Architect Tips is hunting Festival clues as he casts his eye over Cheltenham Trials Day, while taking an in-depth look at the Stayers’ Hurdle picture.
Cheltenham hosts regular good-quality fixture lists throughout the course of the jump racing calendar, but the final chapter of the Prestbury Park programme before the Cheltenham Festival itself is Cheltenham Trials Day, where connections will be keen to ensure their intended participants can utilise this appearance to book their spot for the main event in six weeks' time.
The seven-race card at the weekend should offer a lot of guidance towards your ante-post consideration with price movements likely to take effect.
Eskylane returns to Cheltenham
The first race on the card is the SSS Super Alloys Handicap Hurdle (12.15pm), where the most intriguing entry is the Gordon Elliott-trained Eskylane, who could return to Cheltenham for the first time since finishing fifth in the 2020 Champion Bumper behind Ferny Hollow - 6/4 market favourite for the Arkle. The eight-year-old was last seen scoring impressively at Down Royal, his first victory since winning on hurdles debut, and is currently top-weight for the opener.
It is highly likely that connections will be using this as a stepping stone towards a crack at one of the big-field handicaps in March. Currently best priced 25/1 for the County Hurdle, he’ll need to defy a mark of 151 here which will require a career-best, but his odds are likely to tumble for that event if able to come out on top this weekend.
He’s one to bear in mind, while course-specialist Lively Citizen is another to respect. He can never be ruled out at the Cotswolds venue, where the Martin Pipe could come under consideration, though no bookmakers have priced him up for that event at the moment.
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Triumph Hurdle hopefuls to collide
Next up, we have the first of five top tier graded contests, the Grade Two JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle (12.45pm). It has seen the likes of Defi Du Seuil and Peace And Co do the double in the last decade. The highlighted entrants for this weekend’s renewal could see an interesting clash between two leading Triumph Hurdle hopefuls, Iceo and Pied Piper, who are currently both best-priced 14/1 for that race at the Cheltenham Festival.
Paul Nicholls’ Iceo could turn out to be one of the best juveniles since the Zarkandar days, who claimed the Triumph Hurdle 11 years ago in these famous silks. This gelding by Coastal Path looked a powerful unit when winning by 17 lengths at Kempton on hurdle/stable debut and, although he hasn’t shown form since, this weekend should reveal a lot more about him as he bids to maintain his unbeaten record.
Pied Piper, an 89-rated flat recruit, marginally got the better of my ante-post Triumph Hurdle fancy Vauban on hurdles debut, where his jumping was assured for a debutant in this sphere before showing some real class through the latter stages of the race to fend off Willie Mullins’ horse.
He is a huge danger, and his odds are likely to go into single figures if passing this test. I wouldn’t discount the Nick Williams-trained Interne De Sivola either, who beat a subsequent winner at Chepstow last-time-out and is available at 25/1 for the Triumph Hurdle at the time of writing.
Admittedly, I’ll be surprised if the winner doesn’t come out of this three mentioned and therefore the vote goes to Pied Piper, whose form is slightly stronger of the British brigade. With the potential to develop into a high-class juvenile hurdler, Gordon Elliott’s charge can take this step up in class in his stride and strengthen his Triumph Hurdle credentials with Davy Russell in the saddle, whose skills and knowledge of this track is bound to see his mount to even better effect.
Gold Cup hopeful Chantry House
Later on, the Grade Two Paddy Power Cotswold Chase (14.30pm) is the headline act, where Nicky Henderson’s Gold Cup hopeful Chantry House - a best-price 18/1 for the showpiece - will be looking to get back on track following a below-par effort when failing to complete in the King George. He wasn’t at his best that day but displayed his class in the Marsh at last year’s Festival and is one of eight remaining entries in the field.
Based on official ratings, he is difficult to oppose and has the ability to win this, but he could face a serious challenge in the shape of the exciting novice Ahoy Senor, who could be set for a possible tilt at the Festival Novices' Chase in March.
Lucinda Russell believes Kempton didn’t suit him when beaten seven lengths by Bravemansgame in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, but it was still a really good run as he stuck to his task willingly and he’d earlier won a Grade Two at Newbury by a devastating 31 lengths.
This galloping track should play more to his strengths and given the fact he looks most likely to go off second-favourite behind Chantry House, he could be tough to pass. Consistency finally rewarded the likeable Aye Right, who showed his class to win the Rehearsal Chase at Newcastle and while this will be a much stiffer task and he’s yet to win at Graded level, his course form can’t go unnoticed and the nine-year-old, who’s currently 100/1 for the Gold Cup, should go well for his fan club and team here.
Champ prepares for potential crack at the Stayers'
Cheltenham also has a couple more Grade Two contests, including the Welsh Marches Stallions at Chapel Stud Cleeve Hurdle (15.05pm), where 4/9 favourite Champ prepares for a potential crack at the Stayers’ Hurdle, for which he’s a best-price 7/2 second favourite. Nicky Henderson’s charge was returning from a lengthy lay-off in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle before Christmas when beating race-fit quality opponents including Paisley Park and Thyme Hill.
It was only meant to be a confidence booster for the 10-year-old having disappointed in last year’s Gold Cup, but it was an excellent return to action, and he is entitled to strip fitter for the outing. His performance last-time-out can be marked up quite significantly given the fact he was keen throughout but travelled powerfully and demonstrated his customary tenacious attitude to see off some of the best stayers in this division.
He should take some beating this weekend having already beaten Paisley Park and Mcfabulous who seems to have a bit to find with him based on ratings and, if proving successful, it will be no surprise to see this three-time Grade 1 winner shorten into favouritism for the Stayers’ Hurdle.
Klassical Dream in action at Gowran Park
In Ireland this afternoon, Gowran Park hosts a good-quality card, including the Grade 2 John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle (14.05pm), where five-time Grade 1 winner and current 11/4 Stayers’ Hurdle favourite Klassical Dream bids to maintain his position at the top of the stayers’ division.
Willie Mullins’ star performer has excelled since stepping up to three miles and beat last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner Flooring Porter at Leopardstown. He’s penalised for that victory but should prove to be a class above these so the talented eight-year-old can collect this prize before a possible showdown with Champ in the main dish at the Festival.