Our star columnist looks forward to Thursday's action and finds herself swayed by the past Festival form of Frodon and Penhill.
Marsh Novices’ Chase
The mighty Faugheen’s exploits, as a former Champion Hurdler coming late to fences who’d last been seen when pulling up with a fibrillating heart at Aintree, have been the feel-good story of the season. Connections had considered missing Cheltenham in favour of Fairyhouse and Punchestown but, as a dual Grade One winner, he’s earned his place in this line-up.
His opening success was replete with the intermittent ignorance around an obstacle that he consistently showed as a hurdler, even at the highest level. But he then turned away a weak-finishing Samcro at Limerick over Christmas and followed up by clinging on in the Flogas from stablemate Easy Game, who has since fallen when well held in the RSA.
Even so, this is a whole different ballgame and his careful jumping – aside from the odd fence at which he’s the complete opposite – might cause him to struggle to hold his position, particularly with the first obstacle coming up so quickly in the Marsh.
Stablemate Melon has his own jumping frailties. These were ruthlessly exposed against Notebook and Cash Back over two miles last time out and so the step up in trip should help, but it was also unnerving that even when winning his beginners’ chase at Leopardstown on his penultimate start he made an error the moment there was a horse upsides.
I am, however, conscious that – as a three-times Festival runner-up in the 2017 Supreme and the two subsequent Champion Hurdles – Melon saves his best for Cheltenham. The cheekpieces that gave him a pep last year – along with tweaked tactics – are redeployed.
Willie Mullins’s third dart is Bapaume, third in the 2017 Triumph and fourth in last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle. He’s a solid jumper who got badly outpaced behind Notebook over two miles but is yet to show the level of his hurdling ability over fences.
Nebuliser addict Samcro will divide the crowd, as he has come to do. Disciples point to his reputation, his early exploits, his 2018 Ballymore success and how powerfully he travelled against Arkle runner-up Fakir D’Oudairies. Atheists cite how little he found even while recording that Festival win and how sharply he folded when Faugheen eyeballed him.
He’s since had an operation to correct his breathing and, perhaps tellingly, trainer Gordon Elliott retains his belief in the horse, to the extent he’s built him a box-with-open-air-conservatory to help him combat what appear to be long-running respiratory issues. Too many excuses for me, especially at that short price.
Itchy Feet showed improved form to win the Grade One Scilly Isles over this trip last time out, comfortably beating Midnight Shadow, who’s previously been a fortunate winner of the Grade Two Dipper over this course and distance due to the two-out departure of subsequent RSA hero Champ. This trip is more suitable for Itchy Feet than when he broke a blood vessel when third in last year’s Supreme and he’s a player.
Paul Nicholls was talking up French recruit Saint Sonnet for this race on the Preview Circuit (TM) before he made a winning debut for the yard at long odds-on at Catterick, jumping low in the French style. He’s an unknown quantity.
The preview vibes from assistant trainer Joe Tizzard have been that Reserve Tank – last seen when jumping uncomfortably Yorkhill-left at Newbury in November – may lack Festival edge after his intended prep run at Exeter was abandoned due to the weather. A good run here could indicate better things for Aintree, therefore – a meeting at which he won a Grade One novice hurdle last term.
All of which leaves me with little reason to deviate from this column’s ante-post shout of Mister Fisher, each way at 16/1. His success here in December stacked up well from a time perspective against seasoned chasers in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and he’s since done well to win a Grade Two at Doncaster after getting shuffled back on the home turn.
Trainer Nicky Henderson flirted with running him in the Arkle but this is the right race for him. We only need the trainer to find his form this week...
Selection: Advised on 17/12/19: Mister Fisher at 16/1 e/w with Bet365, William Hill or BetFred for the Marsh
Lydia and Ruby unpick the Ryanair Chase earlier this week
The untimely abscess sustained by Chacun Pour Soi, causing him to miss the Champion Chase, not only depleted the Day Two feature but also denied us the chance to test the recent high-class achievements of A Plus Tard and Min, the front two players in the Ryanair market.
My take on the relative merits of their encounters with that horse runs contrary to the bare result or even the visual impression. I reckon it took a more substantial performance for Min to engage in a sustained duel and ultimately get beaten by almost three-and-three-quarter lengths than it did to beat an undercooked version of the same horse by the same margin earlier in the season.
However, even though Min has finished second in a Supreme and a Champion Chase – provoking Altior’s career-best performance in the latter – he looks more comfortable on a flatter track to my eyes. Although many have argued that this has long been the better Festival target for him, I’m not convinced about the track/trip combination.
If Min does produce an effort akin to 2018, A Plus Tard is going to have to improve on his best-yet effort last time out to beat him. If Min performs more like last year – which admittedly was probably the result of unsuitable tactics in an odd race – then Rachael Blackmore’s mount needs only to hold his form. Trainer Henry de Bromhead is convinced 2m5f is his best trip which – if he’s right – means A Plus Tard beats him either way.
Frodon has appeared this term to lack the verve that enabled him to win this last year with his trademark rhythmic jumping, rallying to deny Aso who’d briefly headed him after the final fence. However, almost all of his pre-Festival campaign took place at Cheltenham last season – a track that suits him best.
Trainer Paul Nicholls has also reported that he’d been suffering with ulcers, so better might be expected from a yard that managed to conjure a fifth-time-lucky Festival success from Politologue.
He is also the horse with the most convincing back catalogue of course form, consistently having produced figures here that would win many a Ryanair. Having hitherto dismissed him completely, I must admit I’ve come around to him as the best play in the conditions and at the prices.
Frodon wins the 2019 Ryanair Chase under Bryony Frost
Aso wears first-time blinkers and crucially returns to a left-handed track after underperforming at Huntingdon and Kempton. He’s ten years of age now, however, and although he’s probably overpriced, it’s hard to imagine him winning this race at the third attempt.
Riders Onthe Storm must prove his liking for Cheltenham, given he fell after refusing to settle behind A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase last term. He’s with a different trainer now and Nigel Twiston-Davies has conjured marked improvement, but he did have a hard race in fatiguing conditions at Ascot little more than three weeks ago.
It might be a coincidence but both Copperhead and Sporting John, who won at that same meeting, both ran abjectly at the Festival on Wednesday.
Duc De Genievres, who won an imploded Arkle last season, arrives here after falling last time and was flattered by being well-positioned in a steadily run Desert Orchid Chase on what appears, on the literal figures, to be his best run of the season.
Saint Calvados has improved for more patient tactics this season and is unexposed at the trip, but must find even more. 2018 JLT (now Marsh) winner Shattered Love ran her best race for a while last time but still falls way short of the required standard, even with a 7lb mares' allowance.
__Selections: Advised on 20/11/19: Altior at 14/1 with William Hill for the Ryanair [non-runner]
Back now: Frodon each-way at 5/1 with various firms
Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle
The entire field will surely be out to make Aidan Coleman’s life difficult here on Paisley Park, the horse who has vastly superior form to his opponents - whether on current ability, in terms of this specific task or (for most of them) both. He can only dream of last year’s strongly-run edition. This will be tactical from the word go, in an attempt to make the most of the favourite’s characteristic flat spot.
Coleman’s nerve was tested on the favourite in the Cleeve and, in his Road To Cheltenham analysis the following week, Ruby Walsh detected a bit of a wobble after the second last when Paisley Park was half-asked to pick up before being waited with again. No doubt Coleman will have learned from that inexpensive blip but the pressure will be on him as never before.
Jonathan Burke will attempt to control steady fractions on Summerville Boy, just as he did when taking on the favourite over the course and distance in the Cleeve Hurdle in January. That elicited probably his mount’s best performance since winning the 2018 Supreme – albeit the final score saw him a length-and-a-quarter down on Paisley Park at the line.
Arguments for him to reverse that form on the basis of improved jumping are overlooking the fact that Summerville Boy is contractually obliged to make one serious error per race and That Paisely Park was ultimately cosily on top. However, he is as yet unexposed – if, paradoxically not entirely proven – at this trip.
Apple’s Jade will accompany him up front for as long as she’s able, presumably – and hopefully for Burke – on his outside because she’ll surely be adjusting right at her hurdles from an early stage. Gordon Elliott applies first-time blinkers, in a bid to reprise the mini-revival that first-time cheekpieces conjured to win her tenth Grade One at Leopardstown over Christmas.
That was surely a false dawn, the form amounting to little, and her trainer has called her homework “lifeless” in recent weeks. It detracts nothing from this superb mare’s career to acknowledge that she has never been at her best at Cheltenham, even when winning the 2017 Mares’ Hurdle.
Donna’s Diamond is another candidate for prominence early on but he’s 11 years of age now and unlikely to build on his 11th in this race two years ago. Lisnagar Oscar won’t be far away from the pace and, although he was third behind Paisley Park and Summerville Boy in the Cleeve, he was favourably positioned. The remainder of the field will prefer to stand and stare.
City Island and Emitom have emerged as plausible contenders of late. The former won last year’s Ballymore but has failed to take to fences this season and arrives here following an operation to correct his breathing. He’s trying three miles for the first time and there is plenty of encouragement for that task in his pedigree.
Emitom finished second to Champ in Aintree’s Grade One Sefton Hurdle last April but jumped appallingly on seasonal debut behind Summerville Boy in the Relkeel. He took a Grade Two at Haydock last time, beating Donna’s Diamond by eight lengths, but his jumping was still far from flawless so I’m less keen on his chances.
When Bacardys began his season with a Grade Two success at Navan, it was projected that a full season of hurdling would yield a better Festival effort. It’s perhaps forgivable that Mares' Hurdle heroine Honeysuckle brushed him aside at Fairyhouse next time but he ran poorly behind Apple’s Jade at Christmas and too often makes a critical error.
His stablemate Penhill was absent for 584 days prior to this season, having previously twice triumphed at the Festival via markedly differing preparations. Prior to his 2017 Albert Bartlett win, he ran seven times over hurdles but hadn’t run since the Punchestown Festival when winning this the following year.
The element that unites those successes is a steady pace, under which conditions Penhill was patiently ridden and cam swinging round the outside in the straight to win. He hasn’t been anywhere near his best on paper this season but he has improved for each start and wasn’t best positioned when second in the Boyne last time out.
A better effort from Penhill in the Boyne Hurdle last time
It’s reasonable to expect Penhill to come on again at a track that suits him well and in a race likely to be run to suit and to the hoped-for detriment of the favourite. Paul Townend knows exactly how to play it. I’ve suggested him each-way in the ‘without Paisley Park’ market because I don’t think he’s good enough – now or ever – to trouble such a high-class stayer but he does have all the raw ingredients to be the clear second-best.
Reverting to hurdles after being well beaten by NH Chase flop Carefully Selected over fences last time, the solid Ronald Pump – who produced a career-best effort at Leopardstown on his penultimate start – might be over-priced. L’Ami Serge, who’s yet to recover his old form after a long absence, has never been suited by this track and isn’t.
Selection: Back now: Penhill each-way at 13/2 in the ‘Betting without Paisley Park’ market with Bet365
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