Lydia Hislop: Road To Cheltenham

Lydia Hislop embarks on the long Road To Cheltenham 2017 and wades in with an early ante-post recommendation.

"Always open with a joke." I've never achieved that yet but luckily for this season's Road To Cheltenham series, bookmakers have provided one for me in Thistlecrack's price for the Gold Cup.

No need to ask what they've been smoking since last March – independently and by mass coincidence, you understand. They never share bongs.

Either that or ante-post betting is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker… It is an ex-pastime. Choose your punchline but be quick about it – we have much to discuss after so long apart. I even have a recommendation to rouse the 'resting' parrot.

Timico Gold Cup

Clearly, Thistlecrack has the raw talent to go to the very top over fences and is already the proud owner of a bold leap, but his second chase start was unconvincing in any context – let alone for a horse residing as 7/2 favourite for next year's Gold Cup.

He frightened himself by standing off too far from the first open ditch, pretty much landing on top of it, and then carefully ballooned the next. Unlike many a discipline-switching hurdler, he doesn't lack for courage but was too easily induced (by a vastly inferior rival) to take off too soon.

He jumped best when allowed to dominate and measure his fences in his own time, but even then he often lacked the instinctive efficiency for which he was rightly famed over hurdles. Classy though he is, he also won't be able to boss horses of the calibre he'll meet on the Gold Cup trail to the extent his jumping currently requires.

He might well learn to be more fluent with experience but the clock on this particular March assignment is ticking. No wonder trainer Colin Tizzard seems to be cooling on the King George in less than six weeks' time.

The upside for Thistlecrack fans – of which I am one, to be clear; it's his odds I'm deriding – is that he's in the right yard to get plenty of practice. Tizzard, like Nigel Twiston-Davies, likes to run 'em – and praise be for that – so we should be seeing him next at Newbury in two weeks' time. I suspect there will be more takers of that challenge than there were last Saturday, so we should learn plenty. Let's hope he does, too.

Yet if a horse is unfeasibly short in a market, there is usually some value to be had. It strikes me that the front of the current Gold Cup betting is more wish list than market, especially since the brilliant Vautour sadly lost his life in a freak accident earlier this month.

Don Cossack and Coneygree fill the next two places on most lists – apart from those bookmakers most fearful of the old Willie Mullins switcheroo, of which more later, and have taken the precaution of pricing up Douvan at 7s or 8s. These including BetBright – the firm chaired by that horse's owner, Rich Ricci – which, depending on where you feature on the Donald Trump scale, (I don't know, but a lotta people are saying) is either interesting or irrelevant. For what it's worth, Ricci told Matt Chapman on At The Races that Douvan's primary target is the Champion Chase. (What could possibly go wrong?)

The past two Gold Cup winners have each been sidelined with injuries. We can't be certain Don Cossack will race again, let alone that he'll retain all his ability if he does – albeit the tendon injury he sustained while preparing for Punchestown in spring seems to be repairing to schedule.

In his most recent dispatch last month, Gordon Elliott was hopeful his stable star might return in January's Kinloch Brae Chase as a stepping-stone to the Gold Cup. There is no possibility of an earlier return and his trainer candidly acknowledged that "if there are any hiccups, we'll retire him".

At least Coneygree is set to reappear this Saturday, after just over a year on the sidelines. He must begin without usual rider Nico de Boinville, who fractured his arm in a fall at Cheltenham last weekend, but husband-and-wife training team, Mark and Sara Bradstock, are hoping for the semi-familiar hands of Richard Johnson, who won the Denman Chase on the horse.

That depends on retaining trainer Philip Hobbs releasing him from conflicting obligations with Menorah and at Ascot, but Johnson did school Coneygree twice over six fences at Nicky Henderson's yard on Tuesday morning. The noises were positive.

But you'll recall last autumn when first there was a foot problem, then a hock problem. This is also a horse described by the Bradstocks as having "fragile back legs" – like those of a grasshopper in more ways than one. Prior to his Gold Cup-winning season, he only made it to the track once in nearly two years. He is a super horse, but no ante-post proposition.

The scale of his bounce-backability should also be thoroughly tested in Haydock's Betfair Chase this Saturday, given chief opponent Cue Card has already raced this season and is chasing the £1 million bonus trail that bit the dirt, along with him and Paddy Brennan, three out in last year's Gold Cup.

He got mixed reviews for his Charlie Hall reappearance at Wetherby last month, when beaten by both Irish Cavalier and Menorah, both of whom potentially re-oppose on Saturday.

Speaking on Racing UK's NH Preview show on Monday, Ruby Walsh asserted: "There were little bits of Wetherby that reminded me of the Cue Card of a couple of years ago when I thought he was home and hosed in the King George and Silviniaco Conti nabbed him on the line.

"I thought his head got quite high and he jumped the second last with a lot of air that day in the King George. He did the same at Wetherby [whereas, if] you see him at Aintree last year, his head is much lower and his nose is out in front of him."

To my less exacting eye, Cue Card looked his usual gawky, surefooted, brilliant self for much of Wetherby and, given the penalty he carried, you could argue he ran as well in finishing third last month as he did winning the race last year. He probably pressed on too far out and I thought his head only came up after a tired mistake at the last.

Walsh conceded what he saw might have been "fatigue" but I wasn't sure whether he meant in the race per se or in a stellar career now stretching into its eighth season, through its evolutions, at pretty much the highest level.

Coldly, the likelihood is that at his age Cue Card will fall short of last season's dazzle. We won't have to wait long to test-drive that idea: given he's had a prep-run, loves Haydock and his yard is in outstanding form, Cue Card must impress this Saturday.

In terms of the Gold Cup betting, the Betfair Chase result is likely to mean one or both of its leading players could drift markedly. (If that still happens these days – as it would do in, you know, a functioning market.) Another reason to focus the mind on the current betting.

You'll have noticed I don't consider either Menorah or Irish Cavalier credible Gold Cup contenders. The former needs no justification, surely – even in a post-Brexit, post-Trump landscape of the unthinkable? The latter was a never-involved fifth in last year's event, but is young and his Charlie Hall success was a career-best. However, it's a level of form that still falls well short of requirements. He needs more.

Back in fourth, Blaklion ran well for a long way and this was a satisfactory reappearance from last year's hardy RSA Chase winner. The horse he beat at Cheltenham, Shaneshill, is another potential player in this category (among others) but returned over hurdles in a race addressed later.

Earlier this month in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal, Valseur Lido was the only horse to turn up in mind, body and soul. He romped away by 11 lengths from a below-form Silviniaco Conti, who'd had the advantage of a clear lead for much of the way.

As part of the Gigginstown divorce settlement from Willie Mullins, Valseur Lido was running for Henry de Bromhead for the first time but his former trainer had long regarded him as a stayer rather than a speed horse. He is unexposed at three miles and beyond – mainly due to the fact he had rarely completed at that trip to date.

Walsh rode him at Down Royal and seemed less than blown away by the experience, albeit the change of yard and lack of exposure over the Gold Cup trip might temper his point. "When we had him in Willie's, we always thought Djakadam slightly better than Valseur Lido," he said. Both horses are 12/1.

Meanwhile, last year's Gold Cup third Don Poli clearly has the Memphis blues again. In the backwash at Down Royal, he reacted to galvanising first-time cheekpieces with a feat of towering truculence one can only admire – unless you had any involvement with the horse, directly or financially.

Grand Nationals of one sort or another had always looked likely to provide the marathon test Don Poli needs, but whether that's what he wants these days is another matter. Now people just get uglier and he has no sense of time.

This argument is leading to a sheepishly defiant pay-off: namely, let's back Djakadam AGAIN. Yes, I know I'm obsessed with this horse. Yes, I know that a Road To Cheltenham is yet to pass without me recommending him for a Festival race and this would be third time lucky for the Gold Cup. (That said, he's wiped his face for this column overall.)

But at 12/1, given everything discussed above and with none of last year's staying novices looking that scary at this stage, he's the wrong price.

It was also quite encouraging to hear Walsh observe on that same RUK show: "I wouldn't be certain Djakadam ran as good a race in [the 2016] Gold Cup as he did the year before.

"I don't know why – he jumped super but he definitely didn't pick up as he did the year before, although he never stopped and galloped all the way to the line."

That chimed with me, Djakadam's number-one stalker; I had the same sensation watching last season's race live. Number-crunchers will argue the Don Cossack second is the better performance on figures, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was all he might have been capable of.

There are two ways to underpin my theory, to my mind: the training setback caused by the cut he'd sustained in his BetBright Chase fall in January, which Walsh cited as a possible factor, or the fact the ground was softer when he was a rallying second to Coneygree in 2015.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Walsh preceded his comments with this assessment of the 2016 Gold Cup: "Don Cossack beat me sort of five lengths. I think he didn't do a whole pile in front – I'm not even sure if Bryan Cooper used his whip on him.

"I think Djakadam would have got beaten a good bit further had Cue Card stood up. I don't know what would have won, but I think Don Cossack and Cue Card would have gone further away from me."

Not the most ringing endorsement for my selection, you may say, but we're talking about two rivals older than Djakadam, (mostly) shorter in the market and for one reason or another far from guaranteed to be in the same form this term. Meanwhile, my selection is sound, of proven Gold Cup class and will be only eight years of age next March.

You can shake your head at what you might perceive to be blind loyalty – it's more rooted in reality than the view that he should drop in trip for the Ryanair…

I should finally mention that at Down Royal earlier this month, Sub Lieutenant beat Outlander in a manner to suggest the latter would benefit from a step up in trip. He's entered in the Betfair Chase, Hennessy and King George, as well as over 2m4f at Clonmel this week, and could be an improver in this division. He fell at the fourth last in the JLT last term.

Behind them both at Down Royal was Zabana, who endured a fruitless trip to the Festival last year when shying and unseating Davy Russell at the start. He went on to beat Outlander in Grade One company at Punchestown in April, stepped back up in trip to 3m1f. He'll be better for the run.

It might be that Gilgamboa gets a spin in the Gold Cup this year, given the Ryanair trip was palpably too sharp in March and he has since finished a creditable fourth in the Grand National. He ran with credit when going down narrowly in the Fortria Chase over an even more inadequate trip on his seasonal debut. It might also be that connections miss the Festival and go all out for the National.

At Carlisle last month, the extremely likeable Seeyouatmidnight trounced a never-at-the-races Bristol De Mai in a one-sided match at Carlisle. The winner, deemed an improved horse by trainer Sandy Thomson, is entered in Saturday's Betfair Chase and the Hennessy.

Meanwhile, at Wetherby the previous day, Aintree Grade One novice chase winner Native River made a respectable return over hurdles and now heads for the Hennessy.

Thistlecrack ""Always open with a joke." I've never achieved that yet but luckily for this season's Road To Cheltenham series, bookmakers have provided one for me in Thistlecrack's price for the Gold Cup."
Thistlecrack

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

"Is there anything you would fear, moving into this division with Douvan?" asked Oli Bell of Walsh during Racing UK's NH Preview on Monday. "Yes and he's just retired," came the answer.

That pretty much sums up the two-mile scene as things stand, with the magnificent, resurgent titleholder Sprinter Sacre having bowed out due to a tendon problem last Sunday.

It wouldn't have been a career-threatening injury in a younger horse nor in one that had not already traced a sensational trajectory. But Sprinter Sacre had already metamorphosed from invulnerable star into nervous athlete, due to the vulnerability imposed on him by atrial fibrillation, and finally, gloriously, back into a soaring phoenix bursting from the ashes of a career.

It would have been asking too much for a second comeback and Henderson took the difficult decision to retire the most thrilling horse in his yard, the horse that has taken him on the most remarkable journey of even his decorated career.

Yet he wasn't to be spared the rack. Hours later, having enjoyed the alien sensation of "a clean run" in getting the fragile Simonsig to the track for Cheltenham's Shloer Chase – the race that witnessed Sprinter Sacre's resurrection last year – the grey took a tumble at the third that proved fatal.

Thus a tumultuous day took a devastating turn and the rest of the race took place in a palpably sombre atmosphere, even before the worst news was confirmed.

It took some time, therefore, to assimilate that Fox Norton had underpinned and even advanced the improvement he had asserted when winning a good handicap at the same track on his seasonal debut last month. He travelled strongly, jumped well and beat a race-fit horse in Simply Ned, who was targeted at the contest and ran up to his best. Word of warning: the time compared with the poor-jumping novice Le Prezien was no great shakes.

You can always rely on Colin Tizzard to be spot on and he was firm in his prompt reminders to all that this horse was built by Neil Mulholland, who had trained Fox Norton until a fortnight earlier when his owners accepted an offer they couldn't sensibly refuse.

Fox Norton now runs in the well-known colours of Alan and Ann Potts, who earlier in the year split with Henry de Bromhead and then again moved their considerable string to Tizzard from Colm Murphy when he decided to retire from training in September.

Even Tizzard didn't seem convinced by his own I-just-drive-the-tractor (sharp-as-a-tack) persona when asked where next for Fox Norton. He named the Tingle Creek. The horse did sustain a little cut "right on the tendon", however, so stay tuned for updates. He also has 11 lengths to find on a certain Douvan based on last year's Arkle form but he may already have narrowed that gap.

Third-placed Special Tiara ran well below his best despite being advantaged at the weights and this race having been "the plan for ages" according to de Bromhead. Admittedly, it wasn't as woefully as on his seasonal debut last year but before explaining it away entirely as rustiness, he did also run poorly at Punchestown on his final start.

It's a hallmark of this rapid chaser when on song that he rallies sustainedly just when you think he must be beaten, but there's been none of that the last twice. He'd had an exhilarating 12 months prior to his Champion Chase third in March; it's hard to envisage him topping that form this season, even if his form does rally when we see him next.

If that's in the Tingle Creek, he could encounter Sir Valentino who set a new track record when beating Garde La Victoire and 2015 Champion Chase hero Dodging Bullets in the Haldon Gold Cup at the start of this month. The winner was receiving weight from both his nearest pursuers.

Back in fifth in the Shloer, Top Gamble had it to do at the weights on his seasonal debut and never really got involved. Trainer Kerry Lee fashioned improvement from him last season and may yet do again, albeit cut in the ground is important.

Over in Ireland on the same day, Arctic Skipper created something of a shock by winning the Grade Two Fortria at Navan at 25/1, seemingly improving about 20lb on dropping back to a trip he hadn't tried for almost a year.

Unless virtually every runner bar Fago in the race ran well below form, you must assume this second-season chaser has progressed, but his closest pursuers, Gilgamboa and Ballycasey (both discussed elsewhere) need further. It doesn't strike you as strong literal form.

The Game Changer weakened markedly from the last having perhaps set sail for home too soon in the conditions for a horse whose best form is on a sound surface and whose tactics are usually stealthier. But he may not find a great deal under pressure – in last term's Arkle, he went from cleverly picking up the pieces for third to dropping it when bumped in Vaniteux's fall two out, then hitting the last and clinging on for fourth.

Ryanair Chase

This remains the race whose shape is hardest to predict right up to the wire. There was a Gigginstown pincer movement last year when two credible Gold Cup contenders, Road To Riches and Valseur Lido, stepped up… only for Ricci and Mullins to perform an even later handbrake-turn with Vautour.

"Willie could change his mind at any time," Walsh smilingly admitted when talking about another horse in the Racing UK NH Preview. It's a warning worth heeding for this season when contemplating backing all horses, although perhaps particularly Mullins and Gigginstown types.

Both operations have a lot of talented horses to slot into the right races, some of which might get sidelined, impress or disappoint en route. They therefore reserve the right to decide at the last minute, no matter what might have been said by whomever beforehand.

That's their prerogative and – albeit more realistic but prompt communication of mutable plans would be preferable for the effective promotion of this sport – the best rule for ante-post punters is to ensure the specific race conditions are right for their specific selection. That might well be obvious but I wish I'd followed my instinct with Yorkhill last year rather than listening to the advance plan. So, that's you and me told.

Although Taquin Du Seuil's narrow defeat of Village Vic produced a thrilling finish to the BetVictor Gold Cup Chase last Saturday – it might even have been a marginal career best from the winner – their overall profile tells us they fall short at this grade, even if last year's edition of the Ryanair (in which they were sixth and ninth respectively) was particularly fiery.

Over in Ireland, Ballycasey has rewired his mojo, having put up two of the better performances in his career on his last two starts: winning at Gowran in October and finishing third over an inadequate two miles at Navan last time.

Mullins says he's "got his confidence back" – in fact, it was his jumping that kept him in it last time and he would have been closer had he not been forced to switch approaching the last fence. A sounder surface would have suited more, too.

Of Ricci's Ryanair possibles, however, Vroum Vroum Mag interests me most at this nascent stage. She won last year's OLBG Mares' Hurdle with her head in her chest but I have always thought her greatest asset is her chasing ability. The possibility of sticking to fences hovered over much of her early campaign last season, but Ricci declared her his primary King George hope when discussing that race on At The Races earlier this month. Buyer beware: she, too, also has hurdle engagements.

Last month God's Own made a creditable return when second to Third Intention in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree. He lowered the colours of Vautour, no less, when running on his preferred right-handed track at Punchestown but his immediate entries – including the Betfair Chase and King George – hint that the Ryanair might be his Cheltenham target this season.

Other early season performances to note, potentially for this division, include Josses Hill's unpicking of the poor-jumping Camping Ground, who was all the talk for various races last season, in a match at Kempton last week. There was little resemblance to a snooker table from the winner; part of me is a bit sad about that (not really).

Also, Garde La Victoire may be stepping up in trip after running right up to his best in second to Sir Valentino in the Haldon Gold Cup, but his jumping still fails to convince.

Finally, some pertinent information and an opinion about Killultagh Vic. Patrick Mullins texted Chapman in response to a viewer's question about the horse while the latter was broadcasting on At The Races. That text reportedly said the 2015 Martin Pipe Hurdle winner wouldn't reappear until "late in the season at best". Hardly an encouraging missive.

You will recall that horse somehow managed to recover from a total final-fence sprawl to win at Leopardstown in January last time we saw him but, not unsurprisingly, injured himself in the process.

Although he'd already been advised in this column for last year's JLT prior to that run, even without such information I would have been wary of this horse this time around given his ante-post prices for various races anticipate both a perfect recovery and necessary improvement. I'm a huge fan, though, so I hope my caution is unfounded.

Vroum Vroum Mag "Of Ricci's Ryanair possibles, however, Vroum Vroum Mag interests me most at this nascent stage. She won last year's OLBG Mares' Hurdle with her head in her chest but I have always thought her greatest asset is her chasing ability."
Vroum Vroum Mag

Stan James Champion Hurdle

There's no point in fighting it: if one Mullins horse falls down in this division, another emerges to take his place. And with the slightly surprising news that the brilliant Supreme winner Altior isn't even going to dip his toe in these waters but goes novice chasing instead (despite currently being third best in the betting here), it's hard to see that changing.

We don't yet know whether the scintillating Faugheen, the imperious 2015 winner, retains all of that large ability since damage to a suspensory ligament caused him to have been sidelined since last January, but the fact he holds entries this month and next suggests we may get a clue on that front soon.

That's the first piece of information we need before we can start grouching about whether we're ever going to see him clash with Annie Power, his able deputy in the Champion Hurdle last season and hailing from the same Ricci-Mullins axis.

Walsh did suggest say both "would be trained as Champion Hurdle horses this year, I imagine" but he stressed the final two words. He did offer more tangible information on Arctic Fire, second to Faugheen in the 2015 edition but off games since chipping a bone during exercise in February. He's back in the yard. Fact.

In terms of Walsh's opinion of the ex-novices entering this division, he offered the opinion that Yanworth's jumping "isn't good enough" to win a Champion Hurdle and Ricci's own Limini "would need to improve".

Sceau Royal has achieved the most substantial form in this division so far this term, by winning both at Cheltenham last month and then on quick ground in the Grade Two Elite Hurdle at Wincanton two Saturdays ago.

Leoncavello didn't do much for the first formline when an in-trouble-from-the-top-of-the-hill seventh in the Greatwood, albeit on ground softer than he likes. The second success was better, with last term's Adonis winner Zubayr getting first run and briefly looking like he might put Sceau Royal under pressure but Alan King's four-year-old picked up impressively and had his main rival beaten even before that horse took a tumble at the last.

From early in his juvenile career, Sceau Royal's main asset has been his quick-flick hurdling – a technique that can take you to the top level. He probably shouldn't be judged on muted efforts at last year's Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals which took place during the two months when the King yard's consistent strike-rate plummeted. This horse is improving and, albeit he must find more, 20/1 is not fanciful.

North Hill Harvey won the Greatwood, in which he had the likes of top-weight Hargam, exposed as a cut below Champion Hurdle class last season, and the hitherto unbeaten Winter Escape, making his handicap debut on just his fourth start, well adrift.

The winner was still travelling well approaching the penultimate flight in last year's Supreme, only to blunder and lose his position. Trainer Dan Skelton reckons he would otherwise have been second – "he's not in Altior's class". I think he would have been at least third – it's just how quickly he weakened after the error that makes me doubt he'd have got past Min.

Skelton plans to keep North Hill Harvey to hurdles for another season but embarks on the Champion Hurdle trail with few illusions. Cheltenham's International Hurdle – that's the Bula to you and me – could be the next stop but Skelton doesn't expect his horse to make that grade. He sees him as a chaser, but wants him to get more racing experience before swapping disciplines.

Hargam did race towards the disadvantaged inside for some reason and does prefer a sound surface, but he did finish tailed off. Winter Escape looked stuffy on his toughest assignment yet, jumping the fourth-last scrappily and steadily losing his pitch from there. He'll surely do better.

Earlier that same day, David Pipe dropped it out that winning novice hurdler, Moon Racer, could get a Champion Hurdle entry. The horse is already seven and missed last season, so there are reasons to get cracking and the Pipes have never been averse to rolling the big dice, with much success.

Although I'll discuss the horse's performance in the novices' section, I wouldn't blame anyone seeking to chance their arm each-way at 50/1 (William Hill) in this race.

Ryanair World Hurdle

The best price in the current ante-post market for this race is the 8/1 in some places about Thistlecrack. It wouldn't surprise me if last season's imperious winner ends up defending his title come March, but there are too many unknown knowns for me to recommend it as a bet.

The top seven horses in most markets are far from certain runners, but neither could you rule all of them out (bar Faugheen, surely?). Inchoate doesn't even begin to describe. It may pay to go big.

Snow Falcon survived only a few hours as my 33/1 shout for last year's World Hurdle until it emerged via the Twitter/preview-night grapevine that he'd knocked himself after winning at Navan in February.

When he reappeared at Roscommon in August, he showed the better form he'd promised for a step up to three miles. He's since been progressive on the Flat, ending up as the admittedly beaten favourite in the Irish November Handicap last month – don't laugh, it could happen to Doncaster – before winning the Grade Two Lismullen Hurdle at Navan last week.

He was relatively well positioned in a race dictated by De Plotting Shed that also saw the veteran Dedigout looking decidedly rusty and aforementioned Shaneshill – not seen since a jaunt to America in May – given too much to do. The last-named holds weighty entries both over hurdles and fences.

The winner is a confirmed hurdler due to his habit of dragging his back legs through the odd obstacle, but he's been much cleaner the last twice and remains open to further improvement at three miles. Were it not for his recurring back problem, the 25/1 with Stan James would be more appealing.

OLBG Mares' Hurdle

A disappointing seasonal debut was enough for new trainer Elliott to draw stumps on ambitions to campaign last season's star juvenile, Apple's Jade, against the boys in the Champion Hurdle. There was even immediate talk of stepping her up in trip. Such an early capitulation is disappointing not only for the filly but potentially the entire generation she bossed from April onwards.

Her 41-length Aintree demolition of Ivanovitch Gorbatov – who'd beaten her by a relatively narrow margin in the Triumph previously, when she had suffered an interrupted preparation in Mullins' hands – was one of the outstanding performances of the season.

So freakish that perhaps it was merely freak? At Down Royal two Fridays ago, a horse rated 22lb inferior and conceding 2lb beat her by a length and a half.

"That was disappointing," Elliott said, candidly. "She looked slow. I suppose the positive is she was only 80 per cent fit and we have not had her that long but is she a Champion Hurdle winner on that evidence? Definitely not. We will probably step her up in trip and she will win plenty of races. Ruby [Walsh] said she was flat out from a fair way out."

If she does contest this race, she potentially faces at least one from a range of classy Ricci-owned former stablemates, including Limini (who didn't run on the Flat this season because "she got hurt" according to her owner), titleholder Vroum Vroum Mag and the shoulda-woulda-coulda winner of 2015, Annie Power, who infamously nosedived the last when clear before gaining – ahem – some compensation when winning an even bigger prize 12 months later.

So it might turn out that Apple's Jade needs to elevate her form to pretty much Champion Hurdle calibre in order to win even this contest. Therefore 7/2 makes zero appeal.

Moon Racer "Although I'll discuss the horse's performance in the novices' section, I wouldn't blame anyone seeking to chance their arm each-way at 50/1 (William Hill) in the Champion Hurdle."
Moon Racer

Novice chasers

At Cheltenham on Friday, O O Seven made the transition to fences that his physique demanded and dispensed in good style with what had beforehand appeared a competitive field. He jumped well, bar for a small stumble at the second last, and clearly stamped his authority on the race.

The only drawback was his tendency to hang right, markedly so when he seemed to get the idea that there was no need for him actually to finish the race, so evident was his superiority, and could he please duck out back to the stables halfway up Cheltenham's hill? Disobligingly, de Boinville straightened him out and compelled him run to the line.

Reviewers lacked consensus afterwards: some felt the horse was just green and would have concentrated better with company; others felt this confirmed suspicions they'd held before.

I'm bang on the fence with this one right now. I want more evidence. What I do know is that this horse impressed me when a good second to Yorkhill in last term's Tolworth, so I'm awaiting his next start with great interest.

Runner-up Sizing Tennessee is two years older than the winner, having missed two whole seasons prior to last. He ran with promise on his debut over fences and for Tizzard, having left the de Bromhead yard as part of the Potts Transfer.

It didn't pay much of a compliment to those who finished behind Rock The Kasbah in third that Johnson had given up on him after the third last. Although he, Theinval and Its'AFreeBee were all conceding weight to the 1-2, the limitations to the form of their preceding chase wins seemed to be exposed.

Sadly, this was the race in which one of last term's most entertaining and talented novice hurdlers, Barters Hill, made his first and last start of this season. He slipped a tendon off his hock early on during his chase debut and was pulled up by David Bass as quickly as possible. The evening bulletins from Ben Pauling's yard were positive about his recovery, but he is not expected to make it back to the track until next term.

Paul Nicholls enhanced his robust record in Cheltenham's Grade Two Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial when Le Prezien delivered his sixth success in the past nine years last Sunday. It was his second chase start, having debuted in an unexpectedly deep Uttoxeter beginners' chase the previous month where he split Charbel and Top Notch, fifth in the Supreme and Champion Hurdles respectively.

This wasn't pretty, however, and Some Plan was still travelling strongly when getting in too close to the second last, clipping the top and falling. Although his trainer believes his jumping just takes time to warm up, as it did over hurdles, even Barry Geraghty couldn't be wholly positive about Le Prezien's technique. He suggested a step up in trip would help.

Jockey David Mullins felt he still had something left when Some Plan crashed out; however, that horse has frequently found little in the past for his previous stables. It should be noted the time was surprisingly reasonable compared with the Shloer, meaning this effort might be better than I'm reading it or Fox Norton's worse.

The remaining novice-chasing performance to note at the Open meeting was What A Moment's success in the amateur riders' handicap chase last Friday. Richard Harding sensibly enabled a good view of his fences by keeping to the outer on a horse competing in a chase for only the second time. He jumped better than on his debut at Aintree and can win more races.

There are two ways of looking at the competitive four-runner 1m7f novice event at Wetherby last Saturday, won by The Dutchman. On the upside, the time was good; on the downside, there were plenty of errors on show.

The winner was a progressive hurdler last season until breaking a blood vessel on his final start at Aintree. Here, Brian Hughes reported his mount's match-fitness failed from the second last following a foot problem that had hampered his training. That may account for his final two errors and reflects great credit on his determined drive to the line. He is set to go back up in trip and is the most distinctly promising of this quartet.

Runner-up Vendor seemed to leave his Uttoxeter thumping by Charbel far behind and was only just worried out of victory on the run to the line. Ma Du Fou idn't really travel and jumped scrappily, so it was a surprise to see him still in with a shout at the third last.

Blue Heron, who missed last season but had made a respectable chase debut at Market Rasen last month, was a tad keen but tried to rally when headed. This remains well below his peak hurdles form.

I was very much taken with the chase debut of Anibale Fly at Navan last Sunday, when he beat Martello Tower by a deceptively authoritative three quarters of a length, even though the form and time is literally nothing special.

He travelled strongly into the straight and took the lead with a particularly nippy jump at the second last, after which Mark Walsh only exuded more confidence. They got the job done with hands and heels only.

On this evidence, Anibale Fly is going to be a much better chaser than he was hurdler – albeit he was still improving in that discipline when we last saw him. It will be interesting to see how Tony Martin campaigns this horse for JP McManus; he holds an entry in the Grade One Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse next month.

In second, Martello Tower also made a very encouraging chase debut over a trip far short of his best. A slightly slow jump when leading at the second last allowed the pack to close in more readily but he responded gamely to pressure with an attacking leap at the last, only to be readily held to the line.

The 2015 Albert Bartlett hero's future lies as a staying chaser and this was an encouraging start. Testing ground did appear paramount over hurdles, however.

Third-placed Gurteen put himself on the back foot with scrappy jumps at the third and second last, but came up bravely when challenged on both sides at the last, only to weaken approaching the line. His overall profile speaks of a lightly raced horse, still steadily improving.

Further back in fifth, Squouateur wasn't knocked about in the closing stages after belting the first, getting slightly outpaced turning for home and being inconvenienced by the runner-up jumping left across him three out. He shaped well enough for a horse that needs further.

Looking back to last month, the probable highlight of this division was the chasing debut of former high-class hurdler, Identity Thief. He fell just short of Champion Hurdle class when fifth behind Annie Power at the Festival, but had previously won the Fighting Fifth.

It was more of a test than many a debut of known class act can be, in that he had company upsides at many of his fences rather than going out in front and daring anyone to be reckless enough to take such a highly rated horse on.

His class took him to the front on the bridle approaching the fourth last but he did jump well throughout and, as de Bromhead rightly observed afterwards, "did it as well as we could have asked on his first run". He's set to reappear at Punchestown this Sunday.

Other performances worth mentioning include Potters Legend's defeat of Barney Dwan at Kempton last week – the second would surely have won bar for almost falling at the last – and Road To Respect's Naas defeat of Grade One-winning hurdler Prince Of Scars on their chase debut last Saturday. The winner was having his first start for Noel Meade, who expects this horse from the family of Road To Riches to come on a great deal for that outing.

Turning to the yak, Walsh is expecting Mullins' leading novice-chasing hopes to be making their debuts in the coming weeks, but even he can't be certain of the plan.

The brilliant Neptune winner, Yorkhill, was the subject of his little joke about Mullins keeping it to a need-to-know basis. It's not yet clear whether this horse will run over fences or hurdles this season, nor even whether starting in one discipline would lessen the likelihood of a subsequent switch to the other.

Walsh had assumed the horse would go chasing – he schooled him over many fences "a couple of weeks ago" and "he looks a chaser" – but since spotted he's entered in both the Hatton's Grace Hurdle and Drinmore Novice Chase, Grade Ones on the same day at Punchestown next month.

Of all the high-class problems Mullins has to wrestle, I think this is the trickiest because both routes have their distinct merits.

This theme recurred when Walsh was asked about Bellshill's preferred trip. Having asserted that the two-mile Supreme had been "the wrong trip" but that the horse would have won at Aintree "but for that mistake" at the last, Walsh said: "He's bred to be a chaser… the RSA or the JLT… even the four-miler. And (laughing) he'll probably get an entry in the Arkle as well."

On ATR, Ricci mentioned that Supreme runner-up Min "got hurt at Cheltenham" and has since had "a couple of other niggly things that we've sorted out". He goes chasing.

Walsh reported he'd schooled well (is there any other way that we'd get to hear about?) but understandably fears Altior in this discipline, given their Supreme standings. Yet both men commented on how much "stronger" Min looks now. "I think you'll see a different horse this year," asserted Ricci.

Novice hurdlers

There was some expectation that Ballyandy would reverse his Perth defeat by Moon Racer on 4lb better terms in last Sunday's Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial at Cheltenham, but he lacked the tactical speed of that rival and that contributed to rider Ryan Hatch getting in a right bother.

It was obvious that Mirsaale, dropping in trip, would try to control the race from the front. As it turned out, he wasn't in the best of moods to do this but Brian Harding still masterminded him into second place.

Meanwhile Moon Racer just took whatever position Tom Scudamore requested, challenging at the second last and dominating readily all the way home. This run suggested soft ground is no barrier, but we know from his 2015 Cheltenham Festival bumper triumph that faster ground suits well, too.

Given he'll get eight years of age next March, I suspect the chances of him contesting the Champion rather than the Supreme are very live indeed – particularly given that contest lacks depth beyond whichever Ricci-Mullins representative lines up – and, sadly, I suspect there will only be one.

In the backwash, this was a rough race. Ballyandy (who wore earplugs) was not as well positioned as Moon Racer and lacked the tactical speed to compensate, meaning that when Hatch tried to shadow the winner to the stands' rail, he caused interference and earned a three-day ban from the stewards.

His horse then stuck to his unequal task so determinedly that he got the post-race wobbles (or post-race ataxia, to use the veterinary term). A step up in trip will surely be the plan for this likeable horse who retains plenty of potential.

Both Keep In Line and Movewiththetimes suffered interference, the latter markedly so and not just when squeezed out by Ballyandy. He was also carried markedly left before the last when Keep In Line hung post-trouble and had to switch around him after the last. Both had spoiled what chance they might have had.

What About Carlo was awash with sweat for his jumps debut and hurdled too carefully to get involved, but he was also diagnosed with post-race ataxia. He is not proven beyond 10f on the Flat and may not have got home in those testing conditions.

Later that same day, Behind Time walked into the paddock like he was walking onto a yacht. Less convincingly, he also seemed to have one eye in the mirror as he watched himself trot up in the novices' handicap hurdle.

Dubbed "well named" by trainer Harry Fry – who won this race last year with subsequent Albert Bartlett winner, Unowhatimeanharry – his inexperience meant that jockey Kieron Edgar had to fight for his attention from an early stage and in particular when weaving about after the final flight.

It all spoke of a horse who's now improving faster than the handicapper will be able to keep pace with him, especially in the short term as he will be without penalty for winning this conditional jockeys' event if turned out quickly as is the plan. This good-looking horse has the potential for fierce upward mobility.

On the first day of Cheltenham's Open meeting, the experienced and improving Peregrine Run beat the re-opposing Wholestone and West Approach – the trio clear – in the Grade Two Neptune Investment Management Hyde novices' hurdle.

All three are improvers but vulnerable to better horses at in novices events as the season progresses. The winner completed a hat-trick, has plenty of experience as a second-season novice and prefers top of the ground. Wholestone is very game but make mistakes in the crux of the race, whereas West Approach jumps accurately in a hurdling style reminiscent of his half-brother Thistlecrack. Likewise, he needs to step up in trip.

Fifth-placed Baden, who had shaped well in some substantial contests last season, needed the run as least as much as his trainer had warned yet Henderson's grey didn't really show enough to interest you in his next start.

At Wetherby last Saturday, "backward sort" Some Invitation surprised the Skelton team by making a winning racecourse debut. From the family of Thisthatandtother, the five-year-old travelled strongly but floundered into a gawky mistake when challenging leader and recent Worcester winner, Monbeg Charmer, two out. He then rallied takingly to assert by a length, albeit it in receipt of 7lb. He should improve markedly.

In the opening contest on the same card, the mare La Bague Au Roi readily accounted for the too-keen Whatduhavtoget and, for a second time, the less scopey Groovejet at Wetherby on Saturday.

The winner made a small mistake at the second and rather reached for the last but extended readily away by five lengths. She won't be racing much on deep winter ground but is deemed potentially good enough for second running of the mares' novice event at the Festival.

At Navan earlier last week, the Elliott-trained Labaik scored a success that looked unlikely as he was outpaced approaching the second last in the Grade Three novices' hurdle but he out-sped stablemate Mick Jazz (formerly with Fry) and one-paced Le Martalin.

The time was comparatively good but the winner twice refused to race on the Flat and is one to be wary of, in my mind. He heads next to the Grade One Royal Bond at Fairyhouse in December but will need to improve on this form.

This is the runner-up's third season over hurdles, having been absent since pulling up in last year's Greatwood until finally getting off the mark in a first-time hood on his first start for his new yard at Clonmel last month.

Further back in the field, Wakea not uncharacteristicallymade mistakes on this quick return following a good win in handicap company at Down Royal. He was rated 104 at his peak for Jeremy Noseda on the Flat and stayed two miles.

Looking back to early November, Monbeg Notorious looked fortunate to win a Down Royal maiden given The Storyteller was travelling far better when falling at the second last and even Moulin A Vent, who was going worst of the trio at the time, was able to harry him to the line.

That said, the winner still looked raw but jumped very soundly and looks a decent staying chaser in the making. All three principals were making their hurdles debut.

Some brief yak: Prize for the Most Mentioned Ricci-Mullins Recruit goes to Senewalk, who's entered this weekend and shares a sire, Walk In The Park, with Douvan and Min. Both his owner and likely jockey, Walsh, spoke well of him.Invitation Only ("he's schooled well"), Melonand Chateau Conti, in different ownerships at the same yard, all also got positive mentions.

Battleford, as horse whose frame and athleticism I liked when first encountering him in the paddock prior to his running second in last season's Festival bumper, also got a shout-out from Walsh, who also suggested that further than two miles would be required.

Walsh also spontaneously nominated Death Duty, a horse he rode last month to an eight-length victory on hurdles debut over 2m4f at Roscommon for Elliott and Gigginstown, as "a bit of value" (presumably for the Neptune). "He's a very decent horse," Walsh asserted.

Finally, if I have overlooked an item of novice-hurdling form hailing from the early part of this season, apologies but I'm sure it will be put to the test in the coming weeks and I'd like to end with the horse that has impressed me most in this division to date.

Robin Roe made a huge impression on me when winning over 2m4f at Aintree last month, freewheeling away from his field when invited to do so by jockey Harry Skelton. It was notable that trainer Dan immediately said the horse's next stop would be the Group One Challow Hurdle at Newbury. I like him a lot.

Other honourable mentions in dispatches include Saturnas, who won a two-mile Naas maiden in the style of a stayer last Saturday (albeit with an easy lead), and Top Tug, a decent recruit from the Flat who made a winning start over hurdles at Kempton last week.

Ruby Walsh "Turning to the yak, Walsh is expecting Mullins' leading novice-chasing hopes to be making their debuts in the coming weeks, but even he can't be certain of the plan."
Ruby Walsh

Juvenile hurdlers

McManus already holds a strong hand among the three-year-olds. In a Fairyhouse maiden last week, Landofhopeandglory led home a 1-2 for the green-and-gold-hooped silks, both of which were formerly trained by Aidan O'Brien and now reside at the burgeoning yard of Joseph O'Brien.

His new trainer even rode him in races in as a two-year-old, and here he travelled well in and amongst horses, giving the odd flat-footed jump but attacking the last really well after moving into the lead on the bridle.

He is a high-class recruit from the Flat, having finished second in the Group Two Curragh Cup and fourth in a deep edition of the Queen's Vase, but more importantly has already taken extremely well to hurdles. He ranges from 10/1 to 12/1 for the Triumph.

His stablemate Big Ben was narrowing the gap at the line having come from further back, but never really mounted a challenge. He's far less experienced having made it to the track only twice on the Flat, including success in a late summer Curragh 10f maiden on his second start. There's quite a lot of Flat speed on the dam's side of his pedigree.

Back in third, Alcander came from even further off the pace and Icario, who helped set it rather too aggressively for his purposes, showed some ability. The former seems to have been helped by a tongue-tie and looks set for handicap company; the latter was having his first run in Ireland and over hurdles since being purchased from France.

Five days later and another McManus juvenile was impressing at Cheltenham. On his second start for Philip Hobbs, Defi Du Seuil won the Grade Two JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial hard held.

The rain had already turned the ground from 'good' to 'soft' by the first race (on times) and the two leaders, East Indies and Red Hot Chilly, did far too much on the lead, the former stopped with alarming rapidity.

The winner was patiently ridden and did everything right. He looks smart and is best-priced at 16/1 for the Triumph. The ground is likely to be quicker come the Festival but he did win (admittedly a poor race) at Ffos Las on good..

In attempting to concede 4lb to winner, Diable De Sivola appeared to take a good step forward on his fourth start over hurdles. He's typical of the kind of horse trainer Nick Williams does well with.

Dino Velvet was making a lovely debut when, having come to the end of his tether on his hurdling debut, he stumbled and capsized on landing after the last when in third place. In trying to give the winner a race from three out, however, he showed enough to suggest that Alan King has another decent juvenile recruit for the McNeill family and friends.

The disappointment of the race was the Nicholls-trained Wealth Des Mottes, who was never going on this British debut and was ultimately pulled up.

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Djakadam: back now for the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 12/1 each-way with various firms

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