The champ, Shishkin, will go for another G1 (JTW Equine Images)
2023 Cheltenham Festival – Day 3, Thursday, March 16
By Jack Williams
The penultimate day of the 2023 Cheltenham Festival is a day I look forward to a lot. In the past, Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival has been fantastic; it was the chosen day in 2012 that myself and Tom first attended the Festival, and it is also the one which has a unique atmosphere, due to the specific selling of the day by the Jockey Club. It is known as St Patrick’s Thursday, namely due to the fact the Festival usually falls on or around Ireland’s patron saint’s feast day.
The seven races on the day, though somewhat different to when myself and Tom visited, due to the introduction of the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle in 2016, registered as the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2), are some of the most competitive of the week; 4 chases and 3 hurdles, all mostly fiercely competitive in previous years. It is also the first of two days at the Cheltenham Festival where the course switches from the Old, to the New. This is arguably a more galloping track, with a longer run in, and curiously, only 2 hurdles to be jumped in the final 6 furlongs of the course, meaning the emphasis is less on jumping, and more on overall pace.
Race 1 – 1:30 Thursday: Turners’ Novices Chase (Grade 1), 2 miles 4 furlongs
Registered as the Golden Miller Novices’ Chase, the first Grade 1 run on the New Course at the Cheltenham Festival was introduced in 2011, and has been won by many a horse who has gone on to greater things. Sir Des Champs, Defi du Seuil, Samcro. Just 3 of the race’s roll of honour, and a race which has had it’s fair share of memorable runnings. 2015 saw, many a National Hunt Racing fan would say, the greatest round of jumping by a novice ever seen at Prestbury Park, when Vautour jumped his rivals silly under Ruby Walsh to win at a canter, and the 2022 renewal saw Galopin Des Champs, current favourite for the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup the day after, jump every fence on the track, before failing to get the landing gear out in time after the last, and crumpling to the ground, handing Bob Olinger and Rachael Blackmore a very unlikely victory. This year’s entrants will be hoping for a much less dramatic renewal, and leading the betting is Mighty Potter, one of trainer Gordon Elliott’s best hopes for the entire Festival.
A 4-time Grade 1 winner from just 8 starts, and 2 each to date over fences and hurdles, the classy son of Martaline is unbeaten over fences, with 2 wide-margin wins in Grade 1s at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown over 2m 4f showing his relishing of the step-up in trip from being restricted to 2 miles last season. He easily has the beating of rival Adamantly Chosen, whereas Appreciate It will be tackling 2m 4f over fences for the first time since his point-to-point days, and can be easily discounted at this stage. Balco Coastal has shown promise for his connections this season, but personally I feel that this Grade 1 will be too hot to handle.
An interesting contender is Banbridge; a winner in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle at last year’s Festival, he scored again at Cheltenham in October, beating subsequent Grade 2 Lightning Novices’ Chase winner Tommy’s Oscar in the process. He is deliberately being targeted at this race having found El Fabiolo too hot at Leopardstown, but is still behind Mighty Potter based on Drinmore Novices’ Chase form (the first of Mighty Potter’s two Grade 1 wins). Dysart Dynamo is to be watched on his return to Cheltenham, having fell in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, whereas El Fabiolo is being aimed at the Arkle. Stage Star is a great yardstick for the Owners’ Group, however his bare form is nothing to trouble Mighty Potter, and as a result he is my selection.
Race 2 – 2:10 Thursday: Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle (Premier Handicap), 3 miles
The Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle, is again one of those races that you love to see happen, but absolutely hate trying to pick a winner. The week before the race, according to the Racing Post, there were still 44 horses qualified to run in the race. That is the big caveat; to run in the race, all horses qualified must be placed no worse than 4th in the corresponding qualifiers held in Britain and Ireland. As a result, those who run in the race are either qualified on their own right, or part of a somewhat “plot job”, where a horse will just about qualify, be given a conditional to reduce some of the weight they would have to carry and go on to run a big race.
Botox Has is the current top weight, but the difficulty in this race is that a conditional can very easily take weight off, so they may end up carrying less weight when the tapes go up. Shewearsitwell is interesting based off her Grade 3 defeat of Queens Brook, and the fact she is in a Pertemps is quite intriguing. The Bosses Oscar has had a couple of close misses at the Festival, but is probably behind Shewearsitwell on previous form, whereas Shoot First beat Botox Has at Cheltenham, but that was in October and has not run since.
An Tailliur was behind Shoot First that day, but is far better off at the weights and although they too have not run since October, they look more of a likely improver. Walking On Air qualified for the race by winning a Pertemps qualifier at Exeter, and has not been handed too difficult a challenge, having been raised 5lb. The difficulty in deciding on this race is that the weights can change so much, so as a result, if the weights were the same on the day, I would have to be sweet on the chances of An Tailliur of reversing the October form with Shoot First.
Race 3 – 2:50 Thursday: Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) 2m 5f
The Ryanair Chase was introduced in 2005, when the Festival was extended to four days, and fills the gap between the 2 mile Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and the 3m 2f Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup. Legends who have won this include Albertas Run, Cue Card, Vautour and Un De Sceaux, with last year’s renewal going to the Willie Mullins-trained Allaho, who regrettably due to injury is not heading to this year’s renewal. Instead, a wide-open contest looks likely. Blue Lord has 2 wins this season, however one was on soft/heavy ground, and another was at 2m 1f, and personally I feel that is not the ideal prep for a 2m 5f Grade 1 chase where stamina nearer 3 miles is required. Chacun Pour Soir was behind Blue Lord at Leopardstown and Fakir D’Oudairies at Thurles, but that form has been walloped by the defeat to Shishkin in the 2m 5f Ascot Chase (Grade 1) last month.
Conflated disappointed at Down Royal behind Envoi Allen in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase (Grade 1) but then roared back to his best in the 3m Savills Chase (Grade 1) at Leopardstown in December. He seems sure to be bang there at the end, and his Down Royal conqueror has to put a very below-par run at Kempton Park in the King George VI Chase (Grade 1) over 3 miles. He does, however, massively fit the profile of a horse that could win this race. Indeed, when Vautour won in 2016, he had been 2nd to Cue Card in the King George VI Chase, and because he “wasn’t pulling up trees at home”, he was diverted to the Ryanair Chase instead of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. What a decision that turned out to be. Fury Road was made to work hard to win the Grade 2 Eventsec Chase at Down Royal in November over 2 and a half miles, but 2 3rd places in the Savills Chase and Irish Gold Cup show he can be Grade 1 class.
Ga Law is the current Paddy Power Gold Cup king; however, he fell at the last in the Sky Bet Handicap Chase at Doncaster, and personally I would need to have seen more from him to be considered for this. Hitman is admirable, but could be out of his depth here, whereas Janidil was 2nd in this race last year, but has been in patchy form since, despite winning a Grade 2 on his latest run at 2m 4f. Shishkin roared back to his best at Ascot, and having seen him 2 days later at Seven Barrows, he was in fine fettle, so as a result, the 4/5 favourite for the Ryanair might seem good value to some.
If you want to include him in your win accumulators, then please be advised that this is a tricky race; the final 3 I have selected for review are Shishkin, Conflated and Envoi Allen. Shishkin is very short at the prices, but Envoi Allen beat Conflated at Down Royal before the latter won the Savills Chase, and as a result, I feel 11-1 is a very nice price for a horse who can win for the third time at the Cheltenham Festival, so Envoi Allen gets my vote.
Race 4 – 3:30 Thursday: Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle (Grade 1) 3 miles
The Stayers’ Hurdle (previously known as the World Hurdle) was dominated by Big Bucks between 2009-2012, and since then, only one horse has come even mildly close to reaching those heights; Flooring Porter. Winner of the last two renewals, the star for Gavin Cromwell’s yard has not had the best of preps for this renewal, with two 4th placed finishes in the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle at Navan and the Grade 1 Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Ashdale Bob looks held based on previous runs this season, whereas Blazing Khal came from a season off the track to win the 2m 5f Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle last month. More will be required from them, and the same can be said for Dashel Drasher, who whilst being magnanimous in defeat, always finds one too good nowadays in the big races. Madman Goshen continues to cause headaches for all involved, finishing tamely in the Grade 2 National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell over 2m 5f las month. Hewick is reportedly going to the Gold Cup, whereas Haut En Couleurs is in this seemingly as a back-up plan.
Home By The Lee has two wins to his name this campaign, and seems to have gone from strength to strength, winning the Lismullen Hurdle and the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle for connections, and in the process beating many of his rivals set to line up at Cheltenham. Klassical Dream, a former Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner, looks good value at 10-1 judged on his 2nd to Teahupoo in the 2m 4f Grade 1 Hattons Grace at Fairyhouse in December, whereas old favourite Paisley Park will probably find this too much of a task nowadays, although he was brilliant at Kempton in the re-arranged Long Walk Hurdle (Grade 1) and nearly won at Newbury in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle in November, only being beaten a neck by Champ.
Sharjah is trying 3 miles for the first time, should he be engaged in this race, although Willie Mullins performed this trick with Nichols Canyon in 2017, victorious in this same race. The Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle Teahupoo won over 3 miles at Gowran Park in January looks a weak renewal, and he is ready to be taken on despite his Hatton’s Grace success.
However, the enigma of this race is whether Marie’s Rock runs in this race or the Mares’ Hurdle 2 days earlier over 2m 4f. Although having never ran further than 2m 5f in her life, the daughter of Milan and By The Hour powered up the Cheltenham hill, in soft ground, over 2m 4f in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle, and the manner in that finish has got racing fans wondering if the further 4 furlongs will be very easily within her reach.
Having won the 2m 4f Mares’ Hurdle last season, she went to Punchestown and won over there, against the girls, in another 2m 4f Grade 1. The weight allowance of 7lb she will receive from her gelding rivals will no doubt come in handy, and as a result, if she runs in this race, the simple matter is, that she wins, and wins well for trainer Nicky Henderson and owners the Middleham Park Racing Club.
Race 5 – 4:10 Thursday: Magners Plate Handicap Chase (Premier Handicap) 2m 4 1/2f
The race following the Stayers’ Hurdle, the Magners Plate Handicap Chase, is one of my favourite races of the entire Festival. Horses that run in this race, on a British level anyway, will no doubt have run in races at Cheltenham such as the Paddy Power Gold Cup, December Gold Cup, and the New Year’s Day Handicap Chase (all Premier Handicaps). As a result, there are some old favourites mixed in with new kids on the block with points to prove. What I also love about this race, is genuine Grade 1 performers will sometimes mix it up against battle-hardened handicappers; this is especially true for the 2017 renewal, where Road To Respect, having competed in Grade 1 novice chases previously, dropped into a handicap and absolute ran riot, coasting home for an easy success, before going on to record multiple Grade 1 successes in later runs.
Top weight Hitman will be running off 159 (without a conditional taking any weight off), and this will be a much harder task than his runs in the Grade 2 Monet’s Garden at Aintree and Grade 2 Denman Chase, as the form of that race took a battering earlier this month when Zanza, victor at Newbury, flopped back there in a handicap chase. Two For Gold is a couple of pounds too high, a shame given how well he travelled in the Grand National last year, and French Dynamite has been running well in graded races, without winning.
Adamantly Chosen off 153 is a nice rating to have for this, and although 11st 8lb will have to be carried, he is not top weight, which may equate for something, especially if a conditional can take an extra couple of pounds off.
The Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Festival Trials Day Meeting at Cheltenham, used to throw up quite a number of useful horses, but in recent years the decision was made to remove the corresponding race from the Festival, instead having a Mares’ Chase in it’s place (not a popular move by any sorts) so as a result Stage Star will have to line up in this, should he not take up his Grade 1 engagement scheduled for 1:30 on the same day.
New Year’s Day Handicap Chase winner Midnight River has been raised 7lb for that win but may just want it a little softer. Balco Coastal was 9 lengths ahead of subsequent Grade 2 Pendil Novices’ Chase scorer Solo at Kempton, before giving Gerri Colombe a race at Sandown in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase over 2m 4f, and he could be well in based on how that form works out (Gerri Colombe is due to run in the Brown Advisory Chase over 3 miles, Grade 1, Wednesday).
I Am Maximus is another who has been running as a novice chaser in Grade 1 company this season and could be of interest off 11st 6lb. Fire Attack has let down with his jumping lately, having fallen on the last two occasions, and Il Ridoto won on Festival Trials Day at Cheltenham over 2m 4f, but has been raised 8lb for that and looks slightly out of it at the weights.
The form of Datsalrightgino is working out well against the likes of Solo and Stage Star, so could be one of those horses that without winning, sort of dips under the radar and re-surfaces on the day. Coole Cody is 2lb lower than when winning this race last year but is 12 now and could be vulnerable to a rival with younger legs, and as a result I feel Balco Coastal is the one to be on for this, as he is always a horse that has promised a lot on paper, and I think this could be his moment to shine.
Race 6 4:50 Thursday: Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 2) 2 miles 1f
This particular race features one of the most talked-about horses in training; Luccia. Nicky Henderson’s mare has been outstanding this season, starting off this season at Newbury in November by winning a 2m Listed Novices’ Hurdle by 5 ½ lengths from She’s A Saint, and this is a race in which the sixth won next time out, the fifth had previously racked up 3 wins on the bounce, the fourth had beat the second last time out, the third was second to She’s A Saint next time out before winning at Carlisle in February and She’s A Saint was second in a Listed Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Doncaster to a potential smart sort over fences next season in Apple Away.
Prior to that race, she was second to You Wear It Well, who was then second in the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury in December to Hermes Allen, so the form is absolutely bang rock solid, and as a result, it is very hard to fancy anything else in the race, simply put. If Luccia were to fail to fire, Ashroe Diamond or You Wear It Well could pick up the pieces, with myself leaning to the latter for an each-way shout.
Race 7 5:30 Thursday: Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase (Class 2) 3m 2f
Run over the same course and distance as the Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup and the St James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase on the Friday, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Handicap Chase is named after two individuals; Fulke Walwyn, a successful jockey and trainer, who up until 2012 when Nicky Henderson eclipsed him, was the most successful trainer in the history of the Cheltenham Festival, and Kim Muir, a calvary officer in World War II, who was killed in action during the early years of the war, and is commemorated in a race created by his sister, Mrs Evan Williams in 1946.
The race is specifically for amateur riders, and horses who run in this race usually run in the Grand National; recent winners of this race have faired quite well. 2010 winner Ballabriggs won the 2011 Grand National, 2012 winner Sunnyhillboy lost by a nose to Neptune Collonges in the shortest losing distance in the Grand National’s history (nose), 2016 winner Cause of Causes was second to One For Arthur in the 2017 Grand National and 2019 winner Any Second Now has been 3rd and 2nd in the last two renewals of the Grand National. This year’s renewal of the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir presents another challenge to punters ante-post, due to the weights potentially being reduced due to claiming, with different weights being taken off based on the experience and winners of the jockey to date.
If Next Destination has not been too badly affected by 2 years off the track and a stable move to Nicky Henderson from Paul Nicholls, then he is an absolute steal for this. Rated just 145, he won off 149 at Warwick in January 2021. Mr Incredible was second to Iwilldoit in the Classic Chase over 3m 5f at Warwick in January 2023 but would need a significant jockey claimer to be competitive.
Lord Du Mesnil would need the heavens to start pouring now to stand any chance of winning, Hill Sixteen could be extremely well handicapped if a claimer gets a minimum of 3lbs off having been close in the 2021 Becher Handicap Chase over the same distance, and Rapper won at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day but looks a little high in the weights.
Monbeg Genius wrapped up a treble on the bounce at Chepstow in which the second won at Taunton a couple of weeks later, Defi Bleu is potentially well handicapped based on his Grand National Trial 3rd at Punchestown last month and last year’s winner Chambard looks unlikely to win it again based off at least 3lbs higher this time around.
Captain Cattistock has been very consistent around his current mark of 132, and if a nice few pounds were taken off, he could run another massive race for the Fergal O’Brien stable, who are seeking their first Cheltenham Festival winner after a few 2nd places, including Alaphillipe in last year’s Pertemps Network Final.
Guetepan Collonges has been raised 6lbs for his recent Uttoxeter win, and the rest look potentially out of the running, due to their low ratings meaning they will miss the cut. As a result, if Next Destination is not rusty after two years off the track, he could very much win, but Defi Bleu and Captain Cattistock remain of interest, but this race, like the Pertemps and the Plate before, are probably best reviewed closer to the date, when the final declarations are made.