Cheltenham Festival: The Ultimate Guide - 2021-03-05


Young pretender Thyme Hill fits bill


James Hill

Bacardys Looks the likeliest of the Willie Mullins battalion to run. If so, it will be the ten-year-old’s sixth festival and fourth attempt at this race. Travelled into it really well 12 months ago before running out of gas up the hill to finish third. He seems to have regressed a bit this term and his best chance has surely now passed. Beacon Edge The Noel Meade-trained seven-year-old has improved a stone this term, winning three times including when nutting fellow Gigginstown-owned Fury Road in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan. Also ran Honeysuckle to within a length in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in November. Yet to race beyond 2m5f, but did stay on well at Navan. Aintree was initially the plan, but this race could be considered. Diol Ker Another potential contender for Noel Meade and Gigginstown. Was good enough to defeat Monkfish in a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse last term, and has definitely been happier for the return to the smaller obstacles following a spell over fences at the start of this season. Just run out of it by Sams Profile in a gruelling Galmoy at Gowran last time. That effort showed how well he stays, and at the moment he could be his owner’s most likely runner. Flooring Porter A real improver for Gavin Cromwell who has risen 55lb in the weights since winning at Cork in October 2019. Winner of his last two starts, including the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown having been supplemented for the race. Made all that day in beating The Storyteller by six lengths, although the form might not be as good as it looks on paper given some of his stablemates were under the weather at the time. Nevertheless, he was a good winner, is progressive and stays well. This front-runner is a worthy contender, although it’s never easy to make all in a Stayers’. Fury Road Classy horse who has won three Graded races, but his best performance came at Cheltenham last season when running Monkfish to a neck in the Albert Bartlett with Thyme Hill a place behind. That form has clearly had a boost this season, although things haven’t quite gone to plan for Fury Road, who was off colour when beaten at Leopardstown over Christmas. Looked in need of the run when chinned by Beacon Edge in the Boyne Hurdle at Navan last time, but I still think he’s Gigginstown’s best hope for this race by a country mile. However, it seems he might stay at home. Kemboy A 169-rated chaser who is in fine fettle having landed the Irish Gold Cup last time. Trainer Willie Mullins has mooted this race as a possible option at the festival with Kemboy having failed to shine over fences at the meeting in the past. Aintree, a track where he has won before, is another option and surely a better one if they do decide to bypass the Gold Cup. Lisnagar Oscar A shock 50-1 winner of this race last year. We all know the 2020 running wasn’t the greatest after Paisley Park underperformed, although it might not be a vintage contest this time around. Ran an encouraging race when second in the Rendlesham at Haydock – his first start after a wind op – and it’s now all systems go to defend the crown this month. No reason why he shouldn’t run well again and a candidate to make the frame. Paisley Park Winner of eight of his last ten races, and a brilliant winner of this event in 2019. He’d be right up there with some of the best stayers we’ve seen, although it all went wrong in this 12 months ago when he flopped as 4-6 favourite. Was found to have an irregular heartbeat following that performance, but he has redeemed himself this season with two cracking efforts, first when second to Thyme Hill (giving 3lb) in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and then reversing form with that rival in the Long Walk at Ascot after a storming late run saw him get up. That victory did come on heavy ground, and it remains to be seen what will happen against the youngsters on a quicker surface, but if it comes down to stamina then we know he’ll be hard to stop. Roksana Quality mare who is having a fine season. Ran away with the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on her seasonal return in October, and was just two lengths off Paisley Park and Thyme Hill in the Long Walk at Ascot. Justified being odds-on back at the Berkshire track when taking on her own sex in Listed company last time, and that looks the route it’s going to be at Cheltenham with the Mares’ Hurdle the preferred option. Sire Du Berlais Winner of the last two Pertemps Finals at the festival. Was successful off top weight last year, and this race seems to have been the plan all season. Made a great start on his return when winning a 2m4f Grade 2 at Navan, but could finish only third when last seen in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. Runners from his yard were definitely under a cloud at the time so it’s worth forgiving him that defeat, and interesting he’s their number one for this given they’ve also got Fury Road. The Storyteller Festival winner in 2018 who was unlucky not to land a second victory at the meeting last year when just run out of it by stablemate Sire Du Berlais in the Pertemps Final. Aged ten now, but he’s been in fine fettle this season over both hurdles and fences, winning the Champion Chase at Down Royal in October and finishing second in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown last time. Also runner-up to Flooring Porter in the Christmas Hurdle at the Dublin track. Would be the oldest winner since Crimson Embers in 1986. Thyme Hill Has definitely announced himself the young pretender to the throne this season. He has a top festival record, having finished third to Envoi Allen in the Champion Bumper in 2019 and a luckless fourth behind Monkfish in the Albert Bartlett last term (could well have won with a clear run). Looked an ideal candidate for this race back then and he has proved the point this season, defeating Paisley Park on his return in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, and he looked like he’d bagged the Long Walk at Ascot in December before getting run down by his great rival. Bring on round three. VERDICT It’s a case of head ruling the heart here as, while we’d all love to see Paisley Park win, regaining your crown in these championship events is very tough, and Thyme Hill has the right profile for this. He’s less binded to how the race is run and ground won’t be an issue. Sire Du Berlais is Ireland’s main hope, but I’d be more interested in Fury Road were he to run. 1 Thyme Hill 2 Paisley Park 3 Fury Road



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