With the Cheltenham Festival on the horizon, it’s time to assess the claims of the current antepost favourites for the four-day racing extravaganza.
It’s been a hugely puzzling season for the antepost markets with the Champion Hurdle more open than ever before. Lostintranslation and Kemboy suffered defeats over the Christmas period further complicating the Gold Cup picture and Champ’s jumping remains a concern for the backer of the RSA favourite.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The likely absence of Envoi Allen has opened the door for stablemate Abacadrabras. The six-year-old found that rival too good in the Royal Bond but made amends with a ready win at Leopardstown on the 27th December.
He’s beaten every horse bar Envoi Allen in four starts over hurdles, whom he’s unlikely to face at Cheltenham. Sterner tests than his latest success await him though, where the second favourite blew up and the second was only rated 126.
Verdict: Jury’s Out
The most puzzling Champion Hurdle in years. Last year’s winner Espoir D’Allen is unfortunately no longer with us, Buveur D’Air is out for the season and promising youngsters Klassical Dream and Pentland Hills are yet to rediscover their best form.
Current favourite is the mare Epatante, who has impressed when winning her two starts this term. Her latest five-length success in the Christmas Hurdle saw her shoot to the head of the market.
Her tame effort in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle last year is a big concern however. Added to that, her career best RPR of 157 falls a long way short of what’s required in a normal Champion Hurdle. Whilst this isn’t a vintage year, it’d be a disappointment if she was good enough to land the spoils.
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle
Envoi Allen took his record to a perfect eight-from-eight with success in the Lawlor’s Of Naas on Sunday. Last year’s Champion Bumper winner has furthered his lofty reputation with three bloodless successes over timber.
A step up in trip from two-miles certainly posed no problem for the six-year-old when landing back-to-back Grade One successes. Such is the weakness of the hurdling division this term that he’d have a shout in the Champion Hurdle. Connections have confirmed their intention to keep him amongst novices though. His unbeaten run should continue for some time as a result.
Verdict: Strong Claims
RSA Novices’ Chase
The hugely promising Champ enjoyed a very productive novice hurdling campaign last term. His chasing career, whilst far from foot-perfect was going in a similarly upward trajectory until he fell in the Dipper on New Year’s Day.
He remains a work in progress and whilst he had his recent start sewn up before falling, it was one of three chase starts in which he’s faced hugely inferior horses. He’s likely to face a far tougher challenge come March time, which may well place further emphasis on his jumping.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
Four-time Cheltenham Festival winner Altior normally has this division sewn up. He’s won the last two editions of the race, justifying prohibitive odds on both occasions.
A rather tame effort behind Cyrname at Ascot has raised questions for both punters and connections though. It appears likely, given that he missed his Christmas engagement, that he will be rerouted back to the Champion Chase rather than stepping up to three-miles.
There’s a new contender for the crown in the form of Defi Du Seuil. Philip Hobbs’ stable star will be more than a match for the Champion in March if judged on his two impressive successes this term. Until confirming his wellbeing, Altior is one to definitely oppose in the antepost markets.
Thursday’s showpiece went the way of Paisley Park last term and it looks more than likely that he’ll land the spoils in 2020. Emma Lavelle’s son of Oscar returned to action with a cosy success from Thistlecrack in the Long Distance Hurdle in November
Connections will no doubt want to get another run in him before the Festival, having missed his Christmas engagement. He may well use the Cleeve Hurdle as his springboard to success as he did last term. It’s hard to see him getting beat come March.
Verdict: Strong Claims
Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle
Envoi Allen’s presence in the Ballymore is likely to force numerous novice hurdlers to either go down in trip to the Supreme or up in distance to the Albert Bartlett. Philip Hobbs’ Thyme Hill has impressed since going over hurdles, winning all three starts over similar trips to the Ballymore.
Having finished third to Envoi Allen in last year’s Champion Bumper, a step up in trip to three-miles in order to avoid the superstar looks likely. That shouldn’t be a problem for the game son of Kayf Tara, who stayed on strongly to land the Challow over Christmas. At the current moment, he looks the most likely winner of the Albert Bartlett.
Verdict: Likely Winner
Al Boum Photo ended the Mullins’ hoodoo in the Gold Cup in 2019. Stablemate Kemboy firmly put him in his place at Punchestown in May. Given that contender’s recent fourth on his reappearance and Lostintranslation’s poor effort in the King George, Al Boum Photo has returned to the head of the market.
Whilst he didn’t beat much on his return at Tramore, he did it in good style and the same race was used last term as his springboard for Gold Cup success. Nevertheless, there’s a couple of second season chasers in the form of Santini and Delta Work who could challenge his hegemony and Kemboy should strip fitter from his recent return.
Lostintranslation may well put that Kempton disappointment behind him and a soft ground festival would play into the hands of his stablemate Native River. With a raft of live contenders, the current favourite is not worth backing at the current moment.