UK racing this week looks at Cheltenham opportunities

This week was a case of waking up and realising that I must be in Dorset because its Wednesday.  At this time of year the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival begins in earnest as we visit three of the main stables ahead of the four days of racing in March to see if we can find out what they think about their chances come race day.

Naturally, in the 21st century, trainers and jockeys are given far more media training that used to be the case, so picking the wheat from the chaff is the magic we need to use if we want to turn any kind of a profit, with hype to be discarded as we look for both winners, and value – which are not necessarily the same thing.

Tuesday saw three days of driving on the M23 then the M25 and so on, so an early start was the only remote chance of arriving on time as I headed off to Champion trainer Nicky Henderson. Firstly, I have to say that we are always made more than welcome, never rushed around, and better still the sausage baps are to die for so thanks for that, and on to the business of finding winners. 

Nicky Henderson, picture Sean Trivass

The obvious were paraded, Altior and Buveur D’Air looks as close to bullet proof as anything at the Festival and can take the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Champion Hurdle barring accidents, but anyone can pick those two and I was listening carefully for something with a chance at a better price. 

Two spring to mind, both of them each way would be my suggestion, with Brain Power heading to the Arkle with a live chance. Nicky explained that he has had a breathing operation since his poor run last time and is back working as well as ever, and when he describes him as a “seriously good horse”, then I sit up and take notice. 

The other name that cropped up a few times without anyone taking the bait was Divine Spear. He is better than it looked at Musselburgh last time and will put in a bold effort in whatever novice chase he eventually runs in with the JLT the likeliest for now.

Back home, make notes, download photos, rinse and repeat only on Wednesday a smaller crowd arrived at the Colin Tizzard yard. Thistlecrack was paraded and looked in rude health though he won’t be running until next season, though the stable still have more than their fair share of chances in the big races. 

Cue Card still looks a picture and no one would begrudge him a Gold Cup win at last but I got the feeling stable companion Native River may be the one for 2018. One race and one win this season is an ideal start. 

Colin told us that “He’s a lot stronger this time round, he’s in great form and we had him ready for Christmas. The manner of how he won at Newbury was equally as good as he has ever been”, and as they have deliberately given him a light campaign after his good third last year, he arrives here with every chance.

Colin Tizzard between Native River (left) and Cue Card, picture Sean Trivass

I am a huge fan of Finian’s Oscar but I am limiting my horses per stable to avoid accusations of a scattergun approach, and Elegant Escape will be my other bet from the yard. His trainer compares him favourably with Native River which is some compliment, and to these amateur eyes he did look a picture. Whether he goes to the RSA Chase or the Amateurs over four miles is yet to be decided, but he has a big future ahead of him and looks a horse worth following.

One more stable and boy was it cold at Nigel Twiston-Davies’ on Thursday morning. Operating a phone or a camera became a chore of epic proportions though Nigel did kindly work the horses for us which made it all worthwhile. 

Winners this year may well be thinner on the ground this year, but very different at Aintree is my guess, but The New One steps up in trip at last to take in the Stayers Hurdle. Sam Twiston-Davies has long been crying out for a step up in trip and in all honesty this does not look the strongest renewal of all time with Supasundae heading the early markets and once again, each way looks the sensible call.

Finding a second horse to round things off wasn’t easy to be honest but Jameson looked the part on the gallops and would be a very tentative each way alternative for the JLT of that is his chosen target.

Bristol De Mai and The New One lead out, picture Sean Trivass