What better way to usher in the start of the new Jumps season proper than to bring you action from Cheltenham AND Aintree?
That’s exactly what we’re doing this weekend, with day two of The Showcase from Jumps HQ on Saturday, followed by a return to the track on Merseyside at the home of the Randox Health Grand National.
There will be some familiar human and equine faces at both fixtures, so, let’s take a look at five things you need to know about the racing at both courses this weekend…
FRODON THE FANS’ FAVOURITE BUT VETERAN’S VICTORY WOULD BE JUST PERFECT
The day Frodon won the 2019 Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival has become one of those ‘remember where you were’ moments for jump racing fans.
Paul Nicholls’ horse is the one who helped Bryony Frost, our Jockey Club Racecourses-sponsored rider, become a sporting household name. But his career has been a lot more than just those few minutes at the home of jump racing, with 14 career wins in total.
Last season was all about trying to follow up his famous Ryanair victory by repeating the feat 12 months later. When the moment came he was beaten by the better horses in Min, Saint Calvados and A Plus Tard but there was no disgrace in fourth.
‘Frodes’ (as Bryony constantly refers to him) is still only eight years old and his experience of the Cheltenham track will be invaluable in Saturday’s Matchbook Betting Exchange Handicap Chase as he bids to overcome top weight and a field of 11. It’s also worth noting that he goes well fresh, having won first races of the season in 2016 at Newton Abbot and in 2018 when winning the Old Roan Chase at Aintree (more on that race later in the column).
While Frodon’s likely has plenty of races in him yet, there is one contender in this field for whom this season is sure to be his swansong. Perfect Candidate, for local (and high-flying) trainer Fergal O’Brien, takes part in this at the grand old age of 13, having been runner up five years ago and with three wins at the track to his name.
The betting market might tell you that his best years are behind him and that there is another target later in the season for him. However, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel at least a twinge of emotion if one of Jump racing’s great servants ended up in the winners’ enclosure on Saturday.
Meanwhile, another veteran, Cogry, makes an astonishing 18th appearance at Cheltenham.
SKELTON HOPING CHELTENHAM WILL BE KIND TO STAR YOUNGSTER
It’s that time of year when trainers start bringing out their big hopes for the season and in the case of Allmankind, trainer Dan Skelton is struggling to hide his enthusiasm.
The star four-year-old was hugely impressive last term, winning a Grade 2 race at on this track at The November Meeting, a Grade 1 at Chepstow over Christmas and then finishing third in a highly competitive JCB Triumph Hurdle at The Festival in March.
Little wonder, then, that Skelton spoke in such glowing terms of him this week ahead of the Masterson Holdings Hurdle at 2.05pm over two miles.
He’ll face six rivals and perhaps the most impressive of them last season was the highly-regarded French import Stratagem for the Paul Nicholls and Harry Cobden double act.
An easy winner on his second UK start at Kelso in February he could well pose the biggest problems, although you wouldn’t rule out Bryony Frost’s chances on Ascot handicap hurdle winner Nordano for Neil King.
LACEY BANKS ON ROBBIE AND NEVILLE’S CROSS TO BECOME POWER COUPLE
Robbie Power is a man who knows his way around Cheltenham and now he’s basing himself in the UK for the foreseeable future - to avoid having to quarantine between trips from Ireland - we can expect to see a lot more of him in the months to come.
In Saturday’s Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle at 3.15pm he rides Neville’s Cross for Tom Lacey, a five-year-old who bids to make it three wins on the bounce and has shown real consistency in his short eight race career.
Barring a real deluge of rain before Saturday’s card we can expect good ground with good to soft in places, so it will be interesting to see how he goes after victory on good to firm last time out.
If Power can get Neville’s Cross home in front it could be the beginning of a beautiful partnership – his previous jockeys include Richard Johnson, Nico de Boinville and Johnny Burke.
While it seems a little early to be talking about March next year the race is the first in a series of qualifiers for the Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle at The Festival and, unsurprisingly, promises to be competitive.
You’d expect the dangers to include Tobefair for Debra Hamer and Jack Tudor, I’d Better Go Now for the Skeltons and Flinck for Philip Hobbs.
ITCHY FEET CAN TAKE A GIANT STEP FORWARD IN THE OLD ROAN CHASE
Just because a race is only 16 years old doesn’t mean to say it’s not contested by some of the very best. A quick scroll through the list of previous winners of the Old Roan Chase is enough to confirm that this is 2 miles and 4 furlongs not to be missed.
Monet’s Garden, who the race is now named after, won this three times - in 2007, 2009 and 2010 – and others to take the spoils include the legendary Kauto Star, Albertas Run in the Trevor Hemmings colours, the hugely popular Smad Place and Frodon in 2018.
This year’s list of entries demonstrates a real strength in depth, so the problem for this column is quite where to start.
Last year’s winner was Forest Bihan and while Brian Ellison and Brian Hughes were celebrating 12 months ago, it’s naturally a concern that that was his last racecourse appearance.
A good yardstick for weekend feature races can often be jockey bookings applied before horses need to be declared and on that basis we should include Paul Nicholls’ Magic Saint, ridden by Harry Cobden, and Olly Murphy’s Itchy Feet with new stable jockey Aidan Coleman on board.
The latter would be of considerable interest given his form last term and although this will be his first appearance at Aintree, victories at Sandown Park, Leicester, Kempton Park, Southwell and Stratford demonstrate just how versatile this gelding is.
TOP WEIGHT CAN TURN UP THE REVES AT AINTREE
One of the most iconic images of the Cheltenham Festival in recent years is of jockey Bridget Andrews hugging Harry Skelton just moments after winning the Randox Health County Hurdle at The Festival in 2018.
The two riders were engaged at the time and have since married, but it’s hard to believe any moment (their nuptials apart, perhaps) giving them as much joy as that day in the sun.
The horse responsible, Mohaayed, has won only once since and heads to Aintree for the arenagroup.com Handicap Hurdle with trainer Dann Skelton’s brother Harry on board.
There will be others who punters will fancy more on form alone. One might be Dear Sire, for local trainer Donald McCain, who has finished in the first three on all four of his most recent runs since July this year and a second place at Aintree two years ago suggests this course holds no fears.
And then there’s Voix Du Reve for trainer Iain Jardine. At top weight the handicapper has already indicated that he is the horse to beat and with consistent performances and an impressive CV there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that not all of his best days are behind him.