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Cheltenham Countdown 4 Jan
Wed, Jan 6th, 2016

Our forum member Mark has been keeping an ante-post diary in the countdown to the 2016 Festival. Here are his thoughts on developments over the past week.

Bet365 and Betfair Sportsbook have now gone No Runner No Bet (NRNB) on the four Championship races, with the former also offering NRNB on the Ryanair Chase. These offers can prove useful in the weeks leading up to the Festival, especially when horses' targets are far from certain at the Festival.

Champion Hurdle

The Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown last Tuesday which saw Nichols Canyon beat Identity Thief proved that the first mentioned was still very much a Champion Hurdle contender and that the latter would also not look out of place in the line-up at Cheltenham. It what was testing ground, the winner showed a fine attitude to fight back up the straight and it was his stamina that got him the verdict on the day. He has now won six Grade 1s over hurdles and whilst I believe his stablemate Faugheen is still the one to beat, at this stage he looks one of the more obvious dangers in the race.

Henry De Bromhead's runner-up is clearly improving all the time having won the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal and the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and is likely to be seen to better effect on quicker ground.

It is also worth mentioning that Willie Mullins was not entirely happy with Arctic Fire following his run at Leopardstown last week. Although my initial reaction was that he didn't stay three miles, Mullins insisted that he was never travelling and that he expects something to show up in the post-race examinations of the horse. He could still head back to Cheltenham for the Champion although connections are clearly keen to explore the possibility of the World Hurdle with him.

World Hurdle

Camping Ground's success in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year's Day has seen Robert Walford's six-year-old cut to best-priced 10/1 for the World Hurdle. Having hit the front at the third last, he stayed on strongly as the field turned for home and despite this race being over 2m4f, he gave every indication that further would be no problem. He has only run four times in Britain and is likely to take in the Cleeve Hurdle before returning to Cheltenham in March.

Of the beaten horses, Warren Greatrex was pleased with Cole Harden who finished third in ground which would have been much softer than ideal. He will now head straight to the World Hurdle and although he has been well beaten on both starts this term, his connections are still confident in their bid for a repeat success and he was largely left unchanged at around 10/1.
Whisper was also going to be beaten a long way before being pulled up at the last and would prefer a quicker surface than this. Having said that he hasn't shown much this season and having had a stop-start campaign last term, you have to wonder how much ability he retains.

Novice Hurdlers

Supreme

Yorkhill is now best-priced 8/1 for the Supreme having been workmanlike in winning the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday. My initial impression was that he would have won by further but for the ground which somewhat blunted his turn of foot once Ruby Walsh asked him to pick up. The fact that he won over 2m4f on his hurdling debut suggests that the Neptune for which he is also 8/1 could be on the agenda but as with most of Willie Mullins' novices, his target is far from certain at this stage.

The race may also give Nicky Henderson an idea as to where his novices stand against Mullins as O O Seven finished a good second, without necessarily being towards the top of the Seven Barrows team. The race had been the target for impressive Newbury winner Buveur D'Air but the horse picked up a cold over Christmas so missed this engagement, although he is likely to be fit and well for a trial before the Festival.

Nick Gifford's Theo's Charm who was seventh in the Champion Bumper last season could also head for the Supreme having extended his winning sequence to two over hurdles at Plumpton yesterday. He probably prefers cut in the ground but continues to improve and with Festival form under his belt, he could be one worth keeping an eye on if the ground gets testing.
One horse who was pushed out in the Supreme market during the week was Modus who could finish only third on Wednesday at Taunton. Before that he had been running well, winning twice and I think the heavy ground just caught him out on this occasion. He is probably more likely to go down the handicapping route going forward but was second in last season's bumper, so it might be too soon to write him off.

Neptune

The big mover in the Neptune market was the smart Bellshill who is now as short as 3/1 for the race having landed the Grade 1 Lawlor's Hotel Novice Hurdle at Naas yesterday afternoon. There was barely a moment's worry for the six-year-old as he jumped neatly throughout under Ruby Walsh and having quickened to lead at the last, he was pushed out to win by five lengths. He was a little untidy at the final hurdle which annoyed his trainer and he could head for the Deloitte at Leopardstown in a few weeks' time.

It is significant that Willie Mullins currently has three of the first five in the betting for this race and it is a similar story for the rest of the novice hurdles, so it is worth keeping an eye out for quotes which suggest that Mullins has already made his mind up.

Albert Bartlett

This 3m contest tends to have different demands from the Supreme and the Neptune given its stamina-sapping nature and it looks likely to be the Spring target for Barters Hill who won for the second time over hurdles in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury. He travels kindly in front but finds plenty for pressure over 2m4f which suggests that his stamina is his strength. His trainer has said that he will be given an entry in the Neptune but would only run there if the ground was testing, otherwise he looks likely to head for the Albert Bartlett for which he is a general 5/1 shot.

Just behind him in the market is Willie Mullins' Up For Review who made light work of a good field when winning the Grade 2 Dorans Pride Novice Hurdle by thirteen lengths on New Year's Eve. He was one of the yard's leading bumper horses going into the Spring last year but went over the top and his trainer has suggested that he could head straight to Cheltenham. He stayed the three miles in heavy ground well and he looks to have a live chance at around the 6/1 mark.
David Pipe's Champers On Ice could also line up having followed up his Newbury success with a game win at Cheltenham on Friday. He made all over 2m4f in the hands of Tom Scudamore but had to work hard in the closing stages to maintain his advantage and his connections believe the Albert Bartlett may be more suitable for him than the Neptune.

Triumph Hurdle

Nicky Henderson introduced a smart performer in Top Notch at last season's Challow Hurdle meeting at Newbury and the same connections landed the juvenile hurdle this time around with Fixe Le Kap. He isn't the flashiest at home according to his trainer but he was ridden with plenty of confidence by Jeremiah McGrath and he showed a fine attitude to get his head in front on the run to the line. History tells us that the master of Seven Barrows tends to run a good one here and he is as big as 20/1 for the Triumph Hurdle.

The runner-up Tommy Silver could also have a bright future but having been in front from the second last but was outstayed in the closing stages by Nicky Henderson's gelding. Paul Nicholls' string hasn't been 100% of late and he may come on quite a lot for that initial outing.

On New Year's Day, Jim Goldie's Sir Chauvelin made it two from three over hurdles with a wide margin success at Musselburgh, leading his trainer to direct the gelding towards a tilt at the Triumph. He was third behind Who Dares Wins at Doncaster last month but the ground was too slow for him that day and as long as the ground is not too soft, he could head to Trials Day at Cheltenham at the end of this month.

Sandown's opening contest on Saturday saw Stuart Edmunds' Sneaking Budge get his head in front although my initial reaction was that he just handled the testing conditions better than some of his rivals. The race is unlikely to have much bearing on the Triumph although Master Of Speed for which there was plenty of market support should be suited by better ground and could develop into a Fred Winter type.

Mares' Novice
Willie Mullins is starting to send runners over to these shores with more regularity and he had a successful trip to Taunton last week as Myska handled the testing conditions to land a Listed Mares' Novices Hurdle. Her trainer believes a faster run race will suit the mare and he has nominated the new mares' novice hurdle as her target. She travelled and picked up well in the ground and she is a best-priced 7/1 for the race, although Mullins has more than one mare he could throw at it.
On this side of the Irish Sea, Alan King has always done well with mares in the past and I'm sure the race is likely to be on the agenda for Katie Too who is now two from two over hurdles, having won at Warwick on Thursday. She is a full-sister to The Pirate's Queen and having registered two wide margin successes this term is now likely to be stepped up in Grade in search of black type.

Novice Chasers

Arkle

Nicky Henderson already has a live contender for the Arkle in the shape of Vaniteux but he revealed another smart novice in the shape of L'Ami Serge who made a winning debut over fences in terrible conditions at Plumpton on Sunday. I don't think we learnt anything much although he did jump well on the whole and considering his hurdles form, you would have to think he will take pretty high rank amongst the novice chasers. He is around 10/1 for the Arkle over 2m and as big as 16/1 for the JLT over 2m4f.

JLT

The one horse in the market for the Intermediate race who looks just about sure to head there is Shaneshill who despite once again making a couple of jumping errors, made it two from two over the bigger obstacles. He was second to Douvan in the Supreme last term and whilst he is likely to play second fiddle to that rival in the Arkle, this looks a viable alternative. I think 5/1 is short enough considering he has made jumping errors on both starts this season but that price is largely based on the strength of the Mullins stable.

He could be joined in the line-up by Harry Fry's Activial who made a winning start over fences on New Year's Day, coming home with sixteen lengths to spare on his nearest rival. He was rated 153 over hurdles and whilst he did win a Grade 2 as a juvenile, he has largely been campaigned in handicap company since then. He ran well in a Grade 2 at Newbury on his chasing debut behind Three Musketeers and he is likely to step back up in grade following this success. He could go three miles in time but 2m4f is fine for him at the moment and he makes some appeal at 25/1.

RSA

We weren't short of clues in the 3m division this week and No More Heroes cemented his place at the head of the market with a facile success in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown. He finished third in the Albert Bartlett last year and looks a leading player to go two better over fences this term. His trainer indicated that Gigginstown have a number of good stayers so he will be entered in the JLT, RSA and 4 mile National Hunt Chase, but this looks the most likely target for him at this stage.

The Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham also put talk of a crisis in northern jump racing on hold as Seeyouatmidnight made just about all to get the better of Blaklion. A multiple winner over 3m, the return to that trip should be fine come the Spring but having finished only seventh in the World Hurdle last term, it will be interesting to see how he gets on. He is definitely improving as a chaser and the RSA is the target for Sandy Thomson's eight-year-old.

He could find Aubusson reopposing in March with connections having mentioned afterwards that they felt 2m4f was too sharp for their horse, who was pulled up before the final fence. It is also worth noting that he lost a shoe and would prefer the ground quicker than it was on Friday.

Brian Ellison could also have a live chance in the shape of Definitly Red who made a winning start over fences at Catterick on New Year's Day. The bare form of the race doesn't show the seven-year-old in the best light but he is a strong stayer and this was a good start in testing conditions. He is likely to have another run before the RSA and if he can improve his jumping then he could be a lively outsider.

Bets

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

As I mentioned in my summary of the race above, I was impressed with the way that Harry Fry's grey went about his business at Exeter and having run with such credit on his first start in Grade 2 company, he looks a useful novice chasing prospect. His next target has been suggested as a Grade 2 at Haydock over 2m4f in a few weeks' time which suggests that connections are leaning towards sticking to this intermediate trip for the time being. The market for this race is also a bit false as most of those above him in the market (More Of That, Douvan, Tea For Two) have more likely targets. This race can prove a weaker race than the Arkle or the RSA and I think it looks the ideal race for him.

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)

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