Since being introduced in 2011, we didn’t see a winning favourite until the fifth renewal where Vautour produced what can only be described as a phenomenal, near perfect display of jumping to gain an effortless victory. Willie Mullins has followed up with two more winning favourites in the shape of Black Hercules and Yorkhill since.
Unfortunately Ben Pauling’s Willoughby Court is unable to take his chance in the race which is a real shame, a good winner of the Neptune (now Ballymore) last season he would surely have had a massive chance in this.
This leaves Willie Mullins with the favourite yet again, this time in the shape of Invitation Only. He’s gained two wins over fences including in Grade 3 company, but in both those victories he has been gifted relatively uncontested leads and had things his own way. However, he fell on his chase debut and last time in the Grade 1 Flogas Novices’ Chase won by Monalee, Invitation Only didn’t get the lead and whilst amongst horses I wasn’t overly convinced by his jumping. I feel he might need further than this trip and on spring ground may well find things happening quick enough for him.
Modus has been a good horse for Paul Nicholls, finishing second in a Champion Bumper, a Greatwood Hurdle and winning a Lanzarote. He’s started life over the larger obstacles promisingly with three wins from four starts and his fall at Exeter on very soft ground can be forgiven. He obviously doesn’t have a problem in big fields as he’s shown from previous seasons form, but he’s never ran in a chase with more than 4 runners. So his jumping has never really been under any serious pressure and you can be sure in a JLT that it will be a different ball game. He has the ability to be a very good chaser but I do question the level of form he’s achieved over fences and the manner in which he’s won – he’s been an odds on favourite every time. This will be much tougher, but if his jumping holds up he should run well.
Finian’s Oscar has had a bit of a turbulent season to say the least and I think quite a number of people have lost faith in him/written him off. For me he was being over raced, for a horse of his class to have five races before January isn’t necessary. But Colin Tizzard has since given him a break after his disappointing effort in the Cleeve Hurdle on heavy ground, in this time he has had his palate done which will aid his breathing. His win at Cheltenham in November, despite a few sketchy jumps, was impressive. Bryan Cooper didn’t even go after him once he’d been headed at the second last, he waited until after the final flight and let him go, he clearly knew what he had underneath him and the pair readily scooted past Movewiththetimes. He was conceding the field 8lbs that day and won really well. His subsequent runs came when the Tizzard yard couldn’t have been in worse form, the horses just weren’t running well at all. A no show in the Henry VIII at Sandown was followed by what was a very strange race at Ascot, he didn’t jumped a twig for the first half of the race, but he then got into more of a rhythm. He went down a short head to Benatar conceding 5lbs, I have no doubt what one of those is the better horse and I’m confident that form will be reversed. I believe he’s the most talented horse in the field and has the most scope for improvement, if his jumping has been ironed out and he’s back to form I think this is the ideal race for him. With the Tizzard stable back firing, he’ll take some beating. The 10/1 on offer looks a bet to me, albeit there are risks attached.
The aforementioned Benatar has done nothing wrong over fences winning three from three and deserves his shot at this. His jumping is a real asset to him which should stand him in good stead around Cheltenham. He was fourth in a Grade 1 behind Finian’s Oscar at Aintree last season and based on their Ascot run they are closely matched, but I do think the form will be reversed from Berkshire. I think if you’re searching for a solid option that looks to have a good chance of hitting the frame then you can’t go too far wrong with Benatar, but I do think he’ll find at least one too good.
Of the rest, Nicky Henderson’s Grade 1 winner Terrefort would be of great interest if he were to line up and I would consider him a very serious contender. But his trainer thinks he needs soft ground and I think the chances of him running are quite slim. Al Boum Photo was running on well in the Flogas and I’d prefer him to his stablemate Invitation Only, but think he might be going for the RSA. Kemboy is another Mullins inmate, he ran well to be fifth in the Neptune last year but that form and what he’s done over fences so far will really need to be improved upon to be involved. Lastly, Bigmartre has really stepped up for the switch to fences and has the potential of more to come, but this is a much tougher task than the handicaps he’s been contesting of late.
At the price I’m not drawn in by Invitation Only despite his connections and would fear stablemate Al Boum Photo more, along with Terrefort. I can see both Benatar and Modus going well, with marginal preference for the former given his unexposed profile and scope for improvement. I’m keeping the faith in Finian’s Oscar, I think he’s a seriously talented horse that things haven’t gone right for in his last few starts and he can bounce back with the possible application of first time blinkers.