Trials Day has begun to get a reputation as the day to analyse very closely in the search for Festival winners. No less than 16 victors on those famous four days in March have prepped here on Januarys final Saturday, with three winners from last year’s meeting following up six weeks later.
Santini became the first favourite since Cyfor Malta in 1999 to win the Cotswold Chase and put himself firmly in the picture for the Gold Cup. The 13/8f tracked Bristol De Mai for the whole journey before hitting the front three out after a mistake from his rival. The roles were reversed two out as Santini got in far too close to hand back the advantage, but his stamina came into play in the climb to the line to see off Nigel Twiston-Davies’ stalwart.
He was made 5/1 second favourite to become the first horse since Looks Like Trouble in 2000 to follow up in the Gold Cup.
Trainer Nicky Henderson said afterwards “He thrives on his work and there is plenty of improvement to come before the festival. There has to be and there is plenty of time for it.”
Bristol De Mai finished third in last years Gold Cup and ran another honest race finishing runner-up to yet another potential Gold Cup winner, just like he did at Haydock in November. He was clipped into 25/1 from 33s and plenty may fancy him to hit the frame again, but surely there are too many young pretenders to consider him for win purposes.
The star attraction was undoubtedly Paisley Park, who did what Paisley Park does by winning for a seventh successive time. However, this time it was slightly different. Those famous flat spots that all great stayers seem to have was missing for this very smooth success as his main rival If The Cap Fits was seen off on the home turn. Here, Paisley Park travelled well throughout and with ears pricked was only asked to win his race within hailing distance of the final flight where Summerville boy made a slight mistake and the result from there on in was never in doubt.
He was cut to retain his Stayers’ Hurdle crown to 4/5 and is now the festivals shortest priced favourite.
Runner-up Summervile Boy once again showed his liking for Cheltenham and proved his stamina for three miles. He too impressed the odds makers and was cut two points to 8/1 for a second festival success.
The Classic Novices Hurdle went the way of Harry Senior under Robbie Power for Colin Tizzard, who returned at 4/1. He looked a little tapped for toe heading to the second last but stayed on really strongly on the inside of the track to win comfortably at the line. The last four winners of this race have tackled the three mile Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle at the festival, and that looks the destination for Harry Senior, who was inserted at 12/1 for the Friday race, and cut to 16/1 for the Ballymore.
Tizzard said “He’d be a stronger stayer than the others (leading novices at the yard include Fiddlerontheroof, The Big Breakaway and Master Debonair) and that’s the way (Albert Bartlett) we would be leaning. It would be nice to keep them all apart”.
King Roland finished second as the 6/4f having taken up the running at the top of the straight with a powerful move. He travelled very well throughout the contest and would be of interest dropping to the minimum trip for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. He was cut to 20/1 from 33s for the festival curtain raiser.
The Timeform Novices Handicap Chase has been a good source of winners at the spring festivals of late and this year’s renewal went to Simply The Betts under Gavin Sheehan. The winner was prominent throughout and showed his previous run at Kempton to be all wrong, winning at 11/2. He will return to the festival, but it may have to be in a graded contest now as he only has 5lb manoeuvring room from the handicapper to be eligible for the Close Brothers Nov Hcap Chase. He was cut to 12/1 from 20/1 for that Tuesday race and 20/1 from 33/1 for the G1 Marsh Novice Chase.
Imperial Aura was running second at Cheltenham for the second time in succession and a nudge from the handicapper here should see him creep into Close Brothers race. He was nibbled into 14s from 16s for Kim Bailey.
The two mile four furlong Handicap Chase was a thriller with Cepage, under Charlie Deutsch, pulling out all the stops and gamely holding Spiritofthegames and Lalor on the climb to the line. The importance of course form is always emphasised at Cheltenham, and this was the perfect advert as the front three have had plenty of runs on the famous turf. Cepage’s figures here now read 42461, Spiritofthegames reads 4533P22 (he deserves a victory) and Lalor has course form of 21P33. All three will likely return at the festival, with Cepage, winning here off 154 perhaps too high for future handciaps and could be going for the Ryanair where he was halved in price to 25/1. He may run in the Brown Advisory & Merribelle Stable Plate on the Thursday over this very same course and distance, which is likely to be the target for the placed horses.
Galahad Quest won the Triumph Hurdle trial under Harry Cobden, returning at 6/1. Trainer Nick Williams won this race with Le Rocher in 2014, but he didn’t run in the Triumph Hurdle and the trainer regards Galaheads Quest as a similar long term prospect and is only a ‘possible’ to return in March.
Up at Doncaster, Mister Fisher and Al Dancer locked horns in a truly run Grade Two mile novices chase. All four runners were still in contention three out, but once James Bowen switched Mister Fisher, he quickened up nicely to win by a length with Al Dancer back in second. The winner was following up a recent win at Cheltenham over two and a half miles and is now 8/1 (from 10s) for the Marsh Chase and 12/1 (from 25s) for the Arkle.
Al Dancer lost little in defeat and last year’s Betfair Hurdle winner was trimmed into 14/1 for the Grand Annual on the festivals final day.
I may be biased after visiting her last year, but I’m running out of superlatives for Lady Buttons. What a superstar. She travelled like a dream once again before surging clear to win the Yorkshire Rose Hurdle at Doncaster for the second time.
It didn’t quite work out for her at last year’s festival, finishing fourth in the Mares’ Hurdle, but she is now three from four this season, her only defeat coming in the G1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle. She was cut to 14/1 to win this year’s renewal, but many believe she is a little better over fences than Hurdles and may yet take up her entry in the Champion Chase for which she remains 33/1.
Over at Fairyhouse, Allaho made every inch of the running to land the beginners’ chase for Willie Mullins as the long odds on 2/5f, coming home 21 lengths clear of his rivals. He was third in last year’s Albert Bartlett and a trip back to the festival beckons, with options in three novice chases. He is shortest for the RSA at 10/1 (from 14s) but was also clipped into 10s (from 25s) for the Marsh Chase and 16/1 for the National Hunt Chase on the opening day.
The G3 Mares’ Novice Hurdle, named after the great mare Solerina looked a red-hot contest on the face of it, but resulted in Henry De Bromhead and Rachel Blackmore having another leading festival candidate as Minella Melody ran out a ready winner and landed the hat-trick. She ranged up alongside the Punchestown festival bumper winner Colreevy turning for home and quickened clear after the last to earn a quote of 5/1 (from 10/1) for the Mares Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham. The recent roll of honour of this contest contains subsequent festival winners, Laurina, Shattered Love and Limini while last year saw Honeysuckle victorious, for the same connections as Minella Melody, and she too has progressed into a top class mare.
Colreevy was seventh in the Champion Bumper in 2018 and despite playing second fiddle, was nibbled into 8/1 from 10s.