Mick Fitzgerald: The pressure’s on Thistlecrack & the other big guns to deliver again on Cheltenham Trials day

Everyone expects a repeat performance from Colin Tizzard's stable star while this 12/1 shot can take care of business at Doncaster.

There’s a couple of big reputations on the line at Cheltenham Trials Day on Saturday.

Both Thistlecrack and Unowhatimeanharry carry long unbeaten records into the Grade 2 Cotswold Chase and Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle. They’re the ante-post favourites for the Gold Cup and Stayers’ Hurdle, so expectations are high.

For Thistlecrack, it’s another chance to get some more jumping match-practice in – especially at the Cheltenham ditches.

He’s a King George VI Chase winner now so everyone will be judge him on that performance every time he runs. It may seem strange to say this, but in a way the pressure have never been greater.

While the public have taken him to their hearts, there were a few industry professionals who doubted he could win a King George in the manner he did.

He proved them wrong and if his jumping holds up – he’ll do the same on Saturday. If he jumps really well, even the biggest doubters will be silenced.

Smad Place and Many Clouds are usually aggressively ridden and will serve up a different test to Thistlecrack. I can see these three dominating the race and if the two more experienced runners expose Thislecrack’s jumping  – he could be beatable.

But if jumps like he did in the King George, then I’d expect him to win.

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In the Cleeve Hurdle (4pm), Harry Fry’s Unowhatimeanharry will cement his place at the top of the Stayers’ Hurdle market – if he wins. I was a little sceptical about him even after his Newbury victory, but he backed it up at Ascot and proved he stays really well.

We didn’t get to see too much of the Ascot race with the fog but Ballyoptic tipped up at the final obstacle when looking to make a race of it. At the prices on Saturday, I’ll be with Ballyoptic again.

I have to confess though that Jezki is my fancy for the Stayers’ Hurdle. It looked to me like he loved going that stride slower at Navan last weekend.

Connections could consider another Champion Hurdle tilt with him (he won it in 2014 ) as we lost Annie Power to injury during the week and Faugheen has to prove he’s as good as he was in Sunday’s Irish Champion Hurdle.


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The re-arranged Grade 1 Clarence House Chase (1.45pm) over Cheltenham’s New Course should suit Un De Sceaux and the more rain that falls, the better for his chances. He’s only ever won once when there hasn’t been ‘soft’ in the ground description and that was at Punchestown when he outclassed the field.

However, the track mightn’t play to Special Tiara’s strengths as it places much more emphasis on stamina rather than speed.

The Cross Country Chase (2.50pm) looks there for the taking for Cantlow. He has been reborn over these fences and his experience could edge it.

Regal Encore and Aso weren’t winning out of turn last time and with a 6lb or 7lb rise can both be involved in the shake up of a typically competitive 2m 4f handicap chase at 1.10pm. The favourite Saphir De Rheu has to be respected but if there’s heavy rain and the going gets soft then I’d give Aso the nod.

Run a big race

I fancy the admirably consistent Wholestone for the Grade 2 Novices Hurdle at 3.25pm. He can be rewarded with a win in this to cap off what could be a very good day for the trainer Nigel Twison Davies.

I was very impressed with Charlie Parcs last time and Barry Geraghty gets the chance to see how good he is as Noel Fehily rode him at Kempton. Richard Jonson rides Defi Du Seuil whose jumping went to pieces in the latter stages of his Chepstow win and they’ll want him to have company for as long as possible in the Triumph Hurdle Trial (12pm). The big positive for him is that there are only two hurdles to jump in the last 7f on Saturday.

Over at Doncaster, Sam Twiston Davies has opted to ride Caid Du Berlais in the Sky Bet Handicap Chase (3.40pm) but I like his stablemate VICENTE to run a big race. He was sixth to Native River in the Welsh National and can step up to the places at least here.