Cheltenham Racecourse staged a media event at Kempton Park this morning ahead of £160,000 BetVictor Gold Cup (2.25pm, 25 confirmations), the centrepiece of The November Meeting at Cheltenham this Saturday, 16 November.
Among those on the hand to offer their thoughts were Joe Tizzard, whose father Colin is responsible for BetVictor's 5/1 favourite Slate House (11st), and Harry Derham, representing champion trainer Paul Nicholls. Nicky Henderson and fellow Lambourn trainer Harry Whittington were also in attendance.
Second season novice chaser Slate House has topped the betting for the BetVictor Gold Cup since bolting up by 11 lengths in a novices' chase over the course and distance at Cheltenham's opening fixture, The Showcase, on 26 October.
The seven-year-old, who captured the G2 Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle at The November Meeting in 2017, ran four times over fences last season without success.
Tizzard said: "We had the BetVictor Gold Cup in mind for Slate House throughout the summer.
"Slate House started his novice hurdle campaign very well two years ago, beating Summerville Boy at Cheltenham, and then that season petered out. He became a bit keen and wasn't finishing his races, and then he chipped a bone in his knee at Aintree, which stopped him having any summer in the field as he was on box rest for three months, hence last year was just about getting him going again. He never looked particularly well and sometimes those injuries can set horses back that far.
"We felt he had a nice mark coming into this season, which we kind of lost at Cheltenham last time as he has gone up 12lb! The performance at Cheltenham was very good. We thought he would run well, but we did not think he would win like he did. It can be hard to assess because it was bordering on heavy ground and it is early in the season, which can catch a few horses out. I just think he handled conditions better than the rest.
"We are going to have a go with him on Saturday, but we have the advantage of being able to drop back to the novice route afterwards. I appreciate how competitive the BetVictor Gold Cup is from my riding days, and this is one of the biggest races of the season this side of Christmas.
"We will probably have half a dozen runners at The November Meeting. The ground has been a lot softer compared to this time last year, which means we have been able to run horses a lot earlier this season.
"L'Air Du Vent will run on Friday in the G2 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (3.35pm). He ran really well at the last meeting when just getting tired after the last, but he certainly travelled like a really nice horse."
BetVictor Gold Cup top-weight Saint Calvados (11st 12lb, 10/1 with BetVictor) was also in winning action at The Showcase, defying top-weight to win the Randox Health Handicap Chase over two miles. The six-year-old also has the option of the £75,000 G2 Shloer Chase over two miles at Cheltenham on Sunday, 17 November.
Trainer Harry Whittington said: "We have taken a number of positives out of Saint Calvados' performance at Cheltenham.
"I was just delighted to get a winner at Cheltenham, as it is so bloody hard. You go there and get beaten so often that you start to think 'how do I have a winner here?' It was nice to get rid of that hoodoo.
"Saint Calvados is only a six-year-old still and he is 17' 3, a giant of a horse, and has always been backwards physically. All of us trainers say horses have done well for a break, but this time I really mean it. He had a good three months off in the field after the Champion Chase and did extremely well for it. He is more the finished article now.
"I think tweaking his wind has obviously been a help. Ben Brain, who does our wind ops, says some horse can improve 40lb, although that obviously isn't going to be the case with Saint Calvados.
"He did not have a significant problem. He just had a small problem that was causing him to back off in those very difficult championship races against one of the best horses we have seen over two miles.
"The other positive from Cheltenham was that we did not make the running this time, and he enjoyed being ridden that way. He has had some hard races and fortunately he has come out of them on the right side of it. Some horses can be soured by running in those type of races as a five or six-year-old, but it appears to have toughened him up.
"We have introduced a new sand gallop at home, as everyone has been raving about them, and I must admit it has helped with some of those really enthusiastic and quite keen horses in getting them to settle. Saint Calvados has done quite a lot of work in the sand and seems to be less fresh for it and more mature.
"My biggest concern regarding the BetVictor Gold Cup is the trip. The 4lb rise in the handicap, I am fairly happy with. Everyone keeps telling me he will improve for a step up in trip and let's hope they are right. His jumping was a bit sticky last time and hopefully going up in trip might enable him to get into a better rhythm with his jumping.
"He also has an entry in the Shloer Chase on Sunday, as well as the Tingle Creek and the King George. He is in everything and we thought we would keep an open mind."
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has lifted the BetVictor Gold Cup on two occasions, most recently with Caid Du Berlais in 2014. The Ditcheat handler has two likely runners this year in Magic Saint (11st 1lb, 20/1), who has yet to run this season, and Brelan D'As (9st 10lb, 20/1), a faller in the race won by Saint Calvados at The Showcase.
Nicholls' assistant Harry Derham said: "Magic Saint and Brelan D'As have been left in the BetVictor Gold Cup.
"We were a bit disappointed with Magic Saint in the Grand Annual [started 9/2 favourite, finished 10th]. We really fancied him for that race the whole way along. He travelled into the race well but didn't pick up and has had a breathing operation since.
"His work this season has been good, but it was last too season, which is why we thought he would run very well in the Grand Annual.
"Saturday is going to be his first run of the season and it will be tough, but his work has been really good, and I would like to think at some stage that he will win a real nice race.
"We started him off over two and a half miles last year and he travelled too well, so we dropped him back and he won over two miles, but then in the Grand Annual Harry (Cobden, jockey) said that he travelled and didn't quicken. I suppose we haven't quite worked him out yet because we don't think we have been seen the best of him. Two and a half miles on soft ground, provided they go fast, and he settles into a nice rhythm, I would imagine could work well.
"Brelan D'As was in really good form going to Cheltenham in October when he unfortunately parted company with Barry [Geraghty]. It was a bit frustrating because it was at the time in the race when you did not really know if he was going to win or not because it was too far out.
"He had a good season last year, including when third in the Grand Annual, and is quite versatile in terms of trip. I would think a test like the BetVictor, with him ridden patiently, would suit quite well.
"Both Magic Saint and Brelan D'As are also in the two-mile handicap chase at Cheltenham on Friday as well. I would imagine Magic Saint will definitely go for the BetVictor Gold Cup while with Brelan D'As we will have to make a plan with Frank [Berry] and JP [McManus]."
Derham also confirmed that G1 winner Quel Destin (11st 12lb) is set to head two runners for the stable in the feature £100,000 G3 Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle on Family Fun Raceday, Sunday, 17 November, while top-class chaser Politologue will begin his campaign in the G2 Shloer Chase.
Derham continued: "We have confirmed Quel Destin and Red Force One (10st 6lb), who finished second at Ascot the other day, for the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle.
"Quel Destin also had an entry in the Elite Hurdle, but we thought Grand Sancy would run well there, and he did.
"The Old Course at Cheltenham seems to suit Quel Destin really well. He has won around there a couple of times now and, although he will have plenty of weight, he is a very tough and consistent horse.
"Red Force One's Ascot run was really encouraging. He will obviously have to step up again to run well in a Greatwood, but he has come out of the race well.
"I suppose the other obvious runner is Politologue in the Shloer Chase on Sunday. He has been a great horse for the yard and Mr (John) Hales. He had a breathing operation during the summer, which is something we were thinking of doing the season before last. Then he won the Melling Chase and we decided not to.
"This season, he seems a really happy horse and Paul is delighted with how he is looking. Sunday is starting point towards the Tingle Creek, but we are very much looking forward to him run.
"Getaway Trump runs in the Racing Post Arkle Trial on Sunday. We were absolutely thrilled with him at the October meeting. It was rare to see Paul so excited after finishing third! And that was simply because we knew how much more there was to come from him. He jumped really well that day and Harry [Cobden] said he gave him a brilliant feel.
"We also run a juvenile called Mick Pastor in the JCB Triumph Hurdle Trial on Saturday. He is new horse to us owned by Mr McManus, and he looks quite a nice horse."
Nicky Henderson is set to rely on the mare Casablanca Mix (11st 7lb, 12/1), as he chases a second BetVictor Gold Cup victory after Fondmort in 2003. Casablanca Mix posted a career-best on her latest start in the Listed Summer Plate Handicap Chase at Market Rasen in July, coming clear to win by eight lengths.
Henderson said: "The only horse we have left in the BetVictor Gold Cup is Casablanca Mix.
"We are just hoping the ground dries out a bit, as we thought about running her last weekend. We had a couple of others in the race, but they are not quite ready yet.
"Casablanca Mix won the Summer Plate at Market Rasen. She has gone up in the weights and now has to come into races like this. She is a good mare actually and that race at Market Rasen usually takes plenty of winning.
"She has had a break since then - she goes back home to Joss and Nicky Hanbury's where I think she is having a little rest, but the next thing I see she's team chasing, hunting, pony clubbing, and Joss is riding her bare back!
"Brain Power will not be running in the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle. We have left in Dame De Compagnie (10st 9lb) and Countister (11st 4lb).
"Dame De Compagnie is a good mare and both of them worked very well on Saturday. They are both owned by JP [McManus], but he is quite happy to run them both if that's the case."
The going at Cheltenham is currently:
Good to Soft, Soft in places on all courses (Chase, Hurdle and Cross Country)
Simon Claisse, Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham, gave an update on conditions ahead of The November Meeting.
Cheltenham's opening meeting of the campaign, The Showcase on 25 and 26 October saw significant rainfall, with the ground heavy on day two.
Claisse said: "It was a deluge at The Showcase and let us just reflect on what I thought was a brilliant job done by all of the horsemen across the two days. It was the most significant rainfall I have experience in a 24-hour period at Prestbury Park. Normally, when we get up to about to about 30 millimetres in a 24-hour period you know you are going to be under pressure and it's not just the racetrack you have to consider. You have to think about the crossings for getting emergency vehicles in and out. By close of play on Saturday, one of the crossings was getting a little bit tricky and we had to go around it, but it was a great job done by everyone.
"Things have dried out significantly since The Showcase. We were giving the ground as Good to Soft up until the weekend when we had another deluge on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, which gave us another 16 to 17 millimetres. We went Soft yesterday.
"I have been round all the track this morning and it has taken that rain really well and we are back to Good to Soft, Soft in places. John Kettley, who we have been using as forecaster for the last 15 or so years and who I would describe as the least inaccurate of the people we look at, has fundamentally shifted his forecast for this week. We could have some rain midweek, maybe five or six millimetres, which might put us back to Soft. But importantly the end of the week - Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday - are looking as if they will be dry.
"We have all been praying for rain for months and it has come, but I think now we have had enough. I think we will be a combination of Good to Soft and Soft come the weekend if the forecast is right."
Sam Boswell, BetVictor PR Representative, said: "Slate House heads the betting with BetVictor at 5/1. He was originally put into the market at 33/1 and there were a few punters that took that - clearly some people though this race was the plan. Before he ran at Cheltenham last month, we had already cut him into 20/1. After he bolted up, we have seen sustained support. He looks set to go off favourite on the day and I would be very surprised if he doesn't.
"We have been going five places on the BetVictor Gold Cup since the book opened and from this afternoon we are going non-runner, no bet.
"Slate House would be our worst loser on the book. There is a lot of quality in the race with the likes of Saint Calvados and Siruh Du Lac who is a Festival winner and would also be a loser for us.
"Other horses to have been back include Joseph O'Brien's horse Us And Them. You don't get too many Irish runners in this race but he was second in the Arkle and should prefer this trip.
"BetVictor is committed to sponsoring this race for another three years. It is a really big event for BetVictor, being the flagship sponsorship. We love working with Cheltenham and it should be a fantastic renewal."
BetVictor Gold Cup, BetVictor odds:
5/1 Slate House
7/1 Siruh du Lac, Spiritofthegames
10/1 Saint Calvados, Knocknanuss, Us And Them
12/1 Casablanca Mix, Count Meribel
14/1 Guitar Pete
16/1 Highway One O One
20/1 Magic Saint, Belami des Pictons, Happy Diva, Eamon An Cnoic, Brelan d'As
25/1 Springtown Lake, Sky Pirate
33/1 Mercian Prince, Royal Village, Dell Oro, Warthog
50/1 Demi Sang, Western Miller, Splash Of Ginge, Dead Right
Each-Way: ¼ the odds 1-2-3-4-5
Unibet Greatwood Hurdle, Unibet odds:
6/1 Benny's Bridge
8/1 Humble Hero
9/1 Monsieur Lecoq
10/1 Quel Destin, Countister, Gumball
12/1 Zanza, Red Force One, Dame de Compagnie
16/1 Mohaayed, Project Bluebook, Golden Spear
18/1 De Mazzaro
20/1 Quoi de Neuf, Torcello, Hannon
33/1 Monsieur d'Arque, Grapevine
Each-Way: ¼ the odds 1-2-3-4