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Big guns begin firing as build up to Cheltenham Festival continues

The National Hunt season has well and truly reached full stride with plenty of big names expected to feature in the top races at the Cheltenham festival in March already having had a run, reminding jumps fans of just how much there is to look forward to in what promises to be another tremendous season, writes Elliot Slater.

The next few months are sure to fly by leaving the always eagerly anticipated Cheltenham Festival around the corner, by which time the picture relating to the top showcase races of the meeting – the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, World Hurdle and Gold Cup, as well as other top events such as the Supreme Novices Hurdle, RSA Chase, Arkle Trophy, Ryanair Chase, and Triumph Hurdle, amongst others, should be that much more defined.

So, what have we learned so far in the first few weeks of the autumn schedule? Well, amongst other things, we know that Minehead-based trainer Philip Hobbs is probably in better form than any other of the major yards. Hobbs has enjoyed a tremendous strike rate so far this campaign and virtually all his horses seem to be running out of their skin. The best example would probably be his popular chaser Menorah, always there or thereabouts in top events over the years, but apparently a pound or two short of the very best in his division.

Menorah, however, lit up the Grade 2 three-mile-one-furlong Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on November 1, the season’s first big stayers’ contest, when put up a sparkling display to land his first victory at the trip and open up a whole new range of possibilities for the likeable Diana Whateley-owned gelding. In previous seasons Menorah, (named after the seven-stemmed candelabra symbol of the State of Israel), had appeared to be at his best when racing at around two-and-a-half miles, winning top races such as the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices Chase at Aintree over the trip, as well as the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon.

Last term the signs were there that as he gets older Menorah’s stamina is developing. He won the listed Oaksey Chase over the very testing two-and-three-quarter miles at Sandown, beating Gullinbursti by 17 lengths, and at Wetherby, having his first outing of the term, always appeared to be travelling well in the hands of his regular partner, Richard Johnson. The Wetherby home straight is uphill all the way but there was no sign of Menorah’s stamina flickering as first The Giant Bolster, then Silviniaco Conti, then Double Ross and Medermit ran out of steam.

Going to the final fence Menorah had already assumed command and a good leap sealed the deal as he stayed on very strongly all the way to the line to beat last season’s Cheltenham Festival winner Taquin de Seuil (JLT Novices Chase hero), by a comfortable four lengths.

Hobbs, who hadn’t travelled north to Wetherby in Yorkshire for the race, (but who saw it at Ascot where he was saddling other runners), suggested that the King George VI Chase at Kempton would now appear the obvious route for his gelded son of King’s Theatre. Betting firms reacted by trimming the odds of a Menorah victory at the feature Sunbury Christmas highlight to a general offer of 14/1.

Paul Nicholls’ evens favourite Silvinaco Conti – who had been expected by many to make a winning return in the ‘Charlie Hall’ – was quite disappointing, prompting the champion trainer to suggest that he still was short of where he wanted him to be at this stage so he may well take in another race – quite possibly the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock later in the month – before heading to Kempton for the ‘King George’, a race in which he defeated the classy Cue Card last winter.

The runner-up at Wetherby, Taquin De Seuil, delighted trainer Jonjo O’Neill who couldn’t have been happier with this first-time-out effort. O’Neill confirmed his charge bang on target to head to Haydock for the Betfrair Chase, after which he has all the top races in the division in mind for a horse already amongst the front-runners for honours – together with such as Silviniaco Conti – for the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself, in March.

The Nigel Twiston-Davies team was also very happy with the run of Double Ross, who finished a close third having led three out only to possibly blow up from the penultimate fence on his seasonal bow. Third behind Taquin de Seuil at last term’s Cheltenham Festival, before running a fine fifth behind Ma Filleule in the Topham Trophy, Double Ross is another exciting prospect in what is sure to prove a fascinating season in the three-mile chasing division.

Mullins already holds the aces for Cheltenham Festival

A brief glance at the ante-post list for the Cheltenham Festival 2015 very quickly reveals that at this relatively early stage of the season Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins has an embarrassment of riches in most departments and once again appears the man they all have to beat at jump racing’s premier fixture of the year, writes Elliot Slater.

Mullins, who sent out a record seven winners at the meeting back in 2012, was once again the top dog at last year’s ‘greatest show on turf’ where he began by saddling the exciting Vautour to win the opening race of the fixture, the Grade 1 Supreme Novices Hurdle. Plans for the exciting five-year-old for this term have yet to be finalised and no decision appears yet to have been taken as to whether the Susanna Ricci-owned gelding will stay over hurdles and bid for the Champion Hurdle, or switch to the larger obstacles and work towards a shot at the two-mile Arkle Trophy, the first-season novice chasers championship at that distance.

Long-time stable star Quevega will not grace the Cheltenham Festival 2015 having been retired after her defeat at Punchestown in May. That surprise loss came after the outstanding mare had landed a remarkable sixth successive OLBG (David Nicholson) Mares’ Hurdle, a record that may never be equalled in the history of the sport, never mind surpassed. Mullins does however appear to have a ready-made replacement for Quevega in the shape of the terrific mare Annie Power, (also owned by Ricci), a hot favourite in the ante-post market to continue the Mullins stranglehold on the mares’ hurdle.

The winner of 11 of her 12 career starts, Annie Power’s only defeat came at Cheltenham in March when she stepped up to three miles for the very first time and ran her heart out in finishing a brave second to the unbeaten More of That in the Grade 1 Ladbrokes World Hurdle. She remains a possible to try and go one better in the third day feature event, but Mullins also has potential candidates for this race in the shape of the undefeated Un De Sceaux, winner of two graded races in France during the spring and also a leading fancy for the two-mile Arkle Chase, and the exciting Briar Hill, whose only career defeat came at Cheltenham in March when favourite for the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle.

The Andrea and Graham Wylie-owned son of Shantou was travelling comfortably in midfield when falling at the seventh flight in the race eventually won by Very Wood, but is understood to be back in training and shaping well ahead of his first run of the new term. Like a number of his top stable companions, Briar Hill also has the option to switch to fences and is prominent in the betting markets for the Grade 1 RSA Chase over three miles at the Cheltenham Festival in 2015.

Shaneshill, another tremendously exciting prospect to represent the Wylies, should make his eagerly anticipated hurdling bow before too long and is already amongst the market leaders for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, having proven himself one of the very best bumper horses in the business last campaign. He found only Silver Concorde too good for him at the Cheltenham Festival before gaining his revenge on Dermot Weld’s smart sort in the equivalent event at Punchestown six weeks later.

Together with the high-class Champagne Fever, Black Hercules, and a host of other talented prospects, there is little doubt that once again Willie Mullins is the trainer to look to ahead of what promises to be another amazing four days in March at the Cheltenham Festival 2015.

Arkle Finance Handicap Preview

In the Arkle Finance Handicap (4.50) at Newmarket on Thursday, September 25, Billingsgate is one of the few runners obviously in form and can record his third win of the campaign. Charlie Appleby’s three-year-old won, in this grade, over the testing mile at Sandown three starts ago and, although subsequently only sixth of eleven, beaten 6½ lengths, in a higher grade handicap at Ascot, was only beaten three-quarters of a length in a similar race at Kempton last month.

The son of Exceed And Excel is another 3lb higher in the weights here, but went down fighting at Kempton, despite carrying his head at an awkward angle in the closing stages, and could still be open to further improvement after just seven career starts. Indeed, the Ascot form has worked out well enough, with the winner running an excellent race in defeat when second, off a 6lb higher mark, over 1 mile 2½ furlongs, at Doncaster two weeks ago and the fourth winning comfortably over 7 furlongs on the July Course at Newmarket last month on his only subsequent start.

Billingsgate has won on good to firm and good going on turf, so probably doesn’t want too much rain, although he did run well enough on his seasonal debut, on soft going, at Doncaster in April to suggest that he won’t be unduly inconvenienced if the showers forecast for the East of England overnight on Tuesday and on Wednesday do materialise. The uphill climb to the winning post on the Rowley Mile should play to his strengths, whatever the weather between now and Thursday, and he appears to have excellent prospects of improving his (already healthy) win-to-run ratio.

Statistically, trainer Charlie Appleby has a 3-15 (20%) strike rate with his three-year-olds on the Rowley Mile at Newmarket and jockey William Buick is 9-41 (22%) for the yard on runners in that age group, so the signs are quite encouraging on that score, too.

Another three-year-old trained in Newmarket, Master Of The World, has run well on all six handicap starts since finishing down the field in the 2,000 Guineas, over course and distance, in May, and could be the one who gives Billingsgate most to do. However, the Mastercraftsman colt is 6lb higher in the weights than when winning at York last month and appears more exposed than Charlie Appleby’s charge. In any case, the progressive Billingsgate is readily preferred on this occasion.

Selection: Newmarket 4.50 Billingsgate to win

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