A new addition to the Festival in 2011 and only a grade one since 2014, there isn’t a lot of history behind this race or a great deal to get behind when weighing it up trends wise.
It makes perfect sense to have a championship novice’s race over this intermediate distance as the novice races over further are just too far for some and could potentially be damaging in the early stages of a horses career; I get the argument that it dilutes quality but it’s a distance that is a nice stepping stone before a horse is fully developed.
Of the former winners, Vautour is the real stand out having won in 2015 before bagging the Ryanair last year. It’s such a shame we’ll never know how good he truly could have been. From the limited archive of other winners, Sir Des Champs who was second in a Gold Cup and strong grade one performer is next best.
This year, as always, has a pretty open feel to it with targets for many still to be confirmed.
Yorkhill, the current favourite, was a superb winner of the Neptune last year and was immediately marked as an Arkle horse by Ruby Walsh on his return to the winner’s enclosure. However, much like many Mullins horses, we seem to have spent an age being confused and hearing conflicting messages about where he’d go; would it be hurdles or chases, the Champion Hurdle or Arkle or even the JLT. It finally seems to be a bit clearer that he heads for the JLT but I wouldn’t be completely shocked if there was another change of direction. What we do know is that he has run over fences twice and won both times, more impressive first time and jumping to the left the second, which won’t be such an issue at Cheltenham but can be a sign of an underlying issue and should be noted all the same. Despite failing to blow anyone away he has won with relative ease both times and is clearly the classiest horse in the line-up, so if he runs he probably wins.
A decent hurdler who was just short of top class, Top Notch wasn’t one you’d immediately have pointed to as a potential chaser due to his limited stature, but after running third in what now looks a useful chase debut he has gone on to string together four wins, winning well each time. Judging by connections’ comments he has surprised even them with the level to which he has progressed, but he seems to have shown a real aptitude for jumping and steadily improved each time. He has finished second in a Triumph and fifth in a Champion Hurdle so has shown some liking for Cheltenham, but maybe just wants ground to be on the soft side, which is unlikely at the Festival. He’s a worthy contender on form and isn’t without a chance.
The best line of novice chase form to take is potentially from Disko, a winner over a similar trip to this last time out, he won impressively in front of a number of horses who held strong form themselves. He has lost twice over fences this term but both times were over three miles, which makes this trip look ideal on the face of things and he won’t mind the likely prospect of better spring ground. All of his form stands up well and I doubt we’ve seen everything from him yet, so Disko looks a real standout chance.
Well supported in last year’s Coral Cup when going on to disappoint, Politologue was always likely to make a better chaser than hurdler and won his first two appearances impressively. He was subsequently beaten at Haydock when failing to settle and racing too keenly for his own good, before going on to win a two runner affair at Kempton in a manner that he should have and was nothing more than a confidence booster. The likely quicker pace of this is likely to suit and allow him to settle into a race, so we could see an improvement, but if the ground comes up on the quick side I could see him struggling to land a blow.
Not a guaranteed runner here, as the option of the RSA is still open, Coney Island has some of the strongest form in the book on offer. The form of his debut second has worked out well and he then won a strong renewal of the Drinmore, before being narrowly beaten over three miles when finishing in front of Disko. Coney Island looks a very classy sort who has been spoken of as a future Gold Cup horse; his target is likely to be ground dependent with a potential swerve to the RSA if the ground comes up quick, but whatever race he appears in he has to be taken seriously.
Another who is far from certain to head here with the RSA now apparently the most likely target, Whisper is at an advanced age to be running in novice races as a nine-year-old. Having his second crack at chasing after a disappointing effort a couple of years ago, Whisper seems to have got the hang of it this time around, winning both starts at the course this year. He has undoubted class, being a grade one winner, and has Festival form to go with that as a Coral Cup winner, with all of his form suggesting to me that the JLT is better suited to his skillset; the stayers’ trip seems to be a stretch too far in my eyes. Whichever race he goes for I just don’t seem him as a likely winner, he could go close and place but I can’t be having one so long in the tooth as the best novice around.
A number of other potential contenders also have alternative options open to them and seem much more likely to head elsewhere. Charbel has been quietly fancied for this by some and on his form behind Altior would have a good chance of coming into contention, but most comments from connections suggest he’ll be heading to the Arkle rather than here – if he was to turn up here, take note. Might Bite is featured in the betting but in all likelihood heads to the RSA. Diamond King, winner at the Festival last year and impressive on chase debut looks to be a handicap plot and should be backed wherever he runs, which is unlikely to be here.
Waiting Patiently beat Politologue last time out and although that rival did have some genuine excuses you’d still have to be taken with the style in which he did win. With a more fashionable trainer you’d imagine he’d be much shorter in the betting and I can’t see why he is the price he is, unless bookies think he’s likely to turn up elsewhere? The form of his races has worked out well and has a pretty solid look to it and although he has form on soft ground I don’t think he needs it soft. All in all, he has a good each way chance at a bigger price.
As well as Politologue, Paul Nicholls has Frodon and Clan Des Obeaux entered but judging by trainer comments both look likely to skip the Festival. Both could have each way chances at their best but it’d be best to wait until final declarations to get behind either, in the unlikelihood they do run.
The Gigginstown operation have a string of other entries to accompany Disko and you’d imagine they’ll have more than the single runner here just due to the need to split-up the vast number of horses entered. It’s impossible to say with conviction what the second choice will be at this point but a number of those entered would have a sporting each way chance on previous form. I’d suggest waiting for final declarations and then consider backing the second string each way at a bigger price or maybe take a chance on NRNB with those offering that now.
I’m not sure if there are really any other contenders that are worth mentioning or who will run here. Potentially Flying Angel as a last time out winner could run well at a price, whilst Shantou Village hasn’t convinced as a chaser, Cloudy Dream wouldn’t be good enough on form and Tully East probably heads for handicaps.
Yorkhill looks to be the classiest horse in the line-up and judged by comments of connections he could be a real superstar over fences or hurdles. He does have his vulnerabilities, such as the tendency to jump left, and I’m not sure if the form over fences has a great deal of depth to it, but if he does show the class he is held in he surely wins. With the target for Yorkhill now looking more concrete, I’d recommend getting on early with NRNB as he’s sure to be backed off the boards on the day and will likely go off odds-on.
Disko has a lot of promise and the form does have a solid look to it, so he has to go down as a contender at a price with a little more value. However, if Coney Island was to run here rather than the RSA I’d side with him over Disko, as he looks to have that little bit more class. Should Coney Island run, I think he’d be a serious threat to Yorkhill.
If looking for a bit of each way value, Politologue, Whisper and Waiting Patiently would all have a chance of running into the frame, with the value obviously lying with the bigger priced latter of the three. Whilst whichever of the Gigginstown horses turns up as second string could have a chance of placing.
Top Notch as second favourite has the most solid form on offer but I think he’ll be too vulnerable on quicker ground and there is no point in backing at the price for a place.
Yorkhill – win @ 15/8 (Betbright)
Coney Island – win @ 7/1 (Bet 365, NRNB)