28 Days of February

There are 28 Days of February.
There are 28 Races at Cheltenham.

Which looks like a perfect fit to go through the Cheltenham Festival one race at a time, one day at a time.

So, I'll be offering my thoughts on each race, each day and giving an ante-post selection starting with the Supreme Novices Hurdle and ending with the Martin Pipe. All 28 selections will be 1/2pt EW for a 28 total point outlay.

If you're new to Nag-Nag-Nag and would like daily reminders for the Cheltenham Guides, the AW Tips and all Nag updates then sign up in the box to the right >>>


26) THE FOXHUNTERS CHASE

What I know about point to pointing, foxhunting and the Cheltenham Foxhunters chase can probably be written on the back of a postage stamp but I think I know a good performance when I see one and Paul Nicholls' BOB AND CO was very impressive when winning on his seasonal debut at Haydock last Saturday.

He was thought good enough to run in a Grade 1 chase during the 2018-2019 Season in his native France before being bought by his now owner / jockey, David Maxwell, and being shipped to Paul Nicholls at the beginning of last year for a Hunter Chase career. Things didn't get off to the best start when he pulled too hard, tired the jockey out and he had to pull up because the jockey was exhausted (yes really!).  No such problems next time out he romped home by an impressive, but slightly annoying, 99 lengths and then he won again two weeks later under hands and heels by a less decisive 1 1/4 lengths. Not bad for a horse that was apparently plagued with breathing problems. The plan last year was to skip Cheltenham for the Aintree Foxhunters but covid put paid to that and so he underwent wind surgery last Summer and sat on the sidelines until making his reappearance last weekend.

It was a pretty decent class 3 Hunters at Haydock that he contested and one which saw Sean Bowen take over the riding duties (amateur riders not being able to ride under current restrictions). He didn't jump particularly well but raced prominently until going clear on the bridle at the second last. He eased further clear approaching the last and on the run in to come home an easy 17 length winner giving 3lb and 6lb to the placed horses (rated 137 & 139).

Paul Nicholls has confirmed Cheltenham is the target this year and he's attracting a lot of support which may see him go off close to favourite on the day. He'll do for me.

SELECTION: BOB AND CO 1/2pt EW 6/1 (BetVictor) NRNB


25) THE GOLD CUP

A 7-9yo rated 164+ with at least 7 chase starts that won their last race and has been rested 33 days+ has won all of the last 6 renewals.

Al Boum Photo has won the last two renewals of the Gold Cup off the back of a win in the New Years Day Chase at Tramore and Willie Mullins is going with the old maxim of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' and sent him to Tramore again for his prep race. He dismissed Acapella Bourgeois, as expected, with the minimum of fuss but it didn't really tell us much other than he's a two time Gold Cup winner that's been there, done it and is doing it again with the same agenda.

A Plus Tard has spent his chasing career dropping back and stepping up in trip on a regular basis with runs over 3 miles followed by runs over 2 miles and then back up to 2m4f. He was sent off favourite for last years RyanAir but was a little one paced in the closing stages when a close up third to Min and began this year getting beat at 1/2 over 2 miles. Last time out he stepped back up to 3 miles for the Savills Chase where he produced the best performance of his career to stay on strongly up the run in and win in the final strides from Kemboy. With that one winning the Irish Gold Cup next time out it gives the form a rock solid look to it and the only doubt we now have left with A Plus Tard is whether he'll stay the extra 2 1/2 furlongs of the Gold Cup.

Champ had been absent from the track since his thrilling last gasp win in last years RSA Chase when reappearing over 2 miles last Sunday in the re-arranged Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Racing over a trip far short of his optimum distance and after an 11 month break he did remarkably well in the circumstances to finish a 2 length second to a genuine 2 mile speedster in Sceau Royal. He was going just as well as anything at the fourth last and only gave way after jumping the final fence. He kept on well all the way to the line and connections must have been more than delighted with the run. The last 3 winners of the Gold Cup have come into the race with a very light campaign so he can't be dismissed on the grounds he's only had the one run this Season but the bigger problem he faces is that every winner this century had been rested at least 33 days since their last run whereas Champ will have to do it off the back of only a 26 day break. Granted those previous winners didn't have their prep race over 2 miles or only have 1 race in the previous 12 months but it still looks a big stat to overcome.

Minella Indo was the horse run down in the closing stages of last years RSA Chase and he began this Season well with a couple of easy wins in minor Graded chases that, in truth, didn't take much winning. It was enough for him to sent off favourite for the Savills Chase over Christmas but he fell at the 8th, well before the race had begun in earnest, and then last time out in the Irish Gold Cup he was bumped and pushed along in the closing stages all to no avail. He was beaten by the last and, one paced on the run in, he lost two places in the last 150 yards to finish 4th of the 5 runners. He looks a weak finisher and that may be a big problem in what could be a very strong renewal of the Gold Cup.

Frodon began the season with an impressive handicap win from top weight at Cheltenham back in October but could never get into a rhythm next time out in a strange renewal of the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree where a lot of the fences were omitted. He showed that run to be all wrong when leading all the way under a fine ride from Bryony Frost to land the King George on Boxing Day. The partnership got into a good rhythm that day and jumped well throughout and after coming under pressure at the third last they stayed on very strongly with a fine leap at the last sealing the win. We know he goes well at Cheltenham, the jockey and horse are a great partnership and the distance should prove no problem, it's all down to whether they're allowed free reign up front to dominate the race. I think that's unlikely with a number of other runners in the race that like to force the pace.

I fancied Kemboy to run a big race in both of the last two Gold Cups after good runs in the run up to the race but he unseated in the 2019 renewal and then didn't jump with any fluency last year resulting in him getting left behind as the field went for home before running on well, all too late. He arrives this year having improved on his finishing positions in the exact same two races he prepped in last year including an all the way win in the Irish Gold Cup last time out but he won't be able to get a free pass up front this time around and seems to find the Cheltenham fences a little tricky. I think he's best left alone at Cheltenham

Last year's Gold Cup runner up Santini has been struggling to find his form of late having begun his season promisingly with a second in the Many Clouds Chase where he gave 6lb to the winner. He ran in snatches in the King George and was outpaced at the third last before staying on well once the race was pretty much over and his chance had gone. He ended up 10 lengths adrift of Frodon at the finish. Next stop was Sandown for the rearranged Cotswold Chase where after a couple of early jumping errors he was once again outpaced from the third last and came home well adrift of the old timers Native River and Bristol De Mai. The Gold Cup has been his target all season though and he'll be much happier returning to Cheltenham on better ground and, with a Festival record of 3-2-2, he'll no doubt be primed to run a big race in three weeks time before finding one too good.

It was great to see that former Gold Cup winner Native River retains a lot of his talent after a game win in the rearranged Cotswold Chase and there seemed no fluke about the way he stayed on strongly to beat Bristol De Mai and Santini. He's finished 3-1-4 in the three of the last 4 Gold Cup's (sat out last years renewal) and is bound to be in there fighting at the final fence again this year but now an 11yo he might not have the finishing speed of some of the younger chasers. It's a long, long time since a horse aged over 10yo won the Gold Cup (What A Myth 1969) and he's probably playing for a place at best.

Lostintranslation has completely lost the plot and is nowhere the same horse he was at this time last year when finishing third in the Gold Cup. Tailed off in the Betfair Chase, pulled up in the King George for the second year running and tailed off on Sunday in the Denman Chase you'd be a brave man to back him coming back to form for the Gold Cup with just three weeks left to go.

Melon and Samcro were split by the smallest of margins in last years Marsh Chase but have both struggled to make the step up to take on seasoned Grade 1 chases and neither have really shown enough this season to warrant backing them for the Gold Cup. Last years RSA 3rd Alaho is another finding the step out of novice company hard and although he came back to form last time out to beat the mare Elimay in a Grade 2 it wasn't the greatest of races and he'd been well behind A Plus Tard previously. He also looks more likely to take in the RyanAir.

Venetia Williams' Royal Pagaille has shot up the ratings this Season after three incredibly impressive wins in three runs, one in a novice chase and two in handicap company. His last win came in the Grade 2 Peter Marsh Handicap at Haydock where he cruised home by 16 lengths although the race did fall apart when a few of the fancied horses came down as the race was getting serious. You can only beat what's in front of you and Royal Pagaille did that with the utmost of ease and is now rated 166 having begun the season on 135. He will be a big player if allowed to take his chance but he does have a lot of other options at the meeting and connections have yet to make their minds up which one he will contest. With most firms now betting NRNB that's not too much of a worry as we'll get our money back if connections duck the challenge and he'll therefore be the selection.

SELECTION: ROYAL PAGAILLE 1/2pt EW 8/1 (PaddyPower / BetVictor) NRNB


24) ALBERT BARTLETT

A 6-7yo who finished top 4 in a Graded hurdle last time out is still the best place to start when looking for the winner of this race despite Monkfish's Graded race inexperience last year. A rating of 137+, at least 3 hurdle runs, a win at 2m4f+ and a break of at least 26 days are also strong pointers to the winner of this race.

Stattler and Fakiera were two lengths apart when finishing 3rd and 4th in the 2m6f Grade 1 Hurdle at the DRF last time out after Stattler had tried to make all of the running. Gaillard De Mesnil had his measure as they approached the last and went on to win quite easily while Stattler stuck on well but got headed on the line for second. Fakiera made headway from the second last and stayed on well but couldn't reach the leaders. Horses being held up had a real problem trying to get into their races throughout the DRF and I'd fancy the form to be reversed should the 3rd and 4th meet at Cheltenham.

Gordon Elliotts Farouk D'Alene was only 4th to Fakiera when favourite for a Grade 3 at Navan at the end of November but came out to win a Grade 2 next time at Limerick at Christmas, leading all the way. This probably provides more of form boost for Fakiera than Farouk D'Alene who was very tired and all out to win that Grade 2.

Ashdale Bob beat Wide Receiver first time up over hurdles this season and then gave Fakiera a 6 length drubbing in a Grade 2 a week before Christmas and looked to be making up into a classy staying novice but the wheels have really fallen off since. He fell at the second flight, when appearing to take off too soon, in a decent Grade 1 at Naas (Bob Olinger won) before running inexplicably badly at the DRF in the Gainard De Mesnil race. Noted travelling well in midfield at three out he simply failed to pick up and came home 48 lengths behind the winner in 9th. That definitely wasn't his running and was another hold up horse who didn't get into his race at the DRF. I'd be happy to give him another chance and think the strong pace the Albert Bartlett is usually run at will suit him better.

Adrimel was 16th in the Champion Bumper last year and began his hurdling career brightly with a couple of wins over 2 miles before Christmas but took his form to the next level when appreciating a step up in trip to land the Grade 2 Leamington Novice Hurdle at Warwick giving 3lb to the field. That race was run in desperate ground and he was all out to hold Mint Condition by a neck. The runner up was well beaten by Alphaville last Saturday in the Grade 2 Leamington Hurdle at Haydock with Fergal O'Brien's 7yo running out a comfortable winner. That one's only defeat in five starts this Season came in a novice hurdle over 2m3f when going down by 3/4 length to a Phillip Hobbs runner who was receiving 4lb. The big problem Alphaville has is that the Prestige Hurdle  is an absolutely dreadful trial for the Albert Bartlett with the last 6 winners finishing P9FP50 at Cheltenham.

David Pipe's Make Me A Believer was half a length behind Adrimel at Warwick and pushed the winner all the way to the line with a strong challenge before giving way only in the last 75 yards. He may not have appreciated the ground conditions quite as much as the winner that day and on better ground may be able to find the necessary improvement to overturn the form. He had previously won a 2m1f Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham in very game fashion, considering he looked as though he already needed a longer trip, and while his trainer may have handicaps in mind for him I think he looks overpriced at around 33/1 and worth betting using the very important NRNB concession.

SELECTION: MAKE ME A BELIEVER 1/2pt EW 33/1 (PaddyPower / Skybet / BetVictor) NRNB


23) COUNTY HURDLE

The trickiest of all the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival has been dominated by three trainers in the last 15 or so years with the score 3-3-4 between Willie Mullins, Dan Skelton and Paul Nicholls. Mullins and Skelton have won the last 6 races between them with Paul Nicholls winning the race before their streak and also a further 3 times since 2004. The three of them obviously target this race and are therefore the obvious place to start.

13 of the last 15 winners were rated in the 130's with the two exceptions being highly rated horses who had contested the Champion Hurdle. The last 13 winners were 5, 6 or 8yo. Interestingly, the last 5 winners had been rested at least 72 days since their last hurdle run.

Dan Skelton has a 6yo handicap hurdler who was very well fancied for the informative Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham last November but was never travelling at any stage in the race and pulled up before the last. Not a great first run at Cheltenham by any means but this former classy flat horse (rated 102 and ran 8th in the St Leger when with Tom Dascombe) has picked up two NH Jumpers Bumpers since and is obviously over whatever was troubling him that day. Proschemo is rated in the low 130's and will probably need a couple of pounds more to make the cut for this race so will need a good performance in the Morebattle Hurdle this weekend at Kelso.

Capodanno looks an ideal candidate from the Willie Mullins yard and has a very similar profile to last year's 5yo winner for the stable, Saint Roi, even down to getting beat at odds on in the same Clonmel novice hurdle on his first run in Ireland before winning next start easily. He doesn't have a rating yet but the 5yo could easily get a mark in the mid-130's.

Paul Nicholls ran a 5yo in the Betfair Hurdle last Sunday that really caught my eye having run a lot better than his finishing position would suggest after a break of 85 days. THYME WHITE won the Scottish Triumph Hurdle last Season before running midfield in the Boodles Handicap but began this year in top form comfortably beating The Pink'n in a decent 4yo handicap at Chepstow. On his follow up run he was well in contention in a Listed handicap at Newbury when getting involved in some scrimmaging and hitting the second last, getting hampered shortly afterwards and unseating his rider. We didn't see him again until Sunday's Betfair Hurdle where he made smooth headway to come and challenge after the second last, going nicely, but he couldn't go on from there and dropped out after the last flight to finish 9th. He's currently rated 141 but I'd expect he'll drop a couple of pounds after that run to the high 130's which would put him in the perfect ratings band. He may also appreciate being held up for a little longer and played later in the race.

SELECTION: THYME WHITE 1/2pt EW 33/1 (PaddyPower / Skybet / BetVictor) NRNB


22) TRIUMPH HURDLE

All of the last 11 winners finished Top 4 last time out. All of the last 11 winners had run in the last 18-48 day period. All of the last 7 winners with an official rating were rated 140+

Gordon Elliot's pair of Zanahiyr and Quilixios head the betting thanks to some impressive wins in Graded company on the other side of the Irish Sea (or on this side of the Irish Sea if you're reading this in Ireland). Zanahiyr won the Grade 2 Juvenile Hurdle at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting by an easy 3 3/4 lengths and is 3 wins from 3 runs while Quilixios won the Grade 1 Juvenile Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival by 5 1/2 lengths and is now 4 wins from 4 runs. They're rated 145 and 144 respectively and both those Irish races are excellent pointers to the Triumph Hurdle.

There is a third Elliott Triumph Hurdle entry that has a perfect 100% win record and won the informative Grade 2 Prestbury Hurdle at Cheltenham last November by 5 lengths from the subsequent Grade 1 Chepstow Future Champions winner Adagio but he's had a set back and hasn't run since last November. Elliott is in a race against time to have him fit for Cheltenham but he'd be my idea of the winner if lining up fit and healthy.

The Prestbury Hurdle runner up Adagio won a novice both before and after that race before winning the Future Champions by 2 1/2 lengths from Nassalam. That one was firmly put in his place by Monmiral at Haydock last Saturday which probably leaves Adagio a little short of the required standard. Monmiral isn't entered for Cheltenham and heads to Aintree instead.

Willie Mullins broke a long losing run with his juveniles at the Cheltenham Festival last year when winning the Triumph Hurdle with the filly Burning Victory and his French Azeel is well fancied for the race this year thanks to a highly impressive win in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas. He didn't actually train it then though as the French import ran for the small stable of Miss Ellmarie Holden when he beat subsequent winner Coltor by a staggering 22 lengths without coming off the bridle. He was then bought privately and switched to the Mullins stable where he's yet to run since.

Tritonic was a 99 rated flat horse who finished 2nd at Royal Ascot last year and began his hurdling career running down Casa Loupi in the closing stages of their meeting at Ascot in late January. Neither have run again but the runner up was an intended runner a couple of weeks ago at an abandoned Plumpton meeting while the winner probably goes to Kempton this Saturday for the Adonis hurdle.

Once past those fancied in the betting you're into the runners that have been well beaten by the fancied Triumph horses and are more likely to head for the Boodles handicap, the once raced runners and the unraced in the UK/Ireland French imports or ex-flat horses.

Chances are we haven't even seen the Triumph Hurdle winner yet as the last two winners didn't start over hurdles until late February (22nd & 25th) so you could make a case for backing an unraced 4yo. Two of the most interesting in this group are the colt John Locke and the filly Fortunes Melody.

The Dan Skelton trained John Locke was an 85 rated horse when with Ralph Beckett and was odds on favourite to beat crack NH Flat horse, and now very decent flat runner, Ocean Wind (104 rated). He went down by 3 1/4 lengths that day but won next time out before running down the field on his handicap debut. He's yet to run over hurdles and hasn't any forthcoming entries but will be one to keep a close eye on when making his NH debut.

Harry Fry's filly, Fortunes Melody, has had a running battle (3-2 down in their encounters) in her last 5 starts with top French 4yo filly Hotesse Du Chenet (won 4 Graded races on last 4 starts) and makes her debut this afternoon at Southwell in an all aged Mares race. She has to give weight away to the field, despite being the youngest runner, but should still win what is a pretty poor race.

This really does look like a race that will be contested by a small field and there's little strength in depth beyond the front few in the betting. Kempton this weekend could be the final piece of the puzzle but for now let's take a chance on Fry's filly at a fancy price and cheer her on this afternoon. If she gets beat today it will be extremely doubtful she'll run in the Triumph anyway so we'll get our money back (as long as you bet with a bookmaker offering NRNB)

Result: Finished well beaten in second and obviously not up to Triumph Hurdle standards.

SELECTIONFORTUNES MELODY 1/2pt EW 33/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB


21) KIM MUIR HANDICAP CHASE

All of the last 11 winners were rated 134-143. 10 of the last 11 winners were aged 7-9yo (Exception 12yo!). 10 of the last 11 winners were rated within 8lbs of the topweight. All 43 French Bred runners have been beaten in the last 10 years (4 placed) 

The weakest of all the handicaps run at the Cheltenham Festival it's worth noting that the last 7 winners of this race hadn't won a race that Season (October onwards). Irish trainers have really come to the fore over the last decade  including Gordon Elliott winning two of the last 5 renewals.

He's responsible for the current favourite Run Wild Fred and it's easy to see why as he has a very similar profile to Elliotts winner last year, Milan Native. Both 7yo's with a consistent string of chase performances over the season, without winning, and rated around the 140 mark. Run Wild Fred was a decent NH Flat horse (beat Fiddlerontheroof in that sphere and got within 10 lengths of Envoi Allen), is a Grade 3 winner over hurdles and has been running behind some decent novice chasers this season including Latest Exhibition, Pencilfulloflead and Eklat De Rire. His last start saw him run a fine second to Coko Beach in the valuable Thyestes Handicap earning him a 4lb raise to a mark of 140. He can probably expect a couple of pounds more from the UK handicapper which would still leave him looking nicely handicapped and a worthy favourite.

But there is another Irish horse who has finished in front of Run Wild Fred on a couple of occasions this year yet is rated 5lb inferior on Irish ratings and is available at twice the price. SCHOOL BOY HOURS was second to Latest Exhibition when Run Wild Fred was finishing 4th and was also a very good second to Eklat De Rire while Run Wild Fred was a long way back in 5th. In between those runs School Boy Hours had run 4th to 149 rated Asterion Collonges with the 144 rated Conflated second. The selection is an 8yo currently rated 134 and is owned by JP McManus who loves nothing more than a well executed Festival plot. He hasn't run since early December, presumably to protect his handicap mark, but once confirmed for the race I think he'll be vying for favourtism.

SELECTION: SCHOOL BOY HOURS 1/2pt EW 14/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB


20) MARES NOVICE HURDLE

Willie Mullins has won all 5 renewals with a 5 or 6yo that finished top 3 last time out and had been rested at least a month since. His winners range from 4/7 favourite to 50/1 and include a mare that had finished 2nd in the race the year before.

I may have mentioned it before but I'm not really a fan of mares only races and when you throw in the fact it's a race for novices and one trainer has won every renewal it looks a recipe for disaster to me.

Such is Willie Mullins' dominance in the race he managed to trained 4 of the first 5 home last year from just 4 runners. So I'm not going to try and be clever here, I'm looking for the winner from amongst the Mullins runners.

He has 12 entered in the race at the moment but promising mare and previous ante-post favourite Shewearsitwell has had a setback and is most unlikely to make the Festival. Grangee won the Grade 2 NH Flat race at the DRF where stablemate Brandy Love was third as the odds on favourite but both have yet to jump a hurdle in public and must be considered doubtful to make their debuts in such a tough race. Neither the 9yo Royal Illusion or 7yo Katoune Tara make any appeal to me while Ruaille Buaille has been well beaten in her last three runs.

Finest Evermore mopped up a couple of 2m4f novice races earlier in the season by wide margins but was found wanting when only 3rd in a Listed Mares race when odds on favourite in early December. According to Mullins she was due to run within the next week but she doesn't have any entries at the moment. I'd like to see her run again before getting involved with her.

Hook Up was well behind in last years Triumph Hurdle but comfortably lost her maiden tag first time up this season (second won next time up). She was no match for Royal Kahala next time up in an ordinary Mares Hurdle but wasn't disgraced when 4th to Supreme Novices favourite Appreciate It in a Grade 1 Hurdle at the DRF. That run probably boosted the form of Royal Kahala more than her own and she remains of mild interest only.

Willie Mullins has twice used the Solerina Hurdle at Fairyhouse to prep his Mares Novice Hurdle winners and this year ran Gauloise. She had won a NH flat race, a maiden hurdle and a Listed mares hurdle and was sent off favourite to make it 4 from 4 in that Grade 3 but was ridden between the last two flights and had nothing left at the last flight. She came home third behind Roseys Hollow and Royal Kahala who came out best when the weight penalties are taken into account.

Which leaves me looking at Echoes In Rain who scooted home for a first success over hurdles in mid December and wasn't disgraced behind the exciting Deal Dreal in a Grade 2 at Punchestown a month later. She set out to make all that day and at one point had opened up a 15 length advantage on the field before being reeled in at the last flight. She kept on once headed but lost a couple more places on the run in to finish fourth. Back against her own sex she might just be the one to keep up Mullins' perfect record in this race.

SELECTION: ECHOES IN RAIN 1/2pt EW 16/1 (Betvictor) NRNB


19) FESTIVAL PLATE HANDICAP

All of the last 11 winners carried 11-04 or less and were rated 130-149. All of the last 11 winners had their last run in a chase. The last 4 winners were 6 or 7yo novices with 3-7 chase starts and were rated in the 140's

Another handicap where it's hard to find a selection when you don't have the declarations but over the last decade or so there has been a definite shift in the type of horse that is winning this race. We are seeing lightly raced 6 or 7yo novices with a rating in the 140's coming to the fore with the UK trained winners contesting handicaps prior to this race and the Irish trained winners taking a Graded chase route.

I've searched high and low to find a suitable candidate and I think I've got the perfect fit for the race. It's even trained by the most successful trainer in the race over the last 11 years, David Pipe.

UMBRIGADO was a fairly decent hurdler and was fancied for last years Martin Pipe Hurdle but was unable to quicken with the leaders in the last half furlong when finishing mid field, although only 9 lengths off the winner. He had one hurdles run at the start of this season (2nd) before being sent chasing at Uttoxeter. He bumped into a good one that day but learnt from the experience to win next time up in a 4 runner novice at Fontwell where he only had one serious rival. But it's his last run, which only came a couple of days ago, that announced him as a serious Festival horse and, with the absence of the Novice Handicap Chase this year, a lively hope for the Plate handicap. Taking on some serious, experienced handicappers from the top of the handicap over a distance a little shorter than he would have liked he challenged at the 4th last and stayed on well for a comfortable enough win. He'll get a small raise for that win which will take him up to around his hurdles mark (141) and as a 7yo is the perfect age for the race. David Pipe's record in the race is 3 wins and 4 places since 2010, with his runners at 20/1 or under finishing 1461F81273554. Pretty impressive for such a competitive handicap and his Umbrigado is certainly worth an ante-post interest at this stage.

SELECTION: UMBRIGADO 1/2pt EW 14/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB


18) STAYERS HURDLE

All of the last 11 winners were aged 6-9yo. All of the last 11 winners had their last run in a Graded race. All of the last 11 winners had been rested at least 46 days. 10 of the last 11 winners were rated 153+ (exception 2020). Before Solwhit, the previous four winners aged 9 or above were all previous winners of the race (Big Bucks, Inglis Drever, Galmoy and Crimson Embers) 

The 2019 Stayers Hurdle winner Paisley Park had surrendered his title with a rare lacklustre display in 2020 but has bounced back as good as ever this Season and this year's race will see the much anticipated round 3 of the Paisley Park vs Thyme Hill saga. The champion vs the young pretender. The current score is 1-1 after two epic battles which saw Thyme Hill hold the late challenge of Paisley Park when receiving 3lb and then get nabbed on the line when racing off level weights. If they're both at the top of their game there won't be much between them and it's shaping up to be the clash of the meeting.

Next in the betting is the 2020 Pertemps Final winner Sire De Berlais but there was no fluke about the way Flooring Porter or The Storyteller beat him last time out and I'm struggling to see how he is shorter in the betting than that pair. 9yo's don't have a great record in the race either, unless they are previous Stayers Hurdle winners, although the lightly raced Solwhit did manage to win for that age group in 2013. The Storyteller was second in the Pertemps last Season and has been in cracking form through last Summer and this Winter over hurdles and fences. His last run saw him stay on well to finish second to Kemboy in the Grade 1 Irish Gold Cup where he had Delta Work, Melon and Minella Indo behind him. Again, his age is against him as 10yo's have an even worse record in the Stayers with no horse of that age ever winning the race although Crimson Embers (previous race winner ) did win in 1986 as an 11yo. It doesn't look good for this Season's 10yo hat-trick hero Bachasson, grand old servant Lil Rockerfeller, old favourite Tobefair or race regular Bacardys.

Flooring Porter stepped up from handicap company (beat The Bosses Oscar easily) to win that Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle making all to score by 6 lengths. Still only a 6yo he's got a bright future in front of him but he's never raced at Cheltenham before and dominating the field from the front in the Stayers Hurdle won't be quite as easy as he found it at Leopardstown. The fourth home in the Christmas Hurdle was Fury Road who had been in front of Thyme Hill in last years Albert Bartlett Hurdle, when just a neck behind the winner, and won easily first time up this year in a very poor Grade 2. Sent off favourite he was outpaced at the third last and despite staying on from the final flight could never land a blow on the leaders. A return to Cheltenham and the uphill finish should suit him better and I make him the horse with the best chance of reversing the form with those in front of him that day.

After a fantastic season so far, Roksana is strongly fancied to win the Mares Hurdle but has the option of running here also. She's having her best ever season this year and was just 2 lengths behind the big two in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot having only been outpaced in the closing stages. She followed that up by cantering home to win a Grade 2 Mares only hurdle at Ascot last time out. Connections haven't as yet made up their mind as to which race she goes for although having tipped her for the Mares Hurdle I'm hoping they go for the Tuesday race!

Paul Nicholl's McFabulous is another to have been behind Paisley Park and Thyme Hill having run third to that pair in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury last November where he faded out of it in the last half furlong. He too came out next time to win a Grade 2, taking the Relkeel Hurdle at Kempton from good yard stick On The Blind Side, although he didn't win quite as easily as had looked likely at the second last. He'll need to have improved to have any chance of reversing form with the front two in the betting and this run seems to suggest he hasn't.

There are a number of chasers who come next in the betting, Kemboy, Champ & Vindication, but they all look to have their eyes on other prizes. Emitom was 4th in the Stayers Hurdle last year and has been sent chasing this season but has been found wanting in that sphere, getting beat on both runs including a distant last of 3 last time out behind If The Cap Fits. He looks the most likely of this bunch to drop back to hurdling but is still someway short on form of the best of these.

Last years Stayers winner Lisnagar Oscar ideally wants a strong pace to be seen at his best and was well beaten on his first two starts this Season in races that didn't play to his strengths. With a number of fast, front runners in the field he should get his ideal conditions at Cheltenham and, having undergone a wind operation, he can't be ruled out of a much improved performance. We should learn a lot more this weekend at Haydock.

Runner up last year was Ronald Pump who began this Season looking likely to go close in a Grade 2, eventually won by Sire De Berlais, but came down at the last when right amongst the leaders. He then ran an absolute cracker behind Champion Hurdle favourite Honeysuckle when running on strongly on the run in and just failing to reel her in by 1/2 length. That race was over 2m4f which is a little short of his optimum trip and the return to Cheltenham and 3 miles will suit him down to the ground. The only negative with the 8yo is that we haven't seen him since the end of November, although his trainer has planned it this way, and he is expecting him to arrive fresh and ready to run a big race. That run behind Honeysuckle was very exciting and he's a fair price as an alternative to the favourites.

SELECTION: RONALD PUMP 1/2pt EW 14/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB RULED OUT BY TRAINER


17) RYANAIR CHASE

All of the last 11 winners were aged 7-10yo. All of the last 11 winners were rated 161+ . All of the last 11 winners had raced in Grade 1 or Grade 2 company last time out

We only have 35 runners declared for the race but it's currently the most open of all the Graded Chases at the Festival with bookmakers betting 5/1 the field. That may change after the Ascot Chase this weekend but for now the Willie Mullins trained (who else?) Allaho is the favourite. He was beaten favourite in last year's RSA Chase where he finished 3rd, only weakening in the final stages of the race, and has been campaigned a couple of times over distances at around 2m4f this Season. He began this year poorly finishing well behind Min in the John Durkan but was slightly better when 4th in the Savills Chase where he looked a non stayer over 3 miles. He comfortably beat the Mares Chase favourite Elimay last time out in a Grade 2 over 2m4f and while that should have put him spot on for this race he doesn't excite me or strike as being a potential superstar.

Last years winner Min is a superstar and has had a long and illustrious career but something wasn't quite right with him last time as he jumped poorly before tailing off and pulling up in the Dublin Chase. That was his worst ever run and he'll need to bounce back if he is to be competitive here. Hopefully Willie Mullins can get to the bottom of the problem and have him ready to put in a strong defence of his title but at 10yo he's getting on a bit and even at his best may now be susceptible to a younger challenger.

Last year's Arkle second Fakir D'oudaries did best of those left trailing in the wake of Chacun Pour Soi at the Dublin Racing Festival last time out and was just 8 lengths adrift at the line. He had pulled up in the Savills Chase when trying 3 miles for the first time at Christmas looking like a non stayer but found the 2m trip a little short when staying on well into the runners up spot. The 2m5f of the RyanAir would look the perfect compromise and with a Cheltenham record of 142 he has all the attributes to go close.

The big two UK hopes both unseated rider last time out and now also have something to prove. Imperial Aura won the Novice Handicap Chase at last year's Festival and had been in top form this Season in a couple of good pointers to this race. He won a Listed intermediate chase at Carlisle first time up before taking the Grade 2 1965 Chase from Itchy Feet at Ascot 3 weeks later. He began the New Year in a Grade 2 Chase at Kempton but only made it as far as the second fence before unseating his rider. This handed the race to Master Tommytucker who went on to score easily by 12 lengths. That one is progressing nicely this Season and seems to have ironed out the jumping problems that blighted his novice season. He's still rated a couple of pounds lower than the usual required standard though.

The other big UK hope that unseated last time out is last year's Ryanair runner up Saint Calvados. We didn't see him until the King George on Boxing Day where he laid down a challenge to eventual winner Frodon at the fourth last and remained chasing him hard until having nothing left to give from the last. He patently didn't stay the 3 miles that day and lost a couple of places on the run in but was the only runner in the field to actually match the leaders pace as they quickened for home. Plenty of King George non stayers have run well in the RyanAir and at that stage he looked a very live prospect for the race. Unfortunately, in the rearranged Cotswold Chase last time out, again over 3 miles, he was last and being niggled along when stumbling and unseating his rider at the 17th. The drop back to 2m5f will play to his strengths and having run a fine second in the race last year he's still one for the shortlist.

The market is littered with horses that have other targets at the meeting (Frodon, Cyrname, Altior, Greanateen) or don't quite make the grade ratings wise (Al Dancer, Aso, Simply The Betts, Kalashnikov) but there is one horse that only has one entry at Cheltenham, is rated 162, has Festival form and won a good renewal of a rearranged Peterborough Chase giving weight away to the field. Mister Fisher has won at the course, over the distance, finished 4th in the Marsh Chase as a 6yo and has beaten a lot of other Ryanair outsiders over the last 12 months. He would be a superb bet at around 14/1 but he's been taken out of the Ascot Chase at the weekend, which is rather worrying, and I can't find any news about what the plan is with him. I don't think going straight to Cheltenham would do him any favours as he's not got the greatest record coming off the back of a break so, reluctantly, I'm going to look elsewhere.

So let's take a chance on a horse that does look likely to run at the weekend and was set to give Mister Fisher a race in that Peterborough Chase only to come down at the third last. Fanion D'Estruval had begun the season keeping on gamely in second behind Magic Saint at Cheltenham before having that little mishap next time up when going nicely. He picked himself up, dusted himself down and ran the best race of his life when a keeping on 4th in the Grade 1 Clarence House at Ascot behind First Flow and Politologue over 2m. That latest run must have convinced connections that the Ryanair is a more suitable target than the Champion Chase and also earned him a 3lb raise to a new mark of 157. That's still a little short of the required standard but I'm expecting a good run this weekend and he'll then line up with every chance at Cheltenham.

SELECTION: FANION D'ESTRUVAL 1/2pt EW 25/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB


16) PERTEMPS HANDICAP HURDLE FINAL

The Pertemps Final is a unique handicap hurdle in that only horses who have qualified for the race are allowed to enter. There are a total of 14 qualifying races in the UK and 2 in Ireland and a horse must finish in the first six in any of these races to qualify for the final.

There are still 3 Qualifiers yet to be run, including the Punchestown one, so we haven't seen the whole picture yet and I haven't made my mind up for my final selections but there is one horse from my shortlist that I will definitely be betting.

He ran second in the most important trial in recent years, the Leopardstown Qualifier at their Christmas meeting, with 7 of the last 8 Irish winners of the Final having contested it, including in 4 of the last 5 years.

LEOPARDSTOWN (28TH DECEMBER)

1ST: Dandy Mag 16/1
2ND: The Bosses Oscar 11/2
3RD: Unexpected Depth 9/2F
4TH: Mrs Milner 7/1
5TH: Anything Will Do 28/1
6TH: Morosini 8/1

With Gordon Elliott having trained the last 3 winners of the race and his incredible record overall in the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival his THE BOSSES OSCAR has to be high on anyone's list. He wasn't persevered with once headed at Leopardstown and once his qualification spot was secured he was simply allowed to coast home in second. Job done!

SELECTION: THE BOSSES OSCAR 1/2pt EW 7/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB


15) MARSH NOVICES CHASE

All of the 10 winners had their last run in a Graded race (9/10 Grade 1 or Grade 2). All of the 10 winners had run in the last 31-80 day period. All of the last 10 winners had run 2 – 5 times over fences. All of the last 10 winners were rated 144+ and rated within 14lbs of the top rated runner.

Another race with an odds on favourite BUT this one isn't trained by Willie Mullins! Nope, it's his great Irish rival Gordon Elliott who does the training on this one. Envoi Allen is unbeaten in 11 races, won the Champion Bumper in 2019 and the Ballymore Novice Hurdle in 2020 and has won all three of his chase starts including the Grade 1 Drinmore Chase last November. Easy to see why he's such a short priced favourite and basically any ante-post bet we do is really focussing on the place part.

Willie Mullins' Energumene would give it a good race but looks more likely to give Shishkin a race in the Arkle instead, his Monkfish would give it a good race but looks more likely to win the Festival Chase while Royale Pagaille would give it a good race but looks more likely to run in the NH Chase / Arkle / Festival Chase / Gold Gup / Any Handicap (take your pick!).

This leaves the 1-2 from the Scilly Isles Chase as the pair most fancied to throw down the biggest challenge to the favourite. That Sandown race was run on heavy ground with Shan Blue racing up with the pace early while Sporting John was detached out the back and looking uninterested in racing. Things had changed by the 8th fence as Shan Blue went for home with Sporting John rekindling his interest and making progress from the rear. Shan Blue jumped the last in the lead but was being ridden as Sporting John, now having made his way from last to alongside the leader, kept on strongly to pass the long time leader and win going away.

The two had come into the race on vastly differing trajectories as Shan Blue had looked good winning the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novice Chase at Kempton while Sporting John had gone from travelling well to uninterested and tailed off last of 3 in a matter of strides in a class 3 novice chase at Exeter. Sporting John has obviously got his mojo back but his trainer comments since and weight of recent money seem to suggest a step up in trip for the Festival Chase. Shan Blue lost nothing in defeat in the ground and looks at this stage the likeliest to be the one who shakes up the favourite.

Hitman came down at the 12th fence in the Scilly Isles when appearing to travel very strongly having chased Allmankind home in the Henry VIII previously. Winning a Cheltenham Festival novice chase after a fall last time out is never easy and, with trainer Paul Nicholls indicating he's missing Cheltenham for Aintree, it's easy to look elsewhere.

Nicky Henderson has a trio of lively outsiders Allart, Chantry House and Fusil Raffles. Allart was 5th in the Supreme Novices last year and began brightly over fences when taking the Grade 2 Noel Chase at Ascot. Sent off at odds on for his next race, the Grade 2 Altcar Novice Chase at Haydock, he only made it to the 8th fence before coming a cropper and we haven't seen him since.  Chantry House was two places in front of his stablemate Allart in last years Supreme and also began his chasing career with a win but it wasn't a foregone conclusion he would have won as his main market rival came down at the fourth last when going just as well as he was. The form of that race hasn't worked out and he was beaten next time out by his other stablemate in the race, Fusil Raffles. That one was top 4yo in the 2018-19 Season and a Grade 2 winner on his first start the following season before he was found out in the very best company on his next two starts. He's 3 from 4 over fences with his one defeat coming when pulling up on his only run in Graded Chase company. There must be doubts about his ability to handle the step back up in class.

Dan Skelton's Protektorat is currently rated 152 and looked really good on his first two starts over fences this Season. He handled dropping back to 2 miles and jumping out to his left on occasions to open his account nicely in a beginners chase at Carlisle before putting in an excellent round of jumping and slamming Southfield Stone and Paint The Dream in a novice chase at Cheltenham over 2m4f. Sent off the favourite for the 3 runner rescheduled Dipper Chase at Wincanton he was doing all his best work late on when staying on into second behind Messire Des Obeaux again over 2m4f. He jumped out to his left again that day and would definitely have preferred the race had been run at it's original track, as he looks like a horse needing to race left handed. I'd be prepared to give him another chance back at Cheltenham and connections have continually mentioned this race as his target this year -   “Protektorat was unbelievable. You don’t see many horses jump round Cheltenham like that. He is a horse we think is a three-mile chaser, although we won’t over-race him this year and he won’t be going three miles yet. He is only five-years-old, but hopefully he is very good..... we’ll just mind him and keep at two and half miles" Harry Skelton

SELECTION: PROTEKTORAT 1/2pt EW 20/1 (PaddyPower) NRNB


14) CHAMPION BUMPER

All of the last 10 winners were aged 5 or 6yo. Only 2 4yo's have won since the races inception in 1994 from well over 50 attempts.  All of the last 11 winners were rated 118+. All of the last 11 winners won their last race by at least a length.

This year has the potential to be one of the best ever renewals with three very exciting bumper horses at the top of the market.

You could not fail to be impressed by the performance of Kilcruit at the Dublin Racing Festival and he leapt to the top of the market as a result of his easy 12 length demolition job. He was probably the most impressive winner of the NH Season so far and never came off the bridle as he swept through from mid-field and sauntered up the home straight without the jockey moving a muscle. He'd won his previous start in the same easy fashion (14 length third has won since) and coming from the stable with the best record in the Champion Bumper he has to be high on everyone's list.

Before Kilcruit's rout Gordon Elliott's Sir Gerhard had been the ante-post favourite since the market was formed. A winner on his sole PTP start he came to race under rules with a big reputation and immediately lived up to the hype with a crushing 14 length romp on his Down Royal debut at the end of October. The second, third and fifth all won next time out although it's worth noting that the 14 length second here was so far behind Kilcruit at Leopardstown you would have needed binoculars to find him. Sir Gerhard followed up in a 5 runner Listed race where he was equally impressive but once again the runner up was beaten much, much further by Kilcruit (and so were the 3rd and 4th horses). In summary, Kilcruit has been duffing up the same horses as Sir Gerhard but by much wider margins.

The third of the fancied trio is the filly Eileendover who isn't quite as fashionably trained as the other two, coming from the Pam Sly yard, but has been just as impressive in her three wins. She scored by 29 lengths on her Huntingdon debut, followed up with a 16 length win in a mares bumper and then was simply pushed out to win by 6 1/2 lengths in a Listed Mares bumper at Market Rasen. That form was given a massive boost when the third home that day, Willie Mullins' Grangee, took the Grade 2 Mares Bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival. As a 4yo filly she'll get both an age and a sex allowance in the Champion Bumper which only strengthens her case.

Elliott and Mullins have a number of possible entries at this stage who were easy last time out winners including Three Strip Life who recorded a decent topspeed figure when winning a Navan NH Flat race by 9 lengths, the once raced Geri Colombe and Belle Metal and the unbeaten dual winner Hollow Games. All have yet to match the form of the top three in the betting but remain relatively unexposed and could be anything.

Away from Eileendover you have to look a long way down the betting lists to find another home challenger with a chance. The mare Elle Est Belle followed up an easy Aintree win with a deadheat in a mares Listed bumper at Cheltenham back in November but hasn't been seen since while Paul Nicholls' had the 1-2 in an Ascot Listed Bumper just before Christmas with a couple of once raced winners, Knappers Hill and Stage Star. Richard Spencer's Wonderwall was back in third. All 4 look someway short of what the top 3 have achieved.

The further you head down the betting list the more you're guessing as, although there are some easy last time out winners amongst them, none of them can match the form shown by some of the others and you won't know just how good they are until they run again.

Of the three, you'd have to think that if Mullins or Elliott trained Eileendover she would be a lot shorter in the betting and she therefore represents the value in the race. The stable have been batting away some big money offers for her which, no doubt, have increased since Grangee's win at the weekend but all the while connections are resisting the calls for her to run at Cheltenham, and have yet to announce a decision either way, which is both a shame and a problem with regard to an ante-post bet. I guess there's always the chance the offers become so large they can't possibly turn them down and the new owners then ship her to Mullins/Elliott (who would definitely run her in the race)!

But I'm going to go with the mare in the hope that connections let her take her chance while backing her with BetVictor, as they now offer a NRNB concession, just in case they do duck the challenge and head to Aintree instead. (If you're feeling really brave you can get 10/1 with William Hill without the NRNB safety net.)

SELECTION: EILEENDOVER 1/2pt EW 7/1 (Betvictor) NRNB


13) GRAND ANNUAL

The trends aren't brilliant for this 2m Handicap Chase but horses that ran in the Grand Annual the previous Season do have a cracking record when trying again. 4 of the last 6 winners ran in the race the previous year and 1 of the exceptions was due to run the year before but was pulled out on the morning of the race. Other things to note are that 20 of the last 22 winners were aged under 10yo and 5 of the last 6 winners were winning having not raced that calendar year.

The current favourite Sky Pirate has been a revelation since dropping back to 2 miles this Season and announced himself as a potential Festival winner when scoring over course and distance just before Christmas. He beat subsequent dual winner Ibleo that day and then followed up with another win in a Warwick Handicap in mid January. Those wins have seen his rating rise to 152 which is 2lb higher than any Grand Annual winner has ever managed to win off and with Jonjo O'Neills 12 runners in the race all being beaten (2 placed) I'm happy to leave him alone.

Ibleo has had his problems and missed the whole of 2018 and 2019 but returned in great form and has now finished 1st or 2nd in all his 7 races since January 2020. In that time his rating has shot up from 112 to 154 meaning he too sits just outside the optimum ratings band for the Grand Annual and would meet fellow improver Sky Pirate on about the same terms as when being brushed aside by him on their encounter earlier in the Season.

One of many Irish chasers prominent in the betting is A Wave Of The Sea who did well at the Dublin Racing Festival when winning the big 2 mile handicap from stablemates Top Moon in 2nd and Entoucas in 4th. He was a Grade 1 winner as a juvenile hurdler but hadn't matched those exploits over fences until doing better when dropped into handicaps recently. He can expect to be raised a few lbs after this win and then a few more from the UK handicapper when he gets his hands on him which might make things a little tough for him. Top Moon had shown very little in 5 previous chase starts this season although he did keep some pretty tough company early on. Switched to handicapping and dropped 3lb by the handicapper he may have just found his level. Along with a couple more Joseph O'Brien 2m novice chasers Embittered and Front View it does though give the stable plenty of options for the Grand Annual although none of those mentioned stick out as having an exceptional chance.

A case in point is his Entoucas who is to the fore in the betting for the Grand Annual but is an infrequent winner having finished second or third in 9 of his 14 career starts with just one win to his name since scoring on his debut in a NH Flat race. One of the many horses to run Entoucas into second was the novice Unexcepted from the Willie Mullins yard who beat him by 8 lengths with a very impressive display back in October. Coming off a 109 day break he ran 6th behind Energumene last weekend and looked in need of that run. With just 2 chase starts so far he's a little inexperienced for a race of this nature but would be of interest should Mullins be able to get another quick run into him.

Chosen Mate has been woefully out of form in 6 races over hurdles and fences since scoring in this race last year and coupled with the dreadful record of Grand Annual winners returning the following year (7P00459B00909) he's easily overlooked. The previous year's race is though a very good pointer to the Grand Annual if you look past the winner so the runner up Eclair de Beaufort would have been of interest if it wasn't so high in the ratings. Gordon Elliott has kept him to hurdles this Season, where he's been running well without troubling the judge, but an Irish handicap mark of 153 spells trouble.

Fourth home Greanateen has bigger fish to fry this Season while 5th home Theinval is now 11yo. We did have a 12yo winner of the Grand Annual two years ago who had previous form in the race (3F5) which gives Theinval a similar profile as he has run 3-4-5 in three previous runs in this race and thus can't be dismissed out of hand. He's dropped down the ratings though and it's borderline as to whether he will make the cut off his current mark of 136.

Alan King had a couple of 6yo's finish 6th and 7th. The 6th Ballywood looked a weak finisher before he ran in this, when he ran in this and in his three runs this Season. He hasn't got up the Cheltenham Hill in four of his last six starts and doesn't appeal to me based on those performances at the track. The 7th Lisp, hasn't been seen out since this race and would be a risky prospect without a prep run.

Which leaves me looking at the third home from last year's race Us and Them. He's yet another possible from the Joseph O'Brien stable and was a very classy novice chaser with a run of 4 Grade 1 seconds through the Spring of 2019 including at Cheltenham and Aintree. He was out of sorts throughout last Season before coming back to form for the Grand Annual and he's following a similar path this year with a string of poor runs through last Summer and the early Autumn. It's meant he's dropped to a very handy mark of 143 which is 5lb lower than he ran off in the race last year and 9lb lower than his best. His trainer is obviously happy with that mark and has looked to protect it by not running again. An absence from the track since last November doesn't pose a problem as recent Grand Annual winners have been similarly campaigned with the last 6 winners having been off for 50, 227, 90, 146, 92 & 104 days.

He looks value at 20/1 and with the Paddy Power NRNB concession he will be the selection.

SELECTION: US AND THEM 1/2pt EW 20/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair) NRNB


12) CROSS COUNTRY CHASE

Yuck, my least favourite race at the Cheltenham Festival. A load of old plodders spend 10 minutes running around in circles over an equine obstacle course and then sprint (well amble) a furlong up a hill. Even the great Tiger Roll's got bored of it and couldn't be bothered to finish the course last time out. Why they didn't get rid of this race to make way for the Mares Chase instead of the novice handicap is beyond me.

Anyway, my rather tentative selection for this year's renewal will be LE BREUIL who was confirmed on target for the race by his trainer a couple of weeks ago https://www.sportinglife.com/racing/news/cross-country-plan-for-breuil/188664

If you looked in the dictionary for the word 'plodder' you'd probably find a picture of Le Breuil who, no matter what distance he races over, always looks like he needs another 4 furlongs to get going. Like previous winners Tiger Roll and Cause of Causes he too won the Cheltenham Festival NH Chase when it was raced over 4 miles and it certainly won't be the distance that beats him. He's never tackled these types of fences before which isn't ideal but he's usually a sound jumper and he's never fallen or unseated in any race throughout his career so hopefully will get round and give us a run for our money. Once again we'll back him with PaddyPower to use the NRNB concession. Next....

SELECTION: LE BREUIL 1/2pt EW 20/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair) NRNB


11) CHAMPION CHASE

All of the last 11 winners were aged 7-10yo. All of the last 11 winners had their last run in Grade 1 or Grade 2 company. All of the last 11 winners were rated 159+. All of the last 11 winners had run in the previous 32-95 day period

31 entries and another odds on favourite for Willie Mullins with the very exciting Chacun Pour Soi heading the market. He's not been the easiest horse to keep sound and is quite lightly raced for a 9yo with just 11 career starts. He had to miss last Season's Festival due to a late injury but he's had a clear run through this Season and has looked imperious in his three starts so far, rounded off with an easy win at the Dublin Racing Festival last weekend. The one hope his rivals are clinging on to is that he's never raced at Cheltenham and you never really know if a horse will handle the course until they've run there but he's the right favourite and we're probably once again looking for some place money with our each way bet.

We have 10yo and 11yo previous winners next in the betting with last years winner Politologue and 2018/19 winner Altior. We had 10yo winners in 1997, 1998, 2016 & 2017 from 34 such runners (12%) which is about the strike rate of the other younger age groups so we can't discount Politologue purely on his age. He has finished 421 in the last three Champion Chases and looked as good as ever when winning by 7 lengths from stablemate Greanateen in the Tingle Creek. At that stage he looked certain to put up a solid defence of his title but after a laboured run where he was no match in the closing stages for up and coming 2m chaser, First Flow, when second in the Clarence House at Ascot last time out that doesn't look quite as assured now. He'll be better suited by a return to Cheltenham and will no doubt be thereabouts but I don't now see him as a Champion Chase winner.

The last 11yo to win the Champion Chase was two time winner Moscow Flyer in 2005 which gives hope to Altior backers who won in 2018 and 2019 but was another to miss the 2020 race due to injury. He's lost his air of invincibility in shortened campaigns over the last two seasons and was outpaced and beaten on his sole run this term by new kid on the block Nube Negra in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid chase at Christmas. He's out to restore his reputation in the Game Spirit this weekend (weather permitting) but he's not looked the same horse in any of his last 3 racecourse appearances and age looks to have caught up with this former brilliant chaser.

First Flow is now unbeaten in his last 6 races and has rapidly gone through the ranks from novice handicap company, off a rating of 141, to 166 rated Grade 1 winner in less than 12 months. His defeat of Politologue in the Clarence House was very impressive and there seemed to be no fluke about his win but he must have very soft ground to be seen at his best and without it he could come up a little short against the very best 2 milers. It's certainly possible that he'll get his ground at Cheltenham but we won't know until nearer the time so I'll leave him for now.

Waiting Patiently was a staying on third in the Clarence House without ever looking likely to win. He's a horse I've never warmed to and has been very badly campaigned over the years. Appropriately named, connections avoided Cheltenham while ducking good horses and other big races in his younger days blaming the ground, the time of year or anything else they could think of just to preserve his unbeaten record over fences with a 'there's always next year' attitude only to eventually find out he wasn't quite as good as they thought he was and lose that sequence of wins anyway. All while time marched steadily on. Since then he's raced over variety of distances, always finding one or two too good, and now as a 10yo looks past his peak. Oh, what might have been!

4th in the Clarence House was Defi Du Seuill, I love this horse but boy is he frustrating. To see him go from winning the Schloer Chase, Tingle Creek and Clarence House last Season to running like he did in a below par Champion Chase was just ridiculous. Whatever was troubling him that day was still bothering him when he pulled up in the Schloer Chase on his Seasonal debut this term and although his last run was an improvement he's still someway short of his best. Unbelievably he's still only an 8yo so still has time to get his career back on track but he's just as likely to win a Champion Chase as he is to pull up in it. He just can't be trusted. (STOP PRESS: Defi is out for the Season)

Nothing Nube Negra has ever done on a racecourse could have prepared us for his performance in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas. He was an OK hurdler and a pretty decent novice last Season but the way he travelled the best throughout the race, and had Altior beat a long time before he jumped the last, was on a totally different level. He was even allowed the luxury of easing down on the run in as he came home 8 lengths clear of the once mighty Altior. Even taking into account the 6lb he was receiving this was a massive step up for a horse that had last been seen getting thumped by Rouge Vif. Horses can improve dramatically and as a 6yo (now 7yo) he obviously did that over last Summer but I'd like to have seen him back it up with another similar performance before accepting this run at face value.

Min will be heading for the RyanAir while Fakir D'oudairies and Notebook have form with each other but have both been comprehensively beaten by Chacun Pour Soi this Season with no apparent reason why they should be able to reverse the form in a rematch. Cilaos Emery was a crack novice hurdler and his early chasing career showed enormous promise but he's never been the easiest to keep sound and he's gone missing in action mid-season on more than one occasion. Connections reverted to hurdles midway through last Season and were rewarded with a 4th in the Champion Hurdle showing he retains all of his ability. Back over fences at the very start of this season he finished second at odds on looking like he was in need of the run but once again he's back on the sidelines and hasn't been since. If Mullins can get another run into him before the Festival he's definitely one to keep an eye, on either here, or in the RyanAir.

Greanateen was 4th in last years Grand Annual and was a cheeky winner of the Haldon Chase on his seasonal debut but was no match for stablemate Politologue in the Tingle Creek on his next start. A mistake at the last didn't do him any favours but he looked beat at the time and was hard ridden to hold on for second from a keeping on Rouge Vif. He's an improving 7yo who looks sure to make up into a top 2 mile chaser but I just get the feeling he may need another year before we see his true potential. The same could be said of Rouge Vif although he has been racing on ground softer than he likes. 3rd in the Arkle last year he could be a decent each way shout at a big price were he to get good ground at Cheltenham.

Which leads me on nicely to last year's Arkle winner, Put The Kettle On, who began her season brightly with a win in the Schloer Chase (Defi Du Seuill pulled up) back in November but was another to come up short against Chacun Pour Soi next time out. She kept on well that day without quite matching the front two but is unbeaten in her three runs at Cheltenham and connections may just fancy their chances of reversing the form up the Cheltenham hill. Arkle winners coming back the following year for the Champion Chase have a cracking record (1121211271)and I give her a great chance of making the places at the very least. The one small niggle I have is that she may end up running in the easier, newly added Mares Chase, but with the PaddyPower NRNB concession we're covered should she take up her other engangement.

SELECTION: PUT THE KETTLE ON 1/2pt EW 12/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair) NRNB


10) CORAL CUP (HANDICAP HURDLE)

This is a particularly difficult handicap to review without any entries and the bookmakers are all over the place with their betting markets with each firm having fancied horses that don't even feature in another's list.

So, for this race I'm just going to go with the one horse I've been following since running a blinder in the 2019 Triumph Hurdle as a 100/1 outsider. I've followed his career closely since then and after beginning the following season winning a couple of novice hurdles he disappointed a couple of times after on soft ground while looking like a step up in trip might be order. A run down the field over 2 miles in the Betfair Hurdle and another poor run on soft in the Martin Pipe Hurdle at the Festival last season meant he rounded off the year 4lb lower than he began it.

This Season he began over 2 miles getting beaten when favourite for the Welsh Champion Hurdle (a great pointer to the Coral Cup) before running third to handicap good thing Buzz in a decent handicap hurdle at Ascot. Stepped up in trip he won his next race in the stewards room before running second to another Henderson handicap snip Monte Cristo at Kempton meaning he's holding his form very well without affecting his handicap rating too much all. In fact despite some excellent runs in some tough handicaps he's on a mark another 3lb lower than he began the season on.

He seems to take his racing well and won yesterday in a pretty decent Jumpers Bumper at Kempton that featured some quite highly rated hurdlers. The conditions of the Coral Cup look tailor made for him and if he can avoid soft ground at the Festival he should go very well.

SELECTION: ECCO 1/2pt EW 20/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair) NRNB


9) THE FESTIVAL CHASE (Formerly the RSA Chase)

A very specific horse tends to win the Festival Chase. He's usually 6-8yo (7yo's particularly have a fantastic recent record 11/14), is rated 150+, has raced 2-5 times over fences,  was a winner over hurdles from a light campaign (maximum 10 hurdle starts) and usually finished top 3 in a Grade 1 or Grade 2 chase last time out.

Another Festival race and another Willie Mullins horse at the head of the market. Monkfish was a very game winner of the Albert Bartlett last year from Latest Exhibition and is an unbeaten 3 from 3 over fences this Season including beating that rival again on two occasions in Grade 1 chases on their last two starts. Both of those races are big pointers to the Festival Chase and with a bomb proof trends profile Monkfish looks a very worthy favourite.

Given the number of horses engaged here that have alternative engagements this is a race that looks likely to cut up badly and I think a small field is more than likely. A case in point is Royale Pagaille who if turning up here would certainly give Monkfish a few things to think about, but we're still none the wiser as to where he's heading at the Festival although I reckon it will be the Gold Cup. If we assume he'll be absent from this race we're left with Latest Exhibition as the next horse in the betting. He must be getting sick of the sight of Monkfish's backside as he's chased him home on three occasions in the last 12 months and, in truth, he's been no match for him on either of their chase encounters. He was also behind Pencilfulloflead earlier in the Season and I'm struggling to find any reason why he should overturn the form with Monkfish. Andy Dufresne is another to have seen Monkfish's backside disappearing into the distance as he plugged on behind him and Latest Exhibition in the Grade 1 Flogas Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival over the weekend.

In fact, most of the Irish horses entered in the Festival Chase have finished well behind Monkfish at one time or another (Eskaria Ten, Asterion Collonge, Conflated) and may duck a rematch or find easier targets in the handicaps.  If we're to find an each way alternative to the favourite we may have to look at the home trained contingent.

If we assume Envoi Allen swerves this race for the Marsh and Coolreevy heads to the Mares Chase we arrive next in the betting at Next Destination who was a decent staying hurdler for Willie Mullins and has come back after 2 1/2 years on the sidelines to be an equally decent staying novice chaser for Paul Nicholls having changed stables at the start of this Season. He's been winning all the right races this side of the Irish Sea and his new trainer nominated this race as his Festival target but he looked a real out and out stayer on his last run and the NH Chase over 3m6f is now under consideration as an alternative. Paul Nicholls has a fairly good record in the newly named Festival Chase but, as a 9yo, Next Destination has a big trend to overturn as you would have to go back all the way to 1992 to find the last horse of that age to win the Festival Chase (Minnehoma).

If The Cap Fits was a very decent staying hurdler and is now a 152 rated novice chaser from the Harry Fry yard but that age stat doesn't do him any favours either. The way he stayed on into third from an impossible position in the Kauto Star on Boxing Day probably means he too looks more likely to head for the NH Chase on the opening day of the Festival. Another former good hurdler (finished 11th in last years Champion Hurdle) who is now rated 152 over fences is the Nicky Henderson trained Fusil Raffles. He's 3 from 4 over fences this season with his only defeat coming when pulling up in the soft in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham in mid-November. He put in a much better performance when upped in trip to win a class 2 novice chase back at Cheltenham on soft ground on his next start, while giving weight to the other 3 runners, but the 3 miles of the Festival Chase is probably the least likely target of the 3 novice chases he is entered up for at the Festival.

A third UK runner currently rated on the 152 mark is Dan Skelton's Protektorat who looked really good on his first two starts of fences this Season. He handled dropping back to 2 miles and jumping out to his left on occasions to open his account nicely in a beginners chase at Carlisle before putting in an excellent round of jumping and slamming Southfield Stone and Paint The Dream in a novice chase at Cheltenham over 2m4f. Sent off the favourite for the 3 runner rescheduled Dipper Chase at Wincanton he was doing all his best work late on when staying on into second behind Messire Des Obeaux again over 2m4f. He jumped out to his left again that day and would definitely have preferred the race had been run at it's original track, as he looks like a horse needing to race left handed, and perhaps even another step up in trip. I'd be prepared to give him another chance back at Cheltenham and would love to see him run over 3 miles but once again we don't have a clear indication as to whether he goes for this race or the Marsh. The stable do have Shan Blue in mind for the Marsh so it's entirely feasible Protektorat could end up here but, once again, we're a little in the dark to his target.

An interesting runner further down the betting lists is Kim Bailey's Happygolucky who was fourth in the Martin Pipe Handicap last year and began brightly over fences with a 6 1/2 length defeat of Paint The Dream at Stratford. He made a couple of jumping errors when going down in a fighting finish to Getaway Trump on his next start but redeemed himself with a better round of jumping at Cheltenham last time out when driven out to beat The Mighty Don. He's not as highly rated as some of the other runners so will need to put in a decent performance before Cheltenham (possibly the Reynoldstown) but the big problem is his trainer is running scared of the big guns in this race and is looking to duck the challenge and go for the NH Chase instead.

The 6yo Sporting John looked a novice hurdler to follow last Season but ran down the field in the Ballymore Hurdle behind Envoi Allen apparently finishing distressed. He disappointed again on his first run over fences when weakening quickly and finishing 33 lengths adrift of Fiddlerontheroof at Exeter and another bad run looked on the cards as he quickly became detached in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase last Saturday. But he began to make headway at the third last and was actually challenging as they came down to the final fence. Despite not jumping it as well as the long time leader Shan Blue he dug in nicely and after overhauling that rival pulled away on the run in to win going away. It was an excellent performance in the end but once again he's a horse entered in all three novice chase events at the Festival with no immediate plans forthcoming from his trainer Phillip Hobbs. With that and the chance he may throw in another stinker I'm going to pass him over in favour of a Colin Tizzard novice chaser who has looked just the type for the Festival Chase.

THE BIG BREAKAWAY finished in front of Sporting John when fourth in last year's Ballymore Hurdle and, along with his trainer, I've always thought of him as a future star staying chaser. He began brightly over fences with a 10 length win at Cheltenham against some average at best rivals before getting turned over at long odds on when dropping back to a less than adequate 2m3f. He next went to Kempton on Boxing Day for the Kauto Star Chase where he didn't jump particularly well but came through to challenge long time leader Shan Blue at the last fence. Unfortunately he didn't jump it as cleanly as his rival and surrendered his chance leaving him 3 lengths adrift at the line. That defeat probably did him a favour as no winner of the Kauto Star has EVER won the Festival Chase although a few beaten horses in the race have managed it (including Might Bite). The Tizzard stable has been out of sorts for most of the Season, including at the time of his last race, but is just beginning to show a revival and with their problems behind them I think they could have a good Spring campaign. There's no ambiguity about The Big Breakaway's Festival target as he has this as his sole entry but with Paddypower joint top price on him anyway we may as well use them to take advantage of their NRNB concession.

SELECTION: THE BIG BREAKAWAY 1/2pt EW 12/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair) NRNB


8) BALLYMORE HURDLE

All the last 11 winners were 5 or 6yo's. All the last 11 winners were rated 142+. All the last 11 winners had been rested at least 27 days. All the last 11 winners had raced 2 - 4 times over hurdles. All the last 11 winners had finished Top 2 last time out.

There are some very strong trends associated with this race, not least of which is that 5 and 6yo's have dominated this century. The last winner outside of this range was the 7yo winner French Holly in 1998 with 6yo's leading the 5yo's by 16 - 5 since then including winning the last 7 renewals.

That wouldn't be a great stat for the 7yo Appreciate It but he's looking more likely to head for the Supreme Novices Hurdle for which he is now a very short priced favourite. Harry Fry's Metier has entries in both the Supreme and Ballymore hurdles with the former race currently favoured by connections. If we leave those two out of calculations we have three horses heading the betting with little to split them on either what they have achieved or their current odds.

Gaillard Du Mesnil just about shades favouritism thanks to an impressive win in what looked an above average renewal of the 2m6f Grade 1 novice at the Dublin Racing Festival where he reversed form in no uncertain terms with Holymacapony who had beaten him 8 lengths in mid-November. Improving with each run he looks sure to go well in the Ballymore. Bravemansgame also took a Grade 1 last time out in impressive style, winning the Challow Hurdle by 10 lengths from the decent Star Gate. He too got beat first time up this Season and has been improving with each run since. He currently has a BHB rating of 150 which is about the average for a winner of the Ballymore but a few pounds lower than some of the better recent Irish winners of the race (Envoi Allen 156, Samcro 155 & Yorkhill 156). The third of our market leaders is BOB OLINGER who also got beat on his hurdles debut this season before winning next time out and then scoring easily in a Grade 1 last time out at Naas. That race has been a good pointer to the Ballymore over the years and the horse he beat that day Blue Lord has since run a staying on third to Supreme Novices favourite Appreciate It over an inadequate 2 miles. That gives the form a nice look to it and he'd be my pick of the three at the moment.

Ballyadam had looked very good in his first two hurdles runs but the wheels have rather fallen off in his last two starts with Appreciate It beating him easily over Christmas and then confirming the form at the Dublin Racing Festival, with all his races so far coming at around 2 miles. It maybe that a step up in trip could be what he needs to bring about some improvement in him but he still falls a little short on what he has achieved compared to those above him in the betting.

Adrimel is 5 wins from 6 races with his only defeat coming in last years Champion Bumper. All his wins have come on soft or heavy and he won a competitive renewal of the Grade 2 Leamington Hurdle at Warwick last time out from a bunch of similarly rated rivals. He was all out to hold Mint Condition by a neck which doesn't look quite as good as some of the other form on show in the Ballymore.

Deal Dreal is very interesting and to my eye would be far better off coming here rather than the Supreme Novices but connections are favouring a tilt at the 2 mile meeting opener. As I said in my Supreme write-up, something seems to have just clicked with Deal Dreal over the last 6 months as he's gone from a lowly rated flat/hurdler whose best performance in 11 races was 8th to a horse who's racked up 6 wins on the trot (2 on the flat and four over hurdles). He is now rated 145 and won a Grade 2 hurdle over 2 miles last time out where he was pulling away from the field at the finish. He's a horse in good form at present and having won already at 2m4f and 2m6f he won't have any problem stepping back up in trip. He doesn't have a typical profile for a Ballymore winner but I don't think he's reached the limit of his improvement yet and would have been a decent each way bet against the three more obvious runners if this was his target.

Dan Skelton looks to have a nice stable of novices this Season and his My Drogo is steadily improving with each start. His defeat of Llandinabo Lad in a Grade 2 last time out puts him in the picture for this as a live outsider although we'll know more after his next engagement, the Sydney Banks Hurdle, at Huntingdon later this week. Last year's Supreme winner Shishkin used that Huntingdon race as his prep for Cheltenham last Season and this year's renewal looks set to also feature recent easy handicap winner Bear Ghylls and Kim Baileys Cheltenham Grade 2 scorer Does He Know who ran out last time behind Bravemansgame. Shsihkin's trainer Nicky Henderson has his Lecales Article entered for the race and this once ran, easy Newbury maiden hurdle winner has a big future in front of him if the hype is to be believed. He won his PTP easily but injury had kept him off the track for nearly 1000 days before his comeback run. Now a 7yo he has a lot of time to make up but Thursday's race does offer a good stepping stone to Cheltenham.

Basically though, I'm struggling to find any value amongst the outsiders in this particular race so I'll go with one of the fancied runners who I think has all the necessary components for the Ballymore...

SELECTIONBOB OLINGER 1/2pt EW 9/2 (PaddyPower/Betfair) NRNB


7) NH CHASE

All of the last 11 winners were rated 127+ (10/11 rated 139+) and were rated within 14lbs of the top rated runner. All of the last 11 winners had raced 3-11 times over fences. All of the last 11 winners last ran at a distance of between 2m4f and 3m2f

The NH Chase has undergone many changes this century in both status and the conditions of the race. The latest change sees this Grade 2 race being cut in distance from 4 miles to 3m6f.

This is one of the many options available to Royal Pagaille at the Festival and on his form this Season he who would be a very short price if taking up this engagement but being a Grade 2 this must be the least likely of all the possible races and I seriously doubt we'll see him here. That would leave Galvin as the most likely favourite after his second in the Novice Handicap Chase at last years Festival and then racking up a four timer this Season. He won his first three chases in small fields at long odds on and then won a class 2 novice chase at Cheltenham's October meeting in impressive fashion. We haven't seen him since but 2 of the last 4 winners of the NH Chase won off the back of a similar absence and they both just happened to be trained by Gordon Elliott also. He has obvious chances.

Latest Exhibition has the profile of a typical NH Chase winner and ran a cracker when going down by just 3 lengths to Monkfish in the Neville Hotels Grade 1 Chase over Christmas, a race that has a good record as a pointer for this. Before that run though he had been firmly put in his place by Pencilfulloflead in a Grade 2 at Punchestown back in November. Pencilfulloflead has since been beaten twice, in a Grade 1 when giving 7lb to the classy mare Colreevy and when giving 8lb to two average looking novices in a Grade 3 at Naas. Both of those two from that Naas race are also entered in the NH Chase but don't appeal to me as possible winners.

Asterion Forlonge has little chance of getting round safely with all those fences to jump in a 3m6f race while Dickie Diver is a little short on experience and is trained by Nicky Henderson who has a less than compelling record in the race (o from 7). Paul Nicholls has an even worse record in the NH Chase (0 from 19 and just 2 places) so his Next Destination is another I'll overlook and, as I've backed him ante-post for it, hopefully he'll head for the Festival Chase instead.

If The Cap Fits is a very classy 162 rated hurdler and got his chasing career off to the perfect start when slamming Fiddlerontheroof by over 7 lengths in a pretty decent 3 horse race. Things haven't quite worked out for him since but you could make excuses for him each time and the distance of this race should suit him perfectly. I certainly wouldn't put anyone off from backing him.

Secret Reprieve was an impressive winner of the Welsh National and amazingly he qualifies for the race as he began this Season as a novice with just 3 runs under his belt. Still only 7 he would have a great chance in this but is another that has his eyes on other targets. It does though lead me onto another big handicap winner in the shape of COKO BEACH who won the Theystes Chase last time out. The 6yo was recording his first chase win but he'd been keeping good company in his previous starts and looked good value for his 4 length win in one of Irelands most competitive handicap chases. Taking it up going easily at the third last he quickened away and certainly wasn't stopping at the finish giving the impression the step up in trip was much needed and even further was well within his compass. Trainer Gordon Elliott knows all about winning the NH Chase and immediately announced it would be Coko Beach's Festival target making him a very solid each way bet at the moment.

SELECTIONCOKO BEACH 1/2pt EW 14/1 (General)


6) BOODLES HANDICAP HURDLE

All of the last 11 winners ran in a non handicap last time out. All of the last 11 winners were rated under 140 and carried between 10-06 and 11-08 (All of the last 7 winners have carried 11-00+). GB Bred horses are 0 from 48 over the last 11 years. All of the last 11 winners made their UK/Irish hurdling debut from 20th November onwards. All of the last 11 winners were by Group race winning sires 

Another race where we're going in blind as the handicap declarations haven't been made yet. We've also got the problem that a lot of the horses towards the top of the betting could very well run in the Triumph Hurdle. So, instead of going through the field horse by horse I'm just going to have a look through a number of horses I've noted over the last couple of months as possibles for this race.

One horse I am keeping a very close eye on is Yggdrasil from the Nick Williams yard who made a very encouraging start to his career with a 6 length third to Elham Valley at Sandown in early December. Connections obviously think a lot of this horse as we next saw him in the Grade 1 Future Champion at Chepstow in early January where he didn't go unnoticed in the betting and was subject to some minor betting movement in the lead up to the race. He wasn't ready for that jump in class and couldn't go with the protagonists as they went on  at the top of the home straight but in finishing 5th he did get a lot closer to Elham Valley than he had in their previous encounter. He'll need to run again before Cheltenham if he is to contest the Boodles but a win in a novice hurdle between now and then would give him a decent looking profile for the race and coming from a stable that won it in 2017 he'd be an outsider I'd be very interested in.

Paul Nicholls has a cracking record in this race (won 3 of the last 11) and has a couple of live hopes in Good Ball and Houx Gris. Good Ball started off on the flat in France and after one run switched to hurdles where he ran a staying on second to Teahupoo. That caught the attention of some high profile owners in the Paul Nicholls camp and he was bought and transferred to his stable. He made his UK debut just before the New Year in a Newbury Hurdle, against his elders, where after coming under pressure at the second last he stayed on nicely to take it up half way up the run in and eventually won going away at the finish. A current rating of 131 is similar to all Paul Nicholls' previous winners of the race (127, 131 & 133) and he must be high on anyone's list for the race.

The other Nicholls horse on my radar is Houx Gris who has had a totally different campaign to Good Ball but has ended up with a very similar handicap mark of 130. He too came from France but had run 4 times previous to his move to the UK (2 in NH flat races and 2 over hurdles) and was pitched straight into the deep end by Paul Nicholls when contesting the Grade 1 Future Champion Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow on the Welsh National card. He was no match for the front two, Adagio and Nassalam, from the second last but stuck on well and wasn't totally disgraced in finishing third to two very decent juveniles.

Gordon Elliot has a stable chock-full of juvenile talent and Teahupoo is the latest 4yo to impress. He beat the previously mentioned Good Ball in his sole start in France last October and moved to his new trainer at the start of the year. Elliott wasted no time in getting Teahupoo on to the track and pitched him against a very decent Willie Mullins juvenile Youmdor. The two of them had the race between themselves as they both travelled easily at the second last but Youmdor just about had the upperhand at the final flight only to come down and hand the race to Teahupoo who was then simply pushed out to win by 15 lengths. Regardless of the fall of the odds on favourite it was still a very good run while leaving him a little short of some of the other Elliott 4yo's. I'm hesitant to back him until knowing what sort of mark he receives from the UK handicapper but, probably optimistically, something around a 135 rating would make him very interesting.

Cabot Cliffs was a mid 60's rated flat horse for Charlie Hills but is a much better hurdler since undergoing wind surgery and moving to Dan Skelton. He began with a nice win at Wetherby before twice running behind the very decent Gordon Elliott trained Duffle Coat in Listed and Grade 2 races. He was no match for that classy juvenile but brought back to class 4 company at Warwick last time out he returned to winning ways with a nice win from two well regarded previous winners. The Grade 2 he ran 4th in at Cheltenham has worked out very well (2nd now rated 146, 5th now rated 131) which leaves him looking generously handicapped on a mark of 125. The downside to his low looking rating is that he probably won't make the cut for the race off that mark so he'll be one to keep an eye on should he run and win again before the Festival.

Saint Sam is high on my list after his eye catching run last time out behind big Triumph Hurdle hope Zanahiyr in a Grade 2 on Boxing Day.  He travelled well and was close up in a bunched field until flattening the second last and momentarily getting outpaced meaning he got trapped on the inside rail. He had to go to the back of the field to come wide around the runners as they approached the last before finishing well to take fourth on the short run in. It was a very messy race that pretty much turned into a sprint finish from the second last and the time of the race was poor which I don't think suited Saint Sam who looks in need of a fast run race. Previous to that he was actually odds on favourite to beat Zanahiyr in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse but in another slowly run race he was again outpaced at the third last before staying on late into a never nearer 14 length second. It's not easy to try and figure out what sort of rating he would get from the UK handicapper but something in the high 130's would seem appropriate given his form with Zanahiyr. That would be similar to the last two winners of the Boodles (both Irish trained) and obviously give him every chance in what is usually a very competitive handicap. The big problem I have with him at this stage is Willie Mullins' record in the race with varying types of horse rated anywhere from 125 - 144 (1 place from 14 runners). He's set to run this weekend in the Grade 1 Juvenile Hurdle and with a couple of high profile rivals sitting it out he could very well go close and have connections reverting to the original plan of the Triumph Hurdle anyway.

The most recent addition to my shortlist and one horse I think has all the right attributes for the Boodles Handicap is the Dermot Weld trained COLTOR who got off the mark over hurdles at the third time of asking last weekend. After a staying on second behind leading Triumph Hurdle hope French Aseel first time out and a 4th behind a couple of decent juveniles at Punchestown he headed for Naas for yet another highly competitive maiden hurdle. The big stables were out in force with some well bred ex-flat horses and ex-French trained runners in attendance but Coltor proved more than up to the task with a battling win over Gordon Elliotts Showbusiness and the re-opposing 3rd from the Punchestown maiden hurdle, Zoffanien. The well fancied pair of Joseph O'Brien's were just over 3 lengths back in 4th and 5th. He showed a lot of guts when toughing it out on the run in following a slight mistake at the last flight which should stand him in good stead for the hustle and bustle of the Boodles Handicap and, being sired by a Group 1 winner, has the sort of attitude and profile that previous winners of the race have shared.

SELECTIONCOLTOR 1/2pt EW 16/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair Sportsbook) NRNB 5 PLACES


5) MARES HURDLE

All of the last 11 winners were rated 142+ and were within 12lb of the top rated runner. 10 of the 11 winners were trained in Ireland (exception was held when left in the lead at the last). All 11 came from the top 4 in the betting.

I'm not very keen on Mares only races generally and after both Annie Power and Benie Des Dieux took tumbles when clear at the last in 2015 & 2019 this ranks as my least favourite one of the lot. That may change with the addition of the Mares Chase at this years meeting!

It doesn't pay to get too clever in this race with a fancied runner winning all of the last 11 races and Ireland completely dominating over the last decade or so but we do have a problem this year as most of the fancied runners have their sights set on other targets at the meeting.

Connections are insistent that Honeysuckle goes for the Champion Hurdle but that may change depending on the result of the Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday. They ducked a Champion Hurdle challenge last year to race in this though and, win or lose on Saturday, it wouldn't come as a great surprise if they followed the same path as last year. If she ends up here she would be a worthy favourite but we won't know the plan until after Saturday's race and even then I wouldn't be 100% sure they'll stick to their decision.

The current favourite Concertista won the Mares Novice at the Festival last year and is 2 from 2 this year in graded company. She looks the most likely of the Mullins horses to take her place in the line up for this but she does also have Champion Hurdle and Mares Chase entries and nobody ever got rich trying to second guess Willie Mullins. He also has Benie Des Dieux declared but is apparently targeting the Mares Chase with her. But this is Willie Mullins and he might yet revert to the Mares Hurdle. Latest quote: "The mares’ chase is a target I’ve had in mind for her, but we’ll see how both races cut up – we might have old business to attend to from last year!” Muddling the waters even further is that he also has Elimay declared for both races although this one seems more certain to run in the Mares Chase after her excellent second to Alloha last weekend and the way she sits at the head of the betting for that race with those firms betting without the NRNB proviso. But this is Willie Mullins!

Not far behind Mullins in the 'keep your cards close to your chest' stakes is Nicky Henderson. He's said he doesn't want to bring Dame De Compagne back over hurdles but isn't keen about pitching her into the Mares Chases with just one chase run under he belt or taking on Envoi Allen in the Marsh so probably won't run at Cheltenham. But this is Nicky Henderson and he might yet revert to the Mares Hurdle. Latest quote: “I’m not sure there’s an awful lot she can go for in March. She’d ideally want two and a half miles, but then you meet Envoi Allen (in the Marsh Novices’ Chase). There’s the new mares’ chase, but that’s not really for novices – after just one run, that would be asking quite a lot.” He also has Verdana Blue declared for the Mares Hurdle and she looks the most likely stable representative despite an alternative entry in the Champion Hurdle. Ideally she needs good ground but even then she hasn't looked the same horse this Season and would have little chance in the Champion Hurdle meaning an attempt in the easier looking Mares Hurdle. After Floressa's latest defeat at the hands of Miranda it appears she's not quite ready for the step up in grade and I think she'll find herself in one of the Festival handicaps.

Minella Melody and Black Tears have both been comprehensively beaten by Concertista this season and there looks little reason for either being able to reverse that form.

Which leaves me siding with the rather fortunate 2019 winner and 2020 fourth, ROKSANA. She's been a revelation this Season and even as a 9yo looks to be improving having won the Grade 2 Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby first time up, finished a close third to Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Grade 1 Long Walk at Ascot and then sauntered home for a very, very easy win in the Grade 2 Warfield Hurdle, again at Ascot. That was visually one of the most impressive wins of the Season and she's heading to the Festival at the very top of her game. Like a lot of the fancied runners in the race she does have an alternative entry, in the Stayers Hurdle, and connections have yet to state their intentions other than “.....Her next run will be at Cheltenham – 100 per cent” so once again I'll play safe and use the NRNB concession.

SELECTIONROKSANA 1/2pt EW 6/1 (PaddyPower/Betfair Sportsbook) NRNB


4) THE CHAMPION HURDLE

All of the last 11 winners were rated 157+. All of the last 11 winners had run in the previous 11 weeks. The last 6 winners, and 8 of the last 10, were all unbeaten that Season. The last horse to win the Champion Hurdle aged 10yo or over was Sea Pigeon in 1980 & 1981.

There are 27 horses currently declared for the Champion Hurdle with last year's winner Epatante heading the market at around the 9/4 mark. She was a lot shorter than that after a very impressive win in the Fighting Fifth first time out this Season but suffered a rare defeat (1/5 favourite) at the hands of Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and her odds were lengthened accordingly. Nicky Henderson put the defeat down to a back injury and has been working on treating that and reports she won't run again before the Champion Hurdle. Having the same break didn't stop her winning last year but her air of invincibility has gone and despite market confidence in her returning over the last few days I think she was beaten fair and square at Kempton and I will be taking her on.

I'm a big, big fan of Silver Streak and I've been banging on about him winning a good ground Champion Hurdle for the last few Seasons. The ground really is key to him as his form figures on good / good to soft going show 114121122211C1 and now includes his first Grade 1 win thanks to that Christmas Hurdle win over Epatante. If the ground on the opening day of the Festival is Good or Good to Soft I'll be piling in on him for the Champion Hurdle but after a very wet Winter and soft or heavy going descriptions at the last three Tuesday's of the Festival I won't be backing him until the day.

Second favourite for the Champion Hurdle is Sharjah who finished runner up in the race last year and has won the last three renewals of the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. He hasn't been the most reliable of horses away from that race though and has, in fact, put in some right stinkers over the last couple of Seasons. His 6th at 2/1 in the Irish Champion Hurdle last year springs immediately to mind as well as his two disappointing runs on the flat last Season. On his day he's well capable of shaking up the favourite but without knowing whether he's on a going day or not I'll leave him alone for now.

The Irish trio of Aspire Tower, Saint Roi and Abacadabras finished 2-4-5 behind Sharjah in this season's Matheson Hurdle and had clashed with each other previously in various form lines. Abacadabras finished second to Aspire Tower first time up this Season, when giving that rival 6lb, before beating Saint Roi off levels and then finishing 5th in the Matheson. He apparently scoped dirty after that last run. The 5yo Aspire Tower took advantage of the weight allowance to beat Abacadabras on his Seasonal debut and backed it up by confirming the form with a solid second to Sharjah in the Matheson. The 2020 County Hurdle winner Saint Roi won a Grade 3 on his seasonal debut and looked a little unlucky when second to Abacadabras in the Morgiana but was slightly disappointing when sent off favourite for the Matheson. He looked to be going well approaching the second last but didn't quicken up and faded out of it quite tamely on the run in. They all look much of a muchness without striking as standout Champion Hurdle winners.

The Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday may tell us more as most of the chief protagonists from the Matheson re-oppose while taking on the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle. The winner of all 9 of her hurdle races Honeysuckle scored a narrow victory in the race last Season before taking the Mares Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. She maintained her unbeaten record in the Grade 1 Hattons Grace Hurdle first time up this year but that particular race didn't really take a lot of winning and with her 7lb sex allowance was fully entitled to win as she did. The second Ronald Pump needs further and the third, Beacons Edge, has been beaten again since (Grade 3 hurdle). Connections resisted the temptation to run in the Champion Hurdle last Season and I think, win or lose, she'll once again be heading for the easier pickings of the Mares Hurdle despite them insisting otherwise.

It's probably a similar story for the other mare currently offered at 20/1 for the Champion Hurdle, Concertista. She won the Mares Novice Hurdle at last year's Festival and has since won both her races against her own sex this Season. They came in Grade 3 and Grade 2 company with Minella Melody finishing runner up both times. She's currently favourite for the Mares Hurdle and that looks the most likely target for her this March.

Dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D'Air made his first appearance on the track for over 420 days when getting beat in a 3 runner renewal of the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial last weekend. He moved into the race quite stylishly at the second last but from then on was always struggling to get alongside a horse rated 14lb inferior on official ratings. If that wasn't bad enough the winner was giving Buveur D'Air 3lb! There's no doubt he'll come on for the run but he'll need to find massive improvement in the next six weeks if he is to get anywhere near his rivals, including stablemate Epatante.

Another runner who has made a comeback after a long layoff is Saldier, although his return was even more underwhelming than Buveur D'Air's. This talented but injury prone 7yo looked to have the measure of Espoir D'Allen in a 4yo hurdle at the end of 2018 but came a cropper at the last and had to sit on the sidelines as that rival went on to win the Champion Hurdle later that Season. 12 months later he re-appeared to win a very competitive Morgiana Hurdle (Sharjah 8 1/2 lengths back in fourth). Again, that was to be his only run that Season and after another year off we finally saw him again when he took in the Matheson over Christmas. When he came to challenge at the second last it looked as though he might just pull off yet another amazing comeback but the dream was shortlived as he quickly came under pressure and weakened right out of it into an eased down 6th of the 7 runners. Obviously, like Buveur D'Air, the run will have done him the world of good but he's also going to have to find a lot of improvement before Cheltenham. We'll hopefully know more after the weekend as he's also due to take in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

It's been a long time since a horse stepped up from handicap company to win the Champion Hurdle (Make A Stand 1997) so the 1-2 from the Ascot Betfair Hurdle, Not So Sleepy and Buzz, will need to do something special between now and March to become serious contenders for the race.

Which leaves me looking at two runners who were due to go head to head this weekend. An hour and a half before the Irish big guns do battle in the Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday afternoon there was to have been an intriguing contest between two horses on the fringe of the betting for the Champion Hurdle, Song for Someone and Goshen. They'll now both be looking for other trials on the run up to the Festival which might make for a more exciting than usual Kingwell Hurdle.

Last year we saw the 5yo Goshen become one of the unluckiest losers at the Cheltenham Festival for many a year when unseating his rider at the last flight of the Triumph Hurdle when holding a 10 length advantage but things haven't gone to plan since with two less than inspiring runs on the flat last Summer followed by him hanging badly right throughout and finishing stone cold last in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham when a well backed 6/4 favourite. His reputation as a bold, free running wonder horse has taken a real hammering and he's looking to get his career back on track. I'd be happy to forgive one bad run but he's not looked the same horse in any start since that mishap in the Triumph and I would have been rooting for his chief rival on Saturday, SONG FOR SOMEONE.

While Goshen is looking to restore his reputation Song For Someone is looking to enhance his further after two excellent wins in a couple of Grade 2 races this Season. He's been brought along steadily by his trainer Tom Symonds and after some decent handicap performances made the step up to Graded company when winning a re-arranged Kingwell Hurdle at Kempton last February. We didn't see him again until he made all to score comfortably in what had looked a tight, three runner Ascot Hurdle in November but that didn't really tell us much as one of his rivals burst a blood vessel and the other isn't the most reliable of horses. His next run, however, was a much more competitive affair and he passed with flying colours giving 2lb and holding on gamely from a fast finishing Silver Streak over course and distance. In light of that one's subsequent run he's definitely one to keep an eye on next time out and hopefully a good trial win will help persuade his reluctant trainer to commit to a Champion Hurdle bid.

SELECTIONSONG FOR SOMEONE 1/2pt EW 16/1 (PaddyPower / Betfair Sportsbook) - NRNB


3) ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE

All of the last 11 winners finished Top 6 last time out. 9 of the last 10 winners were aged 7-9yo. 8 of the last 9 winners wore some sort of headgear. 9 of the last 11 winners had raced 10 or fewer times over fences. 4 of the last 7 winners began that Season in a novice chase.

It's always a bit tricky trying to bet ante-post in the Festival handicaps before the declarations have been published but luckily Paddy Power and Betfair Sportsbook are offering Non Runner / No Bet on the market which gives us security on our stake should we pick a no show.

Dickie Diver heads the betting at the moment but Nicky Henderson has repeatedly stated that the NH Chase is the target for this one (for which he is the 12/1 third favourite). Another highly unlikely runner, Royal Pagaille, is also prominent in the betting which leaves us looking at the 1st and 3rd from the Ascot Handicap from a fortnight ago as the market leaders.

Dashel Drasher was all out to hold a staying on Bennys King and Jerrysback, who was having his first start for 400 days, and then got raised 6lb by the handicapper to a new mark of 158. No horse this century has defied a handicap mark higher than 155 leaving the winner quite exposed at the top of the weights. I'm not quite sure why the odds makers have gone with that race as the starting point for their betting market as the race time wasn't anything special and Ascot handicap chases don't usually show up in the pre Festival runs of the Ultima winners.  None of the last 12 winners had contested a handicap chase at Ascot that Season which may or may not be significant  but what certainly is, is it that of the 22 seasonal runs of the last 6 winners 15 of them (68%) came at Cheltenham or Newbury. In fact those 6 last winners had all raced at either of those two tracks combined at least twice that Season.

So, horses campaigned at these two tracks throughout the Season have been having great success in recent years and even with the last two Cheltenham meetings being abandoned there have been plenty of handicap chases run this Season that are a more reliable pointer to the Ultima Handicap. That list is headed by the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury with 3 of the last 4 winners having contested that race.

Which immediately brings the Ladbrokes Trophy winner, Cloth Cap, into the spotlight. He has the ideal profile for this race and was a very impressive winner that day but unfortunately connections have their eyes firmly set on the Grand National. He's due to have one more run before the big race although no mention of which race that is likely to be is forthcoming. I suppose it could possibly be the Ultima Handicap but that looks unlikely with just 3 and a half weeks between the two races this year. That's a bit of a shame as this is a race Jonjo O'Neill has done well in over the last decade or so and the horse does look a good fit for the Ultima.

Another runner from the Ladbroke Trophy I quite like the look of is Black Op who was a very decent novice chaser last Season but has yet to find his true form this year. A very good run first time up behind Imperial Aura was followed by a slightly disappointing 10th in the Ladbroke Trophy where he didn't quite seem to see out the 3m2f trip. He then went to Kempton for the King George where unsurprisingly he was outclassed but not totally disgraced. He's 3lb lower in the ratings than when he began the season and does look on a good mark based on his 1 3/4 length second to Champ last Season. I'd like to see him run in another handicap before making a decision on him for Cheltenham though.

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Ladbroke Trophy runner up, Aye Right, and he is one of a few handicap bets so far in our Route 66 Portfolio. He ran an absolute cracker last weekend in the Skybet and has to have a big chance in March if going for the Ultima. I certainly wouldn't put anyone off backing him but for now I'm going to side with an in-form horse that looks to tick every box as the ideal candidate for the Ultima Handicap.

He's a 7yo who began this season in a novice chase, he ran at last years Festival, he's run just 9 times over fences and he's run once at Newbury and once at Cheltenham this Season. To cap it all off he beat Dickie Driver easily by 7 1/2 lengths last time out.

PAINT THE DREAM ran a few decent races without winning in his novice chase Season last year and rounded off with a 12th in the Novice Handicap Chase at the Festival. It meant he began this year still a novice and after again running some excellent races in defeat he finally got off the mark last time out when upped in trip making his handicap debut. He jumped very well that day and there was certainly no fluke about the win so a 10lb raise in the handicap seems only fair.

33/1 is available in a few places for Fergal O'Brien's charge but I much prefer the less risky 20/1 at PaddyPower with the NRNB concession

SELECTIONPAINT THE DREAM 1/2pt EW 20/1 (PaddyPower / Betfair Sportsbook) - NRNB 5 PLACES


2) THE ARKLE

13 of the last 14 winners were aged 6 or 7yo. The last 8yo winner was in 2010. The last 5yo winner was in 2006.

There are currently 34 horses entered for the Arkle Chase with the ante-post market headed by last year's Supreme Novices Hurdle winner Shishkin who is trading at odds on. He's been very impressive in winning his three chase starts to date, all at long odds on, and has, on the whole, jumped very well. His last two wins have been in Grade 2 company by a combined distance of over 21 lengths and he's won on all ground conditions from Good to Heavy. At this stage he's undoubtedly the most likely winner but his odds reflect that and he makes limited appeal as an ante-post bet at the moment. I'd rather find an each way alternative.

The Arkle is rarely as competitive as looks likely when the first ante-post markets are opened up. I don't think any race at the Festival consistently fails to live up to the early expectations as much as the Arkle does and small fields are now the norm (6 of the last 9 were contested by single figure fields and 12 is the maximum field over the last decade).  With horses getting injured, others having alternative targets at the meeting and those who don't 'cut the mustard' over fences falling by the wayside simply finding a horse to make the line up is usually a battle in itself.

It doesn't help that Willie Mullins' Cheltenham plans are notoriously difficult to predict and with 6 of the 34 horses trained by him it makes sorting out the race even harder. He is responsible for the second favourite, Energumene, who has won two novice chases this season on heavy ground in impressive fashion. His last win came in a decent 4 runner race where he comfortably disposed of Captain Guinness and Blackbow (gone at the game). He's due to run in the Arkle Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend which will be his first foray into Graded company and he'll need to win just as impressively as his previous two starts if he's to shake up the ante-post market for Cheltenham.

That race could also see the Willie Mullins trained Unexpected make a return to the track having been absent since making a very encouraging start to his fencing career back in October. The race wasn't that great but he jumped beautifully and couldn't have been any more impressive in winning eased down by 8 lengths. We'll know more about him after this weekend.

Willie Mullins has a number of other interesting horses declared at this stage including the 2019 Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Klassical Dream who hasn't been seen since trailing home last in a Grade 1 Hurdle in December of that year. He doesn't have any immediate entries and time is running out to get some racecourse practice into him before Cheltenham but if anyone can get a horse ready to win an Arkle with just one run under his belt, it's Willie Mullins.

I was tempted to put up another Mullins horse as the selection, Franco De Port, as he looked really decent when dispatching Darver Star and Felix Desjny in a Grade 1 Novice at Leopardstown over Christmas but all the reports I've read about him have said he's far more likely to go for the Marsh Chase over 2m4f instead. He's in both similar races at the Dublin Racing Festival this weekend (2m Arkle Novice and 2m5f Flogas) so it will be interesting to see which race he actually takes up the engagement in as it should provide some clues as to the trainers plans for Cheltenham (maybe).

Allmankind has ground his rivals into the ground with two impressive front running performances since switching to fences this Season and looks a very decent chaser in the making. Last time out in the Grade 1 Henry VIII novice chase at Sandown he built up a decent advantage over the field and was kept up to his work on the run in to keep fellow 5yo Hitman at bay. That particular age group though have really struggled in the Arkle since the weight allowance for 5yo's was removed (92F3842) and that rather tempers my enthusiasm for them both.

And quite quickly we're down amongst the lowly rated, the outclassed, those with alternative targets and the out-of-form-ers.

Except perhaps EMBITTERED from the Joseph O'Brien yard who had high hopes for him at the start of the year. In all the stable tour reports at the start of the Season Embittered was being talked up by his trainer as 'one to keep on the right side of' and early Arkle quotes of around 20/1 for the 2020 County Hurdle third seemed to back this up. Things haven't gone quite to plan yet over fences but he did run into a couple of very decent chasers, Easywork and Andy Dufresne, on his first two starts. Still a maiden over fences he then took in the Grade 1 Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day where he made a good move at the third last and looked to be going best in a close third rounding the home turn. At this point he got cut off, was forced to pull back and was knocked off his stride. He tried to rally but after a hesitant jump at the last dropped out quickly from the final fence.  He wasn't the only O'Brien horse to fade quickly out of contention over the Christmas period and it looked like the yard was woefully out of form at the time, (1 win from 37 runners from Xmas Day - New Years Day). The stable has shown signs of a recovery over the last few weeks and I think we can expect a better performance in the Arkle Novice this weekend. We'll back him with Betfair Sportsbook as they offer NR No Bet just in case things don't go to plan over the next 6 weeks.

SELECTIONEMBITTERED 1/2pt EW 33/1 (Betfair Sportsbook) - NRNB


1) THE SUPREME NOVICES HURDLE

17 of the last 18 winners were aged 5 or 6yo. The last 4yo winner was in 1999.
The last winner to have had just one run over hurdles prior to victory was in 1992.
All of the last 11 winners were rated 142+

There are 97 runners currently declared for the Supreme and they are headed in the betting by last year's Champion Bumper runner up Appreciate It who is currently 2 from 2 over hurdles this season. The 7yo had no problem landing the odds on his hurdle debut at Cork in November and then followed up with an easy win in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. They omitted the final flight that day and the race rather fell apart in the last furlong as the fancied Ballyadam and N'Golo both weakened out of it close home in a time that wasn't that great. His next run at the Dublin Racing Festival will tell us a lot more about his Cheltenham chances but 7yo's don't have the best record in the race (1 from 39 since 1997) and I'm happy to take him on, on what he has achieved so far.

Metier is next best in the betting and was very impressive when winning the Tolworth Hurdle last time out by 12 lengths. He goes next in the highly competitive Betfair Hurdle where a win off a mark of 149 would seem to enhance his chances for the Festival. However, winners coming on from this handicap have yet to win the Supreme Novices Hurdle finishing 220420 (3 of the last 6 to try did finish second) and he may find 1 or 2 too good on the day.

Something has just clicked with Deal Dreal over the last 6 months as he's gone from a lowly rated flat/hurdler whose best performance in 11 races was 8th to a horse who's racked up 6 wins on the trot (2 on the flat and four over hurdles), is now rated 145 and won a Grade 2 hurdle last time out. It's hard to dismiss a horse in such good form at present but that's definitely not the profile of a Supreme Hurdle winner. Bob Olinger has looked decent in his last two starts including an easy win in a Grade 1 last time out but looks more likely to run in the Ballymore Hurdle.

A number of other declared horses have been running up winning sequences by mopping up lower grade novice hurdles but have yet to be tested at this sort of Grade (Atholl Street would be a good example). There's plenty of time for one of these to step up and lay down a marker for the race but at the moment it's the Dan Skelton novice, THIRD TIME LUCKI, that has some of the best credentials amongst the longer priced runners.

He ran an excellent fourth in the Champion Bumper last Season and began his hurdling career this season with two comfortable victories in novice company. For his next start he was upped in class for the Grade 2 Supreme Novices Trial at Cheltenham where he was sent off the even money favourite. The race turned into a bit of a farce with the 14/1 shot For Pleasure allowed to steal a march on the field as the tapes went up and he quickly took advantage to open up a big lead on the field. He maintained a 15-20 length lead on the field until jumping the third last when the chasing group closed up a bit but they still didn't look in any great hurry to make a worthwhile challenge. At this stage Third Time Lucki was travelling well and moved off in pursuit of the leader and looked to have his measure jumping the last as he finally came to lay down his challenge. Despite For Pleasure weaving around up the run in he dug in deep and repelled the favourite's challenge and went on to score by 3 lengths. The first two home pulled well clear of the rest of the field and if the race was run again I don't think we'd see the same result. The selection has since come out to win a decent Kempton novice hurdle eased down from a 139 rated Paul Nicholls novice hurdler having sprinted away from that runner from the second last.

The ante-post market for the race will no doubt be shaken up over the coming weeks with a couple of important race trials being run at Leopardstown and Kempton but at the moment, I'm happy to side with Third Time Lucki at the current prices.

SELECTION: THIRD TIME LUCKI 1/2pt EW 16/1 (William Hill)

16,434 total views, 8 views today