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JLT Novices Chase Preview

Opening the day three programme is another Novice event, and lo and behold, the favourite belongs to Willie Mullins! Can he make it three days in a row?

For this race, we've once again called upon the services of CheltenhamZone, @cheltenhamzone and talented writer James Norris, @jpnorris. Originally posted Feb 27 so there will some slight difference in prices, but not the important one of the tip! Read more of their comprehensive content on their site

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JLT Novices Chase

Many will argue this race has no place at the Cheltenham Festival, largely because of what it takes away from others. This intermediate version is a modern creation and now, after three successful years, it has been upgraded to Grade 1 status. In time one can envisage it becoming the pre-eminent source of superstar stayers of the future and the victory of Sir Des Champs gives some indication of what’s to come. In fact, that mesmeric performance in 2012 almost single-handedly justifies this race’s presence in the calendar and the upcoming renewal is another very much to look forward to.

Intriguingly three of the major figures in this year’s contest have intertwining form lines that are tricky to pick apart. Determining the relevance and solidity of the form when Taquin Du Seuil beat Oscar Whisky, when Oscar Whisky beat Wonderful Charm and when Oscar Whisky beat Taquin Du Seuil is fraught with danger given how the races were run, the respective weights carried and states of fitness. A cogent case can be made for each of these at Cheltenham and I suspect whichever comes out on top will win the 2014 JLT Novices’ Chase.

WONDERFUL CHARM heads the betting and has done for some time. Paul Nicholls has been determined to bring him to the Festival fresh and nominated this as his target following his last run at Cheltenham’s December meeting.

Having made a blistering chase debut at Fakenham, jumping and quickening impeccably, Nicholls immediately stepped him up in class to the Rising Stars Novices’ Chase at Wincanton, a race he often uses to showcase his best staying novice talent. Once again his jumping, until the home straight, was measured and noticeably superior to his rivals. In the home straight, as the strong travelling Fox Appeal accelerated away from him, he essentially ran through the last two fences. Fortunately, the Poliglote gelding was given an expert ride by Nick Schofield as he refused to panic when Emma Lavelle’s charge went clear, gathering his mount together for that opportune moment where a mixture of class and stamina enabled him to pick up the leader in the last half-furlong. Fox Appeal subsequently went on to prove that was no mean feat with a fluent success at Ascot and two placed efforts in Grade 2s.

Wonderful Charm then outclassed a small but inferior field at Newbury, in the race previously won by 2013 JLT runner-up Dynaste, before turning up at Prestbury Park to take on Oscar Whisky. On paper he was set a stiff task, forced to give a talented and high class horse in Oscar Whisky eight pounds. He had though taken to fences extremely well and has far greater scope for improvement than the Seven Barrows inmate, about whom there were negative murmurings surrounding his aptitude for fencing thanks to a less than foot-perfect round on debut. Such concerns were unfounded as Oscar Whisky’s extra speed, an optimal ride and the aforementioned eight pounds proved decisive.

Wonderful Charm lost little if anything in defeat and it would be fair to assume that at level weights, preferably off a stronger gallop, the form will be reversed. I, perhaps unfairly, fear that race may have been indicative of his impending shortcoming in the JLT, a slight absence of pace. I have a huge amount of time for the horse and I look forward with relish to his career next season over three miles. It’s just that already three miles could be what he needs to be seen at his best and were he to head for the longer RSA chase I would be far keener on his chances.

OSCAR WHISKY, on the other hand, has always been ideally suited to this ‘in between’ distance and over hurdles he was nearly unbeatable at it, particularly round Cheltenham. That defeat of Wonderful Charm is probably the most pertinent of all Oscar Whisky’s form this season given the farcical nature of both other contests at Cheltenham and the appalling ground conditions, coupled with the sub-par rivals, at Sandown last time out. He seemed somewhat laboured there in the Scilly Isles Chase, a few mistakes crept in, and he took longer than expected to see off Manyriverstocross. Such was the severity of the test in the ground however I would be prepared to largely ignore that performance, assuming it hasn’t left its mark, and prefer to judge him on his Cheltenham form, even if it does take some guesswork.

On chasing debut he met Taquin Du Seuil, who had to carry a five pound penalty thanks to a simple win at Ffos Las. Barry Geraghty’s race almost ended prematurely as a reluctant The Cockney Mackem almost refused at the first thereby putting off Oscar Whisky. From then on there was barely a gallop set and the race turned into a sprint from the second last. Taquin Du Seuil just prevailed on the run to the line and given the weight concession it had to be considered a significant effort. Oscar Whisky was only seeing fences in public for the first time and it could be argued that he needed the race to some extent. There were plenty of reasons to be positive about his performance and despite a weight turnaround in favour of the Jonjo O’Neill trained gelding a reversal of form was easy to imagine when they next met on New Year’s Day, Oscar Whisky having despatched Wonderful Charm in the interim.

In sloppy, wet and windy conditions pace eluded the race, with the pair of old rivals determined not to set the race up for each other. Another sprint ensued and this time it only began in earnest at the last where Taquin Du Seuil landed steeply, effectively handing the race to Oscar Whisky. For the second time there was very little in it at the line. Conflicting conclusions can be drawn as to which is the better chasing prospect and who has been less suited by the nature of their battles so far. To my mind, Oscar Whisky suits being ridden very prominently in races that build. I can see him coming unstuck back at Cheltenham when the pace is fierce and pressure is applied to his jumping which, while far less of an issue than some make out, does tend veer off to the right. At nine years old, with a lengthy and arduous hurdling career behind him, I doubt he can become as good over fences as he was over the smaller obstacles. I am not expecting a further leap forward in his development and that may be required if he is to contend with talented, upwardly mobile horses two or three years his junior.

TAQUIN DU SEUIL is one such horse and despite coming off second best in The Dipper Novices’ Chase I fully expect his younger legs to comprehensively reverse that form in The JLT. Thoughts of a tilt at the Arkle were shelved after appearing to be outpaced by leading contenders Hinterland and Grandouet in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase over two miles at Sandown. I feel an error cost him more than a lack of speed there and would not be quick to rule him out at the minimum trip but this two-and-a-half miles is ideal.

There has been a misguided sense of unease around Taquin Du Seuil’s jumping; in reality it has been more than adequate so far and the end to end gallop at Cheltenham should help him to clear his fences even more fluently. The Voix Du Nord gelding is a tall, striking animal with scope in abundance and though disappointing in last season’s hot Neptune his run is worth watching back as on a surface many would deem too quick his jumping was impeccable. Until now he hasn’t looked exuberant at his fences but so often he has run in races devoid of pace or in heavy ground and McCoy has taken a grip, concerned a big jump would take him to the front.

In spite of a rounded action I do not concur with the majority that he needs soft ground, or preferably worse. He may handle it better than others but on good ground in November he showed too much speed for Oscar Whisky, while he was an unfortunate third in a Grade 1 next time on the same, over a trip shorter than ideal. Even during his novice hurdle days he proved himself on good-to-soft ground at Ascot when beaten less than two lengths by My Tent Or Yours.

The emphasis there was on speed, at Haydock on his most recent start it was on stamina. Here he was at his most impressive over fences, trouncing a small but very useful field and exhibiting the considerable reserves that could see him involved at the death in an RSA.

A Grade 1 winner of over hurdles, Taquin Du Seuil should not be long in winning one over fences and it could well come in Cheltenham’s latest upgrade. This race is made for him, even more so than Oscar Whisky at this stage of his career, and 9/1 is an attractive price worth taking.

The rest of the English challenge is headed Harry Fry’s French import VUKOVAR. He has the size of a chaser and immense potential, especially up in trip, as it will be at Cheltenham. His jumping has been accurate on the whole and it should prove to be a strength but just two starts over fences is a worry. Whether too slow on chase debut, or too inexperienced, it was disconcerting to see him come off second best to the unlovable rogue, Mr Mole, on his first attempt at Warwick. A tongue tie undoubtedly helped at Newbury next time, where he ran out a wide margin winner, but so did the lamentable performances of his rivals, especially Open Hearted who sweated up badly beforehand. There are simply too many question marks with him to consider taking a single figure price for the JLT.

OFF THE GROUND and DOUBLE ROSS are two likely to come from handicaps. Emma Lavelle’s eight-year-old has been an emphatic winner of his two most recent chases, both at Doncaster, yet it is hard to envisage him being good enough to make his presence felt in this company. If an outsider is to make the frame Nigel Twiston-Davies’s December Gold Cup winner could be the one. Double Ross beat a good field that day and consolidated that performance with another, more convincing, handicap success on January 1st. During Cheltenham’s ‘Festival Trials Day’ he travelled like the winner until the last, from which point Wishfull Thinking, runner-up in the very first JLT, showed a touch more pace. Had jockey Sam Twiston-Davies kicked on earlier, and stretched the field, the result could have been different. It was still a notable performance and once again proved his liking for an intermediate trip at his local track.

Unsurprisingly the principal contender from across the Irish Sea is housed at Willie Mullins' Closutton base. FELIX YONGER was also seen as a potential Arkle player but the presence of Champagne Fever and the manner in which he sees out his races strongly has made that unlikely.

A staying on second in Simonsig’s Neptune was the highlight of his career over hurdles. Disappointment at Punchestown and then a year off through injury followed before making a bright start over fences with a comfortable win over White Star Line in May 2013. After the summer break he finally hit his stride. Two striking successes at around two miles on yielding and good-to-yielding ground saw him promoted to the forefront of the Arkle market. However, on each occasion the leader, Defy Logic and Trifolium respectively, set off too quickly and set it up for this strong staying son of Oscar. Then, upped in trip on ground that was perhaps against him, a late mistake cost the eight-year-old as he merely plugged on behind stablemate, The Paparrazi Kid. Trifolium, ridden more conservatively, then gained his revenge by comprehensively reversing earlier form in Leopardstown’s Irish Arkle, albeit on heavy ground. Cracks appeared in Felix Yonger’s jumping before superior stamina helped him pick up second.

On a sounder surface, over this longer trip he is sure to come into his own but I still doubt whether he is quite up to the level of the English triumvirate first mentioned. That defeat of Trifolium at Navan is a little misleading and despite challenging for favouritism he needs to improve again in order to win this competitive heat.

Willie Mullins is also likely to be represented by the Rich Ricci owned five-year-old, DJAKADAM. Below the top level in juvenile hurdles, he has the presence of a chaser and made full use of his weight-for-age allowance in both starts over fences. He is a solid jumper, a solid prospect overall in fact, but he fails to really excite for this race. His defeat of Bright New Dawn is unquestionably good form though not up to the standard of those heading the market. The Gigginstown representative is eminently beatable by the top novices and Djakadam won the race through stamina. He will soon require a stiffer test and realistically this first trip to England is more an opportunity to gain experience than Grade 1 honours.

Few debut rounds over fences will match that of SIZING GOLD. Wonderful Charm comes closest in this regard. His natural athleticism sets a rare foundation to build from and at Naas, upped to a Grade 2 for his second chase start, Henry De Bromhead’s charge jumped to the front travelling on the bridle. Having always shaped like a staying chaser, and with a convincing victory on the cards, it was disappointing to witness his stamina run out against the doughtier Foxrock. Helpfully, the drop back to two-and-a-half miles at Cheltenham will be in his favour, as will the test of jumping it provides and 16/1 may underestimate his chances. Nonetheless, he appears to lack a degree of speed, suggesting he could be outpaced at the highest level over this trip.

Ireland’s 100% record in the JLT is under threat and with the cream of their novice crop heading elsewhere it may pay to look towards the Cotswolds for the winner this year.

Advice: 1pt win Taquin Du Seuil 9/1 (William Hill)

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