Steve Hughes previews the opening day of the Cheltenham campaign on Friday.
Cheltenham’s opening day card can be divided into two halves. The handicaps on the card are a little below the normal standard, perhaps due to the prevailing fast ground, but on the other hand the four novice events all hold plenty of interest with several potentially high classes involved. I have selections from two chases where local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies holds strong chances.
Cheltenham 3.55: Ballykan
Ballykan has done everything right so far in two outings over fences and can put that recent experience to good use in the fascinating staying novice chase.
He was already proven stamina wise over hurdles last season, winning over 3m2f at Huntingdon, before following up at Wetherby in the spring. However it already looks like he is going to be a far better chaser than hurdler as not only as he stayed on strongly in winning two 3m chases, but his jumping has so far been exemplary.
He probably did not achieve much when winning on chasing debut at Uttoxeter, where his two closest market rivals fell by the wayside. However it was a competitive novice handicap at Chepstow last time where he defied top weight to see off the sustained challenge of Derrintogher Bliss with some slick fencing in the home straight. Kept entirely to good ground since starting out over obstacles the ground will be perfect for him today and he can put his professional outlook to good use over inexperienced if talented rivals.
Cheltenham 5.05: Five Star Wilsham
Despite some lofty ratings amongst his rivals, this staying chase for amateur jockeys does not look like it will take a huge amount of winning with plenty of out of form runners lining up. Whilst Five Star Wilsham has not been in tip top shape himself, he will probably find this greater test of stamina of use and he can call upon the services of one of Ireland’s up and coming pilots in JJ Slevin.
The 11yo finished second in a better renewal of this race in 2013, running on strongly at the finish and whilst his two wins since that day have come on heavy ground, I think that was more to do with bringing his stamina into play rather than a particular liking for slow conditions.
That last win was a 10l success at Wincanton in January, a race that probably ruined his handicap mark for a while. Upped 8lbs he has largely struggled since, save for a second place at Ludlow, but those races have largely been on sharp tracks and this stiff 3m is a better test for him as he gets older. He has now dropped to within 2lbs of that last mark and Slevin’s 7lb allowance is something that could be put to good use both in Britain and Ireland this winter.
1pt win – Ballykan – 3.55 Cheltenham – 3/1 general
1pt each-way – Five Star Wilsham – 5.05 Cheltenham – 12/1 general