Five key questions ahead of the Bobbyjo Chase

Bellshill (left) bids for more success in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday.
Bellshill (left) bids for more success in the Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse on Saturday.

Alex Stearn picks out five key talking points ahead of a busy weekend of National Hunt racing in the UK & Ireland which sees the Eider Chase and Bobbyjo Chase taking centre stage...

A stayer with more to offer? 

Harry Fry is often a trainer that takes his time with his nicer horses and he’d be hoping that the lightly-raced Just A Sting has more to come. He lines up in the Grade 3 Handicap Chase at Kempton Park at 15:35 and can have a strong case made in his bid to follow up. Last seen winning in very similar conditions over this C&D, he found the line coming just in time to hang on for victory by a head, but he has the potential for plenty more. He wears his regular cheekpieces again on Saturday suggesting that he isn’t the most straight-forward horse when going to win his race. Sean Bowen was selective with when he used the whip to encourage him to make his challenge last time and despite responding well to get alongside the winner, he did look a little hesitant to go past and only did so under strong pressure after the last. However, that can play to his strengths as the handicapper could have underestimated his ability and a 3 lb rise could let him in lightly again.

The third and fourth from that contest re-oppose again in Highway One O One and Sametegal but don’t look set to reverse the form. The former now has a little to prove after running a rare bad race at Cheltenham last time out, so his well-being will have to be taken on trust and Sametegal looks to be fourth string amongst the Nicholls battalion given that both Harry Cobden and Bryony Frost ride others. However, the main challenger to Harry Fry’s charge looks to be one from Ditcheat in Adrien Du Pont in the famous colours of Mrs Johnny de la Hey. He was last seen finishing well-behind Riders Onthe Storm at Ascot but ran to a good level in this contest last season, finishing third on ground that may have been a little lively for him and this year’s forecast softer ground could see him get closer. Double Shuffle, Roman De Senam and Talkischeap all take their chance again as well but the softer ground won’t be ideal for them whilst the latter may need this fitness-wise on his first run after a wind operation. 

Which of the Mullins four to choose? 

The Bobbyjo Chase has been targeted by Willie Mullins in recent years to prep his Grand National hopes for their date with destiny in April and this year's Fairyhouse contest has attracted a select field of six, with four hailing from Closutton. 

Pleasant Company was due to line-up in the Grand National trial a couple of weeks ago but Storm Ciara put an end to that hope and he has been rerouted to this contest. This was connections’ chosen route last season but that came amongst an unseasonal dry-spell and he was withdrawn due to the quick ground. Conditions will suit him better here but may be vulnerable for win purposes and April will be the time to back him.  

The choice of Paul Townend is the class horse in the race in Bellshill. He was the 2018 winner of this contest. He drops in grade after being beaten behind Cheltenham Gold Cup hopes on his two starts this season but does have to shoulder an extra 10 lb here. The softer conditions will suit him and his jockey clearly has the faith that dropping into Grade 3 company can see him in a better light than his last two starts. 

The one that I am siding with to win the Fairyhouse feature is Acapella Bourgeois who is the mount of Danny Mullins. He’s a top-level handicapper but looked to run with great credit behind Al Boum Photo at Tramore on his penultimate start. He subsequently finished sixth in the Thyestes but this level-weights scenarios will suit him better off his mark of 152 and he can give Mullins his fifth Bobbyjo in a row.

Do the southern raiders hold the upper hand in the Eider? 

Newcastle are aiming to host their winter feature on Saturday and as long as the rain stays away, the Eider will be even more stamina-sapping than usual. The four-mile and a furlong trip usually produces a slow-motion finish but given that it’s assured to be run on predominately heavy ground, it will be a truly attritional contest. 

Hugo ‘N Taz holds obvious claims on just his second start for David Pipe after being purchased from Ireland. His first start for new connections saw him run out an easy winner of the Lincolnshire National at Market Rasen and the extra half-mile that faces him here looked to be within his compass, giving connections hope that the extreme journey from Devon will be worthwhile. 

Proven stayers can be a good angle in this contest with Prime Venture and Petite Power fitting that criteria. Both these hail from the south west of the UK so will be others that have to embark on a long round-trip to take their chance. Fergal O’Brien hasn’t looked back this season since switching to new training facilities at Ravenswell Farm, posting his best season to date so far. Petite Power is under his care and he remarkably looked to find three-miles and five-furlongs on the sharper side at Warwick last time and will relish the extra yardage here. Prime Venture also has obvious claims after finishing a staying-on fourth in the Welsh National over Christmas and the ground and trip promises to suit. Top-weight would be a worry in the conditions but Isobel Williams takes off a valuable 7 lbs, bringing him into contention.

The northern challenge looks to be headed by Nicky Richards’ improving type, namely Glittering Love. He was outpaced on two different occasions on his last start at the track and connections have been public in targeting this race. Richards is a shrewd operator that knows the time of day and despite the north being outnumbered, he can have this gelding primed to fend off the southern challenge to give Brian Hughes another winner in his bid to become Champion Jockey.

Will the waiting finally pay off for Nicholls? 

Paul Nicholls has had to have the upmost patience with the clearly talented Master Tommytucker and that looks to have an excellent chance of paying off on Saturday in the Pendil Novices' Chase at Kempton. This nine-year-old gelding has remarkably only been seen five times on the track since making his hurdles debut at Exeter two years ago. This strong-travelling son of Kayf Tara has plenty of ability, winning three of his five starts with the only blips on his CV coming when his jumping has let him down. That was the story on his latest start when lining up at Kempton in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase after a mistake at the tenth somewhat interrupted his rhythm and he subsequently fell five fences later. He started as short as 5/2 for Grade 1 success that day so is obviously a horse held in the highest regard and if his jumping holds up, he can record his first success at graded level here. 

A notable rival in this contest are also worthy is Chris Gordon's Commanche Red who is bidding to be successful on his venture out of handicap company. He was an easy victor over this C&D on his last start, seeing off a subsequent winner in the process and if reproducing that performance, he can battle it out for the places as Master Tommytucker should be more than capable of winning at this level.

A perfect plan in the making? 

JP McManus is a powerhouse of National Hunt racing and it’s not often missed when he has a well-treated horse heading to the festival. The curtain-raiser at Kempton on Saturday may well unearth one that will be near the head of the market for a Cheltenham handicap come March in the form of Palmers Hill

Jonjo O’Neill and his son teamed up for success with this son of Gold Well at Cheltenham back in November 2018 when stepping out of novice company for the first time. He was a ready-winner on that occasion when the punters certainly didn’t miss him in the market after a 288 day lay-off and a 9 lb rise may still not be enough to stop him. This looks a very competitive affair but it was hard not to be taken by the last time he made an appearance on the race-track. Handicap entries for the festival were released on Thursday and he holds engagements in both the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe handicap hurdles at the festival, a win here will go a long way to guaranteeing him a run in whatever route connections choose to head down with him.

The Cheltenham Festival
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