Steve Hughes has a look at the Thursday action from the Cheltenham Festival with a race-by-race preview.
We are into the second half of the Festival already and we move onto the New Course where stamina will be an even more important attribute on this stiffer track. A fascinating World Hurdle is the centrepiece today, but my bet of the week kicks off proceedings over fences. A few more near misses on Wednesday, but it was a reasonable day with Balthazar King (advised 6/1) winning and each-way seconds for Get Me Out of Here (18/1) and Ballyalton (14/1).
1.30: Felix Yonger
With the ground confirmed this week as almost good (despite watering overnight on the New Course), the chances of Felix Yonger have been greatly increased as this fine chaser is very ground dependent. Therefore we should see a return to the form that saw him beat a host of fine horses before Christmas.
He had already shown fine form over hurdles, culminating in a fine second to Simonsig in the Neptune in 2012 on good ground. He has returned from a year off through injury as good as new and trainer Willie Mullins managed to find him a beginners chase at Punchestown to start him off before the summer, where he defeated subsequent Kerry national winner White Star Line over 2m4f.
Victories on good-to-soft going over subsequent Grade 1 winning chasers Defy Logic and Trifolium (by an impressive 15l) marked him down as a top notch chaser. Confidence in him has not been knocked by defeats at Limerick (where he was given plenty to do) and Leopardstown (where the heavy going was all against him). Now the ground is in his favour he can show his true potential.
2.05: Crowning Jewel
A typically trappy Pertemps Final, and although no doubt many of this field have been plotted up for this race all season, Crowning Jewel certainly fits into that category.
Trainer Keith Reveley has taken a softly, softly approach until recently with the 8yo, but now we get to find whether he can really cut it in the big time. Although he seems to handle most ground, he does seem happiest on a sound surface and even won on good-to-firm at Newcastle a couple of years ago. He started this term with a brave victory at Aintree over 2m4f, again on good ground, so he will handle conditions without any difficulty.
He has shown enough on his last two starts over 3m to suggest he gets this trip too. Sixth in the fixed brush final at Haydock, he qualified for this race with a third place in a Musselburgh heat behind Wyse Hill Teabags. With previous wins at Newcastle and Carlisle amongst others, he has form on an undulating track so his first visit to Cheltenham need not be a wasted one.
2.40: Benefficient and Rajdhani Express
We have had a couple of vintage renewals of the Ryanair Chase in recent seasons – but this does not look to be one of them. Winner of the novice event on this card twelve months ago, the stage is set for Benefficient to graduate into top senior company with a follow up win today.
Having enjoyed the decent ground that day, trainer Tony Martin has had to tread carefully with him to avoid the worst of the winter ground. After a pipeopener on the flat, a second attempt to try 3m with him ended again in failure at Wetherby and he does seem best suited to this intermediate trip. However it was over 2m1f that he tasted Grade 1 success at Leopardstown last time over Christmas, beating today’s rival Hidden Cyclone. The drier ground today means the 2m5f trip will be more suitable.
At such big odds Rajdhani Express is worth a saver each-way bet. Yet again the presence of Sam Waley-Cohen in the saddle has surely impacted on this horse being overpriced. Very progressive on decent ground, he landed a wide margin win at Kempton last season before tasting Festival glory in the novice handicap on last year’s card. He has only raced once this term with the ground so bad recently. That effort was a highly creditable fifth from a big weight in the Paddy Power here in November. Still only seven, there is room for further improvement in the locker just yet, especially on this good ground.
3.20: At Fishers Cross & Salubrious
I am keen to take on the big two in the market here with Annie Power’s stamina unproven over a stiff 3m and Big Bucks potentially not the force of old at eleven.
If he can recapture the form that saw him far and away the best of the 3m novices last year, then At Fishers Cross must be in the shake up. His jumping has been his big problem, especially this season, but even when the stable was woefully out of form he was in the process of running fine races at Newbury and Ascot before mistakes took their toll. Some chiropractic work and intense schooling clearly worked as he was much more professional at Cheltenham last time when finished second, ahead of Big Bucks. Probably his best performance of all last season was not his Albert Bartlett win here, but a wide margin success at Aintree, the one time he got to race on fastish going. Therefore conditions need not be a problem for him today.
At longer odds Salubrious looks worth chancing as this youngster is still on the upgrade (the only improver among Paul Nicholls’ quartet.) Another to win at the 2013 Festival (in the conditional jockeys event over 2m5f), he has not hit the bullseye quite yet this term with three second placings. However all have been good runs – just touched off under a huge weight here in November over 3m1f, then second over too short a trip to More of that here and a highly meritorious second to Reve de Sivola at that rival’s favourite track of Ascot. Kept fresh since Christmas, he will enjoy the drying ground and is a proven stayer in what could be a strongly run contest.
4.00: Third Intention & Sew on Target
Colin Tizzard often manages to conjure up a Festival win from somewhere and this could be his race with two fancied contenders.
Third Intention is a second season novice with more experience over the bigger fences than some ageing handicappers. This is his first handicap however and an initial rating of 143 looks more than fair (finished eighth off 153 in the Coral Cup over hurdles once). He finished only 7l behind RSA winner O’Faolains Boy at Ascot last time and I think he will be better suited by the shorter 2m5f trip today. Not the easiest to win with, first time cheekpieces might have the desire effect of aiding his concentration.
I flagged up Sew on Target for a handicap previously and this is the one race he would have probably got into. He may not have won here before, but has been placed in the first four on all six previous runs at this track, including in some similar type handicaps. He is in-form coming off the back of a win at Sandown over 2m last time which ensures his presence in this field.
4.40: Indian Castle and Cause of Causes
These two novices stand out from this huge field and finding it impossible to split the pair, I will back both.
Indian Castle is a horse I have followed for a while, as he is a natural exuberant jumper and his heavy ground victory here at the last meeting over 2m5f marked him down as a real gutsy fellow too. He has only been saddled with a 5lb rise and top amateur Derek O’Connor gets the ride for a race which has been kind to trainer Donald McCain, including his first Festival winner with Cloudy Lane.
Cause of Causes has packed plenty into his short career. It was only 15 months ago he won the Ladbroke Hurdle over 2m at Ascot, proving his liking for big fields. However he has made a smooth transition to chasing, and failed by an agonisingly small margin to catch Rockyaboya and land the Paddy Power Chase at the Christmas meeting at Leopardstown. Gordon Elliott has kept him back for Cheltenham as he surely has one big race win in him of this type over fences.
1.30 – 2pts win – Felix Yonger (4/1 general)
2.05 – 1pt each-way – Crowning Jewel (25/1 William Hill)
2.40 – 1pt win – Benefficient (7/2 general)
2.40 – 1pt each-way – Rajdhani Express (25/1 Ladbrokes)
3.20 – 1pt win – At Fishers Cross (9/1 general)
3.20 – 0.5pts each-way – Salubrious (25/1 Boylesports, Paddy Power)
4.00 – 1pt each-way – Third Intention (14/1 general)
4.00 – 0.5 pts each-way – Sew on Target (25/1 general)
4.40 – 1pt win – Indian Castle (7/1 Boylesports)
4.40 – 1pt win – Cause of Causes (7/1 general)