Cheltenham Festival Countdown Begins
It's time to get excited as festival countdown begins
After today the next meeting at Cheltenham will be the festival itself so, while there is still February and half of March to go, it is no surprise anticipation is starting to grow.
In part that is due to proximity, in part quality, as plenty of hopefuls put their credentials on the line. It is possible to see a festival winner at any Cheltenham meeting of course, but while using the 'F' word in October might be a bit premature, few would not welcome the excitement now building towards jump racing's most anticipated week and today's winners will all but guarantee their participation in the four-day spectacular.
Prize-money of £354,000 is up for grabs on Saturday's card, with the feature the £100,000 BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase, which is backed up by a stack of Graded heats that could well have a bearing on the festival.
Clues for the Racing Post Arkle and Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle may well be unearthed at Doncaster, although the highlight on Town Moor - the Sky Bet Chase - may provide more Randox Health Grand National pointers.
That race is also worth £100,000, which makes it as valuable as any other jumps contest in Yorkshire, although that prize-money, and Cheltenham's, is dwarfed by the millions on offer at Gulfstream Park in Florida, where the $9 million Pegasus World Cup (£6,832,800/ €7,893,000) and its $7m turf (£5,314,400/€6,139,000) equivalent take centre stage.
Then again, a Cheltenham winner is something money can't always buy.
Frodon and Frost out to display Cup credentials
Looks Like Trouble was the last Cotswold Chase (2.25) winner to follow up in the Gold Cup and Allysson Monterg is the only runner on Saturday without an entry in the Magners-sponsored big one in March.
Frodon, the likeable chaser who has helped Bryony Frost make her name in the saddle, is likely to start favourite although he has stamina concerns to overcome.
His trainer Paul Nicholls, who knows a thing or two about staying chasers - think Kauto Star, Denman, See More Business, Neptune Collonges, Silviniaco Conti, Clan Des Obeaux etc - does not expect it to be a problem.
The Ditcheat operator's big rival Nicky Henderson freely admits he does not really know what to expect from the returning Terrefort - a pre-season big hope for the campaign - and French import Valtor, who bolted up at Ascot on his British debut before Christmas.
Perhaps it is what trials day is for, but there is not much time left for second takes.
RACE OF THE DAY
Stayers follow Buck's path
Big Buck's and Thistlecrack helped cement the Cleeve Hurdle's (3.35) status as a Stayers' trial and without a Goliath of that level around, today's Galliard Homes-backed event has attracted a sizeable 12-runner field.
It contains a few Big Buck's-like recycled chasers, including Thistlecrack's half-brother West Approach, Aux Ptits Soins, Black Op and Lil Rockerfeller.
However, Midnight Shadow - doing his bit for the resurgence of jumping in the north of Britain - and Paisley Park, whose enthusiastic owner Andrew Gemmell has been blind since birth, are bona fide progressive hurdlers who will be out to advance their claims for the Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle.
BIG GUNS TAKE AIM
No Gold pretenders but Sky Bet Chase still serves up a corker
Bregawn is the standout name on the Sky Bet Chase's (3.15) roll of honour, his success in 1982 preceding victory in the following year's Cheltenham Gold Cup and a magical day for trainer Michael Dickinson.
However, none of the 11 runners in the race is engaged in the Cheltenham showpiece. That does not detract from the interest though as jumps big guns Paul Nicholls, Alan King, Nicky Henderson and Nigel Twiston-Davies take aim.
The Sky Bet is the only race on Doncaster's card with a double-figure field, but quick winter ground even by the track's standards may explain the turnout.
It should not inconvenience the Warren Greatrex-trained Bailarico, who runs in the Albert Bartlett River Don Novices' Hurdle and was a prolific winner on fast summer Flat ground last year.
Nor should it rattle Dynamite Dollars, the leading Racing Post Arkle fancy who will be a short price to land the Napoleons Casino & Restaurant Owlerton Sheffield Lightning Novices' Chase.
Can Buttons book Altior date?
Boasting a purse of £50,000 and on ITV's main channel, Doncaster's olbg.com
Yorkshire Rose Mares' Hurdle (2.40) features one of the feelgood horses of the campaign in improving mare Lady Buttons, who might have Altior in her sights come March.
Unbeaten in three this season, the apple of trainer Philip Kirby's eye - and no wonder as she has helped
him enjoy a breakthrough period - is pencilledin for a Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase clash with Altior at the festival.
Her presence in a race won by class act Annie Power in 2014 offers 22-year-old conditional Tommy Dowson a shot in the spotlight, with regular rider Adam Nicol sidelined by injury.
"Tommy has worked for us now for a couple of years," said Kirby. "He's been injured, but has had a good run back and deserves a chance."
As for Lady Buttons, he added: "I think she's got a favourite's chance and she's in good order. A bit of rain would only be a positive. Hopefully she can go close."
O'Brien out for Magic moment
Build it and they will come. Or will they?
Aidan O'Brien (who else?) and Japan are among those with interests in the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes (9.51), which takes place alongside the third edition of the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream.
O'Brien, who has conquered most corners of the globe, runs Magic Wand, a smart Galileo filly who impressed when winning the Ribblesdale at Royal Ascot, while Japanese raider Aerolithe boasts some smart form at home, but it hardly looks a stellar cast for a win fund of £2,362,205.
The dirt main event (10.36) shapes up more promisingly with Breeders' Cup Classic hero Accelerate on duty, although he will not have things all his own way with City Light, Gunnevera and Audible among the opposition.
Saturday's trainer comments
Paul Nicholls, trainer of Brelan D'As: "He's been running well this season including in the Peter O'Sullevan at Newbury and then won dropping back in trip at Haydock. Hopefully going back up in trip will bring further improvement."
Gary Moore, trainer of Casse Tete: "He didn't run too badly the other day. We are taking the same route we took last year, so he will go back to Warwick in a fortnight. He seems to be in good shape and hopefully he can go well."
Lucinda Russell, trainer of Forest Des Aigles: "We have been waiting to run him for some time. He was a very progressive horse for us last year and he won nicely at Ayr first time out this season. He didn't quite stay the trip at Aintree but I think he'll be fine there. He isn't a horse who takes too much racing so it has been ideal having his runs spaced out a bit."
Lucinda Russell, trainer of Janika: "We have been waiting to run him for some time. He was a very progressive horse for us last year and he won nicely at Ayr first time out this season. He didn't quite stay the trip at Aintree but I think he'll be fine there. He isn't a horse who takes too much racing so it has been ideal having his runs spaced out a bit."
Lizzie Kelly, jockey of Siruh Du Lac: "He has done things quite traditionally, working his way up the handicap and his jumping is a massive ace up his sleeve. It's a tougher race for him but he's a really exciting horse."
Kayley Woollacott, trainer of The Kings Wit: "We have always really liked him at home. He won fairly cosily last time and he seems in good order. If he improves again, and enjoys Cheltenham, he could run very well."
Philip Hobbs, trainer of War Sound: "War Sound won really nicely on his first start at Aintree but he was disappointing last time. We've not been able to find any reason why that might be so we're going into the race just hoping he can come back to the form of his first run of the year."
Nicky Henderson, trainer of Birchdale: "I'm pretty sure this is a good trip and I think, and hope, he's a talented horse. He looked good at Warwick and Clarendon Street was behind him then and has won since. He needs a test to see where he goes."
Olly Murphy, trainer of Brewin'Upastorm: "He is in good form and I wouldn't swap him with anything else in the race. I think he, arguably, brings the strongest form in the race. The track won't be a problem for him either."
Ruth Jefferson, trainer of Buster Valentine: "It's a good race and is a step up on what he has achieved so far. He has always looked a lot better than the winning distance so we are throwing him in the deep end to find out how good he is and what trip he wants."
Fergal O'Brien, trainer of Jarveys Plate: "He's in good form. His win at Cheltenham was rock solid and he seems in the same sort of form. He has to give 5lb to some good horses there so it won't be an easy task for him."
Lizzie Kelly, rider of Agrapart: "He loves Cheltenham and he won the race last year. He's done well this season and he should run a good race."
Fergal O'Brien, trainer of Aye Aye Charlie: "He loves it around Cheltenham. It's a competitive race but I think he's better in a better run race. He's a second season novice who has run at some big festivals. He has experience and we'll give it a shot."
Noel Fehily, rider of Black Op: "It's good to be back riding, it is all systems go now. It's good to come back and ride a horse like Black Op. He was a very good horse as a novice hurdler, and he ran two okay races over fences this year. He's a Grade 1 winner and hopefully he can get back to winning ways."
Neil King, trainer of Lil Rockerfeller: "We're going back over hurdles with him, he just isn't quite brave enough to go over fences. He's in great form, Bryony [Frost, jockey] came over and schooled him on Friday and he jumped nicely. He loves the track and ground should be fine, I think some people have written him off but he's still a very good horse."
Sue Smith, trainer of Midnight Shadow: "The step up in trip is something we've got to learn about but he should cope with the three miles okay. Hopefully they don't get too much rain but he's in very good order and we're looking forward to running him."
Emma Lavelle, trainer of Paisley Park: "He seems in great form and I couldn't be happier with how his preparation has gone. You can't beat experience at Cheltenham and it will be good to go back and run at that level. The excitement of having him is fantastic. I don't know how good he can be, he has kept on improving and he looks great. At this stage he is very much on an upwards curve and we haven't reached the ceiling of that yet. He needs a bit of luck and a clear run but we will see what happens."
Jedd O'Keeffe, trainer of Sam Spinner: "He's ready to go. He's done a lot schooling since Ascot and his last two sessions have been absolutely brilliant, it's been top-notch. We're very confident there's nothing more we can do at home. We're on a recovery mission so we've got to get it right on the day and see what he's capable of. He shows all the same signs at home as he did last year, without question, but we've been disappointed with his campaign this year. He ran well at Cheltenham last year and the ground is okay - we're hoping he can get it all together."
Nick Gifford, trainer The Mighty Don: "It looks a cracking race but he's in great form. I think the best is yet to come and the stiff hill will really suit him. He's run well on his last two runs but I think with the emphasis on stamina there, it'll be much better for him. The ground should be lovely and he has course and distance form. There's little between all of them and I'm hopeful he'll make the frame."
Harry Fry, trainer of Unowhatimeanharry: "He won the race two years ago when he was at his best. It was unfortunate to fall at Ascot as he looked to be jumping and travelling well. It looked nasty but he seems to be over that. The wind and cheekpieces have helped find his old spark and it's a wide-open race, so hopefully he can be competitive."
Colin Tizzard, trainer of West Approach: "He's got to show what he did at Ascot again. He was third in this race a couple of seasons ago and he was too careful over his fences, which is why we've come back hurdling. He's shown good form over hurdles and that's another reason why we switched him. We'd hope to go for the Stayers' Hurdle with him."
All quotes from Racing Post. Visit Racing Post's guide to racing for more.