Cheltenham handicaps seeing surge in interest
It will be Wednesday before the weights are known, but the publication of the entries yesterday for the Cheltenham Festival handicaps go some way to confirming the theory that many trainers are targeting them over showpiece Grade Ones.
The entries for most of the championship events nose-dived markedly this year, with some commentators surmising that the perceived domination of Willie Mullins' legion had an off-putting effect.
In the meantime, the champion trainer's Festival team has suffered a variety of setbacks, but he still has a whopping eight ante-post favourites, whilst the likes of Yanworth and Thistlecrack have hardened as many people's idea of banker material for the home team.
As a consequence, the handicap entries were always likely to see a surge in numbers. With the cross-country race being held as a conditions event for a first time next month, the schedule of handicaps at the four-day gala falls from 11 to 10. However, the average entries per race has risen from 90.45 to 96.5, with the total coming in at 965, of which 248 are Irish-based.
The largest entry is 158 for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle, a race in which Mullins has developed a habit of unearthing serious future chasing talent.
Since 2011, he has won it with the subsequent Gold Cup runner-up Sir Des Champs, last year's RSA Chase hero Don Poli and Killultagh Vic, which was favourite for the JLT Novices' Chase prior to succumbing to injury earlier this month.
This time, Mullins has engaged 17 in the two-mile-five-furlong event on the final day of the Festival, with his former Grade One winner Petite Parisienne in the mix along with Blazer and Arbre De Vie.
The Fred Winter Hurdle has attracted the smallest initial entry of 50, of which just seven hail from these shores. Gordon Elliott's market leading Campeador has been put in, while Charles O'Brien's recent Leopardstown victor Henry Higgins would be an apt winner of the County Hurdle, which is named in honour of his legendary father, Vincent. Elliott's Noble Endeavor, second in last year's Martin Pipe, heads the betting for the Chaps Novices' Handicap Chase on day one, but he has four options at this stage.
Another that has surprisingly emerged as having an unconfirmed target is Jonjo O'Neill's resurgent More Of That.
JP McManus's classy 2014 World Hurdle victor had been expected to tackle the RSA Chase, but McManus's racing manager Frank Berry has indicated that he could yet be rerouted to the shorter JLT.
More Of That was as low as 3/1 second favourite for the RSA, but he was a drifter in the betting yesterday, as he fell from a high of 16/1 to as low as 4/1 for the JLT.
Meanwhile, Mullins's Gitane Du Berlais again lost out to the game Emily Gray on her travels in a Listed chase at Huntingdon yesterday.
The Kim Bailey-trained winner had foiled an odds-on Gitane Du Berlais at Carlisle in November, and she battled back yesterday after being briefly headed by her to repeat the dose under David Bass.