This past week has been a pretty critical one in the final preparation of home-trained contenders for the Cheltenham Foxhunter, run in the name of St James's Place, on Friday March 18th. A spate of hunter chases, along with the accelerating momentum of the Pointing season, aspire to set the scene for one of the few races at the Festival the British can hope to win.
The West Country is always well represented in the Cheltenham Foxhunter, and don't expect 2022 to be any different. There's Porlock Bay to return for a second tilt, whose sparing runs since last March have been a second to Premier Magic at Chaddesley's Harkaway fixture in late December, and a 2 1/4l second to Salvatore at Bangor on Friday.
Biddick was also successful for Anthony Honeyball at Ffos Las last Thursday on Pure Vision, whose owner J P McManus always enjoys a Festival runner. And as a trainer in his own right, Biddick may well put forward others, like Monsieur Gibraltar, who gave Olive Nicholls a winner at Larkhill in December.
Warwickshire's Tom Ellis can be expected to put forward at least one candidate, and Gina Andrews is a plus for any combination. Sadly we learnt little from Dubai Quest's canter round Wetherby on Saturday last, beating Le Breuil 5 1/2l, with the remainder of the 5 runner field pulling up. However, his reputation is pretty much unblemished, this being his seventh consecutive winning performance.
Ellis also has Latenightpass, second in the Aintree Foxhunter in 2021, and winner of an Alnwick Open in December. He has subsequently fallen in a comparable race at the same venue a fortnight ago. In addition, don't rule out a rule for Fumet d'Oudairies, second in the John Corbet Cup to Vaucelet at Stratford last May, and winner of two Opens at Horseheath this term.
Mark and Sara Bradstock have plenty of experience of Cheltenham after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup with Coneygree in 2015. Nine year old Mythbuster won an open Hunters Chase at Musselburgh on Saturday for their daughter Lilly, and likely merits an entry too. It's not every day a small stable gets to field a Festival runner, so they may be tempted to tilt at windmills, but it's not inconceivable this cast-off from de Bromhead could figure in the finish.
Meanwhile, James Owen's Pont Aven put in the most eye-catching performance at Ludlow last week, dismissing his opponents with ease.
Hot favourite remains Billaway, second to Porlock Bay in '21, and subsequently fifth to Cousin Pascal at Aintree. He prepped up with a second at Thurles last month, and will be one of a strong team from Closutton after winning easily at Naas on Saturday. Cousin Pascal has been carefully prepared this season, and will come on for his opening run behind Wagner at Hereford last month.
The other Irish challenger comes from north of the border, where David Christie trains in Fermanagh. Vaucelet was a convincing winner of the Stratford Foxhunter last May, and has subsequently burnished his credentials in a Portrush Point-to-Point and a Hunters Chase at Fairyhouse.
And not to forget the Hertfordshire representative, Premier Magic, winner of that splendid open race at Chaddesley over Christmas, and now fully launched into the major league.
The Foxhunter is one field that won't be found wanting, and in five weeks we'll be a little wiser, if not necessarily richer!
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