Usual suspects to fight for Festival trainers' title

The leading trainer title at the Cheltenham Festival has been dominated by three men over the past decade – Nicky Henderson, Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls.
And it’s fair to say that the leading trainer at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival is likely to be one of the trio again. The likes of David Pipe, Jonjo O’Neill and Philip Hobbs are all expected to have fancied runners come March, but those stables lack the strength in depth of their contemporaries.
Here, we take a look at the firepower which Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls can aim at this year’s Festival.

Leading trainer at the Festival on 10 occasions, Henderson sent out only one winner 12 months ago when Whisper landed the Coral Cup. He has suffered a couple of setbacks already in the build-up to this year’s Festival. My Tent Or Yours, runner-up in last season’s Champion Hurdle, is out for the season and Simonsig, who has not run since winning the 2013 Arkle and could have been a Ryanair Chase contender, is also still absent. However, dual Festival winner Sprinter Sacre returned from over 12 months on the casualty list to finish second at Ascot in mid-January. Henderson is confident Sprinter Sacre will benefit greatly from the run and the nine-year-old has a solid chance of regaining his Champion Chase crown. Peace And Co [pictured] is a warm favourite for the Triumph Hurdle and showed his versatility with a win at Cheltenham on trials day. L’Ami Serge will go to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with a live chance and, if Josses Hill can brush up the jumping, then the Arkle is no forlorn hope. Then there is Bobs Worth in the Gold Cup. The 2013 winner of the race floundered in the conditions at Leopardstown over Christmas, but a return to Cheltenham in the spring gives him a chance of landing a blow in a relatively open renewal. Also keep an eye on whatever Henderson runs in the Grand Annual.
The leading trainer at the Festival for the past two years, Mullins will be the favourite to take that title again. He followed up his seven wins in 2013 with four last year as Faugheen, Vautour, Quevega and Don Poli struck. Faugheen will go into this year’s Festival as a warm favourite for the Champion Hurdle, for which Mullins also has two-time winner Hurricane Fly. Don Poli has to be feared in either the RSA Chase or the National Hunt Chase, while Vautour is favourite for the JLT Novices’ Chase. Annie Power, who was second in last year’s World Hurdle, will be very hard to beat in the Mares’ Hurdle as well. And Mullins has an enviable batch of hopefuls in the novice hurdles, with Douvan, Outlander and Black Hercules all to be respected. Un De Sceaux could be his banker of the week in the Arkle Chase and Champagne Fever will go into his fourth Festival with a chance of a third win when he contests the Champion Chase. Mullins has yet to win the Gold Cup and he is likely to send last year’s narrow runner-up On His Own and the progressive Djakadam into battle.
It has been a relatively barren couple of years at the Festival for Nicholls, who was leading trainer for four years in a row from 2006 to 2009. He won just one race in 2013 and the same again last year when Lac Fontana took the County Hurdle on the last day. It is still too early to say who Nicholls will be aiming at the handicaps and his novice hurdlers look to have a bit to find at present, especially compared to those at Mullins’ disposal. However, Nicholls does have the Gold Cup favourite in Silviniaco Conti, who is expected to see out the trip much better than when fourth to Lord Windermere last year. Silviniaco Conti will not run again before the Gold Cup, like Nicholls’ other possible for the race Sam Winner. In the Champion Chase, which Nicholls has won with Call Equiname, Azertyuiop and Master Minded, he has the improving Dodging Bullets. Already a dual Grade One winner this season, Dodging Bullets has to be feared. Big Buck’s gave Nicholls four successive wins in the World Hurdle, and Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar will both head to the race with solid chances. Al Ferof will merit respect if he goes for the Ryanair Chase and Ptit Zig is a strong contender for the JLT Novices’ Chase.

Paul Cole - Horses For 2015

It looks like we have some nice horses to go to war with this year. Most of the older horses look like they might win and we have some good looking, good moving two year olds. Most of our horses are trotting at the moment and I have given you a short summary of the three year olds and the older horses. The yearlings have all cantered before Christmas and we always give them time to grow during January so they just trot.

Older Horses

Berkshire: is trotting at the moment and he will head to the Prix Ganay, he has really grown up and we could not be more happy with him.

Bluegrass Blue: He will run this month but there is a shortage of races as he is quite high in the handicap rated 87. There is an open handicap at Lingfield over 7 furlongs on the 21st Jan, this may be to hot. 

Complicit: Heads to the Winter Derby, he has had a short break and seems in good terms with himself. I think he is a big improver.

Dutch Art Dealer: He had quite a hard champagne last year and will probably come out in May.

Dark Days: Ran very well last time out and should improve again. He has definitely got bigger and stronger.

Elysian Prince: He seems to have grown and strengthened and is well capable of winning and we think he will improve.

Meritocracy: the closest he came last year was second by a length. He will probably go to St Moritz on February 22nd.

Silverheels: He may run in the same race as Bluegrass Blues he does appreciate 7f and Lingfield.

Silviniaco Conti to Win the 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the most prestigious of all National Hunt steeple chases in the horse racing calendar, and although it’s a long off, 2015’s event is already well-anticipated by riders, trainers and punters alike. 

This Grade 1 National Hunt race was inaugurated in 1924 when a horse called Red Splash won for trainer Fred Withington, ridden by Dick Rees. It is run over a distance of 3 miles 2 1/2 furlongs with 22 fences.

According to Paddy Powers' latest Cheltenham Gold Cup odds one name immediately stands out. Silviniaco Conti, recent winner of the King George VI Chase at Kempton is now clear favourite at 3/1. 

But is now the right time to back him?

In short, the answer is yes. This French-bred gelding, trained by Paul Nicholls, racing in the familiar colours of Chris Giles & Potensis Bloodstock Ltd has done well winning four of his last six races, holding Dynaste on two occasions and proving better than Menorah after suffering a surprise defeat at Wetherby. All looks good for his best performance come the big day.  

In last years Gold Cup this nine-year-old chestnut looked the winner, when wandering right under pressure, tiring in the last 100yds, when not recovering from that errant maneuver. He held Bob's Hope, one place behind in fifth, in a race where the outsiders prevailed. 

In 2013 he traveled like a winner when falling three out.

Other major rivals include last year's winner Lord Windermere & previous Gold Cup stalwart Bob's Worth. 

From a historic perspective this event has seen exceptional winners include household names such at Arkle, Best Mate, Mill House and Paul Nicholls' wonder horse Kauto Star who won the race twice. Golden Miller won this race no less than five consecutive times  (1932 - 1936). 

In truth, Silviniaco Conti [pictured] is a consistent horse who has proven his class. Come (3:20) Cheltenham Gold Cup day, 13th March 2015, lady luck may shine on a horse which has proved disappointing twice before.

Could the 2015 Grand National be a Ladies' Day again?

It is 20 years since Jenny Pitman trained the second of her Grand National winners, so could 2015 provide another female-trained winner of the race?
Pitman became the first female to train the National winner in 1983 with Corbiere and followed up in 1995 with Royal Athlete.
There have been two female-trained winners of the Aintree showpiece in more recent years, with Venetia Williams saddling Mon Mome to success in 2009 and Sue Smith sending out Auroras Encore to win two years ago.
Looking at the early odds for the 2015 Grand National, and the two female-trained horses who catch the eye are Shotgun Paddy  [pictured] and Teaforthree.

Shotgun Paddy is trained by Emma Lavelle and has had this season’s Grand National as his long-term target after finishing second in the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival last year.
He was beaten just a neck by Midnight Prayer that day, but perhaps more interestingly, he was around three lengths ahead of Shutthefrontdoor. Jonjo O’Neill’s horse went on to win the Irish Grand National and is at the forefront of the market for the Aintree equivalent.
This season, Shotgun Paddy was beaten a long way over hurdles on his reappearance at Newbury before being burdened with top weight in the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow.
A false start scuppered his chances as he was slow to get going at the second attempt before making an early mistake. He was soon pulled up by jockey Leighton Aspell, who won last year’s National on Pineau De Re.
The eight-year-old will now bid to put his Grand National claims back on track by seeking a repeat win in the Classic Chase at Warwick on Saturday.
Shotgun Paddy survived a far from fluent last fence jump to win the same race 12 months ago when he was a novice and he is now only two pounds higher in the handicap.
The going could play a factor in Shotgun Paddy’s Grand National chances, though, with Lavelle feeling that better ground is not necessarily a help to the horse’s jumping.
Lavelle also trains Highland Lodge, who had been mooted earlier in the season as a possible National contender. However, Highland Lodge only finished eighth in the Becher Chase at Aintree in December and looks too low in the weights to get into the Grand National itself.
As for Teaforthree, the Rebecca Curtis-trained 11-year-old has already had two attempts to win the National.
In 2013, Teaforthree finished third behind Smith’s Auroras Encore. He travelled well for a long way and, at one stage, looked a likely winner before running out of steam after the last.
Last year, though, Teaforthree unseated his rider, Nick Scholfield, at the Chair when sent off joint-favourite for the race. What would be a concern is that Scholfield felt Teaforthree did not have the same enthusiasm last year as he had in 2013.
Teaforthree has not run since unseating Scholfield, but has been entered for the Skybet Chase at Doncaster at the end of the month, which could be the first port of call en route to a third National tilt.
His age should not be a barrier given that the last three winners of the National have all been 11-year-olds. He is also still on a reasonable handicap mark of 151, which was the same rating he had when finishing third in 2013.
The last two female-trained winners of the National were sent off at 100/1 and 66/1, respectively, but it is hard to see Shotgun Paddy and Teaforthree going off at those prices if they make it to the big day.

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Nicholls chasing ninth Tingle Creek victory

The Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on Saturday is a Grade 1 chase over 2 miles. This year’s race had been the early-season target of the last two Champion chasers but both have been forced to miss the event through injury.

Reigning two-mile Champion Sire De Grugy suffered a hip injury at home which will keep him out until the New Year while Nicky Henderson has decided against running Sprinter Sacre. The eight-year-old is the highest rated chaser in training but has not raced since pulling up with an irregular heartbeat at Kempton last December.

The race has been won by some of the most popular chasers in modern times including Desert Orchid, Moscow Flyer and Kauto Star. The withdrawal of the big two has certainly opened up the race with a large field now expected after eighteen horses were declared on Monday.

Dodging Bullets

If you’re identifying a favourite for the Tingle Creek, no trainer has a better record in this race than Paul Nicholls who won it eight times between 1999 and 2010. His first winner was Flagship Uberalles who went on to win for different trainers in 2000 and 2001. Nicholls struck again with Cenkos in 2002 before Kauto Star (2005, 2006), Twist Magic (2007, 2009) and Master Minded (2008, 2010) gave him an unprecedented six consecutive winners.

Nicholls has entered Dodging Bullets and Hinterland this year, both of which tasted defeat on their seasonal debut. Hinterland would appear to be the ideal candidate for this race having won the Henry VIII Chase last year over course and distance. However, he was pulled up after breaking a blood vessel behind God’s Own at Exeter last month and that has to be a concern.

Dodging Bullets [pictured] was strongly fancied for last year’s Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham but he raced too keenly and faded into fourth place. He ran well at the same course last month behind Uxizandre and looks the more likely of the two to add to Nicholls’s tally in the race. He is certainly in the right age bracket with five, six and seven-year-olds having the best record.

The only older horses to win this race in the past twenty years have been Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe, both Champions Chase winners. None of this year’s entries over the age of eight are in that class so it is difficult to see the likes of Alderwood, Somersby or Wishfull Thinking adding their name to the roll of honour.

God’s Own

Recent winning form has been a common feature among winners of this race and God’s Own and the Willie Mullins trained duo of Ballycasey and Twinlight come into this category. Ballycasey was aimed at the three-mile RSA Chase last season in which he finished fourth. He was an impressive winner at Gowran Park last month but this looks on the sharp side for him. The worry with Twinlight is his jumping as he is inclined to hit one or two and he cannot afford mistakes in a race of this quality.

God’s Own produced a stunning display to win at Punchestown in May and beat Balder Succes by five lengths on his reappearance at Exeter. The runner-up was conceding 7lbs that day and made a crucial mistake three out. God’s Own was not foot perfect himself so it would be difficult to argue that he did not win on merit. Balder Succes had beaten God’s Own at Kempton last February but jumped poorly here in the Henry VIII at a time when the King stable were badly out of form.

Mullins has also entered Felix Yonger who was nearly four lengths behind God’s Own at Punchestown. He was runner-up to Moscow Mannon at Naas at the start of November but needs to put up a career-best to win this.

Nicky Henderson relies on Oscar Whisky who ran a fine race when fourth to Caid Du Berlais at Cheltenham in the Paddy Power Gold Cup. He carried 11st 12lb that day and was only beaten two and a quarter lengths. His best form over hurdles was at two and a half miles and all three of his chase victories have come at that distance.

Betting Guide

God’s Own currently leads Balder Succes 2-1 on their head-to-head clashes but the market still favours Alan King’s runner. God’s Own looked good value for his win at Exeter and could confirm the form on Saturday.

Paul Nicholls has a great record in the race and Dodging Bullets is preferred to Hinterland after his very encouraging run at Cheltenham. He still held every chance going to the last fence and that should have put him spot on for this. He could be the each-way value in a very competitive renewal.

Hennessy placed Dude and King run fine Grand National trials

The Grade 3 Hennessy Gold Cup might be over three-and-a-quarter-miles but it remains a significant race for pinpointing possible live candidates for the marathon Crabbie’s Grand National at Aintree in April. This year’s renewal of the November 29 Newbury contest is likely to prove no exception to that rule.

Many Clouds was an impressive winner of the Hennessy for trainer Oliver Sherwood and jockey Leighton Aspell, and has been introduced into a few ante-post lists for Aintree at around 25/1, but connections have already made it clear that they have the Cheltenham Gold Cup as their main target this season so he has to be considered an unlikely runner at this stage of proceedings.

Hennessy runner-up Houblon des Obeaux was beaten only three lengths and was conceding the winner 6lbs, so technically emerges at the best horse in the race. He has plenty going for him should trainer Venetia Williams - who sent out shock 100/1 scorer Mon Mome to win the John Smith’s Grand National back in 2009 – choose to direct her progressive stayer towards Aintree in the spring. Again, at this stage that is far from certain, and while he is offered to back at 130 for the 2015 Grand National with Betfair, his shrewd handler may well have other targets in mind for the time being.

Caption: Venetia Williams has sent a horse to victory in the Grand National before – can she do it again?

The third and fourth placed Hennessy Gold Cup runners however are both expected to be trained with a bid for “the world’s greatest steeplechase” in mind in the spring. Merry King gave Tony McCoy a great ride in the showcase Newbury event, never far from the decent pace set throughout the contest before being produced by the champion jockey to have every chance going to the final fence. Despite having bottom weight he couldn’t quicken with the eventual winner and runner-up, but they are two very good horses, and over a longer trip Merry King’s stamina will serve him well and he remains a genuine contender for the Grand National and may well have a pop at the Welsh equivalent first.
Fifth in the Hennessy last season, Merry King went on to occupy the same position behind Mountainous at Chepstow in the Welsh National, ran third in Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase, then after a blip back at Haydock - when he failed to handle desperately heavy ground - ran a great race to be fourth in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr, behind Al Co. Already this season Jonjo O’Neill’s young stayer had confirmed his wellbeing when a good third behind What A Warrior in a very competitive Ascot handicap chase, and he can still be backed at up to 40/1 for the Grand National in the spring which is usually run on the decent ground that best suits the seven-year-old gelding.

Fourth home at Newbury was the Michael Scudamore-trained Monbeg Dude, winner of the 2012 Coral Welsh National where he got the better of a memorable duel over the final two fences with the gallant Teaforthree, who was conceding him plenty of weight. In the Hennessy, Monbeg Dude shaped very much like the out-and-out stayer he is, struggling to go the strong early gallop but then staying on nicely inside the final half-mile to come steaming through to grab fourth place, showing the benefit of his seasonal pipe-opener at Chepstow in October when he had been a good second to Victor’s Serenade.

Winner of the Grade 3 Majordomo Hospitality Handicap Chase at Cheltenham’s December fixture last season, Monbeg Dude went on to run at Aintree in April and put up a very good effort in finishing seventh of the 40 runners behind Pineau de Re, a solid performance considering he made a couple of serious mistakes in the last third of the race that must have knocked some of the stuffing out of him.

With that first experience of the Aintree fences under his belt it is reasonable to assume that the gelded son of Witness Box might well have a better idea of what awaits him next time at the Liverpool track and connections – including part-owner Mike Tindall, the former England rugby union star – are already dreaming of lining up again for the big one. Available to back at around the mark of 36 following his Newbury run, Monbeg Dude is generally a 33/1 shot in the ante-post market with most fixed odds firms.

Ninth in the Hennessy Gold Cup, and last of those to finish – 19 set out and the very testing ground certainly took its toll on some good horses - was Alan King’s Midnight Prayer, last season’s four-mile National Hunt Chase winner having his first run of the new campaign. He certainly shaped as though the outing would do him good and connections have already hinted that they may be interested in a crack at the Grand National, although first they will bid for the Welsh National for which Midnight Prayer is 12/1 co-favourite in the betting lists at present. He would definitely have the stamina and jumping ability to go well at Aintree.

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