By Will Hayler
1) Apple’s Shakira to win Triumph Trial - again?:
Could Apple’s Shakira really be as good as she looked when bolting up at Cheltenham four weeks ago?
Emmanuel Clayeux, her former trainer, certainly seemed to think so when interviewed on Racing UK in the minutes before her British debut, where she went out and hammered previous Triumph Hurdle favourite Gumball by 17 lengths - a distance that could have been nearer 117 had Barry Geraghty felt inclined.
Despite saddling his own runner in the race, Clayeux correctly told Lydia Hislop he thought that his former charge was virtually unbeatable.
Nicky Henderson says Apple’s Shakira does not show as much at home as on the racecourse, but that need not be a bad thing if she is saving herself for another performance as impressive as her previous one when she lines up in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle on Saturday.
Indeed, given that both races have somehow been allowed to have exactly the same title, one could easily be forgiven for anticipating a spot of deja-vu.
2) The New One, the old one:
Being beaten in a handicap might not, on the face of things, seem like the best-possible prep for a tilt at Cheltenham’s Grade Two Unibet International Hurdle (poor Bula) but when that effort came off a mark of 163 in the Greatwood, one of the most competitive events of its kind, it is clearly far more understandable that The New One should be favourite to win Saturday’s race for the fourth time.
To illustrate the task he faced that day, third-placed Old Guard – himself a smart and well-backed winner since at Newbury – was in receipt of 19lb (including Bryony Frost’s claim) as he finished one length in front of The New One but is set to receive just 2lb should he renew rivalries.
Having spent most of my relationship with The New One getting him wrong and turning up for the party just as things had started to quiet down, I won’t be cursing him with my cash again.
But given his remarkable career strike-rate (19 wins from 33 starts), his ability to handle any ground, and his obvious love for this course, it will take a brave punter (and an unsentimental one) to take him on.
3) A tale of four jockeys:
The four-runner Horse Comes First Novices’ Chase on Friday throws together a quartet of riders, who each for different reasons will head into the contest with a point to prove, and all four have a chance in an open little affair.
Bryan Cooper eased back into action at Taunton on Thursday after another injury-enforced break, and now partners the very horse who put him on the sidelines, Sizing Tennessee, who gave the jockey no chance of staying on board when blundering his way through the second fence when favourite at Ascot in November.
Getting straight back onto the horse, in this case, is considerably more than just a metaphor for Cooper, who will be keen to put in a clean round.
Harry Cobden’s star is in the ascendancy and he’s arguably the go-to rider in the West Country at present given Daryl Jacob’s existing retainers and the ongoing absence of Nicholls’ number one Sam Twiston-Davies. The teenage talent partners Coastal Tiep for Nicholls.
Kielan Woods needs just two more winners to ride out his conditionals’ allowance. He has a loyal band of supporters - with good reason given his obvious talent - including Jonjo O’Neill, Graeme McPherson and Alex Hales, who puts him up here aboard Duel At Dawn.
Tom Bellamy went to school with Willy and Sam Twiston-Davies and that Costwolds connection helped secure him a successful spare ride aboard Splash Of Ginge in the BetVictor Gold Cup last month.
Whole careers have been built upon one or two unexpected winning spare rides in big races and Bellamy has since moved more firmly into the Twiston-Davies fold.
Had Arctic Gold not failed to lift off when in front four out in the Grand Sefton Chase at Aintree on Saturday, Bellamy might well have cemented his position even more convincingly, but he’ll be keen to kick on aboard Tintern Theatre.
4) Lalor out to break his duck:
If there was to have been one horse in Richard Woollacott’s Devon yard that might have been taking him to the biggest meetings this season, it probably wouldn’t have been Beer Goggles.
But such has been the progression shown by that six-year-old this season that he is firmly established as a SunBets Stayers’ Hurdle contender after defeating Unowhatimeanharry and Thistlecrack in a 40-1 surprise at Newbury’s Ladbrokes Winter Carnival meeting at the start of the month.
Now Woollacott, an enterprising trainer who take a full-page advert in the centre of the racecard at Taunton on Thursday in an attempt to try and sell a quarter-share of a promising young chaser, will be hoping to see more from Lalor when he lines up in Friday’s opener, the British Stallion Studs EBF 'National Hunt' Novices' Hurdle over the extended two miles.
Lalor marked himself down as one of last season's leading bumper performers when taking the big contest there on Randox Health Grand National day but has met with defeat on both his hurdle outings this season.
He narrowly failed to reel in Onefortheroadtom when going down by a short head at Exeter on October 24, and forfeited his chance with a bad mistake at the last at Ascot on November 24, when finishing third behind Mr One More.
Woollacott reported this week: “He is a big, weak horse, who is still learning. He was bit unlucky the first time at Exeter and last time he probably came up against a couple of nice horses. The experience will have done him good and hopefully he can progress again.”
5) Buttons to win in panto season?:
Phil Kirby is still to train a winner at Cheltenham, but with his team in good nick in recent months, don’t be surprised to see Lady Buttons outrun her price in Saturday’s OLBG Mares’ Handicap Hurdle.
Given that she jumped well to make a winning debut over fences at Bangor last time, it’s an interesting choice to switch her back to the smaller obstacles. But she is a stronger mare this season than last and she would have beaten the useful La Bague Au Roi on Charlie Hall Chase day at Wetherby but for hitting the front too soon.
An official mark of 134 possibly underestimates her talent, especially if jockey Adam Nicol is able to keep her covered up until as late as possible to deliver her challenge.
6) Can’t stop the parrrr-teeee:
No sooner will Cheltenham have locked the doors to the last of the leaving racegoers on Friday, a new batch of attendees will be arriving to let their hair down without a Tote ticket in sight, as it’s not just two cracking days of racing that the course is staging over the two days of the International meeting.
A glance at the racecourse’s website confirms that three hours after the winner of the last race has been washed down, Friday night is ‘The Big Office Christmas Party’, featuring none other than The Chip Shop Boys and noted David Brent impersonator Tim Oliver. Entertainment of the chilled-out variety.