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The Festival™ jigsaw falls into place

Article 10th March 2019

By Graham Dench

The Festival™, presented by Magners, is all but upon us, and some of the last few pieces of racing’s most spectacular jigsaw have been falling into place over the weekend.


Tuesday’s 48-hour declarations, published soon after Sunday’s 10am deadline, were always likely to be revealing, and although there were no major shocks they provided confirmation at last of where several high profile horses with multiple engagements were heading.

Perhaps the most significant news of all, though not exactly a shock, was that the former JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Defi Du Seuil was not among those declared for the Racing Post Arkle.

Plenty of good judges fancied he would beat Glen Forsa, Lalor and Co, and were convinced he would be Arkle-bound after Le Richebourg fell by the wayside, but Philip Hobbs was as clear as any trainer can be regarding a JP McManus-owned runner when he stated all along that the JLT was his preferred target.

The Arkle will still be a cracking race without Defi Du Seuil, and while the forecast soft going is not ideal for Lalor, don’t forget the turf will be in pristine condition. It hasn’t been raced on since November.


Some will have been surprised that Verdana Blue has been left in the Unibet Champion Hurdle given the forecast, especially as she still needs another run on the all-weather in order to qualify for Lingfield’s Good Friday finals.

If it turned out really soft on Tuesday perhaps connections will think again, but that 7lb mares’ allowance is awfully attractive and the temptation to run is obvious. After all, she’s already beaten the dual Champion Buveur D’Air this season.

The declarations also revealed that last year’s runner-up Melon will be tried in cheekpieces, in a bid to revive his lacklustre campaign.

Speaking of headgear, there was a surprise in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle regarding Al Dancer, whose position as favourite has already been usurped in some lists by the same owner’s Angels Breath and is now also coming under threat from Klassical Dream, who runs here rather than in Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

Al Dancer will not be wearing the hood he wore for his classy handicap wins at Cheltenham and Ascot and instead will have earplugs. Nigel Twiston-Davies says they work a treat at home.


Phil Kirby revealed on Saturday night that his star chaser Lady Buttons would revert to the smaller obstacles in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.

While last year’s winner Benie Des Dieux was confirmed by Ruby Walsh over the weekend as his best chance of the meeting, Lady Buttons has a more realistic chance against her than in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Kirby, who was at Preston North End when David Beckham was on loan there, has clearly taken note of the recent modification of one of racing’s sagest sayings - you should never be afraid of one horse, unless it’s Altior.


Seasoned punters are always braced for bad news at this time of year, and Harry Fry delivered some on Sunday morning to the hordes who have been wading into Get In The Queue for Wednesday’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

The easy Exeter winner was challenging for favouritism, but the only queue his backers will be getting in now is one for their stakes to be returned if they are lucky enough to have bet with the ‘non runner no bet’ concession.


Away from the declarations, Malaya’s success in Saturday’s Matchbook Imperial Cup at Sandown Park had double Festival significance.

For starters, the 5lb penalty she picked up means she leapfrogs 11 rivals in the pecking order for next Friday’s County Hurdle and is guaranteed the opportunity to become the fourth winner since 1993 to pick up the bonus, which since last year has been a juicy £100,000.

Paul Nicholls, enjoying a first success in a race the Pipe family used to farm, describes her as a “hardy mare” and indicated that there is every chance of a quick reappearance. She was as big as 50-1 for the County Hurdle on Friday night, when looking highly unlikely to make the cut, but was slashed to around 10-1 after the race.

Secondly, her win and other good performances from stable-companions underlined the terrific form Nicholls has his team in ahead of jumps racing’s biggest week, and both he and jockey Harry Cobden are full of optimism ahead of King George winner Clan Des Obeaux’s step into the unknown in Friday’s Magners Gold Cup.

While those who took big prices about Malaya are sitting pretty, there was frustration for others when the Charles Byrnes-trained favourite Wonder Laish failed to appear among the County Hurdle’s six-day confirmations.


We learned plenty over the weekend, but one bit of news we will have to wait for is whether Santini will make it to Wednesday’s RSA Chase, Nicky Henderson having decided to leave the decision until the 48-hour declaration stage.

It’s been a roller coaster few weeks for Santini’s backers, who expected to hear on Sunday, first with the complications arising from the flu crisis and then the foot problem caused when he lost a shoe, but the news has generally been positive over the last few days.

Let’s keep our fingers crossed then for Santini, and for every one of them.



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