Rhys Williams has nominated eight horses which caught his eye over fences at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.

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Welcome to the attheraces.com Eyecatchers column. Every week Rhys Williams will pinpoint horses primed to strike in the next few weeks, if not days. Remember, you can add Rhys's weekly updates to your ATR Tracker.


9th - Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3), Tuesday 10th March

Atlanta Ablaze ran well at last season’s Festival until coming down 2 out in the National Hunt Chase and on the back of a much lighter campaign this season, she shaped well in the Ultima. Having raced in midfield for much of the race, she was nudged along coming down the hill for the final time.

She came under stronger pressure after jumping 3 out and started to make some headway but got into a bumping match with Big River and briefly lost her position. She rallied but after jumping the last the testing conditions took their toll and she faded, finishing 17½ lengths behind the winner in ninth.

Although Atlanta Ablaze has won on heavy ground, I think she’s better on good ground and in smaller fields where there is less pressure on her slightly suspect jumping. When she gets that combination again next season, most likely against mares, she can get back to winning ways.

2nd - Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase (Listed Race), Tuesday 10th March

Galvin was well backed in the novices’ handicap chase and ran very well, only finding Imperial Aura too good. He was hampered at the first when Beakstown jumped across him but soon recovered and gradually crept his way through the field on the inside until making a mistake at the third fence down the back.

He started to make some headway coming down the hill before being slightly hampered at 3 out by Champagne Mystery. Angled towards the outside, he eased Daly Tiger out of the way and travelled strongly to track the leaders turning into the straight. He got to within a length of Imperial Aura at 2 out but could get no closer and was beaten by 3¼ lengths while pulling 9 lengths clear of the third.

Galvin has been raised 7lb by the Irish handicapper and will likely face a similar rise when next running in Britain but the manner in which he travelled into contention suggests he can still be competitive off this new mark and he won’t run into horses as well handicapped as Imperial Aura every time he contests a big handicap over distances around 2m4f.

3rd - National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase (Grade 2), Tuesday 10th March

A slight setback after his win at Chepstow meant that Lamanver Pippin went into the newly modified National Hunt Chase with just two runs over fences under his belt. He travelled well and generally jumped fine until he got in too close to the first fence going down the back straight on the final circuit and put his nose on the turf on landing.

He recovered his poise and was in a share of third turning down the hill but after a small mistake at 3 out, he came under strong pressure and was soon left behind by the leading pair, plugging on to finish thirty lengths behind the winner in third.

Given his inexperience and the mistakes, this was a promising effort by Lamanver Pippin and he can continue to progress in staying chases next season.

7th - Marsh Novices’ Chase (Grade 1), Thursday 12th March

Saint Sonnet was another horse to run in a novice chase at the Festival after only two runs over fences, having had an unusual campaign in the lead up to the Marsh. Much of his career has been spent in the care of Augustin Adeline de Boisbrunet in France, for whom he won four races.

The third of those wins came over fences at Lignieres on his chasing debut in August before he switched back to hurdling for the Autumn season at Auteuil. In December, he was moved to join Paul Nicholls and won on his first start in Britain at Catterick just 16 days before running at Cheltenham.

In the Marsh, Saint Sonnet raced a little further back than midfield before a mistake at the final open ditch resulted in him dropping to the back of the main pack. He recovered and started to make some headway going down the hill before moving to track the leaders on the run to 2 out. Pushed along, he couldn’t quicken with the leaders and dropped back to finish seventh, beaten 13 lengths.

I think he will be ideally suited by 3m on soft ground, so a steadily run 2m4f was an unsuitable test for him and he performed well considering that. The unusual route into this race would also have put Saint Sonnet at a disadvantage and I think better can be expected of him next season.

6th - Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3), Thursday 12th March

Spiritofthegames is a regular in races over this course and distance and he once again ran well in the Plate. Having set off last from the standing start, he made a mistake at the first, collided with the inside of the fence jumping the second and wasn’t great at the third.

He jumped a bit cautiously at times through the rest of the race but was still travelling well, albeit some way back, going to 4 out. Pushed along after, he made limited progress until staying on well from 2 out to finish sixth, beaten 5½ lengths.

Spiritofthegames will likely be seen over this course and distance or over 2m4f on the Old Course many times next season and with better luck through the early stages of a race, he has a chance of picking up one of the Grade 3 handicaps.

7th - Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3), Thursday 12th March

Louis’ Vac Pouch was one of the horses moved by the owner from Henry Oliver to Phil Kirby and he shaped well on his second start for the new yard in the Plate. He raced around mid-division for much of the race and generally jumped well until making a mistake at 5 out.

He travelled well going to 3 out but made a slight mistake there and soon came under pressure. He responded well to close on the leaders at 2 out but he was slightly hampered on landing and then made another mistake at the last.

He stayed on well up the hill to finish seventh, 10½ lengths behind the winner. Louis’ Vac Pouch has been dropped 2lb for this run and when getting back on a flat track, I think he has a chance to show himself to be better than his rating of 142.

7th - Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase, Thursday 12th March

Much of the pre-Festival talk about Champagne Platinum focused on the novices’ handicap but having failed to get into that race, the Kim Muir ended up being the race of choice. Held up towards the back of the field, he travelled strongly through the race but a mistake at 4 out hindered his progress slightly.

Soon back travelling well going to 3 out, he was nudged along after to move just behind the leaders but after jumping 2 out he had little left and faded away to finish seventh. This distance clearly stretched his stamina and having been dropped 2lb to 136, the BetVictor Gold Cup in November could be a suitable target for Champagne Platinum next season.

6th - St. James’s Place Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase, Friday 13th March

His half-brother, Shishkin, gained far more attention at the Festival but I thought Marcle Ridge ran well in the Foxhunter on only his third start under rules. A four-time winner in point to points, he won impressively at Cheltenham’s hunter chase meeting last year but this was a far stiffer task.

Sent out in front by Sam Jukes, he had the field well stretched out by the time they passed the stands with a circuit to go. He was a bit clumsy at the third fence down the back straight but he still held an advantage of around eight lengths at 5 out. He was clumsy again at 4 out and the pack started to close on the run to 3 out.

Marcle Ridge was joined and headed by Shantou Flyer just before turning into the straight but he kept on battling and it was only approaching the last that he really started to tire badly, eventually finishing 27 lengths behind the winner in sixth.

This distance might be a little further than ideal for Marcle Ridge but a slightly less attacking ride would help in the future if coming back to this race. While handicaps off 125 would seem quite appealing, given the connections I doubt he will go down that route, so Marcle Ridge can continue to progress in point to points and hunter chases next season.

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