Leading Irish trainers Gordon Elliott, Noel Meade and Joseph O’Brien this afternoon provided updates on their leading chances ahead of The Festival.
Elliott sent out six winners at The Festival in 2017 as he pipped great rival Willie Mullins to The Irish Independent Leading Trainer Award, taking his overall tally at the four-day highlight to 14.
Elliott’s team this year is headed by rising star Samcro, regarded by many as one of the bankers of the meeting in the £125,000 G1 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, and top-class mare Apple’s Jade, who is going for successive wins in the £120,000 G1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
The trainer said: “Samcro is a nice horse who has done everything right, but he has to keep improving.
“He is big, good-looking horse and that captures the imagination, although Cheltenham is a big step up again and will be the first time he has travelled for a race – that can often be a big ask too.
“We went over with Death Duty last year thinking he would win, but he never travelled and got very light over there. But Samcro is a big laidback horse and I don’t see it being a problem.
“Apple’s Jade is in great form. Lisa O’Neill rides her out every day and is delighted with her. She is like a bull at the moment and mad for a run.
“I think the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle is the right race to go for. Some people are saying we should go for the Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle or the Unibet Champion Hurdle, but I am big believer in going for the race that you think you can win.
“I think Apple’s Jade is my best chance of winning a race at The Festival, so that is where she is going to go. We think Samcro is a good horse but he needs to prove it, whereas Apple’s Jade has been there and done it.
“Cause Of Causes is great and goes for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. He loves this time of the year with the sun on his back and seems to love Cheltenham. He is a yard favourite and everyone loves him. If he was to win at Cheltenham four years in a row, it would mean more than any winner we could have during the week.
“Cracking Smart will go for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. He ran very well here [Naas] behind Next Destination in the Grade One. Next Destination is a very, very good horse over three miles and, although I am not saying we can overturn him, I think we can give him more of a fright. He beat us a length and, over three miles on a tougher track in the Albert Bartlett – I think the race is made for Cracking Smart.
“Mengli Khan [Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle] ran out at Leopardstown but his runs before that were very, very good. On form, I can’t see how we can beat Getabird. I stood at the last hurdle that day and he impressed with the way he went by me.
“A few of the very shrewd judges are telling me that Getabird is better going right-handed, so that is one thing I am hoping might help me. But for me, he is a worthy favourite and will be very hard to beat.
“I have got 19 entries in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle and it is a race that I have always said that I like to win. I say I will run three or four, including Flawless Escape, all being well.
“I will run two or three in the National Hunt Chase. We are looking at Dounikos, Jury Duty and Fagan at the moment.
“Dounikos has entries in the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase and the JLT Novices’ Chase, but I think the National Hunt Chase is made for him.
“Both Dounikos and Jury Duty have Grade One form. The National Hunt Chase was the first race I won at The Festival, with Chicago Grey in 2011, and these two are a lot classier horses. For me, it is a better race every year and you need a 150-rated horse to win it.
“Fagan is coming in fresh. He was second in the Albert Bartlett in 2016 and, although he has had a few problems since, hopefully they are behind him. He is working well at home and is another who likes the sun on his back.
“Farclas in on course for the JCB Triumph Hurdle. I think he will improve a lot for Leopardstown as he was still very green and was ducking and diving around a bit. I think the better ground will suit and we are looking forward to him.”
Noel Meade is purring ahead of Road To Respect’s intended engagement in the feature £625,000 G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, for which he is a best-priced 10/1 chance.
Road To Respect captured the G3 Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate at The Festival 12 months ago and has since added two G1 prizes to his CV, latterly defeating Balko Des Flos and Outlander in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase on December 28.
Meade said: “When Road To Respect won at Christmas, because at that stage we had Disko as well, I dropped it to Michael and Eddie [O’Leary] that he would not go for the Irish Gold Cup.
“Everything has gone very well. He does run well fresh and we think he is better on the spring ground than he is on heavy ground.
“We could not be happier with him at the moment. He looks to have matured very well – even putting on a bit of weight – and he looks super.
“He went away Friday to do a bit of work on the track and that went extremely well. We were thrilled with him.
“Whether he is good enough, we will see. I think the two hotpots in Might Bite and Jessie’s horse [Sizing John], who I’m hearing is flying at home, are two proper Gold Cup horses. Then I think there is not a whole lot between the rest of them and I am hopeful my lad is improving.
“He seemed to handle the track very well last year and you would hope he will handle it again. He has tendency to jump left, which got him beat in the north by Gordon’s horse [Outlander] but that is no problem at Cheltenham.
“We are daring to dream. I wish the Gold Cup was the first race on the first day! Nobody can paint a horse that would win a Gold Cup, but anyone who looked at this lad would like him. He is everything you want; he has the most beautiful head, shoulders and depth. He is the most beautiful horse you could wish to see, so if ever you could paint a Gold Cup winner, you would say this could be one.
“We had a horse called Harbour Pilot who was third twice in the Gold Cup. He was a good horse but unfortunately used to kick a fence out every time he went to the races. He never got away from that and did it all his life.
“I think to have a horse good enough to win the Gold Cup, you nearly need to be able to win on the Flat and I think Road To Respect could win on the Flat. If you ran him in a mile and a half maiden, he would win a mile and a half maiden.
“I know Harbour Pilot looked like a stayer but he was the same – he would have won a mile and a half maiden against Flat horses.”
Meade also had an update on Snow Falcon who finished fifth behind Monalee in the G1 Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown on February 4.
He added: “After his run in the Flogas, we thought Snow Falcon might be able to get into the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase but he is 5lb too high for that. It will either be the JLT Novices’ Chase or more likely the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase.
“He is in a few of the handicaps as well – the Ultima Handicap Chase and the race we won last year with Road To Respect – so we will see.”
Miracle horse Edwulf, who just escaped with his life after collapsing in last year’s National Hunt Chase, is the headline act among Joseph O’Brien’s entries for The Festival after his shock success in the G1 Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown earlier this month.
O’Brien said: “It is an unbelievable story really for Edwulf to come back and do what he did.
“He had a neurological episode in Cheltenham and the vet says it is no more likely to happen to him again than it is any other horse.
“We brought him back slowly. J P [McManus, owner] and Frank [Berry, racing manager] said to take our time and if he never ran again, then fine but if he did, then great and his work all along was very good.
“Horses who go through something like than can often race again but very few come back to form or even improve like he has.
“The Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup is the plan and he has been very well since the Irish Gold Cup.
“It is quite open but it is the Gold Cup. You only have to look back through the results of the last 10 or 15 years and see what you expected to happen and what actually happened.
“Edwulf is well-entitled to take his chance and there is no reason why he couldn’t get some prize money.
“Tower Bridge is in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle but we might supplement him for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. Ground could dictate and will see closer to the time.
“If the ground is drying out, he might be better going three miles, whereas if it is getting soft, maybe we wouldn’t.
“He won the novice hurdle in Leopardstown and seemed to come home very well. He should really want better ground.
“Rhinestone might run in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper. He is a nice horse and ran very well to be second at the Dublin Racing Festival.
"They would be the three main ones, although we have a few in the handicaps as well. We will know more when the weights come out this week. It is nice to being going there with a few chances and hopefully they run well.”