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Road to Cheltenham - 11
Tue, Feb 9th, 2016

With five weeks to the Festival Mark reflects on this weekends action and continues his countdown to Cheltenham 2016.

Well my Ante-Post Diary is certainly shaping up well with just five weeks left to the start of the Cheltenham Festival. At this stage the only one who could miss the target is Vautour who now looks all but certain to line-up in the Gold Cup rather than dropping back to 2m for the Champion Chase. Sadly it also looks as though Traffic Fluide will miss the race having suffered a setback in preparation for this weekend's Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Thankfully both were advised with NRNB bookmakers so we haven't lost anything but it is still disappointing.

We had a couple of changes over the weekend, largely due to other horses underperforming including in the Neptune where Yanworth is now odds on with several firms. This move came as second favourite for the race Bellshill disappointed over the weekend and Alan King's six-year-old now looks one of the shortest prices of the week.

The Triumph Hurdle market was also shaken up at the weekend and the victory of Connetable at Sandown paid a big tribute to Gibralfaro who beat that rival with some ease a few weeks ago. He is now as short as 10/1 for Friday's opener having been advised at 20/1 back in December.

Last week I added Bloody Mary to our list of fancies prior to her British debut at Taunton and she didn't disappoint with a workmanlike success. Barry Geraghty was very complimentary about the diminutive mare and having won on quicker surfaces in her native France, she should improve for Spring ground.

The final one to mention is Enda Bolger's On The Fringe who could finish only seventh at Leopardstown on Saturday, getting beaten for the fourth time in that particular event. I wouldn't read too much into it as he looked as though he needed the run and was looked after by Jamie Codd once his chance had gone. He should come on a lot for this and the Foxhunters on quicker ground will prove an altogether different test. Some bookmakers chose to push him out to 3/1 but he remains the one to beat in March.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

The Irish Gold Cup on Saturday at Leopardstown proved the main race in the staying chase division over the weekend with Carlingford Lough landing the prize for a second consecutive year. The ten-year-old stayed on strongly after being left in front at the last but having finished only ninth at Cheltenham last season it is hard to see him having much impact on an arguably stronger renewal this year.

Short-priced favourite Road To Riches could only finish second on his first run since November and is now as big as 20/1 for the Gold Cup in March. His Cheltenham target is likely to be decided around the owner's other runners and with both Don Poli and Don Cossack likely to head for the Gold Cup, he is likely to be rerouted to the Ryanair for which he is best priced 7/1.

The one to exit proceedings at the final fence was Valseur Lido who appeared to be full of running before unseating Ruby Walsh. He would surely have won had he got over the last and he looks the one to take out of the race. Having said that he has now fallen on his last two starts and perhaps that Achilles heel is holding him back from being a top class performer.

In other news, it appears that Vautour could now head straight to Cheltenham as his trainer Willie Mullins expressed concerns about him leaving his best in a prep run on soft ground. Instead he will probably have a racecourse gallop somewhere in preparation for a tilt at the Gold Cup.

It will also be interesting to see who runs in the Denman Chase at the weekend but with the race not receiving enough entries at lunchtime, it has been reopened until Tuesday so we will have to wait to find out.

World Hurdle

On the World Hurdle front, Nicky Henderson confirmed in an interview last week that the Championship staying hurdle was likely to be the next port of call for Bobs Worth and Whisper. The former Gold Cup winner seemed to enjoy the switch to hurdles when beating stablemate Simonsig earlier in the season and he is likely to stay down that route for the time being. As for Whisper, his trainer feels he will come on for the run with a third success in the Stayers Hurdle at Aintree likely to be his main target for the Spring. The pair are 33/1 and 25/1 respectively for the World Hurdle at the moment.

Champion Hurdle

The only event of note in the Champion Hurdle market over the weekend saw Peace And Co finish only third in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday. Nicky Henderson's five-year-old settled much better than he had at Cheltenham in December whilst still being keen but when asked for an effort in the straight, his response was pretty tame. He was beaten just over two lengths by the winner Connetable who was receiving a stone from the favourite but this was still a disappointing effort. He is now available at 33/1 for the race and doesn't look likely to reverse the poor record of five-year-olds in the race.

Novice Chasers

Arkle

On the racecourse, Dan Skelton's Pain Au Chocolat was the only Arkle entry to make any sort of impression when winning impressively at Newcastle on Wednesday. Having got the better of Aso in December, he made all here under Harry Skelton and despite winning with cut in the ground, his jockey believes that he will improve for better ground. I think the Arkle would be flying a bit high for him judged on his hurdles form but he would have a chance of getting into one of the handicaps off a revised mark.

In other news, it appears that Gary Moore has changed his mind about giving Ar Mad another run before Cheltenham and he will have a spin at Plumpton in a couple of weeks' time. He jumped out to the right on his chasing debut back in October and it will be important that he doesn't repeat those antics if he is to head to Cheltenham.

JLT

In the intermediate division, Bristol De Mai strengthened his position as second favourite behind Killultagh Vic with victory in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown. Having made all on his last two starts he set off in front here in the hands of Daryl Jacob and jumped well on the whole. He looked as though he would be challenged coming to the second last but he soon picked up and drew clear of his rivals to win by six lengths at the line. He seems to see his races out well over 2m4f and being such a good jumper, he looks to have a leading chance in the JLT.

During the week there was a big plunge on last year's Coral Cup runner-up Zabana for the race ahead of his run in the Flogas Novice Chase in Ireland over the weekend. He was well beaten at the weekend but his form suggests that the heavy ground on Saturday wouldn't have been to his liking and he probably deserves another chance on better ground. Having said that I was surprised by the gamble and he is now available at around 25/1 for the race.

The winner of the Grade 1 in which Zabana was fourth was Outlander who got the better of stablemate Pont Alexandre up the run-in to maintain his unbeaten record over fences. He was always going well under Bryan Cooper and picked up well once asked after the last. Like Road To Riches in the Gold Cup, his plans are likely to revolve around the participation of No More Heroes in the RSA although having won three times over 2m4f, this looks the best option for him.

RSA

Nigel Twiston-Davies' Blaklion put up a fine performance in the Grade 2 Towton Novices' Chase at the weekend to set up a tilt at the RSA in March. He travelled strongly after the fourth last and fought off the challenge of Definitly Red before drawing clear to win with eight lengths to spare. He is not the biggest but his jumping is getting better and having won at Cheltenham in December, I am sure connections are excited about his prospects. It looks a pretty hot race with No More Heroes and More Of That at the head of the market but he looks entitled to take his chance in the race.

The runner-up ran another fine race in defeat having chased home Black Hercules at Warwick the time before. He probably looks more likely to go down the handicap route if heading to the Festival.

Novice Hurdlers

Supreme

Musselburgh's Cheltenham Trials Day threw up a couple of winners to ponder including Charbel who landed the Supreme Trial on yesterday's card. Kim Bailey's five-year-old chased home Neptune favourite Yanworth at Ascot in December and put down a solid marker here beating a well-regarded member of the Nicky Henderson stable. He made all under David Bass and really motored clear once shaken up on the turn for home. His trainer mentioned that Cheltenham was on the agenda although he was still considering the Neptune as an alternative to the Supreme. He is best-priced 33/1 for both the Supreme and the Neptune at the Festival.

Neptune

As I mentioned briefly at the top, the defeat of Bellshill on Saturday saw Willie Mullins' charge pushed out to around 10/1 for the intermediate race. He could finish only third behind stablemate Bleu Et Rouge who seemed to have improved a lot since finishing fourth in Grade 1 company at Christmas. This was over 2m2f and the Neptune looks the next logical step although he is owned by JP McManus who as we know already has the odds-on favourite for the race.

The horse who didn't run at the weekend who probably came out best was Long Dog who won the Grade 1 at Christmas in which Tombstone (2nd) was runner-up and Bleu Et Rouge (1st) could only finish fourth. He stays well and with Willie Mullins indicating that he is likely to go down the Neptune route, he would make some appeal at around the 14/1 mark.

Up at Musselburgh, Nicky Henderson's O O Seven may have won the Albert Bartlett Trial but is more likely to go down the 2m5f route with his jockey not convinced a stiff 3m will suit the six-year-old. He ran a solid race in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown over two miles prior to his latest run and is entitled to take his chance.

Triumph

The big shake-up in the Triumph Hurdle market came at Leopardstown as ante-post favourite Ivanovich Gorbatov could finish only fourth in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle. His jumping wasn't as slick as it had been on debut in December and as a result Let's Dance reversed the form to the tune of nearly ten lengths. My initial impression would be that he underperformed on the day to a degree although I think there was plenty of expectation factored into his price.

The winner Footpad had been well backed in a Grade 2 contest in December over course and distance but the addition of a hood seemed to make all the difference here. Willie Mullins saddled the first three home and suggested all would head for the Triumph on the back of these efforts. I had a feeling that the front five finished close enough to each other and that the form of the race might not be the strongest.

On this side of the Irish Sea, Paul Nicholls enjoyed two notable successes with juveniles, the first of which was with Connetable at Sandown on Saturday. In a race in which all eyes were on Peace And Co, he tracked the leader before showing a fine attitude to repel his challenge on the run to the line. His trainer believes he will want further in the not too distant future and expected him to improve for that initial outing at Ascot a few weeks ago. There are a couple of firms who have him shorter than Gibralfaro for the Triumph which I can't quite work out but he looks likely to head there on the back of this effort.

The same can probably be said for Tommy Silver who was a wide margin winner of the Triumph Hurdle Trial at Musselburgh on Sunday. Having been beaten by the smart Fixe Le Kap on his British debut, he made all in the hands of Sam Twiston-Davies. He jumped left all of the way around but it didn't seem to affect him too much as he won with plenty in hand at the line. He should come on for the experience again and could line-up along with his stablemate at Cheltenham.

Shoulder races

Fred Winter

Philip Hobbs' St Saviour made it two from two over hurdles at Ludlow last week and could now head for the Fred Winter at the Cheltenham Festival. He has been keen on his first two starts over hurdles which he will need to cut out if he steps up in grade but he is heading the right way and the handicap route seems the more suitable path for him.

He could be joined in the race by Ed De Giles' Akavit who followed up his Wetherby success with a game victory from the front at the weekend. He set a strong pace under David Bass and found plenty for pressure after the last to win by eight lengths. You would have to think that Fingertips would have finished second had he stood up but there was no doubting he was the winner on the day and is clearly thriving over obstacles.

The Fred Winter was also mentioned as a potential target for Harley Rebel as the gelding won for the second time over hurdles at Chepstow last week. He seems to be improving with racing and his owners are keen to go to the Festival although he would probably have to win again to make it into the field.

Pertemps Final

This race looks to have a new market leader following Cup Final's victory on his return to action at Musselburgh yesterday afternoon. He looked none the worse despite being off the track for over a year and looks to have done enough to make the cut for the race. He was given a patient ride by Barry Geraghty and found plenty up the run-in. The bookmakers appear to be wise to the plot although I think the 6/1 from Paddy Power is too short compared to the general 10/1 on offer from other firms.

County Hurdle

Willie Mullins' Blazer did a similar trick in the market for the County Hurdle following a smooth success in Ireland over the weekend. He was disappointing on his last start over fences but the switch to hurdles seems to have brought about plenty of improvement from the five-year-old. His trainer believes that better ground will be no problem for him and on the back of this he could sneak in at the bottom of the weights for this race.

Bets

I have no bets to advise this week.

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)

ON THE FRINGE (Foxhunters Chase) – 2pts win @ 5/2 (General)

BLOODY MARY (Mares Novice Hurdle) – 0.5pt e/w @ 14/1 (General)

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