Tue 13th – Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1) – ELGIN
When I’m in any kind of doubt about whether or not to have a bet, particularly in a Graded race, I will try to lean my attention toward an in-form, unexposed horse that jumps well and will arrive confident for a race, albeit often requiring a little more improvement to figure. I think Buveur D’Air will win the Champion Hurdle on Day 1 one of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival and he’ll probably win it well – maybe even easier than he did last year. But given the opening train of thought, Alan King’s ELGIN certainly fits the bill as a real Dark Horse for two mile showpiece event on Tuesday 13th of March.
Elgin finished 7th of 14th in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year and was beaten when in need of the run first time out at Chepstow back in October, but in 3 out of 4 races since then, this 6yo son of Duke Of Marmalade has developed into a proper two mile operator.
In landing the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton impressively in mid-February, Elgin improved on anything he’d produced in handicaps by around 8-9lb, suggesting he is now capable of running up to 160+. He will need to find another 9-12lb of improvement in order to win the Champion Hurdle and quite probably to even hit the frame in it.
A Cheltenham winner in November, Elgin has useful course experience to call upon and I am fascinated to see how he responds to a Championship pace, given how good he looked at Wincanton, and indeed how he’s handled top handicap company thus far. If he travels strongly once again, his jumping is usually really neat and nimble and he could easily make his presence felt as the Champion Hurdle begins to unfold.
Katchit – a different horse altogether to the more imposing Elgin – took the same route to Champion Hurdle glory in 2008 for Alan King. Hopefully, this exciting young horse is supplemented by his sporting owners and gets to the race ready to produce another career best effort.
Wed 14th – Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1) – MIN
The temptation is to leave this race out of any “Dark Horses” lists, mostly because we know plenty about the realistic challengers here. However, a due note for the enigmatic but hugely talented
MIN, who is probably the only horse that can realistically bridge the form gap between himself and the daunting market leader, Altior.
But MIN does have an air about him.
It is hard to put one’s finger fully on it, but the horse has often left the impression that a Championship level performance is under the bonnet.
Altior was the stronger novice hurdler, storming 7 lengths clear of a gangly, unfurnished Min when they finished 1st & 2nd in the Supreme two years ago and of course has gone on to prove himself top class over fences. But Min is coming to the boil nicely now too and in winning the Dublin Chase by 12 lengths at the Leopardstown Dublin Racing Festival last month, the 7yo ran to within around 3lb of Altior’s Newbury run when beating Politologue; so he isn’t far away.
Min didn’t make the Cheltenham Festival last year, but is likely to go there this year on the back of a clear career-best effort. A fast pace and nicer ground could well sharpen his game further and two years on from their last meeting, Min is in a very encouraging position to bridge the gap between himself and Nicky Henderson’s odds-on favourite.
Not so much a Dark Horse in price, but certainly one in profile and stature in regards to the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Thur 15th – Stayers’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – PENHILL
With the highly progressive Supasundae and Sam Spinner heading the market for the Stayers Hurdle on St. Patrick’s Thursday, accompanied by a host of interesting contenders in behind those two, the 3m hurdling Championship feature on day three is shaping up to be a cracking renewal.
Third in in the betting is the hugely talented but often frustrating Yanworth, who still needs to prove he can perform on the big days in March. The major Dark Horse in this race though, is the Willie Mullins trained PENHILL. Off the track since finishing 2nd at Punchestown last year, this 7yo Mount Nelson gelding was an impressive winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle in 2017, finding a telling and sustained effort to put Monalee and Wholestone firmly to the sword. The form of the race has worked out very encouragingly and for all match practice is a concern, he can go well fresh, while the trip and Spring ground brought about some notable improvement in the horse last year.
As a Cheltenham Festival winner already, one big box is already ticked and given Penhill’s form, along with positive mentions coming out of the yard, he rates a real live threat to all at a shade of double figure odds. He likes to be held up, so the race will be run to suit and if he gets some luck in running, he is likely to arrive menacingly on the scene as the contest begins to heat up. Whether Penhill has the fitness in reserve to fend off a host of fancy challengers remains to be seen, but recent absence aside, he does have a strong chance.
Penhill is the sort of horse that could drift on the day and become of real each-way interest. Either Ruby Walsh or Paul Townend will take the ride; obviously the former would likely have his usual effect on the horse’s price with the Cheltenham faithful ever on-side with the County Kildare man. Whoever rides him and at whatever price, Penhill is a horse to watch out for in the third of the week’s main Championship events.
Fri 16th – Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1) – KILLULTAGH VIC
Willie Mullins isn’t exactly a trainer we associate with horses slipping under the radar or being described as a “Dark Horse”, yet here we are with a third Mullins horse described as such – it’s just turning out to be one of those funny years! KILLULTAGH VIC very much enters that realm however, as a Gold Cup Dark Horse, for all he is trading just in behind the market leaders at 10/1 for top honours in the main event of the week. This 9yo hasn’t had the cleanest of runs through his racing career to date, underlined by the fact that, thus far, Killultagh Vic only has three chase starts to his name.
A classy hurdler too, he was off the track for the thick end of two years before returning to the winners enclosure over smaller obstacles at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve, very much leaving the impression that his time off the track hadn’t left any meaningful dent on his ability. Under Paul Townend, Killultagh Vic went off at 5/1 for the Dublin Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month and was unfortunate to fall at the last when coming with what surely would’ve been a winning run.
It isn’t ideal to have an “F” last time out next to the name of a Cheltenham Gold Cup hopeful, nor is it the norm for a nine-year-old chaser to have his next, and only his fourth chase start – after a fall last time – in the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. So it isn’t so much the stable he hails from, but the profile of Killultagh Vic which makes him of such interest.
Killultagh Vic is already a Festival winner having won the Martin Pipe Conditional Riders Handicap Hurdle in 2015, remains a prolific winner and if it weren’t for a mishap the last day, he’d be coming into this race on the back of a career best Grade 1 win in a top staying chase. Stamina isn’t an issue, he’s usually an excellent and safe jumper, we know the class and resilience is there for a battle up the Hill for the horse….So, is he the one?
Don’t be surprised if he is.
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