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Unowhatimeanharry the banker but Thistlecrack still worthy favourite

Reporter Jon Lees runs the rule over the key Festival Trials Day action

Thistlecrack: still the horse to beat in the Gold Cup
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1. Thistlecrack still the one to beat in Cheltenham Gold Cup

The Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup is no longer the foregone conclusion the betting had suggested. And it never is.

For every Don Cossack, Kauto Star or Best Mate there is a Coneygree, Lord Windermere or Synchronised, horses whose staying power won out over class on the big day.

It was at the root of Thistlecrack's surprise first defeat over fences after he succumbed to a heroic effort by Many Clouds, who showed the superior will to win on the run to the line at the end of a gruelling Cotswold Chase.

On the softest ground Thistlecrack had encountered this season, his jumping was less assured but the performance was still, solid even if the result in losing out by a head was not what had been expected.

He finished 17 lengths in front of Smad Place and 27 clear of Silviniaco Conti, who was under four lengths behind him at Kempton, and would be more at home granted better ground in March.

More questions will be asked at the festival but, with the experience of two spins over fences at Cheltenham, Thistlecrack could still have all the answers.

2. Uxizandre could turn the tables on Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair Chase

Because he became Sir Anthony McCoy's final Cheltenham Festival winner, Uxizandre took a back seat in the acclaim for the partnership's 2015 triumph in the Ryanair Chase.

He had Don Cossack, last year's Gold Cup winner, among his victims at Cheltenham two years ago but until Saturday he had been denied another opportunity to prove his class due to injury.

After nearly two years away he was entitled to be rusty but, after at one point looking like the absence was taking its toll, he rallied and finished just five lengths off Un De Sceaux.

With Douvan seemingly a shoo-in for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, both Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre are more likely to contest the Ryanair.

Un De Sceaux has never won over the 2m5f trip over fences unlike Uxizandre, who excels at Cheltenham and will bring more to the table in March.

3. Unowhatimeanharry is JP's banker so Jezki should run in the Champion

There was plenty to glean from the trials day action, including the emergence of fresh candidates, but nothing to rattle Unowhatimeanharry, who delivered another convincing demonstration that he is the champion staying hurdler in waiting.

He has followed the same path as Thistlecrack a year ago and has won every start in the course of an eight-race unbeaten run, and on Saturday conceded 8lb to 2015 winner Cole Harden and scored with complete authority.

Unowhatimeanharry wins the Cleeve Hurdle in January

He has proved so dominant that owner JP McManus had Yanworth rerouted from a staying programme to the Champion Hurdle, but McManus has not yet determined the target for Jezki.

The 2014 Champion Hurdle winner is shorter for the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle than the Champion, but with Annie Power ruled out of a defence this week and Faugheen still missing the target should be obvious.

4. Improving Royal Vacation looks a major RSA challenger

Royal Vacation was considered a lucky Grade 1 winner after being presented with the Kauto Star Novices' Chase when Might Bite came down on Boxing Day, but there was nothing fortunate about his victory in the novice handicap chase.

Ordinarily a 12lb rise for a horse who would have been second might have looked steep but Royal Vacation earned another ratings hike with a convincing win over Potters Legend. The horse who began his chasing career with defeat at Fontwell is thriving on experience.

5. Twiston-Davies could have plenty to shout about at the festival

Nigel Twiston-Davies won two races at last year's festival and is putting together another formidable team.

His 17 festival wins include triumphs in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and he has won the Grand National twice. All without the firepower that the stables of Mullins, Henderson, Nicholls and Elliott can command.

With Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, also owners with Henderson and Mullins, among his supporters he has added greater depth to his team. A double with Wholestone and Foxtail Hill made it four graded wins in consecutive weekends and, in March, Twiston-Davies could have a squad to go to war with.

More questions will be asked at the festival but, with the experience of two spins over fences at Cheltenham, Thistlecrack could still have all the answers

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