Lydia Hislop: Road to Cheltenham focusing on the hurdles

Benie Des Dieux (right) goes for back-to-back wins
Benie Des Dieux (right) goes for back-to-back wins

Lydia Hislop rounds up the latest Cheltenham news lines before focusing on the hurdling division.

Welcome to the hurdling edition of the Road To Cheltenham, the last full update before my daily articles during the Festival itself. But first, I must briefly round up the latest news on some leading Cheltenham-bound chasers that has emerged since Monday’s column.

While working for Sky Sports Racing on Monday, Matt Chapman spotted that Santini was drifting and all his major rivals shortening in Betfair’s Exchange betting for the RSA Insurance Chase. So, rather than speculate, he texted Nicky Henderson for an explanation. It’s turned into something of a saga.

The trainer, who had been away from his yard schooling at Cheltenham and then attending a memorial service that day, later responded that the horse had lost a shoe during his schooling session at Newbury last Sunday and the foot had been poulticed overnight. At this stage, after conferring with his staff back at the yard, he saw “no reason why he won’t run in the RSA”.

“Santini jumped ten fences at Newbury yesterday along with Might Bite and On The Blind Side, and that was all fine. He lost a shoe on the way around and, like anybody else would, we put a poultice on his foot – and it seems to have sent the world ballistic,” he added.

Henderson claimed this reaction caused him then to alter what would have been his usual approach to such a problem by putting a shoe on Santini that night, rather than waiting until the following morning.

"I normally wouldn't have done under normal circumstances,” he asserted at that stage. “But because of the reaction I did and he probably is just a little bit tender on that foot. I might be surprised if he wasn't. Hundreds of horses lose a shoe; putting a poultice on their foot is just a common-sense practicality.”

Reflecting that the same thing happened to Altior in the days prior to his Champion Chase success last year – a blip that only became public afterwards – he added: “If I had to report every time a horse lost a shoe, then racing would come to a standstill. This is the danger of doing these things in public as people see these things. We're only trying to do the best we can by the horse and I've got the world on my back.”

Of course, Santini’s schooling gallop did not take place “in public” in any meaningful sense and the timing of the drift would suggest it was the therapeutic treatment, rather than anyone lurking in Newbury’s undergrowth spotting the loss of a shoe, that drove it.

On Wednesday, Henderson posted a video on Twitter of the horse trotting, commenting: “All is well in the world with Santini this morning and we’re firmly back on track for the RSA!”

He added: “He was tender but the farriers have done a brilliant job with him. He came out very bouncy this morning and was moving beautifully. You have to treat these things with a lot of respect, but if he's the same tomorrow morning we'll be off and running. It was a similar situation with Altior last year before the Champion Chase. He got over it in a day; Santini has taken two.”

At Thursday’s six-day stage for the RSA, Henderson confirmed Santini but removed NH Chase favourite OK Corral, meaning the latter now holds no other options. I had interpreted that as the most positive indicator yet of Santini’s wellbeing but the news is not so good today.

“After two very good days, we thought everything was fine and we were through it but unfortunately he wasn’t as good this morning and the issue has reared its ugly head again, so we’ve had to remove the shoe and put a poultice back on his foot,” Henderson reported via his Unibet blog.

"It is 100 per cent the foot and absolutely nothing else, but because we’ve had to continue riding him, it’s obviously jigged it up again which has not helped. It’s a very common issue and in any normal circumstance, you'd give them a few days off to allow the foot to heal and then carry on, but because we are in a race against time with four/five days to go we’ve had to crack on which has led us back here.

“I think we are better than going back to square one and I’m hoping the poultice does its job, as I really did think we’d seen the end of the problem but we obviously haven’t. The team are doing their very best and I am still hopeful that we will get there in time.”

From a punting perspective, such setbacks are difficult to assimilate because, as Henderson says, they can frequently be filed under quotidian. One horse’s performance might be affected by it and another not.

In this specific case, it may be worth acknowledging that Santini is a big, stuffy horse for whom any prolonged disruption to his regime might be more relevant than for some but, in truth, unless it becomes obvious that he should not run, we’re all guessing the likely impact, Henderson to some degree included.

Stablemate On The Blind Side yesterday stood his ground for the RSA, too, and, according to his trainer’s Unibet streamed preview, could wear cheekpieces [insert joke here] to help combat his early-race tendency to jump stickily.

Sticking with the Seven Barrows trainer, in the last edition I overlooked an enlightening detail in Might Bite’s much-vaunted recovery, slipped into conversation after the 2018 Gold Cup runner-up galloped at Kempton last week: he has changed the horse’s medication for ulcers. This adds ballast to the sense (discussed last time) that the fundamental problem ailing him has been located and resolved.

It emerged on Wednesday night that Fox Norton – who only returned to action in January following more than a year on the sidelines – will miss the Festival due to a setback. Joe Tizzard, son and assistant of trainer Colin Tizzard, said: "We’re really disappointed, but unfortunately Fox Norton will miss the Ryanair next week due to a recurrence of an old injury."

Meanwhile, despite the forecast rain, Waiting Patiently will also miss the Ryanair due to one of his connections’ other maxims – this time spoken by owner Richard Collins – that he "does need time between his races."

His next options are either the Aintree or Punchestown Festivals but also perhaps a trip to Auteuil for either the Prix La Barka in May or the French Champion Hurdle in June, as Collins anticipates France will provide soft ground at that time of year.

After Waiting Patiently’s contemptuous dismissal by Cyrname – about whom Collins offered an impromptu sceptical analysis of his all-conquering revised rating – a new plan is definitely a good idea.

As two horses exited from this race, another entered stage right when trainer Noel Meade confirmed yesterday that, after *cough* consultation with Gigginstown, Road To Respect switches from the Magners Gold Cup to the Ryanair. Perhaps the weather forecast has contributed to this change of heart but I’ve always argued the shorter race is the more suitable target.

"We’ve had a discussion about it and we just feel he just didn’t quite get home in the Gold Cup last year," Meade told Press Association Sport. Better late than never for watching dem videos. Good decision – as is that of keeping the raw Tout Est Permis at home until his maturity can fulfil his stamina requirements in next year’s Gold Cup.

“Tout Est Permis probably won’t go [to Cheltenham] at all, unless something happens to Road To Respect,” Meade added. Could the Road To Respect switcheroo precipitate Gigginstown flipping Balko Des Flos to the Gold Cup? (She pleaded?)

In further Gold Cup news, trainer Gordon Elliott has reportedly said at a Preview Night that this column’s other Gold Cup selection, Shattered Love, has had a wind operation. No bad thing. Meanwhile, Paul Nicholls apparently all but confessed at last night’s Betfair Preview that Frodon heads to the Ryanair rather than the Gold Cup.

Some other quick flashes of news, in case you missed them: Clondaw Castle has indeed been supplemented for the Arkle, Champagne Classic didn’t stand his ground at the six-day stage for the NH Chase (which might suggest a Gigginstown-inspired switch to the RSA) and Simply Ned’s name did not appear among the 12 horses remaining in the Champion Chase.

Le Breuil runs in the NH Chase rather than the Ultima and Jamie Codd, who was unaccountably not yet booked, has been snapped up to ride by trainer Ben Pauling. Interestingly, Paul Nicholls has today supplemented Capeland for the JLT, a race in which the Arkle-entered Defi Du Seuil and Glen Forsa, plus Nicholls’ RSA-bound Topofthegame, still stand their ground. Delta Work and Kalashnikov have been removed from Thursday’s race.

Trainer Kim Bailey has revised his decision to miss Cheltenham with Vinndication. He had been discouraged by the horse’s performance when schooling at Newbury last Sunday but has since posted the following video of a far more positive work-out and has declared the JLT Novices’ Chase – not the RSA – as the target:

And finally, some yak. When appearing as a studio guest on Sky Sports Racing’s Get In programme, Barry Geraghty was not inclined to dismiss presenter Luke Harvey’s conjecture that “there must have been something amiss” with Presenting Percy for him only to have raced once to date this season. “Well, you’d imagine he’s had some... it might be only minor... issues,” Geraghty replied.

Once I’d watched this, the following words from owner Philip Reynolds after the horse had schooled at Galway – originally questioned by one of my sharp-eyed and cynical Twitter correspondents (truly, I can bestow no greater accolade) – started to take on a different light.

“Pat [Kelly, trainer] is happy with him and he worked with Mall Dini this morning,” Reynolds had said. “We’re delighted with him. Fingers crossed he’ll be OK in the morning and for the next fortnight. Trying to keep him right is the challenge."

I'd initially read these words as the playbook platitudes racing people say to pesky questions from journalists but perhaps it’s more meaningful than that? Does it indicate there’s been a soundness issue all along for Presenting Percy? That his truancy has been less inspired by Kelly’s idiosyncrasies and more forced upon him?

Maintaining complete radio silence and a rep for the unorthodox is a great cover. British trainers: please, do not take note. But we can always ask Kelly rather than just be left guessing, can’t we? Oh.

Unibet Champion Hurdle

Although 14 horses stood their ground at the six-day stage for the showpiece event of day one of the Festival, we might end up with just ten facing the starter come the day. Supasundae and perhaps Petit Mouchoir could yet head to the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle and both Farclas and recent National Spirit winner Vision Des Flos have alternative plans in the Coral Cup.

Both noteworthy absentees are trained by Nicky Henderson. Having been identified as a runner via his Unibet blog only five days earlier, We Have A Dream is out. Jockey Daryl Jacob did say after their straightforward Morebattle success last month that the horse would miss Cheltenham, with next term’s novice-chasing campaign now uppermost in connections’ minds.

Stablemate Charli Parcs, who inadequately performed the role of pacemaker for dual Unibet Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air this time last year, is another no-show. The presence of Apple’s Jade and Global Citizen should mean the race contains adequate pace of its own making.

The other ’exiteers are: Ch’Tibello, Cilaos Emery (who’s also been scratched from the Arkle, as seemed likely), last year’s County hero Mohaayed, Pingshou, Saldier (whose name had been notable by its absence during Willie Mullins’ stable tours) and Wholestone.

Gordon Elliott had announced the previous day that Samcro would “skip Cheltenham” because it’s “just going to come a week or two too soon” in the horse’s recovery from a heavy lung infection.

“At the best of times, you’ve got to be absolutely spot on for Cheltenham and, while Samcro is in very good shape, myself, Michael and Eddie [O’Leary, of owners Gigginstown Stud] feel that the right thing to do by horse is to give him more time,” he said.

“There is every chance that Samcro could run again this season and there are a range of suitable races for him… so hopefully we will see him back in action next month. Looking further ahead, we are looking forward to when he goes chasing in the autumn."

Following these forfeits, Samcro’s stablemate Apple’s Jade was promoted to outright favourite by some bookmakers – the forecast band of heavy rain having hit its target and suiting those horses, like this ten-times Grade One-winning mare, who stay well.

John Kettley is a weatherman a weatherman a weatherman and he’s predicting soft ground for the opening day of the Festival, after 27mm of rainfall at Cheltenham since last Wednesday and with another 17mm due prior to the start of the meeting next Tuesday.

Yet clerk of the course Simon Claisse is hedging his bets a little, predicting “a combination of good-to-soft and soft ground on day one, but in what balance I wouldn’t speculate”. Doesn’t he realise we’re deep into Preview Season and that’s what it’s for? If you don’t loudly take an entrenched view now, Simon, you won’t be able to bang on about it on Twitter for the next 12 months. Or post your ante-post slips with some faux self-deprecatory comment. Kettley knows the game.

Willie Mullins and Laurina’s pounding knees will also be delighted by the prospect of further precipitation. Since I last wrote about the hurdlers, she’s had a straightforward spin around Punchestown, taking a lead from stablemate Stormy Ireland before outjumping her at the second last and instantly putting all of her – proven inferior – rivals bang in trouble. She won just about as well as she should have done, albeit she did characteristically balloon one or two of her obstacles. Some improvement on the former element at least can clearly be expected, however.

“She had a good blow after, which was understandable as we had to give her an easy week after getting the flu jab,” Mullins said. “The tight inside track at Punchestown wasn’t ideal and Ruby [Walsh, jockey] said she’ll be a lot happier on a more galloping track. She jumped big at times but when asked to go about her business, she was a lot sharper.

“She’s a lot more mature and relaxed than last season, when you’d need a bodyguard to go with you into her box.”

Of course, Laurina’s Dawn Run success at last year’s Festival came on the more galloping New Course; on Tuesday, she’ll face the comparatively sharp, constantly turning Old Course. Yet the rain will certainly help: placing a greater accent on stamina will benefit her and a holding surface would reduce the impact of Buveur D’Air’s far-slicker jumping.

The titleholder watched A Place In The Country with his feet up while most of his stablemates piled aboard a coach-trip to Kempton last week, trainer Nicky Henderson stating that he “didn’t bring Buveur D’Air because I just didn’t think he needed to do it.”

At his media open day, Henderson proffered the suggestion that the horse was below his best when scrambling home from Melon in last year’s renewal due to suffering from whatever caused We Have A Dream, his next-door neighbour at the yard, to miss the 2018 Triumph. A slower pace than when winning this race initially in 2016 also wouldn’t have helped, mind.

“Buveur D’Air’s as tough as teak but he didn’t get over Cheltenham at all last year. I’d have come back to Aintree with him, which he did the year before; it should have been a piece of cake for him. And he wasn’t impressive in the Champion Hurdle and it took him apart,” Henderson reflected.

“Races don’t affect him; you could run him again the next week. But he hadn’t recovered in four weeks to go anywhere near Aintree and nor had Rather Be, who was in the next-door box. So, I think you can take it there was something.”

Melon has disappointed in line with a lack of market expectation so far this season but a positive move prior to last year’s renewal presaged a revival then, so the market should be watched with regard to his chances next week. Mullins has spoken of trying “something new, maybe tactics or using headgear”.

While I fully buy into the latter, I’m finding it hard to imagine what the new tactics could be. Paul Townend won’t want to ride him more forcefully, surely, with Apple’s Jade so much a stronger stayer; they’d have to go hard. So perhaps they’ll drop him right out and hope to pick up some pieces? Yet I’d fancy stablemate Sharjah to do that more effectively, provided the ground doesn’t go completely against him.

Fellow sound-surface type Verdana Blue was beaten in a Kempton all-weather novice on the Flat last month, performing below her best but in a race in which the winner received a well-judged ride from the front.

“She will still run in the Champion Hurdle as long as it stays dry,” Henderson said, but she does have the option of waiting for Lingfield’s AW Championships Marathon on Good Friday rather than Plan A of trying to do both. She’s been a drifter in the market of late, probably linked with the rain.

Finally, two competitors who were doubtful last time I wrote about this division are now likely runners: Silver Streak, who missed the Kingwell due to not being up to date with his vaccinations and had been at one point ruled out by Evan Williams due to not being good enough, and Espoir D’Allen, whose trainer Gavin Cromwell got the go-ahead from owner JP McManus to run the horse against his titleholder.

Cromwell gave his five-year-old – wah! wah! – a racecourse gallop at Naas last Saturday and later commented: “He’s kept improving. He doesn't show us that much at home, but he keeps winning – and that's a very important thing. It is a huge step, but I think he's quite entitled to go there – and hopefully he can perform on the day.

“I think he stays well, and the hill should play to his benefit – I don't think the track is going to be a problem. It's fantastic to have a runner in Cheltenham, especially in one of the championship races. It's very exciting times for myself and everyone in the yard.”

Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle

The bell tolled for Penhill’s defence of his title last week when the Cistercian Order broke its silence with remarkable promptness to announce that he had returned “very sore” from working at the Curragh the previous day and "won’t be going to Cheltenham".

"I've spoken to his owner [Tony Bloom] and, as we wouldn't have time to prepare him for the Festival, we've had to pull the plug,” Father Mullins reported. “It's too soon to say whether he might run before the end of the season.”

That leaves Mullins with former Champion Hurdler Faugheen and a bag of all-sorts as his team. Bachasson didn’t make the cut, however, after being brushed aside by The Little Rat Of A Thing in the Grade Two Boyne Hurdle at Navan last month – as the beaten favourite’s rider Ruby Walsh described in his Racing TV column.

“We were creeping across the bottom at Navan with around four furlongs to run. Mark Walsh [on eventual runner-up Off You Go] was beside me [on Bachasson] and I turned to him and said: “He’s galloping all over us!”Tiger Roll was doing an absolute half-speed outside the two of us, travelling best and he was going to win that race an awful long way out.”

Tiger Roll – on whom blinkers were reapplied here, replacing cheekpieces – would very much not look out of place in this line-up nor, indeed, in the Magners Gold Cup but trainer Gordon Elliott has confirmed that the Festival’s Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase followed by a defence of his crown in the Randox Health Grand National remain the plan.

Bachasson had no answer when Tiger Roll quickened away from the third last at Navan and falls some way short of what would be required to get involved here. Indeed, he’s functioning at a level below his chase form of last term. He’s also not been at his best in two starts at Cheltenham previously, even if he was keeping on in a distant fifth when unseating at the last in the 2016 Albert Bartlett.

Back in third at Navan, the winner’s stable companion Cracking Smart got outpaced after the fourth last but knuckled down grimly in a vast improvement on his December comeback form behind another stablemate, Apple’s Jade (who was today removed from this race), at Leopardstown. He’d been distracted by front-running Coquin Mans jumping violently right throughout and was even bumped by that horse three out.

Elliott has since confirmed that Cracking Smart will represent Gigginstown here rather than in the Coral Cup and the longer trip will certainly be more suitable. He was favourite for last year’s Albert Bartlett until injury intervened and his trainer avers that “his best days are ahead of him”. The rain is also helpful.

In the absence of Samcro and with the likes of last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Farclas set to run in the Coral Cup, Gigginstown may also have Petit Mouchoir running for them. Trainer Henry de Bromhead removed him from both the Champion Chase and Ryanair at the latest forfeit stage but paid the subs for the Champion Hurdle and this race, making it clear he prefers the latter.

“The obvious option would be to go for the Champion Hurdle, given he has run well in the race before, but I’m thinking he might have a better winning chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll stay further; I’m just not sure how much further. He has never been a fast horse at home. We might just take a punt and run him in it if the O’Leary’s are happy to try it.

“I thought he ran well enough in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time, though I had hoped he would run a little better.”

There was more to like from Petit Mouchoir last time, even if like all other rivals he was brushed aside by Apple’s Jade, and de Bromhead has previous in turning a Champion Hurdle bridesmaid into a staying success when Identity Thief – sadly no longer with us – stepped up on his fourth at the 2018 Festival to win the Grade One Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.

However, the problem here lies with the volatile grey himself. He’s always been something of a tearaway and has a track record of boiling over in the paddock. These are far-from-ideal traits for staying three miles, especially as this year’s edition promises to be strongly run. (Caveat: it promised the same last year and was the opposite of that.)

De Bromhead has clearly been asking his riders to get Petit Mouchoir to settle in behind rather than have to lead this season, so I assume those tactics would be employed here. If he goes out in front (as he used to do over hurdles) but slows it down, it will be beholden on front-runners Sam Spinner and Lil Rockerfeller to ensure they don’t again settle for a self-defeatingly steady pace.

Last year, it was Joe Colliver’s first-ever Cheltenham ride when partnering Sam Spinner to a frustrating fifth. It was the latest chapter in a Grade One-winning tale of redemption for the young jockey, who was rebuilding his career after being found guilty of drink-driving and, having tried to cover up his crime, for perverting the course of justice. He served three of a ten-month prison sentence in 2016 and had to wear an electronic tag on his release.

Regrettably, Colliver’s participation in Thursday’s renewal is in doubt because he’s listed to appear at Harrogate Magistrates Court that same day again to face drink-driving charges. He’s hoping to postpone the hearing to enable him to again partner Sam Spinner but the Festival should be the least of his concerns, one might think.

Returning to Mullins’ squad, the vibes seem to be increasingly positive for Faugheen of late, with both his trainer and Walsh rightly arguing he hadn’t been asked for his effort when clipping the second last on the heels of Apple’s Jade over Christmas and taking that sickening fall.

“He was very, very sore after it,” Mullins acknowledged. “I was very worried about him afterwards and am delighted that he has come back as well as he has.”

In his Paddy Power column earlier this week, Walsh reflected: “He was travelling well behind Apple’s Jade at Christmas. I don’t know what would have happened, but he was certainly going to give her a race…

“In last year’s Champion Hurdle, he just got outpaced but he kept going. I think stepping up in trip will suit him. He’s had niggles and injuries along the way, but for an 11-year-old he’s not exactly over-raced. Willie is very good at getting longevity out of horses.”

It looks as though Bacardys – staying on in dispute of fifth when falling at the last in the 2018 edition – will join Faugheen, again switching from fences after falling in the same Leopardstown beginners’ chase as last term. He shouldn’t be completely dismissed if a strongly run race emerges.

Yet stablemate Bapaume – poorly positioned when second to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy Hurdle and, to my mind at least, as yet unproven at the trip – wasn’t mentioned in the stable-tour dispatches as far as I can see and so may be a doubtful runner.

After Killultagh Vic’s typically guessy round of jumping to finish last of four behind Monalee in the Red Mills Chase, Mullins was ruing not having entered him here. Post-race discussions with his owners did not result in a supplementary entry today, but he is in the Coral Cup. However, this horse is scarcely less clumsy over hurdles and was flattered to finish so close to Presenting Percy at Gowran, having been prominently positioned.

There was also no supplementary entry for Darasso – a wide-margin Grade Three winner at Gowran last month – but a move for Top Notch on Betfair last weekend was followed by confirmation from Nicky Henderson last Monday that he switches here from the Ryanair (in which he also stood his ground today).

The doubt will be whether he has the stamina for the project as he was unable to make any late impact when third to favourite Paisley Park in Ascot’s Long Walk Hurdle last December on his first try at three miles, although admittedly also on his seasonal debut.

Despite looking uncomfortable for much of the race when second to Vision Des Flos in the Grade Two National Spirit last month, If The Cap Fits stuck on in a manner suggesting a more galloping track and step up in trip would suit. However, even though owners Paul and Clare Rooney have lifted their self-imposed ban on their horses running at Cheltenham, trainer Harry Fry prefers to wait for Aintree with a horse he felt was suffering the ill effects of a recent flu jab at Fontwell.

Back in third, Lil Rockerfeller was returning from an operation to correct his wind and, in a race he won in 2016, ran creditably without yet recapturing his best hurdles form. Fourth-placed Old Guard didn’t travel that fluently and ended what chance he might have had by blundering through the third last.

While Colin Tizzard plans to run Vision Des Flos in the Coral Cup, stablemates West Approach and Kilbricken Storm are heading here. He spoke of different tactics for the former, in an effort to reverse his latest two defeats at the hands of Paisley Park.

“We have this idea that he doesn’t like to be in a crowd but I don’t really agree with that, so next time we are going to find out where Paisley Park is in the race, sit on his tail and when he goes, go with him,” Tizzard said.

“We’ve been in front of him the last twice and he has done us properly for stamina, so if we ever get our chance in the race it would be lovely to sit and bring him late on. He has got plenty of pace for a three-miler and if we could cover him up for a bit and bring him late, he would have half a chance.”

Incidentally, West Approach’s best effort probably remains his 2017 Cleeve Hurdle third when dropped right out by Walsh so this was what I had – wrongly – imagined when hearing of Tizzard’s plans to change tactics. Whatever, the disparity between a best-priced 7/4 NRNB for Paisley Park and 25/1 NRNB for this horse is far too great.

Kilbricken Storm was given a tactically enterprising ride by Harry Cobden when winning last year’s Albert Bartlett and might have been flattered, but he had good horses in behind – OK Corral, Santini and Ballyward to mention the closest three – and went on to run almost as well when third at Punchestown.

He was tried over fences this season but jumped labouredly out to his right when winning on his debut at Ffos Las before regressing further behind Santini at Newbury, already well beaten when slipping and all but falling at the last. He reportedly sustained a pelvic injury there and missed six weeks of work but Tizzard has reported that he’s been “straightforward” since returning to training.

“He was good at Wincanton – we took six [horses] up there and he was the one you would take out of the gallop,” he said. “He has come out of that gallop [with Supreme contender Elixir De Nutz, Champion Bumper hope Master Debonair and reigning Gold Cup champion Native River] as fresh as paint and I know he might have had the run of the race last year but he is a Cheltenham Festival winner and he deserves to take his chance.”

(Is it just me or is there an EPIDEMIC of racecourse gallops for any Johnny Big Potatoes these days? I must see whether my local track will let my 45-rated Flat horse gallop for trainer Joe Bloggs this weekend. It’s a level playing-field that way, isn’t it?)

Finally, to round up this section: likely non-stayer Midnight Shadow was today removed from this line-up but Yanworth, who finished sixth in this race last year but flopped on his return to action this season when pulling up in the Rendlesham, has been confirmed after being removed from the Ultima Handicap on Wednesday.

OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle

Jester Jet, who finally got her head in front in a Listed event at Haydock last month after five seconds on the bounce, was on Tuesday supplemented for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Her addition, switching from the Coral Cup, brought the total number of mares in the potential line-up to 22.

Titleholder Benie Des Dieux was present and correct, despite having been cloistered at Closutton since last April. Trainer Willie Mullins reiterated at his media open day that nothing negative should be inferred by her absence.

“The only reason she hasn’t run so far is the ground,” he said. “She has been fine all season. We were considering running her at Gowran Park last weekend but she had to get a flu vaccination… so that ruled her out.”

Both Mullins and Ruby Walsh have separately nominated Benie Des Dieux as their best chance of a winner all week, but as she’s also the shortest-priced of their horses, it’s hardly headline news. Even though it frequently was.

The trio of big names with alternative arrangements – the Champion Hurdle-bound duo Apple’s Jade and Laurina and Champion Chase entry Lady Buttons – all remain. Of the three, the Phil Kirby-trained chaser seems the most likely to switch, even though this trip of 2m4f stretches her.

All five mares who were outclassed by Laurina at Punchestown last month – headstrong Stormy Ireland, Slowmotion, Alletrix, Lackaneen Leader and Good Thyne Tara in that order – all remain. Third-placed Slowmotion hadn’t raced since pulling up in the Kerry National last September and shaped promisingly.

At a recent Cheltenham Preview, Dan Kelton’s assistant trainer Tom Messenger reportedly gave a positive update on lively contender Roksana, who finished third to Buveur D’Air on her sole start this season.

The long-term plan has been this contest, although they would have preferred to get two prep runs under her belt, before and after Christmas. In the end, they had to settled only for the latter because they had “a niggle or two” getting her to the track but have been pleased with her since that promising Sandown return.

The recent rain is bad news for dual Listed winner Mia’s Storm, who successfully reverted to hurdles this season after twice hitting the deck in graded company over fences at the end of last. Trainer Alan King has suggested she won’t run unless the ground is decent.

The most significant withdrawals were Missy Tata, the five-time hurdle winner who recently returned from a 777-day absence to win a Fairyhouse chase, and last year’s Dawn Run fifth Countister, with whom trainer Nicky Henderson had missed the rescheduled Betfair Hurdle “because of some medication she’d had”. That meant she didn’t qualify for any Festival handicap but now she isn’t running here either.

Sensulano and Mega Yeats are also notable absentees; the latter was also withdrawn from the Ballymore yesterday. However, last year’s Dawn Run 18-length second Cap Soleil – who has not raced all season – was among the acceptors and trainer Fergal O’Brien has recently stated she’s on target to run.

Novice hurdlers

There were 28 confirmations for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Wednesday’s six-day stage, with Champagne Platinum – whom Nicky Henderson last week reported had suffered a setback but might make Aintree – and Dovecote disappointment Scarlet Dragon the most notable defectors.

The pace is likely to be strong with Elixir De Nutz – whose form continues to be franked – set to be joined up front by Felix Desjy, who’s improved for positive tactics, and recent Plumpton handicap winner Brandon Castle – progressive, swift over his hurdles and unbeaten in three starts. Recent Kelso Grade Two winner Rouge Vif would also go to the fore here but trainer Harry Whittington has said he might wait for Aintree.

Fakir D’Oudairies, one of five four-year-olds currently remaining in the race and armed with an 8lbs weight-for-age allowance, is likely to be pressing the pace in his bid to go one better than subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Binocular managed for JP McManus in 2008, when second to another of the owner’s runners in Captain Cee Bee. He’s a straightforward ride with course experience and, given the curl of his knee, the recent rain only helps.

All this pace is good news for both of Dai Walters’ leading contenders: Al Dancer, winner of the rescheduled Betfair Hurdle, and Angel’s Breath, beaten at odds-on in the Dovecote but trimmed back to third favourite after drifting to double-figure odds following his defeat.

Al Dancer won with authority at Ascot, despite pulling hard, having been well-positioned tracking the leaders in a race dominated by prominently placed horses. His failure to settle convinced Team Twiston-Davies that the Supreme, rather than the Ballymore, is the most suitable target.

No winner had carried more than 11-7 to victory in what is now the Betfair Hurdle since Persian War in 1968 but the insurgency of equine flu had made the landscape far from normal. Several smart novices have won it recently and gone on to finish second in the Festival’s opening event: My Tent Or Yours, Get Me Out Of Here and Kalashnikov. Al Dancer is certainly progressive and his latest rating of 152 makes him good enough to hit the frame in most Supremes.

You can calculate that Angel’s Breath is in the same target 150+ bracket, even if he is without an official mark after just two starts under Rules, because he was conceding 5lbs when out-speeded by Southfield Stone at Kempton. The winner was raised 8lbs to 148 for that effort and triumphed by three-quarters of a length, the pair pulling 18 lengths clear of Normal Norman.

At least Angel’s Breath has now negotiated a full course of hurdles following a debut Ascot win when, due to high winds, only half the obstacles were jumped. It had been intended for Angel’s Breath to contest the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon, or else lesser contests at Exeter or Newbury, but all were abandoned so he ended up at Kempton.

Having been keen early and jumped soundly, he found Southfield Stone skipped away entering the straight of that speed-favouring track. But he knuckled down to run on well, markedly reducing the deficit from the final hurdle – albeit he was abetted by the winner hanging badly left and being held at the line.

You can interpret this effort in two ways but either suggests there will be better to come. Take it on face value and perhaps Angel’s Breath lacks the speed for the Supreme. Indeed, many took the view that Walters might seek representation in both Festival novice events by having him re-routed to the Ballymore.

But Walters has since repeated that he’s happy for Angel’s Breath to run against Al Dancer if both trainers believe the two-miler is the correct target. Immediately after his horse’s defeat, Henderson said: “I still think two miles is the right trip on a stiffer track.” So, you could take the view, as indeed the trainer argued, that the horse “needed the run”.

“Nico said he just took a blow at the wrong moment. It's sharp enough around here,” Henderson added. "I'm not making excuses, but I do think there's plenty of improvement to come and he's had a proper race. I'm pleased with that and the ground was probably quick enough. There are a lot of positives, even though he got beat as he'd have learned tons today."

However, if you like yak – and happily, for betting purposes in a game of opinions, a hell of a lot of you do – at a recent Cheltenham Preview, Henderson’s assistant trainer Toby Lawes reportedly nominated Mister Fisher (over Angel’s Breath, Champ and Epatante) as his idea of the yard’s best prospect in a year’s time. (Whatever that means.)

Meanwhile, Nico de Boinville has chosen to ride Angel’s Breath over Mister Fisher, whose form has been franked by Vif Rouge. “I have an awful lot of time for Mister Fisher, and he has always shown us plenty at home,” de Boinville said. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest were Mister Fisher to run a huge race. But I feel I am right to keep the faith in Angels Breath."

Two other horses have surpassed the critical 150 bar: one of them, Grand Sancy, won the Grade Two Kingwell Hurdle in open company – a Champion Hurdle stepping-stone – and the other, Elixir De Nutz, has been raised collaterally by the official handicapper for two weeks running as a result of the exploits of horses he’s already beaten.

Grand Sancy is a strong traveller and came under sustained pressure, earning jockey Harry Skelton a two-day whip ban, when wanderingly repelling the smart Sceau Royal at Wincanton. A progressive second-season novice who pulled up in last year’s Fred Winter but is now rated 152, he may not be best suited by Cheltenham. The Supreme will be his twelfth hurdles start.

Yet it’s also worth noting that trainer Paul Nicholls commented of Southfield Stone, his solely County-entered conqueror of Angel’s Breath: “I know where he stands with Grand Sancy and wouldn’t entertain running him in a Supreme.”

Having accounted for both Grand Sancy and Southfield Stone when winning the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January, Elixir De Nutz now sits on 153. “His form stands up to anybody’s,” trainer Colin Tizzard rightly observed. He added that his recent work when galloping at Wincanton with Native River, Kilbricken Storm and Master Debonair was “absolutely brilliant”.

Tizzard also confirmed his race tactics: “He pulls quite hard and goes from the front. We’re not going to stop him. We’ll go straight to the front.” With Harry Cobden surely required by retaining trainer Nicholls, it’s likely that Tom O’Brien will be employed to execute that plan just as he did in the Tolworth.

Trainer Olly Murphy has, as flagged in a Betfair Q&A session on Twitter last month, already jocked up Richard Johnson for Thomas Darby – the champion rider being a regular in owners Grahame and Diana Whateley’s silks – and Gavin Sheehan on Itchy Feet – ditto for Kate and Andrew Brooks, who also own Vif Rouge. Remember: Itchy Feet conceded weight and track position when closely chasing home Elixir De Nutz at Cheltenham last November and hasn’t run since.

Both horses have reportedly enjoyed one of those obligatory racecourse gallops at Warwick. If we get enough horses whose trainers are interested in doing this, perhaps we can group them all together, explain what’s going on to a watching public and bet on them? No, it’ll never work.

Incidentally, in that same Twitter session, Murphy nominated Brewin’Upastorm, who fell at the last when holding every chance against the Henderson-trained Birchdale (bound for the Albert Bartlett and addressed again later in this piece) at Cheltenham in January and contests the Ballymore, as his best chance of the meeting.

While Willie Mullins has committed – as much as he does commitment – Aramon to the Supreme, he is as yet undecided about that horse’s recent Leopardstown conqueror, the likeable Klassical Dream, although the market has recently spoken for the Ballymore. If heading to the longer contest, he would join the yard’s seeming second string Easy Game plus a perm from any of the 11 Closutton missionaries still standing.

“Klassical Dream is going to be a tricky one to make a decision on as he could go for either the Supreme or the Ballymore,” Mullins said. “He’s a very good jumper with a lot of experience but I think ultimately he’ll want to go further than two miles. He’s always shown us plenty and I think he will improve again.”

Mullins has also swiped left and right on Allaho’s likely target, preferring the Ballymore after his authoritative defeat of the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Idaho over three miles at Clonmel but subsequently stating at his media open day that the Albert Bartlett was the plan. Naturally, he was one of the Ballymore XI but his three-race sum of experience falls far short of what is traditionally required for the Potato Race.

It looks as though Gordon Elliott will be double-handed in the Supreme, with the aforementioned

Felix Desjy is likely to be joined by the determined Vision D’Honneur, third behind Klassical Dream and Alamon at Leopardstown last time out and who will benefit from this recent rain according to his trainer.

Meanwhile, unbeaten Battleoverdoyen is set to represent him in the Ballymore. “He maybe lacks a bit of experience, having only had two runs over hurdles but I think the race will suit him,” Elliott said. “I decided not to run him at the Dublin Racing Festival as he was after having three runs in six weeks and I just thought it was a lot to ask to go again to Leopardstown.”

Stablemates Commander Of Fleet, Galvin and Dallas Des Pictons were also confirmed for the Ballymore on Thursday but the first-named is more likely to pitch up in the Potato Race and the last-named to be “one of five or six runners” for his trainer in the Martin Pipe.

Elliott rightly worries that Commander Of Fleet “might just lack a bit of experience for a race like the Albert Bartlett”, having raced just three times over hurdles, even though the small step up in trip should indeed in theory derive further improvement. At least he’s contested a couple of Points and was going to be sent for further schooling, too. He’s a likeable horse.

Galvin is unbeaten in five starts, three over hurdles and the latest at Ayr last month, but merited only brief mention in Elliott’s stable tours. He suggested he’d run in the Ballymore, although owner Ronnie Bartlett owns the company that sponsors the Potato Race and in which he saw his colours carried to second by Fagan in 2016.

Dallas Des Pictons won a Punchestown maiden by ten lengths and a handicap at the Dublin Racing Festival from a mark of 130. He now has a feasible-looking British mark of 140 and is at the fore of the Martin Pipe market either outright or jointly with Uradel.

Elliott also has Dinons in the Albert Bartlett, who hasn’t raced since being badly hampered by the fall of a stable companion behind Easy Game in the Grade Three Monksfield Novices’ Hurdle at Navan last November. Prior to that, he’d racked up five wins on the bounce – including twice over three miles of which once was at Cheltenham – and so is very much in possession of the correct Potato Race profile.

Over Christmas, he’d been quelled by three lengths in a Leopardstown maiden by City Island, whose registered owner Bernadine Mulryan is the wife of Sean, founder of the Ballymore property group that sponsors the opening novices’ hurdle on day two of the Festival.

Their horse been popular at many a Cheltenham Yak Night so far and propelled himself into greater consideration for their own Grade One event with a straightforward success in a 2m3f novices’ hurdle at Naas in early February.

He did no more than should be expected of a 1/5 shot and was also well positioned, tracking the leader, by jockey Mark Walsh, in a race in which no other horse got involved in the outcome. He did jump well, however, both when chasing that leader and once produced to challenge from the second last; he also recorded a creditable comparative time on the day.

“He wouldn’t have another gear, so we have to send him on and let him keep galloping all the way,” observed Walsh at the time.

In theory, that suggests we should get a truly run race – frequently not the case in the Ballymore – which should help ante-post favourite Champ to settle; if the race performs to type and is steadily run, that’s a concern for this well-bred horse. His form has taken some knocks in recent weeks, too, with those who finished in his wake in the Challow all getting beaten.

Getaway Trump ran creditably enough, less well positioned than some behind Al Dancer in the Betfair Hurdle but flopped behind Vif Rouge at Kelso; he’s only still entered in the County. Too-keen Kateson shaped like a potential non-stayer at Haydock last time, even before making an horrendous error at the last, making his sole Potato Race entry look rather awkward. Coolanly was beaten at odds-on at Wetherby and now only holds a Martin Pipe entry.

At Ascot last month, Dashel Drasher clung on from Russian Hawk in a desperate finish to the opening novices’ hurdle on that bumper nine-race card. The winner displayed a preference for a left-handed track and made a few scruffy errors but it was the final-flight mistake from the runner-up that decided the outcome.

Winning trainer Jeremy Scott indicated that Dashel Dresher, who’s now won his last three starts, might wait for Aintree but did confirm him for the Ballymore at the six-day stage.

Tizzard wants to target the Albert Bartlett with the runner-up but that was only Russian Hawk’s fourth career start so he lacks the ruggedness required. The yard’s Kilbricken Storm won the Potato Race on the basis of four Rules starts but had also raced three time in Points. Wisely, the owners, The Gosden Mob, prefer Saturday’s EBF Final at Sandown instead.

To reprise the experience possessed by past Albert Bartlett winners when lining up: Penhill had raced 25 times (seven over hurdles and 18 on the Flat), Uknowhatimeanharry 17, Berties Dream 15, Nenuphar Collonges 11, Martello Tower 8 plus 1 Point, At Fishers Cross 8 and Very Wood 5 plus 2 Points.

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. Brindisi Breeze won after just four starts but sadly we never got to find out how smart he might have been. You get the gist.

The Tizzard-trained Rockpoint is much more in the mould of a typical Potato Race winner as his engagement there would be his 15th career start. He’s already a course-and-distance winner but has been comfortably beaten – at Warwick and Haydock – on his latest two career starts. Neither of those tracks are as galloping as he would prefer and he was carrying a penalty on both occasions, but he has seemed to have dropped from the forefront of his trainer’s calculations.

He was rallying to some degree late on after losing his position exiting the back straight in the Grade Two Prestige Hurdle last time but finished a full 19 lengths behind Lisnagar Oscar, whom trainer Rebecca Curtis has confirmed as on target for this event.

She won the 2013 edition with At Fishers Cross but her latest representative is a shade less experienced, with five Rules contests and a Point under his belt. He’s progressive, however, and also shaped as though Cheltenham’s more galloping New Course would suit better than Haydock last time, where he pulled relentlessly clear from the second last.

Runner-up Ask Ben is a smart and improving novice in his own right but was held by ten lengths; he’s also worth his place in this field, mind, especially now it’s rained. Further behind were the consistent Stoney Mountain, who’ll also do better for a sterner test at the trip, and reliable Star Of Lanka, who could have jumped better and didn’t quite get home on his first attempt at three miles.

Back in December, Rockpoint beat Lisnagar Oscar at Cheltenham and I feared the runner-up would struggle to pack in sufficient experience but Curtis has done her best, cramming in two successes, and has secured his place in the line-up with a performance meriting a revised official rating of 145 – an increase of 12lbs on his mark after beating Dickie Davoir at Chepstow.

That horse screamed talent in defeat and would probably have won in a stride or two, his relative inexperience causing him to be critically disorganised after the third last and allowing the leaders to get away. He went on to get off the mark there the following month, outclassing his opposition despite some clumsy jumping. However, two hurdle outings and a Point means he’d be the most inexperienced ever to triumph in the (short) history of the Albert Bartlett were he to win.

Trainer Nicky Henderson has admitted he’d have preferred to get another run into him prior to Cheltenham, so I suspect he’s at least on the road to being as concerned as I am on this point. Stablemate Birchdale is in exactly the same boat – ditto stablemate Downtown Getaway, who was withdrawn from the Ballymore on Thursday – even to the extent that Henderson also wanted to run him again, interpreting him to have been green in victory at Cheltenham last time.

So, unless either of this pair prove to be of the calibre of Bobs-Worth-minus-two-starts, jockey Barry Geraghty has a short-term Hobson’s Choice for retaining owner JP McManus between two long-term smart prospects in Dickie Davoir and Birchdale.

Two Irish horses worth mentioning that do fit the profile, however, are recent Thurles Grade Three winner Go Another One – who’d be stepping up in trip under Rules but racing for the 17th time in his career – and the Noel Meade-trained First Approach, who stayed on into fourth behind Commander Of Fleet in the Grade One company at Leopardstown last time out. The former is still also in the Martin Pipe.

Willie Mullins also trains a couple of mares who’d be worthy of their place in this line-up. Relegate, who won the Festival’s Champion Bumper from an improbable position this time last year, was finishing two-for-one in that same Leopardstown race last time, having become detached via some poor jumping early on.

Stablemate Salsaretta fared worse, unseating Patrick Mullins at the second but her earlier defeat of Felix Desjy now reads even better in light of his latest success. At the 2018 Festival, she tripped up at the last over a woefully inadequate 2m1f trip for the Dawn Run and on her debut for the yard. Both mares have had sufficient match practice for this task.

Talking of mares, Henry de Bromhead announced today that Honeysuckle will miss the Cheltenham Festival, meaning that Sinoria – who dug deep to win a recent Listed event at Punchestown and is also owned by Kenny Alexander – will reportedly replace her in the Dawn Run rather than contest the Ballymore.

Via his Unibet blog, Henderson has nominated the mare Epatante as his best chance of the meeting in the National Hunt Breeders Supported By Tattersalls Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle – or the Dawn Run, for those short on breath. She outclassed her rivals at 1/6 last month at Exeter and has apparently since produced “fantastic” work alongside Verdana Blue.

She’s apparently set to be joined by three stablemates in this race, including Elusive Belle, who was keen and made mistakes when beaten at Sandown last month and assistant Lawes has reportedly expressed reservations about her maturity for the challenge, and Lust For Glory, who was back in the winner’s enclosure at Newcastle last month but humbled by Posh Trish at Newbury in November.

Daphne Des Clos was said to be joining them but she missed a spin in the Dovecote due to unsuitably quick ground and appeared – from what I read – to have missed the coach to Kempton last week for the stable’s gallop. She still appeared among the entries at the six-day stage today, however.

A much-improved performance from Emily Moon, when winning by a wide margin at Naas last month, has put her bang in the picture for Jessica Harrington and Queenohearts is also a contender, following her best-yet Grade Two success last month.

The likes of recent winners Allez France, Elfile and Black Tears – the first pair trained by Mullins and the last-named by Elliott – are all extensively experienced, either in bumpers or in the case of Allez France over hurdles in France, even though they have each only won once over hurdles in Ireland.

Finally, switching our attention to handicaps, the Dan Skelton-trained Anytime Will Do was attempting to concede 12lbs and upwards in a two-mile Huntingdon novices’ event last month. He was hitherto unbeaten under Rules and returning from a 114-day absence,.

Having got outpaced, was staying on in second and not entirely done with when making a chance-ending blunder at the last and eased to finish fifth. He’s been withdrawn from his graded Festival engagements but remains in the County and Martin Pipe on a feasible mark of 135.

Juvenile hurdlers

The big news in this division was the setback suffered by JCB Triumph favourite and ‘Irish banker’ Sir Erec announced by trainer Joseph O’Brien on Thursday, meaning he wobbled in the market.

"Sir Erec has picked up a stone bruise but otherwise he's in very good shape and, as the race is eight days away, he should be fine to run,” he said. “We're confident there will be more than enough time for him to fully recover and get to the race in top form."

Should this problem prove to be worse than prophesied, there must be a possibility that Fakir D’Oudairies – Sir Erec’s stablemate and recently purchased by his owner JP McManus – will switch from the Supreme to the Triumph. In fact, with shades of Victor Kiam (one for da kidz there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qf22bddvLnc), McManus likes the Boodles Fred Winter so much he may buy the entire field.

Not content with purchasing the Fakir and owning the likes of Gardens Of Babylon, Fine Brunello and Belargus, not to mention the filly Laskadine (who flopped at Haydock recently and doesn’t run at Cheltenham), he recently also swooped for highly promising Naas winner Konitho (also trained by O’Brien) and the Ian Williams-trained Faldo. Of those acquisitions, only the Fakir still holds a Festival entry.

Gardens Of Babylon currently seems most likely to act as Sir Erec’s wingman in the Triumph while Fine Brunello remains a major player in the Fred Winter whereas Belargus must make the cut. But Konitho was recently out-speeded by another O’Brien-trained runner, Band Of Outlaws, at Leopardstown and that horse is now favourite for the Festival’s juvenile handicap.

The Willie Mullins-trained Maze Runner had set a dawdle of a pace on that occasion and tried to steal away after the second last, forcing Band Of Outlaws to have to shoulder the less experienced Konitho to one side and give chase. He probably would have got there anyway, given the near-five-length disparity at the line, but a final-flight blunder from Maze Runner left the door wide open.

He’s better than that bare winning margin, even though O’Brien was anxious to point out that the race might have played into his hands. Such interpretations fell on the deaf ears of British handicapper David Dickinson, who rated him 139 with only recent Haydock flop Torpillo set to carry more weight.

Third-placed Coko Beach, trainer by Gordon Elliott, is also worth noting with the Boodles Fred Winter in mind because he shaped a fair bit better than the literal form. Speaking of that yard, Coeur Sublime is not certain to make the Triumph due to scoping dirty after being beaten by Sir Erec at Leopardstown. “We’ll see how he is closer to the time before deciding if he’ll go for the Triumph,” Elliott has stated.

Quel Destin has run and won again since I last wrote about this division, meaning he’s won his last five starts on the bounce and six times overall. He dictated the Victor Ludorum from an early stage, taking over from the poor-jumping Torpillo after the third and coming home unchallenged. He didn’t need to improve in order to win and certainly brings a wealth of experience to the party.

There was barely a hurdle that Torpillo didn’t clatter, balloon or stutter into, therefore not surprisingly he was well below his best. Interestingly, it was the first time he’d raced left-handed, having only competed at Sandown and Nancy previously, so perhaps that might have been the issue? Too early to say for sure.

Like Torpillo, Fusil Raffles is owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede and this subject of frenzied yak finally made his belated British debut for trainer Nicky Henderson in the Adonis – traditionally, the Triumph’s last-chance saloon. He duly won impressively, accounting for Beat The Judge by nine lengths and with Praceps a further two-and-a-half lengths adrift in third.

However, no sooner had the winner been installed as second favourite for the Triumph than Henderson was warning he’d sustained a nasty cut during his success and his immediate fate lay in the hands of the yard’s veterinary team. Last week, he was ruled out of Cheltenham.

“He'll need at least ten days' box rest, which gives us no time to get him right in two weeks,” the trainer reported via his Unibet blog. “The important thing is he's not lame, but he hit his off-hind shin bone and a flap of skin has to be stitched back and it’s vital that the stitches hold it together otherwise we could even be forced to miss Aintree.

"It’s terribly frustrating and unfortunate as I thought he was extremely impressive on Saturday. He’s on painkillers and anti-inflammatories to keep him comfortable.”

Beat The Judge heads to the Fred Winter but Praeceps needs two opponents to defect in order to make the cut. Meanwhile, Henderson has pointed out that his 1985 Triumph Hurdle winner First Bout won the exact same Plumpton juvenile in which Pentland Hills made a winning hurdling debut just 11 days ago. That strongly suggests this horse might be throwing his hat in the ring.

The yak has been mighty on the subject of Pic D’Orhy, that horse now standing at fourth best in the Triumph market. Fakir D’Oudairies is among the rivals he has defeated in his native France, where he raced seven times and won on three occasions, but if he runs at Cheltenham he would be seeking to win this Grade One on his British debut.

Trainer Paul Nicholls had indicated the ground would need to be “on the soft side” or else he’d wait for Aintree but the rain has come and more is due.

Selections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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