The Festival flies by in the blink of an eye. Here we are, hurtling towards the Gold Cup already and we think this year’s event will be an absolute stunner.
Last year’s 1-2-3 all challenge again, along with another 2021 Festival winner and a new kid on the block we reckon will have a big say.
1.30 (Triumph Hurdle – Grade 1) – VAUBAN
One way or another, the opening race revolves around Vauban.
Today’s challengers Fil Dor, Il Etair Temps and Icare Allen were all in behind him when he won his Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time, while he and Pied Piper fought out the finish on their respective debuts.
That collective form seems stronger than that of the British challengers Porticello and Knight Salute, though the former won easily last time and the latter remains unbeaten to this point.
On their second starts, Vauban and Pied Piper once again ran to very similar levels. Though Pied Piper won easily at Cheltenham, Vauban was impressive in beating Grade 1 performers and despite being beaten half a length on debut by his main rival, he was hampered all the way down the straight and is probably, overall, just the better horse.
2.10 (County Handicap Hurdle – Grade 3) – WEST CORK
State Man is all the rage and could be anything in handicap company, while Bloomfield Burg didn’t settle well enough last time and remains of serious interest.
We do love the Greatwood form from last November though and the winner of that contest, West Cork, can go in here.
Adagio, Camprond, Tritonic, Glory And Fortune and Marie’s Rock were all in behind that day and it’s obvious Dan Skelton’s runner has more to give. I Like To Move It may also have a strong each-way chance.
2.50 (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – HILLCREST
Ginto is an incredibly strong contender after his three hurdle wins so far, including one in a Grade 1 race.
He had to pull out his best to win that though and it often means there isn’t as much improvement left as we’d like, while the form of Hillcrest is equally as impressive anyway, maybe even better.
Henry Daly’s seven-year-old won the Prestige Novices’ Hurdle with some ease last month and has been primed for this contest. The Nice Guy, Minella Cocooner and Bardenstown Lad may also have a say.
3.30 (Cheltenham Gold Cup – Grade 1) – PROTEKTORAT
A cracker of a renewal. It may be safe to rule out Santini, Aye Right, Asterion Forlonge and Chantry House, while Royale Pagaille will have supporters but also has it all to do. Tornado Flyer is interesting, but again might prove to be just not quite good enough.
Al Boum Photo has won this race twice, was an admirable third last year and is back for another go, while A Plus Tard suffered a heart-breaking close defeat to Minello Indo in 2021 and all are back to challenge.
Many believe this race comes down to A Plus Tard and Galvin after the two fought out a tight finish in the Savills Chase in December, and it just might work out that way too. Galvin and A Plus Tard are at strikingly similar points in their respective careers as well.
Al Boum Photo was the first horse to win the Gold Cup back-to-back since Best Mate and it’s notoriously difficult for Gold Cup winners to come back and do it again. After what they went through last year, can we treat both Minella Indo and A Plus Tard like winners? That’s an interesting thought.
With that in mind and remembering that it is so often a fresher, younger and improving horse that nabs the established runners in this race, Protektorat is brought into the equation in a big way.
Dan Skelton’s runner hacked up by 25 lengths in the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree and it could have been a lot more. He stays incredibly well, can handle deep ground if it turns out that way and has had just seven chase starts which include four wins, two defeats in unsatisfactory small fields and a great second off top weight in the Paddy Power Gold Cup.
Galvin will stay all day as well, but it strikes us that Protektorat was at a better level on his debut chase, his second chase and after seven races than both A Plus Tard and Galvin and he may be the answer to this at a nice price for Dan and Harry Skelton.
4.10 (Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase – Class 2) – WINGED LEADER
Much like the Cross Country race, the Hunters’ Chase is often a hard one to predict. We are often dealing with older horses and their public form can read a little in and out.
For varying reasons, it was hard for us to split Bob And Co, Pont Aven and Billaway, the latter having run second in this race twice over.
David Christie’s Winged Leader on the other hand is younger, in terrific form and is indeed improving all the time unlike the others. He beat Billaway by 12 lengths last time and may repeat the trick.
4.50 (Mares’ Chase – Grade 2) – ZAMBELLA
Elimay is favourite for the Mares’ Chase, just as she was last year when she was beaten by only a half-length.
She hasn’t been in the best of form since though and it may be that, even under a 3lb penalty, Concertista is the better-fancied of the two Willie Mullins runners. Mount Ida is interesting but can jump out to the right, but Zambrella looks very solid to us.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ mare won a Listed race very easily two runs ago and faced nothing but a public piece of work last time. We don’t know where her ceiling is, but it is certainly likely to make her competitive here.
5.30 (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle – Class 2) – LANGER DAN
We backed Langer Dan in this race last year after his Imperial Cup win and he only just missed out.
He’s had a quieter time of things this season, taking in the same prep race as he did last year but missing out on the Sandown spectacular to stay fresh for today. He can round off what might be a great day for the Skeltons in style.
The challengers are many and include Earlofthecotswolds, Cobblers Dream, Banbridge and I A Connect.