2021 Cheltenham Tips – Monkfish Spearheads Strong Irish Challenge in Festival Novice Chase

A full field of runners line up at the start of the Cheltenham Festival

A full field of runners line up at the start of the Cheltenham Festival

Festival Novice Chase Tips

Daniel Overall is back with his Festival previews and focusing on the race formerly known as the RSA Chase. One of the feature events on Cheltenham Festival Day 2 , the race has been contested by some of the game’s true superstars down the years. 

Festival Novice Chase Overview

The race formerly known as the RSA has a reputation for producing future Gold Cup winners; Denman, Bobs Worth & Lord Windermere all won this before winning the Festival showpiece the following year, while Al Boum Photo was a late faller in the Festival Novices’ Chase before his subsequent Cheltenham heroics. 

Five of the last eleven winners contested the previous year’s Albert Bartlett; a race which looks to hold the key to this year’s renewal as well.

Another Novice Chase – Another Strong Favourite

While not as short in the market as Shishkin and Envoi Allen are for the Arkle and the Marsh respectively, Monkfish is of comparable strength in terms of form.

Despite a dreadful blunder at the 8th flight and being headed by two rivals that flanked him on the run to a line, Monkfish rallied gamely to lead again in the final 50 yards. Described as a “huge, big horse” and a “real chaser” by Willie Mullins following his festival win, it was no surprise to see him sent chasing after just one season over hurdles. Interestingly, only two of the last twenty-three Festival Novices’ Chase winners spent more than one season over hurdles; they were Might Bite and Topofthegame who had just four and six starts over hurdles respectively prior to their victories in this race.

Monkfish made a seamless transition to the larger obstacles, winning his chase debut at Fairyhouse in a canter over 2m4f. He was made to work much harder when landing the Grade 1 Neville Hotels Novice Chase over the festive period in a thoroughly likeable performance. Don Poli won the very same race before winning the Festival Novices’ Chase; he went directly to Cheltenham but Monkfish looks likely to head to the Flogas which has been a key trial for this race in the past, with Florida Pearl (1998) and Cooldine (2009) taking the Grade 1 at Leopardstown before claiming Cheltenham glory.

An efficient jumper, he’ll be a very worthy favourite should he perform as expected at the Dublin Racing Festival. 

A Capable Deputy

Also owned by the Ricci’s, Royale Pagaille’s emergence as a leading novice chaser has been somewhat of a surprise. His emphatic win in the Peter Marsh off 156 saw his rise to the head of the ante-post markets for the National Hunt Chase, the Gold Cup and the Festival Novices’ Chase.

A 3/1 chance with those currently NRNB, this race would seem the least likely target given Monkfish’s all but certain participation, but he could serve as an able deputy for the owners should something untoward happen to last year’s Albert Bartlett winner. 

Other Irish Challengers

Latest Exhibition has finished second to Monkfish on both occasions that the pair have clashed and it says plenty about the strength of the favourite that Latest Exhibition is so close to the top of the market for the Festival Novices’ Chase. Narrowly denied in the Albert Bartlett, his defeat was more definitive in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase but it was still a career best over fences, with the pair pulling 58-lengths clear of Conflated in third.

Paul Nolan was deflated following the defeat, noting that “it would be a fair battle to try and beat Monkfish again”. Entered in the Marsh, the Festival Novices’ Chase and the National Hunt Chase, his options are open but this does seem to be the most likely target. If he were to line up here, a big run would not be surprising but he has something to find to reverse the form with Monkfish. After coming up short in two sustained duals with the favourite, perhaps connections would be best served by giving him a patient ride, in hope of coming with a late surge. 

With just two starts over hurdles to his name before the season began, Eklat De Rire began this term as an unknown quantity. He beat School Boy Hours, a possible Kim Muir contender, a shade cosily on his chase debut; an impressive performance considering he was conceding race fitness and experience to that rival who had previously finished a second to Latest Exhibition, while we know that De Bromhead’s runners tend to improve significantly for their first run of the season. He backed up that performance at Naas, winning a Grade 3 ahead of the Elliott duo, Escaria Ten (25/1) and Pencilfulloflead (25/1) with a bold jumping display from the front.

With just two starts over fences, he does lack experience and it’s worth noting that twenty of the last twenty-two winners of this race had at least three prior chase starts to their name; but Henry De Bromhead has proven capable of readying an inexperienced horse for the big day; last year’s unfortunate runner-up, Minella Indo, only had two starts over fences before running here. Very lightly raced, he’s open to any amount of improvement while we don’t yet know where his ceiling is.

Pencilfulloflead was giving 8lbs to the field that day and while he was only eight lengths behind the winner, he looked beaten a long way out and his jumping left a lot to be desired. With that in mind, you’d have to be coy about his chances of festival glory.

Having bolted up on his second start over fences, Escaria Ten shaped well in a deeper race and he looks to have a bright future over fences. Perhaps the National Hunt Chase would be a more realistic target, while he might also be one to consider for a handicap. Either way, he remains one to look out for. 

 Best of the British

All 21 winners of the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase to line up here have lost, although Might Bite would have completed the double had he not fallen at the last in the former.

This year’s winner looks unlikely to turn up, as Dan Skelton is targeting the Marsh for his electric jumper, Shan Blue. While he has now won twice over 3-miles, he doesn’t lack speed and this race might stretch his stamina. His jumping made all the difference at Kempton; his pinpoint accuracy and fluency was too much for his nearest pursuer, The Big Breakaway .

A 10/1 chance for this race following a visually impressive debut over fences, he was bitterly disappointing when next seen out when beaten by Bold Plan, where his jumping lacked fluency. His jumping flaws were again exposed by Shan Blue in the Kauto Star; the final three fences told the story of an accomplished jumper and one with plenty of learning to do.

The Big Breakaway managed to finish fourth in the Ballymore despite never travelling with any fluency so he’s clearly a horse with a significant amount of ability. However, he still looks like a horse that hasn’t fully matured, while it’s worth noting that only three six-year-olds have won the Festival Novices’ Chase since 1978.

Next Destination (14/1) made it two out of two over fences with a tenacious display in the Grade 2 Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick. A tactical affair, he was the first off the bridle but his stamina won him the day in what was a useful performance in giving 5lbs to two fair yardsticks. A Grade 1-winning novice hurdler for Willie Mullins and third in Samcro’s Ballymore, he’s been hard to keep sound but Paul Nicholls has done well with him thus far.

While he’d hold a leading chance in the National Hunt Chase, his fragility means it’s likely that he’ll here instead and he’s certainly entitled to take his chance. No nine-year-old has won this race since 1992 but he’s had far fewer starts than most his age; he’s a live each-way contender. 

Festival Novice Chase Big-Race Verdict

Tied with Nicky Henderson and Fulke Walwyn for wins in this race (four), Willie Mullins has an excellent chance of making it five with Monkfish. It’s hard to knock what he’s achieved so far, while a repeat of last season’s Albert Bartlett result might be on the cards, with Latest Exhibition being his nearest pursuer.

Eklat De Rire is a fascinating contender and he’s likely to give a bold sight from the front. A superb jumper, he’ll put his rivals under pressure and he’s taken to fill the frame.