Cheltenham Festival tips: Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham including Coral Cup fancy

The Cheltenham Festival is fast approaching
The Cheltenham Festival is fast approaching

Lydia Hislop makes the final stop on the Road To Cheltenham (don't worry, there will be daily 'Roads' during the Festival) and Sky Bet have boosted her Coral Cup selection.

Recommendation: Road To Cheltenham

Duc De Genievres at 12/1 for the Coral Cup (NRNB firms)

You join this week’s edition of the Road just as the Festival yak reaches cacophony levels, fuelled now by a baffling mix of guessing about the weather and anything from genuine intelligence to hip-shooting bravado at the various preview nights.

On the first count, I see no option but to base my current thinking on the likelihood that Cheltenham will kick off on soft ground and that it may even sustain until the Grand Annual has been run at the close of play. The caveats here are, of course, how quickly this particular course can drain granted a dry spell and how unreliable medium-term forecasts can often be.

Simon Claisse, the clerk of the course, said on Tuesday that the ground on all five tracks (Old and New hurdles and chase courses plus the Cross Country) was “soft, good-to-soft in places” but warned that there was up to 20 millimetres of rain forecast in the succeeding six days.

On the second count, what makes me prick up my ears at preview nights might not be your predilection. This is necessarily subjective stuff and I’m mostly deaf to it, I must confess. Feel free to politely pay no notice of what I say if you’re attending the London Racing Club tomorrow night [@Racing LRC] or the Betting Emporium [@bettingemporium] on Saturday. It’s what those closest to me would advise.

There will yet be four further (mercifully briefer) editions of this column, one per day of the Festival. So, before all the shouting starts, please may I take this opportunity to wish you all the very best of luck next week and to thank you for taking the time to read this season’s Road To Cheltenham.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

The betting markets are indicating distaste for at least two of Willie Mullins’ entries (perm four of five). The darkest vibe is arguably for hoodless Melon, given he’s said to be a confirmed runner. The big prices about Yorkhill may indicate a participation doubt or else the disadvantage posed by a returnung Ruby Walsh surely choosing Faugheen over the headcase.

In the latest edition of the Weekender, Mullins has stated Yorkhill is 60/40 to go for the Champion Hurdle rather than the Ryanair – readily interchangeable, those two targets – and that Faugheen continues to “improve all the time”.

I’m told it’s been discussed on Twitter whether he might opt for some sort of headgear with Faugheen and I can see the argument – something to rekindle his spark. But equally Walsh might help in that regard, because he got the horse jumping so well in his latter pomp. Given he’s the only shrink to understand Yorkhill’s inkblot test, his absence on that horse would be pivotal.

Walsh returned to riding out at Mullins’ Closutton yard last Saturday but may or may not return to the saddle in public until the Festival itself. That depends both on the weather and the horses entered at Thurles, Leopardstown, Gowran and Naas this week. We might ask whether he will have his eye in to the degree the Festival requires – and one year we might be right to do so.

If you didn’t back Faugheen each-way as advised last week, I should point out Sun Bets now offer 13/2 BOG NRNB but still only at 1/5 odds. Remember, even if he never returns to his epic best, he still boasts the best item of current-season form in the Champion Hurdle. Yes, the ease of Buveur D’Air’s victories strongly suggest he’ll produce a good deal better but there is potential for Faugheen to show more again, too. He’s over-priced.

This scenario reminds me of Sprinter Sacre prior to his resurgent 2016 Champion Chase success. Just because he wasn’t back to his incredible best – and was never going to be – he was disproportionately opposed.

Incidentally, I yearn for the days when the Champion Hurdle was the third race on Cheltenham’s opening day and the first three Grade One events went: bang, Bang, BANG. I find the Ultima defalates that slap-you-round-the-face-this-is-what-you’ve-been-waiting-361-days-for feeling. But perhaps that’s just me.

Yorkhill: Surely Ruby Walsh won't be on the headcase?

OLBG Mares’ Hurdle

Soft ground might well lure trainer Warren Greatrex to run La Bague Au Roi here rather than in the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, despite her form suggesting she’s better suited to three miles than this 2m4f trip.

Jockey Richard Johnson, who registered her first two victories this term, commented in his Betway blog: “We were leaning towards the Stayers’ Hurdle but that is becoming more competitive with the likes of Yanworth.

“In the Mares’ Hurdle, you’ve got Apple’s Jade, who is one of the bankers of the meeting, but maybe it’s best to take on one top-class horse rather than four or five in the Stayers?

“The ground will be key to the decision. I could definitely see her finishing second to Apple’s Jade and you never know what could happen on the day. She handles all sorts of ground and stays well.”

I like to imagine Yanworth as the improbable final straw in this calculation. (And yes, I know he’s going to win the Stayers’ now, so many jokes have I made at his expense.)

Indian Stream was an unlikely candidate to fare best of the British in last year’s renewal but she did indeed claim that spot at 33/1, albeit without ever getting close to the three principals.

However, she was in career-best form this time last year and, having pulled up last time out and run poorly the time before, she is very far from being in the same shape currently. Nonetheless, her trainer Neil Mulholland has indicated she will indeed run here.

Finally, there’s some tentative bad news regarding this column’s selection for this race, Let’s Dance. It seems the view chez owner Rich Ricci is that he’s prepared to run two top-class mares in the same race but draws the line at three.

Therefore if last year’s runner-up Vroum Vroum Mag and switching chaser Benie Des Dieux head here as expected, then Let’s Dance will be shunted into the Stayers’ Hurdle – to a distance over which she’s unproven, having disappointed last time and having failed to please trainer Willie Mullins during her Festival preparations.

This seems to be the exact opposite to the logic applied in a near-identical scenario this time last year with Vroum Vroum Mag, who ran here rather than in the Stayers’ Hurdle. The only difference is that Ricci then ‘only’ had Limini in this race rather than two other runners.

But our’s is not to reason why. They who pay the bills and see these horses every day make the decisions. It’s our task to try to pre-empt them. Epic fail!

This would, of course, leave me without a bet in this accursed race. Bear with. I’ll get back to you next time.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

I may not have pushed through to its logical conclusion my argument that Ruby Walsh would choose Min over Douvan if they both made it to the Festival and ran in this race. I still think he should choose Min but why would connections bother running Douvan here in that scenario?

All that against-the-clock effort, all those knife-edge preparations and Walsh deserts this horse for another? No, I fear if both horses run in this race then Walsh will ride Douvan – as ITV’s Luke Harvey reported owner Rich Ricci has stated.

This clearly indicates the incomparable regard with which that horse is held at Closutton. Off since fracturing his pelvis last March, intermittently lame, 50/50 to make it and STILL the first string.

(That regard surely undervalues Min’s Dublin Chase romp – his most impressive performance ever on the first occasion he’s got a lead in a strongly run race over fences. A scenario that’s almost certain to be replicated in the 2018 Champion Chase.

The only other time a leader has gone fast enough for him to happily chase them was for Min’s standout hurdling best when second to Altior in the 2016 Supreme, in which he reportedly also finished injured. But I digress…)

Of course, there is the scenario that Walsh does indeed want ride to the fitter, more recently proven, arguably unexposed and sound horse in the Champion Chase – in which case could Douvan run in the Ryanair?

Especially as the likely soft ground raises questions about the stamina of the stable star in that contest, Un De Sceaux? It might be that this year that horse would be better off in this race. Just saying.

Mentally juggling all these variations could easily be academic, of course. Connections of Douvan have repeatedly said that everything needs to go right for him to make it to Cheltenham and we’re already in the final countdown. And maybe they’ll come back to earth, who can tell?

Soft ground is a negative for Special Tiara but he’ll still go out hard in front. There’s no other way; there’s no other way. Charbel, the horse responsible for a good pace in the 2016 Supreme and 2017 Arkle, was supposed to be participating in a jumpers’ bumper at Southwell last week but the meeting was abandoned.

Finally, Forest Bihan has been designated a non-runner in the Champion Chase, with connections inclined towards the Grand Annual instead. It’s possible that Ordinary World – fourth in the Dublin Chase after a catclysmic last-fence blunder prevented him from finishing a highly flattered second – could join him.

Douvan will sidestep the Tingle Creek
Douvan: Will he make it?

Ryanair Chase

Sub Lieutenant was bearing down hard on Un De Sceaux at the end of last year’s Ryanair, having perhaps been ridden a shade too respectfully adrift of the zestful winner who’d forged his way into the lead (whether Ruby Walsh ideally agreed or not) at the fifth fence.

That was on good-to-soft ground whereas this edition may well be at the very minimum on soft, thereby entailing a greater emphasis on stamina. If Un De Sceaux is vulnerable anywhere in this Grade One 2m5f, it is up that final hill – provided the opponent bearing down on him has been classy enough to keep within touching distance when the titleholder gets rolling mid-race.

This year’s event hasn’t quite retained the depth it once threatened – typical Ryanair! – with Fox Norton and Road To Respect definite no-shows for different reasons and others either doubtful, such as Min and Douvan, or having underperformed of late, such as Top Notch.

Yet I would still maintain that with the upwardly mobile pair Waiting Patiently possibly and Balko Des Flos definitely taking part and the still-got-it veteran Cue Card thrown in to boot, Un De Sceaux faces a tougher task than 12 months ago. All these factors lead me to believe 2/1 is skinny.

(That said, this is a horse I’ve regularly got wrong all his career – and yet I still love him. It’s hard not to rejoice in a horse whose enthusiasm for racing is matched only by that of his loyal band of be-scarved followers.)

Of course, Waiting Patiently is not yet a definite participant – even if the recent weather and further forecast rain has removed one of trainer Ruth Jefferson’s fistful of objections. They also include concerns about the sharp but undulating track, a fear that he still makes novicey mistakes and a theory that he’s best with more time between his races.

Jefferson has stated that rather than engage in a daily exchange with the press about whether the horse will run, she will make a final decision after talking to the owners this Thursday or Friday. For what it’s worth, I think Waiting Patiently’s class and run style in theory make him the chief threat to Un De Sceaux at the finish but I do wonder about his suitability for Cheltenham. Tough call.

Cue Card is yet to be definitively confirmed for either this race or the Gold Cup but Balko Des Flos is a definite – and has been backed of late.

Yet Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary has commented of “our main runner” in the Ryanair: “This rain is not going to help him, so I would doubt that we’ll be able to end our hoodoo in the race if the ground comes up soft.”

There remains a possibility that Willie Mullins might field the main threat to his own ante-post favourite in the form of Douvan, Min or (klaxon) Yorkhill. I can’t dismiss the first option, dearly hope the second is not a goer (like his trainer has said) and have given up thinking about the third for Lent.

Finally, Gold Present is still entered in this race and was recently suggested to be going straight to Aintree but is now a likely runner in the Ultima, for which he ranges from 8/1 to (in one place) 10/1 second favourite.

Coney Island is a Festival non-runner after disappointing at Ascot.

Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle

Soft ground would swing the pendulum more towards Sam Spinner than this column’s Supasundae in this race and I wouldn’t be surprised if the two horses swap positions in the ante-post market as soon as any of the forecast rain materialises.

The only other news is that Let’s Dance is seemingly likely to head here, joining in theory stablemates Penhill, Bacardys and fellow mare Augusta Kate for trainer Willie Mullins. Let’s Dance is 25/1 NRNB for this race (or 33/1 on ante-post terms) whereas she’s 8/1 for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.

Gold Cup contender Road To Respect
Road To Respect: Would prefer better ground

Timico Gold Cup

According to Sean Graham’s Twitter feed [@SPGBetting] at their Cheltenham Festival Preview night on Monday, Willie Mullins’ assistant trainer David Casey said that dual runner-up Djakadam wears first-time cheekpieces in this year’s Gold Cup.

Derek O’Connor, the riding oxymoron, keeps the mount on recent shock Irish Gold Cup winner Edwulf on Friday week. The ‘professional’ amateur, who’s ridden more than 1,100 point-to-point winners, been crowned champion point rider 11 times and tasted Festival success three times to date, nursed miracle horse Edwulf to a career best at Leopardstown last time out.

Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, confirmed the news on Tuesday and added that retained jockey Barry Geraghty would have the choice between last year’s third Minella Rocco and Anibale Fly. Both horses hit the deck behind Edwulf last time, the latter crunchingly.

“Mark Walsh will ride whoever Barry doesn’t,” Berry concluded. Lucky, lucky him. McManus’s Coney Island ducks the Festival, however.

Eddie O’Leary has played down the chances of Gigginstown’s chief Gold Cup hope Road To Respect emulating their two previous winners, War Of Attrition in 2006 and Don Cossack in 2016, commenting: “With every drop of rain that falls, it hurts his chances.”

He might well be correct, due to not only the horse’s preference for a sound surface but also the greater doubt about his stamina.

Jessica Harrington has reported that reigning champion Sizing John is “heavier now than he was this time last year” but still can’t get away from the fact his last run was a “bad” one.

“He’s had a completely different prep to the one he had last year,” she told the Racing Post’s David Jennings. “We were all a bit deflated and disappointed after Leopardstown at Christmas but you have to remember that was the first bad race he ever ran for us. We started taking him for granted. His [recent] work has been really good.”

Noel Fehily, who rides stablemate Our Duke after stable jockey Robbie Power understandably could not desert the titleholder, has been speaking warmly of his Gold Cup spare.

“I was really impressed with him in the Irish Grand National,” he said. “I rode in the race and we went a seriously good gallop. He killed everything that day. He’s a real strong stayer with a high cruising speed.”

As part of his big-race preparations, Fehily has been to Harrington’s yard to familiarise himself with the horse first-hand. “I was very happy with him this morning,” Fehily told the Racing Post. “I popped him over a few fences and he was in great order. It was nice to get a feel of the horse.

“I liked the way he moved in front of his fences. He’s a big lad but also very nimble. He moves his feet well and gets up in the air. I’ve watched him run and he’s obviously made one or two mistakes in his races but after sitting on him, I wouldn’t be worried.”

Meanwhile Richard Johnson has argued of his Gold Cup vessel Native River that “soft ground inconveniences others more than it does him”. “The forecast looks like it’s going to be pretty damp and that is good news for us as the water table must be pretty high at Cheltenham,” he said.

Finally, trainer Harry Fry has stated in his Betway blog that there’s “an outside chance” talented but fragile chaser American could be supplemented for the Gold Cup at this Saturday’s supplementary stage if the ground looks likely to remain soft.

Last seen when eight lengths second to Definitly Red in Cheltenham’s Cotswold Chase in January, American missed his intended engagement at Kelso last Satuday when that meeting was abandoned. He’s also in the Ultima and the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter but Fry is disinclined to run him “off top weight on really bad ground”.

Novice chasers

It’s a great shame that Sceau Royal won’t make it to the Racing Post Arkle after sustaining what trainer Alan King described as a “slight setback” that prevents him from training the horse for the Festival.

“We’ll review the situation in the next few days and decide whether he runs again this season or we put him away,” King revealed on Monday. “You can’t take a chance with a horse. If you push him now, you may have no horse left.”

As a result it’s tighter at the top of the market with Footpad 11/8 best in NRNB markets, Petit Mouchoir mostly 9/4 (11/4 in one place) and Saint Calvados 7/2 (4/1 in one place). The weather forecast aids the prospects of the last-named horse against two known high-class rivals.

Interestingly, at the Sean Graham preview evening there were reports that Petit Mouchoir got revved up in the parade ring prior to Leopardstown last time. That’s arguably a worry for Cheltenham but perhaps, given he handled the Festival cauldron when third in last year’s Champion Hurdle, an indication that he’s likely to improve once back in a more professional groove rather than returning from a long absence. Provided his jumping holds up.

There has been a preview-night hint that North Hill Harvey could contest the Grand Annual rather than the Arkle following his comprehensive Warwick defeat by Saint Calvados.

Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary has announced that the mare Shattered Love runs in the JLT rather than the RSA Insurance Chase and Dounikos, her stable companion at Gordon Elliott’s yard, contests the RSA instead of the NH Chase. As argued last time, I deem the latter a real player for his revised target.

“Dounikos has been forgotten about by everyone bar us,” exaggerated O’Leary. “He’s a grand horse who gets a trip… As for Shattered Love, she’s won over as short as two miles, albeit she appreciates further, and you’d really want to be able to stay three miles to feature in a JLT Novices’ Chase, which she does.”

Mossback will represent Gigginstown in the NH Chase, ridden by Lisa O’Neill who also rode Tiger Roll to victory for the same operation last year. That still leaves Elliott with a good shout in the NH Chase, with both Fagan and Jury Duty set to line up there. The Storyteller reportedly heads for the Plate.

There seems to be no suggestion that Monalee will switch from the RSA to the JLT, with jockey Noel Fehily also commenting how impressed he was with “the way he picked up after the back of the last fence” when they won the Flogas Chase. It helped that Fehily had controlled the race from the front.

Market vibes, since underpinned by comments from Willie Mullins in the Weekender, currently indicate that Invitation Only will line up in the JLT, but that no “top Irish jockey” has been ringing Colin Tizzard for a NH Chase ride on Elegant Escape. Therefore that horse may well stick to the RSA.

Noel Meade may redirect Snow Falcon from the RSA Chase to the Ultima; this horse ran creditably in the Grade One Flogas Chase and boasts a suitable profile for that handicap target.

Anthony Bromley, racing manager to owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, has suggested recent Grade One Scilly Isles Chase winner Terrefort could indeed take part in the JLT due to the now-likelihood of testing ground.

Trainer Nicky Henderson had expressed doubts about pitching a five-year-old into the race but Bristol De Mai finished second for the same owners at that age in 2016.

In his latest weekly update, Paul Jones [@PaulJonesRacing] has rightly pointed out that, despite non-completions the last twice (the first not his fault), Rathvinden has the right profile for this race as a second-season chaser with ten previous chase starts – in stark contrast to, say, No Comment who’s only had one outing over fences.

Keeper Hill is said to be NH Chase-bound after tipping up at Musselburgh behind Barney Dwan. The concern with that decision is that a longer trip means more fences to jump. The weather must be tempting connections to run Ms Parfois in the four-miler.

After finishing tailed off in the Scilly Isles and being eased 2lb in the official ratings, trainer Neil Mulholland has confirmed that Kalondra’s ambitions have been downgraded from the JLT to the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, for which he now sneaks in off the upper limit of 145.

Unsurprisingly, the well-managed Any Second Now is a highly popular choice for that same race. He’s likely to prove one of its classier contenders and, for a race that operates more like a classified chase than a handicap (with a weight span of around 4lb or 5lb), that’s important.

Samcro jumps the last at Leopardstown
Samcro: Connections not even thinking of the Sky Bet Supreme (unless it's 'brutal' heavy)

Novice hurdlers

“Switching Samcro from the Ballymore to the Supreme is something we’re not even thinking about. It doesn’t interest us that his price for the Supreme has shortened,” said Gigginstown’s Eddie O’Leary, appearing to slam the door shut on theories that this unbeaten horse could switch Festival targets.

But then he went and left it ajar. “Unless the ground becomes brutal heavy,” he added.

I can see the angle some punters have been taking on Samcro – and not just because Bet365 held his price at 14/1 NRNB (now 2/1) for a conspicuously long time. He certainly isn’t short of pace and the Ballymore trip on testing ground would be a slight unknown.

To add further intrigue, I’ve read that at a recent Irish preview night trainer Gordon Elliott is supposed repeatedly to have said Samcro could yet run in the Supreme if the ground was testing. Get the popcorn in.

If he does switch, he’ll face Getabird in the Supreme whom David Casey reportedly described at the Sean Graham preview night as “fragile” and “difficult to train”. He argued that soft ground would be a huge plus. He said stablemates Sharjah and Whiskey Sour would also line up there.

At the unveiling of the Festival’s handcap weights, Tom George gave him the impression of preferring to run Black Op in the Ballymore and Summerville Boy in the Supreme, rather than alternative targets for either horse. Sensibly however, George also explicitly stated that owner Roger Brookhouse will make the final decision.

I’ve read that this column’s Ballymore selection On The Blind Side didn’t work well recently – yakety yak! – but trainer Nicky Henderson apparently is yet to comment, even when pressed on the subject by ITV’s Oli Bell.

Meanwhile, Willie Mullins has suggested in a Weekender stable tour this week that he could yet switch Next Destination from the Ballymore, presumably to the Albert Bartlett but we don’t know because he didn’t say. Not important, is it?

Casey, his assistant, also mentioned that Brahma Bull – unbeaten in four starts but only once-raced over hurdles – could also contest the Albert Bartlett. I refer the honourable gentlemen to the remarks made some moments ago (specifically in the previous Road) about what’s required to win an Albert Bartlett. This ain’t it.

Meanwhile, Sidney Banks runner-up Western Ryder seems to be pretty much confirmed for the Ballymore but there’s as yet no indication that Kim Bailey is tempted to run First Flow in the Supreme despite the likely soft ground.

Paul Jones has also suggested that Duc De Genievres, this column’s optimistic Ballymore back-up selection (in the sense that trainer Willie Mullins has been talking Albert Bartlett for him), could switch to the Coral Cup in order to dodge Samcro and keep apart from his owner's other horses like Chef Des Obeaux and Fabulous Saga.

I must admit that’s a possibility so if you fancy covering your options – and I do for this particular horse – he’s 12/1 NRNB. He’s also 16/1 on ante-post terms but the NRNB is imperative at this stage, especially if you've already backed him NRNB for the Ballymore. Sky Bet even offers 12/1 BOG.

Juvenile hurdlers

Nick Schofield is known for having tipped a few winners at preview evenings in the past. At a Towcester gathering, intriguingly the jockey only mentioned the Paul Nicholls-trained Malaya for the Fred Winter and not shorter-priced stablemate Act Of Valour (this column’s selection). Curious but by no means disheartening for our selection.

Ben Pauling is crossing his fingers that Ostrakh Le Noir can make the cut for the Fred Winter – no certainty from a mark of 124 with ten horses needing to come out above him.

Definitely making the cut and poised to become a first Festival contender for high-impact rookie trainer Olly Murphy is Oxford Blu. Richard Johnson will again ride and first-time blinkers will replace cheekpieces.

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)

Advised 04/03/18: Act Of Valour at 12/1 NRNB for the Fred Winter with Coral

Advised 04/03/18: Diego Du Charmil at 25/1 for the Grand Annual with Bet365 or Betfair Sportsbook

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

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