Last year's Champion Bumper third THYME HILL is a tough cookie and just the job for this race. Latest Exhibition is next best.
The fact he could run as well as he did against the second favourite for the Supreme was a feather in his cap and he’s taken off over further since. Last time he stayed on strongly to win the Grade 1 over 2m6f at the Dublin Racing Festival and he will have no trouble staying 3m and staying it well.
Preference is for AL BOUM PHOTO (nap) who sets the standard on the form of his win in this race last year and has had an identical prep.
This handicap hurdle for conditional riders is not an easy ‘getting out stakes’ for punters at the end of the festival. Eight of the 11 winners have been sent off at double-figure odds and Sir Des Champs in 2011 is the only successful favourite, although strong fancies did well last year with 5-1 shot Early Doors winning from 7-2 favourite Dallas Des Pictons. Interestingly, the last six winners all ran in Graded company on their previous outing (Early Doors had finished second in a Grade 1). Before Joseph O’Brien scored with Early Doors, seven of the previous eight runnings were won by Willie Mullins, Paul Nicholls or Gordon Elliott. With this race earning a reputation as a proving ground for future top chasers, the Gigginstown House Stud runners are worth a close look. Elliott’s two wins have come with Champagne Classic and Blow By Blow, both in the Gigginstown colours, which were also carried to victory by Sir Des Champs and Don Poli when Willie Mullins still trained for them. The Elliott-trained Dallas Des Pictons and Defi Bleu were second and third for Gigginstown last year. The minimum rating needed to get into the race since 2016 has been 135. Runners rated between 133 and 139 have won seven of the 11 runnings but the last two winners were rated 144 and 145.
This is an ultra-competitive handicap and being in the right ratings bracket has become a virtual prerequisite. Last year’s winner Ch’tibello, who scored off 146, became only the second since 2006 to defy a mark higher than 139 (the classy Arctic Fire won off 158 in 2017). Every other winner since 2006 was rated in the 130s with six of the last nine having run off 138 or 139. Ireland has accounted for eight of the last 13 winners, with six of them trained by a Mullins. Willie Mullins had his first festival handicap victory in this race with Thousand Stars in 2010 and followed up with Final Approach (2011), Wicklow Brave (2015) and Arctic Fire (2017). Paul Nicholls has done best of the British trainers, winning four times since 2004, but the one to watch recently has been Dan Skelton, who has won three of the last four runnings with Superb Story in 2016, Mohaayed in 2018 and Ch’tibello last year.
Nine horses since 1956 have won the race twice – three of them (Salsify, On The Fringe and Pacha Du Polder) in the last eight runnings – and Hazel Hill looks set to make a bold bid to become the latest to double up. Last year Hazel Hill made it three in a row for British runners following a run of six consecutive Irish winners from 2011. He also continued the recent run of success for older runners, being the fifth in a row aged in double figures, although he was unusual in scoring for the first time at the age of 11 (Cavalero in 2000 is the only other first-time winner that old in the past 30 years). Eighteen of the last 29 winners have been aged nine or younger, despite the recent success of older runners. Nine of the last ten winners had finished in the first three last time out, six of them winning.
The quality of this 2m½f handicap chase has improved year on year and seven of the last nine winners were rated at least 140, with last year’s winner Croco Bay just below at 139. Le Prezien’s win off 150 (11st 8lb) for Paul Nicholls in 2018 was the best weight-carrying performance since Stopped (11st 12lb) in 1980. Croco Bay (10st 12lb) ended a run of five consecutive winners who carried at least 11st. Before 2014 there was a 14-year run where no winner carried more than 10st 13lb. Croco Bay became the oldest winner since Uncle Ernie (also 12) in 1997 and only the second older than nine since then (the other was the ten-year-old Tiger Cry in 2008). Palarshan (2003) is the only five-year-old to win in the past 50 years. Paul Nicholls has won four times since 2004, although he has also had five beaten favourites. The race’s title has commemorated Nicky Henderson’s father Johnny since 2005 and the trainer won with 20-1 shots Greenhope (2006) and Bellvano (2012). He has also had four runners-ups and three thirds from a total of 38 runners.
This is a fascinating and open renewal featuring last year’s winner Al Boum Photo and his predecessor Native River, this season’s winners of the King George VI Chase (Clan Des Obeaux), Betfair Chase (Lostintranslation) and Irish Gold Cup (Delta Work), last-time-out Cotswold Chase scorer Santini, dual festival winner Presenting Percy and Kemboy, last season’s top-rated chaser in the Anglo-Irish Classifications. That’s eight different horses and, with several of them having the potential to produce even more, this race is going to take some winning if most of the main contenders bring their A-game. Al Boum Photo and Santini were disputing favouritism as this guide went to press but the front eight in the market varied only from 4-1 to 12-1 and in some lists the betting was even tighter. Opinions will vary right up to raceday and then Cheltenham’s famous fences and the hill will settle the argument.
The premier juvenile hurdle often has a short-priced favourite but there is not much between the front three in the betting – Allmankind, Goshen and Aspire Tower – and they have remarkably similar profiles, having won all of their completed starts from the front and with a distinct liking for soft ground. Dan Skelton’s free-running Allmankind is the only one with a Grade 1 win, having taken the Finale at Chepstow in decisive fashion, and also has Cheltenham form to his credit with his victory in the Grade 2 Triumph Trial. Goshen has not been highly tried by Gary Moore but has been winning by big margins on the Flat and over hurdles since early last summer (six consecutive wins in all). The Henry de Bromhead-trained Aspire Tower is the only one with a blemish on his record, having fallen at the final flight in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown last time, but is just ahead of the other two on Racing Post Ratings. Next in the ante-post betting are Spring winner A Wave Of The Sea and Cerberus (both trained by Joseph O’Brien) and the Paul Nicholls pair Mick Pastor and Solo.
This is a tricky novice hurdle to work out and the favourite is often turned over, with the biggest upset of all coming last year when 50-1 shot Minella Indo beat Commander Of Fleet, the 4-1 market leader. He was the sixth consecutive winner at double-figure odds, with two of the others being 33-1 shots. The poisoned chalice of favouritism could go to Philip Hobbs’s Thyme Hill if he runs here instead of the Ballymore or otherwise to one of the leading Irish contenders – Willie Mullins’ relatively untested Monkfish or Latest Exhibition, who put trainer Paul Nolan back in the big time with a Grade 1 victory last time. But history tells us to look further down the betting and the longer-priced possibilities include Longhouse Poet (Martin Brassil) and Ramses De Teillee (David Pipe).