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Cheltenham Countdown 19 Jan
Tue, Jan 19th, 2016

Mark has updated his Cheltenham Portfolio.

The countdown to the Cheltenham Festival continues at pace with many of those targeting the meeting starting to have their final prep runs before the big day. Whilst last week's racing was largely disrupted by the weather, there was plenty of high-class action last weekend which gave us some pointers towards the third week in March.

This means that the markets are starting to take shape as horses are not confirmed for certain or are ruled out through poor performance or injury.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

In terms of the Gold Cup picture, all eyes were on Don Cossack on Thursday as the nine-year-old attempted to win the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles for a second time. Although he didn't travel with much enthusiasm for most of the race, once the field turned for home he soon put distance between himself and his rivals and won by nine and a half lengths at the line over an inadequate 2m4f. Connections raised the possibility of fitting him with cheekpieces for the Festival afterwards, having already worked him in similar aids at home. The hope is that he travels a bit more fluently as he has looked a little bit lazy on his last two starts in the King George and at Thurles last week. He is generally 5/1 second favourite for the Gold Cup, a couple of points shorter than he was advised at over Christmas and if the cheekpieces can eke out further improvement from him, he looks likely to play a leading role.

The only other mover in the market was Road To Riches who was the subject of Pricewise last week and he is now available at around 14/1 for Friday's showpiece. Third in last year's race, he hasn't been seen since winning the Clonmel Oil Chase in November and missed the Lexus over Christmas following an abnormal blood test result. He is being geared towards the race but whether he goes straight there is not entirely clear.

Champion Chase

Looking ahead to this weekend, we have the Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday and Sprinter Sacre was the only notable absentee from the list of confirmations this morning. That left seven horses in the mix (Captain Conan, Felix Yonger, Simply Ned, Sire De Grugy, Traffic Fluide, Un De Sceaux and Vibrato Valtat) although plans for the Mullins pair have yet to be confirmed.

Should Un De Sceaux be sent over at the weekend, it will give us an idea about where he stands with Sire De Grugy and in turn Sprinter Sacre. For all that he was a little unlucky to fall last time, there has to be a slight question mark over the horse's jumping and should he fluff his lines at the weekend, the market would be wide open for the Champion Chase.

Henry De Bromhead updated us on his two runners Special Tiara and Sizing Granite last week, telling us that the former is likely to head for the Tied Cottage Chase at the end of this month before being readied for a tilt at the Champion Chase. The younger pretender won a Grade 1 at Aintree last Spring and is likely to head straight there, having gone well fresh in the past.

World Hurdle


Little news on the World Hurdle front except that the race was one of many under consideration for Vroum Vroum Mag who was also the subject of Pricewise during last week. She is now as short as 8/1 with most firms although you can still back her at 10/1 with many firms. The thinking is largely that Annie Power is destined for the Mares' Hurdle so that doesn't leave many options for the seven-year-old mare. She has been given an entry at Ascot on Saturday with the outcome of that race likely to guide connections about where to head with her.

Champion Hurdle

Similarly it was the Racing Post's main tipster who had most effect on the Champion Hurdle market as last year's runner-up Arctic Fire was shortened up into around 8/1. The 3m experiment appears to have been binned and he is now likely to take his place in the Champion for a second year having run so well twelve months ago. He seems to like it around Cheltenham having finished second in the County Hurdle the year before and he could be one of the forgotten horses in the Mullins battalion.

Novice Chasers

Ludlow's meeting on Tuesday saw Garde La Victoire win for the third time over fences but there wasn't much in the performance to suggest that he is likely to trouble the likes of Douvan in the Arkle. In fairness to the horse the ground was terrible and he was conceding at least 10lb to all of his rivals but he doesn't seem to have the required gears for a 2m chaser and may prove better off up in trip. He won over 2m4f over hurdles and I wouldn't be surprised to see him step up in trip for the JLT come March.

Having said that he could run into Killultagh Vic there with the bookies now having him the general 7/2 market leader following his dramatic success at Leopardstown on Sunday. Having jumped boldly out in front, he had the race at his mercy on the run to the final fence but he just clipped the top and crumpled on landing, bringing his momentum to a halt. Amazingly Ruby Walsh was not dislodged from the saddle and got him going again to go and win by three-quarters of a length. It was quite a performance and the indications were that the 2m5f trip in the JLT is likely to suit him and that would likely be his target.

Harry Fry might also have the race in mind for Bitofapuzzle despite the mare having fallen on her second start over the bigger obstacles at Thurles last week. She is entered in the next couple of weeks and whilst she will also receive an entry in the Mares' Hurdle, her connections are keen for her to take on the boys in one of the big novice chases.

On Saturday at Wetherby, L'Ami Serge turned in a smooth display of jumping to make it two from two over fences. His victory over an extended 2m3f raised the possibility of the horse dropping back in trip for the Arkle or going slightly up in trip for the JLT. A decision has yet to be made but the Kingmaker at Warwick over 2m is likely to be his next port of call before a final decision is made.

The market for the RSA also saw some movement this weekend following Pont Alexandre's narrow defeat by stablemate Roi Des Francs at Naas on Saturday. His trainer reported that the runner-up was a bit fresh beforehand and that might have made the difference in the duel after the last, with the fitter of the two animals coming out on top on the day. Pont Alexandre is now as big as 20/1 for the RSA and 16/1 for the 4 mile National Hunt Chase.

We shouldn't take anything away from the winner who is clearly improving all of the time and he now sits second in the betting for the National Hunt Chase at around 7/1. He seems to stay all day and having fallen short in Graded company over hurdles, the four-miler looks a suitable target for the seven-year-old.

He is however second in the market behind another of Willie Mullins' novices Black Hercules who turned in a fine display of jumping to win at Warwick on Saturday. He was quick and accurate throughout for Danny Mullins and when challenged after the last, he found plenty for pressure to go clear and win well at the line. The betting suggests that he is more likely to go down the 4 mile route than the RSA but he does travel pretty strongly in his races, so I wouldn't be too keen on him in the National Hunt Chase.

Novice Hurdlers

In the juvenile division, Sceau Royal had no trouble justifying short odds at Huntingdon on Friday, leading his jockey Daryl Jacob to laud his mount as one of the fastest he has ridden over obstacles. He is very efficient at his hurdles and appears to be improving all the time and now looks the best British hope in the race. Alan King now has three of the top four in the Triumph market so is likely to have a big say in the outcome of the race and it would be interesting to know how King sees his pecking order shaping up.

Despite sharing the same name, the Neptune Hurdle on Saturday at Warwick hasn't proved a great trial for the Cheltenham race in recent years and judged by the Willie Mullins' one-two in this year's renewal, that doesn't look likely to improve. Thomas Hobson and Open Eagle fought out the finish but they too would be fairly low down the pecking order in the Mullins' stable and the winner could now go back on the flat having once again made jumping errors in the closing stages of the contest. If they head to Cheltenham it could well be for one of the handicaps such as the County (2m) or Coral Cup (2m5f).

Mullins also looks to hold all of the cards in the new Mares' Novice Hurdle and delivered news that both of his contenders are likely to have another run before Cheltenham. Limini who currently heads the market has the option of Fairyhouse on the 30th or Sandown on the 19th of February. Whichever engagement she takes up would mean that Myska will head the other way although she also has the option of running against the boys in the Deloitte at Leopardstown.

Handicaps

Sunday's Coral.ie Hurdle at Leopardstown can often throw up clues for the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival and Charles O'Brien indicated that the winner Henry Higgins could well go for the County. He is likely to be heavily penalised for his fine effort yesterday but is clearly improving and there could well be more to come from the six-year-old.

The runner-up Kalkir could join him as could the third Desoto County who was making rapid headway in the closing stages and the stiff finish at Cheltenham could play into his favour. Having said that he would probably have to win again to get in the race as he is only rated 126 at present and that normally wouldn't be high enough to get in the race.

The Grade 2 Novice Chase may well be remembered for Killultagh Vic's heroics but it also saw Blair Perrone turn in another good effort in defeat. The seven-year-old has yet to win over fences but has run well behind smart rivals on his last three starts and something like the Grand Annual could be on his agenda. His trainer Tony Martin is pretty good at preparing horses for such assignments and whilst he looks below the level of the top novices, there still might be a nice prize to be won with him come the Spring.

On Saturday, the Pertemps Qualifier at Warwick saw Mark Bradstock's Flintham come out on top with a tough display and his owners confirmed that the Final was going to be his next target. In truth I am not sure he is that well-handicapped and it appears neither do the bookies as he is as big as 33/1 for the Final.

There was also movement in the Fred Winter market over the weekend as Lagostovegas assumed favouritism at around 20/1 following an easy success in Naas' opener on Saturday. This was the juvenile's fourth start over hurdles and having finished third behind Ivanovich Gorbatov on his penultimate start, it appears that she has been popular in the market. Her trainer confirmed after her win that the Fred Winter and the new Mares' Novice Hurdle could be on her agenda and judged on the horses that have beat her to date, she could be pretty smart.

Bumper

There aren't many races at the Cheltenham Festival where we are none the wiser in January than we were in October but the bumper appears to tick that box. The Aidan O'Brien-trained Aspen Colorado heads the market following her victory on Sunday at Leopardstown, where he beat a couple of well-regarded prospects from the Harrington and Doyle yards. Joseph O'Brien who is much more involved this year indicated that he had just needed time but that he would be a nice jumper next year and didn't rule out the possibility of a trip to Cheltenham.

One who we haven't seen yet is Invitation Only who won a point to point in March and was subsequently bought for 40,000 euros. He is owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie and although he hasn't run yet, reports are that he is working well at home and it won't be long before we see him on the racecourse. He is 16/1 for the bumper at present and whilst it is tempting to take a chance on him now, I would rather wait until we have seen him on the track.

Bets

VAUTOUR (Champion Chase) – 2pts win @ 5/2 NRNB (Bet365, SkyBet, William Hill)

My first bet this week is largely a speculative one because although it looks as though Vautour is likely to go down the Gold Cup route, any mishap from Un De Sceaux at the weekend could mean that Rich Ricci is tempted to drop his charge back in trip. Whilst the Ryanair seems the most likely alternative, it doesn't carry the same prestige as the Champion Chase or the Gold Cup and having won the Supreme here, I don't see 2m as a problem. He loves it here at Cheltenham, having turned in his two career best performances here and whilst he may stay 3m2f in the Gold Cup, this looks an excellent option for them. The NRNB concession means that we don't have anything to lose really but should he be redirected down the 2m route, 5/2 would be rather generous in my opinion.

MORE OF THAT (RSA) – 2pts win @ 5/1 (Bet365, Ladbrokes, William Hill)

The RSA picture continues to change with many horses now more likely to drop down in trip for the JLT or take in the four miler but one horse who looks destined for the 3m race is More Of That. He appears to be over the problems he had in 2014 and in two starts this term, he has looked back to his very best. A winner of the World Hurdle in 2014, his stamina won't be an issue and his jumping to date has been very good for a horse with such little experience. I would personally have him ahead of No More Heroes in the RSA market based on their hurdles form alone and whilst the favourite is clearly a smart horse, I think they should be the other way around.

BLUE HELL (County Hurdle) – 1pt e/w @ 14/1 (SkyBet)

Whilst the performance of Henry Higgins was impressive at Leopardstown it is worth noting that he could only finish fifth behind Alan Fleming's Blue Hell at Fairyhouse in November. The form of that race has worked out really well with Diamond King (2nd) winning since as well as Keppols Queen (4th) and Good As Gold (6th). He was raised 11lb on the back of his three lengths success but in a recent stable tour, his trainer indicated that they were waiting for the County with him, in order to protect his current mark (135) and in the belief that the six-year-old will improve for a sounder surface. The form of his latest win continues to be franked and he looks likely to have a leading chance if he can make it to the Festival.

Ante-Post Portfolio

VANITEUX (Arkle) – 1pt e/w @ 10/1 (General)

MY TENT OR YOURS (Champion Hurdle) – 0.5pt e/w @ 20/1 (bet365, Stan James, Betfred)

THISTLECRACK (World Hurdle) – 2pts win @ 3/1 (Boylesports, Sportingbet)

DON COSSACK (Cheltenham Gold Cup) – 1pt win @ 7/1 (BetVictor, 32Red
)
SOUTHFIELD ROYALE (National Hunt Chase) – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (Betway, Paddy Power)

GIBRALFARO (Triumph Hurdle) – 1pt e/w @ 20/1 (Paddy Power, Ladbrokes, Coral)

ACTIVIAL (JLT) – 0.5pt e/w @ 25/1 (SkyBet, Racebets)

BUVEUR D'AIR (Supreme) – 1pt e/w @ 12/1 (SportingBet, Ladbrokes, Betfair)

VAUTOUR (Champion Chase) – 2pts win @ 5/2 NRNB (Bet365, SkyBet, William Hill)

MORE OF THAT (RSA) – 2pts win @ 5/1 (Bet365, Ladbrokes, William Hill)

BLUE HELL (County Hurdle) – 1pt e/w @ 14/1 (SkyBet)

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