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Focus now turns to Cheltenham

The festival preview took place at Reading South Grosvenor Casino last week

Liam Headd

Liam Headd

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Focus now turns to Cheltenham

Nick Luck, Harry Skelton, Toby Lawes, Tom Segal and David Williams

WELL clear of the razzmatazz of blackjack tables and roulette wheels, Racing TV’s Nick Luck, leading jockey and Grosvenor Sport ambassador Harry Skelton, Nicky Henderson’s assistant Toby Lawes, Grosvenor Representative David Williams and Racing Post’s Pricewise, Tom Segal, sat down to give their insight on this year’s Cheltenham Festival at the Reading South Grosvenor Casino.

There aren’t many more famous noises in sport than the roar of the Prestbury Park crowd as the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle gets underway and Segal was first to offer his views on the opening race of the four day extravaganza:

I’m not a fan of horses in hoods, it means they pull too hard and I can’t have Al Dancer at 3/1. It could be a race where there’s a bit of a shock so at a price, I quite like Itchy Feet for Olly Murphy. He’s going very well at home and could just surprise a few at around 25/1.”

Lawes, understandably, struggled to split the Henderson pair of Angels Breath and Mister Fisher: “Both are very nice horses and have great chances, I’d just side with Mister Fisher who looks a big price at 10/1.”

As is the case in the Supreme, the English look to have a firm grip on the Arkle, with Kayley Woollacott’s Lalor the favourite from impressive Sandown winner Glen Forsa. And, despite running poorly last time, the panel were keen to side with Woollacott’s charge.

“I love Lalor,” said Lawes. “They ran him too quick at Sandown on ground that didn’t suit, but if the same horse from Cheltenham turns up, he’ll take all the beating.” Skeleton was in agreement but Segal wasn’t keen on the race at all: “It’s the worst Arkle in history, and I’ll be taking on all those at the head of the market.”

In contrast, the Racing Post tipster was very keen on Apple’s Jade in the day’s feature, the Champion Hurdle. “I think she’s an absolute certainty. Based on what she’s done this season, it’s going to be virtually impossible to give her eight pounds. She’s been the star of the season and I fully expect her to win.”

Buveur D’Air is seeking to join an illustrious club of three-time winners of the race, but a shock loss at Christmas has cast doubts over his hat-trick bid. Skelton suggested we may not have seen the best of last year’s winner yet this season, though: “I couldn’t believe how big he was at Kempton, he looked massive and will surely be much fitter come Cheltenham.”

In the remaining races on day one, Henderson’s assistant Lawes was very sweet on the chances of Ok Corral in the Nationaln Hunt Chase: “He’s a Graded horse running in a handicap and will win with his head in his chest!”

On to Wednesday, and the market leader for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Champ, was the major talking point. “He’s very short and he’s only 11/4 because he’s AP [Tony McCoy]’s horse! He hasn’t done enough to be that price,” were the strong views of Segal. “I like City Island of Martin Brassil – his form keeps getting backed up.”

Lawes, who works with Champ daily, was quick to retort the tipster’s views: “Second season novices do well here and we’ve been very impressed with the way he has won his races. Nicky thinks he is our best novice.”

The wide open nature of the race was shown by Skelton’s comments on his mount Beakstown. ‘He’s one of the most exiting horses I’ve ridden, potentially the best. The horse has improved since his Warwick win and I wouldn’t put anyone off him.”

Host Luck was keen on Brewin’upastorm: “He would have won the last day and Olly Murphy thinks the world of him.”

On paper, the RSA Chase looks one of the most intriguing of the meeting and Lawes was slightly concerned by his Santini, ante post favourite for the race, missing his last intended start at Ascot: “It’s a bit of a negative he didn’t run at Ascot, he’s very hard to get work into so we would have liked for him to run there.” Segal wasn’t keen on the favourite: “A prep race is very important and I can’t have Santini at all. I much prefer Delta Work who is rock solid with Davy Russell on board.”

The Champion Chase looks a very one-sided affair with Altior a short price to win the race for a second consecutive year. Skelton summed up the panel’s feeling of admiration for Henderson’s star: “Altior is the best horse in training, he’s fantastic for racing. The sport needs horses like him. He’s far better than these and should win comfortably.”

Segal said he was waiting for the penultimate race on the card, the Fred Winter handicap hurdle, for his best bet of the day. “Band Of Outlaws is one of my bets of the Festival, he has got heaps of weight in hand and should go very well for Joseph O’Brien.”

The highlight on Thursday is the Stayers’ Hurdle and the panel were all quick to take on favourite Paisley Park. “I think he’s very short,” said Skelton. “I think Black Op will run a big race at 12/1.” Segal agreed: “Noel Fehily has been talking him up since his Cheltenham run and I expect him to improve massively from that.” run. Lawes followed suit: “There’s something about Paisley Park that I’m not keen on and I just think if the vibes about Faugheen are right, then he wins. He was breath-taking at Punchestown last season.”

“Spiritofthegames is probably my best chance of a winner,” said Skelton as the panel picked out a few more fancies on the Thursday. Segal also fancied the seven-year-old to run a big race, while he was also keen on Now McGinty in the closing Kim Muir.

“He just wins doesn’t he?” was how Luck kicked-off the Friday conversation and the panel were in unison agreement about Sir Erec in the Triumph Hurdle. “He’s different class to these and at 11/10 you should fill your boots,” said Segal.

Friday’s showpiece is the Gold Cup and with favourite Presenting Percy’s interrupted prep, there were a contrast of views from amongst the panel. “You can’t back him at that price having not run over fences,” said Segal, “Clan Des Obeaux is an absolute rocket and should be the clear favourite. I think he’ll win the next three Gold Cups!”

Skelton felt last year’s winner Native River was a rock-solid contender: “He’s a cracking price, he’ll run his race and yes people might say he wants soft ground, but for me there are no questions marks. He’s almost guaranteed to be there or thereabouts.”

Nick Luck, Harry Skelton, Toby Lawes, Tom Segal and David Williams were speaking at Grosvenorsport.com's Cheltenham Festival preview at their Reading South branch.

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