Road to the Cheltenham Festival

THE dreams start now. The crisp autumnal mornings give birth to the hopes of hundreds of owners, trainers and jockeys. Jump racing is back in earnest this month and with it the glorious visions of Cleeve Hill in March and Aintree in April. But there’s no need to remind Richard Johnson. He has already amassed 88 winners in an extraordinary start to the Jump jockeys’ championship. The title is Dickie’s Holy Grail and it will be a fascinating sideshow as winter bares its teeth.

Johnson’s own elusive dream of winning the championship started in April when his nemesis AP McCoy hung up his riding boots. Dickie is going about things with a hunger and passion that AP would have been proud of. The only surprise is that he isn’t further ahead and that’s down to the excellent Aidan Coleman and his partnership with the increasingly prolific John Ferguson.

But the serious stuff begins this weekend with an excellent two-day card at Chepstow, which precedes the Old Roan Chase at Aintree (25th) and the Charlie Hall at Wetherby (Oct 31). But beyond the Paddy Power meeting, the Hennessy, Kempton on Boxing Day and the winter trials, all roads lead to Cheltenham Festival in March. It is sorely tempting to have an ante-post treble on Willie Mullins’ superstars Faugheen, Un De Sceaux and Vautour but you won’t get rich on those short prices. The Cheltenham Festival will be here before you know it… so let’s have a stab at finding an ante-post winner.

Coneygree’s Gold Cup win was a magnificent story and a cavalier performance. I never tire of watching it. The horse’s fragility means he will probably have a light campaign and the odds on him getting suitably soft-ish ground again are probably slim. Vautour will have to prove he is a 3m 2f horse and I’m not convinced. DON COSSACK has always been a talking horse but he began to live up to the hype last season. He looks tailor-made for the rigours of the Gold Cup and has the requisite class, stamina and speed. Now this may be a bit leftfield but I’d love to see UXIZANDRE have a tilt at the Gold Cup. The Ryanair Chase winner is out with injury until Christmas but he comes alive in the spring and is lurking near the foot of the ante-post market at 33/1. He is a Cheltenham specialist and won over 3m over hurdles. He will probably try to retain his Ryanair Chase crown but if he heads to the Gold Cup then he is worth a sporting each-way punt.

Finding a horse to beat FAUGHEEN feels a bit futile. If he gets to Cheltenham in one piece and in good form, he’ll win. End of. Peace and Co may emerge as the biggest danger but Faugheen is virtually unopposable. The only advice is to hope THE NEW ONE recaptures his best form. If he does, then 25/1 currently available will look like the bargain of the century to each-way punters.

The novice chase division is potentially exciting with Douvan, My Tent Or Yours and L’Ami Serge set to make the transition. But GARDE LA VICTOIRE really gets the juices flowing. He has always looked more of a chaser and if he takes to fences he could be exhilarating, especially on good ground.

It’s difficult to gauge which horses will relish the switch to the bigger obstacles but you’d have to hope that Value At Risk, Vyta Du Roc and No More Heroes can cut the mustard. But I’m looking forward to UN TEMPS POUR TOUT going chasing, if indeed David Pipe goes down that route. He oozes class.

With so many question marks about those near the top of the market, I’m surprised COLE HARDEN is as big as 12/1 in the ante-post book for this race, which he won with authority last season. Horses who win or run well in this race have a good record of returning to do the same and Warren Greatrex’s stable star, who benefited from a wind op to win in March, can only improve.

YANWORTH caught the eye more than most when he finished on the heels of the leaders in the Cheltenham bumper. It was noticeable how well he stayed on up the hill despite being quite keen early in the race. He should pay his way in middle distance novice hurdles and at 28/1 looks overpriced for the Neptune in which Moon Racer and Wait For Me could turn out to be other contenders.

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