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Trials day in Cheltenham as punters seek clearer picture

Cheltenham’s card has just survived an inspection and there’ll be plenty to glean from today’s action ahead of the March festival.

Trainer Nicky Henderson with Punchestowns.
Trainer Nicky Henderson with Punchestowns.
Image: David Davies/PA Wire.

Today’s action centres on trials day in Cheltenham, and the two main races may provide some food for thought for the March festival in the Cotswolds.

On the Gold Cup Trail

The feature race, the Argento Chase, will now be limited to just five runners following the late defection of exciting novice Time For Rupert.

After a dirty scope the seven year-old was withdrawn from the line-up, and will now likely head to the RSA Chase despite connections’ previous desire to aim at the Gold Cup. In his absence, Nicky Henderson’s Punchestowns will start as favourite.

A top-class staying hurdler two years ago; Barry Geraghty’s mount ran a fine race on his reappearance against the promising Pride of Dulcote. He should strip fitter for that run, and will take a lot of beating.

However, it is hard to shake the memory of his performance in last year’s RSA over the same course. On that occasion he was soundly beaten, although he did suffer an interrupted preparation in the run up to the big day. With the Gold Cup looking particularly open this year, the stage is set for Punchestowns to announce himself as a major player at this level. Victory here is imperative if he is to return in March with a real chance.

Punchestowns is rated 8lbs inferior to the top-rated chaser in the field, Tidal Bay, on official figures. If his length and a quarter defeat to Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander last time out was taken literally he would start as favourite; but the bookies have decided that the proximity flattered. Although in recent years Howard Johnson’s charge was been notoriously inconsistent, his record at Cheltenham is exceptional.

Reading four victories, including an Arkle, and three placings from nine starts – it’s hard to write off his chances.

Neptune Collonges, the Tother One and Madison du Berlias complete the field. The trio all have a lot to find on recent form.

The World is Not Enough

Runners in the Cleeve Hurdle over three miles will be relieved that the dual World Hurdle winner, and current favourite for the treble Big Bucks is not among them.

The talking horse of the race is David Pipe’s Grands Crus, who will be attempting to land a hat-trick of victories after sluicy up in a valuable handicap last time out. In a field composed mainly of chasers looking for confidence boosters he is one of the few progressive animals, but at 9/4 he is certainly short enough in the betting.

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Perhaps the next most interesting runner is AP McCoy’s ride, Cristal Bonus. Second in a heavy ground two-and-a-half-mile Group One hurdle in his native France, he made a pleasing British debut when finishing 11 lengths adrift of Menorah while conceding 4lbs in the International over what may prove to be an inadequate trip. While he has to give away more weight here, further progress would not be completely unexpected with the step up in distance and likely poorer opposition.

While contenders Bensalem and Spirit River are undoubtedly talented, they have a lot to prove given their respective illnesses and failures to complete in recent times. Restless Harry may be one to look out for given some impressive performances at the course last spring.

Verdict

While the two favourites have sound claims, the value may lie in opposing them. At 11/4 Tidal Bay is a feasible price to claim a fifth course victory, while Cristal Bonus looks a little big at 16/1 following a pleasing effort behind Champion Hurdle contender Menorah last time out.

About the author:

Mark Hobbs

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