Cross Country Chases at Cheltenham fall in to the “love them or hate them” bracket with no grey areas, but a winner is a winner and with so few races each season course form can prove to be invaluable and specialists have appeared over the years with Uncle Junior winning this contest twice for Willie Mullins in 2011 and 2012, while Balthazar King scored here in 2013 and 2014 for Philip Hobbs. No great surprise to say the Irish dominate these events overall and Enda Bolger especially, and this year he has two entered, headed on the ratings at least by the in-form Cantlow (13/8). Last time out he was backed as if defeat was not an option before being sent off the 13/8 favourite over course and distance and seeing off Bless The Wings by nine lengths and the pair of them meet on nine pounds different terms now which suggests there won’t be a lot in it at the line. The numbers cannot and do not take in to account the dominance of the winner that day who had any amount up his sleeve, and granted a clear round it seems difficult to see those placings being reversed this afternoon. His trainer was certainly impressed, saying after the race “The ground was a big factor today because it was firm in places and Cantlow really bounces off it. I loved the way he pricks his ears and flew round….He excelled today…” suggesting any more rain could well be his weakness if he has one, but it is currently forecast to be good going and he will take a bit of beating this afternoon but is a very poor price in the circumstances giving six pounds (after the jockey claim) to the selection.
Various media days at the Ditcheat yard of Champion trainer Paul Nicholls have regularly seen Rocky Creek (12/1 Each Way) described as a Grand National horse, and although he has tried three times now, a fifth to Pineau De Re in 2014 is as close as he has managed so far. He can be a bit of a “thinker” on occasion and may even sulk if taken on for the early lead, but these fences could well bring out the very best in him in which case he is certainly well handicapped off a rating of 148 this afternoon having won off higher ratings twice in the past. The stable continue to be in among the winners with three from their last fourteen runners while Jack Sherwood is superb value for his three pound claim which may yet make all the difference here.
Fellow Irish trainer Willie Mullins is looking for another win this year with Alelchi Inois (6/1) though he does have to suffer top weight of eleven stone twelve which will not help his chances of success. The Mullins yard are in acceptable if not brilliant form with four wins from thirty-one runners in the last fourteen days for a 13% strike rate but interestingly this will be the nine-year-old’s first trip to the United Kingdom and he needs to prove he can travel without it affecting his abilities. Last time out he finished a decent enough fourth to Champagne West at Tramore on the first of this month, and he has his first outing over these fences here. He does fully deserve his place in any race preview on that form and it will be interesting to see if he takes to these usual fences or not and has a decent chance of success if he does or even improves for them as some have over the years.
Condicote trainer Martin Keighley has Any Currency (7/1) in here and he is a track specialist who has raced here numerous times both over the normal fences and the Cross Country track. Although there is no substitute for experience he is getting on at the age of fourteen and has more than enough weight compared to his rating over the “normal” fences, suggesting he may well be going backwards and ought to struggle here. Last time out he was pulled up here on the New course when struggling and outpaced, and much as he would be a popular winner with the sentimental racegoers, his best years are almost certainly behind him now, with his trainer woefully out of form as well which also counts against him.
Lastly Enda Bolger has also entered Auvergnat (9/1) here and although at present he has to run from out of the handicap, his trainer knows exactly the right sort of horse for these races and he could be the surprise package. Most likely to carry ten stone regardless, the seven-year-old is the youngest runner in the race and has more room for improvement than most, and would get his first sight at these fences this afternoon. He did finish third to Cantlow at Punchestown when last seen in action in November and meets that rival on six pounds better terms (assuming he carries ten stone and ignoring jokey claims), which ought to make it a lot closer and it will be intriguing to see how he gets on if allowed to take on his more illustrious stable companion.