In a normal year, victories in the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase would be enough to guarantee starting favourite for the Champion Chase. But this year’s renewal of the two-mile championship looks exceptional and Dodging Bullets is only third favourite at 11-2.
Trainer Paul Nicholls has already won the race four times including twice with the great Master Minded in 2008 and 2009. Dodging Bullets is not yet rated in that class but it is hard to fault him after fluent successes at Sandown and Ascot. He is no stranger to the Cheltenham festival having been beaten at the last three, most recently finishing fourth in the Arkle Trophy in 2014.
The handicapper has raised the gelding by 10lbs since his promising third to Uxizandre in November but two other horses still dominate the betting. They are the 2013 winner Sprinter Sacre and the reigning champion Sire de Grugy.
Both horses have captured the imagination of the public and regularly add thousands to the gate. Sprinter Sacre was regarded by many as one of the greatest chasers of all time after his 19 lengths win over Sizing Europe two years’ ago. He remained unbeaten over fences until pulling up with a fibrillating heart at Kempton in December 2013. His long road back to recovery has been well documented and he ran with great credit when second to Dodging Bullets at Ascot.
There will still be a great deal of anxiety surrounding him when he sets off in pursuit of a second Champion Chase title. The “bounce factor” is regarded by some as a racing myth but some horses do run inexplicably poorly on their second start following a lengthy absence. Jockey Barry Geraghty felt that the horse was on his way back at Ascot but we won’t really know until he faces the Cheltenham hill on Wednesday.
Sire de Grugy was by far the best two-mile chaser last season, winning three consecutive Grade 1 events including this race. His season has not gone to plan with lameness interrupting his preparation before unseating his rider at Newbury. Gary Moore decided to re-route him to Chepstow last month where he seemed back to his best and easily shrugged off top weight in a handicap.
With Champagne Fever and the improving Mr Mole also set to line up, it promises to be one of the best championship races of recent seasons. Nicholls will be hoping that the two superstars have lost just a little bit of their sparkle and it is Dodging Bullets that takes the glory.
The Champion Hurdle will have a maximum of just eight runners this year, one fewer than 12 months’ ago when Jezki beat My Tent Or Yours by a neck.
With no obvious pacemaker in the field, there are fears that this year’s race could be run at a crawl. Jezki took a keen hold last year under Barry Geraghty and led two out before holding off Tony McCoy’s late challenge by a neck. He has been beaten in all three races this season where he would have appreciated a stronger pace.
Willie Mullins is responsible for three of the runners but it seems unlikely that any of them will be sent to the front early on. Favourite Faugheen has made the running in the past and won the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle last season over two and a half miles. A slow early pace would not suit the unbeaten seven-year-old while Hurricane Fly and Arctic Fire are usually held up. Two-time winner Hurricane Fly is used to racing in small fields and the eleven-year-old is bidding to join Hatton’s Grace and Sea Pigeon as the oldest winners in the race’s history.
The New One lost his winning chance last year when hampered by the stricken Our Conor at the third flight. He has remained unbeaten since, including a narrow victory in the Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles. He was not impressive when beating Bertimont in the Haydock Champion Hurdle trial but the Twiston-Davies team have been delighted with his recent work. The New One has one sharp burst of speed which his rider will be keen to save for the uphill finish.
Kitten Rock will race in the second colours of Jezki’s owner JP McManus for trainer Eddie O’Grady. He has gone from strength-to-strength this season with four straight victories, most recently taking the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park. His best form has been on soft or heavy ground so connections will be hoping for some rain before racing begins on Tuesday. Noel Fehily has been booked to replace the injured Mark Walsh on the five-year-old.
Nicky Henderson relies on the French import Vaniteux, runner-up to The New One in the International Hurdle in December. He has since been beaten by Rock On Ruby over a longer trip but is unlikely to be sacrificed in a pacemaking role. Bertimont did make all the running when winning a Chepstow handicap in October but he was only the leader on sufferance. It promises to be a fascinating tactical battle in which Faugheen may have to make his own running. The last horse to make all in the Champion Hurdle was Hardy Eustace in 2005.
Jonjo O’Neill and Tony McCoy have faced both triumph and disaster together in recent years. The jubilation at Synchronised’s victory in the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup turned to despair when the gelding was fatally injured in the Grand National the following month.
Next week they will be rivals for the Cheltenham showpiece with McCoy riding Carlingford Lough against O’Neill’s Holywell. McCoy is retained to ride for owner JP McManus and Carlingford Lough booked his place in the field with an emotional win in the Irish Hennessy. The victory was the first in the race for the champion jockey and came within 24 hours of his announcement that he intends to retire at the end of the season.
With the media spotlight understandably focussed on McCoy, Holywell’s Gold Cup claims may have crept under the radar. The eight-year-old has won at the previous two festival meetings, winning the Pertemps final in 2013 and claiming the Festival Chase last year. On both occasions he was ridden by Richie McLernon who resumes his partnership with the gelding next week.
Holywell has shown himself to be a real spring horse with all of his best form in March and April. All of his seven career wins have come between January and April including an impressive 10-lengths victory over Don Cossack at Aintree last season. He had Many Clouds over 20 lengths away in fourth and that horse is currently second-favourite for the Gold Cup.
Given his past record, we should not have been surprised to see him beaten by that rival at Carlisle in November. He ran without his favoured blinkers that day and O’Neill also left them off when he unseated McLernon at Aintree in December. They were back on for his return to action in Kelso in February where he outclassed his three rivals to win by 25 lengths under McCoy.
Silviniaco Conti is a worthy favourite but there are doubts about his ability to produce his best at Cheltenham after failing in two previous Gold Cups. There are no such concerns for Holywell who is unbeaten at Prestbury Park and seems to be carrying plenty of stable confidence. He acts on any ground but seems best on good or good to soft. The latest going reports suggest that good to soft ground is likely for Gold Cup day which would favour Holywell more than most.
The World Hurdle at the Cheltenham festival will always have a special place in the hearts of the Stewart family. Big Buck’s dominated the race when trained to four successive victories by Paul Nicholls between 2009 and 2012.
Injury prevented him from seeking a fifth victory in 2013 when Celestial Halo made a brave attempt to win in the same colours, finishing runner-up to Solwhit after a mistake at the last hurdle. Big Buck’s had one final tilt at the race last year but faded into fifth in the closing stages and was retired.
The Stewart family have another leading contender this year with Saphir Du Rheu, originally expected to be contesting the RSA Chase at the festival meeting. The grey was a disappointment in the Fred Winter Hurdle here in 2013 but improved considerably last season, winning valuable handicap races at Sandown and Kempton.
He then completed his hat-trick in the Welsh Champion Hurdle after a terrific tussle with Nicky Henderson’s Whisper. Nicholls decided against running at the festival last year and put Saphir Du Rheu away to go novice chasing this winter. He unseated Sam Twiston-Davies at the seventh fence at Newbury in November before winning easily at Exeter the following month.
A fall in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day persuaded connections to revert to hurdling with the World Hurdle the new objective. He warmed up for the big race with victory in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, a race won twice by Big Buck’s on his way to success at the festival. Although he had only a neck to spare over Reve de Sivola, he always looked to be travelling best.
Nicholls could also provide the main danger to Saphir Du Rheu in 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner Zarkandar. He has always been top class over hurdles, finishing fourth in the Champion in 2013 and beating The New One in the Aintree Hurdle in the same season. He tried this distance for the first time when finishing fourth behind More Of That in this race last year and has since won a Grade 1 hurdle in France at this trip.
Zarkandar was odds-on for the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December and looked set for victory when going well in the lead two from home. However, he failed to pick up under Twiston-Davies after the last when challenged by Reve de Sivola and was beaten a head. He will be partnered by Noel Fehily at Cheltenham and will almost certainly be produced as late as possible.
Cheltenham festival clues were a bit thin on the ground on Saturday’s Doncaster card but the performance of Call The Cops in the staying hurdle had bookmakers diving for cover.
Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old easily beat Waltz Darling by five lengths off a handicap mark of 133 and incurs only a 5lbs penalty in the Pertemps Hurdle Final at Cheltenham. It was his first start for nearly four months, having caught the eye when finishing strongly behind Brother Brian at Kempton in November.
He also holds an entry in the shorter Coral Cup but he stayed the three miles comfortably at Town Moor and the Pertemps looks the obvious target. Connections will be hoping for a dry spell as he is a much better horse on good ground and enjoyed perfect conditions at Doncaster. He was cut to 8-1 joint-favourite with Regal Encore, an impressive winner at Exeter last month.
JP McManus purchased Regal Encore after the gelding won a National Hunt flat race at Southwell in 2012. He finished second to Briar Hill in the Champion Bumper the following spring but had failed to add to a modest novice hurdle victory at Plumpton until being stepped up in distance at Exeter. The handicapper has taken a dim view of his latest success and raised him 10lbs for Cheltenham.
That gives fourth-placed Big Easy an 8lbs pull for four and a half lengths as Philip Hobbs bids to win the race for a second consecutive season. Fingal Bay defied a big weight last year and Big Easy will be racing off his highest ever rating of 146. The Cesarewitch winner has been runner-up twice at Cheltenham already this season, chasing home Katkeau in November and losing by only a nose to Ulzana’s Raid the following month.
Tony Martin looks to have a strong hand with Edeymi and Mydor both attracting ante-post support. Edeymi was runner-up in the Fred Winter Hurdle in 2012 but was brought down in the Martin Pipe Hurdle the following year. He missed most of last season but showed signs of a return to form when staying on into fourth behind Dawalan at Musselburgh last time out.
Stable companion Mydor won competitive handicaps at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown before being beaten a head by Lean Araig at Punchestown last month. He had gone up 9lbs for his previous victory and has gone up by the same margin again here. The race will have the additional interest of Grand National winner Pineau de Re attempting to repeat last year’s great run at the festival. He finished strongest of all when third in this race and is only 3lbs higher this time.
A bumper race at Wincanton in January does not usually merit too much attention but See The World’s remarkable victory has already attracted 17,500 views on YouTube.
The five-year-old gelding by Kayf Tara was making his racecourse debut for Trainer Emma Lavelle with Aidan Coleman in the saddle. He was sent off at 7-1 and travelled well in the lead entering the home straight where he started to hang violently to his left.
Coleman could not keep him straight and dropped back to a remote fifth before he could steer him back into the race. Tony McCoy had set sail for home on Lincoln County and was fifteen lengths ahead with two furlongs to run. Incredibly, Coleman got such a willing response from See The World that he reeled in the leader and won by four and a half lengths. Coleman even had to take a pull in the final stages. Paddy Power rate See The World a 14-1 shot for the Champion Bumper, a race dominated by Willie Mullins over the years.
The leading Irish trainer has won the race on eight occasions since it was added to the festival programme in 1992. Bordoni is 6-1 favourite this year, one of eight entries from the County Carlow stable. He beat Attribution by a comfortable six and a half lengths at Navan in December while stable companions Pylonthepressure and Turcagua are also prominent in the betting.
Dermot Weld won here last year with Silver Concorde and has aimed Vigil at the race all season. He finished just over four lengths adrift in fifth place a year ago and won easily at Leopardstown in December.
British-trained runners have only won this race twice in the last ten years with Cue Card and Cheltenian in 2010 and 2011. Philip Hobbs trained the latter and is hopeful that Ascot winner Wait For Me could be in that class. He beat six previous winners when pushed clear to beat Always Lion by five lengths.
David Pipe also has a high opinion of the Saffron Walden gelding, Moon Racer, a good winner at Cheltenham in October. He took up the running soon after the start and quickened away inside the final quarter of a mile to win by 12 lengths.
Andrew Balding is better known for his exploits on the flat but has entered Ascot winner Supasundae while the pick of Nicky Henderson’s three entries could be OK Corral. The son of Mahler beat a good field at Kempton earlier this month and is currently 16-1 for the race which brings proceedings to a close on day 2 of the festival.
Trainer Dan Skelton will be hoping to add a coveted festival winner to his CV next month when he sends a strong team to Cheltenham next month. He spent nine years as assistant trainer to Paul Nicholls before embarking on his own career in 2013, sending out 27 winners including Ladbroke Hurdle winner Willow’s Saviour.
Perhaps his best chance at the festival lies with Value At Risk who will run in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle after finishing runner-up to Ordo Ab Chao last time out. He was a well-backed favourite following an impressive 22-length win at Newbury in November but did not quite have the pace over two and a half miles.
Bertimont is a 50-1 chance for the Champion Hurdle but that price could be something of an insult after his fine run behind The New One at Haydock in January. He was not reeled in by the favourite until the final 150 yards in the heavy ground and is likely to be favoured by better conditions at the festival. It was a big improvement on his previous run when only sixth behind the same horse in the Grade 2 International Hurdle in December.
Stable companion Blue Heron is not engaged at the festival despite his easy victory in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Skelton is aiming him at the Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles before sending him chasing next season.
Zarib is among the market leaders for the Fred Winter Hurdle after Skelton decided to take him out of the Triumph Hurdle. The son of Azamour won well at Newbury in December but proved no match for Triumph favourite Peace And Co at Cheltenham in January. He easily landed the odds in a minor race at Wincanton on Valentine’s day and goes to the festival with every chance.
Shelford has several festival entries with connections leaning towards a tilt at the Coral Cup with the six-year-old son of Galileo. He won Chepstow’s Grade 3 Silver Trophy in October and finished an excellent fourth in the Ladbroke at Ascot in December. He was beaten when falling at the last in the race won by L’Ami Serge at Sandown last time out and has been enjoying a mid-season break.
What A Warrior has not been seen since pulling up in the Hennessy at Newbury in November. He won at Ludlow and Ascot before Christmas and will have an each-way chance in one of the big handicap chases if he gets his favoured good ground.
Mister Grez was not disgraced behind Sire de Grugy at Chepstow last weekend and could also be festival-bound along with Bellenos, a possible runner in the Grand Annual Challenge Cup which brings down the curtain on the four-day meeting.
Lambourn Trainer Nicky Henderson is adding the finishing touches to his Cheltenham festival team and revealed running plans to journalists at this week’s media day at Seven Barrows.
Sprinter Sacre is obviously the headline act as the former champion bids to reclaim his crown in the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase. He remains favourite for the race despite a successful return by Sire de Grugy at Chepstow last weekend. Henderson described himself as hopeful rather than confident but added that Sprinter Sacre had done everything asked of him since his defeat at Ascot.
Peace And Co is a very short-priced favourite for the Triumph Hurdle after winning his two races impressively since arriving from France. He will wear ear plugs to shut out the noise at Cheltenham and will be joined by Hargam and Top Notch. They were comfortable winners of their respective trials at Musselburgh and Haydock.
Perhaps the horse that Henderson is most excited about all week is the unbeaten L’Ami Serge in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the opening race of the meeting. The Tolworth Hurdle winner will clash with the highly-regarded Douvan, trained by Willie Mullins. Josses Hill has been beaten in both of his starts over fences but is still on course for the Arkle Trophy where he meets another Mullins-trained favourite in Un De Sceaux. Jockey Barry Geraghty has not lost faith in last year’s Aintree winner and believes that a stronger gallop will bring about considerable improvement.
Henderson also had a good word for Ma Filleule who will renew rivalry with Ascot conqueror Balder Succes in the Ryanair Chase. The grey mare hit top form at the festival last year and her fast, accurate jumping should give her a live chance.
The stable will not be represented in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle after deciding to take Vyta Du Roc, Caracci Apache and Out Sam to the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle instead. Henderson revealed that Beat That will miss the World Hurdle after being roughed off for the season but he could still be represented by Whisper and Blue Fashion. He will finalise plans after a number of his horses have worked at Kempton this week.
The forgotten horse of the Gold Cup is 2013 winner Bobs Worth who failed to make it four consecutive festival victories when only fifth last year. He was slightly disappointing in the Lexus Chase in December but connections are optimistic that he retains his ability and are hoping for decent ground next month.
Henderson has more festival winners than any other trainer in history and completed a record haul of seven winners at the meeting in 2012.
Trainer Gary Moore’s decision to run Sire de Grugy at Chepstow on Saturday paid off handsomely as the chestnut bounded clear to beat his three rivals impressively.
The reigning two-mile Champion chaser had blotted his copybook when unseating Jamie Moore at Newbury last time out, prompting connections to find an alternative prep race for the Cheltenham Festival. His jumping had been uncharacteristically poor in the Game Spirit Chase but he was foot perfect at Chepstow, conceding 20lbs and more to his rivals. Paddy Power cut his price to 7-2 for the festival behind 3-1 favourite Sprinter Sacre.
The race is shaping up to be a classic renewal with Sprinter Sacre having won in 2013 before he was side-lined with an irregular heartbeat. Trainer Nicky Henderson was delighted with his comeback run when second to Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot last month. The nine-year-old was beaten three lengths on his first start for over a year and is reported to have come out of the race well.
Paul Nicholls has won the Champion Chase on four previous occasions, notably with Master Minded in 2008 and 2009. He is looking forward to a re-match between Dodging Bullets and a fully-fit Sprinter Sacre on March 11th. His improving seven-year-old had previously won the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December and remains a steady 4-1 chance to complete the hat-trick.
Willie Mullins looks set to rely on 5-1 shot Champagne Fever, twice a previous winner at the festival meeting. The grey won the Champion Bumper in 2012 and followed up in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2013. He was just denied a third consecutive victory by 33-1 outsider Western Warhorse in the Arkle Trophy last year.
Mullins has taken his time deciding on the best distance for the son of Stowaway but his impressive victory at Gowran Park last week suggests that the two-mile championship is the right race for him. He had previously fallen when under pressure at Thurles and did not quite see out the three miles of the King George VI Chase at Kempton in December.
The dark horse of the race is Mr Mole who could give Nicholls a powerful second string. His victory at Newbury was overshadowed by the departure of Sire de Grugy but the seven-year-old has now won his last four races in the colours of JP McManus. He is priced at 8-1 with Hidden Cyclone at 12-1 and Simply Ned at 16-1.
Tony McCoy has chosen to ride Irish Hennessy winner Carlingford Lough in preference to Holywell in the Cheltenham Gold Cup next month.
The nineteen times champion jockey recently announced that this will be his last season in the saddle and there will inevitably be a huge following for his mounts at the festival meeting. Carlingford Lough races in the colours of leading Irish owner JP McManus for whom McCoy rode Synchronised to victory in the 2012 Gold Cup.
The nine-year-old is trained by John Kiely and is currently priced at 10-1, three points longer than Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell. Carlingford Lough ran in the RSA Chase at last year’s festival meeting but made several mistakes and finished only sixth behind O’Faolains Boy. He also made a mistake at the second last in the Hennessy but McCoy sat tight and drove him back up to beat Foxrock by three-quarters of a length.
His Gold Cup chance is obvious having beaten last year’s winner Lord Windermere and runner-up On His Own comprehensively in that race. He and Lord Windermere share top weight in the Grand National on a rating of 161 with Many Clouds just 2lbs behind on 159.
Holywell is currently rated 163 after he booked his place in the Gold Cup line-up with a comfortable victory at Kelso last week. The eight-year-old has been successful at the last two festival meetings, winning the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle final in 2013 and following up in last season’s three-mile handicap chase. His impressive ten-length win over Don Cossack at Aintree marked him out as a serious challenger for chasing’s blue riband event.
Holywell was not at his best when only third behind Many Clouds at Carlisle in November and unseated his rider the following month at Aintree. O’Neill was delighted with his performance at Kelso and the gelding always seems to be at his peak in the spring. A rider has yet to be confirmed for the son of Gold Well but Richie McLernon must be in the frame having ridden him to his previous victories at the meeting.
No decision has yet been made over the participation of impressive Newbury winner Coneygree. Trainer Mark Bradstock has left his star novice in the RSA Chase as well as the Gold Cup while connections finalise plans for the Denman Chase winner. He is unbeaten in three starts over fences after being off the track for almost 22 months through injury.
Willie Mullins, leading trainer at the past two Cheltenham festival meetings, is aiming for a clean-sweep of the three big novice hurdle races next month.
Last season, Mullins won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Vautour who got punters off to a flying start when storming clear to win by six lengths. This year he saddles the hot favourite Douvan, a French-bred gelding by Walk In The Park. He has won both starts for Mullins without being seriously tested, cruising to victory in a Grade 2 event at Punchestown last month. Douvan is currently 7-4 favourite to give Mullins a fifth winner in the opening race of the meeting.
The Neptune Novices’ Hurdle has been won by the County Carlow based trainer on three previous occasions, most recently last year with Faugheen. The son of Germany landed a massive gamble when returned at 6-4 favourite and is firmly on course for the Champion Hurdle after winning his trials at Ascot and Kempton.
Mullins again has the ante-post market leader with Nichols Canyon, winner of the Grade 1 Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown. The son of Epsom Derby winner Authorized was a Listed winner on the flat when trained by John Gosden and looks to have transferred that ability to hurdles. He is owned by Graham Wylie who enjoyed tremendous success at the festival with three-time World Hurdle winner Inglis Drever.
Nichols Canyon still holds an entry in the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle but jockey Ruby Walsh believes that two and a half miles is his best trip. He made all the running at Leopardstown to beat Windsor Park and stable companion Alisio Ville and is clear favourite for the Neptune at 11-2.
Mullins also has Outlander and Shaneshill entered in all three novice races. The latter was runner-up in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper last year before winning at the Punchestown festival. He was impressive on his hurdling debut at Fairyhouse but was then surprisingly beaten at Navan. Outlander was beaten by Martello Tower at Limerick in December but gained his revenge on that horse at Leopardstown last month.
The three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle was introduced at the meeting in 2005 and has so far eluded the Mullins stable. He has the current favourite in Black Hercules (5-1), fourth in the Champion Bumper and winner of both starts over hurdles. He was particularly impressive at Cork last time when making all the running in heavy ground to beat Alpha Des Obeaux.
Alan King has confirmed that the Ryanair Chase is the Cheltenham target for Saturday’s Ascot Chase winner Balder Succes.
The seven-year-old profited from the fall of the favourite Ptit Zig to stride three and a quarter lengths clear of Ma Filleule. He had been considered more likely to go for the two-mile Champion Chase at the start of the season but King now believes that two and a half miles is his best trip. The one major concern for his supporters is his failure to complete the course on all three previous visits to Cheltenham.
He fell in the Triumph Hurdle in 2012 before unseating his rider in the Champion Hurdle the following season. His luck looked set to change when going well two out in a novice chase in October 2013 only for him to take a crashing fall, connections blaming the low sunlight for obscuring his view of the obstacle. He has been a model of consistency since and has been cut to 7-1 for the Ryanair Chase.
Ascot runner-up Ma Filleule could also be heading for the same race after staying on well in second place. The grey mare finished second to Holywell at the festival meeting last year before winning the Topham Chase at Aintree. Trainer Nicky Henderson had entered her for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but believes that her jumping is better suited by the faster pace at two and a half miles.
Paul Nicholls was not too concerned by the ninth fence fall of Ptit Zig who was still in contention at the time. He is still on course for the JLP Novices’ Chase where he remains 4-1 second favourite behind Vautour.
With last year’s winner Dynaste having been ruled out through injury, Don Cossack now heads the market for the Ryanair at 4-1. Gordon Elliott’s gelding has won all four starts this season including the Grade 1 Punchestown Chase in December. He looked to have taken the measure of Champagne Fever when that horse fell at the last at Thurles last time out.
Willie Mullins has yet to decide whether Champagne Fever will line up in the Ryanair or the Champion Chase after a comfortable win in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on Saturday. He has already won twice at previous festival meetings, taking the Champion Bumper in 2012 and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle the following year. He was just denied a hat-trick when beaten a head by 33-1 shot Western Warhorse in last season’s Arkle Challenge Trophy.