Former Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey Paddy Aspell runs the rule over last weekend's Cheltenham Festival trials, picking out Ballymoy as the star performer. Where will he go next?
First of all, I want to mention how frustrating it must be for everyone - trainers, owners and especially punters - that the lack of rain this winter has really affected the field sizes, due to ground conditions been too quick.
This again was the case at Ascot in the Clarence House Chase, with the feature race only attracting four entries, then only two being declared to take on Champion Chase winner Altior.
I do hope we get some rain, and not the forecast icy temperatures this week, so we get the chance to see a few more Festival fancies continue their Cheltenham preparations, particularly with the release of entries for the four novice chases coming this week and the Grade 1 novice hurdles closing next Monday.
The Clarence House Chase did at least give us another chance to see the still unbeaten chaser, Altior, in action. His jumping was good as usual, if a bit out to the left, but in my opinion, he was simply dossing in front most of the way.
Altior has won going both left and right-handed, but the important factor is, apart from his last two races at the Cheltenham Festival, where he faced nine rivals both times, he has scared the opposition off in his other outings.
He is taking a massive chunk out of the market for the Champion Chase next month, but he warrants his price of no bigger than 4/7 with Betfair, meaning there is plenty of each-way value to be had - Footpad priced at 9/1, last year's second Min at 12/1 and dark horse Sceau Royal at 20/1.
As an aside, trainer Nicky Henderson has recently expressed concerns regarding the overall health of some of his horses, so with two of their Festival contenders winning nicely on Sunday, I’m sure there will have been relief all round!
I was so impressed with Ballymoy's performance under top weight in the Grade 3 Holloway's Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday. He travelled, jumped, and showed a fantastically willing attitude from the back of the last when challenged by Colonial Dreams, a horse he was conceding 18lbs to.
He's not entered in any of the Grade 1s at Cheltenham, but he is 20/1 for the Coral Cup and is still in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury on February 9. He would be dropping back in trip to 2m for that, and carrying a 5lb penalty, but 20/1 does look generous.
On a side note, Saturday was the very much underrated Tom Bellamy's third leg up on Ballymoy and his third win with the six-year-old. It was very nice to see his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies giving Tom that chance to shine on the big stage, when the owners' retained rider Daryll Jacob was riding at Haydock.
With a horse of that class, he could have had his pick of riders, so it's a credit to Nigel that he always tries to keep the rides 'inhouse', be it a weekday or big Saturday race.
I'm not really convinced how strong a Champion Hurdle trial Haydock's Champion Hurdle Trial Hurdle was. Winner Global Citizen is a very admirable horse, who on the whole has had a solid season, but he has been found wanting on more than one occasion and his running style always leaves him there to be shot at - he never has an easy race as a result of this.
I think the second, Silver Streak, would have given him more to do, but for a crucial error at the second-last, where he seemed to lose an awful lot of vital momentum. As for the winner, how fresh he will be come Cheltenham is very debateable, given his busy season and the running style he adapts.
I really fancied Tout Est Permis for the Grade 2 Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles on Sunday, after his ultra gutsy win in the Troytown Handicap Chase at Navan in November.
He is a very tough and game horse, who really doesn’t mind a battle, as he only just managed to get up on the line this weekend, having been under pressure from a full mile from home!
The track probably didn’t play to his strengths, as he seem to relish a proper test. Trainer Noel Meade has campaigned him extremely well and he will continue to progress with his odds for the Ryanair Chase no bigger than 20/1 now, and 40/1 the maximium for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
2016 and 2017 Gold Cup winners Don Cossack and Sizing John won the Kinloch Brae en route to their Cheltenham win, the 2017 2nd Sub Lieutenant going on to be 2nd in the Ryanair Chase, so it's a decent Cheltenham Festival trial.
Tout Est Permis is 16/1 for the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday week. He's arguably earned a tilt at that with this Grade 2 win, and his Cheltenham target would then become clear.
Thurles's second Grade 2 chase on Sunday was restricted to mares, but it didn’t lack for quality. The Willie Mullins-trained Camelia De Cotte went off 11/10 favourite and adapted her usual front-running tactic under regular rider Paul Townend, who knows her so well.
That was her sixth run over fences, and a fifth success as she galloped her rivals into the ground once again. She is very likeable and her fencing will hold her in good stead should she make the step up to Grade 1 company at the Cheltenham Festival.
The mare Shattered Love landed the JLT Novices' Chase last season, becoming the first mare to win a Festival novices' chase since Brief Gale landed the 1995 RSA Chase, and Camelia De Cotte is no bigger than 16/1 to repeat the feat.
However, she's also priced up for the shorter Arkle Novices' Chase, and is entered in Grade 1s over 2m1f and 2m5f and the Dublin Racing Festival in two weeks' time.
There will be few better opportunities to get a look at the stars bound for the Cheltenham Festival than this weekend's Cheltenham Festival trials meeting at the track itself, and the following weekend is the two-day Dublin Racing Festival in Ireland at Leopardstown. We could even see the Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy this very Thursday at Gowran, should the weather, finally, play ball. Fingers crossed.
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