The December International Meeting at Cheltenham is a pre-Christmas treat and undeniably one of the most exciting National Hunt meetings on the Winter calendar. With a wealth of emerging talent and established stars set to strut their stuff on the Holy Turf at Prestbury Park, punters will be lining up in their droves to try and seek out some winners. As usual at Cheltenham, outcomes will be hard to predict in strongly contested races, but we’ll give it a shot on Friday with a few names likely to have their say on Day 1 of the festivities.
Colin Tizzard has already fired in 46 winners from his Venn Farm Racing stables this season and his ELIXIR DE NUTZ will bid to follow up his fluent success from the front here at the November meeting in the opening Novices’ Hurdle at 12.10pm. Owner Terry Warner loves nothing better than a talented grey and his son of Al Namix is certainly going the right way. He posted a Racing Post Rating (RPR) of 133 last time out, backed up by a highly creditable Topspeed (TS) figure of 120, which points to this 4yo being well above average. He’ll have a penalty to contend with here and some new rivals to outgun under Harry Cobden, but he could have a touch of class and clearly loves it around Cheltenham.
The ever-popular Lil Rockerfeller has been declared to take his chance in the 12.45pm Novices’ Chase, a searching test of stamina over the extended 3m1f trip. Neil King’s 7yo has achieved so much and is still so young, but he will need to brush up his jumping if he is to mix it with the best this season. The Paul Nicholls trained IBIS DU RHEU seems to be progressing at just the right time to take his under a penalty. He stayed on strongly to deny the game Theatre Territory here last time out and looks well positioned to follow up. If he does win again on Friday, he’ll have to enter the picture for the RSA Chase in March, though that race could be the hottest in years in a few months time.
At 1.20pm, AL DANCER holds pressing claims for Nigel Twiston-Davies, with son Sam booked to take the ride aboard this improving 5yo gelding. His overall form was patchy last season, but he seems to be putting it together now and is a versatile, talented type of horse, as he’s proved with recent wins at Carlisle and Ffos Las. Last time out at the latter named venue, Al Dancer ran to an RPR of 128 and a TS figure of 106. It was a weak race and he’ll need to improve again to score here off 129, but he arrives in excellent form and the local yard love nothing better than a Cheltenham winner.
The 1.55pm Mares’ Handicap Chase is perhaps the trickiest race on the card from a form study point of the view, so it’ll be a watching brief from me, but Gordon Elliott sends over a horse called SYNOPSIS, who is definitely the Dark Horse in the field. She doesn’t arrive in the best of form, but Elliott doesn’t send any over for a picnic and Richard Johnson is booked to take the ride. The 3m2f Grade Handicap Chase at 2.30pm has attracted a tidy field of nine heading to post in search of a share in the £60,000 prize. I’m interested in the Neil Mulholland trained DOING FINE at decent odds, who had other possible recent engagements at Sandown and Kelso, but has been kept for a tilt at this. A talented horse on his day, he ran well behind Rock The Kasbah last time out and with a more confident ride this time, he can get closer to the placings. He gets in off just 10st 5lb and can go well here off his BHA handicap mark of 132.
The Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase at 3.05pm is a divisive contest, but I like to watch it and have the odd bet in these quirky tests of jumping. Josie’s Orders benefitted from a more forceful ride to win here last month and is the most likely winner again for Enda Bolger and Mark Walsh, with Grand National hero Tiger Roll looking to get closer this time, but is is only 3lb better off for a 5+ length beating and needs to improve on that. French raider Amazing Comedy is an interesting contender to look out for, but I’ll take an each-way chance on another Irish raider in WOUNDED WARRIOR, who has stacks of big race experience and could go well here off a low weight, with the safe hands Derek O’Connor booked to take the reins.
GREAT TANGO is one to note in the last at 3.40pm. Another visitor from the Emerald Isle, this dual-purpose and admirably consistent 5yo was well backed to win a handicap hurdle at the Listowel Festival back in September and hasn’t been seen since. He isn’t the most obviously well-handicapped off 133 here, but is lightly raced over hurdles and has put in some notable shifts on the clock in the past, enough to suggest he could be very competitive in this three mile hurdle race. Sean Flanagan, who is an excellent jockey, comes over to take the ride.
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