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The jumps season really steps up a gear this weekend and three of last season’s Cheltenham Festival winners will be in action at Ascot on Saturday.
L’Homme Presse (14:05) and Edwardstone (15:15), winners of the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase and Sporting Life Arkle respectively, make their seasonal reappearances. However, the headline act on the card is Constitution Hill (14:40), whose 22-length defeat of Jonbon in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle earned him a huge Timeform rating of 177p, the highest the company has ever awarded to a novice hurdler, passing the benchmark of 176 set by Golden Cygnet in 1978.
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In fact, only six hurdlers, of any experience, have achieved a higher rating than Constitution Hill, who is unsurprisingly a short-price favourite for the Champion Hurdle in March.
He will be a prohibitively short price on Saturday – he’s 21 lb clear of his nearest rival in Timeform ratings – but it’s great to have one of the most exciting horses in training back on the track.
It’s also worth noting, of course, that another of the most talented horses in training will be in action at Haydock on Saturday as Cheltenham Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard bids to defend his Betfair Chase crown.
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Will the Irish land another valuable handicap hurdle?
The Irish may have come up short in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sunday but it’s worth noting that they had a one-two in a handicap hurdle on the opening day of the meeting and also had a well-backed handicap winner on the Saturday in the shape of Unanswered.
The British will know all about the Irish representative in Saturday’s valuable Betfair Exchange Stayers’ Handicap Hurdle (14:25) at Haydock as the Charles Byrnes-trained Run For Oscar has already made two successful raids on the Flat in recent months.
Run For Oscar justified short-price favouritism in a Sunday Series Handicap here in August and he then registered a similarly emphatic success in the Cesarewitch, really catching the eye with how he tanked into contention.
Run For Oscar hasn’t run over hurdles since disappointing in a Grade 2 at Wetherby last October, but he had won his two previous outings in handicap hurdles and remains with a sense of unfinished business in this sphere.
He’s also unexposed as a staying hurdler and, given the sort of form he’s been in on the Flat, is a really interesting runner at Haydock.
Will there be Cheltenham Festival clues in the Punchestown opener?
There’s a fascinating clash in the two-and-a-half-mile beginners’ chase (12:30) that kicks off the card at Punchestown on Saturday and there could be some ripples in the market for the Turners Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
Kilcruit (25/1) and Journey With Me (33/1) may be big prices in that ante-post market, but they are both talented types with the potential to take high rank over fences.
Journey With Me was disappointing on his final start of the season at Punchestown, but he ran well in the Ballymore at the Cheltenham Festival where he fell at the last when likely to have finished just behind the runner-up. He had won his first two starts over hurdles in good style and has the physique to do better over fences.
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Kilcruit was one of the best horses in the bumper division in 2020/21, finishing runner-up to Sir Gerhard at Cheltenham before getting his revenge at Punchestown. He was largely disappointing over hurdles last season, with his one success coming in a maiden at Punchestown, but trainer Willie Mullins, in his stable tour with the Sporting Life, reported that he was very pleased with how Kilcruit had been training ahead of his return to action.
Mullins said: “I want to go chasing with Kilcruit and I’ve been very impressed with how he’s been on the gallops this season. I was saying to Rachel Robins who rides him everyday that he looks way better than I’ve ever seen before, training way better, and she concurred. She said he’s giving her as good a feel as he ever has. If all that’s right we might see the horse we saw as a bumper horse.”
Kilcruit could be something of a forgotten horse this season and should not be underestimated.
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