Kings Palace and Champagne West Stake Festival Claims with Open Meeting Wins

@SeanRaymond provides the low-down on those runners who caught the eye over the course of Cheltenham’s three day Open meeting.

The Open Meeting at Cheltenham is often seen by many as the real start of the National Hunt season in the UK and once again it proved to be a brilliant three days of jumps action. Thousands of fans descended on Prestbury Park over the weekend to catch some top class racing and we saw some very taking performances to scribble in the notebook along the way. The Festival may still be four months away but we saw plenty of eye catching action from some improving young horses who are sure to be back here in the spring with every chance of running big races.

There were a number of particularly interesting performances from one of two novice chasers over the weekend including Champagne West who made a real mark for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson on Friday. The Steel Plate and Sections Novices Chase has been won by the likes of Denman and Imperial Commander in recent years and while it remains to be seen if Champagne West will turn out to be as good as either of those two, it certainly was a likeable performance from an improving six-year-old who now looks one to follow.

Champagne West travelled and jumped like a very good horse indeed before pulling clear of stable-mate Colour Squadron up the hill and the RSA Chase now looks very much on his radar. He remains a relatively lightly raced horse who is sure to improve again as we see him through the winter and he is now as short as 12/1 for the RSA Chase with one firm which might look a decent price come the spring.

One horse who Champagne West may well end up taking on in the RSA Chase come March also made a favourable impression during the Open Meeting this past weekend. The David Pipe trained Kings Palace won the Cheltenham Club Novices Chase on Saturday with impressive style and he looks like a strong stayer who was more than at home on his chase debut. The six-year-old was a very good hurdler for Pond House but he was bought as a chaser and connections are convinced that the best of this horse will be seen over the fences. The highly rated Sausalito Sunrise was no match for Kings Palace on this occasion and Bet365 were impressed enough to cut the Pipe horse from 16/1 into 8/1 favourite for the RSA Chase which highlights the regard that this horse is held in.

The main talking point from the Open Meeting was the success of Richard Johnson and Philip Hobbs who shared a stunning six winners over the three days.  The aforementioned Champagne West was just one of those winners and they enjoyed a number of other high profile wins together including on Sunday when Garde La Victoire claimed the Greatwood Hurdle in very taking fashion. The five-year-old remains lightly raced and should have more improvement to come although this was clearly a career best off of a big weight. One or two quietly fancy Garde La Victoire to run well in the Champion Hurdle after this latest success with 33/1 a more than fair price at the moment about a young horse who clearly acts on the course and will enjoy the trip.

Caid Du Berlais is also worth a mention, as he produced a thrilling finish under a good ride from Sam Twiston-Davies to win the Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday. The Paddy Power is considered the highlight of the Open Meeting and it certainly gave the fans a cracking finish this season. As they came over the last it was Johns Spirit who looked the winner all over in his bid for a second successive win in the race but he was collared in the shadow of the post by the Paul Nichols trained Caid Du Berlais. The Ryanair Chase remains a possibility for the Ditcheat in-mate and he certainly enjoys the course and distance at Cheltenham as he showed on Saturday although a tilt at one of the middle distance handicaps at the Festival is also likely to be considered for a horse who has proven himself to be top class.

Credit to @SteveChambers86 for dragging himself away from the betting ring to grabs these snaps on Friday…

CC Course 1Hounds Cheltenham BK Cheltenham

Pearl Swan & Grumeti Confirm Triumph Hurdle Credentials After Event Cheltenham Battle

In terms of tactics Ruby Walsh rode a master class of a ride on Pearl Swan in the Triumph Hurdle Trail at Cheltenham on Saturday which sadly for him, was marred by the horse hanging to the right and bumping into the leader Grumeti coming up the hill. Although Walsh still managed to get his horse in front at the line by a short head he was later demoted into second place after the Stewards Enquiry confirmed the contact affected the result.

Nonetheless it was a very revealing trial for the Triumph Hurdle itself in March, for which neither of them have been made the favourite. Indeed the Bookmakers found it difficult to split them in the market quoting the pair at around the 8/1, with Sadler’s Risk from the Phillip Hobbs stable holding sway at the top of the Triumph Hurdle market with odds of 7/1.

Walsh held the Pearl Swan up at the rear of the field until unleashing a furious attack two from home managing to pick off the leader Grumeti on the line, crossing a short head in front. It was not a great way to lose a race of course, and it also led to a 3 day ban for Walsh, but despite his hanging, the manner in which he completed the last half mile of the race was extremely impressive. Moreover, trainer Paul Nicholls believes he will improve hugely for the run and believes he is a very real contender to win the ‘Triumph’.

Grumeti had gone off in the Trial as the 7/4 joint favourite and while he justified the betting, Baby Mix, who he had shared favouritism ran poorly, finishing last of the six runners. Baby Mix had previously ran over course and distance back in December and won in cracking style by 7 lengths and had many pundits believing that he was the Triumph Hurdle winner designate. However, Tom George’s charge failed to maintain the pace and faded rapidly from two out and finished like a horse way out of his depth. Notwithstanding, the plan is still to run him in the ‘Triumph’ at Cheltenham for which he now has odds of 20/1.

Sadler’s Risk rose to prominence with an outstanding performance in a competitive Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton Park a fortnight ago winning as he pleased by 17 lengths. He will of course need to confirm his potential by stepping up to graded company but on the evidence of his Kempton Park run, then he should be able to take that step comfortably.

Surprisingly bookmakers are reporting plenty of support for the Dessie Hughes trained Minsk, who has yet to race over hurdles, but who has been a good winner on the flat taking the honours by over five lengths in the Irish Cesarewitch at the Curragh back in October. Hughes intends to debut him over hurdles in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown in 12th February, a race won in 2011 by the Dermot Weld trained, Unaccompanied, who went on to finish second in the Triumph Hurdle behind Zarkandar. Currently Minsk is a 10/1 shot to win the 2012 Triumph Hurdle.

Argento Chase Can Provide Useful Gold Cup Pointers

It looks like it will be a cracking renewal of the Grade 2 Argento Chase at Cheltenham this coming Saturday with the David Pipe Cheltenham Gold Cup hope, Grands Crus, heading the betting market at odds of 2/1.

The race formerly known as the Cotswold Chase is run over an extended 3m1f on the New Course and has had a host of decent past winners, including the late Exotic Dancer in 2007, See More Business in 2001 and 1998, and One Man in 1997. It is a well known trial for the Gold Cup and there will be a number, in addition to Grands Crus, in the race this year that harbour Gold Cup hopes.

However, it is Grands Crus who has continued to look like a top class horse of the future certainly looks the one to beat and although a novice his jumping prowess already looks superior to most of these rivals on Saturday. He has been out three times already this season, winning them all, including a very impressive 2¼ length victory in the Grade 2 Feltham Chase over 3 miles at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. In that race he had the highly regarded Bobs Worth from the Nicky Henderson stable over 5 lengths in arrears in third place, which prompted trainer David Pipe to suggest that he may now take his chance in the Gold Cup against Long Run and Kauto Star. Interestingly, he is already the favourite to win the 2013 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

To win on Saturday he will have to overcome some very useful opposition, which includes 2010 Hennessy Gold Cup winner, Diamond Harry. The 9 year old has had only one run since that victory which came in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November where he finished fourth behind Kauto Star and Long Run. There is no doubt that he needed the run that day but he should be a much stronger candidate in this which explains why his trainer, Nick Williams is very keen on his chances and also why the Bookmakers have him disputing second favouritism with odds of 11/2.

Also at 11/2 is Paul Webbers Time For Rupert last seen also being beaten by Kauto Star and Long Run but this time in the King George Vl Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. He was no match for the big guns at Kempton, but Webber has been finding it hard to hide his confidence in him currently. He claims that ‘Rupert’ has been working better than ever at home and is now ready, having learned some valuable lessons to live up to the hype he received after his second place behind Big Bucks in the 2010 World Hurdle.

Captain Chris from the Phillip Hobbs stable is also currently at 11/2 and he is another who needs to confirm the potential he showed when winning the Arkle Challenge Trophy at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival. He followed that win up of course with a great win in the Ryanair Chase over two miles at the Punchestown Festival to end what was a fantastic season for him. However this season he has done nothing but disappoint, unseating on his reappearance at Exeter in the Grade 3 Haldon Gold Cup, won by Medermit and then he finished third but over 18 lengths behind Kauto Star when trying three miles for the first time in the ‘King George’. It is clear that Hobbs will use Saturday’s race as a yardstick as to which of the Cheltenham races he will target. Currently the 8 year old has entries in both the Ryanair over 2m5f and the Gold Cup.

Now trained by Champion Trainer, Paul Nicholls, Tidal Bay will be running for the second time this season after being given a spin in a three mile hurdle race earlier this month in which he finished a creditable third. It was his first run since his doomed Grand National attempt last season, but it is worthwhile noting that he finished second in this race last season and possibly would have won had he made his challenge earlier. It will be very interesting to see how he performs for his new handler in the Argento.

Fingal Bay Looks The One To Beat In Early Neptune Picture

The Grade 1 Neptune Investment Management Novice Hurdle at this year’s Cheltenham Festival looks set to be one of the more competitive races of the meeting.

Raced over 2m5f on the Old Course, the antepost betting currently has the Phillip Hobbs trained, Fingal Bay installed as the 5/1 antepost favourite, with a host of others queuing up behind him. Hobbs has good reason to be sweet on the chances of Fingal Bay who is unbeaten after five starts, which includes a bumper, three Grade 2 races and most recently the Grade 1 Challows Novice Hurdle over 2m5f at Newbury. He would appear to go on all ground and the 2m5f would seem his ideal trip.

In the Challows Novices Hurdle he had to battle quite hard on the run in with the Tim Vaughan trained 25/1 outsider, Ballyrock, but he never really looked like losing and proved that in the heat of battle he can rise to the occasion. Ballyrock in fact has been quoted at 20/1 to win the race which might be a price that would attract each way backers!

Next best in the betting, with odds of 12/1 is the Willie Mullins trained Make Your Mark also unbeaten after three starts, but has so far only had one spin over hurdles. That came at the end of last year in the Madigans Maiden Hurdle over 2½ miles at Leopardstown, which he won in hugely impressive style by ten lengths. He clearly took to jumping extremely well and although the ‘Neptunes’ will be a big step up in class there is little doubt that he has the ability to race at the top level. Mullins of course knows what it takes to win this race having saddled the winners in both 2008 with Fiveforthree and 2009 with Mikael d’Haguenet.

Mullins in fact also intends to saddle Boston Bob, the winner of the recent Grade 1 Navan Novices Hurdle on soft ground over 2½ miles at Navan. In that race he gave a 4½ length beating to previous Grade 2 Hurdle winner, Mount Benbulben, trained by Gordon Elliott, who had gone off as the 5/6 odds on favourite. The win earned Boston Bob a quote of 14/1 to win the ‘Neptunes’.

Also at 14/1 is the Nicky Henderson trained, Simonsig but he would have to find almost three lengths and possibly better ground than good to soft if he is to reverse the form with Fingal Bay, who beat him in the Grade 2 Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle Trial at Sandown at the beginning of December. Henderson however does believe that he will come on for the run and he is likely to have one more run before Cheltenham.

Monksland trained by Noel Meade also jumped into contention the other day when he won the Grade 2 Slaney Novice Hurdle over 2½ miles on soft to heavy ground at Naas the other day. He had won his maiden back in December and looks a very lively prospect although he might not get the soft ground which he would prefer at Cheltenham. Nonetheless the Bookmakers have deemed it prudent to include him in their markets with odds of around the 16/1 mark.

Arkle Chase Promising To Be One Of 2012 Cheltenham Festival Highlights

Whilst the Gold Cup will always be the main event of the annual Cheltenham Festival, followed by the Champion Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase, there are still a number of other races each year that have provide plenty of intrigue and discussion for National Hunt fans throughout the winter in the build-up to March, hot races you could call them that have a number of runners boasting early season form that suggest they have the potential to win one of the Festival’s other feature races.

In 2012, that race could well be the Arkle Challenge Trophy which is effectively is the Two Mile Champion Novice Chase. The reason for this is quite simply that many of those highly talented young hurdlers from the last couple of seasons have moved on to chasing careers and most have the Arkle in their sights for their main target of the season.

Although most of these first season chases are still staking their claims in the host of trial races that lead to the Arkle, the market currently has the runner up to Hurricane Fly in last season’s Champion Hurdle, Peddlers Cross, at the head of the betting.

The Donald McCain trained seven year old has had two spins over the bigger obstacles so far this season, emphatically winning both although neither could be described as being against a serious test of opponent. Nonetheless, he appears to have adapted to fences extremely comfortably, impressing with his jumping, whilst maintaining his usual momentum. He has been installed as the 4/1 favourite, three points clear of the next best in the market, the Paul Nicholls trained Al Ferof.

Winner of the Grade One Supreme Novices Hurdle at the Festival last March, Al Ferof has come through two tests this season already over fences. The first of those, the Grade 2 November Novices Chase at Cheltenham last month he won by an easy seven lengths but he was given a severe examination in his latest outing in the Grade One, Henry VIII Novice Chase at Sandown. He won that race in very game fashion by a neck from the Nick Williams trained For Non Stop, who will also be heading to Cheltenham for the Arkle. That Sandown win, whilst proving his tenacity, did not hugely impress the Bookmakers in an overall sense who have now eased the John Hales owned gelding to 7/1 from 6/1 in the Cheltenham odds for the Arkle.

Vying for the position of joint favourite for the race is the Nicky Henderson trained, Sprinter Sacre. Third behind Al Ferof in the Supreme Novices at the Festival in March, word from Seven Barrows was that this five year old had schooled particularly well over fences and proved as much when landing a Novice Chase at Doncaster last weekend by 24 lengths, an impressive start to say the least.

Menorah, from the Phillip Hobbs stable who won the 2010 Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham unseated jockey Richard Johnson on his chasing debut at Exeter at the beginning of last month. At the time of the mistake he was well in command, looking every bit the winner and will surely be making amends next time out. That said, Hobbs him in the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham last weekend where he could only manage fourth behind Grandouet and he is now likely to resume his chasing career which is sure to see him take in another race over bigger obstacles soon but would not be one to be pinning hopes on ahead of the Festival without seeing evidence that his jumping is sound.

Others heading for the ‘Arkle’ include Colin Tizzards Cue Card who so narrowly lost to Bobs Worth in the Grade 2 London Prides Novice Chase at Newbury a fortnight ago. That race was run over 2m4f but he is sure to prefer the two mile trip which is the distance Tizzard will most likely run him next time. Meanwhile Bobs Worth has been installed as the second favourite for the RSA Chase in March’s Festival.

Trainer Charles Byrne has confirmed that the leading Irish fancy for the Arkle, Solwhit, has had a setback at home and will not be making his chasing debut until the New Year. The seven year old who has won six times at Grade One level over hurdles certainly has a lot of class about him, but obviously until he runs over fences the ‘jury must remain out’ as to his Arkle chances. He is currently a 16/1 shot for the race which, incidentally, Irish horses have a very good record.

Medermit set for Arkle Tilt after Sandown success

Trainer, Alan King, confirmed over the weekend that Medermit will run in the Arkle Trophy Challenge at the Cheltenham Festival in March, following his solid success when winning the Grade1 Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown Park last Saturday. King had been undecided whether Medermit should take on the more prestigious Arkle over two miles or the Jewson Novice Chase over two and a half miles but both he and jockey, Choc Thornton believe he will be better over two miles and deserves his chance at one of the big races at the Festival.

Medermit certainly looked impressive in the Scilly isles Chase, although he did have to battle hard to hold off the late challenge of Captain Chris, who also ran well for the Phillip Hobbs stable. Hobbs however, like King was, is not certain which race at the Festival will suit his 7 year old who has now finished second four times from four starts this season. The Bookmakers in fact have shortened Medermit for the race from 13/2 to 6/1, while Captain Chris is at 14/1 but is 10/1 for the Jewson Novices. Interestingly it was King’s first Grade 1 winner for two years.

Favourite in the Arkle odds is the Nicky Henderson trained, Finians Rainbow, at 4/1, more or less across the board. The eight year is clearly a late developer but has looked mightily impressive in his two chase starts so far, which he won emphatically each time, although it has to be said that he only had two opponents in each race. The first win came in the Rooney Hall Novice Chase back in November where he had none other than Hells Bay 12 lengths behind. Hells Bay of course who is trained by Colin Tizzard defeated Medermit on New Year’s Day in the Grade 2, Dipper Novice Chase over two miles and five furlongs at Cheltenham and is one of the favourites to win the Jewson. Finians rainbow followed that win by taking the Zenergi Novice Chase last month at Newbury when a huge odds on favourite.

Next best in the Arkle betting at around 9/2 is the Paul Nicholls 7 year old, Ghizao, an impressive winner of his last two chase’s, one at Grade 2 level . In both races he had Captain Chris well behind him in second place.

Nicholls, King and Henderson all have good records in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, winning it seven times between them. King in fact won in successive years in 2006, with the brilliant Voy Por Ustedes and in 2007 with My Way De Solzen, while Nicholls last success in the race came in 2003 with Azertyuiop, while Henderson has to go back to 2000 when he won with Tiutchev.


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