Cheltenham Festival Eye-Catchers: Sky Pirate An Arkle Contender?

Sky Pirate has been touted as an Arkle contender, or should the Grand Annual be the target?
Sky Pirate has been touted as an Arkle contender, or should the Grand Annual be the target?

Steve Chambers looks back at the weekend action and picks out three horses that could play notable roles at the Cheltenham Festival in March...

Sky Pirate - Jonjo O'Neill (Grand Annual Chase or Arkle Challenge Trophy)

Jonjo O'Neill's decision to drop Sky Pirate back to two miles appears to have been an absolute masterstroke as having broken a long losing run over fences at Cheltenham in December, the Jackdaws Castle inmate duly followed up at the weekend at Warwick with a taking victory in the Edward Courage Cup Handicap Chase at Warwick.

Running off a mark of 145 on Saturday, Sky Pirate travelled serenely into the lead approaching the final fence before staying on for jockey Jonjo O'Neill Jr's urgings in the closing stages to follow up an impressive win at Cheltenham last month. Sent over fences for the first time in September 2018, Sky Pirate went on a ten-chase losing streak over a couple of years, with the O'Neill team trying him over a host of trips including the 3m 2f Kim Muir at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, where he finished seventh.

However, a drop down to the minimum trip of two miles has brought the best out of him, and Saturday's win has seen him launch to outright favouritism for the Grand Annual Chase on day two of the Cheltenham Festival. An 8/1 chance for that fiercely contested handicap chase, Sky Pirate will face an almighty task to claim victory of a mark most likely in the 150s, so could the O'Neill team be pushed to letting Sky Pirate line up in the Arkle Challenge Trophy.

Still regarded as a novice despite having 12 runs over fences, Sky Pirate was introduced into the Arkle betting as a 20/1 chance following his Warwick win, and he will have to continue his rapid rise if he is to lay down any sort of challenge to red-hot ante-post favourite Shishkin, who is an odds-on jolly for the Grade 1 contest. The Nicky Henderson-trained hotpot has made an impressive start to his chasing career and would be well clear of Sky Pirate on the ratings, but with Le Prezien the only horse to have won the Grand Annual in recent times off a mark of 150, when he won in 2018 for Paul Nicholls, then could Sky Pirate avoid a tough weight-carrying challenge in the Grand Annual and take on the two-mile novice chasing heavyweights in the Arkle? One to mull over!

Arkle Challenge Trophy
Sky Pirate silk

Sky Pirate

Next Destination - Paul Nicholls (Festival Novices' Chase or National Hunt Chase)

A Grade One-winning novice hurdler while under the stewardship of Willie Mullins, Next Destination is now making waves over fences for Paul Nicholls, and the nine-year-old enhanced his reputation with a gutsy win over Fiddlerontheroof in Warwick's Grade 2 Hampton Novices' Chase. Only three horses went to post for the 3m contest, but the aforementioned duo served up a thrilling finish with the Ditcheat raider just outstaying Colin Tizzard's Fiddlerontheroof, who may have just found the trip a bit too much.

Having only made his chasing debut in October, Next Destination made an instant impact as he claimed victory in the Grade 2 John Francome Novices' Chase at Newbury, and he made it two from two at the weekend with an impressive win, and it forced the bookmakers to trim him in the betting for both the Festival Novices' Chase (formerly RSA) and the National Hunt Chase.

A general 12/1 chance for the Festival Novices' Chase, Nicholls' charge is a few points shorter for the National Hunt Chase, as he is around an 8/1 chance, but where should he head in March? Harry Cobden was quick to cool the Cheltenham chat in the aftermath uttering that Nicholls could wait for Aintree, but Next Destination looks an improving novice chaser, and a tilt at the Cheltenham Festival could bring his big day in the spotlight.

Cheltenham Festival Tips

Stamina appears to be one of his strengths, so while he could run a solid race in the Festival Novices' Chase over three miles he will have a premier challenger in the shape of last year's Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle hero Monkfish, who is a warm order for the race (15/8), so Next Destination could more likely get his head in front in the National Hunt Chase. Slightly less than four miles, the National Hunt Chase has seen a host of runners come from victory in the Hampton Novices' Chase (Ms Parfois & OK Corral) to run in the National Hunt Chase, and Next Destination can continue that theme.

Third in the 2018 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, Next Destination has shown he can act around the undulations of Cheltenham, and having only had 11 career runs under Rules then he has very few miles on the clock, so is still open to significant improvement, and while Galvin looks a solid contender at the head of the betting for the marathon contest, Next Destination appears to have a little more class than that runner, so Nicholls should certainly head down that route with his exciting performer.

National Hunt Chase
Next Destination silk

Next Destination

Dreal Deal - Ronan McNally (Supreme Novices' Hurdle)

Sunday's card at Punchestown produced a whole host of thrills and spills with the obvious disappointment coming in the opening contest, the Killiney Novice Chase, as Asterion Forlonge's first fence fall meant the clash with Envoi Allen was somewhat of a damp squib, as Gordon Elliott's unbeaten superstar cruised to success to cement his place at the head of the Marsh Novices' Chase betting.

However, the standout story of the day came in the next race as the Ronan McNally-trained Dreal Deal defied a huge drift in the betting to claim victory in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle. Opening a 9/1 chance, Dreal Deal amazingly drifted to the 22/1 outsider of the field, but the winning machine showed no signs of stopping his sensational run of late by pulling clear of Ganapathi to win by three lengths.

A winner off a mark of 84 in a mediocre handicap hurdle in September, Dreal Deal has rocketed up the ratings and is now to sit in the mid to high 140s following Sunday's win, which was his sixth success on the bounce. 

The bookmakers were forced to take his progression into account and having been 50/1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle prior to the off, he was cut into a 20/1 chance for the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, and who's to say he won't continue to blossom over timber. The Willie Mullins-trained duo of Vautour and Douvan claimed victory in the Moscow Flyer before going on to romp to Supreme glory, and while Dreal Deal may not be in the same stratosphere as that Closutton duo, he is a very likeable horse who continues to defy the ratings. 

Set to be put away now until Cheltenham, he will face a multitude of exciting novice hurdlers with Appreciate It and Metier the two sitting at the head of the Supreme betting, but Dreal Deal has most certainly earned his place in the field now and will be a fascinating runner come March 16.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Dreal Deal silk

Dreal Deal

Cheltenham Festival Races
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