Road to Cheltenham: Trials day rout to see Smad Place go for gold

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The Festival is one week closer and it’s refreshing to be able to write about someone other than Willie Mullins as the market movers are revealed.

But last weekend saw dominance to rival the Irish handler in the form of Alan King who had a Saturday to savour, taking five contests on the day, three of them at Cheltenham.

The Barbury Castle man kicked off his Cheltenham Trials Day trips to the winner’s enclosure when Hennessy Gold Cup winner Smad Place took advantage of then-Gold Cup favourite Djakadam’s fall down the back straight to land the BetBright Festival Trial Chase.

The front-running tactics that were so successful at Newbury were tried again, this time with Richard Johnson in the saddle, and they worked handsomely.

The grey fought off the attention of Grand National winner Many Clouds to romp to a 12-length success.

Initially discussions saw King unsure of whether it was a performance that meant he would be Gold Cup bound rather than take in the shorter, and potentially easier Ryanair Chase.

However, in the hours that followed the trainer confirmed that they would give the showpiece event a crack, prompting Ladbrokes to make the nine-year-old a 12/1 chance (from 33/1) for the race.

There is a new horse at the top of the betting for the Gold Cup though, with Djakadam shifted out from 7/2 to 9/2, making Vautour the new favourite for the 3m2f battle on March 18.

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Next up Annacotty continued his love affair with Cheltenham in the freebets.com Trophy Chase bagging his second victory at the course this year after landing the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November.

With regular partner Ian Popham in the saddle once again the former Feltham Novices’ Chase winner had to dig deep up the long Prestbury Park run-in.

Only the consistent Tenor Nivernais could follow him up the hill, threatening to win the tussle at one point, but it wasn’t to be.

Popham drove his mount home for a one-and-a-half length success and saw his price cut for Festival success in the Brown Advisory Plate cut from 20/1 to 14/1.

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Arguably the most impressive performance was still to come though, as Yanworth lined up for the Classic Novices’ Hurdle.

You’d have been forgiven for thinking the step up in trip for JP McManus’ horse was merely to avoid hot Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Min at the Festival, but those thoughts were quickly extinguished.

Turning for home most of the other jockeys were hard at work, but on board the gelding nicknamed the ‘Orange Machine’ by those close to him, Barry Geraghty remained motionless.

Under the minimal of urgings the six-year-old put seven lengths between himself and runner-up Shantou Village to knock another Mullins hot-pot in Bellshill off favouritism for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.

Ladbrokes cut him from 8/1 to 3/1, but such was the surge of support for the horse that he was cut further into 3/1 before settling at 2/1.

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Alan King did at least give another British trainer a chance for success in the Cleeve Hurdle, potentially down to the fact that he didn’t have a runner in the race.

But despite the form that his stable appear to be in, you’d be hard pressed to imagine anything that could have lived with the dominant display of Colin Tizzard’s Thistlecrack.

The eight-year-old has been a massive improver this term and showcased his Ladbrokes World Hurdle credentials in splendid fashion.

Dispelling doubts about his ability to handle the Cheltenham track, the Long Walk Hurdle winner travelled effortlessly over the course’s undulations and jumped fluently.

Coming up the hill there was only going to be one winner as Tom Scudamore’s mount gave the field eight pounds and a 12-length-plus beating.

Already at the head of the market, Thistlecrack was shortened further from 9/4 into 5/4 for the stayers event at the Festival.

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King might have had the majority of winners on Saturday, but in the battle for the BetBright Cup at the Festival, it was certainly Britain who were left smiling as the Festival moves ever nearer.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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Ben Stones

Ladbrokes News’ equine expert, Ben likes nothing more than studying the form to pick out a winner or two for our readers. A Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Winchester, Ben has previously written for a number of football and racing blogs and websites, as well as contributing to the sports pages of his home-town newspaper.