Lucky Luke's Cheltenham Notebook: Part One

18/01/2019

 

Eight weeks from now, the Cheltenham Festival will be over and done with for another year.

The chatter and gossip will have stopped, and we’ll know the 28 winners who have crowned themselves in glory at the 2019 meeting. That is of course until it all starts again the following day.

At least for now though, we’ve plenty to speculate and with the National Hunt season finally starting to get the wintery weather it so badly craves, our resident racing fan, ‘Lucky Luke’, has fired up the engines with a weekly scribble in his Cheltenham notebook. 

As well as being a regular at racecourses across the country, Luke owns horses in training with Paul Nicholls and Mark Johnston, so what better way to hear straight from the horses’ mouth.

This week he looks back on some big clues from Warwick and discusses the races to keep an eye on in both Britain and Ireland this weekend.

Ok Corral Strides into National Hunt Chase Contention

Dedicated racing fans will be well aware of the talent that is Derek O’Connor. The Irish jockey is the leading amateur in the Emerald Isle, but is certainly only that in name, with his skills in the saddle making him one of the best riders on the planet.

However, a trip to ride in the UK is few and far between for O’Connor, unless it’s at Cheltenham, so he certainly had punters licking their lips when he was booked to ride Ok Corral at Newbury. Many were seeing it as a prep race for him getting the leg up on the same horse in the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham (now 7/2 fav), and with a winning performance, it’s hard to argue that wasn’t the case.

Despite that, there is something that tells me he could head somewhere else. The race at Newbury was only over 3 miles, whereas the NH Chase is over 4m. From what I could see, Ok Corral looked like he always wanted to go faster, with O’Connor having to take a real pull at one point.

That isn’t exactly the kind of thing you want to see of a 4-miler, and neither did he look like a horse that was a real slow plodder. For that reason, I think the RSA Chase could be more his bag, after all, he was 2nd in the Albert Bartlett over the same distance last year.

The RSA looks fairly open at this point in time, even with Santini in the mix, and at 14/1 with Betfred it could be worth a few quid on Ok Corral.

Beakstown for the Ballymore?

Ok Corral may have taken the majority of the headlines from Warwick last weekend, but Beakstown wasn’t far behind him, and he should certainly be one to follow.

The 6yo is plenty big in stature and looks ready-made to be a cracking chaser in the future, something which his trainer, Dan Skelton, is more than aware of. With that, comes the temptation to not rush him into anything over hurdles, something Skelton admitted on ITV Racing on Saturday.

However, if things fall into place and he does turn up for the big meeting in March then I’d love to see him tackle the Ballymore (16/1), rather than the Albert Bartlett (12/1). Anything he does over hurdles is only a boost for what he could do over fences, so if you are going to have a go at Cheltenham, why not stick to the distance you’ve already been winning at?

Awesome Altior and Ascot

The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior needs no introduction. Even to none racing fans he is a recognisable name and that could take a step up this weekend as he aims to go 17 races unbeaten over obstacles with victory in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

As a National Hunt icon in his own right, he’s already beaten all before him this season, including Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek at Sandown. The re-match looked to be back on this Saturday, but even UDS is running scared of the great Altior. With only two to beat this weekend, he looks an absolute banker and it’s a case of by how far. It could well be the same story in the Champion Chase in March where he is already 4/9 favourite.

The Mares Hurdle at 1:50pm could also throw up some Cheltenham clues. The quirky If You Say Run has promised plenty for Paul Nicholls and seems to have this kind of race in her sights at Cheltenham (25/1). She was second in a Listed race at Kempton last time and could be one to still keep on side.

Will it be heavy at Haydock?

Haydock has a reputation of offering bottomless ground, just ask Bristol De Mai.

The talented grey has relished the testing conditions in the North West, and with an unsettled forecast from Friday afternoon, he might be wishing he was getting a run over the weekend.

With suspected snow expected to fall on the Merseyside track overnight, the course has called an inspection for 7:30am on Saturday morning. That could determine a frozen track, or one that has been drenched in water if the ice has had a chance to thaw out. Either way, its likely to be testing.

Hopefully, though, we do see some action as there’s a really classy card on show that includes four Graded races.  All are likely to have an influence on whether horses head to Cheltenham in a couple of months’ time, but two that stand out are the trials for the Supreme and the Champion Hurdle.

Mister Fisher heads the betting for the first of those with James Bowen booked to hopefully make it a second victory on the bounce. The 5yo notched his first win of the season for Nicky Henderson at Kempton last time, a fairly impressive one, and that will create plenty of betting interest around him this weekend.

As for the Champion Hurdle trial, that has been named after ‘The New One’ this year and much like him, the five runners are unlikely to trouble the main contenders in March. An interesting runner, though, is Mohaayed who won the County Handicap Hurdle last season. He struggled in his first two runs since then but was back on-song in a good handicap at Ascot last month and should be a player in ground that will suit.

Also, a mention to former Grand National winner One For Arthur who runs in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock and could well be seen back at Aintree in April.

Eyes Peeled at Thurles

Over the Irish sea, the main action takes place at Thurles this Sunday and they’ve a couple of nice races that could have indictors for Cheltenham.

The Grade 2 Chase is probably the pick of those and that could well throw up something for the Cheltenham Gold Cup or even the Grand National. Unsurprisingly, the top five in the betting are either trained by Willie Mullins or owned by Gigginstown. Mullins has the top two with Invitation Only and Total Recall battling it out for favouritism.

Both have entries in the Ryanair Chase and the Gold Cup, and Sunday’s race could make that decision become clearer. Invitation Only looks more like the Ryanair option with his best form coming around 2½ miles, while Total Recall won the Ladbrokes Trophy in 2017 and would seem a better fit for another go at the Gold Cup after falling last year.

The other race to note at Thurles is the Grade 2 Mares Novice Chase at 2:40pm. Willie Mullins has the favourite once again in the shape of the Ricci-owned Camelia De Cotte. She won a Grade 3 at Cork last time by six lengths and could put herself in the Cheltenham picture if she can follow suit.

 

See you at the races!

Back