Tuesday 23 December 2014

Counting down to Cheltenham 2015 showcase races

Let’s face it, every Cheltenham Festival is a thrill a minute with the best jumps horses in the business bidding to write themselves a place in the history books at the home of National Hunt racing, and this season’s renewal, scheduled between March 10 – 13, will certainly be no exception, writes Elliot Slater.

One certainty as we close in on ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’, is that champion Irish jumps trainer Willie Mullins will head to Cheltenham with as strong a hand as ever, having a number of outstanding horses in his care at present, many of them such as Vautour, Annie Power, and Champagne Fever (to name but a few), owned by Rich and Susanna Ricci, whose pink and pale green silks have become an almost ever-present in the winners enclosure in Ireland, and have also been sighted a time or two in Britain as well this season.

Faugheen pictured] is the horse the Ricci’s hope will carry their colours into the hallowed winners circle at Cheltenham on March 10 in the Champion Hurdle, a race for which the unbeaten French-bred gelding is currently ante-post favourite having never before tasted defeat in a career spanning seven races under rules. Expected by most pundits offering insight and opinion to make it eight from eight when he bids for the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day at Kempton Park, anything other than a convincing win will be a disappointment for a horse who genuinely appears to have real star quality.

He certainly looked the part when beating Ballyalton in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle at last year’s Festival before going on to prove even more impressive when slamming Valseur Lido by no less than 12 lengths at the Punchestown Festival six weeks later, appearing to be better suited by the minimum trip of two miles than he had by the longer trip at Cheltenham.

If you’re looking for a horse to possibly bring to an end Faugheen’s unbeaten run then the outstanding candidate so far this season is the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained The New One. He won all three of his races before the Christmas break in fine style, looking particularly smart when showing a visible change of gear to beat the highly regarded Vaniteux in the Grade 2 StanJames.com International Hurdle at Cheltenham’s December fixture, a race he took on in preference to going head-to-head at this stage with Faugheen at Kempton.

Twiston-Davies is very much of the opinion that had his charge not been badly hampered at an early stage of last season’s Champion Hurdle he might very well have beaten eventual winner Jezki. As it was, the gelded son of King’s Theatre still ran a cracker in finishing strongly to take third place, beaten less than three lengths by Jessica Harrington’s surprise winner. And having won the big race last term and then proven that no fluke by following up at the Punchestown Festival in beating former dual champion Hurricane Fly, Jezki is certainly not out of the reckoning either, with connections training him specifically for a repeat bid for the hurdles crown. We know he handles the track well, appreciates the normally decent ground, and has proved himself a horse capable of delivering the big performance on the right occasion.

There’s no doubt about it; the 2015 Champion Hurdle could well turn out to be one of the best for some years if all the principals make it to the starting line.

Glossing over the Queen Mother Champion Chase (for no other reason than the two ante-post favourites, Sprinter Sacre and Sire de Grugy have not been seen so far this season and both are under injury clouds), and leaving aside the World Hurdle, which at this stage looks wide open with last season’s hero More of That having run poorly first time out this campaign while most of the other contenders have been taking it in turns to beat each other, let’s concentrate on the other feature event of Cheltenham 2015 which is, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Always a tremendous race and rarely providing anything less than a thrilling finish for any number of reasons, it would be fair to say that this season’s renewal is going to have to go some to better the breathtaking finish last term when the relatively unconsidered Jim Culloty-trained outsider Lord Windermere (20/1) came from a seemingly impossible position at the third last to storm up the hill and get the better of a titanic tussle with On His own to score by a nose under a brilliant ride from Davy Russell.

The enigmatic The Giant Bolster was back in third, the King George VI Chase winner Silviniaco Conti was fourth, and the reigning champion Bobs Worth finished fifth in a race that produced a hard-to-predict result, but that showcased everything that is great about National Hunt racing.

Lord Windermere is now a winner at each of that last two Cheltenham Festivals having 12 months earlier sprung another surprise when landing the Grade 1 RSA Chase. The old adage ‘horses for courses’ certainly rings true with this very talented gelding who is at his best on spring ground when putting his undoubted stamina to good use on the steep climb from the home turn at Cheltenham. An excellent third on his seasonal return at Punchestown in December in the Grade 1 John Durkan Chase over an inadequate trip, Lord Windermere is still a horse that many of the jumps public don’t seem to have taken as seriously as they should and he remains an attractive each-way betting prospect, at the very least, to run a big race back at the scene of his two greatest triumphs.

Silviniaco Conti, beaten less than two lengths into a close fourth in that great race last March, has since proven himself to be a leading contender to land the blue riband event this time around. He bounced back from his defeat to win nicely at Aintree a few weeks later and was clearly short of peak fitness when beaten on his seasonal return at Wetherby. You’d be best judging champion trainer Paul Nicholls’ charge on what he subsequently did at Haydock when he destroyed a high-class field in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase – winning the race for a second time – eventually coming home two lengths clear of the talented Menorah, who has been in terrific form this season for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson.

Nicholls knows exactly what it takes to win the Gold Cup having done the business twice with See More Business, as well as more recent high-profile successes with the superb Kauto Star and the hardly less inspiring Denman, two of the best three-mile chasers of the modern era. The Ditcheat handler has been very bullish about Silviniaco Conti being good enough for this season’s Gold Cup and he will be trained to be at his very peak on the big day, regardless of anything else he does prior to the main event.

Bobs Worth may well be back for another crack at the title, and Willie Mullins is mulling a bid for the race with the possibly doubtful stayer Champagne Fever – likely to be better suited by the shorter Grade 1 Ryanair Chase, in my opinion – while Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell is no forlorn hope either in a race that will surely prove well worth the wait.