LEADING SECTIONAL RATINGS (as of 20/02/2020)
As a sort-of Olympics of Horseracing, if one staged annually rather than every four years, the Cheltenham Festival is primarily about crowning champions, though that has become diluted of late.
It is, and always has been, about identifying tomorrow’s possible champions also. The novice races and similar, of which there are a dozen in total across the four days, are almost as popular as the championship ones.
This preview will look at the novice chasers en masse. It will not be possible to mention all major contenders, or to identify which race all of them will run in at this stage, but it will attempt to cover as much ground as possible.
Covering a lot of ground is something NOTEBOOK does, and it helps him to be so good. His stride length was 5% longer than FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES (149) between the last two in the Grade 1 Novice Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and he ended up putting up the novice chase performance of the season so far in beating that rival by one and a half lengths.
The overall time was significantly quicker than the Handicap Chase which followed it, with most of that difference coming in the closing stages. Fakir d’Oudairies might have pushed Notebook even closer under a more positive ride, but one crucial difference at Cheltenham is that the former will not have a generous age allowance any more.
Notebook then beat CASH BACK (149) somewhat less convincingly by three quarters of a length in the Arkle Chase at the same course and distance, but he had bolted before the start and a perfectly legitimate take is that he did well to win despite being not at his best. I buy into that.
There is little between GLOBAL CITIZEN and ROUGE VIF (who both ran much faster than Bun Doran did on the same card when first and second in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton over Christmas), MISTER FISHER (likely to be as effective at further in the Marsh), 149-rated BREWIN’UPASTORM (not seen since November) and 148-rated ESPRIT DU LARGE (fast-time Sandown win does not look quite as good as it did at the time) among others high up in the Arkle betting.
MAIRE BANRIGH (144+7) has solid form that puts her in the reckoning with her sex allowance and is another also in the Marsh.
One thing that seems likely is that the Arkle will be run at a strong gallop: several force the pace, not least Global Citizen.
The first-two-named met in the Grade 1 2m 5f Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown, with Faugheen raising the roof in holding on by half a length, though Easy Game did a bit more running late and it is no formality that placings would be the same if they were to meet here.
Before that, Faugheen downed SAMCRO by 10 lengths at Limerick, the times and sectionals that day roughly on a par with Faugheen’s subsequent Leopardstown success. The 12-year-old Faugheen has taken to fences remarkably well, but others may have more potential in this sphere.
Itchy Feet had been third in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and recorded a similar figure when winning the Scilly Isles at Sandown last time, a well-run race in which he finished off strongly.
Faugheen could go instead for the RSA, in which SLATE HOUSE and BATTLEOVERDOYEN would need to bounce back from slightly disappointing efforts last time and the promising MINELLA INDO (rated 142) would have much more on his plate than when beating the consistent 140 horse Captain CJ by a length and a half at Navan.
There is not much wrong with the form of CHAMP, when he stands up, but the reason he figures pretty highly has been his ability to put in fast finishes to overcome deficiencies in his jumping rather than especially good overall times. He may be helped if this is a speed test.
Arguably the one the clock speaks most persuasively for, however, is ALLAHO, a useful novice hurdler but always a chaser in the making and a winner at Fairyhouse last time. The placed horses are rated in the 130s and Allaho pulverised them by 21 lengths and more, running fastest late on and relatively much the fastest overall of three chases on the day.
Allaho lacks experience (just two runs over fences and four over hurdles) but is one of the most exciting horses on show in the whole of Cheltenham week. To time followers, at least.
They are both good, but both thorough stayers, with Copperhead helped by the mud and something of a pace meltdown late on last time and Lord Du Mesnil possibly at his best at still further.
The National Hunt Chase at nearly 3m 6f gives them an alternative, and it looks like being one that CAREFULLY SELECTED (149) will take up. He could prove up to it, but his somewhat workmanlike wins have been accompanied by jumping errors, and there are a lot of fences to be negotiated in this.
Not all targets have been finalised, and there are plenty of unknowns relating to some of the leading candidates. But it could take a mighty performance to beat Notebook given how well the times and sectionals back up the best of his form, and Allaho may just be about to become something special.
The other races look best left until nearer the time.
VERDICT: NOTEBOOK (Arkle) and ALLAHO (RSA), win only (non-runner, no bet)