Festival Novices' Chase Ante-Post Tips: Monkfish a class above

Festival Novices' Chase Tips: Monkfish can strike over fences this season at Cheltenham Festival.
Festival Novices' Chase Tips: Monkfish can strike over fences this season at Cheltenham Festival.

Steve Chambers takes a long range look at the Festival Novices' Chase and picks out his best bets for the Grade 1 event, which takes place on day two of the Cheltenham Festival...

All three Grade 1 novice chases at the Cheltenham Festival are dominated by one horse in the ante-post betting. But, while lots of column inches have been writing about Shishkin's dominance in the Arkle market and Envoi Allen's stranglehold over the Marsh betting, less has been spoken about Monkfish, who is a red-hot favourite for the Festival Novices' Chase. 

It may no longer be run under the sponsorship of RSA, but this three-mile Grade 1 will still provide an almighty test for emerging novice chasers, who may one day look to claim glory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Monkfish is a horse that could be a future Gold Cup champion, and the Willie Mullins-trained star is the clear 2/1 favourite for the Wednesday contest.

A rapidly improving staying novice hurdler last season, Monkfish ended his campaign with a gutsy success in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, where he held of the likes of Latest Exhibition, Fury Road and Stayers' Hurdle hope Thyme Hill in an epic finish to the three-mile contest, and he's continued his progression over fences this season, notching up a brace of wins over the larger obstacles.

Always destined for a career over fences, last season's hurdling heroics were a real bonus for the Mullins team, but the Rich Ricci-owned Monkfish has taken to the chasing game like a duck to water and cruised to victory on his chasing bow, as he eased to a four-length success at Fairyhouse in late November. Still only seven, Monkfish put in an assured round of jumping in that beginners chase, and while this was a gentle introduction to the chasing sphere under Rules, the Closutton inmate was instantly propelled to a clear favourite for the Festival Novices' Chase.

Handed a much toughest test on his second chase start, Monkfish locked horns again with the abovementioned Latest Exhibition in the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown during their Christmas festival, and it produced the same result as the festival nine months previous. Having only narrowly beaten Latest Exhibition in the Albert Bartlett, Monkfish outclassed Paul Nolan's charge by three lengths and showed he is the standout three-mile novice chaser. Slashed further in the betting for the Festival Novices' Chase, Monkfish could well lock horns again with Latest Exhibition at the Cheltenham Festival, and Nolan's raider will be a worthy challenger, but he is as big as 10/1 to claim glory on day two of the Prestbury Park extravaganza, and it's hard to see him reverse their form.

The pair could serve up another exciting clash in the Flogas Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in a couple of weeks, but were Monkfish to dominate that Grade 1 then it could see him go odds-on for the Festival Novices' Chase, and the current 2/1 could prove eye-catching value, and it's hard to see him not claiming his second Cheltenham Festival success on March 17.

While Monkfish is a certainty to line up in the Festival Novices' Chase, there's a plethora of imponderables regarding his potential rivals, as many listed in the latest betting could well veer to either the Marsh Novices' Chase or alternatively step up in trip for the National Hunt Chase. Second in the betting is the recent Peter Marsh Chase hero Royal Pagaille, but being owned by Ricci then that exciting performer will veer away from the three-mile test, and it's been mooted that he could well look to emulate the mighty Coneygree by landing Cheltenham Gold Cup glory as a novice.

One notable rival could prove to be the Paul Nicholls-trained Next Destination, who was last seen winning the Grade 2 Hampton Novices' Chase at Warwick. Third in the 2018 Ballymore, the Ditcheat inmate has won both his outings over fences this season, and the former Grade 1-winning novice hurdler has a lot of class about him. That Grade 1 success came under the stewardship of Willie Mullins, so the Co. Carlow handler will know all about the exciting novice chaser, who has blossomed for a switch to the Paul Nicholls yard in Somerset. With stamina assured, Next Destination will need to build considerably on that recent Warwick win, but at 14/1 he could be a decent each-way alternative to the favourite, and will be a notable challenger.

Cheltenham Festival Races

Colin Tizzard's The Big Breakaway is another British novice that can take on Monkfish, and he has winning form at Cheltenham over fences this season. A ten-length winner in November at Jumps HQ, The Big Breakaway then disappointed when odds-on for an Exeter event, but recaptured some form when chasing home Shan Blue in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton Park. Surprisingly, the Dan Skelton team have not entered Shan Blue for this contest, with a date with Envoi Allen in the Marsh set to be his festival target, so The Big Breakaway won't have that challenger to down. Fourth in last season's Ballymore, The Big Breakaway is tailor-made for the test of this contest, as stamina is certainly his main attribute, and while he will need to be chivvied along for the final mile, he could well be finishing off his race in fine style up the hill, and is another that could potentially make the frame.

Gordon Elliott has yet to train the winner of this race during his glittering career, but the Cullentra House handler has some exciting horses entered with Pencilfulloflead, Galvin and Andy Dufresne all eye-catching entries. Galvin is well fancied for the National Hunt Chase, so could be seen on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, while the in-form Andy Dufresne has yet to tackle three miles, so could be seen in the Arkle or Marsh. So, that leaves us with Pencilfulloflead from that triumvirate, and a victory over Latest Exhibition in the Grade 2 Florida Pearl Novice Chase at Punchestown over 2m 6f 140y showed he oozes class. Dropped in trip for the Grade 1 Faugheen Novice Chase at Limerick on Boxing Day, he was well beaten by Colreevy, who is 20/1 for this race, but you could see Pencilfulloflead turning that form around at Cheltenham, and he will be in need of a step back up in trip.

Some eye-catching runners at big prices include Henry De Bromhead's Eklat de Rire, who was a winner on chase debut and at 40/1 could be value, but having only been seen once over fences has more to prove to be regarded a player, while the Joseph O'Brien-trained Assemble was a faller in that aforementioned Colreevy race at Limerick. He had previously been dispatched with ease by Envoi Allen in the Drinmore Novice Chase, so O'Brien may opt to avoid that dual festival winner and target the Festival Novices' Chase - a race he is 50/1 for.

While it's unknown how many will run in this year's event, one that stands out above the others is Monkfish, who looks a real cut above his rivals and can dominate proceedings to hand favourite backers victory, with The Big Breakaway staying on best of the rest to grab the each-way money.

Selections

Festival Novices' Chase, Cheltenham Festival, Wednesday 17th March - back Monkfish at 2/1 (bet365)

Festival Novices' Chase, Cheltenham Festival, Wednesday 17th March - back The Big Breakaway (each-way) at 16/1 (bet365)

Festival Novices' Chase
Monkfish silk

Monkfish

Festival Novices' Chase
The Big Breakaway silk

The Big Breakaway

Cheltenham Festival Tips
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