This column was first published on Tuesday
The cold snap has caused a raft of cancellations over the past week and left jumps fans resembling Oliver Twist, hungry for more. The good news is that Cheltenham’s Festival Trials Day on Saturday looks set to satisfy the biggest of appetites.
A nine-race card, featuring five Graded races, has drawn 99 runners. You can watch them all on Racing TV.
No fewer than seven Cheltenham Festival are set to line-up - Coole Cody, Delta Work, Easysland, Edwardstone, Energumene, Frodon and Paisley Park – plus two Grand National winners in the shape of Minella Times and Noble Yeats.
Jon Pullin, Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham Racecourse, issued an upbeat bulletin about ground conditions on Friday, albeit there will be a 7.30am inspection on Saturday.
Who will be the key runners? Here are five to keep a close eye on.
Runner: SINGING BANJO Odds: 8/1 with bet365
I don’t imagine many will look beyond Delta Work, a five-time Grade One winner who had the temerity to beat Tiger Roll in a memorable running of the Glenfarclas Chase at Cheltenham in March before going on to finish third in the Grand National.
However, this race is a handicap and will require Gordon Elliott’s class act to take a deep breath. He must concede lumps of weight to all bar Minella Times, the 2021 Grand National winner.
The obvious one to upstage him is Singing Banjo, who is firmly established as a specialist over the banks’ fences at Punchestown and has one near-miss over Cheltenham’s cross-country course on his CV.
Singing Banjo gave Delta Work a big scare when they met on level weights at Punchestown in late November, when he lost out by a short head. There was an element of Delta Work being a bit rusty that day but Singing Banjo, showing no sign of his 13 years, was also returning from an absence and will be a whopping 25lb better off on Saturday. This represents something of a Cup Final for him.
Runner: EDWARDSTONE Odds: a general 2/1
The first clash between Energumene and Edwardstone promises to be one to savour, with the gap between them in the betting probably a little misleading.
Champion Chase hero Energumene is officially rated 6lb superior to his rival and he’s no bigger than 8/15 to make it nine wins from ten over fences, but I’m not sure the New Course at Cheltenham will serve him so well as the Old Course, with the emphasis being more on stamina. Paul Townend will also face a tactical puzzle: does he adopt usual front-running tactics, risking an early battle with Editeur Du Gite, or does he play a more patient game?
By contrast, The New Course promises to play to the strengths of Edwardstone, who is a strong stayer at the trip and proven over further. He was a convincing winner of the Arkle and the form is working out well, with Blue Lord (third) subsequently winning at the highest level and Haut En Couleurs (fifth) being unlucky not to land the Horse & Jockey Hotel Chase at Thurles last Sunday.
Moreover, Edwardstone was tremendously impressive when winning the Tingle Creek Chase on his return at Sandown, when Alan King suspected he would need the run. He put Greaneteen and Shishkin firmly in their place, with Funambule Sivola, who chased home Energumene in the Champion Chase, trailing home last.
Edwardstone blundered away Tom Cannon early in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton last time but he’s a sound jumper and can be forgiven that lapse. The dry weather forecast between now and the weekend is also in his favour.
Runner: IL RIDOTO Odds: 9/1 with William Hill
The Paul Nicholls-trained six-year-old looks a rock-solid each-way option at the 9-1 on offer, having already made the frame in the two similarly valuable handicap chases at Cheltenham this season.
He didn’t quite get up the hill on either occasion, but there were mitigating circumstances, and, in any case, the handicapper has been generous in easing him in the weights. Moreover, first-time cheekpieces could add an edge.
Il Ridoto finished five lengths fourth to Ga Law on his return in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and also ran well at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, when filling the same position behind Midnight River.
Plenty will focus on Il Ridoto again lacking a change of gear in the closing stages of the latter race, but he lost his place heading to three out after meeting some traffic problems, and that he also got carried to his right heading to the final fence, where he was awkward. I’ll be surprised if he is not in the thick of things and, with the ground drying out, he has prospects of hitting the jackpot.
Runner: PROTEKTORAT Odds: a general 13/8
This is a deep renewal, with five of the runners having an official rating of more than 160.
The one who stands out is Protektorat, who ran a cracker when third in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last season and looked better than ever when running away with the Betfair Chase at Haydock on his return. His task in the latter was made easier by A Plus Tard running poorly, but he made Eldorado Allen (previously second to Bravemansgame in the Charlie Hall), Frodon (since third in the King George) and Bristol De Mai (a course specialist) look ordinary.
He's been given ten weeks to recharge his batteries and, while he goes well on soft ground, he seems versatile regards the going.
Noble Yeats is close to him in the betting after his taking success at Aintree last month, when he had such as Ahoy Senor and Sounds Russian adrift. But I cannot forget that he was well-held in the Ultima Handicap Chase in March, off a mark of 147, on his only previous visit to Cheltenham and that rings alarm bells as to his effectiveness at the track.
Runner: PAISLEY PARK Odds: a general 5/4
Given he’s now 11, can be quirky at the start and habitually hits flat patches in his races, my instinct was to take on Paisley Park in this Grade Two feature.
However, it’s impossible to overlook his three previous triumphs in this race, plus the fact he’s won a Stayers’ Hurdle and been placed in two other renewals.
In addition, I recall being in a Zoom call with Emma Lavelle before her star won at Kempton over Christmas, when she said her stable flagbearer just seemed in a better place than in recent times.
Paisley Park is favoured by the weights and has an outstanding chance on form. He could run maybe 7lb below-par and still win.
Gelino Bello switches back from chasing and is a new face for him to defeat, but the Grade One race he won at Aintree in April was an ordinary affair and, if this were a handicap, he would be 10lb better off. Dashel Drasher is a great credit to connections, and will no doubt again give his all, but this stamina test could leave him vulnerable where it matters most.
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