I’m loathe to get involved with this weekend's action so early into the new National Hunt season, with doubts over the fitness of several key players, so instead let’s focus on a few antepost selections for the 2017/18 campaign, writes CHARLIE CROASDALE.
Unlike the flat season which enjoys severals peaks and troughs, the jumps campaign revolves mainly around the three big Spring Festivals, although there must be hope that Leopardstown’s innovative Winter Jumps Festival will brighten up the bleak mid-winter programme.
Antepost punting comes with it’s perils – jumping can be a cruel game and it’s almost inevitable one of my forthcoming selections won’t make it to Cheltenham in March through injury, or will be re-routed to another Festival contest.
But I’m always willing to take a chance at this stage, compensated by getting on at fancy prices, and Death Duty is the first to make major appeal for the JLT Novices’ Chase (general 12/1).
Gordon Elliot’s charge was unbeaten in four starts heading into last year’s Albert Bartlett, where he was sent off favourite but ran no sort of race, eventually pulled up. He was later found to be lame and was suffering from colic, so he had legitimate excuses.
Always shaping like a chaser in waiting, Elliot has already sent the six-year-old over fences twice this term, impressing most notably when jumping neatly and tanking through his race at Punchestown a fortnight ago, where his economical style of fencing really caught my eye.
The dismal Albert Barlett showing – coupled with Elliot stating he has too much speed for three miles – fills me with confidence that 2m 4f will be Death Duty’s trip and if he stays sound, it’ll take a good one to beat him.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup itself – jumps racing’s blue riband event – has an open-looking feel to it and there’s every reason to take the 9/1 available about Our Duke.
Jessica Harrington bypassed the big Festivals with her lightly-raced seven-year-old, instead opting to run off top weight in the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, and Our Duke blitzed the strong 28-runner field with one of the best staying handicap performances of recent years.
Raised 14lb for that success, Our Duke only has 3lb on official ratings to find with stablemate and Gold Cup holder Sizing John (pictured above), but the former’s lack of mileage – just four chase starts – gives him a major edge in my book, plus history backs up how incredibly difficult it is to win back-to-back Gold Cups.
There's every chance the fragile Thistlecrack and quirky Yorkhill won’t turn up here, and while Might Bite could emerge as a serious contender during the season, I want Our Duke on side early doors.
In the Supreme Novices Hurdle market, Sayar looks overpriced at 33/1 (bet365/Hills) and is worth a speculative each-way bet.
Willie Mullins has dominated this race in recent years and it often pays to get involved in this market, which will no doubt cut up badly as horses are re-routed to the Ballymore or don’t prove to be as good as their lofty reputations would have us believe.
There’s no guesswork needed regarding Sayar’s hurdling ability, after the four-year-old bolted up at Kilbeggan before easing to victory at Tipperary last month to land the Grade Three Joe Mac Novice Hurdle, travelling supremely well, jumping slickly and quickening clear readily despite the heavy conditions underfoot.
Flat-bred out of high-class colt Azamour – who was best on a firmer surface – Sayar should handle all types of ground having already proved his versatililty.
I’m staggered there’s still such a big prce around for the Supreme – most probably due to the fact Mullins usually saves his best types for November/December – but don’t forget the Mullins-trained Penhill, a 2017 Festival winner, was out nice and early last season.
The Triumph Hurdle is a tricky market to play antepost, with plenty of smart juveniles to be unleashed as the season progress, but Gumball has really impressed so far and makes appeal (14/1).
Philip Hobbs’ charge bolted up on British debut at Stratford last month and quickly backed that up with victory at Chepstow, where his jumping was ungainly throughout but the three-year-old’s powerful engine was there to see as he stretched right away by eight lengths unchallenged.
There’s plenty of room for improvement in terms of his jumping but Hobbs looks to be plotting a similar path for Gumball as he did with last year’s Triumph hero Defi Du Seuil, and I’d expect him to shorten up drastically if winning the Prestbury Juvenile Hurdle Trial at Cheltenham in a fortnight.