Five Key Questions ahead of Festival Trials Day

If The Cap Fits was an impressive winner of the Ascot Hurdle last time out.
If The Cap Fits was an impressive winner of the Ascot Hurdle last time out.

Alex Stearn has picked out five key talking points ahead of a big weekend of Jumps action, as Festival Trials Day takes centre stage at Cheltenham...

Is this the race of the day?

One of the clashes that I’ve been looking forward to the most since last season’s Liverpool Hurdle is a match between Harry Fry’s If The Cap Fits and the champion staying hurdler, Paisley Park. With the ground set to dry out to perfect racing conditions come Saturday, it looks set to be an almighty clash and the toughest test the Emma Lavelle’s star will face - one that could send shockwaves through the ante-post market for the Stayers Hurdle

What makes the clash even more intriguing is the difference in styles that each of the horses possess. The champion of the division is a strong-travelling type that thrives off being held up. He made a mockery of this race last year when seeing off West Approach by 12 lengths, before returning to Prestbury Park in March to demonstrate his devastating turn of foot again and brush away Sam Spinner. His seasonal reappearance saw him take the scalp of Thistlecrack at Newbury, but it didn’t have the same wow factor as we’ve seen before, yet his jockey was still full of praise. He went past Thistlecrack with the width of Newbury’s track between them, and if he doesn’t apply the same tactics here, he might not get past If The Cap Fits.  

Paul and Clare Rooney’s son of Milan is one of the toughest battlers in the game, and his last two performances have seen him thrive with cheekpieces applied. His first attempt at this trip saw him do everything possible to throw his chance away, making a mess of the last hurdle at Aintree, but his tenacity, attitude and a power-packed ride from Sean Bowen saw him stick his neck out and get back up to register his first success at Grade 1 level. The form of that performance isn’t necessarily the strongest, but that can’t be said about his reappearance run. The two-and-a-half-mile trip won’t have been in his favour in the Ascot Hurdle, but given that he was giving 6 lb to Call Me Lord - who went on to win the International Hurdle - it can be upgraded. He again found himself in a battle from before the last, but the outcome was never in doubt once he drew upsides. Paul and Clare Rooney haven’t always had the best of luck at Cheltenham, and that can finally be corrected here in the best race of Saturday’s excellent offerings. If you feel the same as me and strongly fancy If The Cap Fits to continue his winning streak, I suggest backing him ante-post as the 8/1 about him for March won’t be around for long. 

Stayers' Hurdle
If The Cap Fits silk

If The Cap Fits

Emerged onto the scene as a potential candidate for this race when running out a game winner of the Liverpool Hurdle last April, and he's since made a winning reappearance over a shorter trip in the Ascot Hurdle in November. He's got proven stamina and a tremendous attitude, and he offers plenty of value at the prices up against Paisley Park.

Will the cream rise to the top in the Cotswold Chase? 

Class descends on the Cotswolds on Saturday, with a number of Gold Cup candidates all taking their chance in their trial for the showpiece event in March, and heading the ratings is Bristol De Mai for local trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies. His best performances have often come when fresh, and given that he hasn’t been seen since finishing second to Lostintranslation in the Betfair Chase back in November, his freshness will be an asset. He isn’t short of course form either after finishing third in this contest two years ago, before producing his best effort away from Haydock when third in the Gold Cup of 2019. 

Meanwhile, Santini needs to take a big step forward from when we last saw him on the track to be a true contender for the Gold Cup in March. Nicky Henderson’s charge was one of the contributing parties to arguably the finish of the 2019 Festival when locked in battle with Topofthegame and Delta Work, but he struggled on reappearance at Sandown in November. Indeed, he raced lazily when only just scrambling home in a listed contest, and would need to have improved plenty to take a hand here. 

Slate House still has the novice tag to his name after not winning in his first season over fences, and he soon took advantage of that this term to quickly rack up three wins - a tally that would probably read four if he didn’t fall in the BetVictor Gold Cup - with his latest success coming at Grade 1 level. He gets away with just a 3 lb penalty for that success and could well take a hand in the finish. If bringing up the hat-trick, connections would surely be tempted at supplementing him for the Gold Cup.

Those three are the graded performers in the field, with the rest looking to make their mark out of handicap company, and De Rasher Counter has the best chance of doing just that after winning the Ladbrokes Trophy last time out - though this is a tougher ask than at Newbury. Another stepping into graded company is Top Ville Ben, who makes the long journey down from North Yorkshire for the up-and-coming Phil Kirby. He’s been tried at this higher level before and has fallen short, but his latest performance was a career best and he may still be improving - with it all the more interesting that Tommy Dowson has chosen to ride him rather than Lady Buttons up at Doncaster. 

Overall, Nigel Twiston-Davies has his fair share of success at his local track, and Bristol De Mai can add another to his tally. He has proven form that rates him a cut above the rest of these and can leave Slate House and De Rasher Counter in his wake. If Santini is up to the same tricks that we saw at Sandown, it would be no surprise to see headgear tried to bring out the potential that he has.

Can Roland take the crown of England’s strongest Ballymore candidate?

The Ballymore Novices' Hurdle looks likely to be the race that will feature the remarkable Envoi Allen come March, and he has a strong hold on the division at present. Nevertheless, if one of the eight that line up in the trial on Saturday can put up a promising performance, then the race may not be quite as decided as the ante-post market believes it to be. 

Despite not being the highest rated of the field, the one who’s most likely to put up a royal performance is King Roland, and he could signal the start of an excellent afternoon for Harry Fry. This lightly-raced son of Stowaway has tasted defeat just once in his career to date, and the form of his effort to finish second at Newbury in November is working out well considering that the horse who beat him - Son Of Camas - has since gone on to contest the Tolworth, finishing a highly respectable third. The step up to two and a quarter miles suited this previous point-to-point winner when making a mockery of a 14-runner field at Exeter on New Year’s Day, winning by 19 lengths, and plenty of hope can be taken that we won’t have seen the best of him yet. If producing a performance of similar ilk on Saturday, could he potentially be a serious challenger to Envoi Allen? I think so.  

Cheltenham 12:55
King Roland silk

King Roland


Time for Dollar to cash in? 

Doncaster is by no means an undercard to Cheltenham, and their Sky Bet Chase is a race awash with quality. A typically competitive handicap, the market is currently headed by Dingo Dollar, and rightly so considering he was last seen finishing a gallant fifth in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury, not far behind the principals. Alan King’s charge has always needed headgear to keep his mind on the task, and seemed to improve for the application of a visor, which is retained again today. Interestingly, his career best effort to date came when wearing cheekpieces for the second time, which is an interesting angle should that be the case with the visor as well. He was all the rage in the betting for this contest last year, but was dropped out that day, and those tactics were reported to have not suited after not giving his true running. After what has been a very wet couple of months, the rain has stayed away in the lead up to this, giving him his ideal conditions - and it is hard to oppose Tom Cannon’s mount, who is my idea of the likeliest winner. 

However, with the market being 5/1 the field at the time of writing, it opens the path for some each-way value to come from lower down the market. Top of that list is Quarenta for Jonjo O’Neill, with his son taking the ride. He was last seen just failing to reel in Just A Sting at Kempton over Christmas, which was seen as a career best, but now having to race off a 4 lb higher mark for that latest effort and up slightly in grade, he could be vulnerable for win purposes. Burbank also makes appeal after an easy win last time out and will likely relish the extra distance here, but as this is his first attempt outside of novice company over fences, his jumping will be put under maximum pressure. Lastly, Ok Corral is reunited with top amateur Derek O’Connor, and he is best watched with his spring targets in mind. 

Does better ground equal a better performance?

It may be a day for the greys from Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Gloucestershire yard, as Al Dancer makes the journey up to Doncaster for their Grade 2 novices’ chase. 

His first start over fences marked him down as a possible Arkle horse, as he produced an excellent round of jumping to win over the Arkle course and distance in October, but he hasn’t performed quite as well as the market has expected him to in two graded contests since - for all that he wasn’t beaten that far in either outing. Both of those runs came on very soft, sticky ground, and now that Doncaster has escaped any substantial rain for a week or so, they have seen their track dry out to near good to soft conditions. That is the ground Al Dancer needs in order to be seen to best effect, and if Friday’s fields haven’t opened the ground up too much on Town Moor, he should have conditions to suit and has plenty to recommend him. 

Mister Fisher is out to enhance his Festival claims, though it is a slight surprise to see him dropped back to the minimum trip considering his performance to win over two and a half miles at Cheltenham last time out. He relished the extra half-mile that faced him on that occasion, and a similar story to his chasing debut - where he was outpaced by the winner - could be his fate again now back at two miles. Le Patriote heads the weight-adjusted ratings but this is his chase debut so will need to be foot perfect to mount a challenge off what looks an inflated mark due to good handicap form. Meanwhile, Lisp was an impressive winner around Plumpton last time out, and although at the time it looked as if it wasn’t a deep race, the third has since franked the form and there could be more to come yet.

Cheltenham Tips
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