CAN you sense the anticipation?
We’re within touching distance now. The Mecca of racing is only a few days away and, as promised, I have a few nuggets gathered from my week on the Cheltenham preview circuit!
Despite Tiger Roll’s unbelievable record at the Festival, it appears all the market momentum is behind the French raider Easysland to deny Gordon Elliott’s dual Aintree Grand National winner a fifth Festival win.
Bought privately by JP McManus earlier this season, the French-trained challenger remains unbeaten in his last six starts, including a win at the track in December.
Having watched some of his replays, it’s easy to see the appeal. He’s an improving six-year-old, whereas Tiger Roll has endured a turbulent preparation with his season revolving around Aintree.
What was 10/1 about Easysland now looks closer to 11/4. Thread carefully if putting the Tiger in as your banker as the French are on the way!
Having sat on a few panels over the past 10 days, it has become increasingly obvious that the McManus camp have upped their game in the quality department.
The Limerick man has always had strength in numbers, but he must be brimming with excitement ahead of next week’s festival.
As well as the aforementioned Easysland, team McManus can look forward to Defi Du Seuil, Epatante, Sporting John, Chantry House, Fakir D’Oudaries, Champ, et al in Grade 1 races not to mention the likes of Janadil, Birchdale, Ciel De Neige, Aramax, Front View, and Ilikedwayurthinkin in handicaps.
While eagerly awaiting final declarations, we are forced to speculate in an effort to get value before prices contract.
Each of those mentioned in the handicap department have been receiving strong support over the past week but most hold multiple entries next week.
It seems Front View and Ilikedwayurthinkin are likely runners in the Martin Pipe Conditionals Handicap Hurdle on Friday with Jonjo O’Neill Jnr set to team up with Joseph O’Brien on Front View — the team who combined to win the race last year with Early Doors.
Aramax looks set for the Boodles Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle having won impressively at Naas last time — ironically the same race Band Of Outlaws won before winning the Fred Winter 12 months ago. Birchdale is very interesting in the Coral Cup as is Janadil if he turns up there too.
It will also be a huge week for Cork jockey Paul Townend, who heads into the week with an enviable book of rides as first jockey to Willie Mullins. Townend has ridden at every Cheltenham Festival since he was 18 (making this number 12) but 2020 will be his first year without Ruby Walsh.
This year, Townend is in the hot seat with big decisions to make and the weight of expectation on his shoulders — a burden the dual Irish champion has proven well able to handle.
Twelve months ago he guided Al Boum Photo to Gold Cup glory while also providing Willie Mullins’ with his first win in the race.
After excavating and dissecting the Gold Cup field countless times, it becomes increasingly difficult to bet against Townend, Mullins and Al Boum Photo repeating the feat in seven days’ time.
Only two horses have managed to win back-to-back Gold Cups in the last 50 years — L’Escargot and Best Mate.
Mullins has once again employed the route perfected by Henrietta Knight with Best Mate — one run and straight to Cheltenham. That tactic might just pay dividends for Al Boum Photo again. He certainly deserves the favourites tag over his nearest market rival Santini!
The formidable axis of Rachael Blackmore and Henry de Bromhead could be in for an exception week with Arkle fancy Notebook, Ryanair Chase favourite, A Plus Tard, Mare’s Novices Hurdle candidate Minella Melody, and Benie Des Dieux’s nearest rival Honeysuckle all boasting serious credentials.
While on a visit to Red Mills Store in Kilkenny last week, I happened to meet members of the One For Luck Racing Syndicate, who own Put The Kettle On.
A decisive winner of the Arkle trial at Cheltenham in November when beating Al Dancer, Getaway Trump and, Rouge Vif, this is a mare to watch wherever she turns up.
She could take on the heavyweights in the Arkle, but I think she must be considered a serious challenger for the Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase later on Tuesday off a handicap mark of 142.
De Bromhead saddled A Plus Tard to win this race last year and this mare could fit the bill for a repeat next week!