We are now just 50 days away from the greatest four days in National Hunt racing, the Cheltenham Festival. With the event getting closer, trainers are starting to finish their preparation with their prized stars.
This weekend’s action returns us to Prestbury Park for a number of trial races. That includes four Grade 2 races, with the JCB Triumph Trial, Cotswold Chase, Classic Novices’ Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle all on the menu.
We’ll have horse racing tips for all the action, including a further trio of Grade 2 races at Doncaster. If you’re looking ahead to Festival, you can find all the key contenders running this weekend below!
Shishkin (5/6 for the Arkle)
Highest rated in the line-up by eight pounds, it’s difficult to see anything but a Shishkin victory on Saturday. Tasting defeat just once under rules, with that being a fall on debut, he’s looked imperious in a pair of chasing starts thus far.
His victory at Kempton over Christmas was a spellbinding performance and it’s no surprise that he’s odds-on to win the Arkle. If he puts in another round of incredible jumping, there is not a rival entered on Saturday who can match him.
Adagio (10/1 for the Triumph)
Winning three of his four starts over timber, Adagio has been steadily progressive for David Pipe. He posted the best effort of his career thus far when lowering the colours of Nassalam at Chepstow in the Grade 1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle and that propelled him to the front end of the Triumph Hurdle market.
His main rival is likely to be Nassalam once again and he’ll have to carry a penalty for this Grade 2 assignment. Given the manner of his Chepstow victory and his course and distance form, he’s still the one to beat. Another course victory would surely see him shorten for Friday’s opener.
Santini (10/1 for the Gold Cup)
Beaten just a neck in last year’s Gold Cup by Al Boum Photo, Santini has endured a difficult preparation for this year’s renewal. He returned at Aintree in the Many Clouds Chase, where no fences were jumped in the straight. That didn’t suit him, as he needs a strong test, and he ultimately ran better than expected to finish second.
Much of the same comments apply to his King George fifth, with the venue not providing him with enough of a test. He made plenty of late progress, however, and the Many Clouds Chase will finally be a test he’ll suit.
He won the race twelve months ago ahead of Bristol De Mai, with Native River another big danger in this year’s edition. It’s a must-win race for Santini, who will have no excuses and simply needs a confidence boost before the big day.
Bear Ghylls (25/1 for the Ballymore)
The phrase, “the obstacles are there to be jumped”, is a common one in National Hunt racing. It’s rare that a poor jumper can win a race at the Festival, even over hurdles, so this is a critical test for Nicky Martin’s Bear Ghylls.
He’s a perfect three out of three over hurdles, but his jumping has left a huge amount to be desired. An impressive handicap winner at Exeter earlier this month, he shot into the Ballymore picture as a result. That being said, he won’t be in the frame without his jumping seeing significant improvement.
Speaking after the Exeter success, Martin said: “His jumping is foot-perfect at home but it’s appalling in a race“. There is no doubt he has a big engine and if he does put in a more assured round on Saturday, 25/1 for the Ballymore is unlikely to be available at 3:10pm.
Paisley Park (10/3 for the Stayers Hurdle)
Cleeve Hurdle (January 30th)
The current ante-post favourite for the Stayers Hurdle, Paisley Park won the Cleeve Hurdle twelve months ago in his customary fashion. He subsequently disappointed in the main event at the Festival, but this season has proved he’s still at the top of the division.
A narrow second on return at Newbury, he reversed terms with Thyme Hill at Ascot in the Long Walk with a scintillating burst of pace in the straight. A three-time course and distance winner, he sets a daunting standard and is clearly the one to beat on Saturday.
With Cheltenham aspirations in mind, it would be comforting to see him pass this assignment with the minimum of fuss.