BILL ESDAILE PREVIEWS THE NEPTUNE HURDLE AND NATIONAL HUNT CHASE
DURING the four days the Irish always have a number of bankers and it seems as though their biggest this year is Willie Mullins’ Pont Alexandre in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle (2.05pm).
Ruby Walsh has been lighting up every time this son of Dai Jin’s name is mentioned, and he has even compared him favourably with Denman.
That is some praise indeed from Cheltenham’s most successful ever jockey, but Denman was beaten in this race and Pont Alexandre also looks to be a chaser in the making. The RSA Chase looks like it will be his target next season.
Mullins won this prize in 2008 and 2009, the latter with Mikael D’Haguenet, who is in the same ownership as Pont Alexandre. Rich and Susannah Ricci will be confident they can collect the trophy again.
The five-year-old has been mightily impressive in his two runs in Ireland and you can see him starting around 5/4. And that’s the problem for me, he is just too short and, although I respect him hugely, I’m happy to look elsewhere.
The New One would have been a strong fancy if it hadn’t been for the bug going around Nigel Twiston-Davies’ yard. Although the trainer has said his best Festival chance hasn’t been affected, he can’t be certain until the race itself. I have to leave him alone with the doubts about his well-being.
Jonjo O’Neill is one of the top trainers at the Cheltenham Festival and he has struggled to contain his excitement when discussing Taquin Du Seuil, who has won three of his four starts over hurdles.
The six-year-old’s only defeat came at the hands of My Tent Or Yours at Ascot in November and he faced a nigh-on impossible task that day, having to concede 5lb to Nicky Henderson’s runner.
He was a commanding winner of the Challow Hurdle over the Christmas period and, although that race hasn’t been a good trial for this race, the ground should be perfect. He will also have AP McCoy in the saddle.
The Irish have an excellent record in this race, winning four of the last seven, and I think they can land the prize again with RULE THE WORLD for the powerful Gigginstown House Stud.
Mouse Morris trains this six-year-old and he won this race two years ago with First Lieutenant, while his Venalmar was beaten by just a neck in 2008. He is a brilliant trainer and Rule The World has followed a very similar path to First Lieutenant.
The son of Sulamani easily beat Champagne Fever and Minsk at Naas last time, and has shown that he both stays and handles soft ground. Davy Russell takes the ride and he is worth backing at 6/1 with Blue Square Bet.
Of the others, Henderson’s Chatterbox has to be of interest as he beat My Tent Or Yours on soft ground at Newbury in December and then doubled up at the same track last month. He will love the conditions, but I’d be slightly worried that he could be a little too inexperienced for this. To me, it’s between the two Irish runners at the top of the market and at the prices I’m firmly in the Rule The World camp. Spread betters should look to buy Rule The World in a match bet against the likes of The New One or Taquin Du Seuil.
Today’s action kicks off with the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase (1.30pm) which was won so comprehensively by Teaforthree 12 months ago.
Willie Mullins is yet to win this race, and the Irish have only won one of the last 12 runnings, but the County Carlow trainer is set to saddle yet another favourite in the shape of Back In Focus.
The Graham Wylie-owned eight-year-old is unbeaten in three chase starts and he has always looked as though he wants a marathon trip like this. The ground is right up his street and his chance is obvious, although I think he’s very short at 9/4 with Ladbrokes.
David Pipe’s Buddy Bolero has been a big shortener in recent weeks after two comfortable wins over fences. Both of those victories came on heavy ground, so conditions won’t be a problem. His pilot, Jamie Codd, is also one of the best amateur jockeys around.
The fact that Pipe took out Goulanes from this race to run in the RSA and leave Buddy Bolero as his sole representative speaks volumes. He is certainly well respected, but I’ve got my eye on another runner.
Pauline Robson does well with her small string and she has had this race in mind for RIVAL D’ESTRUVAL for a long time. The eight-year-old was a ready winner at Kelso in early December and has been deliberately kept off the track since then as he goes best fresh.
Prior to that win at Kelso, the son of Khalkevi finished second to Bold Sir Brian over 2m4f at Carlisle and that trip was never going to suit. He was a stayer over hurdles and this four miles will be perfect for him.
Another major positive is the booking of Derek O’Connor. He is probably the best amateur jockey around and gave Chicago Grey a brilliant ride to win this two years ago.
Rival D'Estruval is 5/1 with Star Sports, and that is worth taking. I will also be buying him on the Sporting Index win index at 14 (50 points for the winner, 30 for the runner-up, 20 for third and 10 for fourth).
The only other one who interests me to any degree is Dessie Hughes’ Tofino Bay. He has won two of his last four chase starts and is another who should appreciate the step up in trip.
I will be reporting live from the track and you can follow me on Twitter @BillEsdaile.
RIVAL D’ESTRUVAL 1.30pm Cheltenham
RULE THE WORLD 2.05pm Cheltenham