With the days counting down until the Cheltenham Festival 2015 – there are now less than 9 weeks until the Supreme Novices Hurdle – many of the leading contenders will either be in their box waiting for the big day or approaching their last runs (as I write, this is Monday the 12 January, just less than two weeks away from Trials Day). This is an ideal time to start looking at the Festival ante-post lists, with the bookmakers and punters on a fairly even footing as far as evidence goes. Of course, there’s the question of who goes where, and with nearly every Willie Mullins novice that must come into the equation, but he looks to have two very strong contenders for the Arkle. Un De Seacux is unbeaten when staying on his feet and has looked nothing apart from a monster, winning twice in France to increase a burgeoning reputation that has been kept intact since going over fences, despite his fall at Thurles on debut. His claims are obvious and he will take a good deal of catching here, but there are questions for him to answer. While it is understandable that he missed Punchestown and Cheltenham last year for the prize money available in France, he has never run on anything better than soft ground – a massive question mark considering that he’s unlikely to get it in Ireland before the Festival where the going is of course likely to be more good than soft. While his victory against Smashing was very impressive – as you’d expect – going from the front in the pressure cooker situation of the Arkle is going to be a very different situation for him and it remains to be seen if he does get the lead he wants. Being a short priced favourite at this stage and with the ground doubts, he can be avoided. The value may actually be coming from inside his own stable, with last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Vautour as big as 8/1. He was far shorter before a Leopardstown blowout at Christmas when 1/4, where he ended up 17 lengths behind Clarcam – but there are plenty of reasons to forgive that. While the big mistake that ended his challenge was worrying, poor movement through the race – something highlighted by Mullins recently – suggested that he wasn’t 100% right and that was most likely compounded by the deluge that Leopardstown suffered on St Stephens Day which left him floundering in soft ground before he ended his chances 5 out. While it’s true that he did beat Clarcam in soft ground on both their chasing debuts, the ground that day was far easier to cope with than at Leopardstown, and if anything the bloodless nature of that victory shows just how off form he was there. Vautour has run twice on good ground under rules – and in those two runs he slaughtered the Supreme Novice field and then won easily enough at Punchestown afterwards. While his jumping obviously will need to be up to scratch, there will have been plenty of work done at Closutton and we should hopefully see a better round if he does go in the Irish Arkle or a smaller chase before the Festival. The same connections had Champagne Fever beaten under similar circumstances before being beaten in the Arkle in the very last stride. It is no new phenomenon for Arkle winners to have had setbacks on their way to the title and at 8/1, he appeals as the value in the race. Clarcam has to be hugely respected following his impressive win at Leopardstown. Gordon Elliot’s charge has clearly improved hand over fist and has looked a natural chaser, although the lack of a weight for age allowance is a significant negative come the day. Gilgamboa was a disappointment in the Supreme Novices, having travelled menacingly into the race before a mistake ended his chances, but in just two runs as a chaser he has already shown his accomplishment and has to be strongly considered. His debut win was followed by a deeply impressive performance at Limerick, when having Adrian Des Mottes – giving no small amount of weight to the previous winner in a strong field for the Grade – on toast before she fell at the last. An extremely strong traveller, his jumping has convinced more than most at the top of the market and while he’s also entered in the JLT, an entry into the Irish Arkle would suggest that he will remain at the minimum trip. A previous ante-post bet of mine, Josses Hill looked a ready made chaser last season and actually made a very promising debut – more so than many would have imagined – at Ascot behind Ptit Zig, but the lack of improvement in his jumping at Doncaster last week was worrying with no fluent jumping until the last, which he jumped well before being pushed strongly out to beat the 145 rated Solar Impulse. It is entirely possible that he can improve with experience – which he simply must have more of – but the long amount of time spent in the air and poor technique are both worrying for such a test and he can only be left out of calculations. Vibrato Valtat and Sam Twiston Davies got some stick after being beaten at Cheltenham in November but under Noel Fehily he has shown no end of resolution and speed in winning the Henry VIII and Wayward Lad Novices Chases. He will love the strong gallop on good ground and prices close to 20’s are probably too big. For all that he still needs to improve (something that’s not out of the question). A big price contender of real interest would be Sgt Reckless, who has been strangely campaigned since winning well on his chasing debut at Uttoxeter and who was in the wrong place at the wrong time in last year’s Supreme. He appears overpriced, but time is running out for him to gain experience. Ptit Zig would have been of serious interest but will go the JLT after his impressive New Year’s Day win, and Valseur Lido is surely going to there or the RSA Chase as Willie Mullins has hinted. Advice 1 pt each/way Vatour (8/1 Paddy Power, Stan James, Winner, Spreadex) 1 pt each/way Gilgamboa (12/1 Totesport, Betfred, Ladbrokes) For our exclusive Community Members only preview of the RSA Chase, JOIN US for just £6 per month. You’ll also get £10 off admission to our Cheltenham Festival Preview Evening in Cheltenham on Friday 6 March, tips every day and much more – learn more about Free and Community Membership.
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