Unbeaten novices Bob Olinger and Galopin Des Champs face a mouthwatering clash in the Turners Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.
Only four – all trained in Ireland – have stood their ground for day three opener, with the market dominated by the aforementioned horses and the top-calibre form they bring to the table.
Henry de Bromhead’s Bob Olinger is a Festival winner already, having run out a hugely impressive winner of last season’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
His jumping has not been entirely convincing in two starts over fences to date, but he showed his class when pulling clear in a Grade Three at Punchestown on his latest appearance and his trainer is confident he is heading in the right direction.
“I think he’s been really good and he jumped fine at Gowran. I thought he then improved a lot at Punchestown and he’s schooled since at Navan and jumped really well,” said De Bromhead.
“Rachael (Blackmore) was really happy with him and we’re really happy. He seems in great form and we’re looking forward to it. He worked really well at Navan the other day.
“People have questioned his jumping, and maybe he’s not lightning fast, but that’s why we said from the start he was never really an Arkle horse – he doesn’t jump lightning quick, he’s more a staying type.
“I don’t think the small field will be an issue. He’s a very good horse this fellow, so we’ll see.”
The Willie Mullins-trained Galopin Des Champs was also a winner at last season’s Festival when taking the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, after which he successfully graduated to Grade One level at Punchestown.
He looks set to scale even greater heights over fences judged on his two starts at Leopardstown this season – most recently dominating the Grade One Ladbrokes Novice Chase at the Dublin Racing Festival.
Connections considered stepping back up in trip for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, but ultimately decided to stick at an intermediate distance, even if it means clashing with Bob Olinger.
“He was so good the first day and was very brave last time out, I think Paul (Townend) learned plenty about him then – he did it very well at Leopardstown,” said Mullins.
“I think the way to do it is to look at the best race for the horse rather than the calibre of the opponent. I’m thinking our man may be better off over the shorter trip.”
The Closutton handler has also declared El Barra, who is set to turn out just four days after winning by 10 lengths at Limerick.
The quartet is completed by Joseph O’Brien’s outsider Busselton.
Gordon Elliott’s Sire Du Berlais, who won the 2020 Pertemps Final, heads this year’s renewal of the fiercely-competitive handicap hurdle. Other contenders include the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained veteran Ballyandy, Emmet Mullins’ Winter Fog and Alaphilippe from Fergal O’Brien’s yard.
O’Brien also houses a leading hope for the Craft Irish Whiskey Co. Plate Handicap Chase in course-and-distance winner Imperial Alcazar, while Alan King has high hopes for The Glancing Queen.
The eight-year-old won her first two starts over fences before chasing home L’Homme Presse at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day – and although she had the option of running against her own sex in the Mares’ Chase, connections have opted for the handicap route.
“I thought she ran a terrific race behind L’Homme Presse at the track on New Year’s Day and the way he has come out and won the Scilly Isles was good. I’m quite happy to go to Cheltenham fresh as she has a good record running after a break,” said King.
“She has run in the Champion Bumper against the boys, so she should be fine in a race like this. The Dipper looked the right race to have a crack at and she beat some very good horses. She was ready for a race then.
“She has been around the course, so she ticks a lot of the boxes.”
Mullins appears to hold most of the aces in the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, with Dinoblue and Brandy Love part of a seven-strong Closutton challenge.
Elliott’s Party Central, Colm Murphy’s Impervious and the Harry Fry-trained Love Envoi are among the big dangers, while King believes Nina The Terrier could outrun her odds.
“It was just unfortunate she fell at Newbury a few starts back, but it was just one of those things and hopefully she has learnt from it,” the trainer added.
“She was very fresh and I wanted to get a run into her. The Grade Two at Sandown last time was ideal, bar the ground, but she still finished third to Love Envoi.
“She jumped great and cantered into it, but she has then hit the softer ground turning in. It was all hands and heels between the last two and she has finished a comfortable third. She didn’t have a hard race and she has come out of it well.”