Frodon is sure to put up a bold defence of his crown but A PLUS TARD is improving at a rate of knots and looks the one to be with.
On good to soft ground last year, Frodon stayed on gallantly up the hill and he really is a hard horse to pass at Cheltenham. If the ground was to be similar or better the likes of Min and A Plus Tard might have a bit too much pace for him but on soft ground, which he relishes, Frodon’s exquisite jumping would have all the others in trouble from a long way out again.
Cheltenham took steps to rectify a perceived lack of quality in this staying handicap hurdle by changing the conditions – as of 2016, horses were eligible to run in the final only if they finished in the first six in one of the qualifiers. A rating of at least 135 has been needed to get into the race since 2013. Six-year-olds have the best recent record with four wins in the past seven runnings (and Southfield Theatre went close in 2014 when beaten a nose). Over the longer term last-time-out winners have a strong record (12 winners in the past 24 years), although six of the exceptions have been in the past ten years. Favourites have a poor record. Fingal Bay in 2014 and Sire Du Berlais last year are the only two market leaders to have won in the past 22 runnings, although again the trend is shifting with those recent successes (and in 2018 second favourite Delta Work beat favourite Glenloe, both from the Gordon Elliott stable). This had long been dominated by the home contingent but that stranglehold was broken in 2016 by Mall Dini and it has been one-way traffic since then for the Irish.
Established in 1951 and traditionally known as the Mildmay of Flete, this race has been the biggest graveyard for favourites over the years but Nick Williams’ Siruh Du Lac became the second consecutive winner at single-figure odds when he scored as 9-2 second favourite last year (chased home by 3-1 favourite Janika and Spiritofthegames at 6-1). He was the shortest-priced winner since Salut Flo (also 9-2) in 2012. Nicky Henderson went close last year with Janika and has a good record, with two winners, a second, a third and a fourth from his last 19 runners. David Pipe has had three of the past ten winners and his stable’s runners are always to be respected (his father Martin won four times from 1997 to 2002). Venetia Williams is another trainer to note, having won three times in the last 13 runnings. Some of the bigger stables struggle to get runners at the lower end of the handicap and Paul Nicholls has not won in 32 attempts.
Willie Mullins has mopped up all four runnings of this race, which is no surprise given his strength in depth with mares. Even when he looked set to lose his 100 per cent record last year when his first-string My Sister Sarah was only third favourite and finished 13th, Mullins still came up with the winner in Eglantine Du Seuil at 50-1 and had 66-1 runner-up Concertista to boot. This year his team includes Tipperary maiden winner Lamarckise, Colreevy and Dolcita, although the last two were beaten by Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Melody in a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in January and that impressive winner could well start favourite here. Possibles for other big yards include Floressa (Nicky Henderson), Daylight Katie (Gordon Elliott) and Silver Forever (Paul Nicholls).
The best amateur jockeys are always in demand for this contest and Jamie Codd is the main man with four wins in the last 11 runnings, most recently aboard Cause Of Causes in 2016. Non-claiming riders have the edge in quality and others to note include Derek O’Connor and Sam Waley-Cohen (first and third last year) and Patrick Mullins. A number of the larger stables target this race and their runners always merit respect. David Pipe, whose father Martin won this race on three occasions, had the first two in 2011 and landed the spoils again in 2015, while Nicky Henderson has had three successes, including a couple of 1-2s. Irish trainers had a modest record until recently but have won three of the past six runnings. With little between most of the runners nowadays, the higher-rated runners have started to do well and ten of the last 11 winners carried 11st 4lb or more (including topweights Character Building and Ballabriggs). The last eight runnings have been won by horses rated between 137 and 143 (three were rated 137 and one was 138).
Thursday provided the emotional high points of the 2019 festival with the wins of Frodon and Paisley Park and the tears and cheers could start flowing from the very first race this year. Faugheen, the former Champion Hurdle winner now making his mark as a novice chaser at the age of 12, was given a hero’s welcome following his Grade 1 triumph at the Dublin Racing Festival and the volume will go up another notch if he is successful at this meeting for a third time, six years after his first victory as a novice hurdler. Most of his main rivals are only half his age – more the norm for a first-season chaser – and they are headed by Grade 1 Scilly Isles winner Itchy Feet, bidding to give trainer Olly Murphy a first festival success. Faugheen’s trainer Willie Mullins has younger possibles in Allaho and Easy Game, while Nicky Henderson’s Mister Fisher is another leading home hope.
This race produced one of the stories of last year’s festival with Bryony Frost doing the talking on and off Frodon, who capped a tremendous season at Cheltenham in a brave and dramatic battle up the hill. The popular pairing will be back to defend the crown but Frodon has not been in such good form this season and this is shaping up as a stronger race than last year. A Plus Tard and Min are both Grade 1 winners this term, with their form tying in closely with leading Champion Chase contender Chacun Pour Soi, and both are proven at Cheltenham, with A Plus Tard having won impressively at last year’s festival and Min being unlucky to keep coming up against the top-class Altior. Others in the mix include Nigel Twiston-Davies’s improver Riders Onthe Storm, last year’s almost ignored gallant runner-up Aso, plus the remarkable 12-year-old Un De Sceaux, the 2017 winner.
Multiple successes were the norm in this race in the early part of the century with Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck’s and, while there has been no recent repeat winner, Paisley Park is well placed to become the first to follow up since Big Buck’s completed his four-timer in 2012. He scored by almost three lengths last year in an emotional triumph for trainer Emma Lavelle and owner Andrew Gemmell, confirming a meteoric rise to the top of the division, and has stretched his winning run to seven this season with two comfortable if not quite so dominant victories. Willie Mullins’ top-class mare Benie Des Dieux would give him a different challenge if she ran here and last year’s Ballymore winner City Island is another intriguing new contender for trainer Martin Brassil, but otherwise Paisley Park will face mostly rivals he has beaten before, such as Tom George’s Summerville Boy.