Lucky Luke’s Cheltenham Notebook: Part Seven



We’re galloping towards the Cheltenham Festival with less than two weeks to go before the big meeting at Prestbury Park.

Owners and trainers have pretty much played their final hand ahead of the National Hunt spectacle, and soon, all the talking will have to stop.

For now though, there’s still a few more days to discuss and debate, which is why we’ve got our resident racing fan ‘Lucky Luke’ back in the saddle with the latest chapter in his Cheltenham Notebook.

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Le Richebourg and Penhill Ruled Out Of Festival

I mentioned last week that all the intended runners at Cheltenham are likely to be wrapped up in cotton wool by now with connections just hoping and praying that they can get to Prestbury Park in one piece.

Unfortunately, though, racehorses are fragile animals and that curse has struck again with the Joseph O’Brien-trained Le Richebourg and Willie Mullins-trained Penhill now ruled out of the big meeting through injury.

Both were set to be two of Ireland’s leading candidates in a fortnight’s time, with Le Richebourg favourite for the Arkle after winning two Grade 1’s at Leopardstown, and Penhill in a similar place in the betting for the Stayers’ Hurdle after winning the race on his first start of last season.

That news certainly opens up those races for punters, with two of England’s leading contenders now emerging as strong favourites. Lalor, who was so impressive on his first start of the season at Cheltenham, is now the 3/1 market leader for the Arkle with Betfred, and Paisley Park is now 7/4 with the same firm for the Stayers’.

For what its worth, I’ll be adding both of those to my bet slip and have Lalor’s win at Cheltenham down as one of the performances of the season. Yes, we’ve only seen him one since, when disappointing at Sandown, but I reckon he’ll bounce back from that and he normally goes well fresh.

Nicholls Hits Century

If you hadn’t already guessed from reading my Cheltenham Notebook over the last few weeks, I’m a huge fan of trainer Paul Nicholls.

Rival trainer Nicky Henderson is obviously one of the best, but for me, Nicholls just knows what it takes to keep grinding out the winners at every level. He’s not had the class of the Kauto Star days in recent years, but there are signs that he has a few good ones about to hit top note, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him crowned Champion trainer again in the next couple of years.

Proof of that effort comes in him notching up 100 winners for the season earlier this week with Tommy Silver winning the Forbra Gold Cup Handicap Chase at Ludlow. Nicholls’ stable jockey Harry Cobden was in the saddle for the landmark victory, which also notched up his 90th winner of the campaign.

They are a combination that hold some decent tricks up their sleeve as we head in to Cheltenham, most notably the King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux, who is now 4/1 second favourite for the Gold Cup with Totesport in their NRNB market.

Festival Handicap Fancy

The weights for the ten handicaps at the Festival were released this week and that has had the shrewd punters flocking to the ante-post betting to try and grab the value before it disappears.

They’re often some of the most competitive races of the entire meeting, especially in the betting, where punters theories are put the test on something having ‘a good handicap mark’ or ‘being in the grip of the handicapper’. They’re all buzz phrases that you’ll likely hear in the next few weeks.

Davy Russell is usually a good man to follow in those after landing a hat-trick of victories in the Pertemps last year, but I’m going with that man Nicholls, who has a cracking record in the Fred Winter – now known as the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.

It’s a race that has only been going since 2005, yet Nicholls is already the leading trainer of the race with his three victories coming from Sanctuaire (2010), Qualando (2015) and Diego du Charmil (2016).

With that in mind, it’s probably no surprise to see he has a leading chance in the betting for the race this year with Friend or Foe. He is well liked at Ditcheat, but it’s another Nicholls runner who interests me at a much bigger price.

That is Dogon, who I know is very well thought off by team Nicholls and assistant trainer Harry Derham recently flagged him up as a horse to follow in the Racing Post. He didn’t quite live up to expectations on his stable debut at Cheltenham, but was much better when 2nd at Wincanton last time. The best will certainly be to come from this 4yo, but if he can settle, then he could prove to be an each-way bet at the Festival.

Greatwood Gold Cup

This weekend’s feature race in the UK comes from Newbury, where there is a 16-runner field taking on the Grade 3 Greatwood Gold Cup.

A few of them still have entries for Cheltenham, so this may well be the last chance to pick up any final clues before the big meeting in a couple of weeks.

An eye-catcher for me is the Fergal O’Brien-trained Master Dee who will carry leading jockey Barry Geraghty in the saddle. It’s not very often that O’Brien and Geraghty team up, but when they do, it’s usually a successful partnership to follow. From 5 rides, Geraghty has ridden 4 winners for O’Brien, giving them a handy 80% strike rate and over £70,000 in prize money.

Master Dee has just had wind surgery as well, which could bring about some improvement, and this wouldn’t be beyond him after winning a Grade 3 Handicap at Kempton this time last season with Geraghty in the plate. The Grand National is the main plan and a successful run here will put him right on course for that.

See you at the races!