The 2018 Cheltenham Festival is now only three weeks away, whilst it’s only just over seven weeks to the Grand National. We take a look back at some of last week’s big-race pointers in this week’s racing news, whilst we’ll also look at some of this week’s Cheltenham Festival and Grand National Trials.
There’s also high-class all-weather flat action at Lingfield on Saturday in the Winter Derby and many of the entries will also be targeting All-Weather Finals Day back at the track on Good Friday.
The Ascot Chase was a fantastic race on paper, bringing together last year’s JLT runner-up Top Notch, dual Ascot Chase Cue Card, Frodon who had won a handicap off topweight last time, and one of Ireland’s best novice chasers from last season Coney Island. It was one of the best races of the season so far, however, despite the race being run at a furious gallop, none of them could get Waiting Patiently off the bridal. Jockey Brian Hughes held him up with the utmost confidence and, when he asked him to go and win his race, he cruised up to the leaders so easily that Hughes took another pull before unleashing a winning turn-of-foot. He looks worth following but, with his trainer uncommitted on future targets, it might be wise to avoid him at short ante-post prices for the Cheltenham Festival.
The Kingwell Hurdle at Haydock also produced a decent winner in Elgin whose progressive profile suggests he could challenge for top honours in some of the major hurdle races in the next season or two. In conceding Ch’tibello 4lb and beating him by 2½ lengths he suggested he doesn’t have much to find with the likes of The New One and My Tent Or Yours. Connections need to supplement him for the Champion Hurdle, but he could easily be an each-way player if they do.
Meanwhile, two Irish Cheltenham contenders also did their Festival chances no harm at Gowran Park on Saturday when Old Duke put himself firmly back in the Cheltenham Gold Cup reckoning when giving 7lb and a beating to one of this season’s most promising novice chasers in Presenting Percy. Both would have preferred a longer trip, but they had a useful course and distance winner a further 16-lengths behind in third. Old Duke was cut from 16/1 to 10/1 for the Gold Cup, whilst Presenting Percy is now as short as 5/2 in places for the RSA Chase.
Grand National Pointers
The 2018 Grand National weights were released last week, and I can’t recall the ante-post market being so quiet in the aftermath of the weights being framed. Part of that might be the uncertainty of what will run, with the first five in the weights all doubtful starters according to connections. If that’s the case, Blaklion could easily end up as top-weight, whilst the other market leader Total Recall would then shoulder 11-6. Classy horses like Many Clouds, Don’t Push It, and Neptune Collonges have carried big weights to victory in recent years, but it’s worth noting that four of the last five winners have carried between 10-3 and 10-11. Willie Mullins has three entries that could fall into that bracket in Bellshill, Pleasant Company, and Polidam, and it’s interesting that Bellshill has twice previously finished runner-up at the Grand National Meeting, be it in a bumper and a hurdles race. Another to catch the eye is Abolitionist who is trained, like the 2014 winner, by Dr Richard Newland. He was a staying-on third in last year’s Irish Grand National and looks the type to stay the marathon trip.
This Week’s Racing
Clonmel Tuesday 20 February
There’s Grade 3 action at Clonmel on Tuesday in the form of the Surehaul Mercedea-Benz Novice Hurdle. The 2014 winner Don Poli went on to win at the Cheltenham Festival for Gigginstown Stud, and they look likely to be double represented by the Gordon Elliott trained pair of Monkshood and Burren Life. Last year’s winner Monalee was also placed at the Cheltenham Festival and his trainer Henry de Bromhead relies on Chris’s Dream.
Punchestown Wednesday 21 February
There’s then Listed action at Punchestown on Wednesday, where trainer Willie Mullins has six mares declared for the Qevega Mares Hurdle. The race took the name of Mullins’ six-time Cheltenham Fesival winner just last year, and Mullins’ Limini beat the subsequently unbeaten Apple’s Jade in the inaugural running. He has the high-class Vroum Vroum Mag, Let’s Dance and Augusta Kate entered for the 2 miles 4 furlongs race this year, and Mullins looks keen to maintain his 100% record.
Huntingdon Thursday 22 February
There’s also more Listed race action for mares at Huntingdon on Thursday, and the Smarkets Lady Protectress Mares’ Chase over 2 miles 4 furlongs has attracted some excellent early entries – as it should for a first prize of over £42,000. Recent winners Happy Diva and Rene’s Girl come here in decent form but have something to find with the likes of Desert Queen and Mia’s Storm. The latter flopped in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Christmas, but her in-form connections look to have kept her for this race since. However, as she’s probably better at three-miles it could be close between her and Desert Queen at this shorter trip.
Kempton Saturday 24 February
There are some interesting Cheltenham trials at Kempton on Saturday, starting with the Betbright Adonis Juvenile Hurdle. Traditionally a trial for the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, Paul Nicholls (four) and Alan King (three) have won 7 of the last 14 renewals between them. Both are doubly represented in the early declarations, but it’s King’s Redicean who looks sure to start a warm favourite after winning both his previous hurdle races over course and distance by 10-lengths.
The Sky Bet Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle is also on the same card and, as Nicky Henderson has won two of the last three renewals, it could be significant that he could start his decent flat recruit Humphrey Bogart off here. However, Alan King could also start another useful flat recruit off here in Scarlet Dragon and the former Eve Johnson-Houghton inmate was rated the superior of the two on the flat.
Newcastle Saturday 24 February
The Eider Chase is the big race of the weekend at Newcastle and, though this was formerly a trial for the Grand National, it’s extremely unlikely that the winner will come from this field. The 4-miles trip usually takes some getting and, whilst current ante-post favourite Vinnie Lewis was impressive when winning the Sussex National when last seen, he’d be only the second 7-year-old to win the race in the last 15 renewals. One of the old boys that catches the eye is Emperor’s Choice, who looks set to carry much less weight than when plugging on into fifth last year.
Lingfield Saturday 24 February
The best race of the day could be the Winter Derby at Lingfield and a competitive field looks set to battle it out for a first prize of over £56,000. Last year’s winner Convey has been installed as the second-favourite to defend his crown but he hasn’t been seen for 293 days. The favourite is the Aidan O’Brien trained Clear Skies, who is a progressive handicapper who was last seen winning emphatically by 5½ lengths off a mark of 96 at Dundalk. He’s et to face plenty of potentially interesting higher-rated opponents though including Khalidi, Utmost, and Master The World.