One of the oddities of the jump racing calendar is that its two big festivals, Cheltenham and Aintree, fall within a short space of one another. This season however, there has been a longer gap from the Cheltenham Festival to the Grand National meeting.
Much debate over the next few days will still revolve around horses that are due to run at Liverpool and whether they will have actually ‘recovered’ in time from Prestbury Park.
Every year, some horses don’t show the same form at Aintree as they did at Cheltenham, but this can be for a variety of reasons and others will thrive between the two Festivals, sometimes a promising run at the former merely signposts an even better display on Merseyside.
Here, Chris Sleep has shortlisted 10 horses that caught his eye at the Cheltenham Festival and can be expected to go on to even better things at the Grand National meeting.
A Hare Breath went into the Cheltenham Festival on the back of a win in a competitive handicap hurdle at Sandown. He went on to acquit himself well in the County Hurdle at Prestbury Park where he finished eight having held every chance turning for home. The step up to 2m4f for the Alder Hay Children’s Hospital Charity Handicap Hurdle ought to be within his range. Given the extra week break between two big festivals this season, there is every chance he can run into the money in the opening race on Friday.
Claimantakinforgan is already a Grade 2 winner, that coming at Ascot in December. However, he came into the Festival on the back of an odds-on defeat at Musselburgh (soft) and this contributed to him being sent off 16-1. The soft underfoot conditions were probably not in his favour and he was struggling on the ground from an early stage before keeping on finishing fifth behind Summerville Boy. In the hope the ground at Aintree is closer to good than heavy I can see Nicky Henderson’s inmate leaving that form behind and going close to gaining a Grade 1 win in Friday’s Top Novices’ Hurdle.
Ibis Du Rheu finished fifth in the competitive Close Brothers Handicap Chase at Cheltenham. He shaped with some promise and held every chance at the third from home before becoming outpaced and was beaten when stumbling badly at the final fence. This mistake accentuated the distance he was beaten so his run is probably worth a small upgrade. On Saturday, he steps up to 3m for the Betway Handicap Chase and that could well suit him. He has yet to win a race over fences but has been placed twice from higher marks in the past so I am hopeful he can put up a bold showing on Grand National Day.
Mr Big Shot was well fancied in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham and was a big eyecatcher in the race. The son of Flemensfirth is a big good-looking horse who moved well through the early part of the race before becoming outpaced in the closing stages of the 2m4f contest. This was his first run for a year and I expect him to progress for that effort and he should be suited by the step up to 3m in the Gaskells Handicap Hurdle on Saturday. I would be surprised if Mr Big Shot doesn't prove to be better than a mark of 138 in time.
Ms Parfois has been progressing superbly this season, winning a pair of Listed Races in the early part of the season. She went into the Cheltenham Festival well fancied for the National Hunt Chase and ran a terrific race, where she was narrowly beaten by Rathvinden. Rathvinden was a top-class novice hurdler having mixed it with the likes of Faugheen when third in the Ballymore a few years ago. The pair pulled over 20 lengths clear and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ms Parfois was up to winning a Grade 1 at some stage of her career. She holds an entry in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase and is sure to go into the race with an excellent chance under Noel Fehily.
Nube Negra was sent off favourite for the Fred Winter and moved through the race as though he was ahead of his mark but after leading at the second from home he weakened up the hill and was eventually beaten 4 lengths in third place. This four-year-old is clearly a talented horse and while the Grade 1 Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle might be beyond him, there is every chance Dan Skelton can get this Spanish-bred horse to improve again at Aintree. At a likely each-way price he could be worth supporting.
Santini was sent off favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle on the final day of the Festival. He came into the race on the back of two wins at Newbury and in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham where he beat Black Op who ran well behind Samcro in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Stepping up in trip in the Albert Bartlett, he finished a fine third where maybe his inexperience late on in the race stopped him from finishing closer to the winner Kilbricken Storm. Nonetheless, it was a superb effort on his third hurdles start and he has improved with every run. The 3m Sefton Novices’ Hurdle looks a perfect fit for Nicky Henderson’s horse and he is going to take plenty of beating. Better ground ought to pose no problem for him either. He’s an exciting horse, not only for this week, but for next season too.
Spiritofthegames has some solid handicap hurdle form to his name already this season, boasting excellent efforts in the Lanzarote and Betfair Hurdles, prior to his solid showing when fifth behind his stable companion Mohaayed in the County Hurdle. Having already been placed over a longer trip, the 2m4f Alder Hay Children’s Charity Handicap Hurdle on Friday ought to be a suitable target, and it’s likely he will go very close to gaining a deserved win from the same mark as his honourable fifth at Cheltenham.
The Last Samuri was well backed for the Cross-Country Chase at Cheltenham and he ran as well as could be expected, finishing third behind Tiger Roll. The way that race was run didn’t really bring his stamina into play but nonetheless his third-place finish was still a suitable preparation for Aintree. The Last Samurai has been placed in the National before and has been placed three times in total when contesting races over the big fences. With his proven form around the National Course he can reward each-way support. He might be a place only option but a bold run is once again expected.
Top Gamble has yet to record a win this season but has run with credit on each occasion, including when a keeping on third in the Grand Annual on the final day of the Cheltenham Festival. Equipped with first time cheekpieces, he was hampered on a couple of occasions on the way round before rallying to take third behind Le Prezien. The handicapper has only raised his mark by 1lb to 150 and there is every chance Top Gamble can improve, and go two places better. He has two entries at Aintree, in the Red Rum Handicap Chase and the Topham over the National Fences.