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With the entries for three of the Championship races at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival in March released this week it seems pertinent to look at who’s engaged and who has missed out at the first entry stage.
In addition to that the decision of William Hill to go Non Runner No Bet from the start of this month on all races at the Festival adds an extra dimension to the markets, particularly for those wanting to back horses like Blue Lord who is among those who are engaged in more than one race.
The feature race on the second day of the meeting seems the most obvious place to start with the absence of Shishkin the key talking point following the release of the entries for the two mile chase championship.
Nicky Henderson’s charge had swept all before him as a novice during the 2020/21 season and was rated one of the bankers of the meeting going into last year’s race.
Ultimately the gelding was never travelling with the soft ground, on which he’d won twice previously that season and in the Arkle Trophy the previous year put up as the reason for such an abject performance.
Returning this campaign the gelding suffered a heavy defeat behind last year’s Arkle Trophy winner Edwardstone in the Tingle Creek at Sandown and while it’s understandable that connections are looking at their options, the failure to enter in the biggest two mile contest of the year is something of a surprise.
Edwardstone blotted his copybook with an early unseat in the Desert Orchid at Kempton recently but prior to that had impressed with a nine length triumph in the Tinkle Creek.
Alan King’s charge has solid course form and hails from a stable who knows what it takes to win this race with the Kayf Tara gelding looking the clear pick of the home team with the market reflecting that given he is the currently second favourite at a best price of 11/4.
Gary Moore has won this race in the past and while his Editeur Du Gite’s form lacks the strength of some of his rivals it was hard not to be impressed by his front-running performance in the Desert Orchid.
Whether the nine-year-old can repeat that in Grade 1 company is another matter given his two previous Cheltenham victories have come in handicap contests off marks in the 140’s but at 25/1 there will be plenty who see similarities between him and another progressive Moore performer in Sire De Grugy who took this race for the Sussex handler.
A current 33/1 shot Nube Negra won at this track in the Shloer Chase in November but couldn’t take advantage of Edwardstone’s early departure in the Desert Orchid. He is the sole Dan Skelton entry in the field.
Only Shishkin at Ascot last year has beaten the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene over fences to date and having impressed when winning this race last year and duly following up at Punchestown subsequently he made the perfect return this campaign when justifying short-priced favouritism at Cork last month.
Given his record over fences it will come as no surprise to learn he is odds-on with 8/11 available with a number of firms including BetVictor and Boylesports.
As has been the case in these top level races in recent years Willie Mullins looks to hold a strong hand with Blue Lord (7/1 best price) impressing in winning at Leopardstown over Christmas and while clearly not the force of old the veteran Chacun Pour Soi (33/1) rates a strong third string.
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There were 27 entries made for the Ryanair Chase including the previously mentioned Shishkin (7/1) who will be stepping up in trip should he take up his engagement in this contest and Blue Lord who also holds an engagement in the Champion Chase.
Allaho (7/4) has impressed in winning the last two renewals of this contest and he duly followed up in the Punchestown Gold Cup over three miles at Punchestown last April.
Unraced so far this time around he picked up a knock in November having been slated to run in the King George at Kempton over Christmas.
Notably for ante-post punters Allaho holds just the one engagement at Cheltenham and would become the first horse to win three Ryanair Chases were he to triumph in March.
Also engaged in the Champion Chase Blue Lord has won six of his seven starts and is the current second favourite for this race at a best price of 6/1. While the French-bred eight-year-old has done most of his racing over around the minimum distance he did pick up a Grade 2 at Clonmel over an extended two miles four furlongs on seasonal debut in November.
Stablemate Stattler (16/1) won the National Hunt Challenge Cup at the Festival in 2022 and while beaten just a neck by former Gold Cup winner Minella Indo on his return recently the Cheltenham Gold Cup would appear a more obvious option for the eight-year-old.
Fakir d’Oudairies (10/1) looks to hold strong claims of giving the Emerald Isle a seventh win in the last eight runners of this race with the former finishing a good second to Galopin Des Champs (14/1) over two-and-a-half-miles at Punchestown last month.
Outside of Shishkin the home team looks light on numbers with Eldorado Allen (28/1), backable at a best price of 28/1 the shortest priced of the UK-trained runners.
While dangerous to write off Joe Tizzard’s charge, who placed third in this race last year completely it’s notable that connections have seen staying chases as the route to go down so far this season.
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The highlight of the week for so many the Friday feature has attracted an entry of 27 with Willie Mullins’ Galopin des Champs (7/4 best price) the current favourite.
While the seven-year-old has been impressive in his five starts over fences to date, including when looking a likely winner prior to falling in the Turners at the Festival last year it’s notable that he has yet to run over in excess of three miles.
That could all change with the Dublin Racing Festival coming up next month but at present his stamina has to be taken on trust.
Long-absent stablemate Monkfish (33/1), off the track since finishing runner-up at Punchestown in April 2021 is an interesting entry.
The nine-year-old is another to have impressed as a novice, including when winning the Brown Advisory at this meeting two years ago.
He rates an interesting runner but it would take a monumental training performance for him to win such a competitive contest off a near two year absence.
Last years Brown Advisory went the way of L’Homme Presse (7/1) who blotted his copybook somewhat when unseating at the last in last month’s King George.
While it’s unlikely he’d have beaten Bravemansgame (9/1) on that occasion it’s of note that he has strong Cheltenham form having won twice at the track as a novice in contrast to Paul Nicholls charge who has yet to race at the undulating venue.
Bravemansgame looks likely to head straight to this race but there’s still an opportunity to gain some course experience with Trials Day coming up at the track later this month.
Dan Skelton’s Protektorat (9/1) appeared to benefit from a wind operation when winning by an impressive eleven lengths in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November.
While he placed third in this race last year the distance appeared to stretch his stamina and it will be interesting to see how he fares this time around.
A Plus Tard (8/1) impressed in scoring by fifteen lengths in this race in 2022 and while he delivered a lacklustre performance when pulled up in the previously mentioned Betfair Chase at Haydock in November he is clearly much better than he showed that day.
Minella Indo (20/1) won this race two years ago and finished runner-up last season and while he’s entering the veteran stage of his career at the age of ten Henry De Bromhead’s charge showed that he isn’t one to discount when winning at Tramore at the start of this month.
He is another for whom the Dublin Racing Festival is likely to be on the agenda and he is another Irish performer to consider.
Grand National winner Noble Yeats (10/1) remains open to improvement at the age of eight and having put a pulled up at Auteuil in October behind him he has impressed in two subsequent starts including in the Many Clouds at Aintree early last month.
Emmet Mullins’ charge won’t lack for stamina and while he needs to improve on what he’s shown so far it would be dangerous to write him off.
Hewick (25/1) is another to have been on his travels this season with Shark Hanlon’s gelding impressive when winning a Grade 1 hurdle at Far Hills in the USA in October.
Off the track since he needs to improve on what he’s shown over fences so far but had looked progressive prior to that effort and was a winner at Sandown in the Bet365 Gold Cup last April on his most recent visit to the UK.
The biggest surprise in the field is the entry of The Real Whacker for handler Patrick Neville. The seven-year-old who has made just six starts to date has shown a liking for Cheltenham in two starts this term including when taking out the Paddy Power Novices’ Chase at the start of this month.
I expect that when the novice entries are released he will hold engagements in both the Turners and the Brown Advisory and while rated just 139 currently he is one of the more interesting entries in the field while being backable at a general 66/1.
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