Antepost Angle: Clean up with Leon
Matt Brocklebank has two big-priced selections for the stanjames.com Greatwood Hurdle in the latest instalement of his Antepost Angle feature.
Leoncavallo (right): Fancied to win the Greatwood on his second start for Ben Pauling
"I think 100 winners and a million pounds is the benchmark for the top echelon of National Hunt trainers, so I'd like to do the same again."
When your mentors in life include dual Olympic gold medal-winning father Nick Skelton and 10-time champion trainer Paul Nicholls, you're entitled to harbour an above-average degree of ambition and Dan Skelton is clearly brimming with confidence regarding his prospects of equalling last year's fantastic achievements.
After collecting 104 winners and over £1.2million in prize-money throughout the 2015/16 jumps campaign, the trainer is in all likelihood erring on the side of caution with his assessment of what may unfold this term; a £300,000 haul from 30 winners before the end of October clearly showing he's already well on the way to surpassing last year's numerical and financial tallies.
One race that narrowly eluded the Lodge Hill team last year was the stanjames.com Greatwood Hurdle, Superb Story filling the runner-up spot behind Old Guard.
Superb Story did of course gain ample compensation when giving Skelton his first taste of Cheltenham Festival glory after the young handler laid him out expertly for the County Hurdle, and Skelton has entered four runners as he bids to atone for last year's near miss in the £100,000 Greatwood.
North Hill Harvey, entered in this weekend's Elite Hurdle, is a good staying prospect who may end up jumping fences this season, while Mister Miyagi is an interesting proposition having won his maiden hurdle at Cheltenham's Showcase meeting last October. He was put on the back-burner when the mud was flying throughout the winter, not appearing in public between his novice success at Taunton in November and the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, when far from disgraced in sixth behind Altior.
He went on to win again when stepped up to two and a half miles back at Prestbury Park in April and his recent reappearance run when third to Hargam at Kempton gave the impression they'd left a little room for improvement.
Ch'Tibello is more versatile in regards to the ground. He was dead impressive in winning the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr back in April, the form of which has worked out exceptionally well, and two subsequent appearances suggest there's still room to manoeuvre from his revised rating.
Ch'Tibello's comeback fifth behind Sternrubin in the William Hill Handicap Hurdle at Ascot was a little underwhelming, however, and although he's entitled to strip fitter, he doesn't look a typical Cheltenham type and seemingly may be rerouted to Haydock.
The outsider of the Skelton bunch is MEET THE LEGEND but with no other entries to his name at the time of writing, the Greatwood looks the obvious target and at the very least he has the potential to shorten markedly in the betting.
A dual bumper winner for Keith Dalgleish, he made his debut for current connections in a hot novice hurdle won by Altior at Kempton on Boxing Day and could manage only fifth, but made decent strides away from the limelight in two outings earlier this year.
The first yielded a comfortable Newbury victory over Emerging Talent, who has won his two starts since, and his latest outing saw the five-year-old son of Midnight Legend finish a close third in a Grade Two at Kelso when trying to concede weight to the first two, including winner Le Prezien.
Le Prezien went on to frank the form when second to Neptune hero Yorkhill in the Grade One Mersey Novices' Hurdle at Aintree so Meet The Legend clearly possesses plenty of scope from an initial BHA mark of 138.
He also doesn't necessarily need ease underfoot, having won on good to firm on debut, so the unseasonably dry conditions aren't a concern and the general 20/1 on offer looks perfectly fair given his unexposed profile.
Alan King has so far taken the softly-softly approach with JP McManus' extremely unexposed Winter Escape and it has paid off with three wins from three last season.
He was last sighted landing the Grade Two Dovecote at Kempton in February and the form looks strong with Marracudja, Welsh Shadow and Oceane all winning races since.
However, a mark of 142 is no gimme and the price is tight enough for a horse so inexperienced, while being in the midst of 24 runners hurtling around the sharpish bends of the Old Course is also going to test his mettle.
It's not like he's been missed in the market either (7/1 favourite) and nor has Mick Jazz, who, a bit like Skelton, has his own unfinished business in the race having pulled-up when sent off joint-favourite in last year's renewal.
Trained by Harry Fry then, he's been snapped up quite cheaply (relatively speaking) by George Mahoney from Potensis Bloodstock and sent to Gordon Elliott, for whom he made a winning start in a maiden hurdle at Clonmel. It wasn't flashy and the form isn't out of the ordinary, but the first-time hood appeared to help and the ultra-shrewd Elliott has plenty to look forward to if he can rekindle the flame.
He does need around a dozen horses to drop out to make the cut, though, so is clearly a 14/1 shot with risks attached.
The Paul Nicholls-trained Modus is another who looks to have taken the right steps along the path of recovery following his unlucky third behind Sternrubin in the aforementioned Ascot race.
His novice season went sour when sent down the handicap route, struggling in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury and the County Hurdle, but his recent reappearance marked him down as potentially well-in if he gets decent ground.
He's 2lb better off with the winner despite a subsequent 1lb rise (Sternrubin up 3lb) and can certainly reverse the form if everything drops into place.
He looks Nicholls' number one ahead of Adrien Du Pont, Romain De Senam and Diego Du Charmil, while King's other main contender is Sceau Royal.
He has plenty of track knowledge and a 10lb hike for his smooth course and distance victory in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle last month isn't excessively harsh. He proved his form in the spring to be all wrong in the process but you can't help but think he's now shown his hand.
LEONCAVALLO caught the eye in second that day and is another who looks worth having on side at the general 25/1 on offer as he enjoys a massive 13lb pull with Sceau Royal.
He didn't make the grade for Godolphin on the Flat but is a quality recruit to Ben Pauling's upwardly mobile yard and will be perfectly at home on the ground if it remains quick.
Put simply, he's just a much better hurdler than he is on the level, winning five of his seven juvenile starts last season. The two failures, if they can be deemed as such, came when unseating rider in the Triumph Hurdle Trial here last December and then when fifth to Ivanovich Gorbatov in the big one itself at the Festival.
The Triumph has worked out brilliantly, featuring 10 subsequent winners including Grade One success for the second and third, so Leoncavallo remains dangerously well-handicapped in spite of a 1lb rise to 140 for his comeback effort.
Pauling hasn't had him long so improvement could be forthcoming and he looks far more likely to give his running than all-or-nothing stablemate A Hare Breath, who is no bigger than 16/1.