The question we asked yesterday was “Can Willie Mullins get his first winner of the week?” My, and how. You can never keep a good man down and Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh bounced back in fine style, taking the JLT with Yorkhill, the Ryanair (and how sweet it would have been to win Michael O’Leary’s race) with Un De Sceaux, the Stayers’ Hurdle with Nichols Canyon and the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle with Let’s Dance. It was a terrific day for the Irish generally, taking six of the seven races to ensure the St Patrick’s Day celebrations on Gold Cup Friday is going to be fuelled by full Irish wallets; Presenting Percy defied a huge handicap increase to take the Pertemps whilst Road To Respect made the Plate look like a procession. The sole British winner came in the last, a 40/1 shock as Domesday Book under Gina Andrews outstayed Pendra and Premier Bond.
So onto the final day of the Festival, with races ranging from a juvenile hurdle to the greatest staying chase of them all.
1:30 – JCB Triumph Hurdle, Grade 1, 2m1f.
This looks a really hot race for our 4yo hurdlers (this is an age-restricted race, hence the term juveniles rather than novices) and the warm favourite is Defi De Seuil, who is unbeaten is his 5 career hurdle races to date. Crucially, he’s won three of those at Cheltenham, on both good to soft and soft ground. Whilst he’s done nothing wrong to date and could well win with his head in his chest, the bare form of his victories doesn’t look exceptional and he could be vulnerable to a less-experienced rival with more potential for improvement. I was very keen on CHARLI PARCS for the Supreme before his crashing fall in the Adonis at Kempton last month, and it remains to be seen if his confidence will be affected by that fall. Nicky Henderson appears bullish about his prospects here, though, and the better ground should see the best of him. Master Blueyes was the beneficiary of that fall by Charli Parcs, and he ended up winning by 11 lengths, so if he continues his progressive profile he won’t be far away. Mega Fortune and Dinaria Des Obeaux should go close for Gordon Elliott, and Soldier In Action was a decent Flat performer and will be another win who will like this ground. However, it’s another of the JP McManus owned horses to which we’ll go and LANDOFHOPEANDGLORY, who was a fine 4th in the Queen’s Vase at Royal Ascot last summer. He is one a string of purchases from Ballydoyle by JP McManus and Joseph O’Brien should have him back on song for this after not quite being at his best the last twice.
Selection: CHARLI PARCS
2:10 – Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle, Grade 3, 2m1f.
Formerly known as the Vincent O’Brien, the market is headed by IVANOVICH GORBATOV who won last year’s Triumph Hurdle. It’s fair to say that form has worked out rather well this week – Apple’s Jade was second that day (won the Mares’ Hurdle), with Footpad in third (4th in the Champion Hurdle) and Let’s Dance in fourth (hosed up in the Mares’ Novices). Ivanovich Gorbatov has yet to get his head in front since, but he’s been highly tried in Grade 1s; for example, his third place at Leopardstown in December saw him beaten by Petit Mouchoir (3rd in the Champion Hurdle) and Nichols Canyon (winner of the Stayers’ Hurdle). So the fact he’s dropping back down in grade is interesting. At just 5 years old I still don’t think we’ve seen the best of him. Mick Jazz and Air Horse One also feature prominently in my thoughts, whilst Diego Du Charmil and Renneti can’t be easily dismissed for Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins respectively. However, my second selection is one I’ve wanted to back in this since he won the Greatwood in November, when trainer Dan Skelton announced NORTH HILL HARVEY would be saved for the Festival and hope to follow the same path to glory as stablemate Superb Story last year. He also came 9th in last year’s Supreme Novices, and this is the last runner from that race to chance his hand at this year’s Festival. So far that race has produced Altior (Arkle winner), Buveur D’Air (Champion Hurdle winner), Tombstone (unplaced), Charbel (fell when leading the Arkle), Mister Miyagi (unplaced), Supasundae (Coral Cup winner), Petit Mouchoir (Champion Hurdle third) and Bellshill (RSA third). It’s just a shame we didn’t see Min who has beaten two Festival winners (Tully East and Road To Respect) already this season. I’m hopeful both of the selections have each way chances.
Selection: IVANOVICH GORBATOV
Alternative: NORTH HILL HARVEY
2:50 – Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, Grade 1, 3m.
Death Duty, for Gordon Elliott and Bryan Cooper, looks an absolute monster and is surely going to be a decent novice chaser next season. Last time out he won a Grade 1 at Naas when August Kate (the mare who reopposes here for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh) fell at the last, but I’m sure Death Duty would have won anyway. I will probably stick Death Duty in a favourites-acca but will leave him out of our selections. Instead the first one I want onside is the battle-hardened, streetwise WHOLESTONE who has raced here in his last four appearances, winning three of them and coming second on the other occasion. His consistency makes real appeal and he should give us a run for our money. I do like The Worlds End and I think the extra distance could bring out the best of Elegant Escape, but CONSTANTINE BAY looks progressive and he showed his willingness to get his nose in front when prevailing by a head at Doncaster in January. He might appreciate some rain (which is unlikely) but he’s still worth a second look in my opinion.
Alternative: CONSTANTINE BAY
3:30 – Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, Grade 1, 3m2f.
There won’t be a dry eye in the house if CUE CARD, the 2010 Champion Bumper winner who has only failed to finish twice in 28 chase starts, prevails here. One of those failures was in last year’s Gold Cup, when he was attempting to win a £1m bonus for winning the Betfair Chase, King George and Gold Cup but fell when challenging three from home. He is 11 years old now and this almost certainly represents his last chance of winning this, and he has been a tad hit and miss this season, but the continued market support for Djakadam makes him a fair price now. That support for Djakadam is driven by the resurgence of Willie Mullins after what must have been a cracking half-time teamtalk on Wednesday night, and also by virtue of the fact he has finished runner-up in this race in the last two renewals. Still just 8, he has the necessary improvement in him to be able to finally win the Gold Cup for Mullins but any juice in his price has long-gone (he was consistently available at 12/1 right through January and up until Thistlecrack was ruled out). Cue Card’s stablemate Native River comes here in fine fettle having won the Hennessy, the Welsh National and the Denman Chase this year and whilst his stamina is assured, he might not have the speed that this Gold Cup demands. If a few take each other early on, though, his stamina could be vital as they come up the hill. More Of That is enigmatic but seemed back to his old self before unseating in the Irish Gold Cup, whilst the winner that day Sizing John looks rejuvenated now he doesn’t have to chase Douvan round and stepped up in trip. Lizzie Kelly becomes only the second female to take a ride in the Gold Cup on Tea For Two, whilst Outlander aims to follow up Don Cossack’s win last year for Gordon Elliott, Bryan Cooper and Gigginstown Stud. I think Champagne West can run a big race for Henry De Bromhead after his Thyestes win, but we’ll take a flyer on BRISTOL DE MAI whose price has been inflated by his abject performance last time out against Native River. He was second in last year’s JLT at the Festival and if the right Bristol De Mai turns up then he could spring a shock. If the wrong one turns up, then it won’t take long to find out.
Selection: CUE CARD (caution – emotion may have played a part in this)
Alternative: BRISTOL DE MAI
4:10 – St James’s Place Foxhunter Challenge, Class 2, 3m2f.
A 24 runner Hunters Chase and quite frankly I have very little desire to get too much involved. So we’ll keep it very simple – ON THE FRINGE has been a licence to print money at the last two Festivals in this race (having finished 4th and 3rd the two years before that) under Nina Carberry. Her pregnancy means Jamie Codd takes the ride for Enda Bolger, and his reappearance second at Leopardstown behind Foxrock last month should have him spot on for this. It’s not original, but this race has been the aim for On The Fringe as he seeks to do the Cheltenham / Aintree / Punchestown treble for the third year in a row, and in each of the last two times he’s lost at Leopardstown in February as a warm up. Wonderful Charm could spoil the party for Paul Nicholls and Katie Walsh.
Selection: ON THE FRINGE
4:50 – Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, Class 2, 2m4f.
COO STAR SIVOLA loves it round Cheltenham and was a good winner here on New Year’s Day before finding the step up to Grade 2 company a bit too much on Trials Day. Back down in handicap company he can go well at a double figure price for Lizzie Kelly and Nick Williams. Battleford was second in the Champion Bumper last year (and again at Aintree a month later) and has decent enough hurdling form; his jockey Adam Short claiming 5lb is helpful for Willie Mullins but it’s another Mullins runner I prefer in the form of CASTELLO SFORZA. He has been a beaten favourite in each of his three hurdle starts but I’m hoping the spring ground can help him break his duck. Nicky Henderson has a couple of interesting entries in Rather Be and Thomas Campbell, whilst No Comment is progressing nicely.
Selection: COO STAR SIVOLA
Alternative: CASTELLO SFORZA
5:30 – Johnny Henderson Grand Annual, Grade 3 Handicap, 2m.
There is no Next Sensation in this year’s race, but we do have yet another big field of 24 runners to try and pick through. The favourite is Le Prezien for Paul Nicholls and Sam Twiston-Davies; that is no surprise as this novice has good form lines with Baron Alco, Top Notch and Charbel among others and he was touted as a potential Arkle / JLT hope when he won here in November. He hasn’t quite proven as good as that hence he’s here in this handicap but he can certainly run well. DANDRIDGE looks to be have been laid out for this and Davy Russell is in fine form this week. He was second in this race last year and went close at Aintree next time out off a mark of 142; hence his 141 rating looks to be workable. I also like the experienced THE GAME CHANGER who was 4th in last year’s Arkle (behind Douvan, Sizing John and Fox Norton) and this will be a welcome return back to handicap company. It’s quite possible that a win here could seal the Festival trainer’s title for Gordon Elliott depending on how he and Willie Mullins do earlier in the day and Bryan Cooper can end it on a high for the Irish.
Alternative: THE GAME CHANGER