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Balnaslow ticks plenty of boxes ahead of potential RSA challenge

With 54 contenders currently priced up by Coral for the RSA Steeple Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, there’s nothing for it but to consult the trends ahead of this old Prestbury Park favourite.

A race that’s seen Looks Like Trouble, Denman and Bobs Worth triumph in recent renewals on the way to Gold Cup-winning legend status has been dominated by the Irish in recent years, with four of the last five victors trained over the water.

Raiders Carlingford Lough, Morning Assembly and Don Cossack all feature prominently in the betting at 8/1 joint-favourite and 10/1 apiece respectively for John Kiely, Pat Fahy and Gordon Elliot, although the latter’s German roots are a negative in a race won by 13 Irish-bred runners since 1998.

Besides, last year’s top trainer at the festival Willie Mullins has seven runners entered and there’s a fantastic trend in the Closutton man’s favour ahead of 2014 Cheltenham Wednesday.

Despite a patchy record over Prestbury Park’s large obstacles, compared to his phenomenal strike rate in the Champion Bumper and hurdles events, Mullins has won this race three times over the past 16 years.

Having triumphed for the first time with Florida Pearl in 1998, Mullins’ next RSA win with Rule Supreme came five runs later in 2004, while Cooldine’s triumph came five years after that.

It’s been another five years since Ruby Walsh booted home Mullins’ last RSA winner and the County Carlow handler looks set to go into this March’s event mob-handed, with seven runners entered including 8/1 joint-favourite Ballycasey and two-time Festival victor Champagne Fever, who’s likely to run in the Arkle instead.

Ballycasey ticks the three big boxes generally required to win this race, as a seven-year-old both Irish trained and bred, and the grey romped home by eight lengths on his first start over fences back in November at Navan.

However, nothing from that beginners’ chase has gone onto great things since and Noel Meade’s Ned Buntline – who disappointed when finishing third having gone off as 2/1 second favourite – fluffed his lines again when an evens jolly at Naas earlier this month.

Ballycasey – who’s yet to compete in a Graded chase – looks like he’ll go into this race somewhat undercooked, having not been out since Navan, and as only one RSA winner in the last 15 renewals has gone to Cheltenham with fewer than three runs under their belt for the season, he looks too short at present.

At cracking 33/1 odds, Balnaslow could be the one to side with from the Mullins yard, as this seven-year-old fulfils the minimum requirement of a third-place finish in a Grade 2 chase and has career form in the book on good, good to soft and soft ground, which suggests he’ll handle whatever conditions Cheltenham throws up this spring.

The Gigginstown gelding ran a solid race when fourth under Bryan Cooper in the Thyestes Chase recently and is one to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks when the festival picture becomes more pronounced.