Our racing experts get together to provide their views on some of the key races ahead of the three days of quality action at Cheltenham's November Meeting.
Who’s the banker bet on Friday to get us off to a flyer at Cheltenham’s November Meeting?
Ben Linfoot: THYME HILL for me in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at 3.35. Philip Hobbs has a tremendous record at this meeting, especially with his non-handicappers, often targeting the three days with his very best novices. I’d certainly put Thyme Hill in that bracket, as he looked very good on hurdling debut when landing the Grade 2 Persian War at Chepstow and I loved how strongly he finished his race that day. The extra two furlongs on Friday look right up his street and the Champion Bumper third can further boost the form of that race following the exploits of Envoi Allen, Abacadabras and The Glancing Queen.
Matt Brocklebank: BIRCHDALE will do for me in the Steel Plate And Sections Novices' Chase (2.25). You need a classy one for this particular contest, as the roll of honour suggests, and he was always considered one of the best long-term prospects among Nicky Henderson's strong team of novice hurdlers last term. The time is now for him to step up as he goes chasing and his Cheltenham form back in January suggests he really could take off in this sphere. He pulled-up when last seen in the Albert Bartlett but I wouldn't hold that against him and would almost rather he was looked after in a race of that nature than given a real slog to finish fourth or fifth. He's about as exciting as they come for me this weekend.
Richard Mann: Like Ben I also like THYME HILL in the concluding Grade Two Ballymore Novices' Hurdle and it's easy to see why. A smart bumper performer who was third to Envoi Allen in the Champion Bumper at the Festival here back in the spring, he always looked an exciting prospect for hurdles and backed up that feeling when winning the Persian War in good style at Chepstow, landing some sizeable bets in the process. He could be very good.
The most likely winner and a lively outsider for the BetVictor Gold Cup, please.
Richard Mann: A typically competitive renewal but it's hard to crab likely market leader SIRUH DU LAC, winner of two fiercely competitive handicaps here last season and still with room for manoeuvre from a handicap mark of 150. Don't rule out GUITAR PETE either - third in this last year when faring best of those held up in a race which suited prominent racers, he looked to have improved again when scoring handsomely at Wetherby recently.
Matt Brocklebank: I'm with Rich here in that I reckon SIRUH DU LAC could improve again this time around. The one fear I have with him is that he looks like he'll get three miles standing on his head and he might just find this test on the Old Course (two wins here last term came on the more galloping New Course) a touch too tight. If that's the case then COUNT MERIBEL really comes into the equation as he's always been good at this time of the year and I liked his comeback effort behind potential world-beater Lostintranslation at Carlisle. He's really tough, he handles soft ground and looks ahead off his mark off 146. He'll also be prominent, winging away just behind the pace, and that seems to help as far as tactics go in this event.
Ben Linfoot: SLATE HOUSE could hardly have been more impressive at the Showcase meeting at Cheltenham in October and he rates a worthy favourite for the meeting’s feature. An easy-as-you-like 11-length winner in novice company, he looks to have improved enormously since wind surgery and a 12lb rise in the weights may not stop him from following up. It’s a bit of a guess from the handicapper and he looks to be finally delivering on the promise he showed at this meeting as a novice hurdler when beating Summerville Boy.
That said, this is the sort of race where you can make a case for a handful of outsiders and old SPLASH OF GINGE deserves likely longshot status at prices as big as 50/1. The former winner of the BetVictor Gold Cup has dropped down the handicap in the last 18 months and he may well be a spent force in this type of race, but plenty of rain is forecast on Thursday and soft ground could be a great leveller in this year’s renewal. He’s been there and got that T-shirt, is well treated on his best form and had an identical prep at Wetherby last time to when he last caused a great upset in this race.
Another one to note on the Saturday undercard…
Ben Linfoot: Harry Fry has struck four times at this meeting from just 13 runners and his selectiveness is underlined by the fact he has just one entry at Cheltenham this time around over the three days. That horse is ISHKHARA LADY in the mares’ bumper that closes Saturday’s card and the last time we saw her was on debut last December when she won by 15 lengths at Plumpton in very impressive fashion. Fry won this race with Bitofapuzzle in 2014 and she was also coming off a long absence, so there are plenty of positives for Ishkhara Lady who looks a decent prospect.
Richard Mann: Saturday's action ends with the Karndean Designflooring Mares' Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race and I'll be fascinated to see if Anthony Honeyball lets either of BLEUE AWAY or MIDNIGHT CASTELLO take their chance. The former could be set for his debut under Rules following two bloodless point-to-point victories while the latter impressed when dotting up at Fontwell. Given Honeyball also has the exciting Kid Commando in his ranks, it appears he has a strong bumper team on his hands this year and it will be interesting whom he nominates for this steep step up in class.
Matt Brocklebank: David Pipe's horses are worth monitoring closely this weekend as the Pond House team have been going along really nicely ever since the season started back in April and no doubt they'll have targeted Cheltenham's November Meeting. I liked the way that POKER PLAY ground his rivals into submission at Ffos Las and he now looks set to go on and fulfil his promise as a chase. It was only his second go in the discipline so improvement will be forthcoming and he'd love nothing more than a proper slog in the mud on Saturday.
Al Dancer or Getaway Trump in Sunday’s Arkle Trophy Trial?
Matt Brocklebank: No doubt plenty of punters will try to get cute here and expect a ton of improvement from Getaway Trump. I'm not convinced. He finished really weakly to end up third behind AL DANCER at the Showcase Meeting and I'm not sure a 3lb swing in the weights will be enough to overturn the form. With the hood back on, Al Dancer settled well on his chasing debut and it could just be the case that he's now a bit more of a man and simply a better horse than Getaway Trump. The Nicholls runner will improve, no doubt, but it's worth remembering Al Dancer stepped up around 7-10lb in each of his runs through October, November and December in 2018. Take on the grey at your peril.
Richard Mann: Getaway Trump made racing great again for me on a couple of occasions last season but I thought AL DANCER beat him fair and square back here at the Open Meeting and I suspect he might do the same again on Sunday. He is becoming a man now and while I take the point that Getaway Trump looked like he might come on plenty for that comeback run, he will certainly need to and the market - which currently has the pair vying for favouritism - doesn't reflect that.
Ben Linfoot: Are you Trump or are you Dancer? It looks a match race although Rouge Vif, who beat Getaway Trump convincingly over hurdles at Kelso, might have something to say about that if he proves more tractable than at Market Rasen. To be fair to Getaway Trump, he didn’t look himself in Scotland, while he looked short of match fitness when trounced by AL DANCER at the Showcase meeting. However, Al Dancer could improve from his October outing, too, so I’d just prefer Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse to confirm the form at the current prices, which have the big two jostling for favouritism at odds around the 6/4 mark.
Which Shloer Chase contender will be paying for the bubbly this weekend?
Matt Brocklebank: I'm finding it very hard to ignore the sheer class that DEFI DU SEUIL displayed through last season and while he was comfortably beaten when last seen at Punchestown, I suspect that was a bit of an afterthought. He's absolute dynamite around Cheltenham (5-7 with form figures of 1111521) and while he was beaten first time out last year when a skinny price, that came on good ground and he's much more at home when there's some dig.
Richard Mann: I do hope the ground isn't too soft that last year's impressive winner Sceau Royal isn't able to defend his crown. He's a smashing horse, a slick jumper who proved a model of consistency last season. That said, the prospect of DEFI DU SEUIL being campaigned at two miles this term could really shake up this division and his form with Lostintranslation is looking stronger all the time. This should be a fascinating watch.
Ben Linfoot: I like DEFI DU SEUIL but it is on my mind that he’s been well beaten on his seasonal reappearance the last two years. However, this could cut up and if it comes down to Defi v Politologue with Philip Hobbs’ horse getting 3lb then I want to be with JP McManus’ charge. That JLT form looks red-hot thanks to the subsequent exploits of Lostintranslation, Vinndication and Real Steel, and it suggests that the winner, Defi Du Seuil, is out of the very top drawer. This looks a bit of a fact-finding mission for connections regarding his prospects as a two-miler this season, but he could be the one to fill the Altior-shaped void in the division and his class could see him through Sunday’s test.
Who appeals most in this year’s Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle?
Ben Linfoot: At this stage I quite like RED FORCE ONE for Paul Nicholls. Nicholls has a good record with his four-year-olds in this race with Brampour and Old Guard winning it at that age and Red Force One looks a hurdler on the up. He was beaten by Gumball at Ascot, but Philip Hobbs’ horse has a job on to confirm the form up 8lb as aggressive tactics from the front will be tough to pull off in this contest. Red Force One gets a 4lb swing and he might just love being buried in a big field here. 12/1 looks fair.
Richard Mann: ZANZA isn't the easiest to catch right and he can often pull too hard for his own good. Nevertheless, he won well at Newbury last time and on the assumption he'll get a good pace to aim at on Sunday, I could see him running a big race. I don't think a mark of 136 will be the ceiling of his ability anyway.
Matt Brocklebank: This doesn't look the deepest edition of the race and I'm inclined to focus on the head of the weights. QUEL DESTIN consigned a really poor Flat run at Bath to the past when winning back over hurdles at the Showcase Meeting and he's going for a similar double to Old Guard, who struck Greatwood gold for the same trainer/jockey combination in 2015. He's gone up 7lb for what looked quite a hard-fought win but he was conceding a chunk of weight to the second and the 148-rated Torpillo, who was in receipt of 4lb from the winner, was back in third. In short, the weight rise looks merited and it wouldn't be a surprise if Paul Nicholls has aimed at this event from some way off as this is the kind of horse who may need to strike now before struggling against the big boys as the season develops.