David Cleary delves into the first Festival entries and looks at Warwick pointers from the weekend, while our Exchange Ops team update on all the latest Cheltenham market moves...
"The third First Assignment was strong in the market again, but just done for foot on the home turn on this sharp track. He could still be a leading player so far as the [Pertemps] Final is concerned."
Bumper entry in the hunt for Cheltenham Gold Cup
It was a low-key week domestically, so far as Cheltenham pointers were concerned, with the ground generally remaining unseasonably quick, though the first entries for the 2019 Festival were revealed. No fewer than 43 have been given an entry in the Gold Cup, reflecting the open nature of this year's race at this stage, as well as doubts about some of the market leaders, including ante-post favourite Presenting Percy, who hasn't been seen this winter.
Valtor - possible Gold Cup dark horse?
Although he might not be an obvious Gold Cup winner at this point, it is interesting that connections have entered Valtor in both the Gold Cup and Ryanair. He sprang a surprise when winning the Silver Cup at Ascot before Christmas, off a BHA mark of 148, talked of at the time in terms of the Grand National. He has been raised to a mark of 160, and could well have the chance to run off it at the weekend, entered in both the Peter Marsh at Haydock and the Portman Cup, a valuable new race over three and a half miles at Taunton. A victory in either of those off his new mark would certainly suggest he's a serious Gold Cup candidate and might also make the National less appealing, with a mark raised even further.
In contrast to the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase has just 22 entries, Altior likely to have discouraged more speculative candidates. Altior is due to run in the Clarence House at Ascot this weekend, with just three possible opponents left at the five-day stage.
Corral NH Chase bid on track
The best of the action on the track came at Warwick, where two of the feature-race winners are likely to have the National Hunt Chase as a target.
OK Corral (pictured, above) won the listed novice chase in decisive fashion, and could conceivably be aimed at the RSA Chase. However, he was ridden by top Irish-based amateur Derek O'Connor, which would clearly lead one to think the four-miler was the target. OK Corral, who was second in the Albert Bartlett/Spa last March, shapes as if the marathon distance won't be a problem. It's also worth noting that OK Corral would be in line for the 'Plumpton bonus' were he to win any race at the Festival, sixty grand not to be sneezed at and suggesting the slightly easier option of the NH Chase will be seriously considered.
OK Corral's victory at Plumpton came at the expense of Impulsive Star, who didn't have long to wait to get off the mark over fences, scoring his breakout success in the valuable Classic Handicap Chase later on the Warwick card. This was an improved effort on his part, though he was winning off a mark of just 133 and quite a bit more would be needed in the National Hunt Chase, a race in which he was a well-held fourth last season. Impulsive Star would be unlikely to get into the Grand National, even off his revised mark, so the Scottish National might be his best spring target.
On the subject of the NH Chase, Debece, mentioned here in that regard back in October, is due to run at Newcastle on Tuesday.
Beakstown continues promising start over hurdles
The main hurdle race on the Warwick card, the Grade 2 Leamington Novices' Hurdle, wasn't a vintage renewal, but the winner Beakstown has made a very good start to his career and looks a smart longer-term prospect, with fences really likely to bring out the best in him. He may get the chance to contest a novice at one of the Festivals in the spring, but might come up a bit short on what he's shown so far.
The runner-up Stoney Mountain shaped well once again, too, likely to have been aided by this being the slog it usually is. He lacked the pace of the winner off the bend but was sticking on well at the line, sure to be well suited by three miles.
Pertemps pointers aplenty at Warwick
While the Leamington principals have long-term potential, the Pertemps qualifier won by Keeper Hill is probably of more interest so far as the Festival is concerned. The winner has looked better than ever, returned to hurdles, this winter and although he held a good position, he won with authority and shouldn't be ruled out of making further progress. The third First Assignment was strong in the market again, but just done for foot on the home turn on this sharp track. He could still be a leading player so far as the Final is concerned.
That pair were both ridden fairly handily, unlike the fourth and fifth home, Notwhatiam and Lungarno Palace. They raced as the last pair, and, as such, were at a disadvantage, but both made good headway in the closing stages. Notwhatiam is usually ridden in such patient fashion and connections must hope that a stronger pace on a stiffer track will materialise if he makes the Final (would have sneaked in off his current mark last season).
Lungarno Palace was being tried at three miles for the first time and clearly saw the trip out. He's not high enough in the weights to get in the Final at present, but has some strong form to his name and might be interesting in the Heroes Handicap at Sandown next month.
The main interest on Kempton's card was the listed chase over two and a half miles, though really nothing new was learnt about the winner Top Notch. His main rival Charbel seemed unsettled by competition for the lead and neither jumped nor travelled so well as he had when winning at Huntingdon last month.
Unfortunately, Master Dino, so impressive at Plumpton the previous weekend, suffered an injury and will be off for a year. Angels Breath, currently favourite for the Supreme Novices', has two weekend entries, the Grade 2 Rossington Main at Haydock and an EBF-qualifier at Ascot; the latter race is over nearly two and three quarter miles, which makes the entry something of a surprise.
Tuesday sees entries close in the three championship hurdle races, the Champion, Stayers' and Mares.
And here's the latest Festival movers from the Exchange team
The Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Hurdle has been won by such luminaries as Vautour, Douvan and Min, and Felix Desjy added his name to that roll of honour with a comfortable success over Jetez at Punchestown on Sunday.
After that victory the Gigginstown-owned gelding was cut [19.5] for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival where Angel’s Breath remains at the top of the betting [7.8].
On the same card Winter Escape announced himself as a live contender for the JLT Chase ([17.0]) with a tidy success in the Grade 3 Total Event Rental Novice Chase.
At Kempton on Saturday, Top Notch posted a game success in the 32 Red Casino Chase. In defeating Black Corton and Charbel, the Nicky Henderson-trained star confirmed himself as one of the principal players in the Ryanair Chase, for which he can be backed at [13.5].
Warwick hosted an intriguing card on Saturday and could have potentially thrown up a festival winner in the shape of Ok Corral who advertised his claims for the National Hunt Chase, for which he's the [4.8] favourite.