Cheltenham Festival hopefuls flex their muscles with varying degrees of success

THE futures markets for the big races at next year’s Cheltenham Festival are, as usual, in a state of flux as the big beasts of the sport put in runs over the holiday period that range from the very good to those in the ‘should have stayed at home’ bracket.

Two that were on the Gold Cup hopefuls list, Allaho and Envoi Allen, took a spin around the Punchestown course in Ireland for the John Durkan Memorial Chase, but neither came out of the two-and-a-half-mile race with their reputations enhanced, despite the Willie Mullins-trained Allaho finishing first.

The only horse to receive a glowing report from the track was another Mullins entry, Asterion Forlonge, and he unshipped his jockey before the race was over.

It now appears more likely that Allaho will look to repeat his Ryanair Chase success from last March, with Henry de Bromhead’s Envoi Allen also a possible for the race on day three of the Festival; Allaho is in to 2/1 (+200) favorite with Envoi a 10/1 (+1000) third favorite if connections think he should stay at two-and-a-half miles, which is far from guaranteed.

Another interesting potential runner is the six-year-old Protektorat, whose highly impressive 25-length win in the Unibet Many Clouds Chase at Aintree saw him cut into 8-1 (+800), with a possible entry in the Gold Cup also weighing on the minds of connections.

A more interesting race for the seven-year-old, possibly to test his Gold Cup credentials, would be the King George VI on December 26, with many watchers believing he would be well suited to that test over three miles. He was halved in price – 10/1 (+1000) from 20/1 (+2000) – for the Kempton race after his efforts at Punchestown, with the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux still the favorite, 11/4 (+275), for the highlight of the holiday season’s racing in England. Fellow Nicholls horse Frodon, who won the race last year is available with the horse racing current offer at 11/2 (+550).

A display of dominance left favorite Native River trailing in Protektorat’s wake, as the other runners fell by the wayside in testing conditions – five of the eight runners either fell or were pulled up. When quizzed about the six-year-old’s Gold Cup potential, he was cut into 20/1 (+2000) after his Liverpool efforts, jockey Bridget Andrews said: “There’s a possibility he’ll be on that way.”

Envoi Allen, however, looks a long way from the Gold Cup after a sixth-placed finish at Punchestown, especially for a horse seen as potential superstar when winning his first 11 starts under rules, including Grade Ones. It’s the latest in a series a setbacks for a horse that was as short as 8/1 (+800) for the Gold Cup just a few days ago; bookies now have the seven-year-old at 16/1 if a return to three miles-plus is seen as the way ahead.

Of course, plans change, and the race at Punchestown was run in testing conditions with a low sun ensuring that several fences had to be omitted for safety reasons.

In a race that demanded to be taken by the scruff of the neck, no-one in the field dominated. Allaho was at the head of the pack for much of two-miles-four-furlongs, but didn’t really jump with any fluency, and fellow Mullins horse, Asterion Forlonge, appeared about to take control of affairs until making a mistake three from home.

Trainer Willie Mullins remained upbeat about the winner, insisting: “He (Allaho) was very brave and it’s fantastic to win a Grade 1 at this part of the season. I’m just hoping it doesn’t take too much out of him for the rest of the season – he had a very, very hard race.”

Most watchers believed Asterion Forlonge was a likely winner before unshipping jockey Brian Cooper. The gambling firms have installed Aterion at 25/1 (+2500) for the Gold Cup if Mullins goes down that route, and 20/1 (+2000) for the Ryanair if he stays over two-and-a-half miles.