There is no Sprinter Sacre this weekend but with Cheltenham trials and the continuation of the Jezki vs Hurricane Fly saga, there is still a feast of racing for punters to enjoy.
Cheltenham’s jam packed card is highlighted by the BetBright Cup Chase featuring Dynaste and the rematch of Man Clouds and Smad Place from the Hennessy Gold Cup. Dynaste will likely open up as favourite and is the class act in the race given his course form but there are doubts surroundings his capacity to stay the full 3 mile 1 furlong distance with a strong pace likely provided by The Giant Bolster. Smad Place is the selection here as he is 12 pound better off for his comeback run with Hennessy winner Many Clouds and will definitely stay the trip. A quiet ride from Wayne Hutchinson should see off his old rival who may bigger targets than this one. Black Thunder and Theatre Guide complete the field but they are unlikely to trouble the principles.
The preceeding race is filled with lots of horses with potential and it will be a competitive betting heat with Stellar Notion from the Tom George stable chasing a hat-trick of wins and Garrahalish looking to continue his rich vein of form. My suspicion is that Stellar Notion is not that well handicapped and it is another Alan King runner who is preferred in this race. Ned Stark can resume his progression for the Barbury Castle team after he finished fourth to the exciting Ptit Zig over course and distance last time. Barry Geraghty is an eye-catching booking and he should have a good line through the form after the selection easily dispatched Geraghty and My Wigwam Or Yours at Huntingdon. A very safe jumper who will relish the soft conditions, Ned Stark could be still one step ahead of the handicapper.
The Cleeve hurdle is definitely the most interesting race on the card with Saphir de Rheu reverting back to the smaller obstacles and Un Temps Pour Tout coming back from a 266 day layoff. Saphir de Rheu had a promising career over fences until falling for the second time behind Coneygree. Sam Twiston Davies’ two rides on this horse have resulted in a fall and an unseating at Newbury. He certainly has the hurdling form to beat this field after winning the Lanzarote Hurdle and Welsh Champion Hurdle two years ago and hopefully Twiston Davies does not make the same mistake again against Reve de Sivola as he did on Zarkandar last time.
Un Temps Pour Tout is respected especially for a David Pipe yard which is known for readying horses from a long layoff but he could be out of his depth in this field. Although he does like soft ground, he is very one paced and his last run in a handicap at Punchestown is hard to forgive. The winner, Deep Trouble has struggled over fences and other runners including Indevan, Bally Longford and Thomas Edison would all be out of place in this field. He will come on for the run and has a place chance at best. Reve De Sivola benefited from Zarkandar throwing the race away last time but he remains the likeliest danger to Paul Nicholls’ charge. He revells in the soft ground and will be staying on when others are floundering.
Doncaster stages some very tricky races including the River Don Novices Hurdle, a trial for the Albert Bartlett Novices hurdle. Jamie Snowden’s Present View is a good yardstick but does not have the same potential as Blaklion or the highly regarded Caracci Apache. Blaklion is as tough as they come and always finds a lot for pressure but has had a lot of tough races compared to the unexposed Caracci Apache. Ryan Hatch has struck a good relationship with this horse and will see out the trip but it could be worth taking a chance on the Seven Barrows inmate with Nico De Boinville on board. He surprised a few people with a 14/1 success at Sandown but followed that up with a smooth victory at Plumpton. We surely have not seen the best of him yet.
The Skybet Chase is definitely the trickiest race of the day as a case could be made for any of the fifteen runners. If In Doubt will attract support given his progressive profile and he seems to be on a lenient mark with the champion jockey Tony McCoy in the saddle. His short price is probably based more on his potential rather than his form and he is therefore worth opposing given he has never won at this trip. Medermit off top weight is facing a major drop in class after finishing sixth in the Betfair Chase behind Silviniaco Conti. He will be in the shake up but there could be a few others flying home off lower weights.
If In Doubt’s stablemate Royal Player will require a very gentle ride from Richard Johnson but will have the ground to his liking. Again, he does not look well handicapped and it may pay to look further down the handicap at the bigger priced horses. The Venetia Williams trained Renard is worth chancing each way at a big price and although he has never won off a mark this high (141), his previous races off this weight have come in much better races. This race won’t take too much winning and he has as solid a chance as any in a tight handicap.
Sunday’s card at Leopardstown is as good as they come with round seven of Jezki vs Hurricane Fly the highlight of a tremendous day of racing. The first Grade One is the Irish Arkle and the hugely exciting Un De Sceaux is out to put his Cheltenham credentials on show. You will not find a more enthusiastic horse in training anywhere and it is worth tuning in just to see his round of jumping. He will face only two rivals but they are high class in their own right. Gilgamboa put in a terrific round of jumping last time but will find it hard to peg back Ruby Walsh if he is given an easy time in front. The Gordon Elliott trained Clarcam put in an impressive performance last time to beat the highly rated Vautour but it would be very disappointing if Un De Sceaux doesn’t win easily here.
The Hurricane Fly versus Jezki matchup sees Tony McCoy take over on the latter with “The Fly” seeking a 22nd Grade One victory. He is pretty much unbeatable at this time of year and McCoy has never ridden Jezki well so even at his prohibitive odds, the Willie Mullins trained superstar is selected to take the roof off the Leopardstown stand. The most loved horse in training can continue to enhance his legacy as the greatest hurdler in Irish racing history. This is definitely not a betting race but it is certainly a race to savour on the road to Cheltenham in March.
The penultimate race on the card sees Down Under reappear after he benefited from one of the rides of the year from Johnny Burke last time out over course and distance. Coming off the home turn, Burke was sending out distress signals sitting fifteen lengths off the pacesetters. The JP McManus owned eight year old suddenly picked up for pressure and eventually won easily in an extraordinary race. Mark Walsh takes over after the horse was put up six pounds for the win but you may not find a better handicapped horse running this weekend.
Ned Stark- Cheltenham 1:15 11/2
Smad Place- Cheltenham 1:50 7/2
Saphir De Rheu- Cheltenham 3:35 15/8
Caracci Apache- Doncaster 2:40 4/1
Renard- Doncaster 3:15 14/1
Un De Sceaux- Leopardstown 1:40 4/6
Hurricane Fly- Leopardstown 2:45 5/6
Down Under- Leopardstown 3:50 7/2