Mike Francis looks at the leading contenders for the BetVictor Gold Cup and Greatwood Hurdle
Mike Francis looks ahead to the big races in November
BETVICTOR GOLD CUP BARON ALCO 11/1
Gary Moore’s seven-year-old is favourite with many layers and he does have some solid form in the book despite missing all of last season.
He started off in 2017 with a couple of minor novice wins before going for the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Chase at Sandown in February.
He was a creditable second there — beaten five lengths by Top Notch — before running a cracker when second in the Festival Plate at Cheltenham.
That showed his liking for the track — albeit the New one rather than the Old he will tackle here — and had no problems with the big field.
He saw out this trip well and there should be a little improvement to come as he matures over fences. He has come through his comeback run when beaten a head in good company at Chepstow on October 14 when he made one costly late error. As usual he kept going to the line and should come on for the experience.
He is below the mark of his Cheltenham Festival second and will be hard to keep out of the frame provided he doesn’t ‘bounce’ after that comeback outing.
MISTER WHITAKER 12/1
Mick Channon’s six-year-old has achieved plenty in just five runs over fences, winning three of those including two at Cheltenham. The high point came when taking the Close Brothers Novice Chase at the Festival in a thrilling finish with Rather Be.
He looks the type to improve a lot during his second season over fences and has the type of battling attitude that you need in these big handicaps.
He starts the season a fair 8lb higher than for that win and the only concern is that he has never performed on ground quicker than good to soft. You would expect some cut in it at Cheltenham in November but, with the weather we have these days, you can’t be sure.
There should be more to come and he would seem to have more scope than Baron Alco and it will be interesting to see if Channon gives him a run before the race. At this stage, he looks the likely winner at around the 12/1 mark.
RATHER BE 12/1
Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old was a quality hurdler who won a Grade 3 at the Grand National meeting before going over fences. He took a couple of small novice chases at Towcester and Fakenham before making a big leap in grade to be beaten by head in the Close Brothers by Mister Whitaker. Both horses have a similar profile and both have showed a liking for ground with some cut. He will cross swords with Mister Whitaker on slightly better terms at the weights and he deserves his place near the head of the betting. He won after a break last season so it
wouldn’t be an issue if he came here on comeback.
Had a busy time over hurdles before taking well to chasing last term although he was well off the pace behind Baron Alco in the Scilly Isles. He bounced back from that to finish an excellent third in the Silver Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival where this trip seemed to be ideal. He was sent to the front a bit early there and gave the chasing pack a handy target, although he kept going well once headed. He is just 3lb higher than that which makes him competitive although a fall at the Galway Festival is a slight negative even though he was going like the winner at the time.
ROMAIN DE SENAM 16/1
Paul Nicholls’ six-year-old was entered to run at Market Rasen as we went to press in the kind of race he would have to go close in to remain a contender for this. He performed with credit in some hot races last season without having enough quality to really figure. He was midfield in the Festival Plate before being well backed at Ayr where he again came up short. He likes this trip but has definite improvement to find.
THE STORYTELLER 16/1
Won the 2018 Festival Plate which is excellent form in the context of this race and he can be forgiven a poor effort at Fairyhouse in April where the ground was bottomless. He showed that was a one-off by coming back to win the 3m Champion Novice Chase at Punchestown — albeit with a huge stroke of luck. The two horses in front of him both fell at the final fence and he cashed in. He seemed to enjoy the extended 3m distance there but the Plate was over this trip so it shouldn’t be an issue.
He could be a little high in the handicap but Gordon Elliott will have him primed for this and a late market move would be a good clue.
TULLY EAST 16/1
He’s mixed chasing and hurdling since his last win, which came in the 2017 Close Brothers at the Cheltenham Festival. Not a lot has gone right since then and he has been moved around in distance from 2m to 3m without a lot of success.
Clearly he is suited by this trip and likes Cheltenham. He is also dropping to the sort of mark that should make him competitive again. But he was poor at Galway last time out in August and needs to show his old spark before being considered. Looks a little short in the betting.
ADRIEN DU PONT 20/1
His sole chase win came at the first attempt when he took a novice contest at Fontwell in the style of a classy performer. He was quickly upped to Graded company with little success and has looked short of this level. He fell in a Grade 2 at Ayr’s National meeting and it’s hard to get too excited about his chances here.
Another Close Brothers winner — this time from 2016 — and all his best efforts have all come at Cheltenham despite the fact he hasn’t won since. He was fourth in this 12 months ago and filled the same spot in the Festival Plate earlier this year. He then went to the Topham over the Grand National fences and was an excellent fifth before a poor run at Uttoxeter last time out in July.
He has a win and three fourths from his past five runs at Cheltenham and they have all been in top races. Given that he’s now off his lowest chase mark and loves the track so much, he looks worth an each-way interest.
VERDICT: MISTER WHITAKER
Looks a progressive chaser who
goes well at Cheltenham. He likes a big field and there should be a lot more to come — provided the ground isn’t on the fast side.
For an each-way punt Ballyalton’s record in big-field chases at Cheltenham speaks for itself and he looks a fair price.
Claimant akingf organ has risen to a mark of 151 after some top-class efforts last season. He was fifth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and went close to landing a big handicap at Ayr last time out in April. His best win came in an Ascot Grade 2 in December and, despite not scoring since, has improved.
His mark would match the highest ever carried to win this which has to be a slight worry but ante-post offers around 12/1 reflect that.
Harry Fry has a nice prospect in If The Cap Fits who has had just three runs over hurdles so far, although he was entered at Kempton just after we went to press. That run will tell us a lot about how he has progressed.
Last year he cut his way though the minor novice hurdle ranks and finished on a high by winning a classy contest at Kempton on Boxing Day.
It’s a concern that he hasn’t run since then but a good comeback at Kempton would go a long way to allay any fears. If he comes through that then he has the scope to get near the top as a hurdler.
Having run so well at Kempton and Aintree when close-up in their big bumper, tackling the different challenge of Cheltenham could also be an issue.
Willie Mullins could play a strong hand and his Sharjah is trading at around the 16/1 mark at the moment.
He ran well in several tough races last season including a fair eighth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. His finest hour came in August when winning the Galway Hurdle from a mark of 146. Victories in big races don’t come much easier and he had three lengths in hand crossing the line with plenty left to offer.
He’s had a couple of runs on the Flat since then so there will be no fitness issues. His Irish hurdles rating of 155 could be a sticking point though.
Apple’s Shakira landed a hat-trick of smart wins at Cheltenham before flopping when 6/5 favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. She ran a similar race at Aintree when finishing third and it could just be that it was the end of the season, although she didn’t appear to be over-raced.
Although the class is there, she is shaping as more of a 2m4f performer and is likely to have other targets.
Hunters Call hasn’t run since his blistering win on debut for Olly Murphy at Ascot last Christmas. He cruised through the big field there and won going away. It was the kind of performance that saw him touted for the County Hurdle but he obviously didn’t get there.
This trip is ideal and he would be an interesting contender if lining up.
Off You Go has been performing well in slightly lesser races than this and showed promise for this sort of grade when winning at Leopardstown in February. He is open to lots of improvement but has clearly had a setback to have not run since then.
Early Doors is only five but has already picked up a Grade 3 win at Naas and was an excellent third in the Martin Pipe at the Cheltenham Festival.
The ground was on the testing side there, which suited well, and he wouldn’t be out of this if it comes up soft on the day.
VERDICT: This is very tough to call at this stage and it’s probably not a race to be too interested in until we have seen the final field. Sharjah is the most exciting prospect in the race judged by the way he won the Galway Hurdle but he could be handicapped out of this. If The Cap Fits is another interesting performer who is worth keeping a close eye on this season and could easily be good enough.