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If there’s one thing about the National Hunt racing season, it’s that you get to know the horses over the years, you appreciate what they do and how great some of them can be. And this week we lost one of the greats of National Hunt racing in recent years, with the great Vautour losing his life in an accident in his paddock at the start of this week at the relatively young age of seven. It was horrific for connections, obviously, and you have to feel that he would have been in with a great chance of stepping up from last year’s Ryanair Chase success to give a great showing in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Not only did he win the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, but Vautour also won the JLT Novice Chase the year before and won the Supreme Novice Hurdle in his first visit to the Cheltenham Festival. We’ll never know just how great Vautour could have been, but it’s safe to say that he is still one of the best we have seen in recent years and his three wins at the Cheltenham Festival will go down as some of the easiest in recent years – a true legend of the sport.
Now, we have to move on, of course, and this week’s live Channel 4 action comes from the home of National Hunt horse racing, Cheltenham, as well as from Wetherby. The race of the day is, of course, the Betvictor Gold Cup Handicap Chase, and we have 19 runners currently declared for the £160,000 prize pool race over 2 miles 4 furlongs. Away from that, we also have some of National Hunt racing’s bigger names making their seasonal bow, and this should give us even more clues as we head towards the big festivals in March and April 2017. And don’t forget that at our friends over at Bet365, you will get best price on all Channel Four races, if you back a winner at 4/1 or better, you get a risk free bet for the same stake. But what’s even better is that Bet365 do Best Odds Guaranteed Plus, so not only do you get the best odds, but they will boost that even further. Take a price of 3/1 and the horse wins at 4/1? Bet365 will pay you 9/2!
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We start the day with the BetVictor handicap chase of 3 miles 3 furlongs, and with the ground currently good and with the possibility of it easing slightly overnight, this should be a real test of stamina for the field, especially with the undulations of Cheltenham to contend with. We’ll no doubt see a lot of this field competing in the longer races at next year’s Cheltenham Festival, so take note
Sausalito Sunrise won this race last year, but it was a close run affair, and he’s not exactly been given an easy task at the weights, especially with last year’s 2nd and 4th contesting again this year on far more favourable terms. While Upswing ran a good race last year, he’s actually 1lb higher in the ratings, and although he’s better off with Sausalito Sunrise, preference is for last year’s 4th place, Cogry, who is getting almost 2 stone from last year’s winner is is 1lb better off than last year’s rating, with the added benefit of Ryan Hatch’s 3lb allowance to make things just that little bit better. Beg To Differ should also be in contention, but his two runs at Cheltenham haven’t been great, and it needs to be proven that he can do the job round this unique course.
Another handicap chase and this one opens the card at Wetherby on Channel 4 Racing. The race is over 2 miles 3 furlongs, and although not as classy as the previous race, it’s still a decent field of chasers going to post. Shadows Lengthen has a good shout at this race given that he goes well round the track. However, he’s pushing 11 years old, and with top weight to lug round, it won’t be his easiest test. Instead, we’re going to look at the youngster Wells De Lune who will ensure this race is run at a steady clip. A lot of the field have question marks over them, but Wells De Lune looks to have scope for improvement here and the booking of Brian Hughes also helps just add to the confidence of this selection.
The feature race of the day from Cheltenham, the Bet Victor Gold Cup, and with 19 runners declared, this 2 mile 4 furlong race is going to be a real test not just for the horses, but for us to try and pick it apart and find ourselves a winner in a traditionally trappy race. There’s a lot to love about As De Mee at the bottom of the weights. More of That was one of the leading novice chasers last season, but disappointed when going off as favourite for the RSA Chase. He goes well over course and distance, and there’s no doubt about his class. However, on his handicap chase bow, he’s either a complete blot on the handicapper’s book, or there’s a few better-weighted and at the price he’s going to go off at, I think we can find a better alternative. Frodon is going for four wins on the bounce, and he come on from novice hurdles to take to the bigger obstacles with great aplomb. Harry Cobden offsets the 5lb penalty , but this step up in class might just bring the run to an end. As De Mee lost his way last season, but was racing against some fantastic chasers in Group 1 company. He got back to winning ways of Fontwell in a comfortable win, and although this is a step up in class, it was a good seasonal reappearance. When he met More of That at Cheltenham last year, he lost by 2.5 lengths, but is not getting over a stone in weight. If Paul Nicholls has him right, this could be a procession for As De Mee.
We’re still at Cheltenham for the next race, a 3 mile 1 furlong handicap hurdle. It’s safe to say, these races aren’t getting any easier, and although there’s only 16 runners, it’s still a nightmare to try and puzzle it out.
Irish Saint sets a high standard on hurdle form, but this looks like a warm up for another crack at the big distance chase prizes this season, so although there’s form in the big, this is probably just a tune-up after 582 days off the track. If The Eaglehaslanded can replicate last season’s form, he’s going to be hard to beat, but last time out he didn’t impress, and although that has no doubt knocked off some ring rust, I wouldn’t be backing him to come back to form just yet. Some Kinda Lama could make it three-in-a-row over hurdles, with the five-year-old kindly weighted for his recent success, but we’re going for the other horse near the bottom of the handicap that is on their own winning run over hurdles. Very Extravagant has a similar profile to Some Kinda Lama, but I love the jockey booking of Tom Scudamore here, which signals Neil Mulholland is serious about its chances of making it four-in-a-row.
A 2 mile handicap hurdle at Wetherby is definitely for the sprinters here – it’s not going to be run at a slow clip, that’s for sure. So we’re looking for a speed demon here to take this one out. Applesandpierres looked good when winning last time out, but looks a stayer in the making. Our Thomas has a win over course and distance, but seems to find it hard to be a consistent winner. The same can be said of Sakhee’s City, who is an out-and-out two-miler, but seems to be the perennial runner-up. Instead, Taper Tantrum for Michael Bell appeals the most. Two wins from three over hurdles and decent enough on the flat, so we know he’s got the pace. His one blemish came after a mistake, so a clean round should see him beat what I see is a pretty weak field.
The lucky last race on Channel 4 today and, as ever, it’s a horrible, horrible handicap to try and sort out. We have another field of 19 runners declared for this 2 mile 5 furlong hurdle, which really doesn’t make things easy for us. Final Nudge has good course form, finishing second in a Group 2 race behind the decent sort, Uknowhatimeanharry, but that was over 3 miles, so the trip might not suit, and he’d definitely prefer a lot of overnight rain. Clondaw Cian also wants the rain to come and perhaps a bit longer. However, if Taper Tantrum hacks up in the previous race at Wetherby, it’s going to be a huge boost for Black Corton and he’ll attract a lot of attention, and that race looks quite a good one, so we’ll be taking Black Corton to back up the form from last time uot.