After looking at the Group 1 races last week, Gary O'Brien returns with his best bets for the novice races at Cheltenham, where he has high hopes for a stable not among the usual suspects at the Festival...
"That defeat of Cash Back - another likely foe here - was all the more praiseworthy for the fact that he half-bolted beforehand, yet despite expanding that needless energy, he was still able to pull away from Willie Mullins' charge."
Hoping for a shake-up
Recent editions of the Cheltenham festival have tended to be dominated by a combination of Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott and Nicky Henderson and bookmakers clearly believe the incumbent triumvirate has a stranglehold once more on the 2020 edition.
It's long odds-on that one of that powerhouse trio will top the trainers' table once again come the evening of Friday March 13 but at the very least I'm anticipating a bit of a shake-up of the established order this year courtesy of Henry de Bromhead.
The Waterford-based handler has already enjoyed many memorable moments at the season's marquee fixture courtesy of the likes of Sizing Europe, the sadly ill-fated Special Tiara and Balko Des Flos, and last year was another triumph thanks to spectacular performances from A Plus Tard and Minella Indo. However if anything de Bromhead looks to have an even stronger team to go to war with this time around, the latter duo joined by several Festival newcomers with the potential to make their presence felt, and it is in the novice division that there is the potential to really make hay.
A Notebook opener
De Bromhead's capacity to make classy chasers out of useful, if not quite top-drawer, hurdlers is well established at this stage and in the shape of Arkle favourite Notebook he has a great opportunity to get on the scoresheet early once again.
A 50/1 shot when soundly beaten in last year's Ballymore Novices Hurdle, the German-bred gelding made a superb start over the larger obstacles at Punchestown in October and hasn't looked back since. Admittedly, like many I came away from Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day thinking that had things panned out slightly differently Fakir D'Oudairies could have had his measure in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase.
However that rival will be 7lb worse off with his conqueror next week due to the weight-for-age structure in Britain, and in the interim Notebook has turned in another superb performance to double his tally at the highest level over the same course and distance in the Irish equivalent. That defeat of Cash Back - another likely foe here - was all the more praiseworthy for the fact that he half-bolted beforehand, yet despite expanding that needless energy, he was still able to pull away from Willie Mullins' charge close home after another polished round of jumping.
To be honest I would be more concerned about something similar happening at Cheltenham than any of the opposition, and at least de Bromhead and his team will be will be wise to the possibility of a repeat and can take all possible precautions to keep the lid on before the tapes go back.
Some excitement in the RSA
For all of that Minella Indo is the horse I am most excited about seeing in action again, having been convinced that this was the RSA Chase winner-elect since his defeat of Captain CJ at Navan in January.
The Proudstown Park layout is one of the tougher jumping tests on these shores, and bar one slight error this seven-year-old really impressed me with his technique. His debut effort, when runner-up to the subsequently disappointing Laurina over an inadequate 2m4f at Gowran Park, had been somewhat inconclusive and while there were plenty crabbing the workmanlike style of his latest performance I loved the way he pulled clear on the run-in after briefly appearing in a spot of bother going to the last.
Plenty were keen to use the runner-up to hold the form down too, but Dermot McLoughlin's gelding had turned in a couple of solid efforts previously and is a very smart type granted a thorough test of stamina - as he proved when landing the Grade 2 Ten Up over the same course and distance last month.
Allaho maybe heading elsewhere
Favourite Champ was of a similar standard over hurdles but it's hardly ideal that he fell last time and while Copperhead must be respected easy Fairyhouse scorer Allaho is the one I would probably fear most were he to turn up here.
The Mullins horse already knows Minella Indo well, having beaten him in a Grade 3 novice hurdle at Clonmel last year only for that form was reversed at the big festivals on both sides of the Irish sea in the spring, but he certainly emerged with credit on the latter occasion and there probably isn't a huge amount between them ability-wise. However there is still a chance that he will be re-routed to the weaker-looking Marsh Chase, and as a free-going sort whose two starts this term have come over an intermediate trip that could be a sensible move - as well as creating a further betting opportunity.
My advice is to back both non-runner no bet in the hope that they can prove themselves cream of the crop in the respective categories.
Finally I'm going to give Aspire Tower a chance to redeem himself in the Triumph Hurdle after his Leopardstown fall. The formerly high-class flat handicapper in Britain had marked himself down as a major player for this with a demolition job at the same track's Christmas Festival, and while Solo exploded on to the scene last week and is likely to be a tough nut to crack I will be disappointed if the main Irish hope cannot make the frame at least.
Gary will be back with a look at the Cheltenham handicaps later this week. You can check out his Group 1 races analysis here.