This is the very best time of the year for National Hunt enthusiasts. We haven’t seen enough (or many) of the Festival candidates, and by that I mean Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown and, arguably, Dublin on 6 and 7 February 2021.

We lost racing in the early part of the pandemic but, with or without crowds, it’s been an enormous boost to be able to watch some of our greatest equine athletes, quite often at a betting price to attract.

Over the Christmas break, we will find that the racing channels will fill the gaps with what are called “half time reports” but what are, in reality, Cheltenham Festival guesses. Well, I’m happy to sign in to that so, as matters stand, here are my views for the big races:

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle: Ballyadam (8/1) (Ferny Hollow is rumoured to be injured – broken pelvis – but yet to be confirmed).

Arkle: Shishkin (6/4) (the next Sprinter Sacre and therefore comes with the plus and minus baggage). Allmankind (10/1) might turn out to be good value.

Champion Hurdle: Take Epatante now because the 7/4 will turn into heavy odds on after the Christmas Hurdle and there are no serious opponents.

RSA Chase: Monkfish (100/30) is a monster horse (in all senses) and is, so far, the outstanding candidate.

Champion Chase: Chacun Pour Soi (7/2) will blow away the field. The others have too many problems or, against him, not enough class.

Cross Country: Easysland (9/4) – it’s a shame that he’s a no show this Friday but he’s a shoe-in for this. Definitely not Tiger Roll who, for those of us who watch lots of races, has lost his enthusiasm for the game.,

Marsh Novices Chase: Envoi Allen (13/10) – bet of the meeting. I can’t believe that this horse (the best in training) isn’t heavily odds on. The only reason can be that he might be in the RSA. Take the odds NOW!

Ryanair Chase: We couldn’t see it in the fog but apparently Min (15/2) made a very good return in the John Durkan, under Patrick Mullins, who was effusive. The main point here is that there is no obvious opposition.

Stayers’ Hurdle: I’m going with a longer odds option here with Dame De Compagnie (20/1). A hardy handicapper is just what’s needed here, in the absence of a star.

Triumph Hurdle: As matters stand this is between Zanahiyr (4/1) and Nassalam (14/1), both of whom could be superstars. No doubt others will emerge but, at the prices and based on their performances, I’m happy to back both of them.

Gold Cup: Assuming that he has a good prep, there’s no reason to assume that Al Boum Photo (6/1!!) shouldn’t repeat his victory in 2020. The biggest threat, as matters stand, is Champ (12/1).

Foxhunters: OK, this is before the season and random but… Billaway is a perfectly acceptable 7/1.

Friday 11 December – Cheltenham

Going report: good to soft

So, on to more immediate fare on Friday.

11:30 Novices’ Hurdle (Class 3) 2m 1/2f

Any News (15/8) is perfectly entitled to win this after his easy Bangor win in an auction maiden hurdle at Bangor on 11 November. However, he beat a Venetia Williams novicey jumper in a time that was over 30 seconds slower than standard on soft ground in a four runner race. Although I love Bangor, this Class 4 win wasn’t anything special and this is much tougher.

I’m therefore with the current favourite Lucky One (13/8) for the one with the big connections (Nicholls/Cobden/Sullivan) and I think that the odds may have significantly contracted by race time. This one was a commanding winner last time out in a more challenging 13 runner Class 4 maiden hurdle at Southwell (for those who ask “Suthell” not “Sowthwell”) on 1 December (slow by 12 seconds on good to soft) after pulling hard when second at Uttoxeter in a Class 4 maiden hurdle on 14 November. There is clear scope for improvement.

12:05 Novices’ Chase (Class 2) 3m 1f

This is a great race with all runners within an official rating bracket of 137 to 143. The current favourite is Hold The Note at 9/4. A well bred horse (Jeremy) he was 4th of 5 last time out in the Grade 2 John Francome Novices Chase at Newbury on 28 November and, before that, 4th of 4 in a Class 4 Novices’ Chase at Wetherby on 30 October when he blundered 2 out. Mick Channon has a record of 1 from 7 in the last 14 days and I can’t have this one.

Second favourite is Fabulous Saga, with the same connections as Lucky One in the previous race. This one was last out in the Albert Bartlett in 2018 when with W P Mullins and was seventh when he faded badly from 2nd in the run in. Before that he was 7th and last in the 2m 6f Novices’ Hurdle at the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, again fading badly in the run in. Clearly highly thought of but surely one to watch, based on his form to date.

The Mighty Don (7/2) was beaten into 3rd place behind L’Air Du Vent in a Class 3 novices’ chase at Exeter on 22 November and I see no reason why the form should be reversed. I think that the support comes from his prior defeat of a Paul Nicholls “good thing” (Enrilo 10/11f) in a Class 3 at Chepstow on 9 October, but that was, in my view, an unreliable four runner race.

So, as you’ve no doubt gathered by now, my selection is L’Air Du Vent at an appealing 6/1. In the Brocade colours (Tizzard/Power) the previously mentioned win at Exeter (which I’ve just watched again) suggested that he stays at least 3 miles and that should have set him up nicely. It’s also worth noting that he ran well enough when beaten (5th) by Henderson star Chantry House in a novices’ hurdle last February. The signs are that he is a much better chaser.

12:40 Handicap Hurdle (Class 3) 2m 1/2f

I have no interest in this race. I will merely observe that Tegerek (5/1) is the forecast favourite.

13:15 Mares’ Handicap Chase (Class 3) 2m 4 1/2f

Now this is a much better proposition. Arian (Hobbs/Johnson) is 5lbs clear and an obvious candidate (currently 5/1). She won a Class 4 at Warwick on 18 November but didn’t beat very much and this followed up a weak Class 3 at Newton Abbot on heavy ground on 29 October.

The current favourite is Agent Valdez (4/1) for Fergal O’Brien who has a 22% strike rate in the last 14 days. She was a comfortable winner of a Class 5 at Leicester on 3 December but there were only two finishers (1 fell, 9 PU, 1 UR) so make of that what you will. The race was over 34 seconds slower than standard on good to soft.

So, again, we need to look further down the field. I really like Jubilympics (by Kapgarde) (9/1) for Emma Lavelle. She has a strong “back catalogue” and although no match for the winner when last out at Kempton on 9 November ran on really well to take second when the commentator described her as a distant third (another replay that I’ve watched). When last out at Cheltenham (April 2018) she was a very creditable 4th in a Class 1 and I think that the course will suit her well.

13:50 The Peterborough Chase (Grade 2) 2m 3 1/2f

All credit to those who have enabled this race to be relocated from last Sunday at waterlogged Huntingdon. There was a suggestion that Altior might have been rerouted here but we will have to wait for the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on 27 December for that.

It’s still a great renewal and an opportunity for a bit of value (hopefully!). The forecast has Top Notch and Mister Fisher as joint favourites (4/1). I dislike both of them. Top Notch weakened when last out in the Silviniaco Conti (what a favourite) Chase at Kempton last January (won by Frodon) and has form for that when push comes to shove. Mister Fisher was pulled up last time when 3 out in the Paddy Power Gold Cup on 14 November. The trainer (Henderson) said that he was not suited by the ground (soft, but only just!) although, to be fair, the horse was reported to have lost his left fore shoe. Having said that, he was 4th in the Marsh at the Festival last March (behind Samcro, Melon and Faugheen) so credit where due.

Fanion D’Estruval for Venetia is next in the market at 9/2. This is a decent horse and ran very well when second to Magic Saint in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase (Class 2) here on 13 November. I’ve watched that replay and he nodded at the last although I don’t think that this was enough to alter the outcome. The ground was good to soft, good in places so no problem in that regard. He previously beat highly regarded Sully D’Oc in the Class 3 Ladbrokes Chase at Newbury in November 19 and is my idea of the winner.

Unibet Handicap Chase (Grade 3) 3m 2f

For me, this is between Black Corton (the wonder horse) and Court Maid (so consistent).

So, why is Black Corton the wonder horse? It’s a good question because he was regarded as a “summer jumper” (i.e. in lower company) who “made good”. So, let’s take a look at the record. He’s been with Paul Nicholls since being bought from France and has career earnings of over £349,000. In September 2015 he was 2nd to French superstar Bipolaire in a hurdle race at Auteuil (“kept on well under pressure”). Having moved to Nicholls he won an Exeter maiden hurdle and followed that with a third to West Approach. In November 2016 he was beaten in a match with Altior and then had his amazing summer in 2017. He beat Sizing Tennessee and Frodon in an intermediate chase at Newton Abbot in October 2017 and beat Ballyoptic and West Approach at Cheltenham a month later. The Grade 1 was at Kempton on Boxing Day in the Kauto Star novices’ chase in December 2017.

In April 2019 he won the Grade 2 Oaksey Chase at Sandown. Although not having won subsequently, he’s been campaigned at the highest level and this race is ideal for him to resume his winning ways.

Court Maid is, with the best will in the world, not a “name horse” from Ireland and I can’t help but think that the purpose of this outing is to see how she goes (again) at Cheltenham. She was 12th of 22 in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival in March 2019, behind Eglantine Du Seuil, Concertista, Posh Trish, Epatante(9th!), Buildmeupbuttercup and others. Won a beginners’ chase at Galway in July, a minor novices’ chase at Fairyhouse and a substandard Porterstown Grade B Chase on 29 November (1F, 12PU).

Commodore emptied in the run in when last time out in the style of a horse that I would run a mile from at Cheltenham. Storm Control is here on the back of a win in the conditionals and amateurs’ race on 14 November. He won with a high head and unconvincing jumping and is up against much tougher opposition.

So, my nap of the day is Black Corton at a very appealing 7/2.

15:00 The Cross Country Chase 3m 6f

Well, none of the main protagonists are here so this is a side show. One of these might take to the course but, of those who have, the obvious choice is Kingswell Theatre (4/1). This is all over set up for a boil over so my advice is not to have a bet unless you need it for the placepot.

15:35 Handicap Hurdle (Class 2) 2m 3 1/2f

This is normally just a bit of padding but, this time, there are a few interesting candidates. I was really impressed by 12-y-o Unowhatimeanharrys’s win last time out just last week at Aintree. However, I have to be doubtful about whether sending a veteran out less than a week later is a good idea.

Lots of these are hardened campaigners but “nearly” horses so I’m going with what I believe to be the progressive one in the shape of Mohaayed (5/1) for Dan Skelton and Bridget Andrews. Beaten by Unowhatimeanharry at Aintree on 7 November, this is a former winner of the Grade 3 Betfair Hurdle and County Hurdle and is still only an 8-y-o. Without doubt the second highest quality horse in the field.

Good luck!!

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