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Kevin Blake’s Cheltenham Festival Tips: Five best bets across the week

Yet to see the best of EUR470,000 recruit

There is still quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding the shape of the front of the market for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Willie Mullins has a strong hand that he has yet to play, but regardless of what he chooses to run, I will be favouring the Gordon Elliott-trained Ginto.

The six-year-old created a big impression when winning a point-to-point and subsequently changed hands for EUR470,000. While his impact in bumpers wasn’t immediate, he has started to justify his lofty price tag since being sent over hurdles this season.

He has won all three of his starts including a wide-margin victory over the subsequent Grade 2 novice hurdle winner Eric Bloodaxe at Navan and an all-the-way victory in the Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle.

It was Ginto’s win at Naas that was particularly impressive, as he didn’t seem suited to making the running. Having jumped straight at Navan, he jumped out to his right at Naas, and he seemed to get very idle all the way down the straight there too. He gives the strong impression that getting a lead will show him off to much better effect and one suspects that we’ve yet to see the very best of him. Everything about this race should suit him and he is likely to make a very bold bid.

Strong finisher to be steered home in Coral Cup

The Pat Fahy-trained Drop The Anchor is a horse that I’ve been watching for quite some time and I reckon he might have his moment in the sun in the Coral Cup.

The eight-year-old is more exposed over hurdles than most of the leading contenders for the race, but while his progression has been a steady one, it has been well enough mapped out to have yielded significant rewards along the way. His biggest success to date came in the extremely competitive Ladbrokes Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last year. That performance, in common with most of his performances, was characterised by how strong he was at the finish.

Despite taking a big hike from the handicapper, Drop The Anchor next appeared in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and ran an excellent race to be beaten just 3 1/2 lengths. He shaped much better than the bare form, as he was upsides the eventual winner after the second-last flight only to get interfered with and shuffled back before finishing off well up the run-in.

After that run, stepping Drop The Anchor up in trip looked to be the way to go, but his connections have resisted the temptation so far and brought him along steadily this season. He gave a very strong indication that he is about to hit top form when very much catching the eye in the Ladbrokes Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month, looking set to be tailed off after third-last hurdle only to fly home up the run-in to finish fifth.

Now that Drop The Anchor is finally set to be stepped up in trip in the Coral Cup, this could well be his biggest day yet.

Patient ride could do the trick in the Pertemps

The Pertemps Final is one of the quirkier contests at the Cheltenham Festival courtesy of its qualification system that tends to reward foresight and plotting. The Emmet Mullins-trained Winter Fog wouldn’t be amongst the sneakier contenders for the race, but there is a very strong case to be made for him.

The eight-year-old was formerly trained by Daniel Murphy to win a maiden hurdle at Limerick in good style last April. He joined his current connections over the summer and was always going to be an interesting switcher, as Emmet Mullins has shown a notable ability to improve horses that he takes on from other trainers with The Shunter being the highest-profile example.

Winter Fog’s first and thus far only run for Mullins came in the Pertemps Qualifier at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting. Initially put in at a big price, he was well backed close to the off. Held up after making a mistake at the first flight, he perhaps surprised his rider with how quickly he worked his way into contention, as he made smooth headway to track the leaders at the third-last flight and hit the front at the penultimate obstacle.

It’s a long way home from there at Leopardstown and it wasn’t a surprise that he was picked off late by Panda Boy, but it was a run full of promise. Had he been ridden with more patience, he would most likely have won.

While the British handicapper hasn’t missed him, Winter Fog has the potential to be significantly better than he was able to show at Leopardstown. A more patient ride will suit him very well and a big run from him would not surprise.

Amateur jockey to keep 100% British record

The Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Jockey’s Handicap Chase is one of two chases at the Cheltenham Festival that is confined to amateur riders. While the handicap chases at the meeting haven’t been as happy a hunting ground for the Irish as the handicap hurdles, this race has been won by Irish-trained horses in each of the last three years.

The one I favour in this year’s renewal is the Henry De Bromhead-trained Ain’t That A Shame. The eight-year-old is an unexposed chaser and has an appealing profile. He wasn’t beaten far by some of the better novice chasers around in his first two starts over fences, namely Stattler and Galopin Des Champs, but it was his latest start that caught the eye the most.

Stepped up to three miles for a maiden chase at Navan, he looked to have the race wrapped up approaching the third-last fence, but that is an awful long way from home at Navan and he got run down late by Champagne Platinum.

There was no shame in that, as that rival came out and ran very well to finish second in the Grand National Trial at Punchestown, but there is little doubt that Ain’t That A Shame should have won.

This will be the first time that Ain’t That A Shame has run in a race with lots of pace and cover available to him, which should very much suit him and might well bring about notable improvement.

The importance of having a high-class amateur rider on your side in this race should be obvious, as the gap between the best amateur riders and the average ones is a gaping one.

Thus, having the services of a top amateur is a notable advantage. Ain’t That A Shame is set to be ridden by Ben Harvey, who isn’t one of the biggest names in the Irish amateur ranks, but might well be in a few years.

He rode Bob Olinger to win a point-to-point and has an unbeaten record when riding in Britain, having ridden two winners from two outings including on Some Neck on the cross-country course at Cheltenham. He will be equal to the task if Ain’t That A Shame is.

Mullins’ spirit can deliver that loving feeling

Willie Mullins has been a dominant force in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle since it was introduced, winning five of the six renewals of it.

It should also be noted that any mare that has won a Listed or Graded race over hurdles will carry a 5lb penalty in this race and that unpenalised runners have won the last three renewals. With that in mind, it is worth considering that the likes of Party Central, Statuaire and Impervious will carry this 5lb penalty.

A Willie Mullins-trained runner that won’t be penalised is Brandy Love and she is the one I favour in the race. Having won a point-to-point, she changed hands for GBP200,000 and quickly became the subject of bullish reports from the Mullins camp.

Having made a solid start in bumpers, hopes were high that she would prove even better over hurdles and that has proven to be the case. A winning hurdling debut at Naas set her on her way this season, but what followed was a remarkable display in a Grade 3 mares’ novice hurdle at Fairyhouse.

Form analysts will often talk about horses jumping left or right, but usually it is to a relatively modest extent that is a minor consideration in calculations. In contrast, Brandy Love jumped out to her left to a remarkably exaggerated extent at Fairyhouse. At times, she ran across well over half the width of the hurdles, losing substantial ground and momentum on multiple occasions.

Considering that, it was incredible that she ran as well as she did, only finding her highly-regarded stable mate Allegorie De Vassy too good for her by 3 1/2 lengths.

As concerning as it was, it should be noted that Brandy Love jumped perfectly straight when winning a maiden hurdle around the left-handed Naas, so there is every reason to believe that she will be perfectly fine in that regard at Cheltenham.

While some will be put off by the quirks Brandy Love showed at Fairyhouse, it also showed just how much ability she has. Ironically, her waywardness may even prove to be blessing in disguise with a view to Cheltenham, as she will now go there unpenalised. She looks to have an excellent chance.

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