best to get him right.”

Stretching the bounds of possibility, Mullins added: “Particularly as regards Min and Footpad, I am going to wait a bit longer [than usual?!] before deciding their targets.” Given trainers are not yet permitted to substitute their horses mid-race – although the BHA’s new Board constitution may mean this is only a matter of time – we must assume this means 10am on 11 March when one or other of them will be declared for the Champion Chase. Mullins does know he’s no longer permitted to doubly declare… doesn’t he? Of course, he does. Doesn’t he?

In truth, the race would set up perfectly for either of them to be played late but given Footpad was outpaced by Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados in last year’s Arkle before finishing strongly and Min was outstayed by a rallying Politologue at Aintree the following month, I know which way I’d jump. You may be aware of this?

Mullins is as good as decided about his 2017 Ryanair winner. “Un De Sceaux probably needs heavy ground even more so as he gets older, but the enthusiasm he has is still there and he is in particularly good form at the moment - probably in the best shape I've seen him in the last couple of weeks. He just seems to be coming right at the right time,” he said.

"The Ryanair is probably the target for him, but who knows if the ground did turn heavy, then we might go elsewhere.”

The chances of shouting “House!” in Willie Mullins Bingo with Al Boum Photo receded markedly when he failed to line up in either the Irish Gold Cup or the Red Mills Chase. He now seems fated to an unsuitably long trip on Friday week.

Yet it seems stable companion Invitation Only might be making the reverse manoeuvre, his trainer fretting that he lacks the class for the Gold Cup. I think he lacks the pace for the Ryanair, however, and whichever race he contests, he’s clearly not considered premiership material.

In other Irish news for the Ryanair, Gordon Elliott says it’s “the plan at the minute” for The Storyteller, whom he justly said was unsuited by the tactical nature of the Irish Gold Cup last time out.

Even though sauntering late onto the scene in a strongly paced Ryanair would indeed suit, I’m not sure how much he enjoys being put under pressure so he might always be best against inferior horses in a handicap.

Trainer Eddie Harty has reported he’s very happy with Coney Island, who’s on target for this race and his first trip to Cheltenham. Yet there’s been little to signify he’s up to this class – an Ascot graduation chase offers muted place chances if this race cuts up.

Noel Meade has reported that Snow Falcon again misses the Festival – the most significant of the ten unremarkable Ryanair withdrawals at last month’s forfeit stage – but six-year-old stablemate Tout Est Permis heads for the Ryanair, despite shaping more like a medium-term Gold Cup prospect.

Top Notch missed a clash with Cyrname in the Ascot Chase due to not having been vaccinated recently enough to meet the BHA’s new standard. Had he raced, he would surely have been thumped and now be heading for the Stayers’ Hurdle. Instead, having galloped him at Kempton last Tuesday with Might Bite and Champ, trainer Nicky Henderson has since confirmed the Ryanair is the plan.

Yet, following his comprehensive defeat by Clan Des Obeaux in the rescheduled Denman Chase, the Festival target for stable companion Terrefort remains “undecided”. He hasn’t yet looked in good enough shape for either target this season, in my view.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

There was little tangible evidence from this division during the past three weeks, with the Game Spirit abandoned due to the equine flu outbreak and not rescheduled. That meant the most significant event was the return of Sceau Royal over hurdles in the Grade Two Kingwell.

Sent off the 11/10 favourite, he travelled well but got in too close to the penultimate flight when chasing the pressing-on winner Grand Sancy. He was critically outpaced as a result and unable to make up the deficit. Nonetheless, this was appreciably below the consistent hurdling form he used to deliver despite racing on ground he likes. Even though he’s better as a chaser, I was underwhelmed.

Trainer Alan King was satisfied, however. “It was a bit of an afterthought as he was originally heading straight to Cheltenham but he ran a very good race,” he said in his Weekender column. “Most importantly, that should put an edge on him for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.”

But to my mind, King saved his most significant words for last: “We’re looking forward to stepping him up to 2m4f in the Melling Chase at Aintree.” Perhaps he thinks Sceau Royal is more likely to improve for an increased trip than is Altior? I wish him luck with that project.

Nicky Henderson’s differing campaign for the titleholder this season, missing the Game Spirit for the earlier Clarence House Chase, proved fortunate as things panned out – albeit they might have turned out differently had Altior’s name appeared among the entries for the Newbury race? Instead, he had a private spin around Kempton – “a good gallop over two miles” according to his trainer – and finished comfortably ahead of inferior stablemates Theinval and the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Plate-bound River Wylde.

Having been fourth, fifth and third in this race for the past three years, not to mention second to Un De Sceaux in the 2015 Arkle, God’s Own also prepared for Cheltenham via a racecourse gallop at Exeter.

His latest Haldon Gold Cup success last November, pairing his 2014 triumph in the same race, wasn’t far off his best form and as usual he’s being talked about as an each-way prospect in the betting-without-Altior market, this time at the age off 11. There is potential for this race to cut up quite significantly, of course.

As mentioned in the Ryanair section, it will be a late late show for either Min or Footpad in this race. “We will see how they are in the next couple of weeks and the state of field sizes and ground before making a final decision,” trainer Willie Mullins said. “There are a lot of different things we will take into consideration working out who runs where.

“Altior is the one to beat in the Champion Chase, but we will have at least one or two runners in the race – you can't be afraid of one horse and you need to take them on. Min has done things well this year and he ran well behind Altior in the Champion Chase last year. I've been very pleased with Min this season.”

The vibes have recently suggested that Min will run here and Footpad in the Ryanair but you’d never say never with Willie Mullins Bingo. Unlucky for some.

Simply Ned, who defeated Footpad at Leopardstown last December and was set to face Min in the Dublin Chase last month, is hopefully on course for the Champion Chase according to David Robinson, who with his wife Nicky owns the intrepid 12-year-old chaser at Nicky Richards’ yard.

“He was bouncing in his box and banged his knee on the door. It was touch and go whether to race him. Nicky decided not. There was a little bit of fluid there, no damage – and fingers crossed he’ll be there next week,” Robinson explained to Hayley Moore on Sky Sports Racing.

Robinson was speaking after Chidswell had won Doncaster’s Grimthorpe Chase on Saturday and just seven days after the devastation of losing Baywing in the Eider. A great number of us will be rooting for Simply Ned to do the Robinsons proud at Cheltenham.

Finally, the most significant scratching at last month’s forfeit stage was Petit Mouchoir, who was also removed from the Ryanair. He stood his ground in both the Champion and Stayers Hurdles and so will be discussed in those sections in the next edition of the Road.

Novice chasers

The Racing Post Arkle market now looks nothing like it did three weeks ago. Two of its most significant players, favourite Le Richebourg and three-times graded winner Dynamite Dollars are both out for the season. In between these announcements, Willie Mullins reported that Cilaos Emery had pulled a muscle when schooling at Navan and was in danger of missing Cheltenham.

Sunday’s sudden across-the-board shortening of stablemate and recent emphatic Gowran winner Duc De Genievres into a best-priced 5/1 NRNB fourth favourite, while Cilaos Emery languishes at 33/1 on Betfair’s Exchange, suggests the Cistercian Order may well have tacitly “drawn stumps” on their hitherto more fancied representative.

The likeable grey’s wide-margin demolition of Tower Bridge (entered in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase) and stablemate C’est Jersey compared well, sectionally speaking, with Monalee’s performance on the same card.

Indeed, it was something of a revelation: he drew clear from the initial fence in this beginners’ chase and won unchallenged. Perhaps making the running for the first time in his career brought about this improvement?

Whatever, Timeform rates the likeable grey highest of the likely remaining Arkle contenders on a weight-adjusted 170p. That makes him the equal of Grade One Scilly Isles winner Defi Du Seuil, for whom Philip Hobbs still favours the JLT despite speculation that owner JP McManus might switch him to Tuesday week’s race to deputise for Le Richebourg.

Yet I can’t help but feel Duc De Genievres will need quite a bit of rain if he’s not going to be taken off his feet, with the likes of Knocknanuss, Ornua and Us And Them potentially in the line-up. There are 13 fences to jump over a perpetually turning deceptively sharp two miles in the Arkle; it is a pure speed test. That’s a worry for me.

It’s surely of even greater concern for Kalashnikov, whose trainer Amy Murphy is persisting with the Arkle despite last year’s Supreme runner-up again being taken along at a stride faster than was comfortable when second to Glen Forsa in the rescheduled Kingmaker Chase. Beaten 19 lengths as the 1/4 favourite on the soft ground he favours, he made a catalogue of scruffy mistakes.

Immediately afterwards, Murphy spoke of the need to check him over and, all being well, to consider the JLT. But more recently she reported no underlying problem had emerged, that Kalashnikov “didn’t even blow after Sandown” and that she’d therefore reached the rather tepid conclusion that “for whatever reason on that day, he just wasn’t at the races”.

“We will probably never get an answer,” she added, on attheraces.com. “We will carry on what we've been doing. He is in fabulous form. Literally, we can hardly sit on him at home he is so fresh. We are not changing tack…

“If you go back to the past 18 months – in his Betfair Hurdle, Supreme Novices' Hurdle run and his two novice-chase [wins] – he certainly doesn't lack for speed. He is pretty versatile but I think slower ground would play in our favour, if there is rain.”

Regardless of Kalashnikov’s diminishing fortunes, Glen Forsa was an impressive winner of this Grade Two event, transferred to Sandown after Warwick’s meeting was abandoned due to equine flu. Under a positive ride from Jonathan Burke, he jumped fluently and was never troubled by either of his rivals, Dell Oro having lost touch as early as the third fence.

Prior to this new career-best, the plan had been to reprise connections’ Close Brother Novices’ Handicap Chase success of last year with Mister Whitaker but there was clearly no intention of merely settling for that handicap target at Sandown. Glen Forsa was ridden to find out whether he was good enough to contest a Festival Grade One and the answer was a resounding yes.

It is worth noting his best efforts to date have come at right-handed tracks but at this stage that can also be interpreted as coinciding with the horse’s natural progress. Given the Arkle pace angles mentioned above, it’s a positive that his penultimate handicap success at Kempton (which has worked out extremely well) demonstrated he doesn’t need to lead.

He’s now second or third favourite in NRNB markets behind Defi Du Seuil and favourite Lalor, the latter of whom will rock up at Cheltenham with just two chase starts under his belt – and the latest of them not since beaten by Dynamite Dollars and Ornua in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase last December at Sandown.

He galloped at Exeter eight days ago...

...and schooled at Hobbs’ yard five days later, trainer Kayley Woollacott reporting jockey Richard Johnson and other attendees to have been “all smiles” afterwards. Scant chasing experience has been no obstacle to winning the Arkle in the past and we can expect Johnson to seek to deliver Lalor when the leaders might be starting to tire two out.

Interestingly, that penultimate obstacle has again been re-sited by the Cheltenham management in an attempt to further reduce faller numbers. This decision was not part of the suite of measures imposed or reiterated by the BHA’s safety review, published last December following the deaths of seven horses at last year’s Festival, but part of the track’s own ongoing risk-monitoring processes.

This fence was once situated just before the home turn on the Old Course – used during Cheltenham’s October and November meetings as well as on the first two days of each Festival. But the obstacle was then found to claim too many horses who jumped the fence well only to knuckle on landing, so it was moved into the home straight from 2010.

Although Cheltenham officials maintained that positioning had made “a significant difference” to faller rates, it has continued to generate moments of drama. In recent years, it claimed Charbel and Vaniteux in the Arkle; it was also the fence at which Ruby Walsh broke his leg in a fall from Al Boum Photo in last year’s RSA Chase. Three horses fell there in the opening race of Cheltenham’s November meeting – including Jameson, who sustained a fatal injury.

“Listening to what the jockeys had to say, there was just a sense that, if they had a little bit more room after they straightened up, that may just give them a little bit more time to get balanced as they come off the turn,” said Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s clerk of the course.

Claisse said Johnson, the reigning champion jockey, was “particularly keen” on the change. So, the fence has been moved ten yards up the hill, closer to the winning post and further from the bend. This should give horses another two strides before they meet it. Of course, it’s closer to the final fence but Claisse is content that the gap between the two will be sufficient.

One knock-on effect will be slightly less room for the start of the RSA Chase, because its participants line up at exactly that point, but Claisse asserted this race does not usually attract a large number of runners. It will be interesting to see how this amendment works and the first horses to test-drive it in race conditions will be those who contest the 2019 Arkle.

It’s seemingly not beyond the realms of possibility that one such horse would be current Close Brothers favourite Clondaw Castle, who made all by a wide margin despite jumping left in a Huntingdon handicap from a mark of 134. He might be supplemented for the Arkle according to preview-night yak but his revised rating of 144 would leave him plenty to find in an (admittedly depleted) Grade One contest.

Other potential contestants include the hot-headed Diakali, who was withdrawn at the start of his intended outing at Fontwell last month for not-atypical unruly behaviour, and Capeland, who returned from a wind operation to record a marginal career-best second in a Chepstow handicap from a mark of 143. He might even have won but for crucially fluffing the last.

Yet even though his stable companion Dynamite Dollars is out of the race, Capeland would surely fare better in the Grand Annual or Close Brothers. Nicholls also has other possibilities for the latter event in Amour De Nuit and Secret Investor, both of whom were below their best last time.

The latter was fourth behind Bags Groove in the Grade Two Pendil Chase but, while the winner holds no Cheltenham entries and waits for Aintree, trainer Charlie Longsdon is inclined to send bold-jumping runner-up Castafiore for the JLT so that she can fully benefit from her mare’s 7lb allowance. That’s a shame because she looks well treated for the Close Brothers.

Back in third, Good Man Pat produced his best effort yet in qualifying for that handicap albeit – like Secret Investor – he was never quite jumping with the fluency of the two principals. His unchanged mark of 139 should be good enough to make the cut according to the best estimate of the BHA’s handicappers, who reckon the cut-off point for this race might be 137. I think it will be higher.

That means it’s touch and go whether stablemate – and recent Ludlow novice winner at 1/10 – Azzerti has done enough to make the grade; he’s on exactly that number. He’s also in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Plate and Ultima, for which the BHA handicappers are also projecting bottom weights of 137.

Fellow recent winner Militarian will definitely get a run, if trainer Andrew Martin wants, and last Saturday’s Newbury victor Huntsman Son, also. Potential Irish raiders Poker Party and Impact Factor, first and a pressing-on-too-much fifth for the same owner in a recent Naas handicap, are both rated 138 and need quite a few higher-rated rivals to drop out.

On 139 after his Naas handicap success, Roaring Bull should make the cut for either the Close Brothers or the Plate but would make most appeal for the latter. His jockey would need to guard against getting too far behind early because he was slow over the first two fences but he finished very strongly. Trainer Gordon Elliott regards him as “a bit of a monkey” but with “ability”.

After catching my eye in Grade One company behind the Elliott-trained Hardline at Limerick over Christmas, Riders Onthe Storm got off the mark over fences at Punchestown last month. Jockey Bryan Cooper sent him on some way out, before the home turn, probably to ensure he wasn’t out-speeded over the minimum trip. His advantage was being cut down at the line by Impact Factor but this was an improved performance.

He only needs a handful to drop out in order to make the Close Brothers line-up and is likely to improve for a step up in trip. As a bonus, his trainer Tom Taaffe won this race with Finger Onthe Pulse in 2008. My only concern is, a bit like the Any Second Now trap I fell into last year, I fear he’s a wise-guy horse. Finding myself thinking the same as other people unnerves me, in betting terms.

Returning to Hardline, Elliott is considering dropping him back in trip for the Arkle because he rightly thinks he’d thrive off the likely hard pace – just as he did when beating Us And Them by ten lengths in early December.

“He landed on top of a fence going away from the stands [behind La Bague Au Roi last time out in the Flogas] and was very slow at the next. Jack [Kennedy] just hunted him around after that and he made a lot of headway between the last two fences before running out of steam,” Elliott argued in his attheraces.com stable tour.

But stablemate Mengli Khan, who’s underwhelmed over fences so far, may be heading in the opposite direction trip-wise: to the JLT, in the hope that the less frenetic pace will help with his jumping. “I am thinking about stepping him up in trip,” Elliott said. “I’ve been disappointed with him. He hasn’t been having a cut at his fences and ex-Flat horses can sometimes be like that.”

If lining up there on Thursday week, he’d encounter the Mullins-trained Real Steel, who still looked a shade gawky at his fences and would need to negotiate the quick initial obstacle with rather more alacrity than he did the first at Thurles last time. But he stayed on strongly and might be better not having to make his own running. Owner Jared Sullivan already has Duc De Genievres for the Arkle.

Mare and stablemate Pravalaguna – who won the Listed Opera Hat Mares’ Chase well within herself at Naas last month, jumping well bar for five out – has options in the Arkle, JLT and Close Brothers. The latter two options would seem by far the most likely according to the betting. This was her best performance yet.

Meanwhile, at his stable tour Colin Tizzard reflected with some regret on not having entered Lostintranslation for the RSA Chase as well as the JLT. “Whatever we do this year, we can have him as a Gold Cup horse next year,” he commented, having also earlier in the season bestowed the honour of mentioning him in the same sentence as Cue Card, Thistlecrack and Native River.

“He has got more stamina than speed. Barry Geraghty sat behind us [on Defi Du Seuil in the Grade One Scilly Isles Chase] at Sandown and just did us for speed from the last. That won’t happen at Cheltenham, where… the pace will be twice as much, so hopefully the stamina will kick in more… I would have thought we would step him up to three [miles] at Aintree after.”

Certainly, there’s a good argument that Lostintranslation was not best served in a small field and on soft ground, having to make his own running. The score is 1-1 between him and Defi Du Seuil, so just as the betting has it, there may not be much between if each can be ridden optimally.

Tizzard has last month’s Grade Two Reynoldstown winner Mister Malarkey for the RSA Chase, having reviewed his initial leanings towards the NH Chase. Back at Ascot last month, he thought the horse “might be one gear short of keeping up” in the Grade One race and “would need [the ground] the heavier the better to slow them down”.

Yet he more recently said: “Robbie Power [his jockey] thought he was flat out at Ascot the other day but the times were fast. I thought it was good ground at Ascot and hopefully it won’t be good at Cheltenham. He has jumped very well, is a thorough stayer and the owners would be leaning towards the RSA…

“People say the four-miler is an easy race but I don’t think it is as there will be some good horses running in it who will make damn good three-mile chasers next year.”

If anyone still thinks the NH Chase is a soft option, they need to get with the programme because it’s evolved into a high-class affair since becoming a level-weights contest nine years ago. Native River, the reigning Gold Cup winner whom Tizzard trains, finished second to subsequent Gold Cup runner-up Minella Rocco three years ago, to provide the prime example.

Mister Malarkey did indeed look to be operating at the limit of his revs for much of the race, Top Ville Ben having set off at a determinedly fierce pace in the race to which he was re-routed after the Grade Two Towton fell to cold weather and his back-up target at Doncaster to equine flu.

This front-runner would have been much happier at either of those tracks; instead, Ascot did its thing of exposing an overwhelming need to race left-handed. It was the second time Top Ville Ben had flopped there but this time rider Sean Quinlan also contributed by setting an overly strong pace on his overly willing accomplice.

It therefore benefitted Mister Malarkey that he was unable even to consider living with them. Having been niggled along six out, he started to steadily close and jumped into the lead at the second last. Soon after hitting the front, he idled markedly and was worth more than the one-and-a-half-length margin at the line.

It also ultimately aided eventual runner-up Now McGinty to drop off the pace after trying to mix it with the leader at the start of the second circuit. Although flattered by his proximity to the decelerating winner, he shaped like a thorough stayer. Trainer Stuart Edmunds has in the past doubted whether he’s “an amateur’s ride”, however, so perhaps he’s more likely to pitch up in the Ultima than the NH Chase.

Eventual third Yalltari probably laid down his challenge too soon into that fierce pace when taking closer order from five out and can be marked up for a less-than-five-length defeat, especially given his tired blunder at the last.

So, while the Reynoldstown didn’t compare well on the day to Cyrname’s scintillating performance nor Clan Des Obeaux’s comprehensive success and despite the fact it was depleted by the absence of RSA ante-post favourite Santini due to not being up to date with his vaccinations, this was not form utterly without substance.

Yet Mister Malarkey’s breeding would have you tending towards the NH Chase, as a nephew of top staying mare Dubacilla who was second in the 1995 Gold Cup and fourth in the following month’s Grand National on her final career start. In short, I suspect Tizzard’s first instinct will prove the correct one but can understand why he’s changed his mind.

Top Ville Ben would be better suited by Cheltenham, if trainer Phil Kirby is still inclined to give the RSA a whirl, and he would provide a strong pace angle in a race that these days is not always guaranteed to be attritionally run.

However, there are plenty of other candidates to force or press the speed including Mister Malarkey’s stable companion Drinks Interval, whom Tizzard is toying with running on the basis of her mare’s allowance (but whose lofty rating looks a shade anachronistic), and previous Cheltenham winner Drovers Lane, whom trainer Rebecca Curtis has said is more likely to run here than in the JLT.

It is an unalloyed negative for Santini fans that he missed the Reynoldstown as a battle-hardened campaign and recent match practice tends to play well in the RSA Chase. Don Poli managed to win it in 2015 after just two career starts, like Santini, but such a profile is very much an exception rather than the rule. Santini is also known to be a stuffy horse.

Therefore, even though we couldn’t see for ourselves how things went down during his private schooling session at Newbury on Sunday, from trainer Nicky Henderson’s perspective it was imperative to get the next-best thing to a race into him. On rain-softened ground with stablemates Might Bite and fellow RSA candidate On The Blind Side, Santini jumped ten fences – the back-straight five twice – and then cantered up the straight.

“He’s in good shape,” Henderson reported afterwards. “He is a big horse. He does take quite a lot of work, so we’ve had to press a little bit and today was a big step forward. He won’t need to do an awful lot more now.”

Henderson at one stage ruled out On The Blind Side from Cheltenham via his Unibet blog but had changed his mind by the time of his media open day, albeit he was then seeking to give him a third outing over fences until equine flu intervened. This horse is, in substance, even less seasoned than Santini because his chase debut was utterly unconstructive.

“It was my mistake – two and a half miles round Cheltenham,” Henderson admitted. “I keep saying I won’t run horses at Cheltenham first time over fences [but] I thought: he’s good, it won’t worry him. Well, it did worry him.

“When he went to Kempton [next time out], he took a little bit of warming up. He was a bit the same just over the first couple of fences [when schooling at Newbury] today, but the second time he was really good.”

In his own words, then, it’s hardly the most compelling case. Yet admittedly this column’s selection, Topofthegame, is scarcely more experienced than either of Henderson’s runners, having raced just three times over fences and yet to win – finishing second twice this season and falling on his abortive debut last term.

It makes you wonder whether trainer Paul Nicholls dodged his stated Reynoldstown target with this seven-year-old with the intention of shutting up shop should he get beaten in the RSA and thereby retaining his novice status for next season. Certainly, unlike Santini, his absence was planned rather than forced upon him.

Up to three otherwise key players are set to duck the RSA: OK Corral (whom amateur-rider-by-name-only Derek O’Connor schooled at Henderson’s yard last week), La Bague Au Roi (whom trainer Warren Greatrex is sensibly keeping back for Aintree) and Vinndication (who disappointed Kim Bailey in a weekend workout.)

OK Corral also galloped at Kempton last week with Imperial Cup-bound Call Me Lord and the mare Apple’s Shakira. I’m sure he’s a talented horse but the pace he’s shown this season and last makes me doubt whether the NH Chase will be up his alley.

Chris’s Dream, who recently downed Champagne Classic in the Grade Two Ten Up Chase at Navan is also far from certain to contest either the JLT or the RSA Chase because trainer Henry de Bromhead is favouring waiting for Aintree. “The change to patient tactics really seemed to suit him and his jumping was brilliant,” he said of this latest career-best win.

The horse certainly settled happily in rear on the outside for Rachael Blackmore, who enabled him to fling himself at the final two fences to repel the Gigginstown favourite. But reining him back in the early stages when he winged his fences seemed rather a waste of some good leaps.

His trainer was considering the three-mile Mildmay novices’ chase at the Grand National meeting; on this evidence – and admittedly in a volte face of my previous notions about the horse – I’d be more inclined to try the 2m4f Manifesto and ride him positively.

Elliott is leaning towards the NH Chase with Champagne Classic, who was inching closer at Navan but always too late, after jumping less fluently than Chris’s Dream. “Jack [Kennedy, jockey] felt the ground was just tight enough for him and he didn’t jump as well off it. Thankfully, he has come out of it well and softer ground at Cheltenham would be a help to him,” Elliott said.

I’ve read in a few places that sixth-placed Blow By Blow’s abject chasing campaign was somehow a cunning plan to get last term’s Martin Pipe winner fiendishly well handicapped for the Kim Muir. The BHA handicapper might concur, given he’s thumbed his nose at the notion with a rating of 146 – 1lb above the cut-off point. If that’s the case, they are all – Elliott included – far too clever for me because I think Blow By Blow simply hates jumping right now.

Although Crucial Role holds an RSA entry, after his wide-margin Uttoxeter success last week, the Ultima is surely the way to go. Having been scratched from his most suitable target at last month’s forfeit stage – the NH Chase – The World’s End also holds the same two options but he’s not good enough for the RSA and would struggle to dominate the handicap.

Four miles on quick ground might not be a sufficient stamina test for Chef Des Obeaux judged on how he got outpaced in the back straight over 3m2f against Jammin Masters, rated 12lbs his inferior, at Chepstow. He eventually worked his way back on terms and ultimately won by a wide margin, despite having been notably easy to back in first-time cheekpieces.

“Chef Des Obeaux is not the quickest in the world and would prefer the ground to be softer,” said rider Aidan Coleman. “But he has handled it well enough as once I got him rolling, he did his job well and galloped all the way to the line.”

Dandy Dan clocked up a three-timer at Ayr last week, producing improved form following a four-month absence but he didn’t jump that fluently. Jockey David Bass described him as quirky – “he tends to run in snatches and look around a lot” – and suggested he would be an unlikely participant in the NH Chase.

But Atlanta Blaze could well take part after her emphatic success in a three-runner mares’ Listed event at Wincanton earlier in the month. She’s highly experienced over fences and her 7lb allowance suggests she’s probably underestimated at 33/1.

Discorama was prevented from contesting the Close Brothers by the BHA handicapper when rated 3lbs above the 145 threshhold but trainer Paul Nolan was edging towards the NH Chase anyway.

Impulsive Star was withdrawn from last month’s Grand National Trial at Haydock due to unsuitable ground but that probably spared him an attritional test that could have bottomed him for the four-miler.

Finally, a quick round-up of running plans. Paloma Blue could switch from the Arkle to the JLT. “If the ground was on the soft side, it would be an easy enough decision to go for the Arkle but on better ground there is definitely a big discussion to be had,” said de Bromhead. That quick first fence permitting, a stride slower pace might aid his jumping, too.

Stablemate Ornua definitely contests the Arkle. “After he finished second to Dynamite Dollars at Sandown in December, we decided to put him away and train him for the Arkle. His form has been working out well since then. We were a bit worried about the [soft] ground at Sandown and I think a sounder surface will suit him.”

Henderson has indicated that Lough Derg Spirit will represent him in the Close Brothers – where he will meet Colin Tizzard’s The Russian Doyen – and Whatswrongwithyou, who recently beat Amour De Nuit in a three-runner affair at Fontwell, in the Grand Annual.


Selections:

Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos e/w 40/1 [SkyBet/Bet365] Gold Cup

Recommended 29/11/18: Summerville Boy e/w 12/1 [various] Champion Hurdle – likely non-runner: injured

Recommended 20/12/18: Shattered Love e/w 25/1 [various] Magners Gold Cup

Recommended 20/12/18: Topofthegame e/w 16/1 [Ladbrokes/Coral/Hills] RSA Chase

Recommended 17/01/19: Min e/w 12/1 [Betfair Sportsbook] or 10/1 [various] Champion Chase

Recommended 01/02/19: Al Boum Photo e/w 12/1 NRNB BOG [Bet365/SkyBet] Ryanair

Recommended 06/02/19: Footpad win only at 7/1 NRNB with Coral for the Ryanair


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