Leading trainers have been assessing their chances in the nine handicap races at the Cheltenham Festival after the weights were published today (Tuesday 1st March).
Cheltenham Racecourse hosted a press conference this afternoon to reveal the weights, with BHA handicappers – Steeplechase Team Leader Martin Greenwood and Hurdles Team Leader Andrew Mealor - explaining their decisions.
Among those trainers who spoke at the event was Gordon Elliott, who revealed he expects to bring “between 50 and 60” horses over from Ireland for The Festival.
Elliott, was has saddled 32 Festival winners, said: “I’ve just had a quick look at the weights and I suppose the best handicapped one I’ve got is probably Death Duty in the Ultima - he’s down 1lb. Most of my others are up around 4-6lbs and I understand that the handicapper has a job to do, but Death Duty is the one who’s dropped a bit.
“Frontal Assault will run in the Kim Muir. He’s up 6lbs and he’ll just get into it, so we’re looking forward to running him.
“Top Bandit hasn’t done anything wrong so far, but this is going to be his biggest test in the County Hurdle. He looks like he’s got a nice weight in it and he’s in good form.
“Buddy Rich has got 11 stone and he’s off 144, so he’s up 6lbs. He runs well fresh and will like the ground and should be right there.
“Sire Du Berlais qualified for the Pertemps at Warwick and he’s only a pound higher than he is in Ireland off 156. Rob James is going to ride him and take 7lbs off him so that will leave him with a nice weight in the race off 11-05. I’d think we’ll be using Rob’s claim on some of our higher horses in the handicaps at Cheltenham this year, we think he’s great value for his claim considering all of the point-to-point winners he’s ridden.
“Fil Dor would be a doubtful runner at the top of the Boodles as he’s more likely to go for the Triumph. The Tide Turns is only up 2lbs from his Irish mark and we’re happy enough for him to go. I thought he really caught the eye at Gowran Park the last day and we’ll probably run five in that race.”
Of his non-handicap race contenders, Elliott added: “We’re looking to take between 50 and 60 horses to Cheltenham and if I was talking today I’d probably be looking at about 55 coming over. Obviously we need to look at the weights but we’re definitely at the 50 mark.
“I’m yet to speak to Michael O’Leary about Conflated but obviously the Ryanair is a really important race to them as they sponsor it and he’d like to have a runner in it. He’s in both that and the Gold Cup though and we’ll make our mind up closer to the race.
“Teahupoo and Zanahiyr will both go to the Champion Hurdle. Zanahiyr was second to Honeysuckle at Leopardstown last time out and I think the track will suit him. Teahupoo is an unexposed horse and we’re not sure how good he is, both horses take their chance in the race and they’re in very good form. Jack (Kennedy) will probably ride Zanahiyr as he’s always ridden him and Robbie Power will probably ride Teahupoo as he won on him the last day and he rides for the owners Robcour.
“Delta Work has been very good and has been over to Cheltenham schooling over the banks (Cross Country Course). We’re very happy with him and I suppose if the ground came up on the better side it would be to Tiger Roll’s advantage whereas if it came up on the softer side it would play into Delta’s hands.”
Meanwhile Alan King is looking to add to his 15 Festival winners, the last of which was Uxizandre in the 2015 Ryanair Chase, and hopes Edwardstone can deliver on day one of The Festival in the Sporting Life Arkle Chase.
King said of his stable star: “He’s absolutely fine and has had a quiet-ish couple of weeks after Warwick. He’s been cantering away and is due to have his first piece of work tomorrow and then he’ll school on Monday – it’s just a case of taking it away with him now.
“I’d like it to tighten up a little bit ground-wise. For some reason my horses don’t seem to go on Soft ground, but Good/Good To Soft would be ideal. I think we probably do most of our work on pretty decent ground and if I get 24 hours of dry weather I end up with pretty good ground at home.
“They don’t seem to get the experience of Soft and a lot of my horses are Flat-bred, so they don’t tend to appreciate running on deeper ground. In the old days they used to, but they don’t seem to do now.
“We’ve got very few in the handicaps. Tritonic will come here for the County Hurdle and he’s a classy horse. We got tactics wrong in the Betfair Hurdle and ran him far too handy, so we’ll go back to riding the way we did at Ascot. He could run very well.
“The one I suppose I haven’t made up my mind about is The Glancing Queen. She’s in the Mares’ Chase but I did put her in the Plate, so I’ll probably confirm her for both of those at the five-day stage and then see.
“It’s just a case of looking at the races, the Irish mares run in handicaps but they look as if they would probably be mid-150s and we’re off 141, so if they all stood their ground we might just be looking at third or fourth at best. I’ll have to ask Martin (Greenwood, handicapper) what sort of record novices have got in the Plate – I have won the Ultima twice with novices actually. I’ve got very few in the handicaps, I’ll probably only have five runners all week.”
Neil Mulholland has tasted success once before at The Festival, winning the 2015 Ultima Handicap Chase with The Druids Nephew.
He said: “I had to start at the bottom and go up when I was looking at the weights! We’ve got five or six entries but they will probably struggle to get in. We’ve got Brief Times who’s won his bumper and two novice hurdles this season. He’s entered for the Coral Cup and we’ve got a few novices who probably won’t stand their ground as they won’t be good enough.
“Kansas City Chief has run four times here this season and finished first, first, second and third so he’s had a great campaign. I’ve got Lord Accord in a few races and I’d think the Kim Muir is the one I’d like to run him in. He’s had four runs over fences this year and had two wins so he’s a nice novice and he could be our best chance of picking up a bit of prize money.”
Nigel Twiston-Davies already has 17 Festival successes to his name and having had a winner at every meeting at Cheltenham this season is hoping to continue the yard’s excellent form.
He said: “I’m delighted with what we’ve done so far this season. We’re well down on numbers but what we have got is running well. It’s interesting to hear that the handicappers are dropping the older horses, so old Ballyandy has got to be interesting. He’s run in Champion Hurdles and Champion Bumpers and he’s back here for the Pertemps.
“He was the last horse to win a qualifier so it’s really quite exciting to see him back - he seems in such good form. As far as I can gather we can still get the 10lbs claim using Finn Lambert so hopefully that helps us. He’s just starting but he’s very good and he’s ridden three winners now so we’ll have to keep him quiet until the Festival!
“We’ve got Zambella and Vienna Court in the Mares’ Chase and along with Kingy’s (The Glancing Queen) they’re the three best English horses in the race. Vienna Court is also in the Plate, so I don’t know what to do about those – both of those will probably run in the Mares’ race. Vienna Court has run here twice and won twice, while Zambella fell last year. She’s a very good jumper though so I wouldn’t like to separate them.
“Fantastikas is in the National Hunt Chase and the Ultima and I thought the latter would be the most likely for him, but he’ll be declared in both. I Like To Move It was superb in the Betfair Hurdle and he’s in the Supreme. We’ll declare him for that but it probably makes for sense to go for the County Hurdle.
“We’ve got Gowel Road in the Martin Pipe and the Coral Cup. We’re looking at both of those and he’s a very nice horse. Guard Your Dreams could also go for the Coral so we’ve got a few but it’s tricky with the Irish hoards coming over.
“I’m not going to say who my best chance of the week is, but Fantastikas in the Ultima possibly or Ballyandy in the Pertemps Final.”
Ben Pauling is a two-time Festival-winning trainer but despite having his yard in good form expects to have fewer than half a dozen runners during the week.
He said: “It’s been a better season for us. We went through the mill for a couple of seasons and last year was pretty hard going as well, so it’s good to see our horses in good form again and going the right way.
“We’re slightly light on horses for The Festival and might run four or five. I think we’re right on the limit of getting into the handicaps with quite a few of them. I personally would like to see a bit of rain but I don’t know if we will - a few of ours would enjoy a bit of softer ground.
“I think Global Citizen has been a funny horse and he completely lost his way 18 months ago but he’s run really quite well in two nice races quite recently. He’s rated 136 and is in the County Hurdle and the Grand Annual and he would enjoy better ground.
“He’s just back to his normal self and has been running against horses that he’s wrong at the weights with and finishing amongst them so it’s encouraging.”
Martin Keighley trains just a few miles from Cheltenham but despite a string of winners at other fixtures at Jump Racing HQ is still looking for his first winner at The Festival.
He said: “If Brorson got in the Pertemps, which I don’t think he will, he would run. He has been impressive twice this season. You want to be fresh coming into The Festival.
“He would love it if the ground dried out as he loves good ground. He has got good form at the course as he was second to a nice horse of Gordon Elliott’s over two miles and he has improved massively for stepping up to three miles. I just think he would have an each-way chance if he got in.
“It was gutting for Any Currency to lose that race (disqualified from 2016 Glenfarclas Chase) but we have a nice horse in the cross country race this time in Back On The Lash. He won the November cross country race on the first attempt and I’ve been told that hasn’t been done before. It just proves how well he has taken to the course.
“He probably ran a bit flat when he ran at the December meeting. He has been freshened up and has had a good winter break. He is a horse that runs well fresh so he could run a big race in that.
“Spanish Present, who was impressive bumper winner last week, is a really nice horse. The sensible thing would be to go to Aintree instead of taking on the Willie Mullins team but we will have a look at it as he is a six year old that has got experience.”
Henry Daly is another Festival-winning trainer who has chances of returning to the winners’ enclosure this year.
He said: “I’m very undecided with Hillcrest. I think there is no point in us getting hamstrung and saying we are definitely going to come here when he might not. I’m very conscious of the fact that people will have ante-post vouchers. I just don’t want to get in a muddle with it.
“Mick Meagher (racing manager to the family of the late Trevor Hemmins) and I were talking about it this morning that I’d be amazed if he ran in the other race (Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle), unless it is really heavy and nothing turns up or something like that, but I can’t see that happening.
“He ran in heavy ground at Haydock the other day. It wasn’t the plan to go to Haydock for the Prestige but it turned out very well but that was due to circumstances after having a bit of ‘whoopsy’ here on Festival Trials Day.
“We have given him a bit of time off since and he had a bit of a quiet week last week. He will continue to just mill around this week. He is very straightforward.
“It was only 10 days ago that he ran in the Prestige and that is the issue. He was very impressive in the Prestige and he did some remarkable times but I’m very conscious of the fact that he really isn’t about hurdling and that he is about next season and novice chasing.
“I’m just thinking about planning about that bit and not this bit if that makes any sense. We would love to run and win a race at the Cheltenham Festival but there is no guarantee of that. He could also go to Aintree and run in the Sefton there. We are just trying to keep our options open.
“I don’t know about Fortescue (Ultima Handicap Chase) as I really want to run in the Grand National. I’m just in such a muddle as there is every chance he won’t get in or that he might get in by one (Grand National) and I’m very easily confused! I’m confused as to what to do in planning my way forward.
“The idea is to run Rapper in one of three races. He will probably run in either the Ultima or the Kim Muir under Alice Stevens. We could run in the Ultima as Tom O’Brien would ride as I don’t think Philip Hobbs has got anything in the race.
“I think Honest Vic will run in the Pertemps - that is the plan. He has got a nice weight. It went a bit wrong with him as we tried fences but he found those awfully big. We had a run at Huntingdon to get qualified for the Pertemps and that should suit quite well.”
Jon Pullin, Cheltenham’s Clerk of the Course, reported: “If we were racing today we would be racing on Soft, Good to Soft in places ground.
“We had eight millimetres overnight which was welcome. We could get another five or six tonight and over the next day or two we could get some showers. Apart from that it looks very dry certainly over the weekend and the early part of next week. It could get a little bit colder over the weekend but we will keep an eye on the forecast and see where we go from there. I’d love to race today but unfortunately we can’t.
“Anything with a combination of Soft and Good to Soft would be a great start. There is nothing in the forecast we should be particularly concerned about at this stage. Hopefully it will just be a few more showers.
“The eyes of the racing industry and wider fans of the sport are on The Festival. Every decision we making now over the next few days in the build-up will have an impact on that so it is a challenge but I’m very much looking forward to it.
“They are slightly lower entries than a few years ago but interestingly enough four races up are up on 2021 so it is not all doom and gloom as far as that is concerned. People are being more selective with entries and are taking a wider few and not entering in certain races nowadays. They are focused on a certain campaign and enter in a certain race.
“Watering has been in the back of my mind already as we have had a very dry winter. We had over two inches of rain in February which has made a huge difference but as it has been eluded to one thing I’ve learnt about these tracks is how quickly they can dry. We have a bit more rain over the next few days and then we will review where we are at the end of the week and get some updated forecasts.”