Former Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey Paddy Aspell runs the rule over last week's Cheltenham Festival trials, as Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy returned. Can anything stop Pat Kelly?
What a fantastic week we have enjoyed in the wonderful world of horseracing, as we move ever closer to those massive four days at Prestbury Park in March
The ground has not altered that much in Britain this week, although some jumps fixtures were lost due to frost. However, there was certainly a track bias at Gowran on Thursday, where the ground was soft. The horses that raced close to the inside, on the hurdle course in particular, were at a noticeable disadvantage.
Hugely popular Presenting Percy made his long-awaited seasonal reappearance in last Thursday's Galmoy Hurdle, the eight-year-old lining up for the first time since 2018's Cheltenham Festival.
He was ridden in mid division, taking a wide route under jockey Davy Russell. He travelled and hurdled very nicely and, apart from a deliberate leap at the last, he put up a pleasing performance.
He holds an entry in the Irish Gold Cup on Sunday at Leopardstown, but trainer Pat Kelly favours a repeat bid for the Red Mills Chase at Gowran later in the month. The victory cemented his position at the head of the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting, boookmakers going no bigger than 3/1 with Bet365.
In the same race, it was great to see a return to form for Killultagh Vic, finishing a close third, he holds the same entries as the winner, as well as a Ryanair Chase entry, for which he is 33/1.
The Thyestes Chase was Thursday's feature race, a stamina-sapping 3m handicap chase, won by Invitation Only. The sixth though was the one for the notebooks, Presenting Percy's stablemate Mall Dini put in some good late work under Patrick Mullins, who had ridden him just once before.
That came in last year's Kim Muir Handicap Chase, where he was beaten only half a length and looked a bit unlucky not to win. The Cheltenham betting is wide open on the Kim Muir, with entries not out until mid-February, but he looks certain to be targeting a repeat bid and is available at 14/1 with .
Of the winner, Invitation Only tracked the leaders on the inside and then challenged closer to the standside rail in the finish. He battled really well when challenged by the Gordon Elliot-trained Alpha Des Obeaux, with Up For Review filling third spot having taking the scenic route throughout - the ground bias was far less obvious on the chase course.
It was widely debated on our Racehour podcast last week, if the very admirable Frodon had the 3m1.5f of the Cotswold Chase within his scope. In the past, he had been placed over 3m and won over 2m5f, but he had yet to win beyond that distance.
His style of racing does leave him vulnerable regarding stamina, however, he put all those fears firmly to bed on Saturday at Cheltenham, with a game front-running, bold-jumping effort.
He holds both Gold Cup (20/1) and Ryanair Chase (10/1) entries, but trainer Paul Nicholls said the Gold Cup is more likely, unless conditions were very testing.
The second, Elegant Escape ran well in defeat. Although enjoying a well-run race, he hit a flat spot after a mid-race mistake, which appeared to cost him his winning chance on the good-to-soft ground. He's a 25/1 chance for the Gold Cup and as short as 14/1 for the Grand National with Paddy Power.
It was hard to get an angle on what Paisley Park had achieved this season before Saturday's Cleeve Hurdle, going unbeaten in three runs, carrying top weight to win two competitive handicaps and the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot - itself a key race to win on the Stayers' Hurdle trends as is the Cleeve Hurdle.
In a strongly-run event, he got to the front very easily approaching the last and, despite pricking his ears immediately, still had 12 lengths to spare over West Approach at the finish line.
Trainer Emma Lavelle stated she wanted to get some more experience of the course for her charge, who is now the clear favourite in the Stayers' Hurdle betting at no bigger than 11/4 with Coral.
Trainer Gavin Cromwell has campaigned Espoir D’Allen extremely well and he seems to be going from strength to strength. Having won Sunday's Limestone Lad Hurdle, he is unbeaten in four runs this season, winning three Graded races along the way.
Espoir D’Allen, who beat subsequent Triumph Hurdle victor Farclas in a Grade 2 last year, was the best on ratings at Naas, where he faced a small field and steady pace, so we didn’t learn much.
Regardless, he lacks a bit of size and scope and his price for the Champion Hurdle (20/1) in my opinion accurately reflects his realistic chance of winning.
This week's Cheltenham Festival trials will come from Leopardstown and Sandown, the latter hosting the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase and Listed Contenders Hurdle on Saturday, and Leopardstown the weeekend-long Dublin Racing Festival.
Expect to see just about every Irish Cheltenham hopeful at Leopardstown across the two days, the Irish Champion Hurdle and Irish Gold Cup taking centre stage.
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