Cheltenham. Cheltenham Cheltenham Cheltenham.
You open your racing papers at the moment and all you’ll read about is Cheltenham.
Who’s running in which race at Cheltenham, whose price is getting crunched for Cheltenham, how many pints of Guinness will get knocked back at Cheltenham (that’s more than 200,000 for those with an affection for the black stuff).
The buzz word of the moment though certainly is Cheltenham. How fitting it should be then that another bumper-packed weekend of top class racing action should come from where else but – you guessed it – Cheltenham.
It’s festival trials day in the Cotswolds on Saturday, a day that, in a pretty self-explanatory manner, sees many of those filled with festival optimism lay down their final marker before returning for the real deal in March. It’s a race day that by its very nature brings out the ‘A-listers’ of National Hunt racing, with no fewer than three winners at the festival proper treading this very path last year. Taking that into account, it is eyes peeled and ante-post books at the ready.
We’ll start with the first graded televised race of the weekend, the Argento Chase. There’s little doubt that, on paper at least, this could be considered one of the key Gold Cup trials, in theory at least it could answer potential course and/or stamina doubts. In reality, however, it is now and has been for many a year a grade 2 in name and in nature, rarely offering many clues about the blue riband event. But this year’s race is certainly ultra-competitive, with the first three home in Novembers Hennessy Gold Cup all standing firm amongst the declarations. Ding ding; round two.
Although initially considered by most to be a poor Hennessy, BHA head handicapper Phil Smith seemed to think it was a race worth following form-wise, not an idea that’s necessarily panned out thus far. Theatre Guide followed up his third at Newbury by failing to get past a dogged yet not overly well-treated Monbeg Dude at this course last month. Highland Lodge was pulled up when a hotly tipped favourite for the Welsh National, a disappointment after returning fourth at Newbury. Merry King was in behind him that day but has failed to get his nose in front when well respected on two starts since. The first two home in the Hennessy, Triolo D’Alene and Rocky Creek, may need to find more.
It’s past the newer, more unexposed faces I look for in this and I’m keen to examine a couple of those who have already been around the block, the first being Time For Rupert. The question worth asking is whether it’ll ever be ‘Rupert’s time’ again, having spent so long on the sidelines and having a career full of potential dashed. It seems like only yesterday he was being sent off favourite for the RSA, tipped by many as their banker of the meeting, only to burst a blood vessel in the race and we’ve never quite seen the same horse again. Sure there have been glimpses, such as in Synchronised’s Gold Cup in 2012 when he appeared to be floating down the hill before things fell apart going back up it. He went on to finish a respectable fifth in that but has only been seen twice since, most recently in the Long Walk Hurdle over Christmas after over a year off. The absence really showed that day and although he may be forgiven that, this’ll probably be too much of an ask.
Going back briefly to that 2012 Gold Cup, one horse who momentarily had bookmakers jumping for joy when appearing the likeliest winner was outsider The Giant Bolster. His form has dipped dramatically this season and has led to many questioning whether he still retains the ability of old. While I think it’s a fair question, whenever he’s returned to Cheltenham in the past he’s always answered that with a resounding “Yes!” His second in that Gold Cup was followed up with a fourth last year in what was a much stronger looking renewal. He also has two victories at this meeting to go with that, so the fact that he’s so low down in the betting (freely available at 10/1) would make you think that some people obviously have very short memories in this business. If that’s not enough he also receives 5lbs from Rocky Creek, 6lbs from Triolo D’Alene and 10lb off Harry Topper – not bad considering he’s only 2lbs shy of the top ranked Houblon Des Obeaux. For me he looks overpriced and is the one to take on the Hennessy form with.
From Cheltenham to Doncaster in one fell swoop now, as we head up north for one of my favourites, The Great Yorkshire Chase, or as it’s now known, the Sky Bet Chase. Always competitive, this is usually dominated by younger, improving horses plying their way in the trade, on their way to joining the handicap chase elite. Calgary Bay was an exception to this rule in the last running of the race, another exception being the large weight he carried that day. Ordinarily it pays to follow those carrying a lower weight in this, with seven of the last eight winners carrying 11st 2lbs or less. I’m always one to buck a trend however and, being a fan of top weight Unioniste, consider this one bucked.
It’s clear for all to see that Paul Nicholls thinks a great deal of this son of Dom Alco. He’s been pitched in at the deep end on more than one occasion in his short career and he’s only just turned six. In his eight starts since crossing the waters from France you could argue he’s encountered top class opposition on seven of those, only really failing to fire last time out in the Lexus where he didn’t seem to be going at any point. He’s running off 153 in this, a mark I fully expect him to improve upon in time. As a bonus for backers he’s reunited with Harry Derham who takes off a handy 5lbs, another string to the bow of a young lad who won the December Gold Cup aboard the horse in 2012. For me it looks a match made in Heaven once again and although favourite in a very competitive field, I find it very hard to oppose him.
One at twice the price and nearly twice the age of the Nicholls horse that could get involved at tastier odds is Gary Moore’s Fruity O’Rooney. Presumably still riding the crest of a wave after Sire De Grugy’s exploits last weekend, the Moore team will be hopeful of a big run from one of their old guard this time round. The old timer’s been off since the end of October which clearly isn’t an ideal prep, but is back down to a winning mark of 137. That win came in April, so we’re not talking decades ago.
More interestingly, Fruity O’Rooney’s last visit to Town Moor saw him finish third behind Calgary Bay in the aforementioned 2012 running of the race. That was off a 3lbs higher mark, so although off the track for a while, you’d hope that the in-form Moore team have him bucking and squealing at home ready for this one. Being as large as 25/1 in some quarters, he certainly makes each-way appeal.
I couldn’t finish this week without giving a quick mention to one of the games’ all-time greats Big Buck’s, who returns this Saturday in the Cleeve Hurdle. Should all go to plan there it’ll be full speed ahead Cheltenham once again in his bid to win a remarkable fifth World Hurdle crown. From a betting perspective it looks very trappy and short of value, so instead I’ll just get my sporting head on and say all the best to one of the greatest hurdlers we’ve ever seen on his road to recovery. Come back safe and well old boy!
2.25 (Cheltenham) The Giant Bolster
3.15 (Doncaster) Unioniste, Fruity O’Rooney (each-way)