Hopefully people have enjoyed my Road To The Cheltenham Foxhunter thread and it has helped keep everyone up to date with a race that always gets overlooked by the mainstream (and less mainstream) press despite the fact quite a lot of people actually are interested especially when you have well known horses like Minella Rocco and Don Poli involved. If you haven't seen and want to see my thoughts over the last 3 or so months then that thread is here https://forum.punterslounge.com/topic/171460-road-to-the-cheltenham-foxhunters/
This year's preview clocks in at just under 4000 words and apparently will take just under 15 minutes to read. I can't guarantee I will find the winner, but hopefully it will help guide you to what you want to back in the race. I have yet to see a more in depth preview of the race so without further or do here are my thoughts on the 31 horses remaining in this year's Cheltenham Foxhunter.
Alcala - Rather unusually looks set to be Paul Nicholls' only runner in this race this year. Classy horse as his peak mark of 152 suggests and he won the Summer Plate at Market Rasen in 2017 off 142. He looked set to win on his first start since July 2018 when falling 2 out at Ludlow. He then made amends when winning the Walrus at Haydock getting the better of Wishing And Hoping despite making a bad error 2 out. After that he had to go to Fontwell to qualify for this and I don't think Angus Cheleda was overly hard on him at all given he knew he only had to finish 2nd to qualify. His trainer spoke of him having two hard races, but I find it hard to believe he had much of a race last time out. My concern about his chance is his stamina. At Ludlow they went no pace so it turned into a sprint, Haydock was over 2m6f and again they went a steady enough gallop as they did over 3m2f at Fontwell. The race he won over 3m2f in 2017 was a match. If he stays he is a player, but it is enough to put me off.
Arctic Skipper - Won his first two points this season, but was a well beaten 8th at Down Royal behind Dylrow on Boxing Day. He won a 3 runner point last month, but a week later pulled up and it is hard to see him being good enough.
Billaway - Willie Mullins has been talking his chances up in recent weeks and I can see why given he seems to be progressive and visually he ran out an impressive winner at Naas in January. That was his 2nd run of the season having run a nice race on his return to be 2nd at Down Royal on Boxing Day just going down a length to Dylrow. That Naas race was run at an absolute crawl though and it turned into a sprint which clearly suited him perfectly. To me that makes the form a bit suspect and I can see the 2nd reversing form with him for reasons I will state later. I certainly think he is one of the possible winners though given his profile offers more than most here, but I certainly don't think his price offers any value.
Bishops Road - Thrashed a very good horse in Risk A Fine at the hunter chase meeting here in May, but the 2nd didn't handle the track or the ground that day so I wouldn't take it at face value. Bizarrely he then ran in a point 3 days later when he fell. I now wonder if they were trying to qualify him for this and get it out of the way. Instead they had to do that this season and he did so when finishing 2nd in the first hunter chase of the season at Taunton. That was behind Wishing And Hoping and he was 2nd on his seasonal return in a point back in November. For me he has a bit too find although the trip shouldn't be a concern given he used to run over further.
Caid du Berlais - The first of a trio of runners for Rose Loxton and a horse I have already put up as a bet last month. As long as the ground continues to dry out I think he has a massive chance. He ran really well on soft ground when beaten less than 4L when 5th to Pacha Du Polder in 2018. He then went onto land the Punchestown Champion Hunters Chase by 21L. Last year he had a rushed prep as he picked up a minor injury and he only made his reappearance 12 days before the race. He then ran no sort of race and he was never travelling before pulling up. He then went back to Punchestown and won by an even bigger margin, 28L, than last year. This year he has had a much smoother prep as he made his seasonal return at Buckfastleigh in January and he beat Marcle Ridge by 5L which is really solid form. His trainer has mentioned she is not sure if he gets up the hill and that was the case in 2018, but if we have quicker ground on Friday I think he will. He is also 2 years older now which should help. His two Punchestown wins are two of the best pieces of form in the race and he has to go on any shortlist.
Chosen Dream - Landed the Stratford Foxhunter in 2018, but was flattered by that as the ground was over watered which meant the fancied horses disappointed. He pulled up in this last year and although I am told he is really well on form it is hard to make much of a case for him
Don Bersy - Won a couple of points last season, but shown better form this term for me as he beat Bishops Road in November, was 2nd to The Dellercheckout and then won by 20 at Thorpe Lodge. He then refused to race last month which is something he did in his last two starts under Rules. That has to be a big concern if you are wanting to back him, but his form doesn't look good enough anyway. His previous Rules form was all over 2m as well.
Don Poli - Rare that a point to point makes the front page of the Racing Post, but he did when winning at Alnwick back in December. I think it was a good idea to send the horse to Nick Pearce to get him qualified nice and early in a couple of points. He is already a duel Festival winner having won the Martin Pipe in 2014 and then the RSA Chase the following year. In 2016 he was 3rd in the Gold Cup and he was the Lexus winner that season as well. So he clearly has plenty of back class, but the problem is he had shown any form under Rules since February 2017. He appreciated the drop in class when winning those points, but he had to be niggled in both races to keep him interested and he was made to work quite hard to win the 2nd of them. Winning a couple of small field, weak points is one thing, winning a Foxhunter is a totally different ball game though. No doubt Nick had left a bit to work on, but I wasn't impressed with what I saw at Alnwick and I think in a big field in a race that is likely to be strongly run that he will just drop himself out and not fancy it. What I will say though is if you do want to back him because he hasn't been seen since January he has been forgotten about and you are probably getting a bigger price than if he had run recently or in a hunter chase.
Dunhallow Tornado - Ollie Pimlott has had a cracking start to his training career and this is a horse I really like. He looked impressive in two hunter chase wins at Catterick and Kelso 2 years ago and then found the ground too quick at Cheltenham's hunter chase night. Unfortunately he had to miss last season through injury and he returned last month at Brocklesby when getting up close home to score. That was a pleasing come back run and if it did happen to be soft/heavy on Friday I would want to be backing him. The problem is the forecast is suggesting it isn't going to be that testing and as much as he will handle it my thinking is it brings more horses into play the quicker it gets. Connections will probably be wishing this race had been on Tuesday when it was very testing and although I think he can out run his price, the drying ground is enough to stop me backing him.
Dylrow - Looks an improved horse this season having beaten Mighty Stowaway on his first point start in November. He then beat Billaway at Down Royal on Boxing Day. He was then only 5th at Naas behind him the following month. That race turned into a sprint as mentioned so I do think the form is suspect, but given he was winning over 2m a year ago you would have thought that would have suited him. There is a case to say that he shouldn't really be 50/1 based on the Down Royal effort, but he wouldn't be for me.
Hazel Hill - Last year's impressive winner and currently favourite to retain his crown as Salsify, On The Fringe and Pacha Du Polder have done in recent years. There is no doubt he was the best hunter chaser around last season although there has to be a question mark about what sort of form he is currently in. After the Foxhunter win he came back for hunter chase night and just got the better of a great battle with Caryto Des Brosses. He was set to follow the same path to Cheltenham as he did last season, but Chaddesley Corbett was called off and that meant Warwick came too soon after his win at Sheriff Hutton. That told us little new, but it is the defeat to Minella Rocco at Wetherby which is the issue. He jumped badly to his right there something which he didn't do in this race year, but he did do here in May. My feeling is a small field might be to blame for that and with more horses around him he will jump straighter. I don't think he wants to make the running and that didn't help matters at Wetherby. The trainer said afterwards he was a bit sore so that was one excuse and I also think Derek O'Connor out rode Alex Edwards as well. I will talk more about that later, but I do think at the very least he will reverse form. The problem is he is hard to want to back at the current price because of his run last time and although I do think we will see a different horse here I would want a drift before backing him. The trainer is confident of a big showing and he could be a horse to get onside on the day because I think he will drift and then the doubt about what sort of form he is in will be factored into the price. If he is in the same form as last year then he clearly has a massive chance.
It Came To Pass - Beat Billaway in a hunter chase at Cork last April and then probably would have finished a distant 2nd to Caid Du Berlais at Punchestown, but he unseated at 2 out. 10 days later he did then beat On The Fringe at Killarney. He won a hunter chase at Cork in Novemeber which was basically his seasonal debut as he unseated at the first the week before. Was a 24L 7th to Dylrow and Down Royal and was pulled up last time out. On balance his form suggests he has a fair bit to find.
Law Of Gold - Was progressive last season and it ended in winning the John Corbet at Stratford in May. I didn't think it was the strongest renewal of the race especially as some fancied horses disappointed. Having said that Pink Eyed Pedro was 3rd and he has done well in handicaps since. He has had just the one start so far this season at Horseheath when running out an easy winner. That wasn't a strong race, but he could do no more win than as he did. The problem is I think he needs good ground and any soft in it is not going to help him. This is by far the best race he has ever been in as well and at 7 it could just be it comes at least a year too soon for him.
Marcle Ridge - Won a very weak race here on hunter chase night and then was 2nd at Warwick. At the time it didn't look a great effort, but given Killaro Boy nearly won a huge prize at Uttoxeter in the summer then he did well finish within 9L of him. As mentioned above he was 2nd to Caid Du Berlais on his only run of the season so far. That was a solid effort, but also his form suggests he has to find a bit to hit the frame here.
Minella Rocco - I suspect plenty of non hunter chase experts will be all over him on Friday and we will see plenty of at at his best he is the best horse in the race. I have already seen two TV presenters put him up as one of their best bets of the meeting which is crazy given they know little about hunter chases and you can be certain that neither will know anything about a horse like Law Of Gold for example. Maybe he will win, but all I keep hearing about his chances is that he was 2nd in a Gold Cup and he has won at the Festival before. The problem is that was 3 and 4 years ago now and since then he has basically been pretty poor and he was even struggling to complete. His two hunter chase wins this season were only his 2nd and 3rd wins over fences and I think he was fortunate to win those. At Warwick he benefited from Maxwell getting cramp on Bob And Co and then looked like getting beat by a horse could Kashmir Peak who has been beaten in a weak hunter chase and a weak point since. Derek O'Connor came over for the ride at Wetherby and he gave him a very clever ride to win the race and the chances are Hazel Hill ran below form. Derek kept him wide on the better ground and left it late to pounce. Reading between the lines of what Derek has written in his column in the Racing Post I don't think he fancies his chances at all and it was no surprise to me that he has said he will be riding Staker Wallace on the preview circuit. If the ground dried out a lot then I can see he will change to Minella Rocco as Staker Wallace needs cut in the ground. In my view he will get back into a bigger field at a strong pace and decide he doesn't fancy it again. I'd be tempted to place lay him on the day if he's a short enough price. Horses of his sort of profile rarely win the race nowadays and it will be a case of non hunter chase experts 1 hunter chase experts 0 if he does go and win (as was the case when Pacha Du Polder first won the race).
Update: Since writing the above Derek O'Connor has surprised everyone by going with Minella Rocco over Staker Wallace. For me this could mean 3 things. 1 he things the ground is going to dry out too much for Staker Wallace and/or Minella Rocco has been working the house down at Jonjo's and he has had to go with him and/or he things the Irish horses aren't as good as the British. Now Derek has chosen him I am not as negative on his chances as I was before, although I still personally can't back him.
Mr Mercurial - Been such a consistent hunter chaser over the years and his Scottish Foxhunter win was his 9th hunter chase success. I don't think he stays this far round a track like Cheltenham and he was 12th in this back in 2016 and was the same position at Aintree last year. Will run his race, but will be surprised if he is good enough to get close.
Rewritetherules - Sprung onto the hunter chase scene in May last year when winning at Down Royal and Tipperary in the space of 3 days. His next run was in a handicap where he was only 6th off 116. This season he beat a useful enough field first up and then struggled to win a weak race last month. On the face of it that was a very poor effort, but the trainer said he had a stone bruise the week before and the owners were keen to run as it was their local meeting. His jockey said he got there too soon and he idled as well. So we should be expecting more here and he is progressive, but he is only 6 and you have to be very good to win this race as young as that. I am happy to pass him over.
Sausalito Sunrise - Beat Ravished at Hexham last April in a hunter chase when with his former connections, but then was very disappointing at Worcester. Won the Lord Ashton Of Hyde's Cup at Cocklebarrow over 3m6f on his only start for his new connections. That was a decent enough effort, but nowhere near the level for this.
Shantou Flyer - Ran a huge race to be 2nd in the race last year especially as he had to run twice in 10 days to qualify for the race after being 5th at Warwick behind Hazel Hill on his first hunter chase start. He narrowed that gap to 4L in this contest. He is now at former Paul Nicholls worker Rose Loxton's yard and he made a winning return at Larkhill in a race which has actually worked out very well. Given he was below par on his seasonal return last season I fully expect him to carry on improving and he was totally dominate at Fakenham where he had Tully Touch 25L back in 3rd and giving him 11lbs whereas Law Of Gold only beat him 12L off level weights. It was good to see Maxwell choosing to run him over Bob And Co as I think that is the right decision. The owner/rider has even said he feels a better horse this time around. He is only 10 as well and I think he has a massive chance.
Southfield Theatre - Gave Lily Bradstock a lovely spin round in the race last year when 9th although that was 48L behind Hazel Hill. Did well to win the 4m race on hunter chase night here and has won two of his three points this season. On the other he was beaten by Virak which was still a decent effort. Hard to see how he can really improve on last year's 9th though.
Staker Wallace - Has been a hard horse to keep sound as since making his debut in November 2015 he has only run 6 times. In 2017 on just his 4th start and after wining a maiden point he ran a really credible 3rd to Foxrock at Leopardstown. He then had 3 years off before running a huge race to finish an 8L 2nd at Naas. Given the lay off you can upgrade the performance and he followed that up with beating a solid yardstick in a point to make sure he qualified for this. Derek has been talking him up on the preview circuit and it is clear he holds him in high regard. At this stage to me he is the main Irish hope in the race. He does need soft ground so he wouldn't want to dry out and if it did I can see Derek not riding or him even not running in the race. If Derek's name is next to his on Wednesday morning then I think he will end up going off favourite for the race. I have already put him up for this ante-post.
Update: As mentioned above Minella Rocco is Derek's ride although Jamie Codd has been booked so there is still a top jockey booked, but I am surprised Derek has changed his mind.
Stella Notion - Was a useful handicapper for Henry De Bromhead in Ireland and managed to win at Kelso off 137 in May 2018 for Tom George. He then went to Tom Frost's where he won two points at Larkhil before being beaten 38L by Monsieur Gibraltar at Southwell. According to the Racing Post he is now on his 3rd trainer since then having run once for Emma Clark when he was pulled up behind Hazel Hill at Sheriff Hutton in January. Now Philip Kirby trains him and I have been told that James King takes the ride which is a good jockey booking. Wouldn't be an obvious one to back, but the trainer might bring about some improvement.
Top Wood - I can see Top Wood being popular e/w given his superb record in the race. He was just denied by Pacha Du Polder and Harriett Tucker two years ago and then he was 3rd to Hazel Hill last year. After that he then went and won at Aintree when he wanted it more than Burning Ambition in 2nd. He ran really well on his seasonal return when 2nd in a handicap at Ascot off 139 and he was over 15L in front of Minella Rocco. Wasn't quite as good at Haydock next time, but the ground was very testing that day. I couldn't really put anyone off wanting to back him e/w, but he is now 13 and surely he has had his best chance of actually winning the race.
Kalabaloo - The only mare in the race and she was an impressive winner of the mares race on hunter chase night. Was then sent off a short price favourite for the John Corbet Cup at Stratford and was a well beaten 4th behind Law Of Gold. Has won a couple of Ladies Opens at Alnwick this season but the fact she was 1/2 and 2/5 tells you all about the quality of the opposition. My feeling is she is unlikely to be good enough, but I do think she is better than she showed at Stratford and can run a nice race.
Summary - With no more rain forecast it looks like the ground is only going to get drier come race time and I would say we will be looking at good to soft all round. Ideally Staker Wallace would want it softer, but it should be OK still and even though Derek has decided not to ride, Jamie Codd has an incredible strike rate at the Festival so he is a great jockey to have still. I have to say though he is the right sort of price so I am not sure there is much value left in the price. I have no idea who will be favourite now. I would imagine Minella Rocco will be popular among the non hunter chase/pointing followers and I see Paul Kealy has tipped him up in The Weekender. Even though Derek is on him I would still be a bit surprised if he did go and win, but as I mention above I am not so strongly against him as I was. Billaway has been spoken highly by his trainer so he could be popular in the market although given how much speed he showed last time I just wonder if he wants a stamina test and I think Staker Wallace can reverse the form. Hazel Hill is touching 6/1 now and I wonder if he might drift a bit more. I might add a small cover bet on Friday if he does drift a bit more because his trainer remains confident and given he has swerved the race with Wishing And Hoping he clearly thinks he still has a massive chance despite the loss last time. That is clearly a concern, but as mentioned above there is reason to believe that he could easily bounce back here.
Caid Du Berlais is the other horse I put up and he is back out to 14/1 in a couple of places now. I am topping up to make it a full point on him now especially with the extra place available. The ground should have dried up for him and I fully expect him to run more like his 2018 showing than his 2019 one. With his class I find it pretty hard to see him out of the first 5 at the very least and hopefully he can finish strongly up the hill.
The main bet I am going to have though is Shantou Flyer to give David Maxwell his first win in the race. I think he has chosen the right horse over Bob And Co and he ran a really good race to finish 2nd in the race last year. He won a point which has worked out very well on his seasonal reappearance and then bolted up at Fakenham after which Maxwell said he was better than last season. If he is right then that clearly makes him a leading candidate and I think he is a big price at 9/1.
Top Wood will have his fans, but I think at 13 his best chance of actually winning has gone. I know a few shrewd pointing followers are keen on Law Of Gold at a big price and I can see why up to a point as he's a progressive horse in a field where not many seem to have much of a chance. At 7 though I wonder if it is a year to early and I think he has at least 20lbs to find on form for all that he is progressive. Something usually at least places at a price, but to be honest I can't really pick one which might do so I am going to focus on the top end of the market and the proven class of Caid Du Berlais and Shantou Flyer plus the possible new star Staker Wallace.
Caid Du Berlais 1pt e/w (or 0.25pts e/w if already on) @ 12/1 with Bet365 @12/1 (14s available to 3 places with Betfair)
Shantou Flyer 1.5pts e/w @ 9/1 with Bet365
Caid Du Berlais 0.75pts e/w @ 14/1
Staker Wallace 0.75pts e/w @ 14/1