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12.40 Cheltenham JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2)
Twelve months ago my preview got us off to winning start courtesy of Defi Du Seuil landoing this contest on his way to Festival glory in March, and many people will be banking on Philip Hobbs following suit with Gumball. Carrying the famous Terry Warner silks, famously associated with Rooster Booster and Detroit City, he has won both completed starts since moving from France and currently heads the Triumph Hurdle betting at 12/1. He clearly has a huge engine, shown by how he tanked through the race at Chepstow, a race in which he beat two subsequent winners. However, his hurdling technique was far from the finished article and he was very chancy at a number of flights. He was also pretty keen and really attacked his obstacles, which could ultimately be his undoing. This is by far his toughest assignment to date and he might not get away with these mistakes here, and given he is likely to be a warm favourite, Im going to oppose him here.
Speedo Boy finished 3rd behind Gumball at Chepstow, before scoring at Huntingdon, and given his he was rated 100 on the Flat, is going to make his presence felt in the juvenile division. But he was easily beaten by Gumball, whom he meets on 7lbs worse terms here, and I cant see how he will reverse that form.
I think the rest of the field are fighting out for the minor money too. French raider Eh George cannot be dismissed too lightly but the runner-up behind him last time has twice been beaten, which questions that form, making it difficult to see him beating a few of these.
This leads me to the only horse in the field that I think is capable of beating Gumball, and that is Nicky Hendersons APPLES SHAKIRA. In my opinion the Seven Barrows handler is the go-to man in the juvenile division and he looks to have a potential star on his hands here. Being a full-sister to Apples Jade there is going to be plenty of hype around this horse, but rightly so given how impressive she was at Vichy back in May. You can see for yourself by watching her in action:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cj8boomf4Jk. She travelled like a high-class horse, and what impressed me was how relaxed she was. Like many French recruits she will have been well-schooled, and this was evident by her smooth jumping technique. Around Cheltenham its always a great asset to relax and jump well, which for me, gives her a huge advantage over Gumball. The main concern would be race fitness as Gumball will have no issues on that front. Henderson has had some winners, but a number of his have looked in need of the run. Unfortunately, we dont have the benefit of monitoring the early market activity, and I would advise you monitor it closely to look for clues on what is expected, but either way Im willing to take a chance on a potentially very special mare.
APPLES SHAKIRA 1pt win @ 13/8 (Ladbrokes)
1.50 Cheltenham BetVictor.com Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
Favourite for the race Three Faces West for the trainer and jockey combination of Philip Hobbs and champion jockey Richard Johnson. The nine-year-old is lightly-raced for his age having been off the track since December of last year. However, when last seen he was in fine form as he won back-to-back races to end 2016. He won both of the class 2 events in good style, with the winning distance an impressive thirteen lengths in each of the contests at Haydock and then Newbury. These victories took his chase record to three wins from six runs and there looks to be more progress to come. However, he may find it difficult to defy a long absence in this competitive contest on his return.
Top weight in the race is Minella Rocco who brings high-class form to the line-up for Jonjo ONeill. He has always been a strong stayer, as shown when he landed the four mile National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 2016. He has progressed since then to finish an excellent second in this years Gold Cup, where he finished strongly for the runner-up spot behind Sizing John. The seven-year-old may have needed his reappearance run when fourth in a Grade 3 at Punchestown last month so he should be able to build on that on Saturday. He faces a tough task to defy top weight in this race though.
PREMIER BOND brings potential to the race as stayer for Nicky Henderson having finished third in the three miles and two furlongs Kim Muir at the Festival in March. He was staying on well on that finish after being hampered early-on, suggesting that the step up in trip will suit. Prior to that he won back-to-back races and had also finished a creditable runner-up to stablemate Might Bite. However, when last seen the seven-year-old ran below-par when pulled up in the Scottish Grand National in April. Having had a break since then, PREMIER BOND can return to form and continue his progress in this Grade 3 contest off bottom-weight.
Others to note include the Neil Mulholland-trained Doing Fine and Paul Nicholls Vicente. The former has shown good form at Cheltenham over the staying distances, winning a three miles and four furlongs class 3 handicap in April. The nine-year-old then made a promising reappearance when third last month in a class 2 won by Nigel Twiston-Davies Cogry. He needs to find further improvement again though to get involved on Saturday from 3lb out of the handicap. Vincente has confirmed himself as a strong stayer by landing the Scottish Grand National in successive years. He has not been seen since his victory at Ayr in April and may need this first run back to set him up for the season.
PREMIER BOND 1pt win 6/1 (Boylesports)
2.25 Cheltenham BetVictor Gold Cup Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
One of the strongest trends associated with this race is the one related to official ratings and the desired bracket is between 136 and 150. This accounts for all but two of the last ten winners, with Al Ferof and last years winner Taquin Du Seuil having won off a mark of 159 and 156 respectively. In terms of this years field it eliminates the top horse Kylemore Lough as well as the bottom four (from Guitar Pete down to Lake Takapuna).
When we consider the age of recent winners it is clear that seven-year-olds come out on top, having been successful in six of the last ten renewals. There are five such representatives this time around, namely Days Of Heaven, Tully East, Theinval, Aqua Dude and Guitar Pete.
Weight can often play a big part in the outcome of competitive races such as this and the BetVictor Gold Cup is no exception. Of the last ten renewals only Al Ferof and Taquin Du Seuil have carried more than 11st 5lb to victory which suggests that Kylemore Lough down to Tully East are up against it.
Strong form on their most recent start is something that has served horses well in this race in the past. Six of the last ten winners had finished no worse than fourth on their last start, something that all but five of this years field have in common. However, this stat has to be taken with a pinch of salt as many of these horses will be making their seasonal debuts on Saturday so recent form may be as far back as March or April.
In terms of trainers, there are three yards which have tasted success more than once in the last decade, they are Jonjo ONeill (2013 & 2016), Nigel Twiston-Davies (2008 & 2010) and the Paul Nicholls yard (2012 & 2014). The first named is without a runner this year but it is worth taking a second look at runners from the other
The final factor worthy of mention is the betting and historically this is not a race in which it is worth taking a punt on one at a big price. In fact, seven of the last ten winners were sent off at single figure SPs with Little Josh (20/1) the biggest priced winner in the last decade. Kylemore Lough currently leads the market at around 5/1 with the likes of Tully East, Foxtail Hill, Le Prezien, Romain De Senam and Starchitect also available at single-figure odds.
ROMAIN DE SENAM 5/6
Foxtail Hill 5/6
Taking all things into account, all of our contenders miss at least one of the trends but the one who appeals most is ROMAIN DE SENAM. Paul Nicholls five-year-old was one of the leading fancies for the Novices Handicap Chase on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival last season but missed the cut. He ran well in competitive 2m chases in the Spring but seems to have turned a corner since his return, winning at Chepstow in October before following up at Stratford a week later. Only one five-year-old has won this prize in recent years but it is worth noting that he was also trained by Paul Nicholls and with the possibility of further improvement to come from this gelding, he looks to have a leading chance.
Just missing out on the top spot is Foxtail Hill who showed a fine attitude to hold off the challenge of Le Prezien over 2m here in October. The eight-year-old jumped boldly out in front and having looked as though he would be overtaken jumping the last, he rallied gamely to maintain his advantage. He has gone up 7lb for that effort but the 3lb claim of Jamie Bargary will offset that to a degree. The step back up in trip shouldnt hold any fears for him and he could take some pegging back if allowed his own way out in front.
Of the remainder, one who looks primed for a big run is Starchitect who was raised just 4lb for winning at Stratford on his seasonal reappearance. David Pipes six-year-old probably found 3m stretching his stamina last Spring and I think a strongly run race over 2m4f should suit him well. He is still 6lb lower than his hurdles mark over fences and with a run under his belt, he looks to have plenty going in his favour.
ROMAIN DE SENAM 0.5pt e/w @ 11/1 (Paddy Power) (5 places)
3.00 Cheltenham Regulatory Finance Solutions Handicap Hurdle (Listed Race)
Last years winner Anteros bids to win this race for the second time and comes here having fallen here last month. He was staying on at the line but his overall form suggests he is likely to find life difficult here, especially as he is 3lb higher than he was twelve months ago.
One in better form looks to be KK Lexion who shaped with plenty of encouragement when third behind Master Dancer here in October. He might just have needed the run that day as he blew up after the last but he has stamina to prove at this trip. He is also effectively 7lb higher for this assignment as Adrian Heskin takes over from Mr N George so there may be better options in the race.
Rockys Treasure returns to action with the Kim Bailey team in good form and he looks an interesting contender having shown constant improvement throughout last season. He really seemed to improve when stepped up to 3m in February, winning both subsequent starts and there should still be more improvement to come on just his fifth start. Stamina shouldnt be an issue and if he can defy a 9lb rise in the weights, he shouldnt be too far away.
Another with a rise to overcome is Dell Arca who turned in a fine effort to win at Newbury last week. He had run well behind Thomas Campbell here in October but the handicapper has showed little mercy, putting David Pipes ten-year-old up 10lb for his latest win. He is clearly in fine form at present but it would be a surprise were he able to defy a career high mark at this stage of his career.
With that in mind, I find it hard to get away from THOMAS CAMPBELL who relished the step up to 3m when winning here last month. Nicky Hendersons five-year-old travelled smoothly through the race and gave the impression that there was more to come in the closing stages. Like his rival Dell Arca, he was raised 10lb for that effort but Nicky Henderson is using the services of promising 7lb conditional James Bowen to offset most of the rise. He has to prove that he can see out the extra one and a half furlongs here but he showed no signs of stopping last time and I think he is the one they all have to beat.
THOMAS CAMPBELL 2pts win @ 7/4 (bet365)
3.30 Cheltenham Martin & Co Jewellers Intermediate Handicap Hurdle.
A typically competitive Cheltenham handicap hurdle, but not one which historically throws up a huge surprise. Five of the last 10 winners returned single-figure prices, whilst 16/1 (twice) has been the biggest priced winner. Another thing to consider from recent results is that four of the last five winners had run during the current campaign. This helps narrow the field down a little, and what is pleasing is that before looking at some of the trends, my fancy DIABLE DE SIVOLA fits the bill. A fast-finishing 5th in the Fred Winter at the Festival it was evident that a stiffer test was required. This was again shown when finishing strongly over 2m3f at Fontwell. He was alarmingly weak in the market that day, so clearly connections expected him to benefit from that run and whilst 3m may bring out the best in this horse, 2m5f around Cheltenham looks the right trip at this moment in time. Stablemate Flying Tiger got the better of the selection in the aforementioned Fred Winter, and he ran with great credit in the Elite Hurdle last weekend, which coupled with an eye-catching reappearance, it gives me every reason to believe DIABLE DE SIVOLA is ahead of his mark. A big-field clearly isnt a problem either, which is always a bonus in these events, and Nick Williams runner should be supported each-way at 13/2.
One without any experience of the hustle and bustle of a competitive handicap is the Paul Nicholls-trained Coup De Pinceau. He chased home Kim Baileys exciting novice Red River, but I have my reservations as to whether hes ready for such a competitive race on just his third start over hurdles.
The Mighty Don was sent off co-favourite for a course and distance event last month so isnt one to give up on yet, especially with the champion jockey Richard Johnson taking over in the saddle. However, he has to prove whether he can be competitive off this mark, and Im willing to oppose until I see a better showing. One who has proven to be competitive off his current mark is Vivas, who finished ahead of the The Mighty Don, when finding only Master Dancer too good last time. Up just 1lbs hes sure to be thereabouts again, but I suspect he might find one or two too good on the day.
Poker Play, second behind Charli Parcs on his debut, finished down the field in the Fred Winter when last seen. Whilst the long lay-off isnt usually a concern for horses from the David Pipe stable, Im willing to oppose with his trainer suggesting soft ground is preferred.
Of the others Red Indian, Stamp Your Feet and Follow The Bear are three others who could be involved. Of the trio, the latter of the two make the most appeal. Having won over 3m Follow The Bear will appreciate a stiffer test and has the potential to play a part in the finish. As does Stamp Your Feet, whos form took a timely boost in midweek when Bags Groove followed-up in a decent event at Kempton. The handicapper has upped Tom Georges gelding 5lbs on the back of his most recent effort though, so more is required, but such improvement isnt out of the question.
DIABLE DE SIVOLA 2pts e/w @ 6/1 (William Hill) (4 places 1/4 odds)