Cheltenham Festival tips: Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham including Act Of Valour for the Fred Winter

Last Updated March 05 2018, 13:10Racing
Footpad on his way to a spectacular success
Footpad on his way to a spectacular success

In part two of this week's Road To Cheltenham catch up, Lydia Hislop addresses the novices over hurdles and fences, with three additional bets added - with Sky Bet offering enhanced prices about the pair.

Exclusive Sky Bet Price Boosts

Act Of Valour (Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle) - was 9/1, NOW 12/1

Diego Du Charmil (Grand Annual Handicap Chase) - was 20/1, NOW 33/1

(Click on the links above to automatically populate your betslip)


Welcome to the second part of this week’s Road To Cheltenham. You can read Part One, addressing recent events in the Festival’s six championship divisions here. This section concentrates on the various notable novice- chasing, hurdling and juvenile exploits from that period.

Novice chasers

Please note: there has been some uneasiness about Footpad in the Arkle market. He has been lengthened to 6/4 (13/8 in one place) and his five closest rivals in the betting shortened almost across the board.

As discussed below, mostly written before that news emerged, there was potential for this to be a market correction given the strength of Footpad’s opposition but there were concerns that this presaged a switch to the JLT.

However Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Soued, stated: “Nothing has changed. I’ve spoken to Willie… [Mullins, his trainer, on Saturday. Footpad is] … absolutely fine, no problems with the horse. There’s no reason to change from the original plan all winter, which has been the Arkle.”

Footpad comfortably accounted for Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown last month, to the extent that afterwards the latter’s rider Davy Russell was pretty much handing him the Cheltenham trophy, too.

However, there’s reason to believe the grey could get a lot closer at the very least. In fact, looking again at the betting with fresh eyes, I’m starting to think Footpad is decidedly skinny.

In that Dublin Festival contest, the winner set off with more than a length’s advantage over habitual front runner Petit Mouchoir; this and rustiness from not having faced a fence in anger since last October may have contributed to Russell’s mount making a real hash of the first two fences.

He bundled himself over the first, landing unbalanced, and then gamely took off too early at the second – a bad blunder. You can’t fault his attitude, though. He reacted positively to that bad start, closely chasing the strong pace set by Footpad without once being able to get upsides.

The pair drew a long way clear of their rivals as early as after the second fence – exposing as optimistic the Arkle ambitions of Tycoon Prince, who would ultimately take a surrendering fall at the last, and the winner’s stable companion Demi Sang, who blundered badly at the first and was never involved thereafter. His only remaining Festival entry is now the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap.

I’d be keener on third-placed Any Second Now for that same Festival event, however. I’ve been fond of this horse since his entertaining racecourse debut and he’s taken well to fences, chasing home a number of decent horses with higher ambitions than trainer Ted Walsh has ever truly considered for him. A step back up to 2m4f will suit and I’m sure he’s capable of better.

But back at the top table, Footpad is clearly a high-class novice chaser with an efficient, polished technique and the ability to adapt to any race, tactically speaking. I don’t doubt he’s the right favourite for the Arkle but it won’t be a procession. I’m reminded that it wasn’t even for Altior last year.

Petit Mouchoir was the superior hurdler, three times finishing ahead of Footpad in Grade One company last season – in particular when third in last year’s Champion Hurdle after setting a hearty pace, unchallenged until the second last, with Footpad ultimately three lengths behind in fourth but never having reached the leaders.

It’s perfectly credible that Footpad could prove a better chaser than Petit Mouchoir. As his trainer Willie Mullins says: “He’s just so natural and athletic; he takes [his fences] as he meets them. He seldom puts in a short one and just has no fear over a fence. He was a very good hurdler without being top class but his method of jumping a fence has catapulted him right to the top.”

But Petit Mouchoir has only faced fences in public twice, was returning from an injury lay-off at Leopardstown and (perhaps because of this) did not employ the tactics that facilitated his best performances over hurdles.

He’ll need to jump a lot better from the outset on Tuesday week but racing more prominently might help – not that Footpad would be bothered by accepting a lead as he’s already done that, too, and won. This could be an interesting re-match and those who took each-way prices of around 6/1 after Petit Mouchoir’s Dublin defeat were of sound mind.

Saint Calvados makes a winning British debut at Newbury
Saint Calvados: Cheltenham's undulations aren't a pressing concern

Yet there’s more than one clear and present danger to the favourite. Saint Calvados obliterated his opponents in the Grade Two Kingmaker Chase in an excellent time last month. He led from the outset, travelled zestfully and again jumped with bold alacrity. In short, he went hard and never stopped.

On figures, Saint Calvados’s form is almost as good as that of Footpad, if not directly comparable. In actuality, he has faced nothing like the calibre of a Petit Mouchoir and bossing inferior horses in conditions that clearly suit – testing ground and a flat track – can inflate a reputation that’s then remorselessly punctured at Cheltenham.

In the Arkle, he’ll face rivals accustomed to dealing with jumping at championship pace – or even forcing that pace. The question then becomes – seemingly perversely, for a horse that jumps so fluidly: can he?

Given the weather (past and forecast) has mitigated the unknown of how he’d cope with a sound surface – he’s got a curling knee action – I think it’s more likely than not he can hold his position. He was fast yet measured at Warwick, not at all reckless or low. Cheltenham’s undulations are an unknown but he tends not to land steeply – a trait that most worries me for this track.

In fact, it could be Petit Mouchoir’s jumping that unravels if choosing to take on Saint Calvados up front. Footpad is more likely to sit comfortably behind the strong pace, probably as close to it as he chooses. Sceau Royal, in his element when observing a frenetic pace in the Grade One Henry VIII Novices’ Chase prior to sweeping past tired opponents, may sit a shade further off it – but not too far.

It’s worth noting Matt Tombs’ advice [@thespieler] in the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Bettng Guide to “focus on pure speed” where the Arkle is concerned. “They usually go quick and don’t stop,” he wrote, adding that the last horse to win from off the pace was Contraband in 2005.

While we’re talking trends, Tombs mentions a point that others (such as @PaulJonesRacing in his weekly service) cite against Saint Calvados. Five-year-olds used to have an advantageous weight allowance in events such as this and a good record in the Arkle; in the past ten years, since that playing field was levelled, they are 0/5.

While I take the general point, the sample is too small to dismiss this horse on that count alone if you like him. I must admit I do and was minded to take the 11/2 fairly widely available until the Footpad disruption happened. Hey-ho.

Returning to examine Saint Calvados’s Warwick romp, he had North Hill Harvey beaten in the back straight and, although that horse was returning from a break and thrives on racing according to his connections, it’s hard to conceive of him turning this form round. He just couldn’t sustain at that pace and that’s a prerequisite for the Arkle, I’m afraid.

Runner-up Diego Du Charmil ran a very encouraging prep for the Grand Annual to my eye, however. It was his first start since last October and he jumped soundly at a respectful distance behind the winner. He started to give tepid chase exiting the home turn but soon appeared to paddle through lack of race-fitness after the third last.

Given how trainer Paul Nicholls prepares his team for the spring festivals, this horse is pretty much certain to improve for the run and already boasts a Cheltenham success in the 2016 Fred Winter. I like his profile a lot for my favourite Festival handicap, the Grand Annual – so much so that I’m prepared to take a chance at 25/1 even before NRNB terms apply.

Brain Power was a Kingmaker no-show, failing to adhere to the exacting timetable trainer Nicky Henderson had set for his return from surgery to correct a breathing problem. That issue was exposed during his deflating performance in the Clarence House, in which he ended up failing to complete for the second time running.

Henderson has instead settled for a regime of homework and racecourse gallops, yet has stressed that whereas Altior needed a month’s box rest to recover from the corrective procedure to his wind, Brain Power needed only five days off after his palate was cauterized – an operation of lesser magnitude, clearly.

However, history says – quite logically for a championship event – that form ending in UF is not a recipe for Festival success, even if his unseating of David Mullins in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase after he’d helped force an overly strong pace was unlucky.

At least in the Arkle, courtesy of Saint Calvados and perhaps Petit Mouchoir, he will definitely get the strong pace his trainer was seeking when pitching him against Un De Sceaux at Ascot. Getting Brain Power to settle in his races has been a long-running preoccupation.

“We didn’t want to make the running at Sandown and that was a bit of a disaster,” Henderson recently reiterated, revisiting what in effect caused David Mullins to be replaced by Nico de Boinville next time out.

“You have to be quite careful with him and in the Champion Hurdle last year, that was over by three hurdles,” his trainer added. “He was racing far too soon. You want to drop him in and go to sleep.”

Henderson has been forcibly bullish about Brain Power’s ability this season. However, he was mistaken when asserting of his Arkle rivals that this horse “was the best of them over hurdles by a long way”. Petit Mouchoir was officially rated 2lb higher than Brain’s Power’s peak hurdle rating and Footpad was deemed only 2lb inferior after last year’s Champion Hurdle had been run. Even Sceau Royal wasn’t far off and finished ahead of him in that race.

Unlike that trio, Brain Power is also yet to prove capable of producing his best form on left-handed tracks. All in all, he’s got too much to prove for this assignment.

Monalee won a thrilling Flogas Novice Chase
Monalee: An aggressive ride could suit him in the JLT

Moving on to the JLT, it struck me while watching last month’s Flogas Chase that Henry de Bromhead should consider running Monalee there rather than in the RSA Insurance Chase.

In the hands of new jockey Noel Fehily – connections presumably legislating for former rider Davy Russell committing to Presenting Percy should they both end up contesting the RSA – he reverted to front-running tactics and jumped with a great deal more fluency than last time out.

On that previous visit to Leopardstown, when more restraint was employed over three miles, he took a crashing fall that left him sore for some time afterwards. It was therefore great to see his confidence and verve had been in no way dented.

His record shows positive tactics suit him well and these would be more easily deployed in the JLT. His odds are currently fractionally longer with NRNB firms for that race than for the RSA but represent far better value in my mind.

Behind him last time, runner-up Al Boum Photo got outpaced before staying on resolutely in the straight and Mullins has rightly concluded the RSA would be the most appropriate target for this improving novice.

But he hasn’t yet decided where to pitch third-placed Invitation Only, noting that owners Andrea and Graham Wylie also have authoritative Navan winner Bonbon Au Miel “who looks a real RSA horse, so that might be a factor in deciding”.

It was a tad surprising that Paul Townend wasn’t keener on getting the lead in the Flogas on Invitation Only, especially if his trainer clearly believes he can stay further. His form and jumping had previously been transformed by adopting a front-running role but here he chased Monalee’s lead, racing rather wide perhaps in compensation. Nonetheless, he still suffered a lapse of concentration at the fourth last.

Fourth-placed Dounikos is starting to interest me, probably for the NH Chase (for which he is now favourite) but possibly even for the RSA. He was being urged along from some way out in the Flogas and lost his position slightly at the third last before responding positively in the straight.

He had impetus when joining the pack on Monalee’s heels after the last but was inconvenienced by the winner and third wandering together across him, forcing him to switch. By the time he got rolling again, he’d arrived at the winning post. This was only his second chase start and he wasn’t done with when gifted a debut success by Al Boum Photo’s last-fence fall either.

The rest were exposed as not good enough for the Festival’s graded targets. Mullins says 10-year-old Rathvinden heads for the NH Chase but he failed to complete for the second time running.

Sutton Place was particularly disappointing: a first-fence blunder presaging a scrappy round that would end with Barry Geraghty pulling him up. Even though he won on his debut, he’d also been repeatedly out-jumped by Kemboy then. That likeable horse has been confirmed as on target for the JLT, incidentally.

The bad news for this race was that well-fancied Willoughby Court had been brewing an abscess on his foot and, not long after, he was ruled out of the Festival. That prompted a market shake-up and no doubt some mental recalibration for those with potential JLT candidates.

Henderson has stated that smart Scilly Isles winner Terrefort, another mere five-year-old, will only run if the ground “came up pretty soft” – a larger possibility now than when he said that.

Narrow runner-up Cyrname – withdrawn from any Festival engagement in the belief he must race right-handed – has since franked that form by winning the Pendil (admittedly in a race farcically started as a procession).

After his marginal defeat in a Doncaster handicap, Saint Calvados’s trainer Harry Whittington proposes to step Bigmartre back up in trip for the JLT. There, he is likely to encounter perhaps JP McManus’s sole representative in the race, Modus. Butter wouldn’t melt when he set a walking pace in victory at Kempton last month.

I’m starting to feel sorry for Finian’s Oscar. His breathing issue, exposed when reverting to hurdles in the Cleeve, has been corrected and connections were then talking of drawing stumps for the season.

Instead, he’ll be wearing first-time blinkers in the JLT – presumably on the basis that the less he can see of the fences, the less scared he’ll be. “His jumping has been suspect all season but that’s what we are likely to do,” commented trainer Colin Tizzard, comfortingly.

West Approach, his persistently highly tried stable companion, may join him. He was last sighted when tailed-off last in the Scilly Isles. Would somebody cut this goddam horse some goddam slack?

The Gary Moore-trained Benatar, who narrowly beat the “suspect” Finian’s Oscar over fences at Ascot last December (admittedly in a race not run to suit him) also reportedly lines up here rather than in the RSA. That might be due to missing intended engagements in the Scilly Isles and/or the Pendil.

Turning to the RSA, this column’s selection Presenting Percy went down fighting against the more experienced Gold Cup hopeful Our Duke at Gowran last month.

Some have suggested he should have been able to beat a horse that blundered through the fourth last and was conceding 7lb but I can’t have that. I rate Our Duke’s raw ability very highly and was once again impressed with Presenting Percy’s jumping. It’s been an unconventional preparation from trainer Patrick Kelly but a good one.

Black Corton certainly won’t want for experience when he lines up in ths RSA on Wednesday week. His easy victory in Ascot’s Grade Two Reynoldstown Chase was his eighth of the season, his seventh for Bryony Frost, from 11 starts over fences.

This was perhaps his most impressive performance yet from a visual perspective – setting out in front and pinging virtually every fence (adjusting left at some) under a well-judged ride – even if his Grade One Kauto Star success held more substance in my book. It was also the ideal sharpener for the Festival after a short break.

I’m glad trainer Paul Nicholls is yet to opine that Black Corton has not got the credit he deserves or some such line because, as he acknowledges, that’s partly his own fault. He started out campaigning this horse as if to collect as many races as he could before the big guns started firing – a familiar method for Nicholls and a shrewd one.

He even chalks up Black Corton’s Newbury defeat by Elegant Escape at his own door. “I didn’t have enough belief he was as good as he was at Newbury,” he admitted. “We didn’t make enough use of him then.”

Since then, Nicholls has changed his approach: emboldening Frost’s positive tactics and training him like a good horse with a Grade One Festival target. “He just needed the run last time at Ascot but he was fantastic,” Nicholls has commented. “He is really strong at the backend of his races and the hill will suit him. Good ground would suit him as well.”

Black Corton jumps ahead of Ballyoptic
Black Corton: Has racked up plenty of experience

Behind him at Ascot, Ms Parfois and Mount Mews were outclassed and out-gunned. The former cracked after the second last after trying vaguely to mount a challenge; she doesn’t look good enough for the NH Chase even if the ground is soft. The latter didn’t jump well enough and wouldn’t be on my mind for any race at the Festival. Trainer Ruth Jefferson might say the same.

Barney Dwan, beaten only by a thrown-in Presenting Percy in last year’s Pertemps, has registered his second success over fences, at Musselburgh in early February. His task was rendered facile by the independent departures of Keeper Hill and Peter The Mayo Man at the fourth last but jockey Brian Hughes believes he’d have won anyway – probably correctly but it was too far from home to be sure.

Barney Dwan jumped marginally the best of that trio – intentionally faint praise. Keeper Hill’s fall was no surprise after a series of too-low jumps whereas Peter The Mayo Man had already committed one sizeable blunder prior to his oddly limp-looking actual fall. The former had hinted at this frailty before; the latter not so much.

Winning trainer Fergal O’Brien says it will be up to owners Paul and Clare Rooney which of their horse’s three Festival engagements he takes up. They could do with a change of luck, given both Willoughby Court and one-time Supreme candidate If The Cap Fits miss Cheltenham due to setbacks.

If I were Blaklion, I’d be regarding with hot indignation trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’s recent comparison of Ballyoptic’s profile with that of my own prior to winning the 2016 RSA. Blaklion’s was both progressive and better, not to mention the fact he was (and is) a far more reliable jumper.

But to be fair to Ballyoptic, his jumping frailties were almost completely absent when he won Wetherby’s Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase – and there would have been a good excuse had he made a mistake when denied much landing space at the fourth last when his two remaining rivals converged across him. I still can’t believe he’s good enough for this Grade One target, however.

Another recent winner said to be bound for the RSA was Allysson Monterg. Triumphant over an inadequate trip on heavy ground on his sole chase start to date, he was sixth in the 2016 Albert Bartlett but sidelined for most of last season.

Lucinda Russell spoke of the RSA or a Uttoxeter novices’ chase later that same week as the next target after Big River won at Kelso last month; the lesser plan would appear more realistic.

At Navan, the Gordon Elliott-trained pair Monbeg Notorious and Mossbank fought out an underwhelming edition of the Grade Two Ten Up Chase in which Moulin A Vent was well beaten and fluent jumping generally at a premium.

The 1-2 are entered in the NH Chase and Irish Grand National; the latter is also in the RSA but Shattered Love and (I would argue) Dounikos look better Gigginstown candidates for that target.

The Elliott-trained Jury Duty was withdrawn from the Ten Up due to being off his feed but the trainer has confirmed that Fagan – runner-up in the 2016 Albert Bartlett and off games since a ten-length second to Black Corton last October – is still being aimed at the NH Chase.

Talking of the four-miler, Colin Tizzard is at least considering that notion for his Kauto Star Chase runner-up Elegant Escape. “At the moment we are definitely leaning towards the RSA. He is rated 154 and not many more are rated above him,” he said.

Such comments equally applied to stable companion Native River prior to him finishing second in the 2016 NH Chase. “But if a top Irish jockey became available in the NH Chase, that might change it,” he dangled.

At Gowran in mid-February, Up For Review made a welcome return to action after 665 days on the sidelines and looked set to make a winning chase debut for much of that beginners’ event.

But perhaps he did a bit too much, dueling with Burgas from a long way out, because he was vulnerable to stablemate and fellow belated seasonal debutant Some Neck in the straight. Tired jumps at the final two flights and some wandering to his right were enough for the younger grey to sweep past.

The runner-up is surely unlikely to take up either of his Festival entries now; he has a poor Cheltenham record to date anyway.

At the start of last month, I mentioned JP McManus’s record in the NH Chase – leading owner with six past winners – and that No Comment is his sole entry this year. That horse made a more than satisfactory chase debut, chucked into the Grade One Scilly Isles, despite finishing a never-involved 30 lengths behind Terrefort and Cyrname.

He jumped the tricky Railway fences well before perhaps a lack of fitness told approaching the Pond fence. After finishing seventh in the Martin Pipe last season, he was second in handicap hurdles at both the Aintree and Punchestown Festivals but is obviously short on chasing experience.

Recent Newbury winner Indy Five is in the NH Chase but isn’t good enough. Returning from suffering a fracture, Ibis Du Rheu finished tailed off behind him and is unlikely to have encouraged Nicholls to press on with the same Cheltenham plan.

Significant happenings with regard to the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap include Rather Be’s professional wide-margin success at Fakenham (jumping a little out to the right) after which he retained a mark of 143 and so slips under the upper bar for this race

Stablemate Divine Spear has been beaten in non-disastrous circumstances at Musselburgh and Jett, whom trainer Jessica Harrington believes will be better over further and on better ground, has won at Thurles. I’m still not convinced by the latter’s jumping on balance.

De Plotting Shed, who seemed to find less than anticipated when runner-up to Arkle entry Montalbano over two miles at Gowran in Jaunary, has been backed for this race. The step up in trip will surely help a horse at his best over 2m4f to 3m over hurdles.

Finally, it’s been entertaining to read about the horse I’ve been eyeing warily for the Kim Muir for some months now despite his professed NH Chase target, Mall Dini.

He’s been declared and scratched twice in my absence, for Punchestown’s Grand National Trial and a beginners’ chase the following week. The first cause was being off his feed; the second for a stone bruise. You could regard these no-shows as a curious positive, mind, given the ground was so testing on both occasions and his form strongly suggests he likes it sound.

Since then, the Kim Muir weights have been published and he’s got 11-10. But it has been snowing since and there’s plenty of rain due. Some you win.

Samcro jumps the last at Leopardstown
Samcro: It is possible to pick holes in his form

Novice hurdlers

Saint Samcro enraptured his vocal band of believers with an authoritative victory in a deep-looking edition of the Deloitte Novices’ Hurdle last month.

It is possible to pick holes in the performance, however.

He was well positioned to quicken off a steady pace, entering the straight on the shoulder of the leader. The juvenile Mr Adjudicator had clocked a better time over the same course and distance little more than 35 minutes earlier; Samcro was carrying more weight but not enough to swing the analytical balance in his favour.

He also didn’t achieve much more than in wide-margin triumphs at Navan and (in particular) Punchestown, but I suppose he didn’t need to.

Yet nonetheless this had all the hallmarks of a smart horse and it was reassuring to see him in action, looking so professional, given he’d not raced since last November. He’s now unbeaten in six starts under Rules, three of those over hurdles, and trades at a prohibitive best of 4/5 for the Ballymore.

Inevitably with a horse this hyped, his odds overstate his case but he clearly has a very strong chance.

He’s considered a three-mile chaser of the future but this latest success demonstrated he’s by no means short of pace. I wouldn’t even mind if he ran in the Supreme but Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary has said he runs in the Ballymore and “that’s final”.

He won the Monksfield over 2m4f via class and pace rather than anything else, although he remained very strong at the finish. I’m looking forward to learning more about him.

Deloitte runner-up Duc Des Genievres caught my eye for the second time in as many starts, as the only horse to make inroads from a disadvantageous position in Samcro’s race. But trainer Willie Mullins is talking about running him in the Albert Bartlett to “suit his connections”. That’s the absolute wrong race in my opinion.

Were I Mullins, I’d rather take on Samcro again in the Ballymore – or at a push even contest a strongly run Supreme. In fact, anything – ANYTHING – except a three-mile slog (potentially now in very testing ground!) for which a thrice-raced horse is utterly ill equipped.

Mullins won the Potato Race for the first time last year and had a pretty poor record beforehand perhaps because, as Tony Keenan [@RacingTrends) has argued, he hadn’t seemed to grasp the type of horse required. If he’s considering Duc Des Genievres now, it suggests Penhill was the right answer for the wrong reasons in 2017. Good thing he didn’t show his working.

Keenan would argue – and I think he’s right – that Penhill was exactly the right type for the race because he had raced seven times over hurdles prior to Cheltenham and a whopping 18 times on the Flat. This was a seasoned campaigner – like fellow past winners Unknowhatimeanharry (17 previous starts), Berties Dream (15), Nenuphar Collonges (11), Martello Tower (8 plus a Point), At Fishers Cross (8) and Very Wood (5 plus 2 Points).

True, Bobs Worth and Weapon’s Amnesty were smart enough to win it after only five and six previous starts respectively but that pair went on to win two RSA Chases and a Gold Cup between them. Ill-fated Brindisi Breeze won after just four races but we never got to find out what he might have been.

I trust you take Tony’s point: loads of racing experience is usually vital to winning this race unless you happen to be an absolutely top-class chaser of the future – and even they had raced more than three times beforehand. So let’s hope Mullins changes his mind about Duc Des Genievres. Does he have any form in that regard, d’ya know?

In fact in all seriousness, I’m tempted from an each-way perspective to back him at Bet365’s 12/1 BOG NRNB (or Ladbrokes’s 14/1 NRNB) for the Ballymore. Provided it’s BOG, you have nothing to lose and it’s only tying up your money for a maximum ten days if he doesn’t run. Let’s do it. He’s an excellent supplement to this column’s 10/1 about On The Blind Side.

Incidentally, Nicky Henderson has issued another reassuring report about that horse, who had suffered a minor setback. “We just had a fortnight where we got held up with On The Blind Side,” he said. “He was getting sore shins… He hasn’t got them now and is working very well.”

Returning to the Deloitte, third-placed Paloma Blue saw lots of daylight and refused to settle early on, pulling himself to the front. That meant he was in a good position turning for home but had used up plenty of energy. He’s improving, though.

In fourth, the Mullins-trained Whiskey Sour maintained his putative standing with Sharjah and Real Steel – established when winning an eventful edition of the Grade One Future Champions Novices’ Hurdle over Christmas when he jumped safely past his two prone stablemates at the last. They both kept their feet yet finished behind him here.

However, he again got detached and was badly outpaced here before staying on with some application. This small-scale hurdler would thrive in something like the County.

Mullins is prepared to forgive Sharjah, who to my eye would have won at Christmas had he stood up. “I think the ground was the problem,” he said of his Deloitte seventh. “When the ground gets soft at home he can barely put one leg in front of the other and when it dries out he really improves, so I’d hope he could bounce back on better ground.”

Of course, it might not be hugely drier ground at the Festival but the plan is to run alongside stable companion and fellow Rich Ricci representative, Getabird, in the Sky Bet Supreme.

“He is improving all the time but is not a flashy horse at home,” Mullins said recently of the latter. “Even the other day, I wasn’t impressed with his work but Sonny Carey, who rides him, felt he was in great order and he knows him very well. All of his runs have been right-handed but that wasn’t deliberate and we haven’t seen any reason to doubt his ability to perform going left-handed.”

There isn’t anything in my notes that concern me about Getabird going left-handed for the first time but it is worth noting that it’s an unknown about a 13/8 favourite.

Mullins has also stated that Next Destination probably runs in the Ballymore. He won a steadily run Naas Grade One in January and his trainer anticipates a stronger pace bringing about an improved performance.

Kalashnikov powers home in the mud under Jack Quinlan
Kalashnikov: Will he be quick enough for the Sky Bet Supreme?

The weekend after the Deloitte, the novice Kalashnikov was ultimately an authoritative winner of the Betfair Hurdle. Clearly a smart young horse, he jumped notably well under pressure and drew clear of more seasoned (or exposed) rivals by four-and-a-half lengths.

A revised mark of 154 says he should at least hit the frame in most Supremes. Newbury’s competitive handicap is a useful stepping-stone for novices, exposing them to a hardening racing experience. Two such winners have finished second in this Cheltenham event since 2010.

However, Kalashnikov needed to be urged along as early as the second hurdle so the worry is whether he has the basic speed you need to stay in touch on Cheltenham’s Old Course. Were he to manage that, then the power he can unleash in the closing stages of the race would be significant.

Fellow novices Waterlord and Lalor were respectively pulled up (breaking a blood vessel) and well beaten; the latter possibly sat a shade close to a strong pace for the conditions (though others did the same and fared much better). Both were withdrawn from the Supreme; Lalor remains in the Ballymore.

It may be worth recalling that after Kalashnikov finished second in Sandown’s Tolworth Hurdle having also been on and off the bridle from an early stage, trainer Amy Murphy nominated the Ballymore as his Festival target on the basis he would require a step up in trip. He’s still also entered there but his trainer might feel Samcro looms too large.

The form of that Sandown Grade One won by Summerville Boy is playing out well: beaten favourite Western Ryder has since more than bounced back with an excellent second to Vinndication in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon and even tailed-off The Russian Doyen has won a second novices’ event, at Taunton – albeit he was well positioned against a pushover field in the circumstances.

The concern for Summerville Boy in the Supreme might be the immaturity rider Noel Fehily cited in interviews after his latest victory; however, the horse does seem to be learning fast, having settled better there than previously. A strongly run race will suit. He shouldn’t be twice the price of Kalashnikov.

Stable companion Black Op, also owned by Roger Brookhouse, has an overlapping entry in the Ballymore. Trainer Tom George has firmly indicated they won’t take each other on; how testing the ground is at Cheltenham will decide where Summerville Boy is targeted. On what we know currently, that suggests the Supreme for him and therefore hopefully the Ballymore for the relatively lightly raced Black Op.

The Supreme credentials of Claimantakinforgan took a knock when a somewhat listless third in the Scottish Supreme Trial. The professional winner Beyond The Clouds isn’t entered at Cheltenham but runner-up Simply The Betts runs in the Supreme, reportedly at his owner’s behest. He needs to brush up his jumping, fast.

Nicky Henderson was underwhelmed with a number of his runners at Musselburgh that weekend, blaming the “horrible” ground. It’s possible they collectively ran somewhat flat for whatever reason.

It hasn’t put him off running Claimantakinforgan in the Supreme, where he will be the trainer’s sole representative. “I wasn’t worried and neither was Nico [de Boinville, his jockey],” he said, of Musselburgh. “He got beaten but it was part of his prep and it didn’t come off on the day.”

Like Mullins, Henderson has a strong record in this race so his runners always merit consideration. The likeable Dr Des has also franked Claimantakinforgan’s earlier Ascot form by winning at Towcester… albeit he was then well beaten when highly tried in the National Spirit at Fontwell.

Yet only three of the last 21 Supreme winners were beaten on their preceding start.

Henderson ran 2016 Derby fifth Humphrey Bogart in the Dovecote on his hurdling debut at Kempton late last month but he never got involved, held up in last and making one sizeable blunder amid a round of jumping that lacked fluency in general.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the race, Global Citizen set a strong pace from the outset, stringing the field out, and kept up the gallop to win unchallenged. A revised rating of 149 has deterred trainer Ben Pauling from running him in the County but ultimately on experience and career-development grounds rather than any disbelief in the equity of a 19lb rise.

“I thought anything under 145 was going to be very fair and he’d have been exceptionally dangerous off that,” Pauling said, amid comments that sounded dangerously sensible on the subject on handicappers and handicapping.

He’s pinpointed the two-mile Grade One Crabbie’s Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree as his horse’s next target, although Global Citizen’s new standing suggests he would be a player if supplemented for the Supreme. That said, he’s unproven on an undulating track.

Behind him at Kempton, bonny Flat recruit Scarlet Dragon made a taking hurdles debut, held up (not settling) well off the pace set by the emphatic winner but coming through nicely from the home turn. It’s plausible that he might just have lacked a shade of match fitness on his first start for 154 days and since having wind surgery.

Trainer Alan King is still inclined to run him in the Supreme, depending on how well he has worked and schooled in the interim. This horse was a hardy and likeable little warrior for Eve Johnson Houghton on the Flat, rated 108 ultimately and with stamina for up to at least 12 furlongs.

Fellow highly rated Supreme-entered Flat horses have fared less well on their recent hurdling bows. Carntop went the wrong way on the Flat and made no impact behind Global Citizen. Battalion had been headed when taking a heavy fall at the last at Southwell and trainer Jamie Osborne has not committed to running him again over obstacles.

In other Supreme news, If The Cap Fits sadly misses the race due to a muscle tear and recent Listed Punchestown winner Hardline – who did well to reel in a well-ridden front-runner to whom he was conceding weight – heads to Fairyhouse’s Easter meeting rather than making the trip to Cheltenham, according to trainer Gordon Elliott.

Colin Tizzard has a fistful of novice hurdlers to sort into the right Festival races. He believes dropping back to two miles for the Supreme will suit nascent chaser Slate House, last seen when well beaten behind Santini in a Cheltenham Grade Two. I thought he didn’t enjoy the heavy ground that day; his trainer believes “he didn’t quite stay”.

He hasn’t yet decided whether to run Ainchea – whom he believes “was going to win five lengths” had he not fallen when in the lead at the final flight at Sandown last month – in the Supreme or the Ballymore.

That horse looked highly unsuited to making his own running in that steadily conducted affair, babyishly wandering about on the approach to his hurdles rather than concentrating, and his departure was in no way out of the blue. I’m not so sure he’d have won five lengths, either. He’d also shown a careless technique when beaten by Tikkanbar at Cheltenham so he’s not for me, wherever he shows up.

Trainer Colin Tizzard stands with his dog
Colin Tizzard: Went a well-trodden route with Vision Des Flos

That decision is likely to be partly dictated by what Tizzard does with recent Exeter winner Vision Des Flos, who’s in the same Potts family ownership as Ainchea. Now that Robbie Power has resumed his position as the owners’ sole retained jockey, replacing Bryan Cooper on this side of the Irish Sea, you’d think it likely that the two horses would be kept apart at the Festival.

Tizzard was full of praise for Vision Des Flos’s latest impressive 31-length Listed success. Wind surgery and a first-time tongue-tie clearly helped on his first start for 57 days and since getting beaten by Paisley Park at Hereford.

“There are not many horses that win a Listed race by 31 lengths,” Tizzard said of his pricey inmate. “He jumped the last and was tanking all the way to the line.”

Tizzard has won that same Exeter contest with Native River and Finian’s Oscar in the past; trainers are often creatures of habit with their good horses and so this can be translated as a clear signal about Vision Des Flos. The Ballymore is shaping up to be an awfully hot race – obviously.

Similarly, Lostintranslation could go for the Supreme or the Ballymore after running “a bit flat” according to Tizzard when thumped behind First Flow at Haydock in January. He also has The Russian Doyen in the Supreme, although that horse appeared not to be mentioned in dispatches during his recent pre-Festival stable tour.

Tizzard must choose between the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett for White Moon, whom he also reported “had a little bit of a setback and was sore behind” after his disappointingly tame display when tailed off behind On The Blind Side at Sandown in December.

“He was back in full work three weeks ago. He had a month off but he is absolutely fine,” the trainer added. “I see him as more of a three-miler and he will probably end up there [in the Albert Bartlett].”

Joining him is likely to be Kilbricken Storm, whom Tizzard thinks was not “quite right” when a distant third to Poetic Rhythm in the Grade One Challow at Newbury last time.

“He had already had two or three hard races. He didn’t travel like he did in those other races and he had a little bit of a dirty nose afterwards, so we backed off him for a bit. He has been fine for the past three weeks,” Tizzard said.

Neither horse is flush with the hardened race experience we know is the overwhelmingly key asset for the Potato Race; however, Kilbricken Storm at least is bred for the job and his trainer’s account of what happened last time chimes with my interpretation of the Challow.

Returning to the Sidney Banks, mentioned in passing above: what a super horse Vinndication is. He’s so straightforward, willing and relentless – no wonder he’s unbeaten after four starts, three of them over hurdles and including when he somehow pulled victory out of the fire against Champ at Ascot.

This time, he accounted pretty readily for a more proven opponent in Western Ryder, moving to the front after halfway and then clear on the home turn where he had the runner-up under pressure. There was a flash of potential vulnerability after the last, with Western Ryder sticking admirably to his task, but it was only fleeting. Vinndication just kept on galloping.

As mentioned above, this was a welcome return to form for the runner-up and given Huntingdon’s ground was pretty heavy this day, it suggests that might not have been the problem when well beaten behind Summerville Boy and Kalashnikov at Sandown on his previous start.

In the winner’s enclosure that day, trainer Kim Bailey – in typically phlegmatic form – described Vinndication (entered in the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett) as “still a complete baby”. “He was more switched on today than last time but even when he hit the front he didn’t know what to do,” he added.

“Logically I’d prefer to go to Aintree rather than Cheltenham but… I know where the owners would like to go! Temptations are there to be put in front of you and to be refused occasionally. I’ve got to look after him – he’s come a long way in a very short space of time…

“We’ve said for a long time he’s our best novice and he justified that today. He’s as hard as nails and from day one has wanted to be good.”

Bailey has a strong hand of novice hurdlers this year, also including Grade Two Haydock winner First Flow and recent Musselburgh winner Red River, whom he deems his Albert Bartlett candidate. “I wouldn’t think we’d go three miles [with Vinndication]. I’ll let Red River do that one,” he said. The doubt for me is whether his Huntingdon winner will be quick enough for the Ballymore.

Red River was returning from surgery to correct a breathing issue that his trainer said stopped him “to a walk” behind On The Blind Side at Sandown last December. Here, he overturned favourite Mr Whipped in the Albert Bartlett Scottish Trial and seemed to improve for a step up to three miles.

Henderson, who trains the runner-up, was (as mentioned above) unflustered by a number of reversals at Musselburgh that weekend and is happy to proceed to Cheltenham for a rematch.

Mr Whipped certainly proved he stays three miles here but his Grade Two Warwick defeat of Paisley Park was let down when that horse was beaten at Doncaster last month. Neither Mr Whipped nor Red River has a wealth of racing experience.

Cheltenham Festival - Ben Pauling on Gowiththeflow

Paisley Park was beaten by fellow Albert Bartlett entry Gowiththeflow, a consistent horse who had previously finished behind Mr Whipped at Newbury. The winner was receiving 7lbs from the runner-up at Doncaster and perhaps neutralised that horse’s thorough stamina via well-judged ride from the front. Paisley Park also wandered markedly at the last.

The winner is also entered in the Ballymore and connections appear to be leaning that way. He’d need to find plenty of improvement for that task but perhaps lacks the seasoning for the longer event.

In other news from Henderson’s yard, both Whatswrongwithyou and lightly raced eight-year-old OK Corral – first and second in a Newbury novice in January – won last month at Kempton and back at Newbury respectively. They hold handicap entries at the Festival but the former is also in Sandown’s Imperial Cup this Saturday and the latter holds a Ballymore spot.

Chef Des Obeaux continues to impress as a stayer, winning the Prestige in sapping conditions at Haydock last time out – a race won by Brindisi Breeze prior to his Albert Bartlett success and also by The World’s End, who’d just made an assertive move forwards when falling two out in that same Festival event.

Here, the more experienced Golan Fortune was trying to muster a challenge at the second last when making a chance-ending hash of it. After that, the only mild scare came when Chef Des Obeaux adjusted quite a bit right and hit the final flight but he then stayed on strongly for a resounding success. Apart from that, his jumping was excellent.

The recent and forecast weather has surely greatly enhanced his prospects of success at Cheltenham, given his rugged stamina and the fact he is yet to race on anything better than soft ground. Four hurdles and three bumpers is a satisfactory amount of experience, too.

“He loved Haydock,” affirmed Henderson. “If it was soft he would probably be a better horse than Santini.”

I vastly prefer Chef Des Obeaux’s profile for the Albert Bartlett compared with that of thrice-raced Santini, whom Henderson did not initially commit to running at Cheltenham. That instinct seems to have evolved now, even though he thinks the ante-post favourite is “a better horse on good ground”.

Completing Henderson’s leading cohort of novices are the mares Countister and Dame De Compagnie, both owned by JP McManus and bound for the Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

Countister probably would have finished second had Ainchea stood up at Sandown but her trainer has plausibly argued that the crawl-sprint nature of that contest did not portray her in her best light. I suspect she’s also likely to be a better horse on a sounder surface and her vast bumper experience in France will stand her in good stead for the hustle of Cheltenham.

Dame De Compagnie didn’t find as much as initially threatened when finishing a nose second at Ascot last month but was steadily bearing down on the winner Point Of Principle as they reached the line. She had sweated up before the race and was keen during it. Returning to two miles might well help, as her trainer believes.

Talking of McManus, it appears that his Tower Bridge will be supplemented for the Albert Bartlett after winning a Leopardstown Grade One over 2m6f at the start of February. He currently only holds a Ballymore engagement.

He needs to brush up his jumping – it tends to retard his progress through a race rather than aid it – and he strikes me as lazy. I also think the way this latest race was run meant stamina was less of a key feature than it appeared. I suspect Tower Bridge is neither quick nor good enough for the Ballymore nor stamina-laiden enough for the Albert Bartlett.

The race he won was conducted in two parts. The first involved Fabulous Saga surely going too hard by establishing a long lead over the rest of the field; he was a spent force when headed without a fight in the straight. He’s a stout stayer, burst by going too hard here. His jumping was scrappy, too.

The second and more relevant section of the race involved everyone else and they never really chased the leader much, relying on him coming back to them – which he did from the third last.

Poor-jumping Dicey O’Reilly – well named? – and then the fading front-runner both got in the way of Moyross and I’d say this horse wouldn’t be a forlorn hope at a big price in the Pertemps were he to make the cut, even though he’s been beaten since.

Dortmund Park was travelling well rounding the home turn but got outpaced as the race developed more briskly; he jumped the last well under pressure and stayed out stoutly. The race didn’t appear to be run to suit and he may do better.

Carter McKay got shuffled back on the home turn but rallied well, jumping the last in fine style to get into the scrap for victory. He had nothing left near the line, however, but may improve again at similar staying trips in future.

As suggested previously, Jetz benefitted from a step up in trip and was probably a tad unfortunate not to win given how things panned out on the day. He never really settled in this steady-going main group and could be spotted climbing on the heels of the horse in front; he found himself in a cul-de-sac on the home turn and then Power had to wait for a run in the straight.

They’d weaved to the front when slightly reaching for the last and then stayed on strongly for the line, pulling out more as the hard-ridden Tower Bridge challenged but relatively out-speeded on the run to the line.

Jetz has got a good race in him at three miles – but not at Cheltenham, where he’s not entered.

Following the unfortunate news that Cracking Smart misses Cheltenham due to a setback (leaving Santini as the new ante-post favourite for the Albert Bartlett), the task of leading Gigginstown fancy falls to either Dortmund Park or recent Thurles winner Blow By Blow.

The latter had just got the better of fellow maroon solder and stablemate at Elliott’s yard, Raging Bull, in the Grade Three 2m4f event when that horse took a tired tumble at the last hurdle. The winner shapes like a stayer and has plenty of experience for a race like the Festival’s three-mile novice but does hold a fistful of alternative entries.

Chris’s Dream could be Bartlett-bound following his 64-length demolition of a Clonmel Grade Three Hurdle on his first start for Henry de Bromhead and returning from 81 days off the track. Weather conditions are currently favouring this thorough stayer.

Nigel Twiston-Davies: His Callet Mad has plenty of experience

Nigel Twiston-Davies has an ideal type for the Potato Race in Callet Mad but the horse also holds a Pertemps option via winning a Musselburgh qualifier last month. He’s had 15 starts over jumps, including seven over fences.

Switching to patient tactics appeared to suit last time and his trainer has indicated they will be employed again, probably in the novices’ event. I notice he’s been nibbled at recently in this market and I can very much see where those punters are coming from. A good chance.

Switching back finally to the Dawn Run, Alletrix has complimented the form of – grrr – Laurina by dotting up in a Leopardstown handicap (when admittedly well in). Raised 10lb, she has since run not quite so well at Punchestown but was thumped 11 lengths by Laurina. Grrr.

Mullins has issued a positive report of the ante-post favourite, describing Laurina as “top class” and looking “really good”. He sees her as a future chaser and says his team is “really looking forward” to running her at Cheltenham.

In contrast, second favourite Mara’s Benefit suffered an injury scare at the start of February. “She has had a little bit of heat in a knee since she ran at Doncaster where she kicked a hurdle out of the ground,” trainer Stuart Edmunds reported.

The five-time winner had not missed any work but was due to step up her preparations when Edmunds decided to send her for a precautionary X-ray and scan because the problem was persisting. I haven’t seen an update since.

The form of that Doncaster success – a narrow tussle with Irish Roe – was not upheld when that horse was pulled up in the Betfair Hurdle, although that was a relatively quick reappearance again on testing ground.

Finally, it’s worth noting Dame Rose missed her Morebattle engagement due to unsuitable ground.

Juvenile hurdlers

Redicean has now taken all three of his starts over hurdles at Kempton but his Adonis victory last Saturday was the first time he looked like a potential Triumph Hurdle winner. Prior to that Grade Two success, he was clearly in possession of a good engine but his jumping was little better than shocking. Yet here he was highly proficient.

“We gave him lots of schooling after his second run and he must have jumped about 200 hurdles,” trainer Alan King revealed in his recent pre-Festival stable tour. The practice worked.

Redicean displays an impressive jumping technique
Redicean: Jumped loads better after plenty of practice

The race developed in two parts from the outset when Bid Adieu pulled his way past Harrmonise at the first obstacle and they goaded each other on, running much too fast and pulling well clear of their pursuers.

Their exertions were ignored by all except those filming the race, so it’s hard to say exactly when the field began to reel them in unless you were there with your bins. But they were closely within sights approaching the fifth hurdle, the winner travelling strongly and then readily slipping up the inside entering the straight.

The filly Malaya put up a fight, going with Redicean until after the second last where jockey Wayne Hutchison administered a single slap of the whip and his mount instantly settled matters in impressive style. Malaya never gave up, pulling at least ten lengths clear of the third and fourth, but she was still a full seven lengths adrift of the winner at the line.

King achieved the Adonis-Triumph double with Penzance back in 2005 and despite its proximity to the Festival, this Kempton event is fertile territory for such ambitions.

Zarkandar, Soldatino, Snow Drop, Katarino, Mysilv and Pollardstown also won both races and subsequent Festival winners such as Binocular, Punjabi and Well Chief also feature on the Kempton roll of honour.

Recent winners have made less impact but Redicean could be different. The professionalism he displayed here was striking – TCR (total control racing). The ground was the soundest he’s yet encountered over hurdles so that might have played a part in his marked improvement. Conditions could be gluey at Cheltenham, however.

“I haven’t deliberately kept going to Kempton with him; it was just that’s the way it suited,” King added. “And I’m not worried about the hill at Cheltenham. Penzance had never seen a hill and that didn’t stop him winning a Triumph.��

Redicean stayed 14 furlongs on the Flat, so he wouldn’t strike you as a speed horse particularly suited to the demands of Kempton. He only joined this yard last October, was gelded, given time to recover and then rushed into his first start over jumps at Christmas.

It’s therefore not surprising to see his progress gaining a head of steam relatively late. He wasn’t on my mind for this race when I last wrote about the juvenile cohort; he is now.

Runner-up Malaya comes into play for the Fred Winter from a mark of 136. It looks likely that a soundish surface is important as her only disappointing run for Paul Nicholls came on heavy ground at Aintree. There was much to like about how determinedly she stuck to her task.

Two other horses greatly enhanced their Triumph credentials during this period by fighting out the Grade One Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown. On that day, Mr Adjudicator denied Farclas by one-and-a-quarter lengths but you wouldn’t want to be dogmatic about which of the pair holds the better Cheltenham prospects.

The winner made his challenge more smoothly than Farclas, who on the home turn had to be rousted to pass Espoir D’Allen – then second favourite for the Triumph and hitherto unbeaten – and then ridden along to further assert his lead in the straight.

Mr Adjudicator got on terms at the final flight but it was touch and go for a sustained period about whether he’d be able to get past; as the line loomed, however, he was pulling steadily away. The winning time would compare favourably with that of the older Samcro over the same course and distance.

Mr Adjudicator (left) and Farclas jump the last together
Mr Adjudicator (left) and Farclas jump the last together at Leopardstown

There’s been a blip since, trainer Willie Mullins mentioning during his pre-Festival stable tour that Mr Adjudicator “had a little bit of a cold last week” and “missed a couple of bits of work”.

“But he’s as fit as a flea so that wouldn’t worry me. He’s fine now and looks to be over it,” he said, also highlighting the juvenile’s considerable Flat-racing experience as a positive factor for the Triumph.

Runner-up Farclas remains a maiden over hurdles after two starts but took a massive leap forwards here and resoundingly reversed his Christmas debut form with Espoir D’Allen. He could easily do better again and strikes me as particularly well suited to the task presented by the Triumph, perhaps better than the speedily bred Mr Adjudicator.

Espoir D’Allen was too keen in the early stages but faded more markedly than that would explain to finish quite a distant fourth. Trainer Gavin Cromwell has since scratched him from the Triumph and the horse currently holds no entries.

On the same day at Musselburgh, We Have A Dream faced a much easier task in the Scottish Triumph Hurdle – as a starting price of 1/5 would indicate. He wasn’t really hassled on the lead but a lack of fluency at the third last helped the scopier Act Of Valour to get on terms at the next obstacle. That horse then slightly pitched on landing, enabling the winner to get away again.

The runner-up then wandered left, appearing to have come to the end of his tether on his comeback from a 50-day break; he’d previously finished tailed off behind this winner at Doncaster but his blood was found to be wrong that day and this effort was more in keeping with his promising Newcastle debut defeat of the decent Look My Way.

Act Of Valour shaped as though capable of even better here and is of definite interest for the Fred Winter from a mark of 136. Trainer Paul Nicholls also does well in this race and you can still get 12/1 in some places. I think we should take that.

We Have A Dream’s trainer Nicky Henderson has since provided excuses for his horse where none are probably necessary.

“It was very much a last-minute decision to let him run at Musselburgh. We were going to wait for the Victor Ludorum at Haydock but thought that could be bottomless and you have less time [to recover for the Triumph]. I thought let’s go to Musselburgh and get the good ground and we went there and it was bottomless,” he said.

“I hadn’t prepared him at all and he blew up and that���s why it looked a bit messy two out and then he picked up and really did it well. That was my fault if he wasn’t impressive and he’s a lot better than that.”

For the record, the times suggest Musselburgh’s ground was soft at worst (unlike Haydock which DID prove to be bottomless) and We Have A Dream clocked the fastest time of the day. Henderson may have been trying to account for the proximity of a horse previously beaten out of sight. I think the answer is: both are quite decent horses but the winner is currently a bit better.

As well as his ability, We Have A Dream’s straightforwardness is a key asset – he can be positioned anywhere you like and although his trainer would prefer a sound surface, his Grade One Finale success in heavy ground suggests this is not an overwhelmingly relevant factor to his chances.

Incidentally, third-placed The King Of May shaped with encouragement for a stiffer test of stamina. That was his debut for Brian Ellison after being bought from France and he kept on nicely, if rather flattered by his proximity to a tiring Act Of Valour. He’s worth bearing in mind but not for the Festival.

Henderson is also hankering after good ground for the long-time Triumph favourite Apple’s Shakira but that’s harder to understand, given she seemed to hit a flat spot in testing conditions before coming home strongly to beat Look My Way at Cheltenham in January. I’d say the current weather is a good thing for her.

“She doesn’t do a tap at home,” added Henderson. “I did enquire as to what [her sister] Apple’s Jade was like and when they said she didn’t do a tap either, that is all I wanted to hear.”

The withdrawal of Espoir D’Allen from the Triumph surely removes any lingering ambiguity – of which there has been very little, to be fair – about her likely target because owner JP McManus has other candidates for the other races but now only the filly for this.

At the moment, Henderson’s remaining Triumph entry Style De Garde appears bound for the Fred Winter after galloping at Kempton earlier this week but Mullins could field three of his remaining five entries.

The filly Stormy Ireland and the once-tried Saldier are set to make the cut alongside Mr Adjudicator. The former missed her intended clash with her stable companion in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle due to “a little dirty nose” and her trainer “didn’t want to risk her if she wasn’t 100% as with her running style there is no thing as her having an easy race”.

Mullins continues to heap appreciation on her sole performance to date for him, an “awesome” 58-length from-the-front romp at Fairyhouse in an excellent time. It’s encouraging to hear her issues were only minor and she does at least have prior hurdling experience in France.

Saldier does not. He only made his debut over hurdles for the yard mid-way through last month, sauntering home in a Gowran maiden in which his main on-paper rival Les Arceaux – since withdrawn from the Triumph but still in the Fred Winter – was beaten before the straight and only one other rival cared to put up a fight.

The time was no great shakes and his jumping lacked fluency on occasions but he never looked likely to fall and the fact Mullins is prepared to roll the dice with him in the Triumph presumably speaks of his regard at Closutton.

Saldier has got a decent Flat pedigree and stayed 10f himself in France; Flat experience spanning eight races will at least help in terms of race craft. Zarkandar started hurdling that late in the season and yet still managed to win the Triumph – and he was only thrice raced on the Flat.

Which of these three juveniles Walsh favours with his services will be a fascinating tell, prompting an immediate trimming of the chosen one’s price. Mr Adjudicator and Stormy Ireland are largely 7/1 whereas Saldier is three points longer.

In other juvenile news, Finale runner-up Sussex Ranger ran right up to his best Flat form when switched to a steadily run 12f handicap on Kempton’s polytrack. This thorough stayer is clearly better suited to the jumping game but this kept him ticking over.

Haydock’s Victor Ludorum turned out to be a thriller, with Turning Gold somehow getting his nose past Cornerstone Lad on the line with Lisp two-and-a-half lengths adrift in third. The winner looks a promising lolloper whom trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies believes needs soft ground.

He holds a Fred Winter entry “in case it’s soft” but had a hard race in draining ground here. The runner-up, who was conceding 8lb to the winner, isn’t entered at the Festival but Lisp definitely heads for the Fred Winter, with trainer King hoping for better ground.

In a Grade Three at Fairyhouse two Saturdays ago, Mitchouka made it four victories from seven starts even though he still does relatively little, compared with how well he travels, once hitting the front. Trainer Gordon Elliott sends him over for the Fred Winter but concedes that “he’ll get to the last on the bridle but I don’t know if he’ll get up the hill”.

The good-looking but flattered Chatteris Fen winner Esprit De Somoza finished second to the year-older The Russian Doyen in a Taunton novice last week. The runner-up was keen early on, allowed the winner to get away from him in the straight and was not ultimately given a hard time.

He could be set for the Fred Winter – won by his trainer Nick Williams last year with Flying Tiger – from a mark of 135. He’d require a strong pace but would relish the stiff finish.

Nine days earlier on heavy ground at Exeter, stable companion Mercenaire had been brushed aside by another Colin Tizzard-trained year-older rival in the smart Vision Des Flos. The runner-up finished tired.

Selections:

Advised 30/11/17: Min 8/1 Champion Chase with Paddy Power/Betfair

Advised 06/12/17: Supasundae 20/1 Stayers’ Hurdle with Bet365 and Paddy Power/Betfair

Advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan 15/2 for the Supreme with Betfair

Advised 13/12/17: On The Blind Side 10/1 each-way for the Ballymore with various firms

Advised 31/12/17: Let’s Dance 12/1 each-way for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with William Hill

Advised 31/12/17: Presenting Percy 8/1 for the RSA Chase with BetVictor, BetFred, Boylesports or Stan James

Advised 05/01/18: Apple’s Jade 100/30 NRNB for the Stayers’ Hurdle with Betfair Sportsbook

Advised 05/01/18: Poetic Rhythm 25/1 each-way for the Albert Bartlett with William Hill, Paddy Power or Betfair Sportsbook

Advised 09/01/18: Minella Rocco 20/1 each-way for the Gold Cup with various firms

Advised 02/03/18: Faugheen each-way at 5/1 NRNB BOG 1/4 odds a place with Bet 365 for the Champion Hurdle (or 13/2 e/w NRNB 1/5 odds a place with Betfair Sportsbook)

Back now: Act Of Valour at 12/1 NRNB for the Fred Winter with Coral

Back now: Diego Du Charmil at 25/1 for the Grand Annual with Bet365 or Betfair Sportsbook

Back now: Duc De Genievres each-way at 14/1 for the Ballymore NRNB 1/5 odds with Ladbrokes or at 12/1 BOG NRNB 1/4 odds with Bet365

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Sporting Life: Daily Nap

Richard Mann has three selections for Monday with the nap of the day running at Wolverhampton.

Newmarket trainer Roger Varian3

Monday's racing preview

Keith Hamer expects more Windsor success for Buffer Zone and has a tip for every race in the UK and Ireland.

Amazing Red wins under Dettori4

Northumberland Plate preview

David Ord's horse-by-horse guide to Saturday's Stobart Rail & Civils Northumberland Plate and he takes an Ed Dunlop Newmarket raider to snatch the prize.

5

Tuesday's racing preview

Ashley Iveson makes Guns Of Leros his best bet for Tuesday and has a tip for every race in the UK and Ireland.

Next Race Off
18:20 Wolverhampton
1
(2)
Becker
J: P Mulrennan
5
(6)
Billy Booth
J: Aaron Jones
2
(7)
Gold Stone
J: T Eaves
7
(1)
Mother of Dragons
J: Darragh Keenan
6
(4)
Bomad
J: P Mathers
4
(5)
Persian Prize
J: Gabriele Malune
8
(3)
Mariah's Melody
J: Cam Hardie

Racing Tips

Amazing Red wins under Dettori

Northumberland Plate preview

David Ord's horse-by-horse guide to Saturday's Stobart Rail & Civils Northumberland Plate and he takes an Ed Dunlop Newmarket raider to snatch the prize.

Newmarket trainer Roger Varian

Monday's racing preview

Keith Hamer expects more Windsor success for Buffer Zone and has a tip for every race in the UK and Ireland.

Find out who our team are backing ahead of today's racing

Sporting Life: Daily Nap

Richard Mann has three selections for Monday with the nap of the day running at Wolverhampton.