The RSA has an undeserved reputation as a race that ruins horses. While some undoubtedly struggle with the no-quarter given, end-to-end gallop that contrasts with the gentler pace of their preparation, three of the last ten winners have gone on to win the Gold Cup the following season, underlining a searching test that rewards sound stayers and accurate, efficient jumpers rather than the more fashionable types who may have caught the eye in the run-up to the Festival.
The market is headed by the Willie Mullins-trained BELLSHILL (Timeform 149p). Twice a Grade 1 winner at the Punchestown Festival, the 7/2 favourite has always appealed as a type to do better over fences, and two comfortable victories before Christmas propelled him to the front of the market. Critics will highlight two poor performances at Cheltenham – one when down the field in the Champion Bumper, and another last year when tried over the wrong trip in order to accommodate Yorkhill in the Neptune – but there are clear excuses for both, and there is little in his subsequent performances to suggest that the track or the likely better ground will present an insurmountable problem.
Chief among his opposition is Nicky Henderson’s MIGHT BITE (154p), who would have won the Feltham – in a time quicker than King George winner Thistlecrack – were it not for a purler of a fall at the last. That form was franked at Cheltenham last weekend, as eventual Feltham winner Royal Vacation – 18 lengths down on Might Bite when handed the race at Kempton – won with ease in a competitive-looking field. That last-flight fall, however, looked as if it might leave its mark – physically and mentally – and the fact that he’s not held an entry since might be a concern. If getting to the Festival in one piece he deserves to go off significantly shorter than his current 7/1, but lingering doubts over his wellbeing mean he’s not a betting proposition for now.
On the evidence of Cheltenham, ROYAL VACATION (147) himself must be taken seriously. While the form of that race may not stand up to the closest of scrutiny, with joint favourites Champers On Ice (never travelling) and Singlefarmpayment (brought down 12th) failing to get involved, Colin Tizzard’s charge has progressed with each start over fences, and rates a solid yardstick with possible each-ways claims come the Festival. At a best-priced 20/1, though, his claims have not gone unnoticed, and it would be a disappointing crop of novices that failed to produce three to beat this useful but limited contender.
Harry Fry’s AMERICAN (145p) offered perhaps the most eye-catching audition for this race when thumping Champers On Ice at Warwick in what Timeform recorded as a “destructive” display, travelling powerfully and jumping accurately before powering away. His trainer was initially reluctant to commit his charge to the Festival, noting his need for some cut in the ground, but in an open renewal he would have leading claims, and while he is entered in the four-miler the way he travelled and jumped at Warwick suggests that three miles at the Festival might be his optimum trip. 20/1 may overplay the doubts about his Festival participation, and if confirmed for the race it would not be surprising to see him trading at single-figure prices.
The Irish challenge is headed by Drinmore winner CONEY ISLAND (149p). Just touched off by Bellshill at Punchestown in April, he finished just behind Haymount in a deep maiden on his first start over fences before landing the spoils at Fairyhouse. Just behind Our Duke at Leopardstown since (well clear of subsequent handicap winner A Toi Phil), he is entitled to respect for all that the 12/1 currently available may be no more than an accurate representation of his chance.
Completing the trio that pulled clear at Leopardstown, the lightly-raced DISKO (148) improved for his first try at 3m, offering signs that he may begin to fulfil the regard in which his trainer holds him. Looking the best-placed as they turned in, the grey looked the likeliest winner for much of the straight, and clearly relished the step up in trip and class. Entered in the Flogas, he may have further room for improvement, and the 20/1 currently available makes some appeal.
In the same ownership, Stayers’ Hurdle second ALPHA DES OBEAUX (147+) looked at the beginning of the season as if he would be Gigginstown’s number one RSA hope this year. Despite two simple-enough victories in the autumn, his form over fences thus far has not hit the heights that his yard may have hoped, with a burst blood vessel when pulled up behind Our Duke and Coney Island over Christmas a significant cause for concern. If back to his best in the spring, he is another who should set a fair standard, but at 16/1 a watching brief might be advised.
Two British-trained novices complete the market principals. Coral Cup winner WHISPER (153p) had just one run over fences in 2014/15 before reverting to hurdles, a campaign that culminated in him retaining his Aintree Stayers’ Hurdle crown. After a dismal campaign last year, he returned to novice chasing in the autumn looking a revitalized horse. A comfortable win at Cheltenham in December was backed up by a taking victory over the much-touted Clan Des Obeaux in the Dipper on New Year’s Day. Immediately after that race trainer Nicky Henderson suggested that the JLT might be his Festival target, but on the evidence of his staying efforts over hurdles a step up in trip may bring about further improvement, and despite his miles on the clock he remains unexposed in this discipline. Much will depend on the destination of Buveur d’Air, with a return to hurdles on the agenda prior to a tilt at the Champion Hurdle, but if he ends up in the JLT Henderson may be tempted to split his pair.
Another prominent in the betting for an alternative Festival engagement is OUR KAEMPFER (147+). Charlie Longsdon’s horse has been crying out for three miles over fences, and after several frustrating efforts he got off the mark in fine style at Kempton. A 10lb rise to 148 puts him in the ideal spot for the 3m handicap on the opening day of the Festival – a race for which he was immediately installed as the 14/1 favourite – but Longsdon has since suggested that a return to novice company may be on the cards, with a smaller field thought likely to suit. The Reynoldstown at Ascot may be next, and a smart performance there could earn him a crack at this race.
Of those at bigger prices, Simon Munir’s CALETT MAD (144p) may still prove himself worthy of this company. Nigel Twiston Davies’s contender caught the eye behind the well-handicapped Fox Appeal before Christmas, before a decisive success at Taunton in January. Entered this weekend in both the Scilly Isles – the only race in Britain named after a roundabout? – and the 3m Towton at Wetherby, he shapes as if a step up in trip could be well within his compass. With Top Notch likely to contest the JLT, owner Simon Munir may be looking over further for this half-brother to Ar Mad, and a good showing there might see him pencilled in for the RSA. Already installed as the 5/2 favourite for the Towton – a race won by subsequent RSA winner Blaklion last year – the 33/1 available for the Festival could look very generous come Saturday evening.
Despite the RSA looking an open race, there are currently few tempting propositions in the ante-post market. Bellshill looks a solid enough favourite, with doubts over past Cheltenham performances almost certainly overplayed given he quite clearly ran in the wrong race at last year’s Festival. Might Bite offers the pick of the form with a striking performance in the Feltham, but that fall may have left its mark and it would not a surprise were connections to take their time bringing him back.
So far, none of the Irish contenders have really caught the eye, with Disko possibly overpriced at 20/1 given he is completely unexposed at the trip, but he has clearly been difficult to train and makes little appeal six weeks before the race. The Flogas should go some way to clarifying the pecking order among the Irish novices.
Harry Fry’s Warwick winner AMERICAN may be a tempting proposition at 20/1, although doubts about his participation on spring ground – and the fact that he is likely to go straight to the Festival while other contenders polish their credentials on the track – temper enthusiasm for a significant ante-post interest.
Instead, it may pay to have a speculative play on CALETT MAD. He will require a clear step up on his form to date to feature in the heat of the Festival, but he is clearly well-regarded by last year’s RSA-winning trainer and has an opportunity on Saturday to book his place at Cheltenham. The RSA would be much the likeliest target, and his gentle progression this year – at Newcastle, Ludlow and Taunton rather than the bigger Saturday meetings – may mean he’s been slightly overlooked by the market. If showing his best at Wetherby, he will be significantly shorter than the current 33/1, and rates a fair each-way bet in an open race.
CALETT MAD each-way 33/1 generally