It’s official. The national hunt season is about to hit full swing as for the first time this season we visit the home of jumps racing. It can only be Cheltenham as we take a look at day 1 of the Showcase meeting.
There’s been a few switches at the top of this market already. Braid Blue, Doctor Duffy and CHAMPAGNE WELL have all been favourite for a short amount of time. But it’s the most recent market leader that warrants the most attention going into this 2 mile 5 furlong Ballymore Novices Hurdle. The first indicator and key race on the road to Cheltenham for the Ballymore Hurdle on the Wednesday of the Festival.
It’s quite difficult to start splitting up the top 3 and strangely its the one without a win over obstacles who appeals most. Champagne Well competed in grade 1 and grade 3 company last season. Finishing 6th behind Champ in the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle and 3rd behind Third Wind in Sandown’s 2.5 mile handicap hurdle back in early March, both read as good form.
Being campaigned over 2.5 miles to 3 miles he seems to be better at the slightly sharper trip so the 2 miles and 5 furlongs here shouldn’t bother him too much. He’ll have the stamina to cope with the testing and undulating track of Cheltenham. It’s also his ability to handle some cut in the ground that makes him more appealing than his rivals here. That effort at Sandown came on soft ground, with Cheltenham’s old course riding good to soft and more rain forecasted in the afternoon it’s essential to be able to handle some cut in the turf.
Next on paper for me would be Braid Blue but his wins coming on all good ground are a concern. He’s been smashing up class 4 novices races but good ground appears to be the key to his success. He’s been winning over 2.5 miles and 3 miles but the more cut in the ground the less competitive I think he’ll be. His 2 career runs with juice in the ground yielded a 5th and 6th. Doctor Duffy requires some attention after beating Lethal Steps by 4 lengths in a 2 mile 6 furlong race at Navan recently but with both of these competitors having to give weight to Champagne Well it’s easier to side with the new favourite.
There’s been another flip flop in the markets overnight here in this race. The 3 mile novices chase looks a really tight affair and new favourite DINONS is given the nod ahead of Wholestone. There’s very little to split the 2 but the way Dinons has taken to fences this summer has been phenomenal.
3/5 over fences this summer. One loss where he bumped into the impressive Robin De Carlow and the other where he rubbed shoulders with the late legendary Wicklow Brave. Only a handful of Irish raiders have come over for this meeting and all need respect and a market check. Dinons was last seen in Limerick 12 days ago doing a demolition job over just shy of 2.5 miles. Beating Mind’s Eye by 11 lengths, Davy Russell’s mount went clear from 2 out and stayed assertive till he hit the line. It is interesting to note that Dinons won a 3 mile hurdle at Cheltenham last season. A 14 length hack job is hard to ignore in his back form and any evidence of a horse handling Cheltenham’s test gets a big green tick by their name.
Main competitor Wholestone made his chasing debut last month but somehow looked less than convincing in the match at odds of 1/6. He won that day as his opponent fell 4 out. Wholestone was clear of his opponent but his jumping wasn’t fluent and he went left at every fence. Although going left handed today it’s not ideal to not be going straight and true in the air. A good jumper like Dinons will be taking a chunk out of him at every jump.
These 2 were hard to split but with more experience over fences, a solid course win and Cheltenham master Davy Russell in the saddle it’s looking likely that Dinons can give weight to all his rivals.
As usual there’s a French recruit favourite I’m keen to take on. I’ve had my fingers burnt by these imports before and don’t plan on making the mistake again. They tend to garner lots of market support and go off a short price to finish 8th and look candidly weak. Fred’s price has hardened up considerably and as usual I’m left scratching my head as to why. Soundly beaten on 3 hurdle starts carrying no weight and he’s an 11/8 favourite at England’s most testing jumps track? No thank you.
MASTER DEBONAIR is taken to oppose this French raider. The eye-catching detail is winning a course and distance bumper back in November last season. In behind that day was McFabulous and Kissesforkatie. The former won the Aintree open bumper at the Grand National Festival and the latter has placed in 2 maiden hurdles since. Master Debonair returned for the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival. He went off 12/1 and finished like it too. 21 lengths off Envoi Allen he was outclassed in grade 1 bumper company. Those ahead of him that day will be eyeing up their chances in next year’s Supreme Novices Hurdle and our selection’s targets might be a little more realistic. This is a solid place to start and build on in a class 3 maiden back where he scored his first win. If he can be settled prominent in the field he can make his move around that famous corner swinging for home. Robbie Power takes the ride for the Colin Tizzard trained 5 year old. The jockey has smashed in a 26% strike rate in the last 2 weeks and hopefully his form continues here.
Other runner of note is the Skelton mare Getariver. Perfect bumper record she handles some cut in the ground and gets her mare’s allowance to take on the geldings. Proven course form and the ability to go well fresh gives Master Debonair the edge to shed his maiden tag the first time of asking.
It wouldn’t be a meeting at Cheltenham without dipping your toe into a handicap hurdle. The 3.10 left me wanting to cry in a corner as I couldn’t pick one out of that clustered field to save my own life. But one grabbed my attention here massively in BENNY’S BRIDGE.
Last seen in behind Getaway Trump in the Novices Handicap Hurdle Final. He finished 9th of 15 but probably found himself a little outpaced in the hot contest. The main piece of form to take from this one is his course win on trials day in a handicap hurdle beating Flash the Steel. The handicapper lost his mind after that run and threw 14lbs at the 6 year old. 14lbs. In one lump. The harsh rise took its toll and he’s only just coming back down to being on a workable mark. Off 127 today and a summer of munching grass under his belt he could come back even better and ready to make a mockery of this handicap.
He’s a quirky one though and will need to be held up in the rear and given a very good tactical ride from the back to make up the places. If he’s put to sleep in the rear of the field he slowly creeps forward in the closing stages of the race to lay down his challenge. What’s important here is having a pace to aim at. I’ve identified 4 runners who will try and force a strong pace. There’s something about this course that just makes jockeys go harder. They ask for more and most races are run at a good clip. Benny’s Bridge will sit off the strong pace and when it starts to collapse come with a rattle from the back to press for the lead.
Fergal O’Brien’s yard are in fine form with a 21% strike rate in the last 2 weeks. With all the riders here being conditional jockeys Connor Brace is definitely the pick of the bunch and well worth the 3lbs he takes off the back of his mount.