Although the handicap weights got all the attention last week, the entries for the last few races at the Cheltenham Festival were also announced. The Champion Bumper, the newly-instituted Mares' Chase, the amateur-less Festival Hunters' Chase (the fox has also got away) and the Cross Country provide a lucky dip to conclude the Cheltenham Countdown.
Mesnil to Lord it over Easy, Tiger in Cross Country
To start with the Cross Country, which has the novelty of not one of the 20 entries hailing from the Willie Mullins' yard. Two horses dominate the betting, but unlike in many of the other races next week, they look decidedly shaky market leaders. Tiger Roll, already withdrawn in a sulk from the Grand National, would be bidding for a fifth Festival triumph. But he could not have shown less in two outings this winter and makes zero appeal.
Easysland, who beat Tiger Roll so impressively in this last March, is harder to dismiss, but he was disappointing over the course in November and possibly needs proper soft ground to be seen to best advantage. He seems unlikely to get that next week.
Potters Corner heads several others with Grand National ambitions set to have their prep run in this, though he's more of a thorough stayer than perhaps ideal for this test as it usually is. That certainly looked the case on good to soft here in November.
Lord du Mesnil and Balko des Flos are perhaps the most interesting alternatives to the favourites, both also entered at Aintree. Both would be making their cross-country debut. For Balko des Flos, who won the Ryanair back in 2018, this would represent a big drop in class. He's not made much impact in graded company this season, but even a repeat of the form of his seventh at Down Royal in October would put him into contention.
Lord du Mesnil looks the safer option. He was a game second in the National Hunt Chase at last season's Festival and returned to that level when winning the Grand National Trial at Haydock last month. Although he stays well, he isn't a total slowcoach and his stable has a fair record with the horses it's run in these races. Lord du Mesnil is 8.07/1 non runner money back on the Betfair Sportsbook.
Grangee value option from Mullins' barn in Bumper
After that Mullins-free interlude, the other races under discussion all have short-priced favourites from his yard. At least with the Champion Bumper, opposing the favourite doesn't mean opposing the yard. Indeed, Mullins' longer-priced runners in this race are often worth a close look: in the last ten years, his four winners have been sent off at 11/1, 16/1 and 25/1 twice, while he's had a second, beaten a nose, at 25/1 as well.
As if Mullins didn't have a strong contender with Kilcruit, that one's market rival Sir Gerhard has also joined the yard. Both have looked very classy in winning their races and Kilcruit scored in incredibly easy fashion at Leopardstown last month. However, although he looked to have a lot in hand, it is possible that the strong pace at which the race was run set things up for him to look impressive. In some ways, Sir Gerhard is harder to knock.
The key race with regard to the rest of the Mullins' battalions is the mares bumper that concluded the Dublin Racing Festival. Although she was stable fourth string that day, Grangee came out on top. Two of the others from the stable are also in at Cheltenham, Brooklyn Glory and Take Tea, but Grangee ought to confirm placings. In a race run at a fair pace, she did well to come from as far back as she did, the next three home all ridden more handily. It was also encouraging that Grangee showed a willing attitude as well.
Before winning there, Grangee had won well on her debut at Galway, then been done for foot in a steadily-run listed affair at Market Rasen. It's likely that the way the Champion Bumper will be run will suit her well, and Grangee at 21.020/1 offers some value against the market leaders.
Magic the solution to Mares' Chase
Unsurprisingly, Mullins dominates the market for the Mares' Chase. Elimay looks the right favourite, her good run at Thurles against Allaho making her the form pick. But her stable companion Colreevy seems a skinny price as second in, with a 5-lb penalty to carry. She would surely be better off claiming the mares allowance in one of the novice races.
Annie Mc has looked good in winning a couple of graded races on her last two starts, but it's a concern that that form seems to be significantly better than she managed in handicaps. Her jumping hasn't really stood up in two runs at Cheltenham either.
The longer trip ought not to be sufficient to enable Shattered Love to turn the tables on Elimay from Naas last month, while Happy Diva possibly isn't the force of old and may be better in a big-field handicap anyway. That pair are both 10 year olds, as is the suggested alternative to the favourites, Magic of Light, available at 15.014/1.
Magic of Light is on her way to the Grand National and ideally needs further than two and a half miles. However, she's sure to get an attacking ride and could well force a few of her rivals into making mistakes.
In the Festival Hunters' Chase, Mullins again saddles the likely favourite, last year's runner-up Billaway. He's done nothing wrong since and it's only really the price that makes him opposable. The suggested option is Latenightpass at 17.016/1.
Latenightpass is inexperienced in hunter chases, but he's won both those he's contested, including one over the same course and distance as he'll face on Friday week. His record in points could be better, but he just looks the type that shines in a bigger field over bigger fences. That was certainly the case at Warwick on his return, where he belied odds of 40/1. That form looks to put him right into contention.