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The Road to Cheltenham: Henderson and Mullins strengthen their hand

More Festival clues emerged from the last seven days of racing in England and Ireland
More Festival clues emerged from the last seven days of racing in England and Ireland
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As the days begin to get that bit longer, the sense of anticipation for the Cheltenham Festival continues to grow apace with impressive performances on both sides of the Irish Sea within the last seven days, and the Betfair markets reacting accordingly...

"While Henderson maintained that all options remained open for Apple's Shakira, the Triumph Hurdle looks tailored made for her and that is reflected in the betting as she is currently atop the market at [4.4]."

Cheltenham

The Festival Trials day at Cheltenham on Saturday was the day that many expected Bristol De Mai to confirm himself as a live contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. However despite having the soft underfoot conditions that he relishes he was unable to land a blow behind Definitly Red who ran out an impressive winner of the Cotswold Chase for Brian Ellison.

Having looked like a potential superstar earlier in the season following his romp in the Betfair Chase, Bristol De Mai has disappointed since and can now be backed at 48 for the Gold Cup, while his conqueror Definitly Red is currently at [21.0] with the King George hero Might Bite sitting at the top of the market at [4.8].

While it will be interesting to see what happens in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown this coming Sunday, where Gigginstown and Willie Mullins will be strongly represented, one can't help but feel that at this juncture that another Gold Cup will be making its way back to the Seven Barrows of Nicky Henderson thanks to Might Bite.

Like so many races at the Cheltenham Festival, the Stayers Hurdle looks to have a wide open look to it and Saturday's Cleeve Hurdle threw up more questions than answers. The winner on Saturday Agrapart, who is currently at [140.0] for the Thursday showpiece, is an admirably consistent horse and was given an excellent ride from Lizzie Kelly, however it would take a leap of faith to picture the Nick Williams gelding in the final shakeup of the Stayers Hurdle.

While Agrapart maintained his reputation as a horse of solid credentials, the major disappointment of the race was Finian's Oscar, who once again dented his lofty reputation having looked a potential superstar at various points in the last campaign for Colin Tizzard. The son of Oscar was pulled up in Saturday's contest and while he is currently trading at [21.0] for the Stayers Hurdle, it would take an exceptional turnaround in fortunes to see him challenging for championship honours in March.

Another horse that will need to bounce back from a disappointing run if he is to challenge for Stayers Hurdle glory is L'Ami Serge who took a somewhat unorthodox approach in his final prep for the Festival by running in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster. In finishing third in the Listed event, L'Ami Serge will have to improve a fair bit and his current price of [14.5] is about fair in what is an open Stayers Hurdle this year.

One horse that is expected to challenge for Festival honours is the Nicky Henderson trained Apple's Shakira who continued her march to the Festival with a workmanlike performance in the Grade 2 Triumph Hurdle trial. Having looked to be in a spot of bother turning for home, the full sister to Apple's Jade knuckled down when asked by Barry Geraghty and pulled away to win by eight lengths from Look My Way.

While Henderson maintained that all options remained open for Apple's Shakira, the Triumph Hurdle looks tailored made for her and that is reflected in the betting as she is currently atop the market at [4.4]. With the likes of Espoir D'Allen and Stormy Ireland as the main hopes from Ireland, the Triumph is shaping up to be as stellar renewal as seen at the Festival in the last number of years.


Doncaster

Saturday also saw Sceau Royal cement his credentials as a potential winner of the Arkle Chase with victory in the Grade 2 Lightning Novices Chase. The Alan King trained inmate, currently trading at [6.8] for the Arkle, has been the picked of the English 2 mile chasers this season and one can only hope that he and Footpad, who is [2.38] for the 2m event, and both are in the ownership of Simon Munir & Isaac Souede, make it to Cheltenham as they both have the potential to light up the Festival.

Another horse that booked their ticket to the Festival was the impressive Maria's Benefit who announced herself as a serious player in the Mares Novices Hurdle with a gusty win the Grade 2 Rose Mare's Hurdle. Trainer Stuart Edmunds has a horse of deep potential on his hands and with her price currently at [5.7] for the March 15th event, punters have cottoned onto the fact that this is one very talented horse.

Yet as soon as Maria's Benefit had confirmed her Cheltenham credentials another horse across the Irish Sea came storming into the Mare's Novice Hurdle market with a performance that left many a jaw dropped.

Laurina, hailing from the Willie Mullins stable, had already posted one wide margin victory when she skated in by 15 lengths on debut at Tramore in December, yet her performance at Fairyhouse was arguably even more impressive. Yes the winning distance was only 11 lengths but the manner of her performance was hugely impressive. Such was the manner of the victory that she is now outright favourite for Mare's Novice Hurdle at [3.5] and her showdown with Maria's Benefit et al is something to savour as Cheltenham ticks ever closer.


Ireland

The highlight of the week in Ireland was the Goffs Thyestes meeting at Gowran Park and everyone who worked so hard to get the meeting stage were rewarded with an excellent card. Presenting Percy warmed up for his tilt at the Cheltenham Festival with a comfortable win the Galmoy Hurdle. The Pat Kelly trained gelding will now head for the RSA Chase for which he currently trades at [4.8] ahead of the likes of Monalee, Fountains Windfall and Yanworth.

Gigginstown took the major prize of the day when Monbeg Notorious landed a serious gamble to give trainer Gordon Elliot a first Thyestes. The son of Milan is entered in the National Hunt Chase at the Festival for which he is a [15.5] chance.

Naas hosted a card of their usual quality where the Noel Meade trained Moulin A Vent landed an eventful running of the Woodlands Novice Chase (Grade 3). The Gordon Elliot trained Jury Duty had looked all over the winner when Moulin A Vent collared him on the run in. The winner traded at [1000.0] in-running and will, all things being equal, take his place in the RSA Chase for which he trades at [55.0].

With the Dublin Racing Festival to take place next weekend, the Cheltenham countdown is very much on as the greatest four days on turf edges ever closer. Roll on March.


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