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Cheltenham Festival Update
Tue, Jan 26th, 2016

Mark refects on another week of action and adds to his Cheltenham Portfolio.

Another week goes by which means we are getting ever closer to the Festival and despite talk that the first day is set to be boring in some quarters, I personally can't wait for the action to get underway.

Before I get into last week's action, I thought I would point out that a couple of my ante-post selections are now trading at shorter odds than we advised. The big move last week was for Activial in the JLT who is largely available at 16/1 for the intermediate novice chase. Last week's selection Blue Hell was also popular in the market and is now 10/1 with Skybet having been advised at 14/1 just last week. A couple of others including Southfield Royale and Don Cossack have shortened up since they went in, although sadly the horses still have to run before I can take any credit.

I have plenty to discuss this week and also have three more selections to add to my ante-post portfolio.

Champion Hurdle

There is only one place to start and that is with FAUGHEEN who is now as short as 1/4 for the day 1 showpiece having landed the Irish Champion Hurdle in emphatic style on Sunday. Having gone down to stablemate Nichols Canyon in November, there was plenty of talk about who would come out on top and we were given a resounding answer on the day. Having jumped off in front, he was soon joined by Paul Townend on Nichols Canyon but once the pair jumped the second last, it appeared that the young pretender's tank was empty. Ruby Walsh allowed the favourite to stride on and he motored clear, coming home with fifteen lengths to spare at the line. This was arguably his most impressive performance to date and it appears he will be very difficult to beat come March.

I have to say that Nichols Canyon clearly underperformed and it could be that his race at Christmas took more out of him than connections thought at the time. I still think he will go down the Champion Hurdle route although he has been trimmed for the World Hurdle following yesterday's performance.

He was beaten for second by stablemate Arctic Fire who chased home Faugheen at Cheltenham last year. He definitely prefers the ground a bit quicker than it was yesterday and on Spring ground he could once again run a big race at the Festival. At 9/1 he looks to have an each-way chance as he enjoys Cheltenham and will be better off on a faster surface in March.

On this side of the Irish Sea, The New One put forward his claims with victory in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock. He was pretty workmanlike but the ground was heavy and he got the job done, much as he did in last year's renewal. He is another who should benefit from the return to a faster surface although as I have said in the past, I'm not sure he has the necessary class to win a Champion Hurdle.

Champion Chase

Twenty four hours before Faugheen's display in Ireland, Willie Mullins would have been equally impressed with Un De Sceaux who put his fall last time behind him with victory in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. Although still keen in the hands of Ruby Walsh, he was a little more settled than at Leopardstown and as a result his jumping was much more controlled and accurate. It might have briefly looked as though we might have a race on turning for home but Sire De Grugy soon paid the price for taking the favourite on and Willie Mullins' charge ran on strongly from the back of the last. At this stage I would be inclined to think that the fences are his most likely danger at Cheltenham as it is difficult to see Sire De Grugy reversing those placings in a few weeks' time.

The one to take out of the race could be Traffic Fluide who was having his first start since last April and was beaten only a short-head by his race-fit stablemate for second. His trainer indicated beforehand that this race would bring him on for a crack at the Game Spirit Chase so they must have been delighted that he ran so well. He was a smart novice although Gary Moore didn't think he was right mentally for Cheltenham last year so they bypassed the meeting but he looks one of the few horses in the Champion Chase market with more improvement in him.

World Hurdle

There were a couple of smart performances in the staying hurdle division last week not least Alpha Des Obeaux who ran out a ready winner of the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park last time. He was fitted with cheekpieces for the first time and having hit the front on the run to the second last, he soon stretched clear of his rivals to win by eleven lengths. His jockey Bryan Cooper was keen to point out that the heavy ground wouldn't have suited and expects more from him on better ground. He is available at around 10/1 for the World Hurdle and will interest some of the each-way punters at those sort of odds.

In behind him was At Fishers Cross whose jumping was familiarly untidy but he stuck to his task well in the blinkers to finish second. That was his first run since the World Hurdle last year and whilst it was an encouraging return to action, it is difficult to see him hitting the frame in March as his odds of 33/1 would suggest. Martello Tower was back in third and despite conceding 7lb to the winner, you would still have expected him to finish a little closer to that rival. He was going well until making a bad error at the fourth last and that may have knocked the stuffing out of him on the day.

The favourite Thistlecrack is set to strut his stuff at Cheltenham this weekend in the Cleeve Hurdle along with Camping Ground but this pair are now split in the World Hurdle market by Vroum Vroum Mag who was mightily impressive at Ascot on Saturday. She jumped the first couple of hurdles a little big but she soon got into a nice rhythm and cruised into the lead at the second last. She was shaken up after the last and responded well and considering she gets a 7lb allowance in the World Hurdle, I fancy she will head down that route rather than take in the Mares Hurdle.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

In terms of the Gold Cup, the only real news was that Vautour is being trained with that race in mind according to his owner Rich Ricci. He may also have a run before the Festival although connections were unable to confirm where that might be.

His stablemate and current favourite Djakadam will have a spin around Cheltenham this weekend in the Betbright Chase, a race in which he is likely to face O'Faolains Boy and Many Clouds. He hasn't run since the John Durkan Memorial back in December but is reported to be in good health ahead of his return to action.

Novice Chasers

The Arkle favourite Douvan impressed his supporters with a stroll around Leopardstown on Sunday leading his trainer to describe him as a 'different species'. He barely came off the bridle in beating Velvet Maker by fifteen lengths and whilst the Arkle is likely to pose an altogether different test, he looks the one to beat at this stage. Of course the bookmakers are taking no chances with him at 1/2 generally and he looks another strong contender for the Willie Mullins operation. He is quick over his fences and doesn't get overly high so there might be cause for concern at Cheltenham but he showed his class in the Supreme last year and in Britain at least, we have yet to see a horse give him a race over hurdles or fences.

Whilst not of the same level as his stablemate, I'm sure Willie Mullins was pleased with Tell Us More who got off the mark at the second attempt over fences when winning at Gowran on Thursday. Having finished third to Zabana at Leopardstown over Christmas, his jumping was a little untidy on occasions here but he is still learning and is likely to receive entries for a number of Cheltenham races. This race was over 2m2f so perhaps the JLT could be his target although that could depend on the plans for the other Gigginstown novices.

If he does line up in the JLT then he could run into Bristol De Mai who was very good when running out a wide margin winner at Haydock on Saturday. He made just about all in the hands of Daryl Jacob and jumped well for the most part before cruising clear of his rivals over the final couple of fences. His trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies said that he would enter the horse for both the JLT and the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival and he looks to be improving with his racing.

Although not destined for Grade1 chases at the Festival, Aso and Ballyalton who were first and second in a Market Rasen chase last week could take their place in one of the handicaps. This particularly applies to the latter who was second in the Neptune to Faugheen and should improve for better ground in the Spring. He jumped much better here than he had done on his first two chasing starts and the penny seems to be dropping with him. He is rated 140 over fences and it will be interesting to see where he gets entered up.

Novice Hurdlers

The so-called Supreme Trial saw something of an upset as Paul Nicholls' highly-touted Le Prezien was turned over at Haydock. Having finished second to Yanworth on his British debut, he won his next two starts and might have won here but for a very good piece of riding from Harry Skelton on the winner Its'afreebee. Having won over further, Skelton asked his mount to quicken up on the turn for home and built up quite a lead on his rival. It still looked as though Le Prezien might catch the winner after the last but he dug deep in testing ground to land the spoils for the Skelton team. Both remain smart novices but it turned into a stamina battle on the day and it suited the winner more than the runner-up. Odds of 40/1 for both of them appear to reflect what relevance Saturday's race has to the first race of the Cheltenham Festival in a few weeks' time.

Over in Ireland, the victory of A Toi Phil gave trainer Willie Mullins a fifth successive victory in the 2m4f Novice Hurdle on Sunday's Leopardstown card. The six-year-old won very well on the day following up a victory over Don't Touch It, who also got his head in front on the card. He is likely to go down the Neptune or Albert Bartlett route with connections in no doubt that he will stay 3m no problem.

Whilst not necessarily Cheltenham bound, two other novices who caught the eye last week were Bun Doran and Allee Bleue who both got their heads in front last week. The former ran well behind Buveur D'Air at Newbury earlier in the year and made all to beat two useful horses in the shape of Vintage Clouds and Baratineur at Haydock on Saturday. He is likely to be a chaser in time but it will be interesting to see if he is stepped up in grade before the end of the season. Allee Bleue once again made all to win for the second time over hurdles having won at Huntingdon at the beginning of the month. The penny appears to be dropping with him and he could turn up in one of the handicaps at the Festival.

Triumph Hurdle

My selection for the Triumph Hurdle Gibralfaro was in action over the weekend, winning what is historically a strong race in good fashion at Ascot. He made all in a small field which didn't necessarily suit him but he found plenty after the last once shaken up and I thought he won with a bit up his sleeve on the day. I think ideally he wants to be held up off a strong pace so the Triumph would suit him well and he was trimmed into around 12/1 following his latest effort. His trainer is keen to get another run into him before Cheltenham for experience and now two from two over hurdles, he looks a lively contender.

Over in Ireland, Willie Mullins Footpad got back to winning ways at Gowran having finished third in the Grade 2 Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle over Christmas. He couldn't have won any easier on Thursday in what probably wasn't a great race but his trainer believes he is a Triumph horse and he is likely to run in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown in a couple of weeks' time. He can be backed at 33/1 with William Hill for the Triumph.

Foxhunters

A quick word on the Foxhunters to say that in case you missed it, Long Run is unlikely to make the Festival having suffered a setback in the last few days. It is not anything serious but it means that there isn't enough time to get him qualified for the race so is now likely to be targeted at the Punchestown Festival as an alternative.

Connections of general third favourite Marito have confirmed that their ten-year-old is on course to line-up in the Foxhunters and is likely to have one more run before March. He was formerly trained by Willie Mullins and is unbeaten in three points and won well in a hunter chase at Down Royal over Christmas.

Bets

TRAFFIC FLUIDE (Champion Chase) – 1pt e/w @ 16/1 NRNB (Ladbrokes, SkyBet)

As I mentioned earlier in my discussion of the Clarence House Chase, I was pleased to see such an encouraging run from Traffic Fluide considering all of the talk beforehand about him needing the run. With that in mind you would have to think that there is more to come from this lightly-raced horse and he now looks a live contender for the Game Spirit Chase with Un De Sceaux and Sprinter Sacre unlikely to be there. There aren't many horses in the Champion Chase market which we don't know the limit of yet but this horse has only had seven runs over fences and was described as green and 'very French' by his trainer last season. He is only six and was only beaten five lengths by a race fit rival on Saturday so there is reason to think he could close that gap in the future. I think he could well start shorter than this on the day and he could be the unknown quantity in the 2m chase division.

YANWORTH (Neptune) – 1pt e/w @ 9/1 (Boylesports, William Hill)

Alan King's Yanworth is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles and the form continues to be boosted with the horses he has beaten coming out and winning races. He was fourth in the Champion Bumper last season where he stayed on well in the closing stages and although the Supreme is still an option for connections, the market at least suggests that he is set to run in the Neptune. He has been given an entry over 2m4f at Cheltenham at the weekend and the fact that he is 9/1 for the Neptune suggests that connections are leaning towards this race for him. Obviously Willie Mullins has yet to divide his forces for the Festival so we don't know who he will face but this is a smart horse and looks a leading contender whichever race he runs in.

MYSTICAL KNIGHT (Albert Bartlett) – 0.5pt e/w @ 33/1 (SkyBet, Stan James, Coral)

My last bet this week is a bit of a leap of faith as Rebecca Curtis' seven-year-old has only won a bumper but he was described as one of the best bumper horses they had trained and has since been purchased by JP McManus. In a recent stable tour his trainer indicated that he would go straight over hurdles and could be one for the Albert Bartlett if he was sufficiently impressive. He has a couple of entries this week at Bangor and Doncaster and this is a case of taking a chance on one at a price as I think that he will be significantly shorter once he has had a run. His connections think the world of him and although we are taking a chance, away from the likes of Barters Hill and Up For Review, the race looks wide open.

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)

TRAFFIC FLUIDE (Champion Chase) – 1pt e/w @ 16/1 NRNB (Ladbrokes, SkyBet)

YANWORTH (Neptune) – 1pt e/w @ 9/1 (Boylesports, William Hill)

MYSTICAL KNIGHT (Albert Bartlett) – 0.5pt e/w @ 33/1 (SkyBet, Stan James, Coral)

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