Here are my brief thoughts on the final day of the Festival -- and the big race of the week, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
1.30 2m1f JCB Triumph Juvenile Hurdle
MAIN BET: Calipto. NEXT BEST BETS: Pearl Castle, Broughton.
It’s not often the favourite wins the Triumph. In fact, it’s happened only once in the last 12 years -- Philip Hobbs’s Detroit City doing the business in 2006. However, I will be surprised -- nay mortified -- if that record isn’t smashed up this year by the Paul Nicholls-trained juvenile CALIPTO. Unbeaten in two starts since arriving from France, he posted a performance at Newbury last time that seemed to slide under the radar of almost every observer, maybe because it was such a pig a day, weather-wise. Not only was he pitched against older horses, he was also burdened with a 10lb penalty, yet breezed to victory in a fast time on bad ground by five lengths. Even more encouraging is the assertion by Nicholls that he will improve again for the better ground he will encounter at Cheltenham.
Less certain to handle the conditions is Calipto’s main market-rival, LE ROCHER, another recruit from France. But you cannot argue with the slick way he took apart the Grade One Finale Hurdle at Chepstow and then a hot race here at Cheltenham on Trials Day in January, both in the mud. What’’s more, his trainer, Nick Williams, has a solid and reliable line to this season’s juvenile form through one or two other smart youngsters he handles, including Fox Norton, who pipped another of the leading contenders here, BROUGHTON. John Ferguson’s recruit from the Flat, where he won at Glorious Goodwood in the summer, franked the form when scorching home last time.
Another quality recruit from the Flat is PEARL CASTLE, trained by John Quinn, who saddled Countrywide Flame to Triumph glory two years ago. Breathtakingly impressive on his hurdling debut, he would not be risked on a softish surface.
As in most years. I feel sure the UK form is stronger than that in Ireland, although respect is afforded the likes of the improving GUITAR PETE, from the 2013 winning stable of Dessie Hughes, Gordon Elliott’s TIGER ROLL, and the mare GITANE DU BERLAIS, who may well prove to be the best of Willie Mullins’s team.
2.05 2m1f Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle
MAIN BET: Never Enough Time. NEXT BEST BETS: Minella Foru, Vieux Lion Rouge, Dell’ Arca, Swing Bowler, Vibrato Valtat.
Writing as I am, fully nine days in advance, it is a thankless task trying to catch a glimpse of the wood for the trees in the three handicaps on Gold Cup Day. Terrific spectacles they all are, but until final running plans are known, sorting out selections is a bit like equine tombola.
I’ll give it a crack in the hope that the Irish yard of Thomas Foley plump for this race for NEVER ENOUGH TIME. I accept they may go for the Martin Pipe later on the card instead because it is for conditional jockeys such as his excellent regular pilot, Ger Fox. But by the same token, all the evidence suggests the horse is best at this minimum 2m trip. Indeed he unleashed a sizzling turn of foot to win at Leopardstown last time.
Another likely contender from Ireland is MINELLA FORU, who has all the makings of a JP McManus-inspired gamble. Bursting on to the scene as a smart novice early in the season, he was given a break after flopping in a Grade One -- only to make an eyecatching return last month.
As mentioned on previous days, David Pipe is weighing up lots of options, including this race, with his team of young hurdlers. DELL’ ARCA and SWING BOWLER have already proved his worth in similar handicaps and remain feasibly weighted, while VIEUX LION ROUGE is, in my view, an animal capable of a much higher mark than his cuirrent one of 139 but might be better off in novice company for now.
Paul Nicholls and Philip Hobbs have built records of note in the County, so the chances of LAC FONTANA, silky winner here in January, VIBRATO VALTAT, Imperial Cup fancy for Sandown on Saturday, and CHELTENIAN, winner of the 2011 Festival Bumper but now eight years old, leap off the page.
2.40 3m Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle
MAIN BET: Kings Palace. NEXT BEST BETS: Captain Cutter, Urban Hymn.
Spotting the exciting potential of a young hourse, and seeing it fulfilled, is always a rewarding exercise for any race-reader or analyst. So it is with huge satisfaction that I study this year’s Albert Bartlett in the knowledge that the worthy favourite, KINGS PALACE, was an animal I was so taken by on his winning debut in a modest Bumper at Plumpton in December 2012 that I felt the need to shout it from the rooftops of Twitter. Whether anyone took any notice is another matter (although I think the owners did!), but you still have time to jump on the bandwagon of David Pipe’s six-year-old if you wish. Unbeaten in three starts over timber this term, two of them significantly at Cheltenham and even more significantly on Good ground, he has been more impressive each time.
The big question now is whether the form is strong enough. Are the Grade Two wins in the midwinter mud of DEPUTY DAN, likely to go for this rather than the Neptune, and URBAN HYMN, Malcolm Jefferson’s highly-rated project, better? Is the Irish form, likely to be represented by Willie Mullins’s shock 2013 Festival Bumper winner BRIAR HILL, better?
My view is that the biggest danger to Kings Palace will, ironically, come from the only horse so far to have beaten him when he has completed. Nicky Henderson’s CAPTAIN CUTTER just got the better of the Pipe charge in an Ascot Bumper last season, and after an inconspicuous start to his hurdling career, he suddenly improved out of all recognition to win the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury in December. Bring on the re-match!
3.20 3m2f Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase
BIG-RACE 1-2-3: 1st Silviniaco Conti, 2nd Last Instalment, 3rd Rocky Creek.
The defections of Cue Card and Dynaste, coupled with the absence of last year’s second and third, Sir Des Champs and Long Run, left many bemoaning the quality of this season’s Gold Cup. But news that the likes of Hennesy Gold Cup winner TRIOLO D’ALENE and third, ROCKY CREEK, plus Ascot Chase one-two CAPTAIN CHRIS and CLOUDY TOO and Grand National fancies TEAFORTHREE and ON HIS OWN are all likely to take their chances has added considerable spice to the contest. It still appears to boil down, though, to the main three in the market, last year’s hero BOBS WORTH, King George winner SILVINIACO CONTI and the new star from Ireland, LAST INSTALMENT.
Trainer Philip Fenton has worked wonders nursing Last Instalment to the top of the tree after injury had threatened to rob him of the glories he looked destined for as a novice. To destroy an Irish Hennessy field as he did at Leopardstown last month was some effort on only his second start in two years and I have no doubt he would go close if the ground retained sufficient dig to protect his glassy legs. Sadly, the weather forecast suggests that ground will quicken up as the week progresses, so I wouldn’t be sure of connections risking him.
All of which would mean a potential showdown re-match between Nicky Henderson’s reigning champion, winner of three different races at successive Festivals, and Paul Nicholls’s eight-year-old who fell when still travelling smoothly (and certainly better than Bobs Worth) in last year’s race. What could unravel is a memorable duel representing the best two trainers in the country.
Silviniaco Conti has not put a foot wrong in two outings this term, proving correct at Kempton Nicholls’s assertion that he is essentially a stayer. But Bobs Worth bounced back to form in Ireland last time with a display as power-packed as his seasonal bow at Haydock was tame. A battle royal is all we ask for.
Remarkably, the rush for place money might also be a case of Nicholls v Henderson -- and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Rocky Creek reverse Newbury form with Triolo D’Alene. Both horses have the potential to emerge from the race as genuine Grade One operators.
4.00 3m2f CGA Foxhunter Chase
MAIN BET: On The Fringe. NEXT BEST BETS: Made In Time, Shy John.
With the winner of the race for the last two years, SALSIFY, sidelined by injury, it’s a major surprise that connections of TAMMY’S HILL are reluctant to make the journey from Ireland to Cheltenham. Liam Lennon’s nine-year-old has twice beaten Salsify and proved his wellbeing with victory in a top-class hunter chase at Leopardstown last month.
However, their absences open the door for another Irish contender whose form ties in with them, namely ON THE FRINGE, trained by Enda Bolger and owned by JP McManus. Bolger’s main hope, MOSSEY JOE, has also pulled out of the race, but this nine-year-old ex-cross-country chaser got the better of Tammy’s Hill on Boxing Day and given that he’s still lightly-raced, he could have plenty more to offer in the hunting arena.
Of the UK contingent, much is being made of the chance of exciting novice, HARBOUR COURT. But at much bigger odds, I prefer the look of another JP runner, MADE IN TIME, from the Rebecca Curtis yard, and SHY JOHN, a consistent young pointer with a touch of class.
4.40 2m5f Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle
MAIN BET: Full Shift NEXT BEST BETS: Caid Du Berlais, Leo Luna, Volnay De Thaix, Un Beau Matin.
Given that the race is named after his father, David Pipe is expected to be mob-handed in this. It is entirely possible that handicapping novices I have pinpointed on previous days, such as DELL’ ARCA and VIEUX LION ROUGE, might end up here, in which case they would have to be respected. However, curiously, Pipe has a poor record over the five years of the contest (just one placed from 14 runners), whereas Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson appear to have targeted it with much more care.
Nicholls has already nailed his colours to the mast of CAID DU BERLAIS, who reverts to hurdles after a brief flirtation with fences. The five-year-old ran a blinder in the Fred Winter at last year’s Festival. Henderson has yet to play his hand, although I would expect FULL SHIFT to be one of his options if the progressive five-year-old does not take up an alternative engagement in the EBF Final at Sandown on Saturday. Should he miss out, VOLNAY DE THAIX wouldn’t be a bad substitute based on his form when splitting leading novices Irving and Splash Of Ginge at Ascot in December.
Gordon Elliott, who learned his trade under Pipe, is another trainer keen to do well in this race. Of several entries, I’m quite sweet on UN BEAU MATIN, who has been performing with credit in much better company.
Running plans are very much up in the air as I write, but if he beats the cut, keep an eye on LEO LUNA, who was a progressive novice for Gary Moore last term and who ran an eyecatching race at Ascot last month on his first outing since a gelding operation.
5.15 2m Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase
MAIN BET: Upsilon Bleu. NEXT BEST BETS: Next Sensation, Tanks For That, Eastlake, Ned Buntline.
The only promise I can make about the Festival finale is that it will be run at a frantic pace, which tends to find out those near the top of the weights or those lacking previous experience of Cheltenham. I would pay special attention to course winners such as Jonjo O’Neill’s consistent improver EASTLAKE and TANKS FOR THAT, whose trainer, Nicky Henderson, the race is named after and who is 5lbs lower than when second in the same contest two years ago. He’s now 11 years old but tuned up in style with a win on the all-weather at Kempton a month ago.
However, the race is not insurmountable for animals who have never even sniffed Cheltenham, providing they are well enough handicapped. Two likely sorts are UPSILON BLEU, who has been knocking on the door all season and, as a strong traveller, should relish pouncing off a strong gallop, and NEXT SENSATION, a slick front-running novice who has been deliberately laid out for this race since bolting up at Doncaster over Christmas.
Pick of the Irish raiders may well be NED BUNTLINE, a horse who has always been held in the highest regard by trainer Noel Meade. Hardly surprising considering he came within a whisker of beating Jezki, no less, on his Bumper debut two years ago.