CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL – DAY 3 (THURSDAY)

13:30 Cheltenham Day three of the Prestbury Park showpiece kicks off with an absolutely compelling contest with the JLT Novice chase. The Irish have dominated this race with four winners from the last five renewals and they come here mob-handed once again with the likes of Black Hercules, Outlander and Zabana all having some sort of claim once again. The first two come from the all-conquering Mullins yard so they will no doubt get the respect they deserve. The gigginstown stud representative, Outlander, comes here looking to complete a four timer after propelling himself to the top of the market with a decisive Grade 1 win beating the experienced campaigner Monksland in the process. The major worry for him is the ground and he disappointed at last year’s festival on almost identical conditions. Black Hercules looked destined for a bigger assignment in the 4-miler on Tuesday before a last minute change of heart from the trainer so there should be no problems about the trip for him, but his jumping is in question after a heavy fall two runs back and it might pay to look elsewhere here. The British challenge looks to have a renewed vigour about it this year and for me the winner lies among the leading trio of Garde La Victoire, L’Ami Serge and Bristol De Mai. The latter is another coming here in search of the four-timer and with the yard already among the winners this week he looks a decent shout to make the frame, but he has never tackled good ground before and so hits unknown territory here. The horse who has no such worries is the Phillip Hobbs trained Garde La Victoire. He already has winning form on good ground over 2m4f at the track and has already beaten Bristol De Mai when conceding 9lb to it, so he should give a bold show here and gets the confident nod. Garde La Victoire (WIN)

14:10 Cheltenham The Pertemps Network Final sees 24-runners and my original fancy hasn’t got in while another one of particular interest wasn’t declared. Leave At Dawn was a really good-looking specimen when I saw him at Cheltenham in November. He was the standout in the paddock that day and he proved to be his worth when travelling smoothly before showing a useful turn of foot. That was at a time the stable was out of form, so he could be useful. The ground was probably against him at Leopardstown last time out, so he still has something to prove at this trip. Hood on first time and the better ground mean he has to be considered. Our Kaempfer was brought down in the Fixed Brush Hurdle at Haydock last time. He was settled at the rear of the field and was making stealthy progress through the field before coming to unfortunate grief. Many have pointed out the form of Charlie Longsdon’s string but in the first two months of this year he has equalled the same amount of winners (4). The Fixed Brush form is working out strongly with the likes of Yala Enki and Tea For Two. The handicapper has given him a pound back and appeals at his price. This is the sort of race that could well suit Taglietelle. He scooped the Grade 3 Handicap Hurdle at Aintree last April and does run here off a nine-pound higher mark. He has faced a mixed season with racing on the flat and over hurdles. He was behind Cup Final at Musselburgh but he could well have been laid out for this race. He was one-length fourth in the Coral Cup last year and Jack Kennedy’s five-pound claim makes him a live prospect in a race that should be run to suit. Flintham is well related being a brother to Carruthers and half-brother to last year’s Gold Cup winner Coneygree. He is bred to stay and was a game winner at Warwick. Charlie Deutsch is booked to ride, which is a smart move from the Bradstock’s to claim 5lb. Missed Approach could have more to offer and Warren Greatrex rates him highly. The son of Golan has a good future ahead of him over fences. The other to mention is Cup Final for Nicky Henderson, who won this race last year. They ran him at Musselburgh to test his stamina and he proved he had it with the way he kept on. He has some good Novice Hurdle form, so entered the equation. Our Kaempfer (E/W) Taglietelle (E/W)

14:50 Cheltenham The Willie Mullins yard has been in dominant form so far this week and I fully expect them to enhance their record with a victory for their superstar in the making Vautour. Many racing fans were left disappointing when the impressive seven year old was switched to this race at the last minute, despite heavy suggestions he would instead take his chance in the gold cup, but the very fact that he was vying for favouritism in that market is almost a tip in itself for his chances here. He scored on his reappearance this season when demolishing the re-opposing Valseur Lido, before only before collared late on by Gold Cup fancy Cue Card in the King George and when you add in his breath taking win at the festival last year, he has the best form on offer in this field by some distance. In contrast to the JLT, this race is not one which the Irish trained horses normally excel in, but Vautour is no ordinary animal and I expect him to end that drought in some style so he is the confident selection. The one most likely to trouble the selection is last year’s Gold Cup third Road to Riches. That effort twelve months ago was his attempt at a hat trick of Grade One successes so he is no mug and he seems to relish the Prestbury Park fences, but he looked out of sorts when a beaten favourite in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown latest and the only hope is that the drop back in trip can rejuvenate him. Of the British contingent, Village Vic looks likeliest to cause the selection some problems after racking up a four timer this season. He comes here off the back of double Grade three wins and while this is a different league, it would be no surprise to see him outrun his double figure odds. Vautour (WIN)

15:30 Cheltenham The World Hurdle is the feature race on St Patricks Day and the race does look to revolve around Thistlecrack. He has won four of his last five with the only blemish a small one when beaten by Killultagh Vic at Punchestown in April. Colin Tizzard’s eight-year-old stormed up the hill on the bridle at the end of January dispelling many theories that he wouldn’t see out the trip fully. The other murmur from many is about the drying ground. He is a son of Kayf Tara whose progeny do like to get their toe in however it shouldn’t matter to a horse of his quality. Mouse Morris saddles Alpha Des Obeaux who does look his main rival. He has run in plenty of Grade 1 contests in Ireland and is apparently going to improve for better ground. He is the one that has got the closest to Douvan in his time at Willie Mullins and looks to be the danger. Cole Harden won this last year from the front and if he makes this a strong test then it’ll play into the hands of Thistlecrack. If they go slow and turn it into a sprint then that’s where Tizzard’s runner could be found out but I don’t envisage that happening here. Saphir Du Rheu’s chasing career has been shelved and this grey was second last year. Drying ground should see him run his race, so is considered at a track he likes. Thistlecrack (WIN)

16:10 Cheltenham A tricky looking contest to decipher here, but the answer may lie with a well handicapped course specialist. The Jonjo O’Neill trained John’s Spirit has won three times on the course and finished fourth off 3lb higher in this race two years ago. He has been well below his best form this term, but has had excuses for the most part. The last two races were in desperate conditions so a return to his more favoured fast ground can see him return to form here. The 9-year-old is also now 2lb below his last winning mark and he looks poised for a big run here and despite the slight concern of the yard’s form, he gets the nod here at an attractive each way price. This is obviously a wide open contest and another one who looks of interest is Full Shift for the top connections of trainer Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty in the saddle. The horse won a novice handicap over the festive period, before looking unsuited by the testing ground in his other outings this term. He comes here off a really low weight on his return to faster ground and he looks the one to give the selection the most to think about and may be worth covering as well. One horse who could run a big race at a price as well is Ballycasey. He represents the Ruby Walsh, Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci trio and was fourth in the RSA Chase at the meeting two years ago. The horse is a bit of an enigma so is a gamble in itself as to whether or not it will turn up, but if on a going day he can definitely take a hand in this one. Johns Spirit (E/W)

16:50 Cheltenham The first time this race has featured at the Festival and it could prove fruitful for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh, who have dominated the Mares race on the opening day. Limini has won her two starts over hurdles since her move from France. She has looked a very smart prospect going forward and many believe she is a certainty. Her last start was in a Grade 3 where she strolled to an eleven-length success. She will have had to tidy up her jumping when they go at a quicker gallop but she does look hard to look past. Smart Talk is next in the betting and she has won her last two on differing grounds. She is still improving and has the scope to progress further. She won the Mares’ Hurdle at Doncaster beating the likeable Lily Waugh and Rock On The Moor was fifth and she followed Vroum Vroum Mag on Tuesday. Bloody Mary has only tasted defeat on her flat debut. She has done well but will need to find more from her Taunton win. That was her first run for a while, so could improve for that. The better ground looks likely to benefit her. The other one to mention is Chocca Wocca who has been targeted at this race. She went down to a good horse at Aintree in the bumper when never really on terms with Hollies Pearl. On her hurdles debut she did well to win in the end because she didn’t settle to well and eventually saw off the penalised Awesome Rosie. That race may have taken the fizz out of her plus the quicker gallop could help her settle. She is still an unknown in this sphere, so made the shortlist. Limini (WIN) Smart Talk (E/W)

17:30 Cheltenham Another unbelievably tricky contest for the lucky last on Thursday and there is plenty of horses with previous course form to consider for this Amateur rider’s contest. The leading jockey in this sphere, Derek O’Connor, has already got into the winner’s enclosure this week with a tremendous ride on board Minella Rocco and he looks to have a good chance again here for the same JP McManus connection with Upswing. The 8-year-old looked progressive this season in his first three runs before pulling up in the Welsh National. The trip and ground pose no problems for him, so if you’re willing to forgive his latest run then he should run well here. The horse who comes here in the best form, however, once again comes from the Willie Mullins yard. Sambremont arrives here bidding for the hat trick and he will be guided by the excellent Patrick Mullins, but almost all of his form including those two latest wins have come on easy ground. Despite this, the horse remains lightly race, has plenty of potential for improvement and so the brother of Gold Cup hope Djakadam could prove to be a cut above these here at a massive each way price. One lively outsider who must get a mention here comes from the Nigel Twiston Davies yard. Splash of Ginge comes here on a very attractive mark given his record as a dual course winner so he will likely outrun the forecast odds in the region of 33/1 here. There is a slight doubt about him getting the trip, but previous attempts have come on heavy ground. He will relish the return to good ground here and needs covering at the price. Sambremont (E/W) Splash Of Ginge (E/W)

(Today’s selections come from Graeme Lafferty & Matthew Kirby)

Chris Connolly – The Giant Bolster (E/W) 17:30

Chris Roke – Bristol De Mai (WIN)

Darren Goodbody – 

Dean Kilbryde – Missed Approach (E/W) 14:10

Karl Hedley – Danielle’s Journey (E/W) 16:50

Rory Paddock – Cup Final (E/W) 14:10

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