Thistlecrack should win but…

Welcome to the most exciting weekend of the National Hunt season this side of the Cheltenham Festival.

Thistlecrack should win but…

A bumper nine-race card at Cheltenham today features some of the biggest names in the game, there’s quality action from Doncaster while tomorrow sees the eagerly awaited return of Faugheen at Leopardstown. It promises to be epic.

The headline horse this afternoon is obviously the mighty Thistlecrack and it will rate as a seismic shock if he doesn’t maintain his unbeaten record over fences by taking the BetBright Trial Cotswold Chase.

However, the Gold Cup favourite won’t be a punting proposition for most punters – this one included – and anyone pondering a plunge on the King George winner at prohibitive odds might be wise to reconsider. To put it mildly, this is not a good race for favourites with Cyfor Malta the last to oblige in 1999.

Some very good horses have fallen in this race, with Dawn Run in 1986 the most famous casualty. That’s a little bit of a worry as it was at today’s venue, in November, where Thistlecrack produced his least convincing round of jumping.

He’ll get a stern test today as 2015 Grand National winner Many Clouds is a brilliant jumper and a relentless galloper. The expectation is Thistlecrack will ultimately assert his authority but given the history of the race it wouldn’t be the craziest call in history to chance Many Clouds each-way at 6/1.

Like the Cotswold Chase, the Cleeve Hurdle has a clear favourite in Unowhatimeanharry.

Unbeaten in seven starts since joining Harry Fry, the nine-year-old clearly sets a very high standard. The Stayers’ Hurdle favourite should make it eight on the trot today.

Anyone looking for something at bigger odds could do worse than the Nicky Henderson-trained Kotkikova each-way. She won 11 of her 14 starts in France before being bought by JP McManus last summer. She has only run once this season, finishing fifth to Vroum Vroum Mag in a Grade One at Leopardstown over Christmas. She’s entitled to come on for that that and any market support would be significant.

Irish raider Un De Sceaux is impossible to oppose in the Clarence House Chase, today’s sole Grade One. This race was supposed to take place at Ascot last weekend but the meeting was lost to the weather.

The task facing the Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old has been eased significantly by the absence of Ar Mad and it’ll be a big shock if the favourite doesn’t deliver.

Admittedly, Special Tiara got to within a nose of Un De Sceaux when finishing third in last year’s Champion Chase but, despite winning at Kempton over Christmas, Henry De Bromhead’s charge doesn’t seem to be in the same form this season.

With an eye to the future, it’ll be interesting to see how Uxizandre fares on his first start since he provided AP McCoy with his final Cheltenham Festival victory 22 months ago.

Singlefarmpayment can maintain his unbeaten record at Cheltenham by taking the Timeform Novices’ Handicap Chase. Tom George’s charge rarely runs a bad race and comes into today’s race on the back of an impressive win at today’s venue last month. It’s a competitive affair but the seven-year-old looks sure to go well.

Favourite Saphir Du Rheu has to be opposed in the Hugo’s Restaurant Barbados Trophy Handicap Chase. The eight-year-old is winless in his last seven starts and his willingness to battle is, to say the least, suspect.

Aso looks a more reliable option. He has run creditably in defeat at Cheltenham twice this season, finishing fourth in the Betvictor Gold Cup in November before finding only Frodon too good in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup last month.

When last seen, Aso showcased his wellbeing by justifying favouritism and he can follow up this afternoon.

The opening race of the day, the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle, looks a straight shootout between the JP McManus-owned duo of Defi Du Seuil and Charli Parcs.

Defi Du Seuil is the more experienced of the duo and has a serious engine. However, his jumping on his most recent start, at Chepstow last month, was far from convincing.

In contrast, Charli Parcs looked very slick when winning at Kempton and he gets the nod to deliver here.

The big race of the day at Doncaster, the Sky Bet Chase, can go the way of Ziga Boy. Alan King’s charge won this race 12 months ago, is only 4lb higher today, and seems to reserve his best form for this track. He should run well at a decent price, particularly if the cheekpieces he’ll sport for the first time today eke out a little bit of improvement.

Elsewhere, Vroum Vroum Mag is impossible to oppose in the Doncaster Mares’ Hurdle.

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