Cheltenham Festival countdown: Five to think about for ante-post punters

The countdown to Cheltenham is on.

Sunday, 24th January 2021, 5:00 pm
Ignore Willie Mullins' Cheltenham runners at your peril / Picture: Getty

In a little under two months, we will welcome back our beloved festival - but she will not be as you remember her. No elation, no glee, no roar - not a soul nor sinner to be seen. Instead, she will be bare, with the sound of a pin drop resounding to the heights of Cleeve Hill.

Although the feast of racing will not be as we have celebrated it, all is not lost - as we can hail the return of jump racing's finest hour. And, what’s more, we can use this time locked-down as the perfect excuse to point out five ante-post selections which could be worth going to war with.

Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle - GAILLARD DU MESNIL 10/1

Letting the heart rule the head is a cardinal sin when punting and although I’m on Bravemansgame at fancy ante-post prices for the Ballymore, I would be breaking that rule if I advised backing him at the current odds. Add to the mix that the last 17 Challow Hurdle winners have all been beaten in this, then Paul Nicholls’ recruit looks very short at just 4/1.

Willie Mullins boasts an enviable record in this race - winning it four times and filling seven places in the last 13 years - and there’s every chance the master trainer from Closutton will hold a strong hand with Gaillard Du Mesnil.

Despite being beaten by the subsequently underwhelming Holymacapony on hurdle debut, the five-year-old put in an outstanding performance to duly bolt up at the Leopardstown Christmas festival, making light work of his nineteen rivals.

The son of Saint Des Saints had no trouble in laying just off a decent pace, before quickening in a smart manner round the home bend to record a tidy victory. Nine lengths by no means flattered his superiority, as Paul Townend reduced his efforts to a light gallop after giving a long looming look over his right shoulder at his laboured opposition.

Given that Appreciate It looks to be heading to the Supreme, the 10/1 on offer will look like a gift from the heavens should this exciting prospect improve in the manner that he threatens to when heading to Leopardstown next month.

Ryanair Chase: MIN 6/1

Min has spent much of his career operating in the shadow of Altior and, now the presence of stablemate Chacun Pour Soi looms large, is undoubtedly overshadowed yet again.

It’s easy to forget that the ten-year-old has seven Grade one victories to his name and ranks among the ten highest-rated horses that Willie Mullins has ever trained. In the last two years, he has epitomised the word ‘consistent’, only being beaten by Un De Sceaux and Chacun in his last six appearances.

Viewers didn’t get to see him in all his might on his return to a foggy Punchestown in December, but he all importantly got over the line victorious. Patrick Mullins, who was in the saddle that day, was thrilled with his performance and couldn’t help but sing his praises saying, “I’m gutted as he put in an exhibition of jumping and you couldn’t see it.”

Landing the hat-trick in the John Durkan hinted that Min’s reign as the Ryanair Chase champion may continue and, should we see a gallant performance in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase on February 6th, the 6/1 on offer will no doubt be long gone.

Of course, he may face a challenge from his market rival Imperial Aura, but it’s a euphemism to say that his unseat at Kempton in the Ladbrokes Silviniaco Conti Chase was worrying, and 7/1 on the back of that unfortunate episode looks awfully short.

Even at the age of ten, Willie Mullins’ top-class chaser still fits the perfect criteria for a winner of the Ryanair and the punters who looked the other way could yet again be rueing their mistake.

Albert Bartlett - STATTLER 12/1, MAHLER ALLSTAR 80/1

The destination for our next selection is the Spa Novices’ Hurdle, or the Albert Bartlett as it’s known for sponsorship purposes. It’s fair to say the market for this is in disarray, with the majority of the main candidates toing and froing whether they will run here or not.

Although, one main contender at the head of the market looks all but certain to head here. STATTLER went off a strong odds-on favourite on his hurdling debut but could only manage third - before bouncing back in some style to triumph at Leopardstown in a maiden hurdle.

The son of Stowaway clocked a very respectable time in the closing stages of that race, which screams out that there could be bundles of improvement to come when stepped up to the three mile trip. In the coming weeks, we should be able to get an idea of just how much improvement needs wringing out of him before Cheltenham, most likely when seeing him at Leopardstown next month. Nonetheless, with a race looking extremely fragmented at the minute, 12/1 could prove the value for certainty of a run - and a good one at that.

As the race appears wide open it seems a perfect place for a more speculative dart. And yes, I am fully aware that I may be wiping the proverbial egg off of my face should this pick go nowhere near the festival, but at 80/1 (or 40/1 NRNB), I’ll most certainly be paying to find out.

MAHLER ALLSTAR hails from the same Maiden Hurdle that Stattler triumphed in and has been tried in illustrious company in his lightly raced career, placing third in a bumper behind none other than Appreciate It before finishing twelfth in the Champion Bumper last year.

His eye-catching performance was his hurdling debut when staying on for third at Leopardstown. When timed from the first obstacle he put in a very similar time behind Willie Mullins’ contender - finishing just over half a second worse off - and importantly shaped as if the step up to three miles would be greatly appreciated.

He was well fancied when entered into a maiden hurdle over that trip alongside the well-regarded Fantasio D’alene at Punchestown on Monday - but unfortunately had to be withdrawn due to stiffness.

There’s bound to be a bundle more of improvement to come from Jonathan Sweeney’s seven-year-old, but we’ll most likely only see him once before the festival. This is an obvious major negative considering only one of the last twelve winners of the Albert Bartlett had won it on their third hurdle start (Minella Indo 2019 - 50/1). Either way, this intriguing little thoroughbred from Cork is certainly one to keep an eye on.

Martin Pipe Hurdle - FANTASIO D’ALENE 25/1

Enough of the shrine to Willie Mullins.

If you follow me on Twitter - at @_JDRacing - you would’ve seen me tip this horse at the beginning of last week at 33/1 NRNB before his most recent run at Punchestown. Looking back, it’s fair to say that his run on Monday was extremely underwhelming, finishing a whopping fifty-two lengths behind Ted Walsh’ Pure Genius.

Although this six-year-old was beaten by the length of one and a quarter football pitches, I will be sticking with the all-important proverb that ‘a captain always goes down with his ship’.

In all seriousness, Gordon Elliott’s record in handicap hurdles at the festival is superb (a 13.33% strike-rate returning a profit of £43.50 to a £1 stake), so when FANTASIO D'ALENE was mapped out the same route as Dallas Des Pictons and Column Of Fire, it was undoubtedly an eyecatcher. Both of the aforementioned went off 7/2f and 13/2 respectively, so the 25’s on offer could look large come the day.

This six-year-old was well fancied to be Gordon’s pick for the Albert Bartlett but hasn’t demonstrated the potential which many thought he’d produce. On his hurdling debut, he put in a gallant display finishing neck and neck with none other than Stattler but failed to back that up at Punchestown on Monday.

For just his second hurdling appearance, the three mile trip around Leopardstown on testing ground obviously stretched him. Add to the mix that blood was found in his trachea, then I’m willing to give him another chance and, it seems, the Meath based trainer is willing to as well, entering him in a Grade one over two miles and six furlongs at Leopardstown next month.

In terms of Elliott’s first choice, it looks like that will fall in the hands of Wide Receiver. But it’s worth noting that his second string in the Martin Pipe have figures of 1465 in the last four years, with his third string also winning it in 2018 with Blow By Blow and finishing third in 2019 with Defi Bleu.

So, should we see the son of Saddler Maker before the festival - and it’s all but certain we will - I’m sure we’ll witness him bounce back from his Punchestown flop to some kind of form, and at 25/1, he warrants interest at this stage.

Summary:

Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle - GAILLARD DU MESNIL 10/1

Ryanair Chase - MIN 6/1

Albert Bartlett - STATTLER 12/1, MAHLER ALLSTAR 80/1

Martin Pipe - FANTASIO D'ALENE 25/1