When Festival Trials Day approaches, you know the "Greatest Show on Turf" is around the corner! With less than seven weeks until The Festival, our man Danny Archer has analysed a belting day of action at Prestbury Park and Doncaster.
Escape to emerge as Gold Cup "Dark Horse" with Elegant performance
The feature race on an excellent seven-race card at Cheltenham is the £100,000 G2 Betbright Cotswold Chase (2.25pm) where six runners go to post. The favourite is the Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon. The course specialist has won three times at Cheltenham, including on his latest start in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at Cheltenham in December. He steps up in trip to three miles and one furlong and should stay this trip, given he has finished in the placings on his only two starts over three miles. However, this will be his toughest test to date and they won't be handing around.
It's a fascinating tactical race, but I'm really keen on Elegant Escape for Colin Tizzard. He knuckled down gamely at Sandown on his first start of the season to defeat Thomas Patrick, before finishing second in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in December behind stable companion Sizing Tennessee. A game winner of the Welsh National at Chepstow last time, he stays longer than the mother-in-law and I think this test at Cheltenham could be right up his street. He of course needs to find more and is officially rated 10lb inferior to Frodon, but he has the stamp of a potential Gold Cup contender and I'm hopeful of a bold showing. Impressive Ascot handicap winner Valtor and the returning Terrefort provide added spice from Seven Barrows, whilst former Cheltenham Gold Cup second Minella Rocco also makes his eagerly-anticipated reappearance.
A wealth of top-quality action at Cheltenham also sees an ultra-competitive renewal of the £60,000 G2 galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle (3.35pm). Paisley Park will be high on many people's shortlists after completing the hat-trick last time out when plundering the G1 Long Walk Hurdle. He clearly is a stayer to follow and seems to be improving with every run.
He has to be of interest for Emma Lavelle, but so does the Sue Smith-trained Midnight Shadow who ran on strongly to win the Relkeel Hurdle over two and a half-miles at Cheltenham on New Years Day. He steps up in trip to three miles for this assignment but his jockey Danny Cook seems pretty convinced he will stay and he he saw the trip out well on his latest start. This race has plenty of strength-in-depth, including multiple G1 winner Unowhatimeanharry, the talented Black Op, who returns to hurdles after an aborted chase campaign, Sam Spinner and Wholestone to name a few. Whatever happens in this event, there will be Stayers' Hurdle clues aplenty.
The £32,000 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle is a fascinating contest with a small but select field of six. The market is headed by the unexposed Birchdale who won convincingly at Warwick in December under Barry Geraghty for trainer Nicky Henderson. He clearly needs to improve but it is interesting that he has been rerouted to this race instead of stable companion Champ. I'm keen to take him on however with the Olly Murphy-trained Brewin'Upastorm who looks very exciting.
An easy winner at Huntingdon on his hurdling debut, he finished a cracking fourth to the aforementioned Champ in the G1 Betway Challow Novices' Hurdle last time. He would be suited by a better pace this time around, but the form of that event looks strong, with the first four all looking seriously exciting novice hurdles. I think a stiff test of stamina at Cheltenham will really play into his hands as he was doing all his best work at the finish at Newbury last time.
As for the rest of the card at Cheltenham, Forest Des Aigles could be overpriced in the £75,000 Spectra Cyber Security Solutions Trophy Handicap Chase (1.50pm). He ran very well in the Grand Sefton over the Grand National fences at Aintree last time in tough conditions having previously registered a smooth success at Ayr in November. He is an excellent jumper and stays longer than this trip. He needs to find further improvement, but he could be an excellent each-way play.
She's a Lady over at Doncaster
Doncaster also holds a belting card with good prize money on offer. Dynamite Dollars will have to carry a penalty for Paul Nicholls & Harry Cobden in the £35,000 G2 Lightning Novices' Chase (1.30pm) but should put these rivals to the sword with the minimum of fuss.
Winner of the G1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown in December, he defeated Arkle market rival Kalashnikov in the G2 Wayward Lad Novices' Chase at Kempton in December. He faces inferior rivals today and should complete the hat-trick for the Ditcheat handler and his regular rider Cobden on Town Moor.
The magnificent Lady Buttons reverts to hurdles in the £50,000 G2 OLBG.com Yorkshire Rose Mares' Hurdle as she seeks to record a fourth win in as many starts. The eight-year-old daughter of Beneficial has taken her form to another level this term and has won with any amount in hand at Wetherby, Newbury and Doncaster under regular pilot Adam Nicol over fences. A talented hurdler, it will be interesting to see how she gets on reverting to timber, but a hurdles rating of 140 still makes her the best of these obstacle the smaller obstacles. Irish Roe is a very likeable mare and is probably feared most, but despite having to give 4lb, Lady Buttons can continued her rise through the ranks and maintain the fine form of North Yorkshire handler Philip Kirby.
1:50: Cheltenham: Forest Des Aigles 11/1 E/W
2:25: Cheltenham: Elegant Escape 9/4
2:40: Doncaster: Lady Buttons Evs
3:00: Cheltenham: Brewin'Upastorm 9/4
3:35: Cheltenham: Midnight Shadow 5/1 E/W