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Lydia Hislop's Road To Cheltenham: Not too late to get on Ravenhill

By Lydia Hislop@LydiaHislop
Thu 5 Mar 2020

A little more conversation, a little less action in this last of the Road To Cheltenham’s weekly updates. So, I’ve decided to focus on three of the Festival’s novice chases in which – most unusually, compared with seasons past – I haven’t until now established a position. Until now. Below that is a quick round-up of any relevant announcements and purportedly relevant Preview Night yak.

Don’t forget to join Ruby Walsh and me for a special edition of The Road tonight, plus a bumper preview edition live from Cheltenham on Monday morning. We will also be providing a nightly review piece for Racing TV during the Festival. From Monday, I will also be writing a daily preview column on each of the following day’s cards. We’re on the brink now!

NATIONAL HUNT CHASE

Following the news last week that Champagne Classic would miss Cheltenham, Battleoverdoyen became Gigginstown Stud’s chief hope for the NH Chase. Having won Grade Ones both as a novice hurdler and chaser – plus the absence of Copperhead, who apparently heads to the RSA despite the overtures of Jamie Codd – he holds the class edge in this modified event.

You’ll recall that, following last year’s ugly renewal of this race, the conditions have been altered so that Tuesday’s race will be staged over virtually three miles and six furlongs rather than four miles, and two fewer fences will be jumped.

In order to qualify, horses must hold a minimum BHA rating of 120, have run at least twice over fences, at least once this season and have finished in the first four in a chase staged over two miles, seven and a half furlongs or further. It remains a Grade Two event restricted to amateur riders but they must have ridden at least 20 times and achieved a minimum of five wins over fences under Rules (meaning that point-to-point races are excluded under this criterion).

Since his defeat of Champagne Classic at Leopardstown at Christmas, in a race that in effect was a match, Battleoverdoyen was well below that form behind Faugheen in the Grade One Flogas Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival. Having led into the straight, he had already weakened and was hanging left when taking a plunging fall at the last.

Clearly, this is not the ideal preparation when due to face 23 fences at Cheltenham and trainer Gordon Elliott has reported Battleoverdoyen to have been “very sore” afterwards. Additionally, his sea legs are in doubt as a result of pulling up in last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – for which he was favourite – after racing on and off the bridle from an early stage.

“He is the one horse I would be nervous about going to Cheltenham with,” Elliott admitted at his media open day. “He never ate or drank once he got over there last year and ran deplorably. It would not be a shock if I kept him at home.”

That last comment was made when Battleoverdoyen was running in the RSA and Champagne Classic still in the NH Chase. Yet were he to be left at home – and that will surely be Gigginstown’s call – Elliott would still have a key player in the latter event. In fact, you could argue that stablemate Ravenhill boasts the better profile for this contest (new race conditions notwithstanding).

Ravenhill also arrives after having taken a tumble in his latest start – when falling on the final circuit of the competitive Troytown Handicap Chase last November, won by Gold Cup hope Chris’s Dream. Prior to that, Ravenhill had been improving over fences in the mid-to-late summer, including when narrowly defeated in the Kerry National at Listowel.

Ravenhill goes down with all guns blazing in the Kerry National

Elliott won this race with Tiger Roll after an even longer absence and, as a ten-year-old with six starts over fences under his belt, including three in big-field handicaps, plus plenty of Pointing experience in his youth, Ravenhill doesn’t want for the requisite experience.

Although he’s scarcely merited mention in a team with much higher profile Festival candidates, the money has started to talk: he’s more than halved in price from 25/1 at the start of the week. That might well suggest that this race is preferred over the Kim Muir and that Codd, who’s strongly associated with the Elliott yard, has found his NH Chase vehicle.

Over here, Lord Du Mesnil - the mount of Sam Waley-Cohen - possesses a similarly attractive profile, having been steadily improving in handicap company over fences, culminating in a doughty second to a less positively ridden winner in Haydock’s Grand National Trial. He’s now rated 153 – the sort of level required to win this race since it became a Grade Two.

Yet his latest effort was a hard race in attritional conditions – an imponderable for punters, so best ignored to my mind – and he is unproven on an undulating track such as Cheltenham. He was well below form here on his sole start over hurdles, for instance, and has done the vast majority of his racing on flat tracks.

Plan Of Attack merits mention in the next breath here. Last time out at Leopardstown over Christmas, the former was twice mugged on the run-in by more seasoned rivals who had not pressed on so far out. However, even though he stood his ground here at the forfeit stage, trainer Henry de Bromhead has stated that he instead runs in the Kim Muir with Barry O’Neill on board.

Recent Leicester winner The Hollow Ginge also has a decent amount of experience and qualified for this race with a narrow defeat over three miles and a furlong at Aintree back in October. Yet he has little experience of an undulating track and has plenty to find with Lord Du Mesnil on their Haydock encounter last December.

Two For Gold would have interested me here, after rallying tenaciously and jumping soundly under pressure when trounced by Copperhead in the Reynoldstown last time out. But trainer Kim Bailey’s interpretation of his latest start (that he failed to stay) was the polar opposite of mine (that he did well to still be challenging the winner on the home turn, after looking to be losing his position in third several fences back, and then tired from the effort of an unequal battle).

That meant Two For Gold was withdrawn from this event and is likely to contest the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate. He will need an aggressive ride. Instead, stablemate Newtide is Bailey’s representative here.

He looks like a thorough stayer but is fortunate to be unbowed in two starts over fences because Boldmere would surely have beaten him had he stood up at the last in Wetherby’s Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase last month. In fairness to the lucky winner, he’s entitled to build on that effort, which came after an absence.

He shares an unexposed profile with Lamanver Pippin and Springfield Fox. All three are likeable nascent staying chasers who are undoubtedly progressive but may lack the gritty know-how for this task.

The former is unexposed at staying distances, having stepped up to the minimum qualifying trip for this race and shown improved form at Chepstow last November. Colin Tizzard reported at his Cheltenham stable tour that Lamanver Pippin had since suffered a setback but recently galloped at Larkhill and is on course for this race.

Springfield Fox started this season as a novice hurdler but has blossomed over fences in his last two starts, most recently with a pulverising 17-length success at Exeter despite rather lurching at the first two fences.

All of which analysis leads me to the longstanding favourite, Carefully Selected.

On our Road To Cheltenham show, Ruby Walsh identified him as his selection for this race as early as mid-December at attractive odds of 20/1. He’s now best priced at 2/1 in one place even though, as Walsh objectively noted in subsequent editions, some jumping concerns have crept in.

When winning on his latest start, a Grade Three novices’ event at Naas in January, he raced wide but still made a significant blunder when asked three out by Paul Townend. Having lost his position, he then rallied like a superior horse but would still have had a fight on his hands had Spyglass Hill not then fallen when the pair were upsides two out. He ultimately beat Forza Milan - the mount of Derek O'Connor according to Preview Night yak - by four lengths.

It’s significant to note about a horse so short for a Festival race that he frequently adjusted right at his fences at Naas and that all of his previous starts over obstacles have been at right-handed tracks. Yes, he finished second in the 2018 Festival Bumper, but there are 23 more occasions on which any preference will be exposed next Tuesday.

So, my reluctant conclusion is a behind-the-curve recommendation of Ravenhill at the 8/1 (or 7/1 NRNB in several places) to which he’s plummeted as a result of the five-day-entry stage repercussions.

RACING POST ARKLE CHALLENGE TROPHY NOVICES' CHASE

There is a hell of a lot of pace in the Arkle. Connections of Cash Back and Fakir D’Oudairies have each been hypothesising that the way to reverse form with Notebook is to go faster. Add to that Global Citizen, Torpillo and the two mares, Maire Banrigh and Put The Kettle On, all of whom like to go forward if they can, and the race could well be set up for a closer.

That said, I’m also not sure Fakir D’Oudairies has the necessary toe to head Cash Back, if on the latter jockey Paul Townend is determined to make it a headlong gallop and to rail like a bunny. Global Citizen is admittedly the highest-rated hurdler among these – usually a significant pointer in the Arkle – but he isn’t proven away from flat tracks and will struggle to control this race as he did the Wayward Lad and others. You suspect the other three might be plain not good enough, perhaps with the exception of Maire Banrigh – although she mostly races on flat tracks, too.

Furthermore, I don’t get the impression that Notebook is much fussed about where he sits in a race. Of greater concern might be his pre-race antics – when he bolted to post at the Dublin Racing Festival – which trainer Henry de Bromhead hopes to becalm with cheekpieces – and his propensity to jump right at times, which could be exposed on the tight Old Course.

Perhaps in this context it’s understandable why Nicky Henderson is more than flirting with running this column’s Marsh Novices’ Chase fancy, Mister Fisher, in this two-mile contest instead – even if the stated logic has been that he fears the longer race might present tougher opposition.

“He's the one we haven't decided on,” he admitted on Tuesday. “I talked about it with Nico [de Boinville] this morning and I'm about to talk to the owners and then we'll make a decision.”

NORTHERN TRUST COMPANY NOVICES' HANDICAP CHASE

This is a tricky race for trainers to lay one out for because many a fancied horse has, in its short history, shown too much of their hand and broken through the 145-rating ceiling or else not shown enough to make the cut.

If you need a skilled operator to steer a deft path between this particular Scylla and Charybdis, call Venetia Williams. Call Venetia Williams! M’lud, I think she trains this year’s winner. And he’s 12/1 NRNB or 14/1 with William Hill.

The horse in question is Espoir Du Guye, who caught the eye on his seasonal debut and – upped in trip – has since dominated races at Exeter and, in particular, at Ascot last time out in December. That was on heavy ground – which provides the only doubt to his chance because I’m sure he’s better than his mark of 144, even though he was raised a stone for his latest success.

Espoir De Guye bosses matters at Exeter in December

It’s worth saying that he was intended to run at Ascot in January but suffered a freak panic attack in his box, necessitating the fire service being called, and was withdrawn. Clearly, I’m hoping he finds the drive to Prestbury Park less disquieting.

A handful of his opponents are worth noting, at various prices. Narrow favourite Imperial Aura has a great chance, following his improved display behind Simply The Betts at this track – on the New Course – in January. He remains handily treated on that evidence.

Deyrann De Carjac has also been given a deft preparation by Alan King and also looks to retain plenty of potential, but I didn’t think he looked comfortable at Cheltenham (albeit on the more testing New Course) when running here in January. He’s also in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate, which King might favour if conditions are set to dry over the course of the four days.

Having been in effect taken out of a competitive novices’ handicap by a faller at Kempton over Christmas, Hold The Note produced much improved form when making Two For Gold pull out all the stops in a Warwick Grade Two over three miles the following month.

Finally, at the other end of this handicap-in-name-only – the weights span is so narrow that it functions like a classified chase – Earlofthecotswolds interests me, albeit he’d be more attractive if making the cut for the Plate (unlikely). He’s steadily learning his trade and shapes as though he’ll improve as he steps up in trip. He’s yet to race left-handed over obstacles but I can’t see any obvious preference and I like the way he hangs in there.

Finally, to wrap up this race for now, some chatter. Gordon Elliott had stated in his Cheltenham stable tour that Galvin would run here – he’s currently second favourite – but has since suggested the Plate might be a better alternative on the more galloping of the two tracks.

The vibes are positive in the Skelton camp for Beakstown, who jumps well but may not be the most straightforward.

UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE

Fears that Epatante might have to spend a fortnight quarantined in a coracle on the River Lambourn appear to have receded since Nicky Henderson issued a bulletin confessing that the Unibet Champion Hurdle favourite had been coughing. It seemingly irked him to do so, despite being paid to provide such insight via his sponsored blog that entices punters to that betting site.

“We are forced to say these things before somebody gets it out – and then it’s headline news,” Henderson complained last week. “Unfortunately, we have to say it before it leaks out and it is drifting [in the betting market]. You virtually have to let everyone know before she has even coughed! But that’s what they are making you do. She has not coughed this morning and we are all on course.”

"She did not cough this morning. She has not coughed today."

All five of Henderson’s team for this race – in betting order: Epatante, Pentland Hills, Fusil Raffles, Call Me Lord and Verdana Blue – stood their ground at Wednesday’s forfeit stage.

The trainer also reported in his Unibet blog that Wednersday’s schooling session – when Barry Geraghty partnered Epatante and Nico de Boinville Pentland Hills – “went really well”. The favourite was “her usual very slick self” and Henderson is “extremely pleased” with last year’s Triumph hero, too.

Also as expected, only Cilaos Emery was supplemented at a cost of £22,500 in the hope of such enterprise yielding the £253,215 first prize. Unaccountably, Willie Mullins also stuck to his word with stablemate and fleeting Champion Hurdle favourite Benie Des Dieux because her name only appeared among the entries for the Close Brothers Mares’ event. Hopefully, the conspiracy theorists were on NRNB.

Fans of the novice Envoi Allen must also accept an end to their vocal campaign as he did not appear among the 19 horses who remain.

Yet the door is still ajar with Honeysuckle, however, despite Peter Molony – racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander – tweeting on Tuesday that, “after much deliberation and discussion”, she would contest the mares’ event instead. Her name is still on the list. And if your name’s not down, you’re not comin’ in.

As promised, Gordon Elliott has dispensed with the entourage for Coeur Sublime. That horse has had a breathing operation since finding little in the Matheson Hurdle but all of his left-field stable companions – Abacadabras, Felix Desjy, Mengli Khan, Samcro and Apple’s Jade – were withdrawn. Each had the potential to spark interest in this market had they stayed.

Joseph O’Brien is hopeful 66/1 shot Darasso can “pick up some prize money” after he “probably faced a very difficult task trying to give 7lb to Cilaos Emery” at Gowran Park last time out. Soft ground and an increased accent on stamina are deemed in his favour.

There is, of course, prize money down to eighth in this event but not for punters. That’s just for new customers in the Supreme. You know the score. (And no, you can’t have that much on.)

I said last week that Benie Des Dieux’s improbable status as favourite for this event, albeit it transiently, was a damning indictment on the strength of Epatante’s opposition. Can I second that?

CLOSE BROTHERS DAVID NICHOLSON MARES' HURDLE

Rather than take on what appears to be one of the weakest Champion Hurdles in recent times, connections of Honeysuckle have opted to take on the tougher, if merely singular, opponent of Benie Des Dieux in the Close Brothers’ David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. At least that’s the stated plan, even if the continuing dual entry retains the last-minute switcheroo as an option.

There were also two notable, if predictable, defections at the six-day stage: the disappointing Laurina and the National-bound Magic Of Light, as indicated by trainer Jessica Harrington.

BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE

Just as last week’s column was published, the sad news emerged that Un De Sceaux had been retired due to damaging a suspensory ligament while being prepared for a sixth successive Cheltenham Festival appearance.

Ruby Walsh’s description of his “freakish enthusiasm” for his work was very apt for this Horse In A Hurry. Usually seen tugging at his jockeys’ arm sockets in a bid to go faster, the 12-year-old had routinely competed at the highest level of this sport since the start of 2015 and consistently produced top-class performances.

Durable, enthusiastic, tough and very, very talented - Un De Sceaux

His absence will be felt by racing fans almost as much as by those closest to him. Colm O’Connell led the troupe supporting his father Edward’s horse, identifiable by their light-blue-and-orange scarves, evident enthusiasm, delight in victory and generosity in defeat. What a superb experience it must have been to have followed this horse during his long career.

Quite rightly, the tributes to this horse have been widespread and heartfelt. But I was particularly struck by this, from @keiththecamel:

It’s easy to forget what a headstrong lunatic Un De Sceaux was in his early days. His career could have easily have imploded in the wrong hands. Instead, Willie Mullins and his team nurtured him into an enduring talent. Chapeau, Un De Sceaux! I wish you a very happy retirement.

His departure from the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase means there is a vacancy for the role of front-runner, much as there was last season and resulted in that messy race in which all bar one of Altior’s opponents invited Nico de Boinville to play his hand first.

Of the Big Three, Defi Du Seuil appears least beholden to the strength of the gallop – fast and slowly-run races have come alike to him this season. Neither Altior nor Chacun Pour Soi would want a dawdle, however. Might the latter even make the pace, if no suitable alternative emerges? Prior to winning the Dublin Chase, Paul Townend appeared disposed to making the running on that horse, if he had to, given where he lined up.

The Paul Nicholls-trained pair, last year’s runner-up Politologue and Dynamite Dollars, are alternative candidates for front-running honours. The trainer has reported that the latter has “improved enormously” for his return from the sidelines behind Altior in the Game Spirit.

Paul Nicholls goes through his Cheltenham Festival team with Racing TV

Bun Doran is another but he probably isn’t good enough to go the requisite pace for that long and might yet run in the Grand Annual.

Alan King has stated that Sceau Royal, last year’s third, will wait for Aintree if next Wednesday’s ground is heavy.

RYANAIR CHASE

It’s the time of year when we get to hear just how many racehorses have stomach ulcers. Stand up titleholder, Frodon.

Trainer Paul Nicholls has reportedly stated that he was suffering from this affliction earlier this season but “he loves this time of year and is back where we want him”, according to @PaulJonesRacing’s report from the preview evenings he diligently attends.

MAGNERS CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP

Nicky Henderson has announced via his Unibet blog that marginal Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Santini – or else jointly with defending champion Al Boum Photo – will wear first-time cheekpieces next week.

“Santini schooled over fences in a set of cheekpieces and we have decided that he will be declared to wear them in the Magners Gold Cup just to help him concentrate,” Henderson said. “He’s not lazy by any means but after discussing it with Nico and [his owners] Mr & Mrs Kelvin-Hughes, we have come to the conclusion that it certainly wouldn’t do any harm.”

The logic is self-evident, given the way Santini needed to be nudged along at times behind the pace set by Bristol De Mai in the Cotswold Chase last time out, prior to finishing powerfully to secure victory.

Nicky Henderson talks about Santini's preparations for this year's Festival

The cheekpieces should help him to travel more sweetly and, in a larger field, attain and retain the prominent position he’ll need to be effective as a big galloping type, particularly in the absence of such a reliable pace-setter as Native River. There’s always the risk he might react negatively to them on the day but, for Santini fans such as myself, this has to be received as positive news.

Chris’s Dream was withdrawn from the Randox Health Grand National last week. Trainer Henry de Bromhead stated: “There’s a good chance he’ll go for the Gold Cup. He’s gone up to [an Irish] rating of 164 now and that entitles him to have a go. We’d like it to be at least soft for him.”

More preview night goss courtesy of @PaulJonesRacing: Robbie Power reported that the wind operation had worked for Lostintranslation but gave the contradictory view that the faster his rivals went, the better for his mount... about whom he also harbours stamina doubts. Come again? Perhaps, having spent four hours on the Champion Hurdle at the start, they were rushing to get Friday’s races wrapped up by 4am.

NOVICE HURDLERS

Envoi Allen may have defected from the Champion Hurdle but he stood his ground in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, even though his preferred target presumably remains the Ballymore the following day. Stablemate Abacadabras made the same moves and is trainer Gordon Elliott’s preferred candidate for the opening race of the Festival.

22 novices stood their ground and Ireland is responsible for 12 of them. As is often the case, the curve ball came from Willie Mullins whose remaining entry of five not only includes leading hope Asterion Forlonge but also Berkshire Royal, unraced over hurdles as yet but a steadily progressive middle-distance handicapper on the Flat for Andrew Balding two years ago.

Mullins is well capable of such chutzpah and, indeed, almost pulled it off with Concertista last year when she failed by a short-head to make a winning hurdles debut in the Grade Two Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Berkshire Royal is likely to hate testing ground, mind.

Shishkin, in the same ownership as Asterion Forlonge, plus stablemates Chantry House and Allart are on the list but Sporting John and the four-year-old Sir Psycho are notable absentees. Dovecote winner Highway One O Two was not supplemented and waits for Aintree, according to trainer Chris Gordon.

Finally, a bit of yak to pass on from @PaulJonesRacing’s Preview Night trawl. Gordon Elliott has been reportedly vocal about the chances of Ard Abhainn – pronunciation tips welcome, Twitter – in the Dawn Run.

She was only two lengths behind ante-post favourite Minella Melody in third when they met at Punchestown in December and Elliott’s mare has since won a Listed event at Thurles. The difference in price – 11/4 plays 20/1 NRNB or even 25/1 on ante-post terms – makes this interesting.

JUVENILE HURDLERS

Alan King has indicated that he intends to run Blacko and Group Stage in the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, with the possibility of Midnight’s Gift joining them. Adonis third Tremwedge did not get a mention, according to @PaulJonesRacing. There is a possibility that Group Stage will wear first-time cheekpieces.

Paul Nicholls apparently declared “I think we could do something off that rating”, referring to the scopey-looking Thyme White’s handicap mark of 133 for the same race. He also excused Mick Pastor’s poor Cheltenham performance last November with the inevitable ulcers.

It’s interesting to note that Tronador, whom I noted “very much caught the eye for future handicap purposes” on his hurdles debut in the eighth Road To Cheltenham column, has been backed for the Fred Winter in recent days.

He’s since won at Thurles and finished a never-involved third against elders at Navan but, with a mark of 129, is going to need a few above him in the handicap to fall by the wayside. That said, the BHA handicapping team has predicted exactly that number as the likely cut-off.

Finally, some vibes from Dan Skelton’s yard with assistant Tom Messenger having reportedly suggested that JCB Triumph Hurdle hopeful Allmankind’s work is watched with a particularly hawkish eye by his trainer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Messenger made the horse his bet of the meeting but failed to muster much enthusiasm for stablemate Langer Dan’s chances in the Fred Winter.

Lydia’s selections:

Advised on 20/11/19: Altior at 14/1 with William Hill for the Ryanair [non-runner]

Advised on 17/12/19: Chacun Pour Soi at 4/1 with various firms for the Champion Chase

Advised on 17/12/19: Mister Fisher at 16/1 e/w with Bet365, William Hill or BetFred for the Marsh

Advised on 29/01/20: Santini at 13/2 for the Gold Cup with BetVictor or Unibet

Advised on 30/01/20: Fiddlerontheroof at 8/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with various firms

Advised on 30/01/20: Ramses De Teillee at 33/1 e/w for the Albert Bartlett with Bet365

Advised on 06/02/20: Aspire Tower at 8/1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle with Unibet and Betway

Back now: Ravenhill at 8/1 with William Hill or 7/1 NRNB with various firms for the NH Chase

Back now: Espoir De Guye at 14/1 with William Hill for the Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase (12/1 NRNB with various firms also acceptable)__

Ruby’s selections:

Advised on 28/11/19: Thyme Hill at 14/1 with various firms for the Albert Bartlett

Advised on 12/12/19: Carefully Selected at 20/1 with Skybet or BetVictor for the NH Chase

Advised on 30/01/20: Honeysuckle at 13/2 for the Champion Hurdle in a double with Benie Des Dieux at 4/5 with Unibet for the Mares’ Hurdle

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