A hugely competitive final, as it should be, and one that will take a lot of winning on the New Course in this ground.
It may seem strange to some for us to have left out leading betting hopes The Storyteller and Relegate, but we have to be brutal in races like this and we think that these six have enough in their armoury to cope.
Having won well in the Albert Bartlett over three miles of the New Course on soft ground two years ago, the fact that Colin Tizzard’s nine-year-old ran well enough to be placed on a flat track in preparation for this event is very encouraging.
Third behind Skandiburg here in January, he has generally got better since then although in taking on Paisley Park in Grade 2 company and running at Haydock he was never likely to show his true best.
That should come today though and if it does, he’d have to have a huge chance off a handicap mark some 12lbs below his peak despite having only had 14 hurdle starts.
A young and improving horse carrying a light weight, Henry Daly’s gelding is fancied by many to improve past Skandiburg who beat him here on New Year’s Day in what is perhaps the key piece of form on offer.
While it’s true he could get better, it’s also true that given the nature of this track he probably enjoyed a better trip than both Skandiburg and the third-placed Kilbricken Storm with the latter now enjoying a fair weight turnaround against both horses.
A big price but probably unnecessarily so, Henry De Bromhead’s runner hasn’t achieved much yet but clearly has ability and hasn’t yet been grabbed by the handicapper which makes him interesting.
The trainer is having a terrific festival so far and we can assume this horse has been prepared perfectly so while there isn’t any strong handicap or graded form to go on, he must be considered for each-way bets.
Sire Du Berlais
Last year’s winner who got there despite running into trouble, broadly speaking he should be able to handle a 7lb rise.
His win last year came when he was improving in lumps, he was as short as 4/1 and he did it on good-to-soft ground so there are enough variables arguably not in his favour to suggest he can be halted, however having been there and done it he remains an obviously strong contender.
The winner of that key race on New Year’s Day, he obviously has things to his liking in terms of track, trip and going but the second that day has a 3lb weight pull while the third has eight, and that could be too much to ignore.
That said it was his third victory in four starts and he is clearly going the right way, so another step forward here is possible which keeps him in the hunt.
Only five runs into his hurdling career and with two wins on the board already, Nicky Henderson’s representative is clearly going places but while a strong previous Cheltenham run isn’t a prerequisite here, it would have helped considering he has been doing his winning at the much quicker Warwick and the much flatter Haydock.
The positive is that he stayed on really well in heavy ground last time out over three miles-plus, allied with the fact he has only been raised 4lbs which doesn’t seem a lot for a horse who is generally improving.
Henry De Bromhead’s Royal Thief is not without a chance at a big price with the feeling being that he can improve now he is in a fast-paced handicap, while last year’s hero Sire Du Berlais can again go very well albeit with more weight and with conditions not quite the same as twelve months ago.
The form of the three-mile handicap hurdle around here on January 1st is the key piece of form, a race won by the improving Skandiburg.
He can go well once more, but he was favourite that day and this is much more competitive, while we also have to take into account that he now gets only 1lb from KILBRICKEN STORM versus the nine he got that day.
Bearing in mind that Kilbricken Storm getting even half way back to the form he showed when winning the Albert Bartlett would represent improvement, which seems more than possible, he is well weighted to run a huge one here.