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Day three of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival and all the headlines in today’s sports pages were about Douvan. Yes, the shortest priced favourite to lose at the Cheltenham Festival, and it wasn’t even like he was chinned on the line, he just didn’t get travelling and it looked like he was beat after three fences, purely because his jumping was so poor. It also leaves Willie Mullins looking for his first win, and it really looks like his yard is under a bit of a cloud right now. I mean, he didn’t even take the Champion Bumper, a race in which he seemed to have half the field. Still, for those who backed Special Tiara, they’ll be happy Mullins’ team isn’t firing on all cylinders, that’s for sure.
The racing at Cheltenham starts again at 1:30,with British coverage on ITV1 at 1:00. Today, the feature race is the World Hurdle, which has seen some great winners over the years, such as Barracuda, Inglis Dreaver and even the former Gold Cup favourite Thistlecrack. We start with the JLT Novices’ Chase, followed by the Pertemps Final and the Ryanair Chase, before the big one of the day, the World Hurdle. We then have a handicap chase, the second of two mares’ hurdle races and we finish with the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup for amateur jockeys.
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The first race of the day sees another hot favourite, this time in the shape of Yorkhill, the winner of last year’s Neptune Hurdle. Yorkhill has won both his starts over fences, although last time out he wasn’t as impressive as his first win at Fairyhouse. The long and short of it is I wouldn’t be backing a Willie Mullins horse at such a short price after yesterday’s debacle, and Yorkhill looks somewhat vulnerable anyway, so it’s definitely one to steer clear of. Disko won at the top level last time, reversing the form with Our Duke at Leopardstown. However, it’s hard to read too much into that form, and that fact he’s only got a 50% strike rate over fences worries me at this level.
Top Notch is the pick for me in this race. He’s continued to improve over the bigger obstacles and last time out, beating Baron Alco in a Group 1 (the Scilly Isles) race at Sandown. His one defeat over fences came in his first start at Uttoxeter, where he lost to Charbel, who was going great guns in the Arkle, and Le Prezien, who he beat in the Scilly Isle last time out. He looks a huge price, given how well he’s run at the festival in the past, finishing fifth in last year’s Champion Hurdle.
The Pertemps Final is a nightmare race for punters, and coming second in the day doesn’t help for our placepots, either. Jury Duty is weighted to reverse Chepstow form with Gayebury, but he still looks overexposed on the handicap, event though he’s been lightly raced this year. Gordon Elliott is bang in form, so Jury Duty should go well, but there seems to be better options a bit further down the handicap. Tobefair is yet to lose under the care of Debra Hamer, but this is a real step up in class now and the handicapper has him up 9lbs from his last win, so it’s a huge ask at this level.
Impulsive Star looks to be going in the right direction for Neil Mulholland, and Sam Waley-Cohen knows how to get a win around here. There are several with claims, but Impulsive Star is improving on each run, and although on levels weights with Rocklander this time out, should be on an upward curve and see his rival off.
Un De Sceaux takes a step up in trip for the Ryanair Chase, and of course his Arkle win and Champion Chase second make great reading. But that cloud over Willie Mullins’ yard puts me off, as well as this untried trip over fences. While I wouldn’t be shocked if he won, the signs aren’t positives. He does seem to have the beating of Uxizandre, however, on their last run, even though it’s a step up in trip. Sub Lieutenant seems to struggle at this level, and with a 25% strike rate over fences looks to have a bit to find for his new yard.
Empire of Dirt was entered into the Gold Cup, which shows how connections feel about him. He won the Plate here last year and this step up seems well within his grasp for the yard of Gordon Elliott, which is bang in form right now. Sure, he’s getting on a bit, but he’s shown some of his best form recently, and as the second-highest rated horse in the field has a lot to offer.
The Sun Bet Hurdle, although I’ll call it the World Hurdle gives us yet another short-price favourite, this time for Harry Fry in the shape of Unowhatimeanharry. There’s actually so much to like about this smart stayer, as he won at the festival last year and has gone on to follow that up this year with three wins from three, cleaning up in the long distance hurdle races this season.
Jezki’s form took a bit of a hammering with the poor showing of Tombstone yesterday, and although he was a class act once upon a time, I think Jezki’s best days might just be behind him. There’s too many questions for Nichols Canyon to answer, not least can he stay the trip? Lil Rockerfeller has a bright future ahead of him, but has never really hit the heights at Cheltenham, especially last time out, when he was smashed by Agrapart. He does have a solid second behind Uknowhatimeanharry, but hasn’t shown he’s got enough in his locker to turn that round.
Uknowhatimeanharry just stands out here and there’s no reason why any of this field should be able to overturn the form he’s shown so far this season? He’s had the beating of most of the field all year and although he’s short enough, he should be able to justify favouritism.
The Plate is another of those horrible handicaps to puzzle out, and with 24 runners to pick from, it’s a wide open race, and there might just be a nice value winner coming out of it. Thomas Crapper has solid festival form, and is right at the bottom of the handicap, carrying a 5lb penalty after winning well in a Group 3 last time out. He has struggled at Cheltenham recently, though, and his mark would take a career best performance to get him over the line first. Starchitect looked good last time out and is seriously unexposed over fences, with three starts and one win. However, he’s gone up 7lbs for his win last time out, and that might just be enough to see him out of the running.
Baron Alco stands out on form for me, getting close to Whisper, who ran well yesterday in the RSA Chase, and finishing second in the Scilly Isles Chase behind Top Notch last time out. He’s won twice over fences for Gary Moore and looks like there’s a lot of room for improvement for the youngster. He’s weighted to still get the better of Starachitect and is a bigger price, so he really looks good value and very well-handicapped.
Mares’ Novice Hurdle time now, and Airlie Beach has done everything right over fences, smashing the field last time out in Group 1 company at Fairyhouse. It’s six from six over hurdles and she could be the next star for Willie Mullins. But like I said earlier, I can’t be picking any of Mullins’ horses to go well right now, as I think there’s just something up with the yard that is costing them a few lengths. Let’s Dance is more of less the same story, and is an even shorter price than her stable mate. The connections are the same as Annie Power, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag, and we know how that has ended for them this year. Solid form behind Apple’s Jade last year isn’t enough to convince me she’ll win, especially with a drop back to two miles after running at 2m4f all season.
La Bague Au Roi is another undefeated mare over the smaller obstacles and beast Dusky Legend last time uot, who finished second in this race last year. She like the short 2m trip and looks to be improving every time, moving from smaller races into Listed company last time out. To be fair, though, this is more the value play considering Willie Mullins appears to hold all the aces in this race, yet none of the form.
The last race of the day is the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup which is for amateurs, and I have to say it’s another race I dislike. Jamie Codd, who has won twice at the festival this year, rides Squouateur, the favourite for this, which has all connections required to win this, with them winning it last year. However, he looks short enough for a horse yet to win over fences. Lamb or Cod should go well at a big price, but I’m never keen on horses pulled up last time out. However, if Philip Hobbs has him right, look out for hmi come the finish.
Whats Happening loves it round Cheltenham, and is a seriously fresh horse, having only one run this season and one before. He warmed up for this race with a good second, and that should be enough to have got him just right for this. Course form is important, and Whats Happening has that in spades.