Rory Paddock's Antepost Cheltenham Preview

Rory Paddock's Antepost Cheltenham Preview
16:35, 11 Mar 2019

5 questions we’re going to have answered this Cheltenham Festival.

Did the Elliott and O’Leary duo make the right decision with Apple’s Jade?

It seems like many moons ago, all the way back in November to be precise, when racing fans were waiting with much anticipation for another Gigginstown owned horse to make their seasonal reappearance, in the form of Samcro. Seen by many as the flag bearer for both trainer and owner after racking up eight straight victories last year and punters were all in on this horse winning the 2019 Champion Hurdle. However four months later and what a different landscape we have entirely. Samcro tastes nothing but defeat in three consecutive outings and misses the festival altogether.

Step forward potential super-sub Apples Jade. With Samcro’s lacklustre season it’s had a huge knock on effect for this lovely lady who for all intents and purposes was expected to go for either the Stayers Hurdle on Thursday or Mares Hurdle on the Tuesday, both of which are run over longer trips than the Champion Hurdle. Her season campaign indicated as such as she tackled longer trips until last month when, due to Samcro’s meagre form, she was put back to two miles to see how she went. Prior to that run she hadn’t raced over two miles since November 2016 but she passed the test with flying colours by dominating her rivals to win by a staggering sixteen lengths. Despite that victory however the jury is still out as to wether or not she should be in the Champion Hurdle at all.

After her most recent win the racing world were clambering to see a great match up between Apple’s Jade and two-time Champion Hurdle winner Beuveur d’Air. Punters were turning the screw on owner Michael O’Leary to make sure Apple’s Jade’s original plans were tossed into the rubbish heap and she’d stay at two miles. The Ryanair boss gave in to peer pressure and we’re set to see a fantastic clash but is it the right decision?

Up until her most recent victory the seven year old mare had raced a total of twelve times since running over the two mile trip and she’d had varying degrees of success. She’d gone off as red-hot favourite (including at odds of 1/2) in consecutive two mile races at the end of 2016 and lost both of them. At last years festival she went off as odds-on favourite for The Mares Hurdle only to finish third despite winning the same race the year before.

She’s still only seven and only starting to enter her racing prime but will the new target be the making of her or a huge error by connections we will only find out come 15:40 on Tuesday afternoon!

Is this the last time we’ll see Altior run over two miles?

Those in charge of the ratings system at The BHA (British Horseracing Association) must’ve had somewhat of an off day. (The sort of off day that saw Graeme Souness sign Aly Dia for Southampton in November 96 - If you don’t know the story Google it!) The powers that be decided that Cyrname, although a class horse, should be rated higher than a horse who’s won multiple Grade 1 races, is unbeaten over both hurdles and fences and has racked up an eye-watering seventeen consecutive victories. The horse in question of course is Altior. Now there may be a very minuscule chance that in years to come Cyrname could become an absolute superstar and surpass Altior’s achievements but the chances of that are slim to none and slim has just left town. We’ll just have to put the very odd ratin decision by the BHA down to something they ate or drank that day and continue to scratch our heads. That being said however the real question is after nineteen career starts over nothing further than 2m2f will this be the last time we see Altior race over a shorter trip before tackling much further?

It’s safe to say he’s achieved all there possibly is to achieve as a two mile chaser and surely he’ll look to conquer new obstacles going forward.

So once Altior wins this upcoming Wednesday (I hope I haven’t just jinxed him but come on it’s Altior!) where does he go from here?

One thing on his bucket list is to race at Aintree. I know the Liverpool venue is a completely different type of course than Cheltenham but surely not something totally out of reach for this Hall of Fame worthy chaser? If he decides to head to Merseyside then either the likes of The Betway Bowl over 3m1f on the Thursday or if he wanted something shorter the Melling Steeplechase over 2m4f the following day could be a viable alternative.

It’s already been confirmed by trainer Nicky Henderson that next season’s plans will be aiming the horse at the King George and that in itself is a mouth watering prospect that gets the proverbial juices flowing for any racing fan. So do they give the strapping nine year old a rest after Cheltenham or do they test the waters a little and head to Aintree? Whatever they decide I’d suspect this will be the last time we ever see Altior run over two miles so enjoy every single second of it and drink it all in.

Does Faugheen still have anything left in the tank?

On the third day of the festival the marquee race is The Stayers Hurdle. Unfortunately due to injuries and setbacks it’s perhaps not as star studied as the race once was but never the less we’re expecting to see a two time festival and multiple Grade 1 winner line up in the form of Faugheen. Perhaps a shadow of his former self after a second placed finish and a recent fall indicated he wasn’t the same superstar he once was but could he still make an epic return to stardom and win Thursday’s main event?

No matter where punters put their money there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if we saw Willie Mullins’ runner charge up the infamous hill with his head in front. A class horse who’s achievements can never be taken away it’d be a magnificent achievement to see him return to the winners enclosure where he belongs.

Despite an uncharacteristic fall last time out don’t let the big bold letter F in his form book sway you too much. Of course a fall is never a positive but he was travelling very nicely for most of the race and was miles ahead of the rest of his rivals (bar Champion Hurdle favourite Apple’s Jade who was leading the way) when hitting the deck. There’s no question that if he stayed on his feet he’d have finished at least second and given Apple’s Jade something to think about which is nothing to be frowned upon.

In his advancing years he’ll have to muster all he has left in order to win this race with potential superstar Paisley Park destroying all before him this year he’ll take all the beating. Maybe it’s the old-romantic in me or maybe I’m losing the plot but could Faugheen have an almighty swan-song before his inevitable retirement? Let’s hope so!

Will it be the young pretenders or the old guard to take Gold Cup glory?

At various stages in any sport we see a passing of the torch from the old guard to the new and this years Gold Cup could make for one of those seminal moments.

In the perceived OAP camp we have the likes of last years winner and runner up Native River and Might Bite and former Stayers Hurdle winner Thistlecrack and in the youngsters category we have Presenting Percy, Clan Des Obeaux and the “dark horse” Kemboy.

So let’s look at the facts; First off despite the fact he seems to have been around a while Native River is actually just nine years old and still has years left in him. He’s had a tonne of tough races and that’s bound to have taken their toll but age shouldn’t be a factor when looking at last years winner. He’s been there, done it, got the t-shirt and ticks a tonne of boxes but does he have it left in him to do it once again?

Might Bite was the antepost favourite for this race straight after finishing second in the same contest last year but with two very disappointing runs at Haydock and Kempton it’s increasingly difficult to keep the faith but trainer Nicky Henderson says he’s returned to his best in training. It’d take a die hard fan to maintain their belief with the former race favourite but he acts well here around the Gloucestershire track and if Henderson’s confidence isn’t misplaced he may make bookmakers look rather silly at his current price.

It’d take a stone hearted fan not to show at least a glimpse of a smile if Thistlecrack claimed the spoils. As with Might Bite he was well fancied for this race previously and in fairness to the eleven year old he’s done little wrong in his two outings so far. A former King George winner back in 2016 he went close in the race this term and despite entering the twilight of his career showed he still has a tonne of ability left. Not the most likely winner but not a forlorn hope by any stretch.

And now we get onto the youngsters. Clan Des Obeaux did exceptionally well to spring a surprise shock to take the King George and for that alone deserves the upmost respect but facts don’t lie and they don’t point to a victory for Paul Nicholls’ runner. The horse has zero wins from four runs at the course and is winless in nine starts on left handed courses. Although he’s been heavily backed would be a shock to see him win. To me he looks to be in the same mould of another former Nicholls horse Silviniaco Conti who often did well in the bit chase races leading up to Cheltenham but always failed on the Gold Cup stage.

Kemboy has done nothing wrong in recent starts and looked to perhaps be one of Ireland’s best chances of Gold Cup glory when beating a host of these rivals before in the Savills Chase in December. Trainer Willie Mullins has handled him with kid gloves and holds him in high regards but surely this is a case of too much too soon but if he puts in a good showing expect him to be a Gold Cup contender in future years to come.

The one that fits a whole host of the criteria is Presenting Percy. Unbeaten here at Cheltenham with consecutive festival victories including the Pertemps Final in 2017 and 4 mile race last year. He’s been given a less than conventional preparation for the race with a hurdles success at Gowran in January but with two Festival victories so far the trainer clearly knows how to get him ready for March. He’s still got a few questions to answer but he is by far the best of the young guns and Ireland’s biggest hope.

With Native River the likeliest of the perceived veterans up against the ever consistent Presenting Percy expect to see this clash occur more than just this pending Friday.


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