The cold breath of winter has blown across the nation and a heavy frost has resulted in several meetings being lost. Musselburgh has already raised the "white flag" and surrendered to the weather, which means only Sandown and Wetherby remain available for jump racing on Saturday.
As I write (Thursday afternoon), it is not certain the Sandown will get the go-ahead and a decision is to be made on Friday afternoon. Losing Sandown will be a blow, as there is a good Class 2 handicap chase over 2-mile, the Listed hurdle race over 2-mile which Buveur D'Air usually uses as a 'prep' race for the Champion Hurdle, and then there's the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices Chase over 2m4f. To follow, there's a 3-mile Grade 3 handicap hurdle, and a 3-mile Class 2 handicap Chase – an absolutely cracking card.
I'm going to give it until Friday afternoon before taking a look at the runners on Saturday at Sandown (the Wetherby card does not look anywhere near as good), and instead look at Ireland.
Leopardstown, situated just outside Dublin, holds the 2-day "Dublin Festival", and many of the top Irish-trained horses are having their final run before the Cheltenham Festival on either Saturday or Sunday. The top trainers Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins have many multiple entries for the races, and it remains to be seen which will actually take part: for instance, in the opening race on Saturday a Grade 1 novice hurdle over 2m6f, of the 25 entries Mullins supplies 6 entries and Elliott supplies 5 entries.
Because of the expected frost on Friday night, the course management has announced they are re-structuring the running-order of the races with the hurdles being run first and the chases later in the day to give the frost the opportunity to get out of the ground; so check race times before having a wager.
On Saturday, the Dublin Chase run over 2m1f should see MIN confirmed as the top "2-mile" chaser trained in Ireland, but where will that will leave his stable companion Footpad? It is probably too late now to target another race distance, so I'm expecting Footpad to head for the Champion Chase at Cheltenham (run over 2m1f) unless he's really well beaten, in which case they might pull-up stumps for the season and have a rethink. The Irish "Arkle" novice chase over 2m1f (won by Footpad last year) looks a cracker, with 6 LTO winners amongst the 12 entries. This meeting will be a real test for the "prince" of trainers Joseph O'Brien, and his promising novice chaser LE RICHEBOURG will know he's been in a race after this.
The Irish Champion Hurdle over 2-miles has only attracted 6 entries, but I'm expecting all to go to post and this race should be won by MELON. I honestly think the mare Apple's Jade will not have the speed for this trip, and she will revert back to longer trips. The interesting runner is Petit Mouchoir who won this race in 2017 before running 3rd at Cheltenham in the Champion Hurdle; he could be a live outsider as I'm sure his trainer would not persevere with hurdles if he did not think he had a chance.
On Sunday, I will be very interested in the 4yo novice hurdle over 2-miles and the following "supreme" novices hurdle over the same trip. Then comes a race that could have a major impact later this Spring when RATHVINDEN runs in the 3-mile handicap hurdle. I said after he won the 4-mile NH Chase last March that he was a long-term Grand National horse, and it looks like Willie Mullins is thinking along the same lines. Later in the afternoon come the 2 races we will all be interested in: the Grade 1 "Flogas" Novice Chase over 2m5f (this used to be called the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase) and the field for this looks top-class, followed by the Grade 1 Unibet Irish Gold Cup over 3-mile. The novice chase includes Delta Work, La Bague Au Roi, and MORTAL and it is the latter who I think will win on Sunday and stamp his authority as the top staying novice chaser this season. I'm not sure which race he will run in at Cheltenham, so I've taken odds for both the RSA Chase (3-miles) and the NH Chase (4-miles).
The Irish Gold Cup will hopefully answer a few questions as we have not seen a top staying chaser emerge from Ireland since Sizing John who won the Gold Cup in 2017. The Mullins-trained pair of Al Boum Photo and Kemboy will both be trying to establish their credentials and one or the other should win as this field looks to lack depth in my opinion.
Cheltenham Festival Portfolio
Cheltenham Gold Cup
CLAN DES OBEAUX, £12 win @ 12/1
POLITOLOGUE, £38 win @ 14/1 (average odds - current intention is to lay-off £28 at SP on the day)
POLITOLOGUE, £5 place @ 12/1
SHARJAH, £20 win @ 12/1 (current intention is to lay-off £10 at SP on the day)
RSA Chase (Novices 3-mile)
MORTAL, £11 win @ 16/1
NH Chase (Novices 4-mile)
MORTAL, £9 win @ 20/1