One trainer, one jockey, one horse and one race to watch this Saturday
One trainer . . . Nicky Henderson
The champion trainer is always a man to note on Saturdays but at this time of year he thrives even more than usual.
The newly married Henderson has his string operating at a 30 per cent strike-rate of late with eight winners from his last 27 runners which, while very impressive, is not surprising, since this time of year has proven a stellar time to follow his yard.
In the two week period either side of Saturday's date no jumps trainer has been as effective. Before Friday's, Henderson's record for this period over the last five years stood at 61 winners from 198 runners for a 31 per cent strike-rate and a +20.10 level-stakes profit.
Henderson saddles five at Cheltenham – Apple's Shakira (12.40), O O Seven (1.50), Pacific De Baune and Santini (3.00) and Thomas Campbell (3.35) – and also has two at Doncaster: Indian Hawk (2.05) and L'Ami Serge (3.15).
Apple's Shakira aside they are all available to back at 3-1 or bigger. History, and Henderson's current form, would suggest there is plenty of value there.
One jockey . . . Noel Fehily
Last year's Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase-winning jockey returns to Cheltenham in cracking form and with a very strong book of rides to boot.
He has won on six of his last 20 rides, boasting a 30 per cent strike-rate before racing on Friday. On Saturday he partners former Champion Bumper winner Ballyandy off a mark of 145 in the novices' handicap chase (1.15).
Up next is the talented American in the Cotswold Chase (2.25). Harry Fry's eight-year-old disappointed on his comeback in the Ladbrokes Trophy when sent off at 5-1 but he looked high-class as a novice when winning three on the bounce, and he could still be a dark horse for the Gold Cup.
Fehily's final ride comes on Neil Mulholland's course and distance winner Tikkanbar, who is unbeaten in two starts this season, in the Grade 2 novices' hurdle (3.00). Fehily has a 32 per cent strike-rate (seven from 22) when teaming up with Mulholland at Cheltenham since the 2013/14 season and that jumps to 67 per cent this year with the partnership two from three.
One horse . . . Apple's Shakira
It is trials day at Cheltenham and no trials are as eagerly anticipated as that of Triumph Hurdle favourite Apple's Shakira, who will strut her stuff in the very first race of the day (12.40).
As a half sister to Apple's Jade expectation was high even before she was reported by work rider, conditional jockey Ned Curtis, to be very impressive and the JP McManus-owned juvenile filly was backed on her debut for the Henderson yard as if defeat was out of the question. She was taking on Gumball, at the time the Triumph ante-post favourite for last year's winning trainer Philip Hobbs, but she went off at even-money and duly won by 17 lengths.
She followed up last month with a course and distance success and will likely shorten further for the festival if impressing again in a race her trainer has won three times in the last five years with her relentless galloping and slick jumping.
One Race . . . Cleeve Hurdle (3.35 Cheltenham)
The feature race at the day's main meeting is designed as a trial for the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle and in that regard it is beautifully conceived with Inglis Drever, Big Buck's and Thistlecrack doubling up.
This year's contest has a wide-open feel to it and with the wonderfully talented Finian's Oscar, doing a Big Buck's and reverting to hurdles after failing to convince his trainer Colin Tizzard of his novice chasing credentials, facing off against Relkeel winner Wholestone, shock Long Distance Hurdle winner Beer Goggles and a strong supporting cast featuring the race looks sure to have a major impact on the ante-post market.
And it could have an even bigger impact on the heart were Beer Goggles to win after his trainer Richard Woollacott died on Tuesday at the age of 40. Woollacott's wife Kayley has decided to run the horse in his memory and it would make for powerful viewing were the brave and tenacious seven-year-old able to hold off his rivals as he did at Newbury.
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