It’s that time of the year
when there are more questions than answers but six months out from the
Cheltenham Festival, surely some of these will be roared home at Prestbury
Park, writes James Toney.
And after last year’s record Irish success – 23 winners to the home side’s five – expectations are high.
Within seconds of crossing the line in a 24-length Supreme Novices’ romp, Appreciate It was installed as the hot favourite for the Arkle Chase after a brief debate about a Champion Hurdle programme was considered.
Willie Mullins last performed that trick when Douvan won back-to-back showpiece novice races in 2014 and 2015.
Jumps like a buck, loves a strong gallop and looks primed to give Mullins a fifth winner in the race in eight years.
Monkfish's perfect season may have been scarred by that surprise defeat at Punchestown but put that Champion Novice Chase aside and remember the rest of the campaign.
Three grade one successes at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, the Dublin Racing Festival and then the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase at Cheltenham.
It’s worth remembering the jumping display at the DRF which had the best judges talking about one of the most natural fencers they had ever seen and winning the Brown Advisory with an under-par performance shows quite how good this lad is.
And that's why six months out, Willie Mullins’ charge shares Gold Cup favouritism with defending champion Minella Indo.
Narrowly edged out by Sir Gerhard in last year’s Champion Bumper with many judges questioning the hold-up tactics employed that day, there is still no doubting Kilcruit’s class.
He put that straight at the Punchestown Festival and looked the monster he was billed as after the DRF demolition job.
The Ballymore Novices’ – over two miles five furlongs – looks a more likely target than the sharper Supreme.
Fourth in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, when sent off a narrow favourite, Stattler is a horse that will love chasing, so worth following his early season races with interest.
It’s worth noting that many horses have found the rigours of the Albert Bartlett a bit much before going on to glory and he’s got a stamp of class about him.
Following in the footsteps of owner Ronnie Bartlett’s star Galvin – winner of the NH Chase last year – looks a tasty target six months out.
Henry de Bromhead’s Bob Olinger will be looking at Cheltenham’s novice chases, with all-important Festival form on his resume.
The manner Rachael Blackmore guided him to last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle was eye-catching – considered by many to be the stand-out performance of the week – as he arrived at Prestbury Park following thumping wins at Naas and Navan and a narrow
defeat at Gowran Park on his seasonal reappearance.
He looks the real deal and he’s in the right hands to take the next step considering de Bromhead’s epic season last year.
Galopin des Champs
Galopin des Champs looks every bit a Stayers’ Hurdle fancy, slowly stepping up in trips last season.
He found two miles too fast in the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival but looked all class over the extra four and a half furlongs at Cheltenham.
That win in the conditional jockeys’ race was followed up by a 12-length success over three miles at the Punchestown Festival.
If he keeps improving then the Stayers’ could be at his mercy come March.
Zanahiyr looked the smartest juvenile around last season, arriving at the Triumph Hurdle after wins at Leopardstown, Fairyhouse and Ballinrobe by an accumulative 20 lengths.
He ran too keen in the big race and struggled up the hill but, still inexperienced, this could be the season to really graduate. 16-1 is big even at this early stage.
It's fair to say Envoi Allen's spring campaign did not live up to the hype generated by consecutive wins at Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Down Royal.
An untimely and unexpected fall early in the Marsh Novices' Chase would have sucked the air from a crowd at Cheltenham, had there been one.
And then the horse was pulled up at the Punchestown Festival.
But as two-time Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo proved, it’s quite possible to fall at the Festival one year and win the big one the next and this horse is simply too good to give up on.
Three Stripe Life
Three Stripe Life is a son of 2014 Gold Cup winner Leading Light, which suggests stamina in spades.
He ran a cracker to finish fourth in the Champion Bumper, simply not having the gears to contend with the speedsters out front.
However, this could be a big season in staying novices hurdles - perhaps a crack at the Albert Bartlett could be on the cards?
Gentlemansgame’s connections sidestepped Cheltenham after his excellent second to Ballymore runner-up Gaillard du Mesnil at the Dublin Racing Festival.
Mouse Morris' still inexperienced charge wasn't eye-catching in his final two runs last season, so keep an eye on his early season engagements.