Many people have a race that they look forward to most during Festival week for different reasons, and mine is the Arkle. This year’s renewal looks to have four top-quality novice chasers duking it out over some of the toughest fences in the country, and if there’s any reason to wish the festival was here already, this race is it.
Before I get stuck into the nitty gritty of the Arkle, JP has asked me to remind you of our Cheltenham Preview on Facebook Live at 7.30pm on Monday and that you can access more previews and a whole raft of other useful stuff with info on tickets, accommodation, travel, night life, race schedule and more here: Cheltenham Festival 2018
The favourite for this since November has been Footpad, a name familiar to those readers here – he was fourth in the Champion Hurdle last year – and that position has been earned with three fantastic displays over fences. He was a short price for his chasing debut when going up against the useful yardstick Brelade, but even the most cynical of observers had to be very impressed with the manner of his jumping and the sheer ease with which he managed to break his maiden over fences.
Indeed, Willie Mullins – arguably the man with the most 2 mile chasing talent in recent times – speaking effusively about his jumping. “He’s as good a novice as I’ve seen schooling at home”, the Cloustton handler said.
He was long odds on favourite to take the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown, when his main rival Death Duty didn’t have the pace to live with him and was beaten before falling at the last, with Footpad coming home 11 lengths clear of Any Second Now. He then had a long awaited duel with Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Arkle, when a cleaner season (more on that later) and more experience helped him to another comprehensive victory, which has set him up perfectly for an assault on this prize.
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Petit Mouchoir was second that day but will surely be on a more equal playing field come the Festival. Henry De Bromhead’s front running grey took the Ryanair and Irish Champion Hurdles last year, getting the better of a fantastic battle with Footpad on the latter occasion, and then he was a fine third in the Champion Hurdle itself. Coming from a yard known for improving horses that go over a fence, there was much excitement before, and even more after his chasing debut at Punchestown when he produced many impressive leaps from the front.
However, a setback afterwards robbed the eagerly expectant racing crowd of a clash at Christmas, and effectively shoehorned him to the Irish Arkle. On his first start since October, he understandably made some mistakes – including cuts at the first and second – but he managed to keep Footpad within sight and was beaten just five lengths at the line, having stuck to the task late when fitness was sure to be at a premium.
With that behind him, we ought to see the gap between the two come much closer this time around.
A spanner was thrown into what the market had as a two-horse race when the French import Saint Calvados twice and impressive winner in handicaps at Newbury, stepped into graded company with remarkable aplomb as he dismantled his rivals in the Kingmaker Chase. He admittedly had only three rivals, but there were 22 lengths between him and the 143 rated Cyrname, with North Hill Harvey even further behind in third.
A repeat of that performance would give the front two a serious amount to think about – but there are questions for Saint Calavados to answer himself. Firstly, the question of how he’ll handle what’s likely to be the fastest ground he’s run on in his career, and secondly, he will be taken on for the lead in a fashion that he hasn’t experienced before. His engine cannot be doubted, although he has much to prove in this context.
Brain Power was a super hurdler and also impressed on his chasing debut at Kempton, but his unseat at the last in the Henry VII (beaten) and in the Clarence House gives jumping worries. North Hill Harvey won a well contested novice event at the beginning of the season over course and distance and then took the Arkle trial, but others have caught up since and his latest effort was a worrying one despite the fact he likely wouldn’t have won.
Shantou Rock was second behind Sceau Royal at Doncaster and well beaten, whilst Cyrname, the winner of the Wayward Lad, looked happy upped in trip when just beaten in the Scilly Isles.
River Wylde won a smart novice chase on his debut but he did not like the soft ground when coming off 18 lengths worse off with North Hill Harvey next time. This ought to suit more although he’s not been seen since and is sure to strip fitter for it. The same has to be said for Capitaine, a faller when held in the Henry VII Chase.
On a line through Demi Sang (beaten over 40 lengths in Irish Arkle) Avenir D’Une Vie and Saturnas will struggle to lay up with the bigger names here.
NOTE: This post has been updated to account for the withdrawal of Secau Royal. The amendment took place on the 7 March.
1 pt win Petit Mouchoir, Arkle (11/4 general)