There were some interesting Cheltenham Festival pointers last weekend, none more so than Native River’s win in the Denman Chase and Altior’s win in the Game Spirit Chase, and we’ll be taking a look back at those. Meanwhile, this week’s racing highlights include Kelso’s Thursday meeting which features the Morebattle Hurdle and the Ivan Straker Memorial Chase. There’s also Grade 2 action at Sandown on Friday, whilst Saturday takes in the Ascot Chase, Betfred Grand National Trial, and the Kingwell Hurdle.
Round-Up Of Last Weekend’s Action
The form of the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup had taken some knocks in recent weeks, with defeats for the winner Sizing John, runner-up Minella Rocco, and fourth Djakadam. Therefore, there were plenty of bookies willing to take on Native River as he appeared for the first time since last March in the Denman Chase. However, the 2016 Hennessey Gold Cup winner (now the Ladbrokes Trophy) was backed from early morning prices of 11/10 into 8/11 on his way to landing back-to-back Denman Chases. That was his fourth victory in his last four starts at Newbury but, though he must surely go close in the Gold Cup after placing at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, he’s yet to win at Cheltenham in three visits. On the plus side for punters who have backed him into 13/2 from 10/1 this week, the Tizzard stable appears to be hitting form, having been out of form at last year’s festival.
There were also plenty of bookies willing to take on Altior in the early exchanges of the Game Spirit Chase but continuous support saw him go off a well-backed 1/3 after touching 4/6 early doors. Victory rarely looked in doubt as he powered to a 4-length victory over this season’s Tingle Creek winner Politologue, and he’ll surely take all the beating if in the same form come March – and, of course, he could have plenty of improvement to come.
The Betfair Hurdle also produced an impressive winner in the shape of Kalashnikov, who it’s fair to say gunned down his rivals in style. His price for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival was quickly backed into a best-priced 8/1, however, Betfair Hurdle winners don’t have a great record at the Festival. Kalashnikov has also produced his best two performances on flat tracks at Doncaster and Newbury, so could still be of interest at Aintree if he does flop at Cheltenham.
Kelso, Thursday 15 February
Morebattle Hurdle (2.25)
The Morebattle Hurdle is a class 2 hurdle race that is run at Kelso over a trip of just over 18 furlongs. Notable winners in the last few years have included Peddlers Cross and the Nicky Henderson duo of Simonsig and Top Notch. However, with Henderson not represented this year, Cyrius Darius look set to try and become only the second horse to win the race more than once after Jinxy Jack, who won it four-times between 1990 and 1993.
However, Cyrius Darius has to concede 6lb or more to all his rivals. That could be an especially difficult task if Ch’tibello turns up, as Dan Skelton’s 7-year-old is rated 11lb his superior. However, it remains to be seen as to whether Ch’tibello stays the extra two-furlongs well enough after having never looked the strongest stayer over even the minimum trip of 2-miles. He also has a possible alternative engagement in Saturday’s Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton.
Ivan Straker Memorial Chase (3.00)
This 2 miles 7 furlongs and 96 yards class 2 chase has been won by some high-quality horses over the last few seasons, with Long Run winning it four years ago. Meanwhile, dual Cheltenham Festival winner Holywell took the 2015 renewal, whilst the Paul Nicholls trained pair of Unioniste and Saphir Du Rheu have won the last two. Last year’s winner Saphir Du Rheu is top-rated but may not run after taking in the Denman Chase last weekend.
Nicholls also has Vicente entered but the dual Scottish National winner would prefer further on decent ground. Therefore, this could be a good target for four-time course winner Big River who looks potentially well-treated receiving 9lb from some higher-rated but relatively exposed rivals.
Sandown Friday 16 February
Weatherbys General Stud Book Jane Seymour Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (2.25)
This Grade 2 Hurdle is run over a trip of 2 miles 3 furlongs and 173 yards, and the last two winning trainers Fergal O’Brien and Harry Fry both have possible runners in the shape of Oscar Rose and Lady Of Lamanver. However, ratings suggest that the finish may be fought out between All Currencies (Gary Moore) and If You Say Run (Paul Nicholls). If winning, the latter would pay a huge compliment to the Cheltenham Festival bound Maria’s Benefit, who she finished 20-lengths behind last time.
Ascot Saturday 17 February
Betfair Ascot Chase (3.35)
A truly fascinating Ascot Chase with 2013 and 2017 winner Cue Card hoping to rekindle the dying embers of his career by becoming the second 12-year-old to win the race, after Monet’s Garden won it in 2010. He’s looked a shadow of his former self so far this season, but his trainer Colin Tizzard was in good form last weekend. There are plenty of improving youngsters who are looking to fill the old man’s shoes though, with Top Notch backed into early favouritism as punters have clocked his 100% record at the track. Meanwhile, Frodon is now rated the equal of Top Notch after a 17-lengths win at Cheltenham last time, but he’s only 1lb better off with Top Notch for a 10-length beating here earlier in the season. Coney Island is also a winner here this season over course and distance, and connections of this Irish raider side-stepped the Irish Good Cup for a crack at this on route to the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The aptly named Waiting Patiently would also add plenty of spice as, though this unbeaten chaser probably beat regressive rivals last time, he could yet make up into a top-class chaser.
Haydock Saturday 17 February
Betfred Grand National Trial (3.15)
The Betfred Grand National Trial is run over a trip of 3 miles 4 furlongs and 97 yards, and this year’s contest looks likely to be feature the winner and runner-up from last year in Vieux Lion Rouge and Blaklion. Vieux Lion Rouge came out on top last season by 3½ lengths but, despite being 5lb better off this season, finds himself a much bigger price than Blaklion, who admittedly looks to have improved since. They both look sure to be involved at the finish but may not have everything their own way with the likes of course winners The Dutchman, Three Faces West and Mysteree possible opponents.
Wincanton Saturday 17 February
Kingwell Hurdle (2.45)
This 1 mile 7 furlongs and 65 yards Grade 2 Hurdle looks another decent chance for Ch’tibello if he side-steps Kelso on Thursday, and he was second in the 2017 renewal behind Yanworth. He looks set to face some interesting rivals though in Call Me Lord trained by Nicky Henderson, and Cliffs Of Dover who is a course and distance winner trained by Paul Nicholls. Don’t forget Elgin though, as his trainer Alan King has been responsible for three of the last nine winners of this race.