The preview nights have begun, and the Festival guides are now rattling off the press. Sure signs that the Cheltenham Festival will soon be upon us once more and National Hunt fans can have their yearly feast. However, we do still have two cracking Saturdays of racing action before events get underway at Prestbury Park, and this weekend the ITV cameras head to Doncaster, Kelso, and Newbury.
It is the Scottish track of Kelso which provides the classiest of the day’s action, with one of the course’s biggest meetings of the year being lit up by the Grade 2 Premier Novices Hurdle. Doncaster chips in with a pair of quality handicaps, whilst the big betting race of the day comes from Newbury with the latest edition of the Greatwood Gold Cup. All told, we have a bumper nine races on offer, and here we pick out our best bets in this week’s Saturday Racing Tips.
1:15 bet365 Cyril Alexander Memorial Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase
Class 3, 2m5½f
Dan Skelton’s Sholokjack is all the rage in the opener on the back of a 12-length rout at Lingfield last time out. It would be no surprise to see him go well, but he is up 11lb in the handicap in a hotter race and is a little short in the betting for our money. With a slightly heavy heart, as he is a worthy favourite, we will look elsewhere.
Bill Baxter from the Warren Greatrex operation has won two of his last three and is respected, but overall we just prefer a punt on the Nicky Richards-trained, Castle Rushen. Going in the famous Trevor Hemmings colours, this one looked to be travelling much the best when unseating four from home last time out at Newcastle. That was very unfortunate for backers on the day, but it does mean he gets in here off an unchanged mark of 130, which we suspect may not reflect the full extent of his ability.
1:30 Virgin Bet Cheltenham Festival Money Back Handicap Chase
Class 2, 2m½f
Dan Skelton’s Calico heads the betting here having threatened to give the mighty Jonbon a fright last time out. However, it is hard to know exactly what to make of that form and, with Skelton operating at just an 8% strike rate over the past fortnight, he doesn’t look to represent obvious value. Pay The Piper comes next but is yet to defy a mark this high, and preference is for an each-way bet on Donald McCain’s Mackenburg.
Boasting a win at the track and over this trip to his name, this pocket rocket of a horse always tries his heart out and is only 1lb higher than for his most recent success. With the excellent Brian Hughes in the saddle, he may be up to causing a small shock at a price we feel offers real value.
1:50 bet365 Morebattle Hurdle
Class 2, 2m
Emmet Mullins took this with The Shunter 12 months ago, with that horse then going on to score at the Cheltenham Festival. The Irish trainer returns for a repeat bid this time around with Mctigue. Whilst another handicap blot wouldn’t be the biggest surprise, the horse does have to race off 6lb higher than his Irish mark and certainly hasn’t been missed by the market.
In a fiendishly competitive heat, the one to catch our eyes is Deere Mark from the yard of Sam Thomas. This six-year-old was quietly fancied to run a big race in the Betfair Hurdle, only to be withdrawn at the 11th hour due to the unsuitable ground. Hopefully, that decision may reap dividends here, as the mount of Adam Wedge had previously looked a horse on the up when landing back-to-back events at Hereford and Kempton. He’s 6lb higher here but possesses the type of late-running style which can be difficult for the handicapper to keep up with and is fancied to at least make the frame.
2:10 BetVictor Non-Runner-No-Bet At Cheltenham Seniors’ Handicap Hurdle
Class 3, 2m4½f
We head back to Newbury for another competitive handicap, with the market this time being headed by impressive last-time-out winner Dargiannini. That Harry Derham runner is respected, but the most interesting option here to our eyes is Pileon from the yard of Christian Williams.
Still only nine years old, this one was rated as high as 143 in his pomp and is down to 125 for this assignment. That drop is of course due to a run of poor efforts, but his run when second last time out at Doncaster was much more like it, suggesting that he may be about to rediscover some of his old sparkle. With the Williams yard having firmly emerged from a spell in the doldrums, he is fancied to go well.
2:25 bet365 Premier Novices’ Hurdle
Grade 2, 2m2f
Another interesting contender from the Emmet Mullins yard heads the betting in the next event from Kelso. Having finished third in a Grade 2 bumper last time out, Feronily really could be anything on hurdles debut and rates a major threat to all.
It is another each-way punt for us here though, and the one to carry our cash is Snake Roll from the yard of Lucinda Russell. Two from four over obstacles – including a win at this track in October – this one’s third-placed effort to the talented Paul Nicholls runner Tahmuras also reads pretty well in the context of this. Whilst he was well beaten in a heavy ground 2m5f event last time out, it is easy enough to draw a line through that as he ruined all chance of getting home by running much too free throughout. Back down in trip and on a quicker surface, he may well bounce back.
2:45 BetVictor Greatwood Gold Cup Handicap Chase
Class 1, 2m4f
Fans of trainer trends will likely look no further than the Paul Nicholls runner Espoir De Guye in this contest, as the champion trainer bids for a 10th Greatwood Gold Cup success. That is an amazing record but such trends are far from fool proof. For starters, the nine-year-old is far from a typical Nicholls winner of the race, having shown very little form of late and having only recently joined the yard.
Course specialists Zanza and Paint The Dream would look to be more solid options. Zanza caused a huge upset when winning the Grade 2 Denman Chase here last time out and rates a big threat dropping back into handicap company, but it is Paint The Dream who just gets the vote from us.
A perfect three from three in chase contests at this track, those wins include a 15-length rout in this race last year, and a 14-length stroll here in November. Only 4lbs higher than for that most recent win, and arriving on the back of a nice break, he can make it four from four at his favourite course.
3:00 bet365 Handicap Hurdle
Class 2, 2m5f
We have a clutch of bang-in-form contenders set to line up in this handicap affair, with Santos Blue, Dancewiththewind, Clay Rogers and Well Educated winning their last 10 starts between them. Nells Son is another to throw into the mix, having previously won a Grade 2 at this venue.
In a race where few can be ruled out with any degree of confidence, the most attractive betting proposition is an each-way punt on Olly Murphy’s Clay Rogers. A winner of his final two starts back in 2021, this one returned from a 515-day absence to score in really good style at Southwell at the back end of January. We were particularly impressed with the turn of foot he displayed to put the race to bed that day and if in a similar mood here, he may well prove very tough to stop indeed.
3:15 Virgin Bet Grimthorpe Handicap Chase
Class 2, 3m2f
With Does He Know looking set to stand his ground, this looks a quality renewal of the big handicap of the day from Doncaster. Having already defied top weight to land a handicap at Cheltenham earlier in the season, the Kim Bailey runner will likely make another bold bid. Coopers Cross and Castle Robin are others to note having bounced right back to form of late.
However, it is to last year’s winner to which we turn for our selection, with the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Undersupervision looking primed to go well once more. Form figures of 3PU admittedly don’t make for the most inspiring reading, but on the plus side, he has now dropped back down to the same mark as when successful 12 months ago. The Twiston-Davies yard has been hitting a decent run of form of late, including at the big Saturday meetings, and may well strike again here.
3:35 bet365 Premier Chase
There is just a small field to round out the day’s action, but we have several intriguing contenders, nonetheless. Cheltenham Festival winner The Shunter returns from a 180-day break and may be using this as a tune-up ahead of another tilt at the big meeting. Zanza, meanwhile, would be interesting if taking up this assignment ahead of a more obvious option at Newbury.
Overall, we suspect the market may have this just about right in rating Le Milos as the most likely to prevail. A previous winner at this track, this one returned in rude health with back-to-back successes at Bangor and Newbury in November and has been given an extensive break since. Arriving fresher than many of his rivals, and already a course winner, he is fancied to land the hat-trick and help us end the day on a high at a very tidy price.