Given the options available at the Cheltenham Festival these days, particularly in the novice divisions, ante-post punting is becoming increasingly more difficult.
But, second-guessing trainers and where their horses will run is part of the fun and, though a number of the horses I’m looking forward to seeing head over either hurdles or fences for the first time in the autumn aren’t even quoted at this stage, there is one that stands out in the RSA Chase market at current odds. [tweet this].
That horse is Nigel Twiston-Davies’ African Gold who went from strength-to-strength last season and has the physique to make a big impact over fences in the months ahead.
Having looked a useful novice hurdler in the first half of last season, the son of King’s Theatre stepped forward massively after the turn of the year, beating subsequent EBF Final winner Close Touch at Doncaster, before chasing home At Fishers Cross in the Albert Bartlett.
The winner franked the form by following up in the Sefton at Aintree, where African Gold, like stable-mate and fellow leading novice hurdler The New One, was pitched into open company and he fared well in the Liverpool Hurdle.
Given this was his seventh start since October, the five-year-old could well have been slightly over the top, yet still stayed on well up the straight before fading late on. He crossed the line 13 lengths behind World Hurdle winner Solwhit in fifth, some 7 lengths in front of subsequent Prix La Barka winner, Celestial Halo.
A tough individual, who appears to handle any ground, African Gold is currently trading at 20/1 (Bet365) for the RSA Chase and that price has plenty of scope to contract during the early months of the season.
Firstly, several of the horses quoted in and around him might well be targeted elsewhere; Pont Alexandre remains favourite with Boylesports despite being all but ruled out for the season by Willie Mullins; Champagne Fever could be aimed at the Arkle; African Gold’s stable-mate The New One is expected to be campaigned with the Champion Hurdle in mind; Un Atout appeals as a possible Jewson type to me, especially given that race has just been upgraded to Grade 1 status; that race could also be the target for Nicky Henderson’s Chatterbox and Alan King’s Meister Eckhart, with the latter appearing not to truly stay 3m in his novice hurdle days.
Of those quoted at this early stage, the other pair I expect to make up in to smart staying novices are O’Faolains Boy, though I suspect Rebecca Curtis might head down the National Hunt Chase route with him (as she did with Teaforthree) and Just A Par, who is completely unexposed as a stayer, but hails from the Paul Nicholls stable but the former champion trainer has skipped the Festival with his leading staying novice chaser in the past couple of seasons, in favour of the Mildmay at Aintree (Silviniaco Conti and Rocky Creek).
Given Twiston-Davies’ track record, we should expect to see African Gold fairly early and he could easily find himself towards the head of the betting and trading much shorter before several of his rivals even set foot on the track.
Indeed, both African Gold and The New One had made their respective hurdles debuts by 12th October last year, and looking back at some of the stable’s smart novice chasers down the years, they tend to reappear even earlier.
The 1993 Sun Alliance winner Young Hustler made his chase debut as early as 5 September and was having his fourth start over fences at Cheltenham on just the 1 October; Grand National hero Bindaree made a winning chase debut at Perth in September 2000, in a race the trainer won with Fundamentalist four years later (this could be a possible starting point for African Gold as trainers are very much creatures of habit); Ollie Magern was also successful at the first time of asking over fences in September and had completed a hat-trick by the end of October; and even Imperial Commander made a winning chase bow at Cheltenham in mid October.
Assuming all goes well in the first couple of months of the season, the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day could become an option (Ollie Magern won the 2004 renewal), while he has the pace to win over 2m4f, so the Scilly Isles at Sandown in February could well be used as a stepping stone to Cheltenham. Twiston-Davies saddled Young Hustler to win this contest in 1993 before his victory in the Sun Alliance and he also won the race in 1998 with Jack Doyle.
An exciting prospect for fences, it will be disappointing if African Gold fails to make up in to a high-class novice and, though there looks like being plenty of strength in depth in the division this season, the 20/1 currently on offer seems more than fair, certainly at this stage.
What’s your long term fancy? Let us know in the Comments below.
African Gold features among Paul Ferguson’s Jumpers To Follow 2013/14, available to pre-order shortly.
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