“We’re taking on two monsters in a month’s time,” Dan Skelton said on Monday as he looked forward to the Arkle Chase at Cheltenham on 16 March, and while Allmankind, his winner of the Kingmaker Novice Chase, did not do quite enough to qualify as a third, it is also fair to say that Skelton will not be sending him to the Festival with merely the place money in mind.
Shishkin, last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner, and Willie Mullins’s Energumene are the looming obstacles for Allmankind, an ex-Flat racer who remains at around 8-1 for the Arkle after what was ultimately a comfortable success. It also included the odd untidy jump, however, most obviously at the second-last, where Harry Skelton, Allmankind’s jockey, did well to keep the partnership intact.
After the assured flamboyance that marked his horse’s win in the Grade One Henry VIII Novice Chase in December, it felt just a little underwhelming, but Allmankind was blowing quite hard after his first start for 72 days while his trainer also mentioned the sticky ground as a factor to bear in mind.
“I think he got stuck in the ground a little,” Skelton said, “and you can’t be asking for too many big jumps on it. I think that might be why he didn’t get into the rhythm that he sometimes does.
“He showed a great attitude from the back of the last to stick his head down and get to the line. Another thing I’ve learned today is that he can get himself into some unusual positions at a jump and he knows how to get himself out of them and survive them, which I think is vital.”
As for slaying the monsters in the Arkle, Skelton remains quietly confident of a big run from Allmankind, a gritty ex-Flat racer who will fight all the way up the hill. “The ability to dig deep is going to suit him at Cheltenham,” the trainer said, “as you’re going to have to stay. It’s a long run from three out to two out in the Arkle and horses are going to concertina at that point, but we’re tough, we can put our head down and give it a fair fight.”
Skelton saddled three of the first four winners here on Monday and remains in second place in the trainers’ title race with nearly £1m in the bank, a long way behind Paul Nicholls but still nearly £150,000 ahead of Shishkin’s trainer, Nicky Henderson.
His Festival team also includes Nube Negra, who beat Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton’s Christmas meeting, Shan Blue, who took the Grade One Kauto Star Novice Chase a day earlier, and Roksana, first and fourth in the last two runnings of the Mares’ Hurdle. Skelton’s stable will need to be a serious player next month if the massed ranks of Ireland’s contenders for Cheltenham’s Grade Ones are to be frustrated in any meaningful way.
One of Ireland’s bigger names fell by the wayside on Monday when Delta Work, a 25-1 shot for the Gold Cup, was ruled out of the Festival and probably the rest of the season with a minor fracture sustained in the Irish Gold Cup earlier this month.
Looking further ahead, meanwhile, Chester has announced plans to test up to 5,000 racegoers every day for Covid-19 during its May Festival meeting if spectators are allowed back to major sporting events by the spring. The track lost its showpiece meeting in 2020 when racing was suspended from mid-March to early June.
Cheltenham Festival stat of the day, by Paul Ferguson
Five of the past eight Arkle winners had won at either Grade 1 or Grade 2 level over both hurdles and fences. In what looks to be a mouthwatering clash between Shishkin and Energumene, the Irish challenger falls down on this statistic, having had just one start over hurdles, last March. This will also be his first appearance at the Festival; a dozen of the past 17 Arkle winners had run over hurdles at the meeting the previous year.
The Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide 2021, written by Paul Ferguson, will be published on 26 February, priced £15.95. Talking Horses readers can obtain a £4 discount by using the promotion code ‘GDN21’ when placing an order.
Tuesday’s best bets, by Chris Cook
In the expectation that Catterick will be defrosted in time, Some Can Sing (12.45) is worth a look at 6-1 for the opening handicap hurdle. He was fancied for his first start for Stuart Edmunds last month but the sharp nature of Fakenham played against him and he couldn’t quite reel in the winner.
He came from an Irish yard that has never had a winner over hurdles and I’m sure he’s on a beatable rating. This stiffer track will help and he should be better for that first run for almost three months but it’s a hotter race and a few interesting ones are attracting support.
Even money is generally a bit short for my taste but it’s a fair price about Jack Valentine (1.15), seeking to build on a successful chasing debut. Later, 7-2 is fine about Schiehallion Munro (2.15), who is well worth trying over three miles.
Pick of the Kempton card could be Isla Vista (2.25), who had rather a Lingfield experience on her handicap debut 10 days ago. She has less than a length to make on the favourite here but is twice the price at 13-2.