Cheltenham Festival tips: Lydia Hislop's Road to Cheltenham preview ahead of Gold Cup day

Lydia Hislop previews the Cheltenham Festival
Lydia Hislop previews the Cheltenham Festival

A 16/1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup bet is one of the final recommendations as the 2019 Road draws to a close.

The Cheltenham Festival, presented by Magners: Day Four

JCB Triumph Hurdle

With a Flat rating of 109 and a third in the Group Two Long Distance Cup behind Stradivarius as his final act for Aidan O’Brien, Sir Erec is a very high-class recruit to the hurdling sphere. Now in the extremely capable hands of his son Joseph, he delivered a high-class performance to take the Spring Juvenile Hurdle by more than eight lengths at Leopardstown last time.

Mark Walsh – twice in the winner’s enclosure this week already, most notably in the Champion Hurdle – controlled a steadily run race from the front on that occasion but his mount also shaped as though he’d actually jump better for taking a lead. He stuttered into a few obstacles and should be more fluent in a well-run race. However, he’s now very short.

Although I don’t like trying to hit two places rather than three, if we accept Sir Erec’s superiority over him both on form and yard reputation, his stablemate Gardens Of Babylon is too long at 12/1. Given he’s posted the next-best form in the race when second to that horse, despite not being well positioned, I like him in the betting-without-Sir-Erec market each-way at 6/1 with the distinct possibility of finishing second.

The standard on British form is set by Quel Destin, who’s won his last five hurdles starts for Paul Nicholls. His best effort came when narrowly beating Adjali – whom he holds – in the Finale Hurdle at Chepstow and his latest Haydock success indicated that he doesn’t need to front-run. He was happy taking a lead in the early stages until the winner’s jumping unraveled. He’s a tough nut.

Nicholls also fields two left-field contenders: Ecco, who never got into the Adonis last time because he was so far back, presumably to settle him, and British debutant Pic D’Orhy, who’s a three-times winner over hurdles in France for his previous yard.

My French correspondent Alan Potts has noted that the best progeny of his sire Turgeon have been chasers rather than hurdlers, including a good quartet trained by Nicholls in Aeriel, Alcala, Chapoturgeon and Turko – not to mention Exotic Dancer and the mare Ma Filleule trained by others. So perhaps he might be a candidate for the 2020 Arkle?

The rest must find improvement. Nicky Henderson won the 1985 Triumph with First Bout via the exact same Plumpton juvenile in which Pentland Hills made a winning hurdling debut less than three weeks ago. This horse has extensive Flat experience in which discipline he helpfully stayed 12 furlongs.

Willie Mullins fields three, from which Ruby Walsh has chosen Tiger Tap Tap. He was narrowly denied by Sir Erec on his hurdling debut but was beaten further by the same horse last time when his trainer felt he might not have worked him hard enough beforehand. The mare French Made won a Clonmel hurdle while Runrized was only fourth on his debut at Naas.

Gordon Elliott runs two: Couer Sublime, who was beaten by elders last time and would have won bar for falling at the last at Leopardstown in December, and Authorizo, who was the beaten favourite in a Leopardstown Grade Three last time when his jumping fell apart late on.

Back now: Gardens Of Babylon e/w at 6/1 in the betting without Sir Erec market

Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle

This is a race that usually rewards experience. Most past winners have raced at least seven times – whether that’s over hurdles, in bumpers, on the Flat or in Points – and some, such as Penhill, Unowhatimeanharry and Berties Dream, had raced between 15 and 25 times. Just three horses have managed to succeed with the benefit of six races or less and two of those won two RSA Chases and a Gold Cup between them. So this is a key indicator in finding a winner.

Therefore, the likes of no-doubt talented horses Allaho, Birchdale and Dickie Diver might struggle actually to win here. Even the likeable Commander Of Fleet, who shaped last time as though he’d improve for stepping up to three miles, is at the lower end of the experience spectrum.

So, I’m going to take two horses against the field. The first is Lisnagar Oscar, who shaped as if he’d prefer a more galloping track when winning at Haydock last time and into whom trainer Rebecca Curtis – who won this in 2013 with At Fishers Cross – has managed to cram just about enough match practice.

The second is Dinons, who won five times on the bounce in the late summer and autumn last year, culminating in victory here, and was badly hampered when a stablemate fell in front of him three out in a Grade Three at Navan in November. That was a complete throw-out run. The drying ground will suit him and he possesses the right battle-hardened profile for this event.

Back now:

Lisnagar Oscar at 13/2 each-way 4 places

Dinons at 12/1 each-way 3 places

Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup

When Presenting Percy won last year’s RSA Chase, he looked like the full Gold Cup package: he jumped and travelled fluently, staying on to win by an impressive seven lengths. He’s done nothing to detract from that impression since. At least nothing we can see – he’s only set foot once on a racecourse in anger all season.

Trainer Pat Kelly’s rep for taciturn unorthodoxy means we’ve enjoyed little insight to the plan. Owner Philip Reynolds seemed to be expecting to see his horse race as often as we were but, ultimately, Presenting Percy lines up here having raced just once over hurdles this season – a highly professional victory in the Galmoy. The last horse to win the Gold Cup via a hurdles prep was Easter Hero in 1929.

Presenting Percy on his way to victory in the Galmoy Hurdle
Presenting Percy on his way to victory in the Galmoy Hurdle

The reason given for his truancy has been the prevailing quick ground that’s impacted on so much of this season on both sides of the Irish Sea. Instead, he’s been to school over fences a couple of times at Kelly’s local Galway track, where the management team even reversed the obstacles in order to recreate the left-handed demands of Cheltenham as best they could.

But this is by far the highest-class collective field that Presenting Percy has ever faced and the fact is he does so short of match practice, requiring us to take on trust that he can make the grade into open Grade One company and that his preparation has been unconventional rather than disrupted.

It’s not that he might not be equal to all this; it’s more that, since crossing the line in last year’s RSA, for my money he’s never been a price that fairly reflects the scale of his task. So, I’m not about to take 4/1 now.

Last year’s Gold Cup hero Native River is pressing him for favouritism and is considered by many to be an each-way banker. That’s understandable for a horse who’s won one of the most competitive editions of the NH Chase, finished third in the main event and then gone one better the following year. He’s a Festival fundamental – much like Altior or Tiger Roll.

However, a glance at the Gold Cup roll of honour tells you it’s difficult to win twice. The great Kauto Star managed it, with the superb Denman wrestling one away in between his two victories in 2007 and 2009. But no horse has achieved back-to-back success since Best Mate’s carefully choreographed three-timer in 2002-04 – an achievement that grows with perspective.

At every single fence, Native River was locked in an eyeballing battle with Might Bite for last year’s Gold Cup. Jumping metronomically in testing ground, he ruthlessly sapped the strength from his opponent with every leap. Up that final pitiless hill, it soon became apparent that what turned out to be his only rival had nothing left to give.

Native River won that based on a deliberate one-race preparation, having had a tough season previously. This year he’s raced twice – a third intended start in February lost to equine flu – and has been a few pounds below his best at courses, Haydock and in particular Kempton, that don’t play to his galloping strengths as much as Cheltenham’s New Course.

So, you can plausibly argue he’s shown nothing to indicate the Gold Cup has left its mark and some horses can withstand the athletic demands of a top staying-chasing season. Flip it round the other way and you can say it took Denman to expose Kauto Star’s weaknesses at Cheltenham. However, Native River is no Kauto Star and 4/1 is no price to defy the weight of history.

Word reaches me from a Newmarket Festival preview night that Might Bite is going to be ridden aggressively. Of course, this might be idle yak but, if true, it could blow this race wide open. It would mean he’d attack this race, unshackled by concerns of preserving his stamina and channelling his idiosyncrasies, much as he did the 2017 RSA Chase when he was so brilliant he could afford to veer off towards the Guinness Village on the run-in for a swift one and still win.

It was a nagging concern of mine in these columns last season that the understandable attempts to make him a conventional partner rather than a flashy playboy might have stolen his mojo. In last year’s Gold Cup, he was even slightly outmatched by Native River at every fence – admittedly on ground more suited to the winner. This season, he’s been a timid parody of himself.

Yet the vibes from trainer Nicky Henderson are that Might Bite has been revivified since a second breathing operation and – more crucially, I surmise – altered medication for gastric ulcers. Combine this with the mooted tactics and you have a recipe for a swashbuckling assault at 16/1. I’m not going to resist the temptation at that price for a horse with so much natural talent.

The impressive King George winner Clan Des Obeaux is the rising star in this division and has come of age in his third season over fences – as did recent Gold Cup heroes Don Cossack, Imperial Commander and Synchronised.

It should be remembered, however, that trainer Paul Nicholls’ primary argument for believing this horse would improve at Kempton was that he’d be racing right-handed. It has also been argued that flat tracks might also suit him best.

However, Clan Des Obeaux’s past Cheltenham form has not been that shy of his best elsewhere at the time and – absolutely crucially – the team at Ditcheat has worked out how he must be ridden since he last ran here: he must be delivered late. Now admittedly, such tactics are indeed best executed on a flat track but I can’t dismiss the claims of this burgeoning talent out of hand.

I will, however, throw out the Willie Mullins-trained quartet. Bellshill has the stamina but probably neither quite the class nor the liking for this track. Kemboy is hugely likeable but I fear he won’t stay – it was a steadily run edition of the Savills Chase that his enterprising partner David Mullins stole on him last time out. Invitation Only has the stamina but probably not the class; his jumping was dodgy when unable to find space last season.

Al Boum Photo is another whom I fear lacks the rugged endurance required for the task – it’s one thing whizzing round the Tramore carousel and quite another seeing this out. I suspect he would have been claimed for third by Elegant Escape anyway in last year’s RSA Chase – a long way behind Presenting Percy, both – had he not fallen at the second last.

I can see the argument for Elegant Escape grinding into a place, especially if the race becomes particularly attritional. If you back him, you’ll have to endure him getting badly outpaced at some stage. Betting each-way for enhanced places can put you in a lonely place, as those who forlornly implored Mister Fisher to “get seventh” in Tuesday’s Supreme could testify.

It’s the opposite problem for Thistlecrack, who undoubtedly came back to the best of his chasing form when chasing home Clan Des Obeaux in the King George. He was outstayed by the much-missed Many Clouds over a slightly lesser lesser trip here in the 2017 Cotswolds Chase, so that – and his often-scruffy jumping – is a major doubt.

The fact Cheltenham isn’t Haydock is the issue for Bristol De Mai, who has understandably been tipped at some wild prices in recent days and weeks. His odds were insulting for a horse who’s probably as good as any of these granted the right circumstances and who’s finished second in a JLT. But, when the flag goes up, the realities of an undulating track loom larger than theory.

Last year’s Gold Cup third Anibale Fly did indeed shape well for future targets when a rallying second to Monalee last time out, the winner having controlled the fractions up front. While this was encouraging, it was still form way below the level required here and he does have more than eight lengths to find on Native River without the aid of utterly bottomless ground that he had last year.

The trio of Definitly Red, Double Shuffle and Yala Enki simply aren’t good enough.

That leaves this column’s ante-post position on Shattered Love, shrewdly bagging the 25/1 when there’s 33/1 available now. In a renewal in which I can raise arguments detracting from the three main players in the market and greater objections to other rivals priced shorter than she is, I still think she’s worth a throw of the dice if you haven’t backed her already.

She’s a dominant Cheltenham Festival winner, after all, having won last year’s JLT Novices’ Chase by seven lengths. She shaped in her first two starts this season as though a step up in trip should suit and trainer Gordon Elliott identified the Gold Cup as her seasonal target at an early stage. Admittedly she was well beaten in the Savills Chase but made a wide swift move into a quickening pace on the home turn – the ideal recipe for burning a stayer. It was a throw-out run.

She returned with sore shins and has also since had a wind operation, so she’s ready to roll here as a fresh horse. I think the 7lb mare’s allowance could bring her bang into calculations.

Recommended 28/11/18: Balko Des Flos e/w 40/1 [SkyBet/Bet365] – NON RUNNER

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

Back now: Might Bite win only at 16/1

Other selections:

While I greatly respect the chance of Magic Saint in the Grand Annual, stablemate Le Prezien looks dangerous on only a 1lb higher mark than when winning it last year. He was highly tried in Grade One company after that and ran well on his seasonal debut over hurdles. There are excuses for him the last twice: making the running out of his grade in the Shloer and racing right-handed at Sandown last time.

Finally, I’m relying on talented young rider Richard Patrick to deliver Pym late on the scene in the closing race of the 2019 Festival, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. It’s the race I had in mind for him after he scrambled home at Kempton in January, having led before the second last.

I formed the opinion then that he ideally needs holding onto for longer and could be the type to thrive when moving out of novice company into the increased tempo of a big-field handicap. This race fits that bill and he can be a second winner of the week for Altior’s owner, Patricia Pugh.

Back now:

Le Prezien for the Grand Annual at 11/1 each-way 5 places

Pym for the Martin Pipe at 18/1 each-way 5 places


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