16.40 Cheltenham: Berlais looks smoking hot in Martin Pipe
Trainer David Pipe looks to have leading claims of landing the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle named in honour of his father with Vieux Lion Rouge, but Caid Du Berlais has form in the book which suggests he can spoil the party.
Paul Nicholls’ gelding has strong Festival form to his name, having run a blinder to finish runner-up to Flaxen Flare in last year’s Fred Winter off a mark of 137 on just his third start in this country.
He followed that up with a fine second of five to Jezki in a Grade 2 contest at Down Royal, where he was beaten 3 1/4 lengths by this year’s Champion Hurdle victor from whom he was getting 11lb.
The five-year-old then had his attention switched to fences at the start of this season and looked to have a bright future in that sphere when making all to slam Farmer Matt by 13 lengths on his chasing debut at Exeter.
However, he then disappointed badly last time out in a Grade 2 novice chase at Doncaster where he finished last of five to Valdez and it’s no surprise to see connections switch him back to the smaller obstacles.
He gets into this off a mark of 143 and that looks workable judged on his runs behind Flaxen Flare and Jezki.
His handler has also made no secret that he strongly fancies his chances and he will get maximum assistance in the saddle from the highly talented Harry Derham, who takes a useful 3lb off his back.
There are dangers aplenty, none more so that Vieux Lion Rouge and Don Poli.
The former has been chosen out of 10 entries to represent David Pipe, who is desperate to win the race named in honour of his record-breaking father.
So far the best the stable have managed is third with Big Eared Fran back in 2009.
However, in Vieux Lion Rouge they have an ultra-progressive five-year-old who has been beaten justonce in seven starts under rules and could be anything.
His only defeat came at last year’s Festival in the Champion Bumper won by Briar Hill and he has won all of his three races over hurdles this season in the manner of a horse going places.
The handicapper appears to have taken few chances by giving him an opening mark of 139, but with Tom Bellamy in the saddle taking 6lb off his back, he looks sure to run a huge race.
Willie Mullins’ Don Poli is another horse on an upward curve.
He has won his last two races and was particularly impressive when scoring last time out in a Grade 3 contest at Clonmel when leading two out before coming clear to comfortably beat Goonyella by 3 1/4 lengths.
His opening mark of 143 demands more, but is still lightly raced and totally unexposed after just four starts. Don Poli also represents powerful connections whose representatives always command the utmost respect.