The Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle gets proceedings underway on Champion Hurdle day at the Cheltenham Festival day on Tuesday, and the ultra-progressive Al Dancer looks to hold outstanding claims of landing the 2m contest (13:30).
He’s trained locally by Nigel Twiston-Davies and a perfect four from four over the obstacles.
After winning at Carlisle and Ffos Las, the six-year-old blew away the opposition on handicap debut in a nine-runner class 3 contest at Cheltenham where, after cruising into the lead rounding the home bend, he shot clear approaching the last to easily beat Not That Fuisse by 11 lengths.
Al Dancer got hit him with a hefty 12lb in the weights for that stunning success, but it was not enough to stop him going in again at Ascot last time out in the valuable Betfair Hurdle.
He beat Magic Dancer by 3 3/4 lengths in what is traditionally one of the hottest handicaps in the jumps calendar.
The son of Al Namix again travelled ominously well throughout and showed a smart turn of foot to quick put the race to bed after jumping the last with a narrow advantage.
It was a taking display which oozed class and makes Al Dancer a major player now pitched back into novice company.
Al Dancer can be backed at 9/2 with William Hill to extend his unbeaten run and that looks more than fair.
The Nicky Henderson trained Angels Breath looks the main danger, but his stable companion Mister Fisher has some top class form in the book too, so appeals each-way at 12/1 with Coral.
Hardline value in wide-open Arkle
The Grade 1 Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase (14:10) has a wide-open look to it and a case can be made for most.
However, the form of Irish raider Hardline has a strong look to it, so he looks decent value to land the 2m contest at 6/1 with Ladbrokes.
This seven-year-old, who hails from the powerful yard of Gordon Elliott, has shown progressive form in winning three of his five starts over fences this season. Those wins include success at this level when beating Getabird by half-a-length in a Grade 1 at Limerick.
Hardline showed plenty of pace to chase the leaders and, after taking up the running shortly after jumping the last, responded gamely for pressure.
The pair pulled 21 lengths clear of the third home Riders Onthe Storm, who has won since. Jetz – who finished a further 4 1/2 lengths back in fourth – has also since tasted success in Grade 3. That makes the form look strong.
Hardline also ran well last time out when a 5 1/2 lengths third to La Bague Au Roi in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over 2m 5f at Leopardstown where, after being held-up well off the pace, he made eye-catching late headway to be nearest at the finish.
The drop back to 2m will hold no fears. Hardline is also versatile as regard ground and has the services of Davy Russell in the saddle who has partnered him in four of his last five wins.
Minella Rocco weighted to go well in Ultima
Trainer Jonjo O’Neill has a fine record in the Ultima handicap Chase having saddled the winner three times since 2009.
His representative this time around is Minella Rocco, a classy sort who has become dangerously well-treated and looks worth an 8/1 wager with Betfred to score an overdue success in the 3m 1f contest (14:40).
This nine-year-old ran the race of his life in the 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup at this meeting when a 2 3/4 lengths runner-up to Sizing John off an official rating of 158.
Her got put up to 166 for that cracking effort, but has been lightly-raced and largely disappointing since.
However, Minella Rocco was only beaten nine lengths when fourth of nine to Road To Respect in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown in December 2017 off 163.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that he beat last year’s Gold Cup winner Native River when last successful in the 4m National Hunt Chase here in 2016.
That is form of the highest order and Minella Rocco is now able to race off a reduced rating of 152.
It makes him a major player from a handicapping perspective and he shaped quite nicely last time out over hurdles when a not knocked about ninth having travelled powerfully for much of the contest.
That was his second start of the campaign and Minella Rocco, whose proven course form is a massive plus, should now be spot on to do himself justice in the hands of top horseman Richie McLernon.
Defending champ Benie des Dieux has Mares’ at her mercy
Champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins has won the Grade 1 Mares’ Hurdle an incredible nine times since it was first run in 2008.
The clear pick of his representatives this time around is last year’s winner Benie Des Dieux, who looks a worthy short-price favourite to retain her crown in the 2m 4f contest (16:10).
This ex-French trained eight-year-old is unbeaten in five starts since joining Mullins and showed a tremendous attitude when beating Midnight Tour by half-a-length 12 months ago.
After being held-up in touch under a confident Ruby Walsh, she made smooth headway three out.
Benie Des Dieux was then produced to take up the running after jumping the last and dug deep to fend off the persistent challenge of the runner-up, with the very smart Apple’s Jade occupying third place.
She went on to round off the campaign with another Grade 1 success in the Mares Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, where she stayed on strongly to beat stable companion Augusta Kate by three lengths.
Benie Des Dieux confirmed the Mares’ Hurdle form with prolific Grade 1 scorer Apple’s Jade, who once again came third and was beaten a total of 5 1/2 lengths. Those wins have earned her an official rating of 151.
That is highest in the line-up and she also has a tremendous record fresh. On all known form, this looks her race for the taking again and odds of 10/11 with Betway are fully justified.
Riders Onthe Storm can strike gold in Close Brothers
Riders Onthe Storm is a progressive sort who looks ahead of his mark, so is the one to be on in a typically fierce renewal of the 2m 4f Close Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase (16:50) and makes plenty of appeal for this Listed contest.
This six-year-old is trained by Tom Taaffe, who saddled Finger Onthe Pulse to land the spoils in this in 2008, and has only had three starts over fences.
After finishing a highly promising not knocked about fourth to Mengli Khan at Punchestown, he shaped far better than the bare result suggests when weakening late on to finish a 22-length third of seven to the aforementioned Hardline in a Grade 1 at Limerick.
Hardline is now rated 151, while the runner-up Getabird is very highly regarded and rated 150. That gives the form a solid look and Riders OntheStorm has since scored at Punchestown in good style when readily beating Impact Factor by 1 1/4 lengths.
He idled once hitting the front after the last, so was value for more than the winning margin, and has been allotted an opening handicap mark of 140 on the back of those three runs.
That looks lenient on his aforementioned run behind Hardline, and Riders Onthe Storm remains unexposed over fences and open to plenty more improvement. He looks to have been laid out for this and well worth a wager at 7/1 with Betfair.
Ok Corral the one to be on in National Hunt Chase
Ballyward and Ok Corral dominate the betting for the 4m National Hunt Novices’ Chase for amateur rides (17:30), and the latter appeals most at the 3/1 available with BetVictor.
This Nicky Henderson trained nine-year-old sports the famous green and gold hooped colours of leading Irish owner JP McManus, who has a fine record in race.
He was a top class hurdler and ran a stormer at this meeting 12 months ago when runner-up in the Albert Bartlett. Ok Corral is unbeaten in two starts over fences this season, scoring in impressive fashion on each occasion.
In the first of those at Plumpton he jumped well apart from making a blunder at the 12th to very easily beat Impulsive Star by 2 1/4 lengths.
The runner-up, who re-opposes in this, has since gone on to land the valuable Grade 3 Classic Handicap Chase at Warwick – so the form is strong and there is no reason why the placings should not be confirmed.
Ok Corral has since landed a Listed contest at Warwick by six lengths from Secret Investor. He travelled powerfully throughout under Derek O’Connor and, after being eased into the lead approaching the last, stretched clear run-in to win with any amount in hand.
The step up to 4m looks sure to suit and Ok Corral has the potential to become a Gold Cup horse next year. So, with the hugely talented O’Connor once again in the saddle and underfoot conditions to suit, there is nothing not to like about his profile for this.