Cheltenham Festival Day 1
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Five Key Questions ahead of the Ladbrokes Trophy

Buveur D'Air is aiming for a hat-trick of wins in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.
Buveur D'Air is aiming for a hat-trick of wins in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.

Ahead of an intriguing weekend of racing at Newbury and Newcastle, Alex Stearn looks at the five key talking points surrounding the action...

Will Buveur D’Air leave the opposition in the cold? 

Newcastle faces a morning inspection, with frost set to hit the track overnight, and connections will be hoping the frost covers do their job to get Buveur D’Air’s campaign underway. Nicky Henderson is following the proven road to Cheltenham with his double Champion Hurdler, and is bidding for a hat-trick of wins in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. 

Buveur D’Air won the 2017 renewal on the way to his second Champion Hurdle success, when making light work of a below-average field, skipping clear on the bit and justifying odds of 1/6 in the process. Last year’s contest was much more worthy of Grade 1 status, though, with him having to take on Samcro and Summerville Boy, both festival winners in their own right. Much the hype around Samcro remarkably saw Buveur D’Air start as second favourite, and he proved many punters up and down the land to be wrong, again skipping clear with plenty in hand, even after clattering the last. This year’s contest is much more like the 2017 running, with little in opposition, and although the admirable pair of Lady Buttons and Silver Streak head the challenge, they are still a stone off the level of J.P. McManus’ star hurdler on official ratings - and it would be a big surprise to see him kick off his campaign with anything other than a win. 

If the meeting doesn’t survive the bitter Northern cold it will give Nicky Henderson plenty of sleepless nights trying to keep all three of his Champion Hurdle hopes apart until March - and we could well see Buveur D’Air line up against Pentland Hills in the International Hurdle in two weeks’ time… 

Is Dingo Dollar up to the challenge of the Ladbrokes Trophy? 

The Ladbrokes Trophy, formerly known as the Hennessy Gold Cup, takes centre stage at Newbury on Saturday, and one that looks to have been lost in the jungle of the ante-post betting markets is Dingo Dollar for Alan King and Tom Cannon. He is very much the type who's open to plenty of progress in staying chases, particularly considering that he’s still only a seven-year-old, and he gave plenty of hints that he could be a horse with a big prize in his locker when performing with credit in a number of starts last year, including when a good third in this race. Despite not troubling the principles from two out, he did plug on stoutly on ground that wouldn’t have suited him, and with it due to dry out at Newbury to his ideal conditions, he could prove well-handicapped this time around now running off a 2 lb lower mark than last year. 

Without the presence of a real star in the contest, such as the Denman’s and Native River’s from years gone by, it leaves the race wide open for plenty to try and steal the show. The overseas challenge has been popular with the public, namely Cabaret Queen for the master that is Willie Mullins, after she romped home in the Munster National last time out. Borice also makes the journey across the Irish Sea, and he may well prove well-handicapped on his French form - and he screams of a good prospect for the Grand National, whether it be in 2020 or later. Elegant Escape has been the idea of the winner of this race for many over the summer, but conditions may have just gone against him, with his best form often coming when the mud starts to fly, and having to carry top weight here could be an issue. On The Blind Side was disappointing last season but has always promised plenty and looks on his way back, while Ok Corral’s entry in next month’s King George makes him of definite interest given his powerful connections. Another with plenty to like about him is West Approach, and given he is the pick of Robbie Power amongst the Tizzard quartet, he would have to be the most likely winner from their Dorset base - adding himself to the rather long shortlist for what promises an excellent race worthy of prime time coverage.  

Can Snow Leopardess defy a long lay-off? 

Charlie Longsdon has an interesting runner on Saturday afternoon in the form of his lightly-raced mare Snow Leopardess, who goes in the two and a half mile handicap hurdle at Newbury. Her one start to date in handicap company was a winning one in a Mares’ Novices’ Series Finale over course and distance in March 2017, though she will likely need a career-best effort here against the boys if she is to make a winning return on her first run for 794 days. She was last seen in September 2017, when winning a conditions race in France with more in hand than the winning margin suggests, which reads as strong form, and the form that she does have on these shores has worked out well, too. A handicap mark of 130 on that form would leave her well-treated, and she would rate as a strong contender to be able to defy that mark, with this race likely to suit her strong-travelling style. She has obviously had her set-backs over the last two years to keep her off the track, but if she is ready to put her best foot forward at Newbury on Saturday, she could be about to come in from the cold. 

Sweet taste of success for Honeysuckle?

The unbeaten mare Honeysuckle puts her unbeaten record under Rules on the line at Fairyhouse on Sunday in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, and she appeals as one who we haven’t seen the best of just yet. Last season saw her on the track four times, with all four outings resulting in bloodless successes, including once at the top level. Also, given the way she cantered clear of her rivals on her seasonal reappearance at Fairyhouse 19 days ago, she looks set for a big season. The next best mare in the contest is Apple’s Jade for Gordon Elliott, who bids to get back on track after a shock defeat on reappearance at Navan earlier this month, when finding Bacardys too good. She should strip fitter for that, but doesn’t look to be the mare of old, and looks unlikely to overturn the form with Bacardys. Willie Mullins saddles a trio of hopes, with Penhill heading the challenge, but he has a long lay-off to defy. However, given the connections, any strength in the market would have to be listened to. Honeysuckle’s trainer Henry de Bromhead is forming a strong squad for next year’s spring festivals, and Honeysuckle could prove to be the headline act given we’re surely yet to see the best of her, and with connections having little to fear in this field and at this trip, another Grade 1 success looks on the cards. 

Another step on the ladder to redemption for Samcro? 

After a stunning novice hurdling campaign in 2017/18, which culminated in victory in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Samcro looked set to carry all before him, with some even hailing him as the second coming of Jesus, but the Gigginstown operation didn’t seem to get the same memo as everyone else as to where his future lied.

They thought they had spotted a weakness in the two-mile hurdling division, wanting a Champion Hurdle to add to their collection, and outlined Samcro as the horse to give them that, rather than tackling fences much as everyone else expected. However, they soon realised that was just a pipe dream; as he was brushed aside at Newcastle by Buveur D’Air, before subsequently suffering defeat at Leopardstown later that month, after which he was given the rest of the season in the paddocks to get back to himself.

He promptly roared back in the right direction with a winning chasing debut at Down Royal at the beginning of the month, and he now heads straight into Grade 1 company in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse on Sunday. If he can reproduce the display of jumping he showed at Down Royal, he could well be up to coping with the jump in class. We know he has the engine for this level, and given that he did look a potential superstar whilst over hurdles, we hope that Sunday can see him get firmly back on track.

He looks to have only one to beat in the six-strong field, namely the exciting Fakir D’Oudairies, who lines up for Mark Walsh and Joseph O’Brien. He was a bridesmaid in each of the big festivals in the spring, finishing in the frame at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown respectively, but looked like possibly leaving that in the past when comfortably beating Melon on his chasing debut earlier this month. That form rates much higher than Samcro’s sole start in this sphere, but given he is now exploring a new trip, he could be vulnerable to the stronger stayer, and the prize looks likely to be heading home with Gigginstown. 

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