Steve Hughes previews the action on Wednesday at the Cheltenham Festival
The Champion Chase is the traditional highlight on day two of the Festival, but in the absence of Sprinter Sacre, it is difficult to get overly enthused about a sub-standard renewal. Therefore it is an ageing outsider that is put forward as a suggestion. Fortunately the remainder of the card has plenty going for it, so let’s hope for some better luck today with AP McCoy amongst those worth following. A couple of opportunities got away from us on an action-packed day one and we had to be content with Quevega’s 5/6 (advised) win plus Vaniteux’s place for the advised each-way bet at 12/1.
1.30: Red Sherlock and Ballyalton
After an unexpectedly successful day one, David Pipe brings the first of his big guns into play for the opening contest and Red Sherlock will take all the beating here. Still unbeaten in six starts under rules, including twice here at this track, he looks to possess all the right attributes required for a race of this type.
He has won on all types of ground – it was top of the ground when he won the listed bumper at the Open meeting in November and then when landing a bloodless win in a weak Southwell maiden on hurdling debut the following month. However after landing short odds at Wetherby next time, he ploughed through the bottomless conditions to see off the persistent challenge of Rathvinden here last time. He always looked to have a little more in the locker when pressed and he might need to display those battling qualities once more today.
With the ground continuing to dry out, I can’t let Ballyalton go unbacked after his fine pre-Christmas exploits on decent going. A wide margin winner for today’s pilot Will Kennedy at Uttoxeter, he stepped up markedly on that when defeating the highly touted Oscar Rock hands down at Newcastle (2m6f). He proved his adaptability when scoring over 2m1f here in December and he is only a double figured price today because he floundered in the heavy going here on New Years Day when fourth to Aubusson. A keen sort who travels well he will enjoy the quicker ground and faster pace that looks assured.
2.05: Carlingford Lough
This looks a cracking renewal of the RSA Chase with plenty of strength in depth despite the alternative attraction of the 2m4f novice chase these days. The horse with by far the most chasing experience in this is Carlingford Lough and the fact he is so battle hardened can be put to good use here.
A promising hurdler who won four of his six runs over the smaller obstacles, including in consecutive seasons at the Galway Festival, he was not a natural to fencing and took nine attempts to get off the mark before breaking his duck in spectacular style in the Galway Plate last summer, making it three from three at that fixture.
He looks the ideal type for the big occasion therefore, but this winter has proved he is more than just a useful handicapper. Having run on strongly over 3m to place second in the Kerry National, he has raced exclusively in Grade 1 novice contests since. He will find the drying ground no problem as he gave Don Cossack a real good race over 2m4f at Fairyhouse in December on good-to-soft and had previously won twice on good over hurdles. He stepped up on those efforts when wearing down Morning Assembly at Leopardstown and was just laying down a strong challenge to Ballycasey when AP McCoy was knocked out of the saddle last time out. He will be picking up the pieces when others are crying enough late on.
2.40: Get Me Out Of Here & Indevan
Two horses from opposite ends of the age and experience spectrum are taken against the field for the Coral Cup.
Get Me Out of Here can end his Festival hoodoo which has included a head defeat in the Supreme, nose defeat in the County and second in this two years ago from a 7lb higher mark. Quick enough to win over 2m around Kempton on quick ground last season, a spiralling handicap mark forced trainer Jonjo O’Neill to aim for the World Hurdle at the big meeting last year, but he failed to stay.
A horse with breathing problems, the ground has come right for him today and the handicapper has relented by finally dropping him to his lowest mark since winning the totesport Trophy at Newbury in 2010. A fair eighth in the Racing Post Hurdle at the open meeting here, 2m5f is more his trip these days and it will be interesting if he can join the band of first time headgear winners at this meeting with cheekpieces sported for the first time.
Indevan also looks worth a punt as he looks to have been let in reasonably lightly based on his autumn form. A horse for whom the ground cannot be quick enough, he ran up four wins during the middle part of 2013 and was perhaps feeling the effects of some hard races when tiring up the hill here in November having travelled well for the most part of the race. Refreshed from a winter break, Ruby Walsh is getting down to one of his lighter weights to take the mount on him today.
3.20: Wishfull Thinking
In the absence of any real contender catching my fancy, I am going to stick with my hunch that the 11yo Wishfull Thinking can at least repeat the feat of his third place in this race last year. That is not perhaps too fanciful when you think that there is no Sprinter Sacre to dominate this year, Sizing Europe is even older than the selection and Philip Hobbs charge is probably in better form now that he has been for some time.
A fair third to Sire de Grugy at Sandown last spring, Cheltenham is more Wishfull Thinking’s sort of track, whilst Sire de Grugy has been beaten on both visits here. A fair sixth under a big weight in the Paddy Power in November, he looked set to win a listed contest at Aintree in December only for his stamina to run out over 3m1f.
He was forced back into handicaps for his last run but produced a performance of real merit to prevent Double Ross landing a back-to-back hat-trick of big handicap wins on the New Course here at the last meeting (2m5f). Two miles is probably a bit sharp for him these days, but he is in peak form and in a weak year, there is room for a surprise.
4.00: Balthazar King
Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson could be in for a good day with Cheltenham specialist Balthazar King returning to try and win back the Festival Cross Country crown he won in 2012.
He won the conditions race over these fences in November, despite a hideous early mistake and taken his record over fences here to 142511PR11211. He seems to be getting better with age and had already won over conventional fences at the October meeting in his customary front-running style.
There don’t look to be too many challengers likely to hustle him early on which will allow Johnson to dictate his own pace and hopefully save something given the welter burden of 11-12. However the drying ground will be in his favour and Hobbs has kept him fresh for this and avoided the worst of the winter going that he would have hated.
4.40: Noble Inn
Despite being saddled with top weight, Noble Inn has strong claims as I think there is more to come from Willie Mullins charge on the evidence of his form to date, which indicates a preference for the prevailing good ground..
Bought by the Mullins team after a fair second on Chantilly’s All Weather track, connections wasted little time in getting him on course by winning an early season juvenile event at Ballinrobe in September, beating the useful Clarcam.
Although he has finished runner up on his three subsequent runs, the first two came against the now injured Analifet, who would surely have been favourite for the Triumph Hurdle otherwise. He ran a funny race at Fairyhouse on the second occasion, being dropped right out before flying through for second place. He was a fair second to Abbysial at Gowran last time and has been kept fresh over the six weeks since for Cheltenham, avoiding the worst of the winter ground. He is sure to be suited by the drying ground, stays well and should be suited by a strong pace that is likely here.
The Willie Mullins bandwagon rolls on with three serious chances in the bumper and he goes into the race with the two market leaders at this stage in Black Hercules and Shaneshill, both of whom run in the colours of Graham Wylie.
However the good ground will be more in the favour of Shaneshill, a horse that showed a real turn of speed in his two bumper wins gained prior to Christmas at Naas and Fairyhouse, at a time when the ground was still pretty quick. Connections clearly decided to put him away for Cheltenham after that and he is going to be much better for having avoided having a hard race on heavy going in the weeks leading up to the Festival.
I think it was significant that Patrick Mullins rode him out to the finish on both occasions, despite winning easily last time as if to teach the horse about racing in readiness for the Festival and get him battle hardened. Mullins did a similar thing with Champagne Fever before the 2012 Festival and with conditions likely to be in his favour he could take some beating, especially as Ruby Walsh comes in for the ride.
1.30 – 1pt win – Red Sherlock (9/2 general)
1.30 – 1pt each-way – Ballyalton (14/1 general)
2.05 – 1pt win – Carlingford Lough (8/1 general)
2.40 – 0.5 pts each-way – Get Me Out Of Here (18/1 Paddy Power, Stan James)
2.40 – 0.5 pts each-way – Indevan (22/1 BetVictor)
3.20 – 0.5 pts each-way – Wishfull Thinking (25/1 general)
4.00 – 1pt win – Balthazar King (6/1 general)
4.40 – 0.5 pts each-way – Noble Inn (20/1 general)
5.15 – 1pt win – Shaneshill (7/1 general)