By Simon Jackson.
Cheltenham takes centre stage this week as the best national hunt horses in Europe go head to head to contest a glittering array of jump racing’s most coveted prizes.
The Cheltenham Festival combines four days of the best national hunt racing in the world, played out on the spectacular Gloucester racecourse from Tuesday to Friday this week.
At the time of writing the final fields have yet to be revealed. But while trainers put the finishing touches on their potential Cheltenham runners, here are some early tips.
Thistlecrack: (World Hurdle)
Thistlecrack looked mighty impressive when trouncing his rivals in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January to maintain his unbeaten record this campaign.
The 12 length victory followed a decisive win in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. The Colin Tizzard stable is in tremendous form and the trainer was thrilled with the latest success.
“Thistlecrack really powered up that run-in against really top-class opposition. He has won on the bridle in a World Hurdle qualifier and at home he works like that too,” Tizzard said.
“He is big strong boy and will make a chaser one day if he ever goes that way. He has won three times on the trot now and he is getting better and better. I don’t know how good he is.”
Cue Card: (Cheltenham Gold Cup)
Cue Card continued his superb form this season with a thrilling victory in the William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
The victory followed successes in the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase and the Grade 1 Betfair Chase. The Betfair and King George are the first two legs of the £1million Chase Triple Crown which culminates with the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
“The bonus I thought was an impossible task but we are another step closer to it,” Tizzard said. “It would be fantastic, but just to win the King George and Gold Cup is more than enough – it would be something I would live on for the rest of my life anyway.
“This is a completely different horse now. He was off the bridle down the back straight but he got into the race without doing too much – he looks a proper three mile chaser – there is no doubt he definitely stays.”
Un De Sceaux: (Queen Mother Champion Chase)
Un De Sceaux was an impressive winner of his sole start at Cheltenham when storming to a six-length victory in the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy at last year’s Festival.
The eight-year-old-old has been impressing trainer Willie Mullins who says that this year’s Festival can’t come soon enough.
“Un De Sceaux is in terrific order and I would love it if the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase was tomorrow. I am counting down the days,” Mullins said earlier this month.
“What I loved about his win at Ascot was his style of racing. He switched off and sized up his fences instead of charging down and flying out over them.
“It was the most mature performance I have ever seen him put in. He did everything right and had plenty in the tank to pull away at the end.”
Morning Assembly: (Ultima Handicap Chase)
The Grand National is the ultimate target for Morning Assembly, who has also been entered in some of the feature races at Cheltenham, but should be supported if connections opt to run him in this race.
This suggested longshot has finished second in both of his starts since returning from a long layoff and had previously shown good form against top-quality rivals.
“The Crabbie’s Grand National is the long-term plan for Morning Assembly,” trainer Pat Fahy said.
“He is not too high in the handicap at the moment so we are thinking of going for one of the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival and then on to Aintree. He is in the Gold Cup and the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham but we will have a good look at the handicaps as he seems on a good mark at the moment.”
Annie Power: (Champion Hurdle)
Willie Mullins believes the extended two miles of the Stan James Champion Hurdle will suit the favourite Annie Power who benefits from a mare’s weight allowance in the feature race of the first day.
The winner of 13 of her 15 starts has been expensive to follow at the Festival, where she has twice been beaten at short prices. She was second to More Of That in the 2014 World Hurdle and last year in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle was in command when she fell at the last.
“I don’t think the trip will be a problem for her,” Mullins said. “I think it might actually be easier for her to race over two miles with the sort of pace they will be going. It will be easier to ride her anyhow.
“I would imagine she will wear the hood. We will see how she is going before but it wouldn’t cost anything to wear it.”
More Of That (RSA Chase)
More Of That, Annie Power’s conqueror in the 2014 World Hurdle, is regarded by trainer Jonjo O’Neill as having a great chance at this year’s Festival after impressing connections in a recent workout.
“He’s my best chance of the Festival, without a doubt. We are leaning towards the RSA, although he is also in the JLT and World Hurdle,” O’Neill said.
“He is a lovely, sensible horse that is very straightforward and I am lucky to have him.
“If he turns up there the same way he did for the World Hurdle he will take some beating.”
Read ‘Horse Talk with Simon Jackson’ at London24 for the latest horse racing news.