Cheltenham Festival Eye-Catchers: Royal Pagaille for the Gold Cup?

Royal Pagaille launched into Cheltenham Gold Cup picture with facile Peter Marsh win on Saturday.
Royal Pagaille launched into Cheltenham Gold Cup picture with facile Peter Marsh win on Saturday.

Steve Chambers looks back at the weekend action and picks out three horses that could be genuine Cheltenham Festival contenders including Royal Pagaille, Roksana and First Flow...

What a fabulous afternoon of racing we were treated to at the weekend. It had a little bit of everything with a Clarence House Chase shock and a potential Cheltenham Gold Cup contender emerging from left-field, so let's look back at a fabulous weekend and pick out those impressive equine stars, who are destined to challenge for Cheltenham Festival glory.

Royal Pagaille - Venetia Williams (Cheltenham Gold Cup or Any Novice Chase)

Sixteen lengths! That was the winning margin of Royal Pagaille's victory in Saturday's Peter Marsh Chase, and the Venetia Williams-trained seven-year-old has now giving his trainer and owner Rich Ricci a massive, but exciting dilemma as where to head next in his breakthrough season. Over-reactions can be par for the course when handicaps are won with such ease, but Royal Pagaille could be very special, and the dominance of his victory earned him quotes between 8/1 and 12/1 for the 2021 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Still a novice, Royal Pagaille sits prominently in the betting in a host of Cheltenham Festival races, with the Festival Novices' Chase (8/1) and National Hunt Chase (5/1) just two of those races that could be the destination for the fast-improving chaser, but Williams has already expressed her will to ponder her next move, but his addition in the Gold Cup would be a hugely exciting one.

In 2015, Mark Bradstock's Coneygree upset the apple cart by claiming Cheltenham Gold Cup glory as a novice, and six years on there's another top notch staying chaser potentially etching his name into a small, but select group of novice chasers, who have landed success in the blue riband event.

Royal Pagaille will face a whole new test, should he line up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, where he will look to down dual winner Al Boum Photo, who currently heads the ante-post betting, but having cruised to a sparkling staying handicap chase success has certainly earned his place in a Graded contest at the festival. The Festival Novices' Chase is unlikely with the owners already possessing red-hot favourite Monkfish within their ranks, while the glitz and glamour of the National Hunt Chase is not in the same stratosphere as the Gold Cup.

The Ricci team have had significant near-misses in the Gold Cup with Djakadam (second twice) failing to get his head in front, but could Royal Pagaille be that horse that finally hands them Gold Cup glory?

First Flow - Kim Bailey (Queen Mother Champion Chase)

Progressive handicappers sparkling in Graded company was the order of the day on Saturday, as less than an hour after Royal Pagaille's facile Peter Marsh win, Kim Bailey's First Flow gave an almighty beating to some proven top-class horses in the Grade 1 Clarence House Chase at Ascot. A narrow winner of a handicap chase at Ascot in November off a mark of 148, First Flow's progression appears limitless, as on Saturday he landed his sixth win on the spin, and a mark of 160+ is primed for the nine-year-old.

Sent off a 14/1 chance in the Clarence House Chase, which saw reigning Champion Chase hero Politologue line up as the favourite, with Defi Du Seuil and Waiting Patiently adding depth to the race, First Flow was sent in pursuit of the front-running Politologue in the middle of the race, and with some sensational leaps pushed into the lead turning for home.

Cheltenham Festival Tips

Maintaining the fierce gallop under an enterprising ride from David Bass, First Flow answered every question asked to him by Bass and in the process launched himself into the Champion Chase picture. Available at 14/1 for the two-mile Grade 1 contest, First Flow will only be making his second trip to Cheltenham, should he line up in March (pulled up in 2018 Supreme Novices' Hurdle), but the manner in which he beat some proven top notch performers at the weekend showed that he could be an exciting addition to the field.

Defeat for Politologue saw him drift from 4/1 to 9/1 for the Champion Chase, and it subsequently saw Chacun Pour Soi shorten in the ante-post betting, and the Willie Mullins-trained favourite is around an 11/10 chance for the victory, but in First Flow he has another potential thorn in his side, who adds huge intrigue to the race.

Roksana - Dan Skelton (Mares' Hurdle or Stayers' Hurdle)

Dan Skelton's Roksana made light work of her three rivals in Saturday's Grade 2 Mares' Hurdle at Ascot, and the former Cheltenham Festival winner is destined for a return to the Prestbury Park extravaganza, but where will she head? Her victory in the 2019 Mares' Hurdle was rather fortuitous as a late tumble from Benie Des Dieux handed Skelton's mare the victory, but she is now an 8/1 third favourite for the 2021 renewal of the Mares' Hurdle, which will take place on March 16.

With top class mares Honeysuckle and Concertista dominating that betting market, could it be the Skelton team veer their classy mare to the Stayers' Hurdle - a race she is 14/1 for. Saturday's victory was over a trip just shy of three miles, so stamina is no issue, and having dispatched former Grand National runner-up Magic Of Light with aplomb then she will head to Cheltenham in fine fettle.

A wide open betting market, the Stayers' Hurdle sees Paisley Park and Thyme Hill at the head of the betting, while Sire Du Berlais is another top notch contender in that betting, but in receipt of the mares' allowance in the Stayers' Hurdle, could the Skelton team be tempted at a crack at the Thursday showpiece?

Fourth in last season's Mares' Hurdle, Roksana was no match to the impressive Honeysuckle, and Skelton may opt to avoid that 2m 4f contest for more of a test of stamina, and the three-mile Stayers could see her in her best light, but despite a fine at the weekend, it's unlikely to see her claiming Cheltenham Festival glory in March.

Cheltenham Festival Races
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