Following the two mile novice hurdlers on day 1, is the two mile novice chasers. Once again we have a red hot Willie Mullins favourite in the shape of last seasons Champion Hurdle fourth Footpad. He was rated 157 over hurdles, but has improved 5lbs on official ratings so far for the switch to chasing as he’s rated 162 over fences. It’s not hard to understand why, he jumps so well. Fast, fluid and precise over the larger obstacles he has taken everything in his stride so far and even though at very prohibitive odds of around the even money mark, I don’t think there can be many denying that it’s deserved. Already a dual Grade 1 winner over fences, he’ll be aiming for his chasing hat-trick at the Festival.
Behind the favourite in the Irish Arkle was old adversary Petit Mouchoir, who is interesting for a number of reasons. His two mile hurdle form is really strong as he was a dual Grade 1 winner last season, including the Irish Champion Hurdle before finishing third in the British version. He was ahead of Footpad on all those occasions which is something that makes this clash very intriguing. He won comfortably on chasing debut before he picked up an injury and we didn’t see him until the Irish Arkle last time. In that race he was, you could say, fairly easily put away by Footpad (who was race fit), but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He made a couple of mistakes in the round which won’t have helped his cause against an impeccable jumper, but it was also his first run for over 3 months and I think Henry De Bromhead would have left a bit to work on. Davy Russell didn’t look to be particularly harsh on him and I think that was pretty much exactly the sort of run connections wanted to see. He will have to jump better in March no question, but given he has already beaten Footpad on multiple occasions and he should come on plenty from his reappearance run, I don’t think there is any way you can think it’s a full gone conclusion that the favourite beats Petit Mouchoir.
Simon Munir and Isaac Souede are having a brilliant season and as well as the market leader, they also have Henry VIII Novices’ Chase winner Sceau Royal in the Arkle. He has proved to be a marvellous horse for his connections and it seems like he’s been around for ages, but he’s only 6! He jumps well and is a very solid performer at the top level, but is he better than the aforementioned pair? I sadly just don’t think so and at 6/1 he doesn’t jump out of the page at me, but he without doubt has huge place claims.
There are a pair of horses that really interest me, one more than the other. I’ll start with the other. Saint Calvados is only a 5 year old that has come over from France and is in the care of Harry Whittington, it’s safe to say he looks pretty talented. A more than impressive winner of a pair of handicap chases in Britain so far has firmly put him in the Arkle picture. However, they have only been handicaps and he hasn’t beaten anything that would be close to Arkle standard but there is no arguing that the style in which he’s won has been striking. Onto the one – North Hill Harvey. He was earmarked for the County Hurdle by trainer Dan Skelton early last season, but we didn’t see him between that race and the Greatwood (which he won), so that was a gap between November and March and Dan has since admitted that was the wrong thing to do and he was soundly beaten at the Festival last season. This campaign though he has given him more races and has reaped the rewards for it. He beat none other than Sceau Royal on his chasing debut at Cheltenham, albeit receiving 5lbs, but he jumped very well and you can’t take anything away from him for that win. Those placings were emphatically reversed at Sandown as Sceau Royal careered away to win by 11 lengths. But North Hill Harvey is much better going left handed and more importantly, he is much better at Cheltenham. From six appearances at Prestbury Park he’s won four times, finished ninth in the Supreme behind Altior (which is still very strong form) and was ultimately disappointing in the County Hurdle last year. Chasing was always going to be his game given his 15 length romp in a Point To Point and the fact he loves Cheltenham is a big swaying factor. With 16/1 widely available, I believe he looks a solid each way punt.
Both of those mentioned above look to be taking in the Kingmaker at Warwick this Saturday, which will obviously provide us with more information. Personally I’d be more interested to see how Saint Calvados gets on as even if North Hill Harvey doesn’t win, it wouldn’t put me off him for the Arkle.
Brain Power is an interesting contender for Nicky Henderson, but given his far better performances tend to come on right handed tracks, he wouldn’t be carrying any of my money. Other than the horses mentioned above I’m not sure of anything else who could hit the frame unless a big impact is made in the next month or so. Cyrname would be an interesting contender for Paul Nicholls back at two miles and could be given a squeak at a big price, but he may well head to the JLT.
Footpad’s jumping has been nothing short of exceptional since his switch to fences, but at the very prohibitive odds I’ll be taking him on. The main bet being Petit Mouchoir as I think there is definitely more to come from him over fences and given his record he holds over Footpad, there looks to be juice in his price at 5/1. I think North Hill Harvey and Saint Calvados look worthy each way plays and it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the Kingmaker.