A look back at the last couple of week’s National Hunt racing kicking off with the Cheltenham Open meeting.
The heavyweight battle on Friday’s opening day at Cheltenham witnessed Grands Crus taking on Cue Card in the novice chase which has been won in the past by such luminaries as Denman, Imperial Commander, Weird Al and Time For Rupert. It was a smooth transition from hurdles to fences for the six-year old white Grands Crus with the departure of Cue Card at the eleventh fence muddling the result somewhat. The most pleasing aspect for the Pipe team was how Grands Crus settled given his previous tendency to pull in the early part of races. Grands Crus made one mistake on the way round at the ditch but he refused to let that error compromise his jumping in the remainder of the race. Long term the 3 mile RSA Chase looks the most likely prospect at Cheltenham given he is now settling better. Consideration must also be given to a tilt at the Jewson over 2m 4f or possibly the Arkle as he does have pace on his side. Cue Card blundered and unseated Joe Tizzard when diving at the ditch but he had jumped well at Chepstow on his previous outing over fences and deserves another chance.
Steps To Freedom has long been known as a horse of genuine quality. Jessica Harrington’s five-year old showed great character to fend off Paul Nicholls’ Prospect Wells after a prolonged battle up the Cheltenham hill. Having endured a long campaign over the summer Steps To Freedom will probably not run again until the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival and the 10-1 on offer from Stan James looks playable as long as the ground doesn’t come up soft in March.
Hinterland is a horse with a future and he made a big impression in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial with his fluent jumping; he is now clear favourite for the big race itself at a best priced 10-1. Paul Nicholls is advising punters to tread with caution as to where he will send his juvenile at the Festival, but I would be very surprised if the Triumph Hurdle isn’t where he ends up. The owners of Hinterland were responsible for last year’s victor Zarkandar and the 10-1 on offer with William Hill looks decent for the Triumph given he is only 6-1 with Ladbrokes.
Fingal Bay maintained his unbeaten record in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle. Half-brother to the useful hurdler/chaser Oodachee this five-year old has bags of potential and is now a 10-1 shot for the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle in March. Staying on well he is a three-mile chaser at heart and one of the most exciting juveniles around with trainer Philip Hobbs considering him potentially the best horse he’s ever trained.
The Arkle is shaping up to be a cracking renewal with the mighty Peddlers Cross heading up the market at 11-2. Paul Nicholls’ Al Ferof laid down a marker though at Cheltenham when cruising home in a strongly run Novices Chase. The winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle in March Al Ferof loves the Cheltenham track and looks a superb chaser in the making. Al Ferof earned himself quotes of 7-1 for the aforementioned Arkle although given Peddlers Cross assured jumping over fences on debut and his superior hurdles rating he will be a very tough horse to beat.
Kauto Star warmed the hearts of all who watched him triumph in the Betfair Chase jumping like a stag before kicking for home to readily dimiss the challenges of Diamond Harry, Weird Al and Long Run to triumph by eight-lengths. Kauto Star has been cut to 11-2 from 16-1 for the King George VI Chase but given this strenuous effort it’s questionable whether he will turn up for the race on Boxing Day. Long Run made a few jumping errors when finishing second, running 12lb below his best but will improve for his seasonal outing and remains in my opinion the most likely winner of the King George VI Chase having defeated Kauto Star fair and square at both Kempton and Cheltenham last term.
Paul Nicholls and owner Clive Smith had further success as Master Minded won the prestigious Amlin 1965 Chase putting a lacklustre last outing at Aintree behind him. Defeating Somersby by three-lengths his odds were slashed from 8-1 to 6-1 for the King George VI Chase. The race had been cut up with the withdrawal of Captain Chris and with Long Run sure to strip fitter and doubts remaining over the King George trip for Master Minded I wouldn’t be rushing to snap up the 6-1 on offer. Master Minded has won on ten occasions since his blockbuster runaway win in the 2008 Queen Mother Chase but never been able to match that run on figures and would need to find more to beat Long Run in the King George.
The rangy Grandouet crashed out at Wincanton earlier in the month when looking likely to win but set matters straight with a comprehensive victory in the Betfair Hurdle without coming off the bridle. It wasn’t the strongest opposition he faced but Nicky Henderson’s youngster showed fluent jumping, good speed and hinted at the promise of more to come. Grandouet was cut from 20-1 to 14-1 for the Champion Hurdle which given the current open look to the contest seems reasonable. The worry is that flat tracks seem to be Grandouet’s preference.
Thousand Stars was very impressive when comprehensively defeating of one of last season’s leading novice hurdlers Oscars Wells in the key race the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday. It’s open to debate which race the very consistent Thousand Stars will be aimed at with the Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle the options.