By William Kedjanyi
January. What’s it good for? Desperate cold, bad news, going back to work, school or uni and with spring being close enough in the mirror to count but too fa away to eagerly anticipate. But we are almost at the end of January and we do have some sweet relief, coming in the shape of that great of things, sports.
If you’re near the Cheltenham area – or can go this Saturday and are further afield – then Trials Day should be the highlight of the week. A traditional fixture that allows horses to prepare for the world famous Cheltenham Festival (as the name suggests) it treats sporting fans to a feast of top class action.
The biggest race at the Festival is the Gold Cup and the trial race for that here is the Betbright Chase, run over the same course and distance. The key contender and start of the day is Thistlecrack, who is already favourite for the Gold Cup following a remarkable chasing career so far. He wasn’t convincing on his second start here when he was slow and ponderous, wanting to go on further earlier, but he was taken on for the lead at Newbury and then was out of this world at Kempton, burning off the Betfair Chase winner Cue Card and eventually being eased down.
This is expected to be a coronation for him, but that would be hasty – this is the biggest field he will have faced over fences since winning the World Hurdle, and in the shape of Smad Place and Many Clouds, last year’s 1-2, he has enough opposition to keep him honest. That pairing are both strong stayers who are unlikely to wilt if challenging Cue Card and whilst it’s 16’s bar with Silvinaco Conti not at his best, observers will hope to see a cleaner round of jumping more in line with his slick rounds at Newbury and Kempton.
The Stayers’ Hurdle has the makings of a potentially competitive renewal and the Cleeve (4.00) could go a long way to confirming impressions. Many of the leading staying hurdlers of this season meet once again, with the current favourite Unowhatimeanharry set to take his place. He is seen as the most likely winner of this race, having won the Albert Bartlett, Long Distance, and Long Walk Hurdles. In the latter, he was having a battle with Ballyotpic, who was just ahead at the last hurdle, before he unseated at the last. Based on their last meeting – when Ballyopic was beaten six lengths by Unowhatimeanharry at Newbury – the result would not have changed, although the two should be closer today as the favourite carries more weight than Balloptic did (4lbs).
Un Temps Pour Tout is third favourite and was nearly 20 lengths back whilst Ptit Zig was just behind him and was fourth beaten a similar distance at Ascot, so it is hard to imagine them getting involved. Cole Harden is a previous World Hurdle winner but does not look the force of old. West Approach is a novice still, but he was not running badly in the Long Walk Hurdle when unseating and could be improving.
Normally there isn’t a Champion Chase trial for speedy horses over fences, but the abandonment of Ascot means we have won here on an eight race card. Un De Secaux, second in the race last year, won the Tingle Creek in a real battle with Sire De Grugy and comes here whilst Ar Mad does not, so is a short priced favourite. He will be taken for the lead by Special Tiara, who underwhelming when winning at Christmas but who also was within a nose of the favourite in the Champion Chase last year. There’s another fascinating contender here in the shape of Uxizandre, who was a brilliant winner of the Ryanair Chase at the 2015 Festival and returns from 688 days off. A previous winner over this trip, it will be interesting to see how he returns here given that the Ryanair is a realistic option for him. Top Gamble drops in trip and has often tended to find form after a few runs, so a big effort would be no surprise whilst Dodging Bullets does not look the horse of old.
In the opening Triumph Trial, Defi Du Seuil or Charli Parcs, two of the most impressive juvenile seen so far this year, could be entered and stake their claims. Defi Du Seuil comes here having trashed the very useful evening Hush at Chepstow by 12 lenghts, despite some less than perfect jumping, ans is favourite for the Triumph.
Charli Parcs was foot perfect on his hurdling debut at Kempton where he shot clear of Master Blueyes, giving weight and an eight length beating, form backed up with Master Blueyes was then beaten just a neck last week. The pair of them tower over the field at first glance but early arrivals should watch for Fidux, a two time winner for Alan King, and Early Du Lemo, a deeply impressive winner at Nantes in France for the Moores.
The last graded highlight on the card to look at is the Classic Novices’ Hurdle, for young horses over a middle distance. There have only been a couple of horses jocked up to run, but I is interesting to see that Wholestone, a winner here in December over three miles, drops down in trip here boasting much the strongest form. There is a lot of untapped potential here, however, and maiden hurdle winners Kimberlite Candy, Constantine Bay, and Topofthegame are just three that need close watching.
Those who are looking to make more money for less outlay should consider the handicaps that take place at 12.35, 1.10, 4.35 and the Cross Country Chase at 2.50, a fine spectacle that has to be enjoyed.
Cheltenham Festival – A famous four day racing festival that takes place in March.
Eased down – When a rider does not push a horse as they are winning a race so easily
Favourite – The horse the bookmakers have at the shortest odds
Graded – A high class race, intended for the best horses
Handicap – When horses carry different weights to compensate for different abilities
Hurdling – When horses jump hurdles in a race
Jocked up – When a horse is assigned a jockey
Juvenile – A horse who is 4 years old over jumps after January 1
Lengths – Horse lengths, used as a distance in racing
Stayers’ Hurdle – A Hurdle race over 3 miles at the Cheltenham Festival
Trip – The distance of a race
Unseated – When a jockey falls out of the saddle but the horse stays up