One of the highlights of a breathless first day at the Festival, the Arkle has seen some smart performances – and outright processions – in recent years. Leaving aside the aberration of Western Warhorse, a roll of honour numbering Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Un de Sceaux and Douvan in the last five years alone captures the imagination and sets a high bar for this year’s Festival aspirants.
ALTIOR sets an imposing standard. Unbeaten since his bumper days, the Supreme Novices’ winner produced one of the most taking displays of last year’s Festival, travelling powerfully throughout before bounding seven lengths clear to land the widest winning margin in more than a decade. Nicky Henderson’s charge has since impressed over fences, his jumping looking more assured on each appearance, culminating in a demolition job in the Wayward Lad at Kempton over Christmas.
Second in that Supreme was the Willie Mullins-trained MIN, the subject of the now-traditional summer whispers from Closutton that saw him promoted to the head of the Supreme market before he’d made his debut for the yard. His performance in March would have been sufficient to win many a renewal, but he was made to look rather one-paced by Altior’s turn of foot up the hill as he came home a fair runner-up. The bare form of his two starts over fences tells us little, with Identity Thief’s failure to launch producing a rather one-sided contest at Leopardstown, but Ruby Walsh’s reaction is often telling and he was effusive in his praise, even drawing comparisons to the great Kauto Star. The suspicion remains, though, that Min – like that illustrious predecessor – may in time fulfil his potential over further, and it is difficult to find reason to believe that he can turn the tables on Altior over the minimum trip.
Stablemate YORKHILL, currently favourite for the JLT, is another Mullins inmate who came to chasing with smart form over hurdles, with a commanding victory over ante-post hotpot Yanworth in last year’s Neptune leading Ruby Walsh to declare that “he’d win the Arkle with his mouth open”. A tendency to shift left at his fences – most markedly in the closing stages at Leopardstown last time out – offers some cause for concern, but Yorkhill has otherwise translated his obvious ability to fences and will go to the Festival with a leading chance.
Bar Buveur d’Air, now rerouted over the smaller obstacles to take advantage of a rapidly-diminishing Champion Hurdle field, the rest of the Arkle field is available at 20/1 or bigger. Foremost among the challengers is CLOUDY DREAM. Malcolm Jefferson’s charge, no more than useful over hurdles, has made great strides with every start over fences. Early-season wins at Carlisle and Haydock offered glimmers of promise that were realised when trying valiantly to give 8lb to Buveur d’Air, and later when giving weight to Brian Ellison’s Forest Bihan at Doncaster. Now on a mark of 147, handicaps may be on the agenda, but if fulfilling his promise he could be a live each-way contender in what is likely to be a small-field Arkle.
Stablemate WAITING PATIENTLY caught the eye last time with a hard-battling defeat of the highly-touted Politologue at Haydock. With the Nicholls horse left in front rather earlier than he might have liked having expended plenty of nervous energy on the way to post, Brian Hughes took his time before sending his mount on at the last. Trainer Malcolm Jefferson has since reported that his winner came out of that race stiff, and with that in mind he will need soft ground to be allowed to take his chance at the Festival.
Another with possible each-way claims is JP McManus’s LE PREZIEN. Paul Nicholls’s charge finished off his novice hurdling campaign giving something of a fright to Yorkhill at Aintree, and opened his chasing account at Cheltenham in November. His jumping that day left a little to be desired, and while he showed improvement on that front last time out, a suspicion remains that he may be best on a flat track, and may just lack the class to really get involved at the highest level.
Across the Irish sea, smart hurdler IDENTITY THIEF has endured a frustrating season. After two winning performances in the autumn, the promised clash with Min failed to materialise as his jumping fell apart after an early mistake. Rapidly pulled up and dismounted soon after, his trainer reported that nothing significant came to light, and all seemed on track for the Irish Arkle. Weak in the market that day, though, Henry de Bromhead’s charge only made it as far as the first, hitting the fence halfway up and catapulting David Mullins to the other side. It takes a leap of faith to back him for the Arkle after that, but the 25/1 available in a place may be an overreaction given his undoubted quality. Eventual Irish Arkle winner SOME PLAN, at the same price, can safely be regarded as a rather fortunate winner, and makes little appeal in hotter company at the Festival.
Without the twin totems of Altior and Min standing in the way, the field for the JLT looks rather deeper. Four British-trained novices – Politologue and Clan Des Obeaux for Paul Nicholls, and Whisper and Top Notch for Nicky Henderson – all appear closely matched, with little to choose between them thus far. The well-backed POLITOLOGUE was free to post when behind Waiting Patiently at Haydock, and had to do much of his own donkey work up front after Maximiser’s error at the third. The way he stayed on after being headed was encouraging for the future, and the way the front two pulled 20l clear of fair yardstick Its’afreebee encourages a positive view of the form. Even in defeat, Politologue enhanced his JLT claims that day: the 20/1 offered immediately after the race swiftly disappeared, though, and at a best-priced 12/1 he occupies the right place in the market.
WHISPER came out on top of a fine battle with CLAN DES OBEAUX on New Year’s Day, where an error two-out put paid to Sam Twiston-Davies’s challenge. In receipt of 5lb that day, the Nicholls 5yo should have plenty of scope to improve after just three starts over fences, and has an opportunity in the Scilly Isles at Sandown to lay down a marker for the Festival.
In opposition on Saturday will be TOP NOTCH. Touched off by Peace And Co in the Triumph, he always looked just short of top class over hurdles: a fifth-placed finish in last year’s Champion Hurdle was a perfectly fair run on ground that was likely quick enough, but perhaps hastened connections’ intentions to send him over fences, where he has since prospered. After making his chasing debut behind Charbel and Le Prezien – where he looked in need of the run, and likely to improve for a drop of rain – Top Notch has won three from three in a manner that suggests there may be more to come. The Scilly Isles, despite a disappointingly small field, looks to be an informative trial with three credible JLT candidates in opposition – the pecking order among the home team promises to be much clearer by tomorrow afternoon.
One contender who won’t be seen at Sandown, as he waits for better ground, is Kim Bailey’s CHARBEL. Fifth in the Supreme Novices’, where he perhaps paid the price for taking the field along, he has always looked the type to make a better chaser, and he opened his account at the first time of asking, getting the better of a three-way finish to deny Le Prezien and Top Notch at Uttoxeter. A strong traveller and polished jumper, Charbel promises to improve again given the right opportunity: he was faced with an impossible task against Altior last time, but the straightforward way he travelled, jumped and stayed on for pressure behind the smart winner gives plenty of encouragement for the future. His trainer reportedly intends to give him one run before the Festival, where quotes of 33/1 must vastly underestimate his chance.
As in previous years, a short-priced Arkle favourite plus uncertainty over targets makes ante-post betting in these races a treacherous proposition. One possible ante-post angle surrounds the likely targets of the Mullins horses. It has been assumed in the ante-post markets, and so far by the trainer himself, that Min will head for the Arkle and Yorkhill to the JLT. Remove the influence of their Festival wins last season, however, and the evidence of their chasing displays might lead to a different conclusion. Of the two, Yorkhill looks to have the greater pace – and shapes as if his jumping might improve granted a faster gallop – while Min looks a stayer in the making. Pointing the latter towards a rematch with Altior in the Arkle requires a great deal of faith to believe that he can turn around the form; of the Mullins contenders, only Yorkhill looks to have the pace to go toe-to-toe with the Henderson horse. Given the history of the yard in making last-minute adjustments to Festival targets, an each-way double in the ‘wrong’ races makes some appeal. With Yorkhill generally available at 8/1 for the Arkle, and Min at 20/1 for the JLT, the strong likelihood is a bet with two non-runners, but if a late switch occurs a speculative interest could pay handsomely.
None of the challengers behind ante-post JLT favourite Yorkhill have yet put their hand up with a serious claim to lead the opposition: the highly-touted Nicholls pair have both been beaten – albeit behind fair sorts – and Nicky Henderson’s challengers, while impressive over the winter, both look like they may struggle given spring ground at the Festival. The one with plenty of upside is CHARBEL, who has shown enough in his two starts over fences to suggest he could be a serious player in March, with a step up in trip likely to bring about further improvement. While connections may still be tempted by the Arkle, this looks much the more open race, and quotes of 33/1 represent an irresistible ante-post proposition.
CHARBEL JLT, 33/1 Boylesports, 25/1 William Hill with “NR Insurance”
YORKHILL (Arkle) and MIN (JLT), each-way double (8s/20s with Paddy Power)