Chris Sleep and Will Lattimore reveal their selection of 20 dark horses to look out for at the 2018 festival - essential material for your ATR Tracker over Cheltenham.
In the busy preview period which runs up to the Festival, many hours will be spent discussing the favourites and leading fancies for the feature Grade 1 races which dominate the four days.
But aside of those horses, there lurks an array of lower-profile runners who are pointed either at the hotly-contested supporting races or have missed the mainstream attention in the feature race previews.
Here, our experts from each side of the Irish Sea - Chris Sleep (UK) and Will Lattimore (Ireland) - reveal their shortlist of 20 dark horses for the Festival.
Act Of Valour was a classy 90+ rated flat horse who made a winning start to his hurdling career beating the useful Look My Way. It was possible the race came too soon when he was disappointing at Doncaster just two weeks later. However, having been given a 50-day break he gave Triumph Hurdle contender We Have A Dream a good race at Musselburgh last time out before he appeared to blow up. A rating of 136 looks very fair and better ground together with a strongly run race in the Fred Winter looks sure to suit him. His trainer Paul Nicholls also has an excellent record in this race and in Act Of Valour he has a serious contender here. (CS)
We saw the real Balko Des Flos back to his best when he chased home Gold Cup contender Road To Respect in the Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase over 3m. Even though Sizing John and Yorkhill under-performed on this occasion he still put in a bold front-running display to finish a gallant second over a trip that possibly stretches his stamina. Looking at his possible Cheltenham target it`s highly likely we will see him lining up in the 2m5f Ryanair Chase. It does mean he will be taking on the mighty Un De Sceaux but you can’t be afraid of one horse at this level of competition. In my opinion the more the surface dries out the more his chance increases, the ground was good when he was an impressive winner of the Galway Plate in August and looking at the opposition outside Un De Sceaux, I have to think he is a leading player to give him most to do if at his very best. (WL)
Bigbadjohn was a Grade 2 winner for Rebecca Curtis before he lost his way for that yard. However, a return to form coincided with his debut for Nigel Twiston Davies at Kempton last month where he kept on well to beat an in-form rival. With just a 5lb rise for that win there is every chance he is still well handicapped from a mark of 138 and his trainer is superb at readying horses to run well at Cheltenham so he is of massive interest in whichever handicap he takes his chance in. He holds entries in the Ultima on Tuesday and the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir on Thursday. (CS)
This six-year-old gelding by Mahler is entitled to take up his chance in the 3m Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle considering he showed that stamina is his main asset when winning by an eased down 64L last time out at Clonmel. It`s fair to say he was the only one to handle the heavy conditions however, it was a dominant front-running victory and, in what looks a wide-open renewal, 16/1 look fair each-way odds especially if conditions turn up soft on Friday. A chaser in the making but I wouldn`t be too surprised if he outran his odds. (WL)
Flying Tiger is a previous Festival winner having won the Fred Winter in 2017 under Champion Jockey Richard Johnson; since then he has faced a couple of impossible tasks in Graded company. However, he signalled a return to form when reunited with Richard Johnson last time out when fourth in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. The winner that day Elgin is likely to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle whereas Flying Tiger is likely to head for the County Hurdle. He has proven Festival form and the return to a strongly run big field handicap should play to his strengths. (CS)
It`s five years since Willie Mullins trained the winner of the Champion Bumper which is surprising for his standards, however he is always very well respected in the market and of the ones he sends over I feel this son of Beat Hollow could be the best of them. We first saw this five-year-old gelding finishing a close second in a hot bumper when making his racecourse debut at the Punchestown festival. On that occasion he was quiet keen early on in the contest but to his credit he still finished off the race powerfully to fail by just a neck. There is no doubt he has progressed in the right direction since then, he travelled much better on his next start and in the end had 13-length to spare over his rivals with an easy victory at Punchestown in December. The Great Britain-trained horses are very much respected but of the Irish-trained animals this fellow has the look of an improving sort and may be the best of the travelling team. (WL)
Which event will Jer’s Girl run in? Mares Hurdle, Stayers’ Hurdle or Coral Cup? Personally, I would like to see her take part in the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle where she can run off her current Irish mark of 145.Strangely enough this will be her first handicap contest if she does take the handicap route an event she could be well handicapped for. It`s worth mentioning she was still travelling well in behind the leaders when she took a crashing fall three flights from home in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle won by the remarkable Apples Jade. Connections will surely be leaving their decision as late as possible but there is a good chance the handicap event will be her target and if that`s the case I can`t see the 20/1 odds offered lasting too long. (WL)
Kalondra has won two of his four starts over fences with the most taking of these wins coming at Cheltenham in December where he beat Coo Star Sivola (winner since) and Movewiththetimes who is also well fancied for the Festival. Kalondra impressed with his jumping on that occasion and it is likely a strongly run handicap will suit him well as he travels well and hopefully he should keep himself in contention with some slick jumping and his record on better ground is a good one so a big run in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase on the opening day is expected. (CS)
Probably the toughest handicap to sort out over the four days is the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle however, the key factor going into this event is not to "show your hand too early in the season". My selection has caught my eye on more than one occasion, it certainly looks to me his shrewd connections have been looking after his handicap mark for this event with educational rides behind the much thought of pair Mr Adjudicator and Espoir D`Allen. The only worry now is getting a run in the race he is currently number 36 on the list and only 22 can run so it will be a close call if he gets a run. If he is lucky to get involved I have no doubt he is the value of the contest at 25/1. (WL)
This Liz Doyle-trained seven-year-old gelding was unlucky not to finish much closer than fifth in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase at the festival last year after been badly hampered at the second last. He showed us last time out that he has what it takes to win a valuable handicap chase with a nine-length victory at Leopardstown last month. There is no doubt whichever contest he takes part in will be his toughest assignment to date but he looks to have the scope for further improvement and it`s worth mentioning he handles any going if it was to turn up soft. (WL)
Long House Hall is a fragile horse who isn’t seen on the track very often but he was second in the 2016 Coral Cup behind Diamond King and later that year he won the Summer Plate at Market Rasen. Having had an enforced break of 560 days he returned over fences with a superb run in the Sky Bet Chase at Doncaster where he went down by just a length in fourth. This strong travelling horse comes into the Coral Cup this season from just a 3lb higher mark than when he was runner-up in the race. Dan Skelton will surely have him peaked to run a big race and he represents fair value for a top team in a race where the tempo will suit him well. (CS)
For a small trainer Pat Kelly has done magnificently getting his small string ready for the big occasions and this seven-year-old gelding is one of his horses who has tasted success already at the festival by winning the Pertemps Final in 2016. He tried to follow that up in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Handicap Chase last year but could only manage a staying on fifth although to be fair to him he did make-up a lot ground from an unpromising position. His preparation this season has been affected by the bad weather his connections has been reluctant to risk him on heavy conditions. With that in mind he will be fresher than most which could be a big advantage to have at this level. His target could well be the Kim Muir once again and I`m sure a leading amateur will be keen to get the ride considering he will be one of the leading candidates to win the prize. (WL)
Project Bluebook has not really shown his true form this season but if you cast you mind back 12 months he was fourth behind Flying Tiger in the Fred Winter from just a 2lb higher mark. Following on from that he was a Grade 2 winner at Fairyhouse at their Easter Festival. Strongly run big field handicaps on better ground seem to suit him well and he was a creditable sixth in the Galway Hurdle. It’s best to write off his Betfair Hurdle run last time out and it could well be that he is capable of defying a mark of 136 at the Festival this year. A strongly run 2m in the County Hurdle ought to suit him but a step up in trip to 2m5f (does see out 2m strongly and was a stayer on the flat) would not be off-putting either and he holds entries in the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe. (CS)
Poetic Rhythm has had seven starts over hurdles winning twice and his form this season in three starts has been superb. Winning the Persian War at Chepstow before putting up a superb effort in defeat behind the useful On The Blind Side at Cheltenham in November. Poetic Rhythm then won the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle which turned out to be a gruelling race and it may be in his favour that he has not run since then and has been given adequate time to recover from those excursions. He comes into the Festival with more experience than most and that could be something that holds him in good stead in a race of this nature. That combined with his obvious talent being a Grade 1 winner last time out. He holds entries in both the Ballymore and the Albert Bartlett and would have a solid-each way chance in either. (CS)
Top owner J P McManus will have many leading fancies in most of the Grade 1 events but he always has as many chances in the handicaps as well and this nine-year-old gelding produced an eye-catching effort last time out to make him an interesting contender for the 3m Pertemps Handicap Hurdle. I wasn`t surprised to see his connections putting his jumping career on hold for the time being after four disappointing performances this campaign. This son of Milan is no stranger to this venue he chased home easy winner Wicklow Brave in the County Hurdle in 2015 and followed that effort up with a win in a competitive handicap hurdle at the Punchestown festival the same year. As mentioned above he has put himself forward for a crack at the Pertemps Hurdle Final and you have to say it was a eye-catching effort finishing a closing third from an unpromising position at Punchestown last month. He handles any conditions and is definitely one to consider for an each-way investment. (WL)
This daughter of Motivator made an awesome Irish debut when winning on the bridle by 58L when making-all at Fairyhouse in December. You would have expected to see her again on the racecourse but her champion trainer decided against it because she scoped badly with a bloody nose and wanted her 100% considering her forceful tactics. She is only small but was very professional, jumped, travelled and handled the heavy conditions with ease. If it was to turn up very soft on the Friday she could well make it difficult for rivals to catch her in the Triumph Hurdle. (WL)
2/13, held up towards rear, steady headway on outside before 3 out, challenging and every chance when went badly left and hampered rivals 2 out, soon 2nd, hung right under pressure run-in, strong challenge near finish, just failed
Singlefarmpayment is another horse with previous Festival form having narrowly missed out in the Ultima 12 months ago (3lb higher this year) to Un Temps Pour Tout. He impressed with the way he travelled in that contest last year and has, on several occasions shaped better than his mark this season including in the Ladbrokes Trophy where he fell when holding every chance. Although never ideal to make a mistake and pull up early it may well have been a blessing in disguise he didn’t have to endure a slog in heavy ground behind Definitly Red in the Cotswold Chase last time out. On the whole Tom George’s gelding is a sound jumper and he looks one of the leading bets for the festival Handicaps. He holds entries in the Ultima on Tuesday and the Kim Muir on Thursday. (CS)
Won/11, mid-division, 7th 3 out, ridden in 4th on inner entering straight, 5th when left 3rd 2 out, no impression on leaders in 3rd before last, left in front and slightly hampered approaching last, kept on run-in
When I saw this seven-year-old gelding winning on his chase debut in early December at Fairyhouse I was thinking he could be good enough to take part in the Grade 1 JLT Novices’ Chase. However, he hasn`t progressed the way I thought he might but he still could be an interesting recruit if he lining-up in the Brown Advisory & Merribelle Stable Plate on Thursday. The son of Shantou handles any surface and jumps well in the main for a novice and if he does takes his chance in the handicap event he could well be a leading candidate to make it three wins in a row for an Irish-trained horse for this contest. (WL)
Vaniteux joined the David Pipe yard from Nicky Henderson over the summer and it was evident from an early stage that the Grand Annual would be his target and he has been given four runs this season where he has come well beaten on each occasion. As a result, he has now dropped below his last winning mark and a strongly-run 2m handicap looks sure to suit him well. He is a horse who stays further than 2m which in a strongly run race is sure to suit and his connections target festival Handicaps with success having won for the last two seasons with Un Temps Pour Tout. (CS)
Volnay De Thaix was a solid 140+ Handicapper when trained by Nicky Henderson (same owners). During his time with the Champion Trainer he was a sold fifth in the Coral Cup in 2015. He was transferred to Stuart Morris with a campaign at the Foxhunter the plan. Jack Andrews has immediately struck up a good relationship with the horse in his two easy Point wins this season. The Foxhunter is another step up the ladder for his young rider but he has the talent to prove himself well up to the task as does Volnay De Thaix. If he were trained by more well-known connections he would be a much shorter price and he provides superb each-way value here. (CS)