Karl Hedley gives the inside track on the ones to watch at the 2020 Festival...
CHAMPION HURDLE (TUESDAY)
This is a wide-open event this year, but one who cannot be discounted is Pentland Hills. He was a winner of the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival last season, so we know that he certainly has the ability to handle the track. He looked to have needed the opening run of the campaign when chasing home stablemate, Call Me Lord in the International Hurdle. He then went to Haydock for the official Champion Hurdle trial and he looked set to be called the winner coming to the last. Ballyandy was under an inspired drive from Sam Twiston-Davies that day and mugged Nicky Henderson’s five-year-old right on the line.There will be more to come from Pentland Hills especially now that he has been given time to recover following a recent wind operation. The likelihood of a stronger pace will suit him well and he looks sure to be involved at the business end.
QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE (WEDNESDAY)
Defi Du Seuil could well be the answer as he seems to have enjoyed the most perfect campaign of those at the head of the market. He is a multiple course and distance winner, who has really come into his own in recent months. He started off in the Shloer Chase over the course and distance back in November and has not looked back since. Subsequent wins in the Tingle Creek and the Clarence House Chases, have meant that he is now fully primed and could well cause the downfall of reigning Champion, Altior. Nicky Henderson’s charge was entitled to be ring-rusty when he faced off against Cyrname over an extended two-and-a-half miles in the Christy Chase. He recovered well from that and showed guts and determination to land the Game Spirit at Newbury just a couple of months later. He has had things his own way in this sphere for so long, that he may have forgotten how to respond to a challenge. Meanwhile, Willie Mullins would also love to win this prize and Chacun Pour Soi gives him his best ever opportunity. However, the lack of a run over the course and distance is somewhat concerning and what he achieved in destroying Min is open to interpretation.
STAYERS HURDLE (THURSDAY)
Paisley Park has done nothing wrong at all this year and he has met all of the objectives laid out before him thus far. Wins at Newbury in the Long Walk Hurdle and then at Cheltenham in the Cleeve Hurdle means he comes here as a solid favourite, and he will prove a force to be reckoned with once again as he attempts to defend his crown. Summerville Boy and Emitom look likeliest to run him closest according to the market, but what they have achieved in comparison to the reigning champion pale into insignificance. This dominant stayer can assert his authority in a field which lacks talent over the three mile discipline.
GOLD CUP (FRIDAY)
Delta Work made his seasonal return behind Road To Respect in the Ladbroke Champion Chase at Down Royal. Having looked particularly big in the parade ring, he was very clearly in need of the outing and ultimately he wasn’t given a hard time in the race when his chance was gone.
His next outing was a bit more like it. Last season’s top Irish staying novice, who had finished third in the RSA Chase found the major improvement that was required in order to win at Leopardstown. He responded well to pressure and gradually wore down the gallant Monalee in the Savile’s Chase. He gave the impression that he would be suited by a stronger pace, and with a decent looking field looking likely at Cheltenham, that should be guaranteed.
Gordon Elliott earmarked him as a live Gold Cup contender as early as last season. The trainers’ hopes were heightened once again as Delta Work lined up for Paddy Power Gold Cup at Leopardstown at the beginning of February. Unbelievably, he was sent off as a second favourite to Kemboy and it was younger of the pair that would come out on top. Having been held up out the back, Delta Work began to take closer order after the seventh fence. He then had to be switched in order to press on with his challenge and despite a small blip when brushing through the last, he stayed on well for pressure to land the valuable prize. He is a strong candidate for this years’ showpiece and having won and been placed at previous Festivals will stand him in good stead.
Gordon Elliott landed this prize with Don Cossack back in 2016 and the trainer is confident enough about regaining the coveted prize. Delta Work has shown a likeable attitude this season and he really has developed into the Chaser that his trainer had hoped. I think he might have too much speed for Santini, whilst Al Boum Photo may have appreciated another prep run. There are definite question marks over Presenting Percy and Lostintranslation, whilst Clan Des Obeaux may be found wanting for stamina.
CORAL CUP HANDICAP (WEDNESDAY)
Birchdale is unbelievably talented on his day. He won his first two starts under rules including once over this track back in January 2019. He was completely outclassed over three miles at the Festival last year when beaten by Minella Indo in the Albert Bartlett. He was sent chasing at Ascot last November and he floundered when finishing third of four to Angel’s Breath. It will be of little surprise to see him redirected back over hurdles to see if he can recapture the form of his earlier career. Two-and-a-half miles is not a problem for this six-year-old and his chances will only increase if Barry Geraghty gets the leg up
FOXHUNTERS CHASE (FRIDAY)
Shantou Flyer seems to be peaking just at the right time and is more than capable of reversing form with last year’s conqueror Hazel Hill. Owned and likely to be partnered by the talented David Maxwell, this ten year old won his most recent Hunter Chase by twenty-three lengths. He knows every blade of grass around here and sees out this trip to good effect. It is hard to see him out of the frame given his jockey and there should be better to come. Although not an original selection by any means, I think that Shantou Flyer could well prove the answer here. He has been impressive and this will be the equivalent of his ‘Gold Cup’. A little more effort can be guaranteed from the saddle. Shantou Flyer will have learned a lot since last year and with no worries in relation to stamina, the ten year old commands utmost respect.
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