January is a much-loved month in horse racing circles as the countdown to the Cheltenham Festival in March can officially begin.
The most obvious point for excitement and anticipation to build is the last Saturday of the month, because this is when the Festival Trials Day takes place.
The great and good of National Hunt racing will be bringing some of their premier campaigners to test them on the famous track ahead of making any decisions regarding who to enter at the sport’s most famous meeting.
This year, the standout races are a pair of highly competitive Group 2 encounters: the Cleeve Hurdle and the Cotswold Chase.
The former is considered the perfect trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle, given that it is run over the New Course over a distance of 3m. The likes of Thistlecrack, Big Buck’s and Inglis Drever have all won both races in the past decade alone, so punters will be keeping an eye on the Cleeve Hurdle for pointers.
There is a 3m circuit to be navigated in the Cotswold Chase, with 21 fences to be negotiated as opposed to the 12 for the Cleeve Hurdle. This renewal provided a thrilling spectacle 12 months ago with the brave Many Clouds pipping Thistlecrack to the line, although tragically it would be the ten-year-old’s last act as he sadly passed away shortly after.
The idea of the Cotswold Chase is to be a precursor to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, although that link is slightly tenuous at best. But when you consider the fact that Many Clouds and 2016 Cotswold winner Smad Place both went on to win the Hennessy Gold Cup – with the former taking the spoils in the Grand National too – we get a flavour of just how instructive this race can be.
So where is the smart money going in both?
Cotswold Chase (2:25pm)
The headline maker here is Bristol De Mai, the 6/4 favourite who has some fine wins under his belt.
The Nigel Twiston-Davies yard has produced a Cotswold Chase winner before in Knowhere (2008), and they may just fancy another money-spinning champion this weekend given the £100,000 prize fund.
Bristol De Mai ticks many boxes as a former Group 1 winner, but his best work typically comes on heavy footing: his demolition of Cue Card in the Betfair Chase back in November testament to that.
But if he doesn’t get the turgid conditions he favours, the seven-year-old is vulnerable; he was way behind at the King George VI Chase on a slick surface, and historically has not fared well in quicker running. There are patches of rain in the weather forecast, but if the going is good-to-soft come Saturday the don’t be afraid to take the favourite on.
If this does become a test of speed as much as strength then take a look at Tea for Two, Nick Williams’ unpredictable nine-year-old.
He was third last time out in the King George but only three lengths back from winner Might Bite (and 20 or so clear of Bristol De Mai), and he also bested the favourite in the Betway Bowl Chase at Aintree at the end of last season as well as the likes of Cue Card and former Cotswold Chase champion Smad Place.
There are question marks on the CV, particularly when he became unsettled at Cheltenham last year and unseated rider Lizzie Kelly, but on good going Tea for Two is certainly the match of anyone in the field.
Cleeve Hurdle (3:30pm)
The bookmakers’ favourite is Finian’s Oscar, a former Group 1 winner who is reverting back to hurdles after a trial period running over hurdles ended in consecutive defeats.
It’s a move that suits the six-year-old, and trainer Colin Tizzard will have an eye on the Stayers’ Hurdle should his charge make a powerful case on Saturday.
The Irish horse notched up some intriguing victories in 2017, including the Mersey Novices’ Chase and the Tolworth Novices’ Chase.
Finian’s Oscar won’t mind the soft ground should the rain come in the next 48 hours, and at a general price of 3/1 he is certainly a value play.
Competition may come from Beer Goggles, who stunned the world of racing when winning the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December as a 40/1 rag. The seven-year-old saw off uknowwhatimeanharry on that occasion, himself a former Cleeve Hurdle champion, and so Richard Woollacott’s powerhouse is a tantalising pick. Unfortunately, he’s available at a rather-less wallet boosting 13/2 here!
Wholestone is the second favourite on account of winning last time at Cheltenham, but Twiston-Davies’ charge was beaten by Beer Goggles, Colin’s Sister and Court Minstrel in 2017 and all of those are in the field here. He looks a tad short to us at 7/2.
The Worlds End, an 11/2 fancy with the sportsbooks, is a talented boy but his formline reads 4-8-1-F, which simply doesn’t get the juices flowing heading into a fairly high quality renewal like this.