Lydia Hislop ties up the loose ends from her Road To Cheltenham series and adds selections for day two of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
1.30 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle
So sainted Samcro runs here, despite talk of switching him to the Supreme in the scenario of heavy ground. That caveat was understandable, given the speed he’s shown – especially last time out when, admittedly well positioned in a steadily run race, he settled the Deloitte in a matter of strides.
It’s possible that, at this level, the going could place a heightened accent on stamina in this contest. If that’s the case (and perhaps anyway), Duc De Genievres is likely to get a whole lot closer. He got shuffled back when the pace lifted in the Deloitte, but made eye-catching progress through the pack for a clear second.
Due to his defeat by Samcro, the market underestimates his trajectory a tad. This lightly raced horse has promised more than he’s yet been able to deliver in either start for Willie Mullins. Yet Ruby Walsh riding Next Destination firmly signifies that horse is the stable’s first string – and they don’t make that many mistakes. (Some, or they wouldn’t be human; but not many.)
Next Destination beat Duc De Genievres when they met but even then it looked likely to be a close-run thing if/when they re-opposed. The positives for Walsh’s mount are: he’s straightforward, jumps well and handles this ground. But his stablemate was making his Irish debut and ridden accordingly in a race not run to suit. At the prices, I’d still rather be with the Duc.
Black Op is clearly a player on his latest second to Santini in heavy ground at Cheltenham in January where he was ultimately out-stayed, but he’ll need to find further improvement here and looks a shade short in comparative terms.
There’s still some traction in Vision Des Flos each-way at 16/1, who handles this ground and, in winning in deep ground at Exeter last time, was using the stepping-stone trainer Colin Tizzard has in the past reserved for his smart horses.
Already advised 13/12/17: On The Blind Side 10/1 each-way with various firms [NON-RUNNER]
Already advised 04/03/18: Duc De Genievres each-way at 14/1 NRNB 1/5 odds for the Ballymore with Ladbrokes or at 12/1 BOG NRNB 1/4 odds with Bet365
2.10 RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase
The idiosyncratic preparation handed to Presenting Percy has caused some to get cold feet about his prospects at 5/2 but trainer Pat Kelly is nothing if not his own man.
Yet the class required to win a Grade Two hurdle and give Our Duke, a genuine Gold Cup contender, a fright last time at Gowran can hardly be construed as a drawback. That’s form good enough to win most RSA Chases already.
Monalee again looked good, jumping better and controlling the Flogas from the front last time out, but those tactics will be harder to pull off here and the extra distance should see the Mullins’ first string Al Boum Photo get a whole lot closer or else even reverse the form.
Yet from that race, Dounikos could well be the one to take the largest step forward. He wasn’t suited by a relatively steadily run race but was just starting to stay on to good effect when forced to switch after the last. He handles the ground and would be a good each-way position to take as the prices stand.
Black Corton is solid, thoroughly experienced and ridden with total belief by Bryony Frost. He’s underestimated by dint of his trainer’s campaign that tacitly implied an attempt to reap as much success as possible before the big guns were loaded… until his results suggested he was one of them. He’s achieved more than any of his rivals to date yet still trades as fourth or fifth favourite.
Already advised 31/12/17: Presenting Percy 8/1 with BetVictor, BetFred, Boylesports or Stan James
3.30 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Few, if any, races can have entailed as much upheaval in their anticipation as this year’s edition of the Champion Chase. Not content with the tumultuous saga as it was then written, both Altior and Douvan threw in final desperate bids for further attention on Monday.
First, we had the confusion – best to call it that, for now at least – surrounding Douvan’s likely target that was resoundingly resolved when he was not only declared for this race but with Ruby Walsh jocked up. (Of course, even this relative certainty was undermined 24 hours later when he was also declared for the Ryanair. We’ve all rehearsed the mental brace position, haven’t we? Stand by to assume, if required, on command.)
Willie Mullins revealed Walsh was pivotal in deciding Douvan’s target. “Ruby has been very happy with Douvan in recent days and was keen to ride him in the Champion Chase rather than in the Ryanair,” he said. “That made my mind up and [owner] Rich Ricci was happy with that.”
Next, news broke via Nicky Henderson’s Twitter account that Altior was lame in his near fore leg but that his veterinary team was “confident he will be clear to race on Wednesday”. The news was accordingly positive 24 hours later.
“We have located some pus in the frog [of his foot],” Henderson said, in his original announcement. “He was still able to exercise in the water treadmill this morning [Monday], which he does regularly anyway, and a poultice will now be applied and left on overnight to draw out the pus.
“The foot will also be ‘tubbed’ [stood in salt water] at regular intervals and the shoe will hopefully be replaced first thing tomorrow morning [Tuesday].”
So what does all this mean for the race itself? Well – understatement alert – neither of its bill-toppers has enjoyed the ideal preparation. Choose between: wind surgery, glorious comeback, last-minute setback prior to the toughest race of your career OR fractured pelvis, intermittent lameness, no schooling over fences, return in the toughest race of your career.
Altior is the clear winner on this score, surely. But his odds still don’t match his back-story. And neither do Douvan’s. Taking either price is a case of Festival fever shouldering out cold, hard betting sense. By all means, do it for the thrill of ‘always being right’ about either horse but don’t tell me it was “a great bet”.
However, the fact Walsh has chosen Douvan over stablemate Min despite all these problems is a stark display of the stable’s pecking order. It cannot be construed as anything but a negative for this column’s ante-post selection.
Yet happily, races must actually be run rather than their trophies decided beforehand by committee and even those closest to the principals can be mistaken or overtaken by events.
While it’s entirely proper given Paul Townend is second jockey at Mullins’ yard and has shouldered its chief riding responsibilities during Walsh’s enforced absence, it must have been tempting to book David Mullins after he partnered Min to an outstanding career-best in the Dublin Chase last time out.
However, that was primarily a function of Special Tiara setting such a strong pace that Min settled rather than running away with himself. Min is unexposed in those circumstances – and the same ideal scenario will be provided here, not only (again) by the titleholder but also Ar Mad in first-time cheekpieces (for as long as he lasts, racing left-handed).
Previously, Min only ever enjoyed a lead in the 2016 Supreme when finishing a seven-length second to Altior. That gap can be closed because Min got injured that day, has had an incomparably smoother preparation for this race and looks a far better chaser than he was a hurdler.
Of course, a strong pace will also suit Altior, whose muted performance in last year’s Arkle was probably due to the tepid fractions set by Charbel until his fall two out. The latter hasn’t been the same horse since and this is much hotter.
Arkle third Ordinary World was set to be a flattered second to Min last time until blundering through the last. He might pick up some pieces late but only if most of the big guns fail to fire for whatever reason. The same applies to God’s Own, who can make mistakes here but shaped better than the literal form last time out behind Waiting Patiently at Kempton.
Politologue was improbably (yet plausibly, given how Paul Nicholls prepares his spring Festival horses) less fit than Altior when they met in the Game Spirit but the suspicion remains that a flat track plays to his strengths more than does Cheltenham.
Already advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 with Paddy Power/Betfair
Other Day Two selections
The only handicap I feel inclined to get involved in is the Fred Winter, partly because this column’s ante-post book already is – with Act Of Valour, who’s now vying to be sent off favourite.
His defeat of Look My Way (1lb better off and also a player) at Newcastle is strong form and, after a blip for which there were health-related excuses, so is his latest second to We Have A Dream (this week declared a Triumph non-runner) when he gave that short-priced favourite a fright before finishing the race like a horse in need of the run. Connections flirted with cheekpieces but have opted to go without.
Esprit De Somoza also enters my calculations at around 16/1. He thrived on an overly strong pace at Huntingdon two starts ago and allowed the year-older The Russian Doyen to rather get away from him at Exeter last time. He’s a good-looking beast and surely capable of better.
If you fancy a big-priced whack, Embole is far from being a no-hoper.
Back now: Esprit De Somoza at 16/1 with William Hill
Already advised 04/03/18: Act Of Valour at 12/1 for the Fred Winter
Already advised: Duc De Genievres at 12/1 BOG NRNB for the Coral Cup = no bet