Cheltenham is finally back! After a long 7 months, we’re racing again at Prestbury Park. Although unfortunately none of us can be there in attendance this weekend, we will at least get to the enjoy the action in the warm! You can find my thoughts on each race below, including a few nice priced selections. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @JakePriceRacing for live updates throughout the day, as well as to get notifications whenever I have a new selection or article on the website.
13:50 – Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Class 2) 4yo+ – 2m5f
The first race at Cheltenham on Friday is a competitive affair, but I’m keen to give recent winner for this page Midnight River another go for the Dan Skelton team. The Lodge Hill stables have really started to crank into gear over the past week or so, and although this is a decent Novices’ Hurdle Midnight River looks like a more than fair enough price. This five-year-old started his career for the Skelton team in a Bumper at Worcester in October last year, where he ran a fantastic race on debut in what has turned out to be a hot race. Settled in the rear and asked to creep through the race slowly under what I call a classic Harry Skelton ride, Midnight River travelled up into the race eye-catchingly to run on well in the closing stages and take third place – only beaten 2 lengths by the winner. The Mare getting all the allowances that day was Ian Williams’ Dragon Bones (May run at Aintree on Sunday), but more importantly a neck back in second was recent impressive Hurdles debut winner Lord Baddesley. The good form doesn’t stop there however, with the fourth placed Cadmar winning a Bumper at Chepstow on his next start; but perhaps most significantly the sixth placed Horse Israel Champ won two Listed Bumpers on his next two starts – winning at Cheltenham in November and then again at Ascot in December (130 rated Bumper Horse). Even the eight placed Benson has won his Maiden Hurdle since!
I’ll digress from that form line now as you get the idea, but Midnight River’s next start at Wetherby in another Bumper was yet again a good effort – this time staying on well to the line to finish third once again. The winner that day was Fergal O’Brien’s recent Hurdles debut winner Ask A Honey Bee (124 rated Bumper Horse), but the fourth placed Horse has equally gone onto advertise the form well – with Tupelo Mississippi (4.75 lengths behind) going on to impressively land two Bumpers at Newcastle on his next outings. With all this good Bumper form under his belt, it was pretty easy to make a case for Midnight River on his Hurdles debut at Uttoxeter at the beginning of the month – but there was one problem in the shape of Shantou Express. This well backed odds-on favourite was always going to be tough to beat having been a useful Bumper Horse and coming into the race with a run under his belt, but Midnight River absolutely travelled all over him that day – with Harry Skelton tracking him on the bridle all the way down the home straight before pouncing at the final flight and scoring by an impressive 1.5 lengths. That Kim Bailey charge has already come out and boosted the form when bolting up in an Exeter Novice Hurdle by 23 lengths on Tuesday, so wherever you look you can find top form for Midnight River. He clearly will need to step forward again to win this, but conditions should be perfect, and he may just be the most progressive Horse in the race.
14:25 – Matchbook Novices’ Chase (Class 2) 5yo+ – 3m½f
This three-mile Novices’ Chase has been won by some great Horses such as Black Corton and Lil Rockerfeller down the years, but this year the race shapes up a little bit differently as Gordon Elliot sends across his National Hunt Chase contender once again. A tried and tested route used with both Chicago Grey and the legend that is Tiger Roll, Gordon Elliot has won this race twice in the past 10 years and has had runners in seven of the last ten renewals – so it is clearly a race he likes to target. This year he looks to have the perfect contender in Galvin however, who has gone from strength to strength over fences since finishing second behind Imperial Aura (157) in the Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Festival in March – winning three times, including in Grade 3 company at Tipperary last time out. Between those victories he was even going to go off favourite for the Galway Plate in July, before a late stone bruise forced his withdrawal from the race. Trainer Gordon Elliot has already earmarked him as his Horse for the 3m6f National Hunt Novices’ Chase in March, and stepping him up in trip to three-miles here at Cheltenham is clearly a lovely way for him to get to know Prestbury Park even better before probably having a bit of a break. His rating of 152 clearly sets him out as the Horse to beat on Friday, and Robbie Power is a top class jockey booking during these times of COVID-19 travel nightmares. His odds of 9/4 don’t really entice me to have a bet however, as there are another two solid Summer runners in Solider Of Love (144) and Doctor Duffy (148) turning up, as well as three fascinating Chasing debutants in Ask Dillon (141), Mossy Fen (143) and Clondaw Caitlin 135). The problem with backing Galvin is you can be pretty sure that Gordon wont want Robbie throwing the kitchen sink at him with bigger targets in mind, and even Tiger Roll only finished third when he ran in this race despite being sent off the 6/4 favourite. I do of course see Galvin running a nice race and probably getting the job done, but instead of backing him as favourite for this race I’d sooner back him Ante-Post in the National Hunt Chase – a race he is likely to be much shorter in the betting for come 14:35 on Friday.
15:00 – squareintheair.com Handicap Hurdle (Class 3) 3yo+ 0-140 – 2m5f
I’ve already put one up Ante-Post for this two-and-a-half mile Handicap Hurdle, and the declarations haven’t made me change my mind – as much as I probably wasn’t expecting a maximum field!
I first put Up The Straight up as a selection a couple of weeks ago when he ran at Fontwell, and he ran a really nice race in defeat. Travelling through the race brilliantly, Up The Straight loomed up alongside the eventual second coming to the penultimate flight, and he was then upsides at the last – but his effort just faded thereafter under what were really testing conditions (finishing fourth behind Collooney, rated 134). Despite getting tired on his first start of the season however, Up The Straight should strip much fitter for that effort on Friday, and this 2m5f Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on what promises to be better ground should be ideal. When you look at his form from last season, this six-year-old is starting to look like a bargain buy at just £29k, as he enjoyed a very successful Novice Hurdle campaign. Making his debut for the Richard Rowe yard at Lingfield last November, Up The Straight ran an absolute belter – hacking up to score by an eased down 8 lengths over the 2m3½f trip. The rival he beat that day was Paul Nicholls’ Cat Tiger (140), and although our selection was receiving 3lbs, it clearly was a fantastic performance. Up The Straight was stepped up drastically in class when contesting the 2m4f Grade 2 Winter Novices’ Hurdle next time – but he was well held and dropped out to finish last in the end, hanging left and not really getting home under the testing conditions (similar to that of Fontwell).
Given a needed break of 62 days subsequently, Up The Straight then lowered his sights to Listed company when finishing third in the 2m3½f Sidney Banks Memorial Hurdle at Huntingdon – where he ran much better to finish behind Shishkin (159) and Shan Blue (146). Up The Straight’s penultimate start was perhaps the piece of form which makes him look most well handicapped off a mark of 135 however, as he won a Novice Hurdle at Kempton under a 6lbs winners penalty. That day he bounced back to form with a comfortable 2 length victory over Flic Ou Voyou (137), who has since come out an won two Novice Hurdles at Chepstow and Newton Abbot. Considering how smart that Paul Nicholls rival is turning out to be, the fact that Up The Straight gave him 6lbs and a comfortable beating speaks volumes. Another reason for backing Up The Straight is because the market is headed by Nicky Henderson’s Hijack – the rival that Up The Straight was upsides with at the final flight at Fontwell. Although Hijack lasted home a lot better that day, Up The Straight should be more than capable of reversing that form now race fit – and the fact that he is 2lbs better off at the weights makes him a nice play at almost twice the odds. He’s another Horse who will need to step forward to win (as most Horses do when they go to Cheltenham), but the juicy odds make it worthwhile taking the chance.
15:35 – Bentley Flying Spur Handicap Chase (Class 2) 4yo+ – 2m
This two-mile Handicap Chase is a very competitive affair, but I’m going to take a small chance on On The Slopes continuing his rapid progression over fences. There aren’t a lot of Horses who have to carry much weight in this Handicap thanks to Paul Nicholls letting the 161 rated Dolos take his chance, and On The Slopes could be a big beneficiary of that – as although he now has a new mark of 143 to content with, he only has to carry 10-8. This Chris Gordon charge showed glimpses of promise over fences in the early part of last season, with a notable second to Doctor Dex (136) at Ascot – but it would be at Kempton on Boxing Day when we really started to see what he can do. Running in a 2m4½f Novices’ Handicap Chase, On The Slopes finished a good third that day behind Commanche Red (150) – but most significantly was only 0.5 lengths behind Simply The Betts (157). Facing that rival once more on Trials Day at Cheltenham in January, On The Slopes once more had to settle for third place – this time finishing behind the two smart Festival winners in Simply The Betts (157) and Imperial Aura (157). Now looking like a ridiculously well handicapped Horse off his mark of 129, On The Slopes really began his rise through the weights with a facile success over the smart Not That Fuisse (138) at Kempton in February – dropping back in trip to 2m2f and winning as he liked. Rather than returning to Cheltenham for the Festival however, On The Slopes final assignment of his Novice campaign came at Kempton on the Saturday – once more dropping back in trip, this time to two-miles. Still obviously looking well Handicapped off 136, On The Slopes once more won in impressive style – this time beating subsequent winner Return Ticket (135) by 3.5 lengths. His new mark of 143 certainly demands more of him, but returning to Cheltenham this time over two-miles makes him of interest to me – as he seems to prefer this sort of trip over the extended two-and-a-half he has been running over. The famous Hill at Prestbury Park will still ensure that it is enough of a stamina test however, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he gets on.
16:10 – Catesby Estates Maiden Hurdle (Class 3) 4yo+ – 2m½f
I don’t really have an opinion on this Maiden Hurdle, as I thought Pipesmoker was probably the best Horse in the race, but I wouldn’t be touching him at odds-on. This is a really nice field full of talented Horses however, and the likes of Champagnesuperover, Faivoir and Presentandcounting should all be more than capable of winning races going forward; but I’ll just sit back and take notes in this race.
16:45 – Two Farmers Crisps Novices’ Chase (Class 2) 4yo+ – 2m
I won’t be putting up a selection in this two-mile Novices’ Chase, but I do think that Fusil Raffles will be very hard to beat based upon his pleasing Chase debut at Uttoxeter last month. That was arguably a better race than this one with the likes of Quick Grabim (144) and Gumball (147) behind, and as I can’t have Getaway Trump at all he should be more than capable of winning. He’s clearly not worth backing at odds on however, so I will just sit back and enjoy this one.
17:15 – Matchbook Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle (Class 3) 3yo+ 0-140 – 2m½f
When writing up my Northern National Hunt Horses to Follow 2020/21 list I can’t say I expected any runners at the Cheltenham October meeting, but one of them turns up here in John Quinn’s Ashington. I’m not going to delve into his form too much as you can find it all in the FREE guide linked above, but what I will say is that he should be absolutely primed for this run having had two blow-outs on the Flat recently – the latest coming just 35 days ago at Catterick when only beaten 8.5 lengths over 1m4f. Ashington is having to run off a new career high Hurdles mark of 126 in this race following on from his half-a-length second to Sebastopol (142) at Musselburgh in February, but top conditional Theo Gillard takes off 3lbs – meaning he’s effectively only 2lbs higher in the Handicap. A further positive to that Jockey booking is the fact that Theo is in flying form at the moment, boasting an impressive 40% strike rate over the past 14 days.
Good luck! – Jake Price