Cheltenham Festival News

Cheltenham Festival: 11 things we learnt as weights released

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Thu 2 Mar 2023

You would have probably got big odds about germination sheets being discussed in the opening minutes of the Cheltenham Festival media event staged by The Jockey Club at the home of Jump racing on Wednesday. And perhaps an even bigger price about Gordon Elliott volunteering his best bet in the handicaps moments later.

But the double was swiftly landed and the day’s short-priced favourite – an intended Zoom link-up causing frustration – also obliged.

The greatest Jumps meeting of the year is looming large and all of us are searching for clues. Numerous horses were discussed and debated. Surely a few of them will rise to the occasion. But which ones?

Here are 11 things we learnt.

Imagine that? Elliott gives tip for handicaps

Plenty of final questions from interviewers represent ambitious rolls of the dice and Racing TV’s Nick Luck, the host, was probably expecting Gordon Elliott to play a straight bat when he signed off by asking him for his best bet in the handicaps.

But if you don’t ask, you don’t get, and Luck assured Elliott there were only three or people present and that whatever he said would stay within the walls. Elliott chuckled and then, after a pause, responded by volunteering Imagine in the final race of the meeting – the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle. It is one of the five-year-old’s six entries and the 12-1 on offer had shrunk to a best price of 8-1 by the evening.

Earlier, Elliott had given updates on several of his leading lights, including Boodles Cheltenham, Gold Cup hope Conflated, who won the Savills Chase on his latest start. “He has had a good preparation and was good at Leopardstown the last day,” he said of the 12-1 chance. “Don Cossack (his previous Gold Cup winner) was a quicker horse whereas this lad is a galloper. I think the trip of the Gold Cup will really suit him. He was in the wrong race (Ryanair) last year.”

Delta Work will be joined by stablemates Galvin, Mortal and Hardline when he defends his Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase crown. “Delta is in great form. This has been the plan. He got more experience (of the Cross Country course) the last day and he gave the first and second a lot of weight but he will be off level weights now. Galvin is a good horse and he could be the big danger.”

Mighty Potter is a best-priced 11-8 favourite for the Turners Novices’ Chase and Elliott does not seem concerned he ran poorly at the meeting last year. “He made a mistake early and never really got into a rhythm. Jack (Kennedy) very wisely eased up on him and saved the horse for Punchestown,” he said. “He never really jumped hurdles as he does fences.”

It's On The Line for Emmet Mullins

 Noble Yeats will be back in headgear (The Jockey Club)
Noble Yeats will be back in headgear (The Jockey Club)

It will come as no surprise to anyone that Grand National hero Noble Yeats will be re-equipped with headgear when he contests the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.

“I suppose the cheekpieces made a big difference for him last year (in the Grand National) so we’re hoping for a repeat event,” Emmet Mullins said by telephone after an attempt to link up on Zoom was rather comically aborted.

“Ground-wise I suppose we’re quite laid back and we’ll take what we’re given. I think a proper Gold Cup test will play to his strengths. Obviously, he’s going to have to step forward from his last run but it’s something he’s been able to do in the past and hopefully we can repeat it.

“We couldn’t be happier with him. He’s been in great form since the Cotswold Chase and we’re just hoping we get a clean run with him between now and Gold Cup Day.”

Mctigue (Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle), Corbetts Cross (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle), Filey Bay (McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle) and So Scottish (Magners Plate) will be other intriguing contenders for Mullins, while he added that It’s On The Line “has got a big shout as well” in the St James’s Place Festival Hunters’ Chase. He is available at 16-1.

Warming to that theme, he added: “It might come a year too soon as he’s still a six-year-old but he’s doing everything right and he’s in a rich vein of form. He could be a nice horse for next year, possibly even a graded horse.”

French pair in line for Stayers’ Hurdle

It’s not just Irish-trained runners that the home team have to worry about. French challengers Gold Tweet and Henri Le Farceur are to be supplemented for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.

Gold Tweet is no bigger than 10-1 after his fluent win in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham in January. “All is good and we’re ready to run in the big race,” vowed trainer Gabriel Leenders, a fan of the team concept. “We are relaxed and well prepared. He jumps his hurdles very fast and he’s a very strong horse. He’s not big but he’s very strong and if we follow (the pace) he’ll have a fast finish, which is perfect for an English race.”

He added: “We’ve trained him for every possibility and if the race is fast or steady it’s not a problem. The jockey will be ready. Everybody is excited in France and I think he’ll have a lot of French people coming over to support him. It’s the first time since Francois Doumen that a French horse has come over and had a winner at Cheltenham so it’s very exciting for French racing.”

Hugo Merienne has been encouraged to supplement Henri Le Farceur, quoted at 33-1, after seeing Gold Tweet’s Relkeel romp. “We’ve been training him for this race. He likes the distance and I think he’ll like the track. It’s a challenge but we’ll see,” he said. “It’s like a dream to come here. It’s like the World Cup and we’ll try.”

Ga Law gives Snowden a dilemma

The Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup seems to beckon for Ga Law, who won the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November before falling at the final fence in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster last time.

“He was coming to win his race when he fell,” trainer Jamie Snowden said. “He got a nasty cut on his leg that day, so he has taken a bit of time to get over that. I’m very keen to qualify him for the Grand National if we could. It is a little bit frustrating you have to finish in the first four over three miles to qualify but they are the rules and how the framework is set out.

“We have him in at Kelso over the weekend but I think that will come too soon so we are still in that dilemma whether we chase Shishkin home for some prize money in the Ryanair or go for gold and try and pick up fourth in the Gold Cup and qualify for the Grand National. I think he is nicely handicapped for that. Mike Wainwright, of Boodles, part owns him as well so it would be quite fitting if he run in the Gold Cup.”

Wainwright was an interested observer and said the Gold Cup would get his vote. Ga Law is 18-1 for the Ryanair Chase and 100-1 for the Gold Cup.

You Wear It Well (Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle) Datsalrightgino (Magners Plate) and Passing Well (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle) are also on course to run. Snowden reckons the last-named will come into his own over fences next season and is one for your Racing TV Tracker.

Longsdon’s quest for a Festival first

They say that all good things come to those who wait. But Charlie Longsdon must be wondering just how long that wait is going to be. The trainer’s quest for an elusive first winner at the meeting goes on after several near-misses, most notably with Pendra in the 2017 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir.

This year all the reverses might be erased in the first race of the meeting, with Rare Edition heading for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

“His trach was washed today and it looked clean but I’ve not had the results back yet. That will give us the green light to kick on with him,” he said of the 25-1 chance. “He is as fit as a flea as he only ran two and a half weeks ago. I’m not worried about fitness or taking him away as I don’t see there is a reason to.”

Popular grey mare Snow Leopardess is heading for the Glenfarclas Cross Country unless the ground is deemed too quick. “She wears her heart on the sleeve and puts it all in. That (Cross Country) will be the plan. If it came up too quick we have got the option of the Kim Muir or the Midlands National.”

Glimpse Of Gala, who is only 15 hands, and Hector Javilex are set for the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle, while Guetapan Collonges is pencilled in for the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase. “He is only learning his trade and this might come a year too soon,” the trainer said. “He is in the Midlands National which he is one of the favourites for. I will leave it to JP McManus (owner) and his team to decide what they want to do.”

Tizzard zooming in on Oscar Elite

Joe Tizzard has enjoyed some giddy days at The Festival as a jockey and then as an assistant to his Dad, Colin. Now, he is seeking a first Festival winner in his own name.

It could be Oscar Elite in the Ultima Handicap Chase provided he can dissuade the horse’s owners to supplement the Reynoldstown winner for the Brown Advisory Chase 24 hours later. A Zoom meeting for 7pm was scheduled.

“He is a funny horse and he really does come right this time of year,” Tizzard said. “I want to run him in the Ultima. He is a pound higher than what he was in it last year and he comes into it in better form. I think that is the obvious route and we still have the novice options at Aintree and Punchestown.”

The Big Breakaway is heading for the Ultima en route to the Randox Grand National, while Eldorado Allen will tackle the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Tizzard said: “The plan is to run him in the Gold Cup. He just comes up a little bit short really but (owners) John (Romans) and Terry (Warner) are keen. Terry is 90 now and he is not in the best of health so he is going to try desperately hard to get here for that so they are keen to have a runner. We will ride him slightly differently and if he could nick a place it would be lovely.”

Jonjo plays down chances

Jonjo O’Neill’s haul of 27 winners makes him one of The Festival’s most successful trainers but he played down his chances of adding to his tally.

He reckons Monbeg Genius and Iron Bridge, both in the Ultima Handicap Chase, need soft ground to show their best, while he fears An Tailliur is too high in the weights for the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle.

Petit Tonnerre “is quite a nice horse and there with his chance” in the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle, a remark that could perhaps be marked up given the trainer likes to keep his cards close to his chest. Little often equals more, and Petit Tonnerre is a chunky 25-1.

He has Soaring Glory in the same race but said: “He keeps getting little niggly problems but hopefully we will get him back to run here. He is also in at Sandown in the Imperial Cup so we will see how he is nearer the time.”

Mealor explains handicap strategy

Weights for the nine handicaps at The Festival were published on Wednesday. Form students can now start to properly get their teeth into the 576 entries.

As ever, Irish trainers will have been swift to scour how their challengers have been treated. The English and Irish handicappers produce different figures, with the raiders routinely being allotted higher marks on these shores.

However, Andrew Mealor, BHA Hurdle Race Handicapper, was keen to stress that they don’t just pluck numbers from the air.

“The policy for several years has not been to use the official Irish ratings when Irish-trained horses run in handicaps in Britain,” he said. “Contrary to popular belief, we don’t just take the official Irish rating and add on an arbitrary amount.

“We rate all Irish races ourselves and use these figures when Irish horses run in handicaps in Britain. The idea is to create a level playing field for the Irish-trained horses and the British-trained horses.”

For what it is worth, Great Britain won the handicaps 5-4 last year. However, it was 4-1 to Ireland in the hurdle contests, with State Man, second favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle this month, exploiting a mark of 141 in the County Hurdle. Mealor said rather ruefully: “Hopefully, there’s no State Man in the race this year. In hindsight, he was an absolute shoo-in.”

He reminded everyone that all runners must have had a minimum of four runs over hurdles to qualify this time. Last year, State Man had run three times, completing only twice.

Centennial celebrations for Gold Cup

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup. Cheltenham announced its centennial year objectives, including an opportunity from diverse communities to build a personal affinity with the Gold Cup by taking it on a nationwide tour.

The Dawn Runs (June 26-30) will be a charity event to raise awareness for Racing Welfare, with a team of fundraisers taking the Gold Cup to the highest peaks in Ireland, England and Scotland, and then on to the summit of Arkle in Scotland, the mountain that lent its name to the greatest of all Cheltenham Gold Cup winners.

It must be unlikely that anyone has seen more renewals of the Gold Cup than former Royal racing photographer Bernard Parkin, who has been present for all bar the first few. He was 4 when attending his first and has been every year since. He is now 93.

Parkin was among those at the media event and told me about his recollections of three-time winner Arkle. “He had a great presence about him, although he wasn’t the best-looking horse. Best Mate was much better-looking.”

Tricky time for Pullin

Jon Pullin, Cheltenham’s Clerk of the Course, admitting a prolonged dry spell has created challenges. “It has been a tricky period and we have not had any significant rainfall since the 15th of January,” he said. “To put that in context, with the little drop we’ve had this morning, we’ve had 10mm of rain since January 15th while in the corresponding period last year we had 58mm.

“It has certainly been very dry, and all the team have been working exceptionally hard. Given the dry forecast and the prospect of a cold snap, we have been irrigating for a couple of weeks now to get ahead of the game.”

He added: “It is a combination of Good and Good to Soft ground at the moment. It is the same across the Old and New courses and we have also been able to irrigate the Cross Country course.

“We have fleece covers down to promote grass growth. The New Course which was used on New Year’s Day and Trials Day is not as we would have liked going into The Festival from a grass cover point of view, so have got the fleece down with germination sheets to help with grass growth.”

Five-day Festival for some at Cheltenham

A five-day Festival has been resisted, although there will be plenty going on at the course on Monday week before the action gets under way 24 hours later.

Ian Renton, Regional Director at the Jockey Club (Cheltenham and South West), explained that children from five different schools will be attending to introduce them to racing. “They see what goes on behind the scenes and hopefully get the chance to see some trainers exercising their horses,” he said.

In addition, annual members fortunate enough to win a raffle will get the chance to sample food cooked by Clare Smyth, who is from Northern Ireland and the UK’s only chef with three Michelin stars.

Renton said: “We had a chat with Clare about whether she would be interested in coming to Cheltenham. She said yes and we are delighted to welcome her here.”

Gold Cup Day was sold out before the end of January with attendance figures being lowered. “We had an amazing year in 2022 with 280,000 people here over the four days. We felt we got away with it and had glorious sunshine on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with a very wet day on the Wednesday,” Renton said.

“We also felt if that it had been reversed and we had the wet day on one of our busiest days with 73,000 people here then it would have been a pretty uncomfortable experience, so we have taken the decision to take 5,000 off the attendance on Thursday and Friday this year.”












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