On the face of it, with the vast majority of Cheltenham horses now keeping their powder dry, the main focus either side of the Irish Sea today is on the John Smith’s Grand National.
For Aintree is the priority not only for Seabass, who finished third last year and continues his preparation at Fairyhouse, but also for Wyck Hill, favourite for the big handicap chase at Kempton. It is not inconceivable, however, that a Festival wild card could yet be claimed by Prince De Beauchene, who lines up against Seabass in the ATR Bobbyjo Chase.
Prince De Beauchene’s trainer, Willie Mullins, has already saddled one National horse for Graham Wylie this week, On His Own having made his way to the top of the betting with several bookmakers after a startling comeback success over hurdles on Tuesday. Ladbrokes pointedly kept Prince De Beauchene as favourite, however, and he could certainly give Ruby Walsh a tricky choice if also impressing today. At the same time, the fact that Mullins has given this horse three Festival entries – including one for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup itself – means that connections could yet end up asking themselves a fresh set of questions.
Many would nowadays be wary of exposing a strong National contender to a hard race in the Gold Cup, with just 22 days dividing the races. And nobody will be making any presumptions about On His Own acting as “belt” to Prince De Beauchene’s “braces”, the latter having been forced out of the National last year by an 11th-hour setback. But the fact is that a performance today, akin to the one Prince De Beauchene (2.35) produced in this race last year, could make it very tempting to throw his hat into the ring for what looks a pretty open Gold Cup – especially if the going happened to be soft.
Lightly raced overall, and in his prime at 10, he remains unexposed for the peerless Mullins, having made only two steeplechase starts since arriving from Howard Johnson. Like On His Own, he made a winning return over hurdles in December and Mullins has already drawn comparisons between both these horses and his 2005 National winner, Hedgehunter.
Seabass is reunited with Walsh’s sister, Katie, who gave him such a fine ride at Aintree. He could hardly have shaped better, without winning, when making his own comeback over timber earlier in the month and will be no pushover.
One horse that may well take in the Gold Cup en route to the National is Katenko, who has twice won impressively since finishing second to Wyck Hill at Ascot before Christmas. Whether parallel improvement can be credited to Wyck Hill is another matter, but J P McManus seems to think it possible, to judge from the fact that he runs in his silks for the first time in the Racing Plus Chase. The bottom line is that he is running in a more competitive field, off a 13lb higher mark, on drying ground.
There would be no more popular winner than Nacarat, who won this in 2009 and again last year, as well as being placed twice in between. But he may no longer have the legs of yore and another previous winner, Quinz, seems better entitled to renew his best form at the age of nine. He has been pulled up in each of only three starts since his 2011 win, but his in-form trainer reports him over his problems and “in very good form indeed” for what has been a long-term target.
But a more obviously progressive animal is Rolling Aces (3.50). His Newbury win in December has worked out very well, and he then saw off Opening Batsman at Wincanton on Boxing Day. The runner-up has himself won so well since that he has been deemed worthy of a crack at this valuable prize.
Paul Nicholls, the trainer of Rolling Aces, did suffer a reverse at Sandown yesterday when Fago was comprehensively beaten at short odds in a novice chase. Held up last of three by Walsh, Fago jumped safely enough until hitting the last of the railway fences, and even then seemed poised to challenge. But Kapga De Cerisy responded alertly to a positive ride from Tony McCoy – except, that is, for almost unseating him at the last – and Fago found no extra, beaten 15 lengths. Venetia Williams will run the winner in one of the Festival handicaps, but Walsh counselled Nicholls that Fago needed a break, having had a long season in France before his arrival in Somerset before Christmas.
Chris McGrath Nap
Tarquinius (2.55 Newcastle)
God Of The Kop (4.25 Kempton)