Jumps racing is back at HQ – which means I am also back at my beloved Cheltenham Racecourse! There’s no going back now as National Hunt racing has officially started, and we have a fantastic card to look forward to, headlined by Lil Rockerfeller and Diakali in the Novice Chases. Elsewhere, one of our horses to follow in Sebastopol will make his debut over hurdles.
14:00 – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Class 2) 2m5f
We open the season at Cheltenham with a Novices’ Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles, won last year by the likeable Mare Brillare Momento, who runs later on in the card. Bidding to make it two years on the bounce for the girls is Grageelagh Girl. In the care of local trainer Fergal O’Brien, this seven-year-old clocked up some excellent form in Mares’ Bumpers last season, notably when first past the post in a Bumper at the Aintree this time last year – before a steward’s enquiry awarded the race to Posh Trish. Second again behind that rival in a Listed Bumper at the Cheltenham November meeting last year, this form has worked out very nicely with Posh Trish impressively winning on Hurdles debut at Chepstow two weeks ago. Grageelagh Girl herself has started life over Hurdles well, winning on debut at Newton Abbot in May before following up at Stratford a few weeks later. She was last seen finishing third at Perth in July over two-miles, which seemed to be on the short-side, and a mistake at the penultimate flight ended all hope. As a horse who prefers quicker ground, the conditions of tomorrow’s race look perfect for this Paddy Brennan ride, receiving upwards of 4lbs from her rivals. The main danger will likely be Gordon Elliot’s Make my Heart Fly, another Mare who has been winning races over the summer. If you take a look at her record however, she has beat the square-root of nothing and has been declared a non-runner seven times since July (Reasons include ground, lame, stone bruise, stiff and off-feed just twelve days ago). She will also benefit from the Mares’ allowance, and champion jockey Richard Johnson resumes a formidable partnership with the Irish trainer. Net De Treve is the last horse of interest, having won a Maiden Hurdle at Fontwell earlier in the month in impressive fashion. The Tom George charge has a penalty to deal with for this race but could turn out to be quite useful.
Grageelagh Girl Each/Way @ 12/1
14:35 – Novices’ Chase (Class 2) 2m
Although this race is nowhere near as good as last year when Sceau Royal was just seen off by the late North Hill Harvey, a decent field of seven head to post, mainly comprised of the best Novice Chasers the summer has to offer. The selection here is Gary Moore’s Diakali, who has made a very good impression over the larger obstacles so far. Formerly of Willie Mullins where he won two Grade 1s over Hurdles – the 2013 Champion 4YO Hurdle at Punchestown, and the Prix Alain du Breil at Auteuil – he moved to England in the spring when well beaten in some hot contests at Aintree and Sandown. Switched to Fences for the first time in June, Diakali put his front-running tactics to fantastic use when hacking up at Fontwell by twenty-nine lengths. Following up at Newton Abbot in similar fashion just ten-days later by twenty-three lengths, Diakali has shown that his ability remains despite his age. Running in June inevitably means he hasn’t beat the best of horses, however he jumps fences incredibly well and he should be too good for his rivals today, despite a double-penalty being applied. He is already rated 153 over fences, which is 8lbs clear of his nearest rival One For Billy. This Dan Skelton charge finished second between Caid Du Lin and Dear Sire at Worcester in September, with the later pair facing off again at Sedgefield at the beginning of the month. This saw the beautiful grey Dear Sire reverse this form, and he would rate the highest of potential dangers in my eyes. Storm Home is the only Chase debutant in the field, however he will likely struggle to live with these more experienced and race-fit rivals on this outing.
Diakali to Win @ 13/8
15:10 – Handicap Hurdle (Class 3) 2m5f
A maximum field of twenty horses go to post in this ever-competitive Handicap Hurdle, and two horses immediately catch my eye. The first of those is Really Super, trained by Amy Murphy – better known for her stable-star Kalashnikov. Winner of a Class 4 Handicap at Worcester in August having been tried on the flat previously, she beat a decent horse in David’s Phoebe and recent Newton Abbot romp Miss Mash before returning to the same track at the end of last month. Putting in another career best performance the filly won a Class 3 in good style, beating Peggies Venture, Brillare Momento, Boreham Bill, Mister Universum and High Secret well. She benefitted from an excellent Jack Quinlan ride that day, and the form of the race looks good with some smart horses in-behind. Although this contest will require another career best, a 7lbs rise looks fair enough and further improvement can be found on ground which will suit. Furthermore, she carries a really nice racing weight of 10-10 in a contest which connections have been targeting since that win at Worcester. The other horse which stands out is the third that day in Brillare Momento. Winner of the 2m5f Novices’ Hurdle on this card last year – as mentioned previously – this course and distance winner seems to come alive around Prestbury Park for local trainer Martin Keighley having finished second in a bumper, winning a Listed Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, and recording a very respectable eighth in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle here at The Festival. With there being every chance she wasn’t fully wound up for her seasonal debut at Worcester, it would be silly not to give her an each/way chance on 7lbs better terms at a track which she clearly thrives at.
Really Super Each/Way @ 12/1
Brillare Momento Each/Way @ 11/1
15:45 – Novices’ Chase (Class 2) 3m½f
Won last year by subsequent Grade 1 winner Black Corton, connections will hope that Lil Rockerfeller – a 153 rated Hurdler – will also be able to go on to such lofty heights. A winner of various Graded races over Hurdles including the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle last year, this likable seven-year-old made a successful start over Fences earlier in the month at Uttoxeter, when winning a decent race over two-and-a-half miles and seeing off Wenyerreadyfreddie by one-and-a-half lengths. Trained by Neil King, this short-priced favourite will appreciate the step-up to three-miles today, and a penalty should not stop him going on to record a second success over the larger obstacles. A bold front runner like Diakali, it should be a great sight to see these animals leap around out in-front, and a double on the pair wouldn’t be the worst bet I’ve ever seen. Pickamix is a good horse however has a double-penalty to contend with here, whilst Arctic Gold and Shannon Bridge will have to show drastic improvement to get their noses in-front. Treackle Tart is interesting having won over fences at Worcester last month for the in-form Charlie Longsdon yard, but again will need to record a career-best over the larger obstacles to beat this classy opponent.
Lil Rockerfeller to Win @ 11/10
16:20 – Maiden Hurdle (Class 3) 2m½f
A Maiden Hurdle which usually attracts top class debutants – such as Slate House who won this race on the card last season – doesn’t disappoint here. Plenty are of interest, however my horse to follow Sebastopol is the selection. Tom Lacey wrote in his piece for my guide (Which you can read here) that this race would be one of his targets – and although the rain hasn’t come – this four-year-old looks like a really promising recruit to the Novice Hurdle division. Winner of a point-to-point for Sophie Lacey in January by a huge fifteen-lengths, he made his debut for Tom at the Ayr Festival in April on Good ground. In a race which usually produces some smart horses – such as Pym and William Henry in recent years – Sebastopol won in very good style under today’s rider Aiden Coleman, beating another smart prospect in Black Pirate by three-and-a-half lengths. With bigger targets than this to come, it will be fascinating to see how this exciting young horse does on hurdles debut. He will need to be good to win it however, with Seven De Baune leading the list of dangers. Winner of a bumper at Uttoxeter in May on Good ground, this Ian Williams charge relished the conditions that day and showed fantastic speed to win by six-lengths under Robert Dunne. Noel Fehily takes over the ride here in the famous colours of Roger Brookhouse, and he will surely be on hand to capitalise if Sebastopol makes any mistakes. Thomas Darby is another of interest having been purchased for €160,000 by his connections before winning a bumper at Huntingdon in May by two-lengths. Champion jockey Richard Johnson takes over the reigns here for Olly Murphy, but I’d rate the aforementioned horses higher on achievements to date.
Sebastopol to Win @ 2/1 (HTF)
16:55 – Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase (Class 3) 3m1f
In an otherwise fairly un-interesting race, the selection here is an each/way play on Cucklington, who looks to be on a very low mark for the Colin Tizzard yard. Top Amateur Michael Legg takes the ride of this three-time Wincanton winner last season, who also recorded a win at Plumpton in November last year on Good ground. 113 looks like a very workable mark, allowing for a very nice racing weight of 11-0 in a weak looking contest.
Cucklington Each/Way @ 8/1
17:30 – Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle (Class 3) 2m½f
The concluding race of the day sees one of my strongest fancies in Kerry Lee’s Magic Dancer. Winner of a Class 3 Novices’ Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham November meeting last season, he followed this up by winning a Class 3 Handicap Hurdle here in April. Boasting an unbeaten record at jumps racing HQ is usually reserved for horses such as Altior, however Magic Dancer really seems to enjoy the track and the fast conditions should play right into his hands. The contest which he won in April had some decent rivals well beaten – such as Capitaine and Poppy Kay – and today’s rider Richard Patrick retains the ride. Only being put up 4lbs for this victory seems very fair, however it is also worth considering that Richard now claims 2lbs less than his last run – an effective rise of 6lbs. Having said this however, Magic Dancer received a wind-operation in September and so will hopefully be able to find the further improvement necessary in order to maintain his fantastic record at Pretbury Park. Silver Star is an obvious danger from the Gordon Elliot yard, however he ran just nine-days ago and has gone up 6lbs since his last win.
Magic Dancer to Win @ 11/2