13:30 Cheltenham

Samcro is arguably the most eagerly awaited horse running at this year’s Festival and he could easily turn this race into a procession – such is his class. However, bookmakers aren’t stupid and with Gordon Elliot’s inmate trading at odds-on at time of writing, it makes sense to look for a shade of value elsewhere and BLACK OP (best price 9/2) falls nicely into that category in the ‘without the favourite’ market. Always held in the highest regard by connections, Tom George’s inmate has really begun to fulfil his potential since switching to hurdles and his performance last time out over today’s course despite being beaten, has to go down as a particularly smart effort. Throughout the 2m 4f journey, the son of Sandmason travelled like the best horse in the race and having got everything off the bridle and seemingly in a world of trouble rounding the home turn, a bad mistake at the last just gave the strong-staying Santini, the chink of light he needed to run him down in the closing stages up the hill. That said, the pair pulled miles clear of the rest and with the overall time and sectionals on the last circuit coming out ahead of the likes of Agrapart and Remilluc, who took the other two hurdle races on the same card, it’s clear we are dealing with two smart staying novices. Having already proven his worth around the track on testing ground, conditions shouldn’t present him with any great issues (albeit drying out), and with his ability to travel well at a frenetic pace one of his many attributes, this fine chasing-type for next season, should be capable of going with the main players deep into the heart of the contest.

Black Op w/o Samcro - 1pt e/w @ 9/2

14:50 Cheltenham

The Lanzarote Hurdle was easily the best race of its kind run so fair this season and both RED INDIAN (best price 33-1) and TOPOFTHEGAME (best price 14-1), who were third and fourth respectively, are worth more than a second look at the prices in this similar prize. Although the former failed in his bid to land what looked a winnable race next time at Towcester, his jockey that day was probably at fault for going all the way the inside on the swamp, and Ben Pauling’s inmate is better judged on that tremendous effort at Kempton back in January. Prior to those performances, the son of Sulamani had showed up prominently in a strongly-run affair over today’s C&D at the big November meeting, and his solid course form and general consistency make him a tempting each-way proposition at his 33-1 quotes.

The latter is easily the classier of the pair selected and he went on to prove his qualities when landing another valuable and big-field contest at Sandown last time out. Taken wide throughout at the Esher venue, Paul Nicholls’ charge always looked in total control and despite having to work harder than anticipated once off the bridle from the second last, he found plenty for pressure on the climb up the hill on testing ground. A smooth cruiser through his races, he’s shaped like he has the potential the make an impact in Graded races further down the line and given that many previous winners of this race have had a similar profile, the tall, son of Flemensfirth is a must for any shortlist.

Red Indian - 0.5pts e/w @ 25
Topofthegame - 0.5pts e/w @ 14/1

16:50 Cheltenham

Having already nominated Nube Negra and Lisp in the ante-post markets for this race, it would seem a daft idea to have another bet in the race, but the odds for TURNING GOLD are such (best price 33-1), that the pure mathematics make it a worthwhile exercise. A useful performer on the Flat when in the care of Sir Mark Prescott (soft ground winner), the four-year-old chestnut has taken really well to the Winter game, and following a series of creditable placed efforts in well-run contests in the North, he finally got his just rewards for his endeavours with a brave victory in the Victor Ludorum at Haydock last time out (High Hawk won same race before winning this several years ago). In what turned out to be a proper burn up at the Lancashire track, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ inmate coped well with the demanding examination that developed and in seeing out the trip really well to post a quick speed figure, he marked himself down as a juvenile of some quality. Interestingly, connections were none comital with regards to potential Cheltenham plans at the time, citing they were unlikely to encounter similar conditions at the festival, but as it’s turned out, the persistent rain which has drenched the course in the build-up to the race, will have harmed his chances less than most.

Turning Gold - 0.5pts e/w @ 33/1

17:30 Cheltenham

Having already advised RHINESTONE (NAP) (best price 15-2) for the Champion Bumper earlier in the campaign, it would seem an absurd strategy to many to go in again at a much shorter price on the day, but with the temptation of four, and even five places on offer with some firms, it does make some sort of sense to take full advantage of these offers on a horse who appears to have gilt-edged credentials. Pitched into arguably the best bumper either side of the Irish Sea at Leopardstown following a smooth success at Thurles the time before (posted good speed figure), Joseph O’Brien’s inmate was nicely backed to justify the clear confidence beforehand that he would be up to the grade, and for majority of the race, he looked as though he was going to deliver the goods. Noted travelling well just behind the speed in a race run at a sound clip at the Dublin-based track, the son of Montjeu just got caught out for a bit of tactical speed as the more imposing, Blackbow, kicked and got first run on him sweeping into the home straight. Four lengths behind Willie Mullins’ inmate two furlongs out, the five-year-old inch by inch clawed back the lost deficit in willing fashion and although he couldn’t quite get on terms with the eventual winner, he left the impression that on a more demanding track and on better ground, he would have a fighting chance of turning the tables on his old rival. Having coped admirably with two strongly-run bumpers, this smooth-traveller should be well suited by the rigours this race often provides, and based on the theory that wherever Blackbow finishes, he shouldn’t be too far away, odds of 8-1 are hard to resist.

Of those at a bigger price, MERCY MERCY ME (best price 28-1) appeals as one that could have the qualities and potential to trouble some of the more established performers at the front end of the market and even though he might lack for a bit of experience, he has enough raw ability to overcome that slight impost. Hailing from a stable that has had a terrific winter with their bumper horses (Time To Move On, Hercomestheboom, Strong Glance all impressive winners with bright futures), it’s significant that Fergal O’Brien has chosen this six-year-old as his only representative on the back of just the one run. That said, you can see where the Naunton handler is coming from given how impressive the son of Shirocco was on his debut at Sandown and with the prospect of more to come, and at the very least, he shouldn’t be disgraced. The way he quickened up several times in the home straight at the Esher track despite running green was impressive enough and then if you add into the fact he managed to run the final circuit in a much quicker time than Maria’s Benefit, the performance becomes even more praiseworthy. Obviously, today’s ground is a slight unknown compared to his good-to-soft win 122 days ago, but with the raw ability he harbours and odds on offer, he has to be worth a small shy at the stumps.

Rhinestone - 1pt e/w @ 15/2
Mercy Mercy Me - 0.5pts e/w @ 28/1