Cheltenham Trials Day is always one of my favourite National Hunt meetings to attend, with anticipation building for the main event starting in just over a months time. Last season we were treated to three winners going on to land Festival success; Siruh Du Lac (Stable Plate Handicap Chase), Frodon (Ryanair Chase) and Paisley Park (Stayers Hurdle). This season the card looks as competitive as ever, with Paisley Park bidding to retain his Cleeve Hurdle crown, and Bristol De Mai taking dead aim on the Cotswold Chase. I’ll be attending the Prestbury Park meeting as usual, and will provide live updates from the track on Twitter @JakePriceRacing. Be sure to give me a follow to keep up to date with daily selections, Horses to Follow, and 2020 Cheltenham Festival Ante-Post Previews.
12:40 – JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle (Grade 2) – 2m1f
The first race on Cheltenham Trials Day is the Grade 2 Triumph Hurdle Trial, for Horses aged four-years-old. This race has been won by three Triumph Hurdle winners in recent years; Katchit (2007), Peace And Co (2015) and Defi Du Seuil (2017). Although the Juvenile Hurdle picture does look like a bit of a minefield at the moment, it would be a shock if the Triumph Hurdle winner was lurking in this field – unless Nicky Henderson’s French recruit Monte Cristo does turn out to be another Simon Munir and Isaac Souede star. The British Handicapper has already slapped an official rating of 140 on this Son of Montmartre, who got off the mark over Hurdles at Auteuil on his fourth attempt in October. This maiden success came in a three-year-old Handicap, and the second placed Gochetial has since gone on to boost the form – landing a Listed three-year-old Handicap at the same track in November. Clearly Monte Cristo has potential to be the best of these, but with the obmission of Ante-Post favourite Cerberus (who I thought would’ve been extremely hard to beat in this), his price of 11/10 reflects that. Considering it is his first start in Britain I am happy to leave him alone at the prices.
Of the opposition Rowland Ward looks a worthy second favourite. Despite falling heavily at the second last on debut at Warwick in December when still in contention, this Stuart Edmunds Gelding made amends at Kempton over Christmas when winning a fairly competitive affair. Rowland Ward came up against another well-fancied Nicky Henderson double-green recruit that day in Homer, who had finished third in a Grade 3 on the Flat at Longchamp previously. He’s since been well beaten by Goshen at Ascot, but the form has been boosted by the fourth-placed Gao Lil, who was victorious at Kempton earlier this month when beating Fraser Island and Lord Lamington. Considering it remains to be seen if Monte Cristo takes to the British style of racing, Rowland Ward is interesting – but odds of 5/2 aren’t enticing enough to make me have a bet. His form seems to stack up well enough to suggest he’d be a nice type for the Fred Winter if going close tomorrow and getting a workable mark, however.
13:15 – Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase (Class 2) – 2m4½f
One of my strongest fancies of the day comes in the Novices’ Handicap Chase, won by Mister Whitaker in 2018 before he went on to land the Close Brothers at the Cheltenham Festival two months later. In order to get into that Listed Novices’ Handicap Chase these days you ideally need a mark between 140-145, so Horses such as Champagne Court and Simply The Betts won’t want to be going up too much in the weights if they have Festival ambitions. One Horse who needs to win to guarantee himself a run however is Kim Bailey’s Imperial Aura, who finds himself on a very attractive mark of 136.
Although only having three runs over Hurdles, Imperial Aura’s form could hardly have worked out better – beating Sole Pretender (148) on Hurdles debut at Carlisle before coasting to victory at Newcastle 121 days later. Kim Bailey sent Imperial Aura for one more start over Hurdles at Chepstow on his seasonal reappearance in October, presumably to get some more experience into him above all. The 2m3½f Grade 3 Silver Trophy Handicap Hurdle at Chepstow is always a competitive affair, but Imperial Aura ran a cracker off 133 to finish third behind Flash The Steel and Champagne Court – whom he meets at Cheltenham this weekend on 19lbs better terms. Making his debut over fences at Fakenham in November, this seven-year-old was sent off long odds-on to win a three-runner race, where both of his rivals failed to finish. Imperial Aura jumped well for the most part that day however, showing enough ability to take on a much tougher task next time out.
Imperial Aura’s next start over fences came at Cheltenham’s International Meeting in December, when having a crack at the 3m1½f Class 2 Novices’ Chase. It looked a decent race on paper beforehand with the likes of Pym and Stoney Mountain lining up, and his task was made even more difficult by carrying a 5lbs winners penalty – despite not beating a rival home at Fakenham! Tracking Pym in second, Imperial Aura put in another solid jumping display and travelled sweetly to join the leader at the second last. Pym (152) shot away again rounding the home bend however, with Imperial Aura fading fairly tamely – not having the stamina to go on with a classy rival. He lost nothing in defeat that day however, and was still ten-lengths ahead of the third placed Aye Aye Charlie (134). Dropping back in trip to 2m4½f at Cheltenham this weekend should really suit Imperial Aura, especially with a strong pace likely and the stiff finish to boot. A further positive in regards to distance is that accounting for rail movements, the race will actually be run over 2m5f. From a mark of 136 connections will feel they have a very fairly handicapped Horse, and will want to get Imperial Aura into the 140-145 bracket in order to take their chance in the Close Brothers come March.
Imperial Aura @ 3/1 (Ante-Post)
13:50 – Paddy Power Cheltenham Trophy Handicap Chase (Grade 3) – 2m4½f
No winner of this race since 1990 had gone on to score again at the Cheltenham Festival until last season, when Siruh Du Lac beat Janika and the pair followed up in that same order in the 2019 Stable Plate Handicap Chase. Although that achievement may have been a one off, a Horse who looks to have a great chance in the conditions of this Saturday’s race is Chris Gordon’s Highway One O One. This eight-year-old started his career over fences off at Newton Abbot over 2m in September 2018, winning comfortably by six-lengths. His next start came at Market Rasen when beaten by Paul Nicholls’ Dynamite Dollars (157), but Highway One O One ran a cracking race once more on his next start at Carlisle to beat Dolos (157) in a Graduation Chase, despite only receiving 4lbs. Having battled with Dynamite Dollars twice more over two-miles in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase and Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase – his mark was dropped down to 143 by the handicapper.
Connections finally stepped Highway One O One up in trip to 2m4½f at this meeting last season, when running in the Novices’ Handicap Chase. It was always going to be a tough ask to win on his first start at this new trip when weighted 11-9, but Tom Cannon was nearly able to make all on this gutsy Horse – just being outstayed by Kildisart (now 151) up the Cheltenham Hill. The third that day was Spiritofthegames, who’s since finished third behind Siruh Du Lac at the Cheltenham Festival, and second to Warthog in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup – meaning our selection is actually 1lbs better off on Saturday. This performance gave Highway One O One a rating of 145 which allowed him to run in the Close Brothers at the Cheltenham Festival (Old Course), but he found it all a bit too much that day, only finishing tenth. Despite this poor run however, Highway One O One bounced back to form on the Cheltenham New Course in April when running in the Grade 2 Silver Trophy Handicap Chase. Finding himself in the lead between the last two flights, Tom Cannon had probably hit the front a bit too soon – and a scruffy jump at the last handed the race to Mister Whitaker (152), who stayed on strongly up the Cheltenham Hill. Finishing third off 145 in a competitive race showed the progress he was making over Fences however, and it was a very good effort on the Cheltenham Course he seemingly prefers.
Having had a prep-run over Hurdles at Fontwell in October, it was all systems go for Highway One O One to run in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham’s November meeting, and from a mark of 144 he looked to have a decent outside chance. Despite travelling well in midfield, this Son of Stowaway made a mistake at the sixth flight and unseated Tom Cannon – perhaps just losing concentration having not been ridden as prominently as usual. Back in action just two-weeks later in the 2m6½f Handicap Chase on Newbury’s Ladbrokes Trophy Day, Highway One O One went back to more prominent tactics to track the leaders throughout, and was going well until the second last, where he could only keep on at the same pace in third before hitting the last and finishing fourth. Connections decided to give Highway One O One another try over longer trips at Kempton over Christmas, when taking part in a 3m Handicap Chase. Once more travelling well through the race, Tom Cannon took his charge into an early lead before the second last, before once more being outstayed on the flat – finishing a length third behind Just A Sting.
Although it was clearly a tough assignment carrying 11-10 at Kempton, I think it’s safe to say that three-miles is right on the edge of his stamina limits, and a drop back to 2m4½f at Cheltenham should suit. Although raised 2lbs back to a mark of 145 for that Kempton effort, this is the same mark as when third to Mister Whitaker in April. If Jamie Moore can hold onto Highway One O One behind the leaders until the final flight, he will surely have a massive chance.
Highway One O One EW (4 Places) @ 7/1 (Ante-Post)
14:25 – Paddy Power Cotswold Chase (Grade 2) – 3m1½f
The Cotswolds Chase has been won by some brilliant Horses such as Many Clouds, Smad Place and Neptune Collonges in the past – but it has only produced three Gold Cup winners since 1980 – despite being billed as a trial for the blue riband event. Last season Frodon stepped up in trip and put in a fantastic performance, following up at the Cheltenham Festival by winning the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase. Although I can’t see the Gold Cup winner coming from the race this season, one Horse who is of huge interest is Bristol De Mai.
This Simon Munir and Isaac Souede Grey has been a fantastic servant to connections over the years, winning four Grade 1 prizes. Although third in this race behind Definitly Red when sent off favourite in 2018, Bristol De Mai went straight for a wind-operation afterwards. Since then he’s finished second in the Grade 1 Aintree Bowl behind a prime Might Bite, before winning the 2018 Grade 1 Betfair Chase at his beloved Haydock. Connections decided to run Bristol De Mai in the King George again last year where he fell early on, but given a break subsequently he ran a cracker after 79 days to finish third in the 2019 Gold Cup – finishing six-and-a-quarter lengths behind Al Boum Photo. Running in the Aintree Bowl once more in April, Bristol De Mai was no match for Willie Mullins’ Kemboy – finishing fouth but only a length behind dual King George winner Clan Des Obeaux.
Bristol De Mai once more made his seasonal reappearance in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase, and this year took on the upcoming star Lostintranslation. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ stablestar did put in a few sketchy jumps that day, but made Lostintranslation pull out all the stops in order to secure victory, with the Grey going down by one-and-a-half lengths. Frodon was well beaten in third that day and has since come out to boost the form a little, but the key to Bristol De Mai now seems to be giving him long breaks between races – and Nigel has done exactly that between Haydock and this weekend. Although Bristol De Mai hasn’t got his head in front for over a year, this is by far the weakest contest he’s ran in for a long time – so I am confident that a 63 day break should leave this 170 rated Horse in perfect shape.
Bristol De Mai @ 5/2
15:00 – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2) – 2m4½f
The Ballymore Classic Novices’ Hurdle is billed as a trial for the corresponding 2m5f Novices’ Hurdle which opens Day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival, but in recent years its actually been a more effective trial for the three-mile Albert Bartlett. Three winners of this race have gone on to land the Albert Bartlett; Wichita Lineman (2007), Bobs Worth (2011) and At Fishers Cross (2013). In fact, the past three winners have all gone up in distance for the Cheltenham Festival, so you clearly need a Horse who stays well. One Horse who I was extremely excited about seeing over Hurdles before the season started is Horse to Follow King Roland, and I think he is going to relish the step-up to two-and-a-half miles this weekend.
King Roland won his point-to-point by ten-lengths as a four-year-old with Sophie Lacey, and made his debut for the Harry Fry yard when absolutely bolting up in a Uttoxeter Bumper on Heavy ground – finishing 22 lengths clear of the second. His next start came at Ffos Las in February last year, where he was really keen and held up in the rear by Noel Fehily. Despite having a lot to do rounding the home bend, King Roland sliced through the field to win by a length going away. That Bumper has worked out to be fairly useful form with the second Stick With Bill finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle since, and the third Shakem Up’Arry running behind Mister Coffey and Shishkin at Newbury. Despite putting in two very exciting Bumper performances, Harry Fry gave King Roland a wind-operation over the Summer.
Returning to the track after 276 days for his Hurdles debut, King Roland was sent to Newbury for Day 1 of the Winter Carnival meeting, contesting a two-mile Maiden Hurdle. King Roland Hurdled well enough for his first attempt in public, and was ridden to dispute second approaching the penultimate flight. Although sticking to the task well, King Roland was ultimately defeated a length by Nicky Henderson’s useful Son Of Camas, but the way he shaped at Newbury suggested he’d come on for the run and be suited to a step up in trip. That increase in distance came at Exeter on New Year’s Day, with King Roland running in a 2m2½f Maiden Hurdle. On a day with thick fog on Haldon Hill there was very limited visibility, but King Roland put in a fantastic performance to go well clear from the third last, and score by an easy nineteen-lengths. That performance on soft-ground suggested that the further he went, the better he was, and a strong pace at Presbury Park with the stiff finish should play to his strengths. To match with the trends of recent winners, it would be no surprise to me if King Roland is even better over three-miles in time, but for now he should be more than capable of winning races over this distance.
King Roland @ 3/1 (Ante-Post)
15:35 – Cleeve Hurdle (Grade 2) – 3m
One of the key trials in terms of finding a winner at the Cheltenham Festival is the Cleeve Hurdle, ran over the same course and distance as the main event in March. Five of the last twelve winners in the Cleeve Hurdle have gone on to Stayers Hurdle glory, including last year’s winner Paisley Park. Emma Lavelle’s undisputed stable-star returns this year bidding to become the first Horse since Big Buck’s to win the race twice, and the first Horse since Lady Rebecca to win successive renewals.
Paisley Park returned to the track 260 days after his Cheltenham Festival triumph at Newbury in November, beating Thistlecrack in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle. Paisley Park stayed on well to the finish that day to score by a length, and his run left the impression that there would be further improvement to follow. His next engagement at Ascot just before Christmas was deemed unsuitable however, with persistent rain turning the track Heavy, waterlogged in places. Connections have therefore had to wait for the Cleeve Hurdle to get this eight-year-old back on the track, and it is certainly a much stronger race on paper.
Harry Fry’s If The Cap Fits has been long touted as a potential obstacle in Paisley Park’s dominance of the Stayers Hurdle division, having won the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree in April on his first attempt at three-miles. He beat two Mares in Roksana and Apple’s Jade that day, so it was clearly a good performance to give 7lbs away to top class opponents. First time cheek-pieces were applied by Harry Fry that day, and now regular-rider Sean Bowen gave him a peach of a ride, with the Horse showing a game attitude to score by a head. If The Cap Fits has since come out and retained his crown in the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle over 2m3½f, and the form has received a massive boost from Call Me Lord since, who came out and won the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham. A return to three-miles this weekend will be the biggest test of If The Cap Fits career to date, but he has the potential to be Paisley Park’s toughest opponent over Hurdles so far.
The race doesn’t stop being competitive at the first two in the betting either, with the likes of Summerville Boy, L’Ami Serge and William Henry all lining up – but you’d have to feel a little disappointed if it didn’t boil down into a match between If The Cap Fits’ speed, and Paisley Park’s stamina. I really couldn’t put anyone off backing either Horse, but Paisley Park has got the proven form in the book and would be the suggestion – especially as with rail movements the race is closer to 3m½f, which will clearly suit his running style.
Paisley Park @ 8/11
16:10 – Steel Plate And Sections Handicap Hurdle (Class 2) – 2m1f
The concluding two-mile Handicap Hurdle is unsurprisingly the race with fewest clues in regards to the Cheltenham Festival, with only Lac Fonta in 2014 going on to land the County Hurdle. One trend worth noting however is that only one Horse has ever won this race carrying more than 11st (Remiluc 2018). With it paying to look at Horses towards the bottom of the weights, one Horse who leaps off the racecard is Michael Scudamore’s Northern Beau.
This Mare is already a dual Cheltenham winner over Fences, with the latest of those victories coming in a 2m Class 2 Handicap Chase at the International Meeting, where she stayed on well up the Hill to beat a strong field which included Ballywood (147) and Destrier (151). Her previous Prestbury Park success came in April last year, where once more Northern Beau put in a game performance to beat hot-favourite Happy Diva (149), who’s since gone on to land the Grade 3 BetVictor Gold Cup. Northern Beau is in fact a four-times winner over Fences ranging over trips of 2m to 2m4f, and has been raised 28lbs in the Handicap since her Maiden Chase success to a mark of 130.
Whilst clearly Northern Beau has improved bundles over the larger obstacles in recent months, she hasn’t ran over Hurdles since August 2018, when finishing third in a three-mile Handicap Hurdle off 105. Michael Scudamore’s seven-year-old has improved beyond recognition since then however, and her Hurdles mark of 125 is 5lbs lower than that over fences. If returning to the smaller obstacles in the same type of form as she was over fences in December, then she could take a bit of beating here – especially as she has shown to enjoy the unique test of Cheltenham’s New Course.
Another Horse who I will be keeping a close eye on is Ainchea, who finally made his return to the track after 700 days at Sandown earlier this month. The race wasn’t exactly an ideal starting point for him considering Totterdown did his usual thing setting off like a rocket, but Ainchea was not given a hard time by Harry Cobden – running around for 9th place. Although that doesn’t say much for his chances here, his back form at Cheltenham includes a Listed Novices’ Hurdle second-place finish. The Handicapper has given Ainchea a chance by dropping him 5lbs for that Sandown retun, and Robbie Power is booked to ride with a first time tongue-tie applied. Although this weekend might not be the day for Ainchea, I hope to see him come on nicely for his first run.
Northern Beau EW (4 Places) @ 11/2
Good Luck! – Jake Price