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


Champ’s for the taking


James Hill

Al Boum Photo Winner of the Gold Cup for the last two years, putting him in the pantheon of steeplechasing greats. Whether he is actually a great is open to debate. Rated 159 going into his second season over fences, he has lost only one race since, although he has had just five starts in that period, following the same route for the last two seasons, landing the New Year’s Day Chase at Tramore – as he has this year – before going on to glory at Cheltenham. He won in 2019 by two and a half lengths from Anibale Fly, perhaps a shade fortunately, and got the run of the race 12 months ago to deny Santini a neck. There’s no question, for all the nine-year-old’s likeable qualities, that this is an underwhelming period for staying chasers, but Al Boum Photo could still become just the fifth horse to complete a hat-trick of Gold Cups because there aren’t many rivals in here who can beat him. A Plus Tard Former festival winner who ran away with the now defunct novice handicap chase in 2019. Still only a seven-year-old, he was good enough to beat Chacun Pour Soi over 2m1f at Leopardstown last term and was strongly fancied to land the Ryanair after that. However, he was disappointing in finishing third at Cheltenham, looking like he lacked the scope for the very highest level, while he’d been a non-stayer on his previous try at three miles at Punchestown in 2019. For that reason I was surprised to see him pop up and win the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. He stayed there, although profited from the leaders treading water at the end. That form has worked out with the second, Kemboy, having won since, and there’s no question A Plus Tard is progressive. I’m just not sure he’s a Gold Cup horse. Champ High-class novice hurdler in 2019 having finished second in the Ballymore at the festival, and he went one better at Cheltenham over fences last term when coming from a near impossible position in the RSA Chase. That ended an unbeaten first season in completed starts for Champ over fences. It wasn’t blemish free as he fell at Prestbury Park last January and the reason he had to come from so far back in the RSA was because his jumping left much to be desired. Following a delayed return to action this winter after a wind op, all eyes were on his jumping when he reappeared at Newbury last month, dropping back to an extended two miles in the Game Spirit. It was a rehearsal he passed in finishing second to Sceau Royal with his best jumping display yet. So it’s onwards to the Gold Cup where he has a tremendous chance. We can be more hopeful about his jumping, although his preparation is a bit unconventional and it is essential he settles in the race. Frodon There are few more popular partnerships in British racing than Frodon and Bryony Frost. Having recorded a memorable victory together in the Ryanair in 2019, Frost and Paul Nicholls’ nine-year-old had a quietish time of it last season. Yet, like so many of Nicholls’ horses, Frodon has improved again with age this term, defying a mark of 164 to win a 3m1f handicap chase at Cheltenham’s October meeting before perhaps having his finest hour at Kempton on Boxing Day when landing the King George under a fine front-running ride by Frost. The form of that race hasn’t worked out, but we know Frodon is happier going left-handed and he has won six times round Cheltenham. Could run really well. Kemboy High-class nine-year-old for Willie Mullins with a peak RPR of 178 as good as any in this field. Would be going into this in great form, too, having followed up a fine second in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas with victory over the same course and distance in last month’s Irish Gold Cup. We know Kemboy likes Leopardstown, but he has not thrived around Cheltenham with festival form figures of 54U7 off-putting. Likes to have things his own way in front, but unlikely to get a freebie this year with Native River and Frodon about. Also has the option of the Stayers’ Hurdle. Lostintranslation Lovely chaser for Colin Tizzard. Looked to have the world at his feet when winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock last season, but things have gone horribly wrong since then. Pulled up again in the King George this term having also failed to complete at Kempton in 2019. That run has been bookended by two lifeless displays at Haydock and Newbury and there’s something clearly amiss. Connections will cling on to his display in the Gold Cup last term where he finished third, but we’d be clutching at straws backing him this year. Minella Indo Another former festival winner for Henry de Bromhead, having landed the Albert Bartlett as a novice hurdler in 2019. Nearly won at Cheltenham again 12 months ago but was nabbed up the hill by Champ in the RSA. Was fancied as a serious Gold Cup contender at the beginning of the season, and things started off well with a couple of Graded wins. However, he’s since faltered in two Grade 1s at Leopardstown, falling in the Savills Chase over Christmas before finishing only fourth in the Irish Gold Cup last time. Wasn’t at his best on that occasion, his jumping being a bit hesitant, and deserves another chance given his fine festival record. Native River A real warrior. Won this race in deep ground in 2018 and has also made the frame in two other attempts. Missed last year through injury, but came right back to his best in desperate conditions at Sandown last month to win the rearranged Cotswold Chase. That victory matched his Gold Cup-winning performance according to RPRS, leading many to ask the question, could he at the age of 11 become the oldest horse to land this since What A Myth in 1969? What a story that would be, although I wouldn’t be getting too excited by that Sandown success, and conditions would probably need to be similar here. Royale Pagaille Fascinating contender for the Venetia Williams stable, which might have a crack performer in this seven-year-old. Recruited from France in 2018, it took Royale Pagaille a while to acclimatise as he failed to beat a horse home in two starts last term. However, he has been a different animal this winter as he has skated home in all three runs, including when landing the Peter Marsh at Haydock off a mark of 156. The form of that Grade 2 handicap probably doesn’t amount to much (the second was last of six finishers next time), although his penultimate success at Kempton has since worked out to a degree. Current odds of 8-1 are skinny, although he is the type of horse this Gold Cup needs, a young improver who could be anything. Yet to race on going better than soft. Santini Real stamp of a chaser who has now been placed three times at the festival, including an agonising second in this race last year. Stayed on powerfully up the hill 12 months ago after lack of gears caught him out. Unfortunately he’s looked even slower this season. Failed to successfully give the 18lb inferior Lake View Lad 6lb when a beaten favourite at Aintree, and was outpaced in the King George. Probably got stuck in the mud at Sandown last time, but that wasn’t an ideal prep and it would be a surprise if he were able to match his performance from 2020. Vinndication Kim Bailey-trained chaser who is best fresh, and comes into the festival having not been seen since unseating in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in November. Before that he finished second to Cyrname in the Charlie Hall, although the form of that race is not looking as good as initially thought. Vinndication has run well in both appearances at this meeting, although his jumping was a bit haphazard, suggesting a need to go right-handed. That’s certainly borne out in his form with figures of 11111131 going clockwise compared to 542U this way round. One of those earlier wins was a victory over Champ when giving 6lb, so the ability is there. VERDICT This could be Champ’s Gold Cup for the taking, but he will need to settle after his run over two miles at Newbury. Minella Indo was second to JP Mcmanus’s nine-year-old in last season’s RSA and I expect a better performance than at Leopardstown last time. Those would be my two to overthrow the king. 1 Champ 2 Minella Indo 3 Al Boum Photo



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