Jane Mangan: Countdown to Cheltenham is well underway

Heavy ground conditions this weekend will test trainers and jockeys
Jane Mangan: Countdown to Cheltenham is well underway

Paisley Park and Aidan Coleman (second left) winning The Porsche Long Walk Hurdle from Thyme Hill and Roxana for trainer Emma Lavelle. Picture: Healy Racing.

DESPITE the abnormal circumstances in which we currently exist, one thing remains constant in the world of horse racing. 

Yes, the countdown is well and truly on – with less than 50 days to the Cheltenham Festival, some horses already have their sights firmly set on Prestbury Park.

With a record 59 Irish trained horses entered for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and horses such as A Plus Tard (Gold Cup), Bob Olinger (Ballymore), Aspire Tower (Champion Hurdle) and Allaho (Ryanair) having all ran their final races before the main event, there are still some key trials to be held.

Next weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival should provide serious entertainment and vital festival clues but it is tomorrow’s Cheltenham card that is the main item on today’s agenda.

Cheltenham’s ground conditions came under fire from trainers before Christmas and this weekend’s meeting could be subject to some scrutiny too, considering the recent weather forecast.

However, anyone who predicts anything better than soft to heavy ground must be living on a different continent.

The Cleeve Hurdle has proved a brilliant trial for the World Hurdle in the past with the likes of Big Bucks and Inglis Drever using this as a springboard to festival success. 

Connections of Paisley Park have established this race as a tried and tested route for their own stalwart as he goes in search of his third consecutive Cleeve Hurdle before taking aim at regaining his champion stayers crown.

Paisley Park disappointed at the festival last year having featured on many accumulators and banker bets but despite blowing out last year, his trainer Emma Lavelle has got him back to his best this term. Roksana franked his Long Walk Hurdle form in emphatic fashion last week and with no Thyme Hill to challenge him tomorrow, this looks his race for the taking.

Itchy Feet and Gavin Sheehan (right) wins from Vision Des Flos and Jonjo O’Neill Jr in the Betway Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. Picture: Healy Racing.
Itchy Feet and Gavin Sheehan (right) wins from Vision Des Flos and Jonjo O’Neill Jr in the Betway Scilly Isles Novices' Chase. Picture: Healy Racing.

Progressive handicapper Main Fact and Grade 1 winning chaser Itchy Feet feature amongst the opposition but at a track he loves, on ground he relishes and with regular partner Aidan Coleman on his back, Paisley Park looks almost unopposable.

Perhaps the main event on the Cheltenham card is the Cotswold Chase, won last year by Santini who beat Bristol De Mai. 

The former is a doubt for the race due to the aforementioned going conditions but latter horse will relish the mud. Now a 10-year-old, Bristol De Mai loves to race fresh and considering he hasn’t run since winning his third Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, I’m backing the brave grey to go one better for Nigel Twiston-Davis and Daryl Jacob.

Bristol De Mai has won 11 races in his career, winning most from the front in winter conditions. He is 0-6 at the track which is an obvious worry but there is another factor to consider. Colin Tizzard saddles his 2018 Gold Cup winner Native River in the same race, a horse that is always sent to the front under regular pilot Richard Johnson.

Last seen when finishing just behind Lake View Lad and Santini in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree in December, Native River could scupper the race tactically for Daryl Jacob, setting it up for a horse racing from off the pace. The Cotswold Chase is considered a Gold Cup trial but if this pair take each other on for the lead then it could develop into a Grand National trial!

FAIRYHOUSE

On the domestic front this weekend, I will be on duty at Fairyhouse tomorrow but will be most interested to see if Asterion Forlonge can get his jumping act together at Naas on Sunday. Undeniably talented but equally as frustrating, Asterion Forlonge won his beginners chase at Punchestown in the style of a horse that would improve for the transition to fences.

Since then he has fallen at Limerick in Grade 1 company and threw in a careless leap when falling at the first fence at Fairyhouse a fortnight ago. We can rest assured that he will have jumped any number of fences at home in the interim under the watchful eye of Willie Mullins. 

This isn’t an easy task however and now has to revert to a left-handed track owing to a lack of opportunities to gain experience before March.

The last time this horse raced in this direction, he wiped out two horses in the Supreme Novices Hurdle so not only must he stay upright, but he must jump straight!

Every day is a learning day and as the Cheltenham advent calendar steadily gets chipped away, our minds enjoy a brief respite from the realities that engulf our everyday lives.

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