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Balnaslow – Was a tremendous servant last season and gave his 90yo owner Peggy Hagan some great days out. Having met her and her family at Stratford last year I was told that she was pretty much housebound, but she had made it to Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown and then Stratford to see her horse run. Sadly Peggy passed away in November, but it would be a great story if he could win this in her memory. I thought his run in this race last season was a superb effort and he was only beaten 3L having made the running. He was then 2nd at Aintree where he jumped terribly and Derek O’Connor did amazingly well to get him to finish as close to Dineur as he did. He then beat Mendip Express by a neck at Punchestown before finishing 2nd to Young Hurricane at Stratford. I think he underperformed that day which is no surprise as to have run in all 4 big hunter chases is always going to have left a mark. We have only seen him once this season when he pulled up behind Morning Assembly at Kirkistown last month. It is fair to say he didn’t show a lot as he was always near the back and then pulled up before the last. I would imagine he will come on a lot for that effort and he will surely be fully fit for this. I can see him running a big race once again.
Barel Of Laughs – Was a shock 3rd in this last year at 100/1 and it was by far the best race he has run. He then won the Lady Dudley Cup (one of the big races in points) before going on to win on hunter chase night at Cheltenham. I suspect he wasn’t quite at his best that night as he only just held on from The Wealerdealer. He started off this season by finishing 2nd at Barbury to Saddlers Encore, but I think he should have won given he started racing along way out with Colorado Doc and that meant he didn’t quite have enough left to see off the winners challenge. He won his other start this season at Bangor’s point-to-point track and although the margin was small he was value for a much bigger margin. If he can repeat last year’s run then he obviously has to be a player, but I will be a bit surprised if he is able to hit the frame again especially on testing ground which looks far from ideal.
Burning Ambition – The big talking horse of the race and looks set to go off favourite. I would say there is even scope for him going off at pretty short odds come race time. He has run just 7 times in his life and only made his debut 13 months ago when he finished 2nd. He won his other two starts this season and returned in November to win again and followed that up with another point win the following month. He made his hunter chase/rules debut at Limerick over Christmas where he beat an average field pretty easily. Next up was his biggest test to date last month at Punchestown where he faced Gilgamboa. He came there to win the race and was in the lead over the last, but Gilgamboa came back for more and he had no response and was beaten just under 3L at the line. Fans and connections of the horse were happy with that, but coming at it from a neutral point of view I can’t say I was blown away by the effort. He didn’t seem to know what to do once the winner had gone past him which means he might learn from the experience although the other worry is that his stamina ran out. My initial thought at the time was that Cheltenham was going to come a year to soon for him and I still think that. Now it is possible to win this race with little experience. Kingscliff had run just 4 times, Cappa Bleu 6 and Castle Mane 7, but on the whole it is a hard thing to do. He will have faced nothing like the test he will get on Friday and that is a concern for back a horse at such a short price. One original negative I had was the jockey, but the fact they have booked Jamie Codd has turned that into a big plus and I think it was a very good move to book him. People will be on at double figure prices and fair play to them as they have themselves a great value bet. Don’t get me wrong I am far from saying he won’t win this and he could turn out to be a top class horse, but for me he is priced up purely on reputation and I struggle to see how his current is value.
Caid Du Berlais – Won the Paddy Power Gold Cup in 2014 which was the peak of a decent career when trained by Paul Nicholls. He hasn’t gone very far though given Rose Loxton works for Paul. He ended up running twice at the Festival last year as he fell at the first in the Ultima Handicap Chase and then stayed on to be 8th behind Presenting Percy in the Pertemps Final, beaten just over 14L. This year he is 3 from 3 in points. The first two came at Larkhill when ridden by the inexperienced Harriett Tucker which didn’t help his jumping at all. He did win both easily though although the bare form isn’t the strongest. Will Biddick is set to ride him in this and he took the ride at Badbury Rings when he essentially ended up in a very one sided match so we learnt little there. The trip has to be a concern as he is unproven over this far and although he should handle conditions it is going to make it a real test of stamina. The bigger issue for me is the fact he isn’t running in Paul’s name. A few weeks ago Paul was talking about having 5 runners in the race which included Caid Du Berlais, but now he is going to run in Rose’s name. In my view if Paul thought he could actually win then he would have had him running in his name because he won’t want to miss out on a Cheltenham winner and vital prize money for the trainer’s title. Granted he could have got the horse wrong, but I agree with him that a couple of his runners look to have stronger claims as do others in the race.
Cousin Pete – Looked a potential Foxhunter horse when he won at Cheltenham on hunter chase night 2 years ago, but things didn’t go right for him last season. He ran terribly on both runs last term although connections mentioned that a few things were found including the fact he was allergic to the straw they were using. This season he made his return in what looked a pretty competitive Mens Open at Larkhill and he won by a comfortable 5L in a good time. The 2nd horse home was Monsieur Gibraltar who looked very good when he was winning hunter chases last season and there were other winners to come out of the race. He then was just denied by Sir Jack Yeats at Market Rasen and that form was made to look stronger after the 3rd Warden Hill won at Doncaster. That was his first run on soft ground so he seemed to handle it fine, but I don’t think he really wants it testing. He had a comfortable prep win at Barbury at the end of February. I think the longer trip here will suit him more than 3m round Market Rasen and as much as I am not sure he can hit the frame I can see him running a decent race.
Foxrock – Was not eligible for hunter chases in the UK last season, but he probably would have pushed On The Fringe for favouritism had he been able to run as he looked very good in hunter chases in Ireland last year. He beat Balnaslow by 9L at Down Royal and won the main prep at Leopardstown when beating On The Fringe. The Irish National became his main target, but he was never a factor that day and pulled up. This season is obviously geared to this race and he has just been seen once at Thurles in January. He was a 10L 2nd to Gilgamboa that day and he was running a big race until fitness told late on. I certainly think it was a case of the fittest horse won and he should come on a hell of a lot for that effort. I personally think he is Irelands main hope in the race, the only nagging doubt I have is the two times he has run at the Festival he has disappointed, but the first one was in the National Hunt Chase and to me it looked more of a case of him not staying 4m than anything else. One thing we can certainly say is that testing ground is ideal for him whereas it will be against plenty of rivals. He has to go on any shortlist.
Grand Vision – What a grand sight he has been this season back in handicaps winning two at Lingfield and Wincanton and also finishing a gallant 2nd at Newbury. That Wincanton win came off 135 and he is now up to 141 so based on that he has to be a player. The concern would be that he was showing good form in hunter chases before only finishing 14th in this. I do think it would be dangerous to write him off completely though because he could be in even better form this season than he was last.
Minella For Value – Massively outran his odds in this last year when a close 6th behind Pacha Du Polder. Things didn’t go his way after that as he was 21L behind Balnaslow at Punchestown and was then a beaten favourite in hunter chases at Killarney and Listowel. This season he was beaten on his return in December before winning twice the last of which he bolted up by 25L. Given he failed to win a hunter chase after Cheltenham and the fact he is now 12 I find it hard to see how he can find the improvement required to go and win this.
On The Fringe – One of the best hunter chasers in recent years, but why has he not been retired? Granted he ran well in this last year although not quite at his peak, but after that he really has a been a shadow of his former self. Pulled up at Aintree, stuffed at Punchestown and then this season he pulled up in a hunter chase before finishing 2nd in a point back in December. I can only think JP is desperate to have a runner in the race and as Gilgamboa isn’t allowed to he has to run On The Fringe. He will be doing well to finish in the top 10 let alone equal last year’s 4th and is way too short in the betting
Pacha Du Polder – Last year’s winner and was given a superb ride from women of the moment Bryony Frost to do so. After giving Victoria Pendleton her first ride over rules fences he gave Harriet Tucker her first ride over rules fences as well at Doncaster last month. She is set to ride him in this and that has to be a big concern for his chance here. She has ridden Caid Du Berlais in two of his pointing wins this season, but having watched the video’s I was worried about the way she presented the horse at the fences and that worry didn’t go away after Doncaster. Pacha is a very safe jumper, but he was making mistakes for her. Paul Nicholls made it known after the race that Pacha had been injured and he was also concerned about how much ability he remained. I can’t help think that if he thought he had a winning chance she wouldn’t be riding the horse. He will improve a lot for that Doncaster run though and nearly beat Ardea in the end for 2nd so it wasn’t a run without promise, but he certainly doesn’t have a rider as good as Bryony on this time around.
Premier Portrait – Duel hunter chase winner and did well to beat Unioniste at Taunton in the first hunter chase of the season. It then went a bit wrong at Fakenham where given his running style it seemed an odd track to run him at. He was getting outpaced when a horse fell in front of him and the jockey was unseated as he swerved the horse. A good horse at the right level, but his 18th in this last year was proof that he struggles at the very top level of the sphere, although he will handle the conditions.
Saddlers Encore – Won a Grade 3 handicap hurdle at Sandown 2 years ago off 129 and although things didn’t go to plan after that he clearly has a fair bit of ability. He went missing after finishing well behind Thistlecrack on his chasing debut in October 2016 and reappeared when winning a point at Barbury beating Barel Of Laughs. On the face of it that looks like very strong form, but I think he was flattered by that effort. Barel Of Laughs had started racing with Colorado Doc from a long way out and it meant he had nothing left after the last once Saddlers Encore had got to him. I don’t think he would have won the race otherwise. Connections then chose the odd option of dropping him down in trip to 2m4f at Lingfield which given he had got outpaced at Barbury was a strange move. It was a weak race though and at least in finishing 2nd it meant he qualified for this. He wasn’t able to keep up with Rouge Et Blanc once they turned for home which wasn’t a great surprise. This trip should be much more suitable and the Sandown win came on soft ground, but at the same time it would be surprising if he was good enough.
Shantou Magic – Struggled in points last season as well as a well beaten 5th in the Gran Military, but has won both starts this term at Friars Haugh in Ladies Open’s. Has done them well and we know he will handle testing conditions. Looks capable of winning a northern hunter chase, but can’t see him being enough to finish anywhere near the front runners.
Shotavodka – Was beginning to get frustrating under rules when trained by David Pipe, but has looked a different horse for Heidi Brookshaw in two hunter chase runs this season. First up he won at Hereford in January over 2m5f and that race has worked out very well since with the distant 3rd Sir Jack Yates winning twice since. As much as that one has improved since it’s hard to understand why Shotavodka is a bigger price especially as he improved himself when finishing 2nd in the Walrus at Haydock. Given we know he stays well it is a concern that having looked the winner he tired badly on the run in and allowed Virak to claim the victory. Possibly the testing ground was the reason that day and although it is unlikely to be as bad here it is a worry he wont see the trip out. I can’t see him winning the race, but a top 10 place looks within his reach and he might be capable of better than that f he does stay.
Sir Jack Yeats – Wasn’t too bad in Ireland and won 3 times last summer where he made all. Moved to Richard Spencer after that and he has done well in his 3 runs. It was a solid first run behind Shotavodka and he followed that up with a win over Cousin Pete and Walden Hill at Market Rasen and beat Cultram Abbey by a nose at Kelso. Both times I think he was idling on the run in and there is probably a bit more left in the tank. What we don’t know is if he will stay this far or not and that has to be a concern especially in testing ground. His trainer is very confident about him going close to winning this, but for me he looks a little short in the betting as much as I think he can run well.
Top Wood – Things never really gone his way at Cheltenham in the past when trained by David Pipe. He has either been well beaten or failed to complete as he did when falling when still in contention in the 2016 Kim Muir. He seemed to lose his way last season although didn’t run too badly in the Sussex National at Plumpton. He has been won two points this season for his new connections and won both fairly easily. First up was at Bishops Court when beating William Money who has won 3 times since and then he beat Mon Parrain by 10L at Chaddesley Corbett over Christmas. The concern has to be he missed an intended run at Wetherby last month and he hasn’t been seen since. Not sure he will be good enough either, but could run a good race as he should stay the trip in the conditions.
Unioniste – Didn’t run too badly in the Kim Muir last year when ridden by Dave Maxwell for the first time. Naturally hunter chasing was always going to be the plan and he was just done by a nose by Premier Portrait at Taunton in January. After that he has had two very simple tasks at Wincanton and Fontwell which didn’t tell us a great deal. We know he stays and handles any ground so as much as I won’t be backing him he should give his jockey a good spin round.
Vincitore – Been well beaten by Unioniste twice this season and that sums up his chances here.
Virak – Ran well in last season’s Charlier Hall, but seemed to go backwards after that and was clearly losing his form. Had to be shaken up to beat Real Milan on his hunter chase debut at Ludlow, but did it comfortably enough in the end and then won the Walrus when getting up on the run in to beat Shotavodka. That has to go down as a really good effort and the trip and ground won’t be an issue whatever the weather does. Only 9 still and with him looking a happier horse this year he has to be considered a contender, especially with the ground looking like it will be soft and he might just turn out to be the trainers best hope
Volnay De Thaix – Ex Nicky Henderson horse who was 5th in the 2015 Coral Cup and has plenty of useful form to his name. He didn’t win last season, but his spring/summer campaign was pretty good and included a 3rd in the Grade 2 Select Hurdle at Sandown. This season he has gone pointing for Stuart Morris and has looked impressive. First of all he beat Battle Dust by 10L at Thorpe Lodge where Jack Andrews did very well to stay on after a bad blunder at 2 out. Given Battle Dust has won his other two point starts and was a good 2nd at Catterick that looks decent form. He then went to Brocklesby Park where he bolted up by 20L. It was a shame the very good Arthur’s Secret unseated 2 out as we would have got an even better handle on where he is at. The 3rd Argot won at Leicester on Friday. The time was quick though and he was 9 seconds quicker than Catterick winner Duhallow Tornado carrying 4lbs less. I would be a bit concerned if the ground was really testing especially as he isn’t a certain stayer, but the bigger concern is the fences. He used to make mistakes over rules fences before and made errors in both his point wins including that great sit by Jack at Thorpe Lodge. I think he has the potential to be a big player, but I just wonder if the fences are going to get in the way of him being able to win.
Warden Hill – Landed a massive gamble when winning in a hunter chase for the first time at Doncaster last month. You have to think though that it turned out he was the only fit horse who stayed in the race and I would expect Pacha Du Polder to improve past him. Was behind Sir Jack Yates and Cousin Pete at Market Rasen prior to that. On good ground I wouldn’t fancy him to better last years 12th, but he should handle conditions and the trip won’t be an issue so could have more in his favour than some.
Wells De Lune – A bit surprised to see him entered in this as he doesn’t look a likely stayer. Put in a bold front running performance when 2ndto Barrakilla at Bangor on his first start for a year and then had a simple task to score at Ffos Las a couple of weeks later. I would be more interested in him if he turned up at Aintree.
Wonderful Charm – He should have won this race last year, but Katie Walsh decided to follow On The Fringe the whole way round which proved to be an error in judgement. Added to that he was a little outpaced at one stage and then was forced wide into the home straight. He was only beaten a neck in the end by Pacha Du Polder and he could easily go one better this time around. He was last in the Grand National after that and then got outpaced in the Stratford Foxhunters before flying home when the race was over. I think the track was against him that day and a return to Cheltenham is much more in his favour. What isn’t in his favour though is the rain as he needs decent ground. It was soft when he won his prep at Musselburgh last month, but connections have always said he is better on a sounder service. Paul Nicholls has said he is his best chance of a winner all week and he would be my idea of the winner on good ground as well. The problem is if the forecast is right it wont be anywhere near good ground and for that reason I can’t be backing him.
Young Hurricane – There wasn’t too much in his form that suggested he would go on and be capable of winning the Stratford Foxhunters prior to last season and even then it was still a surprise to me he turned out to be good enough. I think he did improve last season and was just denied by Ardea at Hexham in April. He was then really impressive when winning at Kelso the following month. Then came the big win at Straford, but my feeling is Balnaslow wasn’t at his peak and Wonderful Charm wasn’t suited to the race. This will be much tougher I think and even though he will came on plenty for his first run of the season last month at Duncombe Park, it was disappointing that he only finished 2ndat 4/9. I would love to see him run well, but he would interest me more at Stratford than he does here especially given the likely testing ground which isn’t ideal.