There is no better way to begin a New Year than with a meeting at jumps HQ, Cheltenham. With a mere ten weeks until the Festival, all roads lead here and there should be some clues found on Channel 4 this afternoon. Add to that some competative racing from Musselburgh and this afternoon promises to be the perfect start to 2014.
Channel 4 coverage begins with a very tasty looking novice chase where Oscar Whisky, Tarquin De Seuil and Close House are set to lock horns. The top two in the market fought out a tight finish earlier this season with Jonjo O'Neill's charge coming out a narrow winner. Despite having a fitness advantage over Oscar Whisky that day, he was also conceding 5lbs so; off level weights there doesn't look much between the pair. Tarquin De Seuil (11/8 Betfred) has since run a little below par at Sandown stepped down to two miles while OSCAR WHISKY (10/11 BetVictor) broke his chasing duck beating the 152 rated Wonderful Charm in receipt of 8lbs. Nicky Henderson's horse is a good stone and a half below his hurdles best on his chase runs to date but should appreciate the extra cut in the ground here. Close House (14/1 bet365) was running well when coming down four out in the race Oscar Whiskey won last time and is one to consider at a price.
The 3m handicap hurdle at 1.55 has a rather lopsided look to it with the top weights all better known as chasers and probably looking for confidence boosters or just a gentle pipe opener. Whispering Gallery (4/1 Coral) was a Group 3 winner on the flat in 2011 and new connections were rewarded for their patience when he won his first two starts over hurdles after a 22 month absence. He may be eight now but is lightly raced and on a line through the second, Bobowen, who he beat at Wetherby he is on a workable opening mark. Another with a long gap on his card is the Colin Tizzard trained Grand Vision (5/1 Stan James) who we last saw finishing 3rd to the ill fated Brindisi Breeze in the 2012 Albert Bartlett at the Festival. That was another step up on his Haydock handicap win off 122 in his previous race but a mark of 141 after such a long break doesn't do him any favours. RETURN SPRING (4/1 Betfred) appears to have summered well and returned a much stronger individual. He showed great tenacity to grab Salubrious on the line at the Paddy Power meeting having been hampered at the last hurdle. He went on to improve after that run, finding only Sunnyhillboy (off a stone lower mark over hurdles than his chase form) marginally too strong. A further 4lb climb in the weights will make things trickier but this looks a slightly weaker contest than the two other races he has contested this season. Finally, on bits and pieces of his French form a mark of 120 would look very fair for the Venetia Williams trained Astigos (10/1 BetVictor) and a market check is strongly advised.
The non stop plethora of ultra competitive 2m5f handicap chases at Cheltenham continues at 2.30 where an obvious starting place is DOUBLE ROSS (2/1 Betfred), the winner of a similar contest at the December meeting. He has gone up 7lbs for that two length beating of Cantlow but he has been competitive off similar marks to this over hurdles whilst a lot of his rivals don't look that well handicapped. Ackertac (12/1 Betfred) and Cedre Bleu (4/1 Coral) are likely to be his main challengers. Ackertac has run some of his best races at Cheltenham while Cedre Bleu ran better at Ascot on his latest run despite looking far from keen under pressure again. Kumbeshwar (14/1 BetVictor) is starting to edge down the weights in what looks his easiest assignment for quite some time but he isn't one for maximum faith.
The Cheltenham offerings conclude at 3.05 when Zarkandar and Annie Power collide again. ANNIE POWER (4/9 Betfred) didn't jump all that fluently when last seen at Ascot but proved five lengths too good for Zarkandar (5/2 Coral) that day. The Paul Nicholls trained hurdler is 4lbs better off with the mare but I can't see that being enough to turn the form around. Little else to talk about in this contest where Empire Levant (50/1 bet365) is the only other runner and has masses to find. He may at least set a decent pace for the others to aim at.
The Channel 4 cameras also go North of the border to bring us action from Musselburgh where coverage begins with the uber competitive Scottish Premier Chase. It looks a good opportunity for VIVA COLONIA (10/3 Betfred) to get back into the winner's enclosure in what is comfortably the easiest race he has contested in some time. Both of his chase wins have come over C&D and whilst he wouldn't want very soft ground a repeat of his first run of the season at Aintree would be more than good enough. Upsilon Bleu (4/1 Stan James) ran well in a competitive Newbury race on a rare Southern raid for trainer Pauline Robson last time. He arguably went for home a bit too soon in that race and if held onto for a little longer here he will be the main threat. Bar De Ligne (7/1 bet365) hasnt taken to fences as well as connections would have hoped having beaten the solid Grandads Horse at Market Rasen in the summer. As a consequence though he is 10lbs below his hurdles rating, dangerously well handicapped if he finally clicks over the bigger obstacles. Mr Moonshine (6/1 BetVictor) ran a massive race over the big fences at Aintree on his latest start and along with recent course winner; Kealigolane (15/2 Stan James), can be in the shake up for the places.
The final Channel 4 race to preview is Musselburgh's 2.10, a very competitive looking two mile hurdle where bits and pieces of form can give almost all of the field a chance. The weights are headed by Runswick Royal (25/1 bet365) who ended last season with a runner up effort in a Grade 1 at Aintree. He had plenty of talented horses behind him that day and although he has found things more difficult as a second season hurdler he is handicapped to go close. Titus Bolt (20/1 Coral) is interesting at the base of the weights with the headgear added for the first time over hurdles and for the first time in almost 15 months overall. He has been running well of late in slightly easier races but the visor worked first time on the flat at Windsor and may bring out a bit more improvement over the obstacles as well. NEW YEARS EVE (5/1 BetVictor) would be winning a day late for the John Ferguson yard as he makes his handicap debut here. He was runner up in the Champion Bumper at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival and was sent off 2/7 to give Petit Zig 10lbs and a beating at Ludlow last February. That isn't the only time he has been turned over at short odds and doesn't find much off the bridle, but one can't help thinking on those two bits of form he is absolutely thrown in here off just 123. Zaplamation (9/1 Stan James) has come back to hurdles in rude health, winning both starts this season at Wetherby. He is a horse that can't be rushed with Dean Pratt seemingly striking up a great relationship with John Quinn's charge. The way he runs, having to be produced so late means it hard for the handicapper to assess him and he may have more to come. Ifandbutwhynot (6/1 Betfred) rather got the run of the race when winning at Newbury last time but did so in good style. If able to get his own way again he can make his presence felt. The stable are also represented by Hidden Justice (11/1 Stan James) who was sent off the 6th favourite in the Triumph Hurdle when last seen over hurdles. He is an interesting contender and is worth noting in the betting. Smart Ruler (20/1 BetVictor) was still travelling strongly when unseating three out over C&D last time in a race won by subsequent Ladbroke Hurdle winner Willows Saviour. Surprisingly he has been dropped a couple of pounds for that and with the talented Jonathan England in the saddle taking off a further three he is likely to go close although he wouldn't want the ground too soft.
Channel 4 racing tips:
1.20 Cheltenham – OSCAR WHISKY (WIN) (10/11 BetVictor)
1.35 Musselburgh – VIVA COLONIA (WIN) (10/3 Betfred)
1.55 Cheltenham – RETURN SPRING (WIN) (4/1 Betfred)
2.10 Musselburgh – NEW YEARS EVE (WIN) (5/1 BetVictor)
2.30 Cheltenham – DOUBLE ROSS (WIN) (2/1 Betfred)
3.05 Cheltenham – ANNIE POWER (WIN) (4/9 Betfred)
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