Next up in our ante-post Cheltenham Festival previews is the JLT Novices’ Chase, registered as the Golden Miller, and due to be run on the third day of Festival. It’s the opening race of Ryanair Day – or for you Irish fans, St Patrick’s Day – and is run over the intermediate trip of 2-and-a-half miles. Sixty-four horses remain in at this stage as our expert, Declan Rix, previews this year’s contest.
JLT Novices’ Chase ante-post preview
A late injury to the previous ante-post favourite Killultagh Vic has thrown this year’s JLT Novices’ Chase wide-open. Willie Mullins’s charge would’ve been tough to beat having taken to fences so well on top of last year’s Cheltenham Festival win. His defection is not welcome news in these quarters, but at least the race is now more of a betting contest with as many as 6 horses separated by 5 or so betting points.
The beautiful grey Bristol De Mai (7/2) now leads the betting on the back of what has already been a hugely successful season. A Grade 1-winning hurdler when scoring at Chepstow in the Finale Hurdle last campaign, this five-year-old has taken to fences like a duck to water.
A keen-going sort, Bristol De Mai started his season with a fine second at Uttoxeter before going on to break his duck over the larger obstacles at Warwick, winning by an easy 19 lengths. Connections wasted little time in stepping him into Grade 1 company, next time out at Sandown, the Henry VIII Chase was his assignment.
Behind the classy-looking Ar Mad, the son of Saddler Maker would finish second, jumping soundly, but never quite manging to land a serious blow. He shaped like he’d be better over further, as his pedigree suggests, but it was at least promising he was clear of the remainder with potential improvement to come over sterner trips.
An easy victory at odds of 1/3 followed at Leicester before a facile 32 lengths Grade 2 success at Haydock. He is flattered by the bare form here, but to be fair to the Simon Munir & Isaac Souede charge, he couldn’t have done it any easier.
A second top-level success came at Sandown in the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase. Under Daryl Jacob, Bristol De Mai benefited from an easy lead, which surely helped his slick jumping. When joined by his rivals in the straight, the gallant grey found plenty and went on to score by 6 lengths.
Those last trio of victories all came over 2-and-a-half miles meaning Bristol De Mai comes to Cheltenham at the top of his game over what will be his ideal trip. He’ll have to prove himself, potentially, on spring terrain, but he doesn’t gallop like a horse who wants bottomless ground and has shown a fair level of form on spring sod.
Another horse that has shown he can handle quicker ground but all his best form has come on winter soft is Outlander (9/2), an equine 3 years Bristol De Mai’s elder. Trained by Willie Mullins, Outlander is still unbeaten in 3 starts over fences.
His season commenced in good style at Punchestown when beating a useful horse of Gordon Elliott’s in mid-November. Six weeks later connections sent the son of Stowaway to Limerick for a Grade 2 and he snugly obliged by just under 2 lengths on heavy ground.
Similar conditions greeted the Gigginstown-owned horse in his first venture into top-level company over fences at Leopardstown next time out. As you’d expect, given he had shown plenty times before, the eight-year-old revelled in conditions and he went on to score by an idling 2¾ lengths.
This Flogas Novice Chase win, although a Grade 1, is easy to pick holes in however, and that is a worry. The runner-up, Monksland, didn’t jump well while the third home, Pont Alexandre, reportedly scoped dirty post-race.
The legitimacy of this form and his ability to perform at his very best on faster ground would be a concern heading to Cheltenham, but at the end of the day, he’s a horse that travels and jumps fine and still remains unbeaten over the larger obstacles. Coming from these quarters, he has to be respected.
We’ve become used to Willie Mullins dominating races in these previews and while it can’t be said he has a vice-like grip on this year’s JLT, he still holds a potentially strong hand. Outlander must be respected as we’ve already discussed, but so too the Graham Wylie pair of Black Hercules and Shaneshill.
Of the two, there is little doubt about Shaneshill (8/1) being the class operator and, there is even a case to be made, of those likely to run, he is the class horse of the field. Second in a Cheltenham Champion Bumper and runner-up in a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, there are few in the race that can boast that kind of form.
The problem is, the son of King’s Theatre is not the biggest and jumping fences doesn’t come as easy to him as you’d like. That said, the 7-year-old did win his first 2 chase starts before flopping next time out at Doncaster.
Flopping is maybe a touch harsh and it may simply be he needs a trip in excess of 2 miles nowadays to show his best. Some form and indeed his pedigree point to this and back over a more suitable trip at a Festival that has often brought out the best in him, he has to be respected, especially on nice ground.
Black Hercules (6/1), on the other hand, is a completely different type of model to Shaneshill. He is taller and more robust, a proper old fashioned chasing type, and jumping comes easily to him.
That last observation, with regards his jumping, let’s down our opinion of him a touch, given he fell last time out. Under Ruby Walsh he was a last fence casualty with the race at his mercy, but up to that point had jumped accurately and quickly.
These traits were seen on his previous start when he ran out a convincing winner of a Listed novice chase at Warwick when carrying a penalty; it was a good performance. In the main, Black Hercules is a good, solid jumper of a fence and we’d even say he relishes the task.
While that’s said, statically, horses coming to Cheltenham on the back of uncompleted starts have a poor record, and this has to be a worry. Another concern is would the son of Heron Island have enough pace to compete at this level over the intermediate trip? He’s not short of boot to be fair, but he does stay well meaning, the RSA might be the race connections go to.
Of the rest, two horses to note with similar profiles that are much bigger prices than the aforementioned are Three Musketeers and Zabana. Rated 143 and 155 respectively over hurdles, it would be easy to fall into the trap thinking the latter mentioned is the better animal.
Over hurdles, that fact can’t be denied, but Three Musketeers (12/1) never really had the opportunities to climb the handicap over smaller obstacles. A horse his trainer Dan Skelton has had plenty of faith in from an early stage, that patience in handling this son of Flemensfirth’s brief hurdling career may pay off over fences this spring.
He’ll need to raise his game to win a JLT, especially on the back of a poor run at Cheltenham last time out, but he is capable of hitting the frame. It’s not ideal his one win over fences has been sandwiched in between two below par efforts.
We feel he has had excuses however, for example, on debut at Huntingdon, connections felt he wasn’t near fit enough to do himself justice and last time out, the very soft ground played against his strengths.
The encouraging aspect with Three Musketeers is he looked a chaser of real quality when winning at Newbury. According to the handicapper, he ran to a mark of 155 there and with us thinking there is scope to improve on that figure, he has the credentials to at least hit the frame.
Zabana (14/1), like Three Musketeers, has to bounce back after a poor run last time. An excellent second in last year’s Coral Cup, that kind of Festival form means he must be respected despite his latest no show.
That effort was disappointing, especially when you consider the lovely chasing debut he made at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Last time out, the son of Halling’s jumping went to pieces in the second half of the race, for whatever reason. His trainer, Andrew Lynch, believes it was the ground. With a flat pedigree and plenty form on quicker terrain, it’s an acceptable excuse.
Better going at Cheltenham will help his cause, but coming here on the back of a poor run with his chase form failing to catch the eye is a concern.
Best of the Rest
Of those to the fore in the market, Garde La Victoire (5/1) is a horse we are willing to take on. There is no doubting his ability, but his habit of over-racing will not serve him well over a trip he has never scored over while chasing. It also remains to be seen if his jumping will hold up under serious pressure.
If a horse was to hit the frame a t a big price, it may well be As Dee Me (25/1). His form ties him in strongly with the race-favourite and given he’ll meet him on different ground and on better terms, it’s no forlorn hope he gets closer to him.
Given he reportedly scoped dirty last time out and still ran a nice race behind Outlander, Pont Alexandre (16/1) is another who could show up well. His jumping is slick, but there is a slight suspicion he could be better going the other way round.
Nicky Henderson appears to be aiming L’Ami Serge (14/1) down the Arkle route. He must bounce back from a poor effort last time out and truth be told, we’d rather see him run here. Douvan, Sizing John and Vaniteux are others who look set to run on the opening day instead while More Of That will surely run in the RSA.
The BetBright Verdict
With no Killultagh Vic lining up, this year’s JLT is wide-open. Six or so betting points separate the top 6 in the current market. We think it’s safe to assume More Of That will run in the RSA, although this is not a given.
It’s also highly likely one of Black Hercules and Shaneshill will run in another race. This isn’t ideal where this piece is concerned as both horses would be of interest if they ran here.
There is no doubting Shaneshill has the ability to win, but his lack of scope is a concern.
Black Hercules’s aggressive bold-jumping style could serve him well. His apparent mix of speed and stamina makes him interesting for whatever Festival race he considers, but the two Graham Wylie horses are best left at this juncture until their plans are finalised.
The market leaders, Bristol De Mai and Outlander, are worth taking on for different reasons to the above. The two are similar in that they do plenty right; travel, jump and appear to stay well. It’s also obvious their best form has come on soft and heavy ground however, and that must be a small concern. No doubt they’d be better served by winter going so they are worth taking on now.
Three Musketeers and Zabana look the two best options for ante-post bets, but given his superior chase form THREE MUSKETEERS will get the nod.
He is probably flattered a touch by his current chase rating of 153 and he’ll need to improve to win, but this year’s JLT is a race lacking a true star and it may only take a performance of 160 max to succeed.
The Dan Skelton team are currently operating at 21% strike-rate with a level stakes profit of +5.07. If the yard can keep up those kind of numbers heading to Cheltenham it would instil more confidence. In a hugely open race, he gets a tentative each-way call.
1pt each-way THREE MUSKETEERS @12/1
READ MORE OF DECLAN’S CHELTENHAM 2016 ANTE-POST PREVIEWS: