Thursday turned out to be one of the great days of recent Cheltenhams with excitement and big stories throughout the afternoon. We got off to a good start with Defi Du Seuil (3/1) and followed up with Paisley Park (2/1) and (most pleasing) Siruh Du Lac (8/1 when initially advised). Ladies Day was delayed by 24 hours this year with Lizzie Kelly’s win on Siruh Du Lac and, most significantly, Bryony Frost’s thrilling win on Frodon in the Grade 1 Ryanair (the first woman to win a Grade 1 at the Festival).
So, on to Friday and another great card. The ground is holding up very well (Willie Mullins said that both Un De Sceaux and Footpad needed it softer) and it seems that the wind is drying the rainfall with no significant changes expected for tomorrow. The times have indicated genuine soft ground but more on the good than the heavy side. This militates against soft/heavy specialists but means that we can take most of the form at face value, as demonstrated by the spate of favourites winning, based on their performances this season.
I’ve been following French website Equidia (who provide live coverage of the Festival in France) throughout the week and it’s been notable how, time after time, they’ve been pointing out that the winners have been French bred. You will see that theme in what follows.
13:30 Triumph Hurdle
Sir Erec – 4/5fEmbed from Getty Images
This one was a very good flat horse for Coolmore, placed behind Stradivarius in the Group 2 Long Distance Cup at Ascot and exceptionally well bred (by Camelot out of a Galileo mare). He’s taken very well to jumping although it’s worth noting that his trainer Joseph O’Brien said that he had the run of the race when winning last time out at the Dublin Racing Festival. It’s reasonable to assume that he won’t have such an easy time of it in this race. Joseph also noted that Pic D’Orhy has very good French form. He has a Timeform rating of 167p (courtesy of racingtv.com)
Gardens Of Babylon – 8/1Embed from Getty Images
I mention this one only because of his place as second favourite in the betting. Also trained by Joseph O’Brien and in the same ownership (J P McManus) I see no reason for him to reverse the form, having been beaten by 6 lengths by Sir Erec when last seen out.
Pic D’Orhy – 9/1
This is an intriguing horse, making his UK debut for Paul Nicholls after performing at the highest level for Francois Nicolle, exclusively at Auteuil. His trainer describes him as “a gorgeous horse”, “a proper horse” and Timeform clearly agree with their rating of 166, just 1lb behind the favourite.
Quel Destin*** – 10/1 – selectionEmbed from Getty Images
This is probably my favourite horse of the season, although it’s a close run thing with Paisley Park. Imported from Guy Cherel last September, he has had the ideal preparation including two Grade 2s and a Grade 1 and is the epitome of a tough National Hunt horse. He has nothing to prove and, for me, is a confident selection at an excellent price (my only ante-post bet placed several weeks ago but still great value). Timeform rated 159.
14:10 County Hurdle
I don’t have any strong views about this race so I will follow the positive words in previews for Whiskey Sour* (Mullins/Walsh), who is unsurprisingly the current 11/2f. He was third in this last year and appears to have been targeted to go two better this time. Of the others, I’m interested in Monsieur Lecoq (11/1), second in the Imperial Cup last Saturday, Capitaine (14/1), beneficiary of a wind op and subsequent winner last time out and Countister (16/1), one of my selections last year when fifth in the Dawn Run last year, but hasn’t been seen since then so it’s another leap of faith.
14:50 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (“The Potato Race”)
3m (or, for pedants like me, 2m 7f 213y) is a long way for novices, so we’re looking for a confirmed stayer, particularly on softish ground. This is a race in which this year’s form on unusually good ground could make a difference. I think that this one could produce a long odds winner.
The current favourite is Birchdale (6/1 > 9/2). I think that he’s a hype horse because of the connections (Henderson/JP) and I don’t think that his form is anything special.
Commander Of Fleet (15/2 > 13/2) is second favourite. Gordon Elliott’s comments about him are illuminating. At the Betfair preview he said that he’s brilliant on the track but hopeless at home, adding that it is hard to be confident about him and saying he could be first or last.
Lisnaghar Oscar is OK and has a better Timeform rating than the favourite but not one for me at all.
Dickie Diver* (8/1) is one that will relish the trip but, again, is in the same ownership and with the same trainer as the favourite. I suppose that they wouldn’t mind which one wins and presumably wouldn’t be running him unless they thought that he had a chance. However, I should emphasise that this is a random choice, even by my standards!
Joseph O’Brien rates Rhinestone (12/1) as having an each way chance and rates Gordon Elliott’s Dinons (10/1), as do I (e/w), particularly with Davy Russell on board.
15:30 The Gold Cup
Presenting Percy – 4/1fEmbed from Getty Images
The enigma, and that covers both the horse and even more so the trainer. This has been a properly weird build-up. He ran three times in 2017, three times in 2018 and is chasing a three-timer at the Festival (Pertemps 2017, RSA 2018). He was beaten by Our Duke in the Red Mills in 2018 but that was probably over an inadequate trip (2m 4f). He’s won over 3m 5f on soft so his staying credentials are not in doubt. But, and it’s a big but, he’s had only one outing this year, over hurdles, and I’m not buying into the idea that this is a genius strategy. He could have run in two decent chases, including a repeat opportunity in the Red Mills, but didn’t. My take on that is that the horse needs properly soft ground and we haven’t got that (previous runs soft/soft/heavy/heavy/soft/soft-heavy). Could well win easily but will not have my money.
Native River – 4/1 > 9/2Embed from Getty Images
In the same way as with Presenting Percy, I’m unconvinced that the ground is sufficiently soft for him to prevail at the highest level this time. It’s very hard to follow up on Gold Cup wins and, with the best will in the world, he’s not a Kauto Star or Best Mate.
Clan Des Obeaux** – 4/1 > 5/1 – selectionEmbed from Getty Images
There’s no way that I would have selected this horse, even a week ago. However, I’ve been strongly influenced by the times of the races for the last three days (particularly on the New Course on Thursday) and there’s no doubt that he has the best profile, based on this season’s performances. I accept that there’s really nothing to go on with Presenting Percy but his King George win can’t be ignored and he has won on Haydock heavy over 2m 5f. Will he stay? I’m not absolutely convinced but he is, in my view, the best horse in the race and Nicholls’ current form can’t be ignored.
Bellshill – 10/1 > 8/1Embed from Getty Images
I can see exactly why this one has attracted support, including from my shrewd friend Gerry Rooney, who notes that he’s Ruby’s selection ahead of the one Ruby previously hinted at, Al Boum Photo. Two of his last three outings include wins in the Punchestown and Irish Gold Cups but, in between, he was beaten by Kemboy, Monlaee (4th in the Ryanair) and Road To Respect (3rd in the Ryanair). WP is desperate for a Gold Cup winner but I don’t see this one delivering it for him, albeit I can well see him running into a place.
Kemboy – 11/1Embed from Getty Images
This one is probably a stayer and won the Savills Chase. David Mullins keeps the ride but, for me, his jumping is against him and I don’t see him as top level.
Al Boum Photo – 12/1Embed from Getty Images
Another one that is just not top level.
Might Bite – 12/1Embed from Getty Images
Nicky Henderson and Nico de Boinville both reported that he ran very well in his racecourse gallop but there’s no way that he can be supported based on his proper races this season.
Elegant Escape – 16/1Embed from Getty Images
I’ve gone this far down the field because staying is the game and I think that this one should not be ignored. 2nd in the Hennessy, winner of the Welsh National and 2nd to Frodon in the Cotswold Chase, he’ll be staying on, even on this ground, when many others have given up the ghost. A sound each way option.
I’ve surprised myself by selecting Clan Des Obeaux but I’m keen on Elegant Escape usurping Native River as the place option.
16:10 Foxhunters’ Chase
In late February this is what I had to say and I see no reason to depart from it:
Recent pointer Stand Up And Fight, owned by J P McManus and trained by Enda Bolger, is the big talking horse and current favourite for this race at 3/1. As a 7-y-o he could be absolutely anything. My preference is currently for two proper campaigners, Ucello Conti (4/1), a very taking winner of the Navan hunters’ chase against good opponents on 17 February, and my current selection, Road To Rome(6/1), a superb winner of the Walrus at Haydock on 16 February, whose form following wind surgery is 24321111111. This will be former winner’s Pacha Du Polder’s last race so I’m just hoping for a safe round for that one. Another that I’ll keep an eye out for is Shantou Flyer (7/1) who appears to have found his metier with new owner and man of the Hunters David Maxwell.28 February 2019
So, now we are at the night before and the odds are:
- Ucello Conti 7/2
- Stand Up And Fight 4/1
- Hazel Hill 11/2
- Caid Du Berlais 7/1
- Road To Rome 8/1
- Shantou Flyer 8/1
- Pacha Du Polder 18/1
I’ll take the 8/1 Road To Rome*** thank you very much.
16:50 Grand Annual ChaseEmbed from Getty Images
For me, the Festival finishes with the Foxhunters’ but I’ll put up selections for the remaining two races. Le Prezien* (9/1) is very well priced to repeat last year’s victory in this race.
17:30 Martin PipeEmbed from Getty Images
This race has produced future Cheltenham stars and my idea of that one is 6-y-o Dallas Des Pictons** (11/4f) for Gordon Elliott. He’s made no secret of the fact that he loves to win this race and has put him up as his pick of the week. Bear in mind that this was when Apple’s Jade and co were still to run.