Several of the most talented novice chasers in Ireland will not be in action at Cheltenham next month but the raiding party will still have realistic hopes of getting closely involved in several of the novice chases at the meeting.
Unfortunately the unbeaten dual Grade 1 winner Last Instalment was ruled out of the meeting last week. Connections of the hugely exciting Flemenstar have made it clear that he will skip Cheltenham this year while the potentially top class Bog Warrior may have to pass up on a trip to Prestbury Park on account of the ground.
While these are three very notable omissions there is still strength amongst the ranks of the country’s novice chasers and it is quite possible that the RSA Chase could again fall to an Irish horse.
Twelve months ago Mouse Morris sent out First Lieutenant to claim the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle and the seven-year-old will return to Cheltenham with a chance of making his mark in the RSA. With two wins from five starts over fences his record is far from blemish free but when he was beaten at Cork in October he would have found the two and a half miles of that race somewhat on the short side.
He also pulled up in the Drinmore Chase but made a terrible blunder at halfway in that race and he found it impossible to recover from such a grave mistake. Last time out First Lieutenant again met with defeat when he was a six lengths second to Last Instalment at Leopardstown in December.
There were plenty of positives from that last run though. He jumped quite well throughout and it was also his best effort since he was sent chasing. In addition pulling in the Drinmore some three weeks prior to Leopardstown was hardly the ideal preparation.
Last season Mouse Morris sent the seven-year-old straight to Cheltenham after Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting and that preparation has been mirrored this time around. It is an obvious positive that First Lieutenant coped so well with the demands of Cheltenham last year and good ground will hold absolutely no fears for him. Furthermore his trainer is especially adept at producing his inmates in the form of their lives for Cheltenham.
First Lieutenant will need to step up on the form that he has shown over fences so far. He should be primed to post a career best effort though and not only is he the pick of the Irish challengers for this race but he is a leading contender for this event.
The Jewson Novices Chase contains a number of RSA Chase entries and foremost among these is the Willie Mullins-trained Sir Des Champs. His target has yet to be determined but if he was pointed in the direction of the Jewson he would surely be able to play a major role.
Like First Lieutenant, Sir Des Champs won at Cheltenham last year when he came from a seemingly hopeless position to land the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle. This season Sir Des Champs boasts a perfect record over fences and he heads to Chetlenham on the back of two Grade 2 victories.
On his penultimate start, at Limerick, Sir Des Champs was being made to work very hard by Knockfierna who ran out at the second last fence when still appearing to hold the upper hand.
He was much better at Leopardstown last time when accouting for Fists Of Fury and Hidden Cyclone. The winning margin was only half a length at Leopardstown but had he enjoyed a clearer run in the straight he would probably have won easier. There should be better still to come from him over fences.
In the same race Sir Des Champs could have a good deal to fear from his stablemate Call The Police. Unplaced when favourite for the Coral Cup last year, Call The Police enjoyed a comfortable success on his chasing debut at Gowran in November. On his first run since then he showed marked improvement and served notice that he was a potent force in the novice chase ranks when finishing second to Last Instalment in the Dr P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase at Leopardstown earlier this month. The nine-year-old jumped superbly and travelled especially well in the Moriarty and if he can bring that form to Cheltenham he deserves to be considered a leading player.
The Diamond Jubilee National Hunt Chase (the four mile amateur rider’s novice chase) also has a number of Willie Mullins runners who are prominent in the betting. The Down Royal beginner’s chase winner Soll currently heads the market while his stablemates Allee Garde and Up The Beat are also quite prominent in the betting.
Allee Garde wouldn’t have been seen to best effect in a slowly run graded race at Naas in January but his previous third to First Lieutenant and Last Instalment at Leopardstown is a fine effort. In addition he wasn’t disgraced when ninth in the Albert Bartlett here last year when he would have been closer but for being hampered at the second last. He should revel in the step up to four miles.
Up The Beat ran a fine race for one so inexperienced when he was second under a big weight in a Grand National Trial at Punchestown earlier this month. He produced a particularly fine round of jumping that day and looks a smart staying chaser in the making but whether he would be as effective on better ground is another matter.
Fists Of Fury could line up with a major chance. His second to Sir Des Champs last time is easily his best effort over fences. He didn’t run all that well over fences at Cheltenham in December but is capable of far better than he got to show that day. It is also interesting to note that as a novice hurdler he produced his best effort when stepped up to an extended three miles on good ground at Aintree when he was fourth to Saint Are in a Grade 1 contest.
With Sprinter Sacre and Peddlers Cross dominating the Arkle this is not a race where the Irish team is particularly strong. The Grade 1-winning chaser Blackstairmountain should improve for the switch to better ground but a minor placing would appear to be the best that he could hope for.