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74 days to go...

I must admit, I'm in the "there is so much more to a racing season than Cheltenham" camp, but it seems I am very much in the minority. One sharp judge who is very much devoted to it is Kiaran O'Brien, author of the fine novel 'Edge Your Bets' and a former colleague of mine at Betfair. And after an action-packed few days at Kempton and Leopardstown, he's been inspired to write an early preview...


FOOTPAD AND CO TO BRING SOME FESTIVE CHEER – IN A FEW WEEKS HOPEFULLY

When I see silly adverts saying 364 days to Christmas the ‘bah humbug’ in me comes to the fore very quickly to such an extent it makes a friend of mine Stu Langley smile from ear to ear. Stu hates this time of year so much he changes his Social Media names to Stu McScrooge.

Earlier today I did a date check of my own – 74 days and counting.

Seventy-four days, several hours and a couple of minutes to my festive season, one that will see a pilgrimage of a different kind to the shrine of St Jump Horse of Prestbury and a legion of devoted followers looking for a prophet (excuse the pun).

With so many firms looking to beat the rest it is only a matter of time before they start offering discounts in the New Year sales and Non-Runner No bet concessions earlier than ever before.

So here are five selections to put into the ante-post portfolio and in some cases, I’m praying for a change of heart by connections on Festival targets.

CHAMPION CHASE
Looking at the head of the market there are serious question marks over the top four or five in the market.

Altior could go to Cheltenham without a prep run, hardly ideal. Douvan is apparently out for the season but given the Mullins’ record of changing their minds depending on which way the wind blows it is difficult to be confident either way. Min, another from the Mullins’ yard was far from impressive before losing his race at Leopardstown in the Stewards Room. Politologue despite his victories this season has never appealed to me as a Cheltenham type.

So here is one from left field, FOOTPAD.

Just below the top level over hurdles, he has been hugely impressive in his two-unbeaten chase starts to date and at 10/1 could be real value. He is 2/1 to win the Arkle with his owners also responsible for the second in the market Sceau Royal.

The manor of Footpad’s victories has been that of a young chaser who loves what he is doing and if as discussed above, if you think there are holes in the chances of the top four in the market then FOOTPAD suddenly isn’t a 10/1 shot.

Problem is, and it is a major problem, you need someone to convince connections to switch the intended target.

STAYERS HURDLE
Following the sad demise of Nichols Canyon this is one of the major festival races where anything could happen.

Sam Spinner is a worthy favourite in my opinion after his latest victory in the Long Walk at Ascot last weekend. The likes of UnowhatImeanharry seemed to have no excuses whilst second in the market Supasundae doesn’t appeal to me at all. Beer Goggles caused a major upset at Newbury and Apple's Jade, despite her victory at Leopardstown is far from certain to be aimed at this. A defence of her Mares Hurdle title looks most likely.

One stat that sticks out in this race is the number of chasers who have stepped back to the smaller obstacles and thrived. Anyone heard of Big Buck's!

This time last year FINIAN'S OSCAR was being prepared for a tilt at the Tolworth Hurdle which he won emphatically. He immediately became ante-post favourite for whichever Cheltenham Race he was going to run in. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on which ever way you look at it, he missed the Festival with a niggle whilst the rest of his star-studded stablemates failed to really fire.

His subsequent victory at Liverpool and second at Punchestown saw him made ante-post favourite for the Arkle and JLT Chase this season.

Connections are on record as saying that whatever he did over hurdles would be a bonus and chasing was his forte. Excellent words with one major flaw, he can’t jump.

Yes, he has two chase victories to his name. In the first at Chepstow he beat trees, in his second he beat a horse who has been well beaten since. Two subsequent defeats at Sandown and Ascot have seen the terms ‘lacked bottle’ and ‘courage’ to be a chaser.

At 50/1 he is hugely overpriced, and connections will surely make the right decision to revert back to hurdles. This time last year Buveur D’Air was being lined up for a tilt at the Arkle but never looked a natural over the bigger obstacles. Whether they reverted to hurdles because they didn’t want to run against Altior will never be known. His subsequent exploits clearly show it was the right decision.

CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP
I found a needle in a haystack the other day and I swear it was easier than finding the winner of the Gold Cup. Going into the Xmas period I had a number questions I was looking for answers to. Might Bite won the King George as you’d expect but the proximity of those behind calls in to question the form. Thistlecrack ran ok up to a point and can see him narrowing the gap at Cheltenham.

Then we had the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown. I have spent the last hour looking for the elusive needle again and think someone has nicked it to pop all bubbles that were burst in Dublin today. With Sizing John, Yorkhill and Djakadam to name but three floundering in the ground I am undecided as to whether the form of Road to Respect is solid or should be totally ignored. I will come back to that in a minute.

In time of indecision I always believe you should go down the tried and tested route and stick with what we know, a constant shall we say.

Followers of the rubbish I write will know that there is no bigger fan of NATIVE RIVER than myself. He should have won the National Hunt Chase in 2016. Dotted up at Aintree. For me he was never going to be beaten in the Hennessy or the Welsh National and wasn’t. An ante-post 33/1 slip for Gold Cup looked a very wise investment when he went off second favourite only to be beaten into third. A negative you may think. Far from it.

He was the only horse from the Tizzard yard (except for Fox Norton) who ran any sort of race. Given the cloud that was hanging over the stable at the Festival it was a fantastic performance and at 14/1 I believe he can step up on his run last season. He is main aim is the Grand National this season and he will need a prep run which will probably be on Trials day at Cheltenham at the end of January.
Earlier I mentioned ignoring the Christmas Chase form but one I am happy to take out of it was the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Minella Rocco.

He was still in contention coming to the last before fading away. He has never won before Xmas and a record of one victory from ten over fences is hardly Gold Cup winning form, but his Cheltenham record is a major stand-out. Winner of the National Hunt Chase in 2016 (beat Native River), second to Sizing John in the Gold Cup 2017 (Native River third) and a fast finishing third in the 2016 BetVictor Chase are his best three lines of form. The constant is obviously the form with Native River and three times his price Minella Rocco is one for the ante-post each-way portfolio.


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