Djakadam (4/7) sets the standard in the Cheltenham 1.50pm and is the one we’ve all got to beat. He’s entitled to improve again this season and looked good at Punchestown on his debut before Christmas. This 3 mile 1 furlong trip seemed to bring out the best in him when second in the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a six-year-old.
I’m riding the 2014 RSA Chase winner O’Faolain’s Boy (9/1) (who beat Smad Place by a neck in that race) for Rebecca Curtis after winning on him at Newbury last time out. He’ll have to improve again to win this but loves soft ground and has place claims.
Smad Place (11/2) was impressive in the Hennessy and could try to dominate here again. He could give Djakadam most to do while 2015 Grand National winner Many Clouds (15/2) has a repeat win at Aintree as his No 1 target again this season and prefers spring ground.
Another Willie Mullins smash-and-grab by the looks of it and he relies on Morning Run. Vroum Vroum Mag proved at Ascot last week that the Irish mares are a bit ahead of their UK counterparts – and it could be the same story here too. Lily Waugh is decent but has a fair bit to find here while Pass the Time is genuine but lacks the class to win it.
I get the leg up on Irish Cavalier () who reverts to handicap company after finishing fifth in the Grade One King George at Kempton over Christmas. He won at the Festival last year and ran well here when fifth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, and travels sweetly in his races. I’ll be taking my time and trying to creep into the race late on and he has a solid each-way chance.
The favourite Champagne West () put in a good run here in December when second to stablemate Village Vic in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup last December. Village Vic followed up on New Year’s Day ahead of Venetia Williams’ Tenor Nivernais () and mud-lark Top Gamble of Kerry Lee’s back in third. There’s not much between a lot of these.
Barters Hill looks one of the best staying English novices in training. Ben Pauling’s runner never really looks overly impressive but he keeps on winning and the form of those victories keeps stacking up also. He’ll be very hard to get past up the Doncaster straight.
Willie Mullins has a strong contender in Up For The Review who won a Grade 2 at Punchestown by 13 lengths last time out. They’re the two leading chances for the Albert Bartlett at the Festival, and this race could give us some clear pointers in the run up to the main event.
Shantou Village () runs here as connections want to be sure that the Neptune Hurdle (2m 5f) rather than the three-mile Albert Bartlett is the race to go for come March. He’d probably prefer slightly better ground but he’s a class act and looks the one to beat.
I’ve schooled Shantou Village at home since and he has improved again since beating Champers on Ice () (won twice since) by 15 lengths here in November when David Pipe’s horses weren’t firing.
I ride Charmix () for Harry Fry who beat Big Chief Benny 19 lengths at Newbury and he’s only rated 1lb below Shantou Village. I think he has a great chance of being involved and filing a place at least. The softer the ground, the better his chance.
Likely favourite Yanworth () was fourth to Moon Racer in the Champion Bumper last season and has progressed all season over hurdles. He looked good at Ascot last time but while he’s been winning easily he hasn’t met the calibre of horse he’ll meet on Saturday – and he’s stepping up to 2 miles 4 furlongs.
Nicky Henderson thinks a lot of Baden () while Chef D’Oeuvre () was impressive at Lingfield.
Holywell looks the class horse in the race back in handicap company. He was fourth in last year’s Gold Cup but couldn’t handle the ground at Wetherby or Haydock when down the field to Cue Card twice.
Paul Nicholls Le Mercurey gets plenty of weight off Holywell as does Ziga Boy was impressive over course and distance last time which will count for a lot.
I couldn’t have Buywise over Doncaster’s sharp turns where the fences come at you quick. If you don’t get into a rhythm here – you’re toast.
Cleeve Hurdle 3:35pm
Camping Ground () was a revelation last time when he loved the heavy ground at the track but he has much more on his plate this time. The step up in trip to 3m should suit but there’s better horses in this race. Thistlecrack () is the best horse we’ve seen in the stayers division this term and he’ll be hard to beat here and in the World Hurdle at the Festival also.
Petit Zig () is on a recovery mission after an aborted chasing career but did win a nice hurdle race in France. He looks to have place claims at best while The Young Master () could be using this as a sharpener for a handicap chase at the Festival like the Druids Nephew did last season.