They say time flies when you’re enjoying yourself, but in blink and you’ll miss it speed the first two days of the Cheltenham Festival are disappearing into the rear-view mirror, as we hurtle headlong in Thursday…
A Festival not exactly short on talking points has already delivered on many levels, and deliver is precisely what I’m hoping my day three nap can do in the Ryanair Chase (2.50pm), with in-form Gordon Elliott’s Empire Of Dirt a strong fancy to land the spoils.
Elliott was keen to go for Gold in Friday’s big race such is the quality this fella possesses, but it may turn out be both a wise and race-winning decision to remain focussed on the Ryanair.
Empire Of Dirt couldn’t have been any more impressive when taking a handicap over the same course and distance 12 months ago, that despite being very badly hampered at the third, since when he has thrived for the transfer to Elliott’s stable, easily winning the Troytown at Navan – the form of which was franked by runner-up Abolitionist at Naas on Sunday, before a magnificent second in the Grade 1 Leopardstown Gold Cup last month.
The horse he chased home that day, Sizing John, is my idea of the Gold Cup winner, and he had such quality performers as Don Poli, Carlingford Lough and Road To Riches in rear in the same contest.
It’s interesting to note that four of the last seven winners of this contest were previous Festival scorers, while only twice since 2009 has the winner returned at more than 6/1.
Empire Of Dirt is up against a pure two-miler in the shape of Un De Sceaux, and with stamina assured looks the call to continue the great work of the Elliott team.
Earlier in the day, a man who can do little wrong is the trainer Nicky Henderson, who has high hopes of landing the day’s opener with Sandown Park Grade 1 scorer Top Notch.
Four from five over fences, this impressive horse looks the value to land the JLT Novices’ Chase at 1.30pm, at a track where he goes very well, having been second in the 2015 Triumph Hurdle as well as fifth in the Champion Hurdle 12 months ago.
His key market rival is last year’s Neptune hero, Yorkhill, a horse who has been known to take a few chances when tackling his fences – any blunders here will open the door for Top Notch.
Sandwiched inbetween the JLT and the Ryanair, I’m also very much looking forward to seeing Presenting Percy lay down a challenge in the Pertemps Final (2.10pm).
This fiendishly tricky handicap is made all the more difficult for Pat Kelly’s horse after the handicapper rewarded him for his recent Fairyhouse win with a lumpy rise up the weights, but he possesses the quality and the physique to play a major part nonetheless.
Kelly, a brilliant trainer who operates from a tiny yard in Craughwell in the west of Ireland, landed this prize a year ago with Mall Dini (who lines up in the 5.30), and has strong claims of doing so once more.
Presenting Percy won as he pleased at Fairyhouse 19 days ago – back him each way.
Last but not least, one who looks set to go very well at an each way price is Shaneshill, who lines up for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend in the day’s feature Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle at 3.30pm.
Short-priced jolly, Unowhatimeanharry, is a fantastically game horse and holds leading claims, but something has to follow him home, while perhaps his one possible achilles heel is a rival with superior finishing speed.
Step forward Shaneshill, a horse who has been second three years on the spin at this meeting.
He won well at Gowran Park last time out and could have the ammunition to down the favourite.