The unbeaten run of Envoi Allen could be ended by THE BIG BREAKAWAY, who has been so impressive in his two hurdle wins.
It was the manner of his Naas victory that marked him down as something special and he comes from a yard that has the best record in novice hurdles at the festival. What was so impressive at Naas was his hurdling, which was quick and accurate, and he looked a horse who was destined for the very top.
This looks an ideal scenario for MINELLA INDO (nap). Copperhead may prove the biggest threat if this becomes a thorough test.
The six-year-old has won two handicaps with any amount in hand and beat Fingerontheswitch in the first of them at Wincanton. That horse subsequently hacked up at Kempton and was a close second in the Sky Bet Chase last weekend.
The Tizzards are looking to run him the Reynoldstown before Cheltenham and if he’s as good as I think he is, he won’t be anything like the 33-1 he is now after Ascot.
Even though the make-up of this race never becomes clear until final entries are confirmed in festival week, Willie Mullins is invariably quick to give himself a strong hand and this year he has ante-post favourite Appreciate It, who sets a high standard with his Racing Post Rating of 138. That was earned in victory at the Dublin Racing Festival in the Grade 2 won by Relegate and Envoi Allen, the last two winners of this contest. Another to stake an early claim for a place on the Mullins team was Ferny Hollow, whose form in December stacks up well even though he did not manage to register a win. Mullins faces fierce competition in this sphere these days from Gordon Elliott, who has won two of the last three runnings and has several possibles this time, including Farouk D’Alene and Eskylane. Joseph O’Brien could have a decent shot too with Forged In Fire, who beat Ferny Hollow at Lepardstown’s Christmas meeting. David Pipe, who won the 2015 edition, has two of the best British hopes in Israel Champ and Panic Attack (formerly with Mullins).
A fiercely competitive and often wide-open handicap hurdle that was won by 7-2 favourite Band Of Outlaws last year, breaking the recent trend towards big-priced winners (six of the previous seven had been 25-1 or bigger). The big stables are always worth noting. Paul Nicholls has been responsible for three winners, as well as several placed horses, and Nicky Henderson, David Pipe and Gordon Elliott have had a winner apiece. Joseph O’Brien, having won with Band Of Outlaws last year, is likely to remain a significant player given the strength of his juvenile hurdling team. Nicholls’ three winners were French-breds, who have done well in this juvenile contest with six wins in 15 runnings (a French-bred has finished first or second in the last eight renewals, with Elliott’s Coko Beach chasing home Band Of Outlaws last year). Ten of the 15 winners had won on one of their last two starts and four of the last six winners carried 11st or 11st 1lb to victory. Crack Away Jack (11st 10lb in 2008) and Band Of Outlaws (11st 8lb last year) are the only winners to carry more than 11st 4lb. Band Of Outlaws won off a mark of 139 last year, becoming the first winner rated higher than 134. It was inevitable there would be a higher-rated winner before long, with 129 the minimum required to get into last year’s race, but it is worth noting that the next three after Band Of Outlaws were rated 134, 132 and 129.
This unusual event has a new-found prominence thanks to Tiger Roll, who has won for the past two years before going on to Grand National glory at Aintree and is expected to follow the same route in his hat-trick bid. Even before Tiger Roll, Gordon Elliott had become the trainer to watch since the race was changed to a conditions event in 2016, having previously been a handicap. He had the runner-up in 2016, a one-two in 2017 and then the two wins with Tiger Roll. It has generally paid to back horses at the head of the market, with ten of the 15 winners returned at 11-2 or shorter, although Josies Orders in 2016 and Tiger Roll last year are the only successful favourites since 2007. The biggest-priced winner was A New Story at 25-1 in 2010. Ireland has won 13 of the 15 runnings, helped largely by the success in the early years of Enda Bolger, who is widely regarded as the cross-country master. Philip Hobbs is the only trainer to have won for Britain, with Balthazar King in 2012 and 2014.
Only one favourite and one joint-favourite have won this highly competitive handicap hurdle in 26 runnings and last year’s finish was fought out by two 28-1 shots, William Henry and Wicklow Brave. There have been just two winners at single-figure odds since 2004. Ireland had three consecutive winners from 2016 to 2018 and was narrowly denied four in a row when Willie Mullins’ Wicklow Brave went down by a short head last year. Ireland has had ten winners, with nine of them returned at between 11-1 and 20-1. This race tends to suit younger, less exposed types, with William Henry last year becoming only the fourth winner in the last 20 renewals aged eight or older. However, William Henry did fit the usual mould by arriving at Cheltenham with his runs over hurdles in single figures. Son Of Flicka in 2012 (with 22) is the only winner in the last 12 renewals to be into double figures. William Henry last year bucked the form trend as he had been pulled up on his latest run whereas the previous ten winners had won or finished second last time out.
The unbeaten Envoi Allen will have ‘Irish banker’ status if he lines up here as expected, having landed last year’s Champion Bumper and continued his winning run over hurdles with three victories, the last two at Grade 1 level. Gordon Elliott won this race two years ago with Samcro, another short-priced favourite, and Irish punters will be expecting him to do the business again, especially if some of the main dangers are diverted elsewhere. On paper Envoi Allen will face a serious examination, not least from the Willie Mullins camp with Asterion Forlonge or The Big Getaway (who race in the same colours). Among the British trainers, Colin Tizzard also has choices to make with The Big Breakaway, Fiddlerontheroof and Harry Senior, while Philip Hobbs has Sporting John and Thyme Hill and Nicky Henderson’s leading hope looks to be Chantry House.
Champ, famously named after 20-time champion jump jockey Sir Anthony McCoy, could not quite live up to his billing when runner-up in last year’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle but will be strongly fancied to go one better here, having shown considerable ability over fences despite his fall at Cheltenham last time out. The Irish challenge is led by the Henry de Bromhead-trained Minella Indo and Willie Mullins’ Allaho, first and third in last year’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, although neither has yet been tried in Graded company over fences. The Gordon Elliott-trained Battleoverdoyen – beaten favourite in last year’s Ballymore – is a Grade 1 winner over fences but, like Champ, is coming off a fall last time out. Colin Tizzard has a decent pair in impressive Reynoldstown winner Copperhead and Grade 1 scorer Slate House, while there will also be interest in Tom George’s nine-year-old Black Op, who has made a better impression in his second spell as a novice chaser.
This is shaping up as the race of the festival with three heavyweights ready to slug it out for the title. Reigning champ Altior is bidding to join Badsworth Boy as a three-time winner and Nicky Henderson’s star remains unbeaten at Cheltenham over hurdles and fences, but there have been chinks in his armour over the past year or so and he does not look as unbeatable as he once did. The Philip Hobbs-trained Defi Du Seuil also has an impressive record at the festival, having won the Triumph Hurdle in 2017 and the JLT Novices’ Chase last year, and he has been the dominant force over two miles in Britain this season, scoring Grade 1 wins in the Tingle Creek at Sandown and the Clarence House at Ascot. The least experienced of the big three is Willie Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi, who has had only eight starts and is yet to run at Cheltenham, but he already boasts an impressive win over Defi Du Seuil at last year’s Punchestown festival and added a second Grade 1 success when beating stablemate Min in the Dublin Chase in February. If all three run to form, they could serve up something special and it will be a surprise if any of the others can compete with them.