The JLT Novices Chase was only first run back in 2011 under the old Jewson title but already the race has earned Grade 1 status for the 2014 Festival. The two mile four furlong contest has been popular with trainers and racing fans since it was introduced to the Festival and once again we are set for a competitive renewal next week. It is always a difficult race for ante-post punters to sink their teeth into but with Cheltenham now just around the corner, we are starting to get a much stronger idea of those horses set to take their chance in the middle distance affair.
The betting for JLT Novices Chase is highly competitive as you would imagine with plenty of contenders from both sides of the Irish sea set to take their chance. One of those is certainly Felix Yonger (6/1) who is likely to be the main string for Willie Mullins in the race on day three of the Cheltenham Festival. The eight-year-old has been towards the top of the betting for the Arkle for long periods of the winter but it now appears as if connections are swaying towards sending him over the extra trip on offer here.
Felix Yonger was last seen finishing second behind Trifolium in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown towards the end of January. That day he was well beaten but the ground was very testing which could well have counted against him and connections are expecting him to run better at Prestbury Park. The vast majority of his runs have been down at two miles which would be a slight worry but as the latest market suggests, the feeling is that he could be seen to much better effect on a sounder surface.
Mullins will be hoping that Felix Yonger can do the business for him but he will be taking on a number of strong challengers from the home team next week. Chief among those is Wonderful Charm (6/1) who has been well backed for this contest for the large part of the winter after a number of impressive displays. The Paul Nicholls trained six-year-old is a lightly raced horse who has always been tipped for big things over fences by connections and they will be hoping he can realise that potential sooner, rather than later.
He won his first three chases this season with the minimum of fuss before being beaten half-a-length by Oscar Whisky (7/1) at Cheltenham back in December which was his last start. That day at Prestbury Park saw Wonderful Charm run a stormer giving away eight pounds to Oscar Whisky which at level weights puts him well clear of the Nicky Henderson horse with this race in mind. The pair will rematch at the Festival and based on that form from December, it is Wonderful Charm who is the one to beat although Oscar Whisky has also perhaps improved since then.
Oscar Whisky was a high class hurdler for Henderson and as already mentioned, he has won two good races since beating Wonderful Charm in December. The best of them came at Sandown as he won the Scilly Isles Novices Chase with a resilient display, having looked beaten a long way out with only his stamina saving him that day. That performance would have hardly instilled confidence with this race in mind but the JLT trip will suit Oscar Whisky down to the ground and his undoubted class has to put him in the frame if he is at his best.
The other horse who has form intertwined with Oscar Whisky this winter is Taquin Du Seuil (8/1) who is also on target for the JLT Novices Chase for Jonjo O'Neill and AP McCoy. Taquin Du Seuil is 1-1 against Oscar Whisky this winter while he was last seen winning a novice chase over two miles and five furlongs at Haydock back in the middle of January in facile fashion. O'Neill has reported the horse to be in great form ahead of this one while a little bit of cut in the ground at Prestbury Park would certainly do his chances no harm at all. It is almost impossible to split Taquin Du Seuil and Oscar Whisky on their form this season and it would be no surprise if either, or both of them, ran massive races at the Festival.
One horse who could still be anything going into this race is Vukovar (8/1) who is on target to run in the JLT for trainer Harry Fry. The former French horse arrived in the UK last summer with a big reputation and connections decided to send him chasing straight away. He has a win over subsequent Greatwood Hurdle winner, Dell' Arca, on his CV from France and there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a horse with a big future. When we visited the Harry Fry stable in October, the five-year-old really caught our eye and his trainer's confidence about his ability was quite obvious.
Vukovar was beaten by Mr Mole on his chasing debut which was a disappointment over two miles but he banished memories of that run in no uncertain terms on his second start. The five-year-old simply bolted up to win the Betfred Novices Chase at Newbury with the horse loving the extra three furlongs on offer at the Berkshire track that day over Christmas. He jumped and travelled in the first time tongue tie that day to win a race won by the likes of Kauto Star and Cue Card in the past by 21 lengths. The form has been franked by Festive Affair who finished third that day, with the Jonjo O'Neill horse subsequently winning the Betfred Goals Galore Novice Chase over course and distance back at Newbury in the middle of January.
Punters looking for a little bit more value further down the JLT market may want to take a closer look at Sizing Gold (12/1) who is another interesting contender for Ireland. The Henry De Bromhead trained seven-year-old was last seen finishing second in the Grade 2 Woodlands Park 100 Club Novice Chase over three miles at Naas. In testing ground it appeared as if Sizing Gold lacked the stamina that day and a drop back to the JLT trip and better ground could well see him back to his best form, as he showed when winning an average Beginners Chase at Navan over that distance back in December.
Willie Mullins may be putting most of his eggs in the Felix Yonger basket but it would be foolish to write off the the chances of Djakadam (12/1) who is also set to take his chance for the Irish Champion Trainer. The five-year-old was last seen winning the Killeny Novice Chase over two miles and five furlongs at Leopardstown back in January ahead of Bright New Dawn (16/1)and he is an improving horse who could offer some each-way value. Djakadam also looked in good shape at Leopardstown at the weekend as Mullins gave him a racecourse gallop and he might just offer a a nice alternative to his short priced stable-mate, Felix Yonger.
This will only be the fourth running of the JLT Novice Chase and the first under its new Grade 1 banner which ensures that past trends are hard to come by. The three previous winners have been won by horses aged five, six and seven although it should be noted that all three past winners have been won by Irish trained horses.
That trend could well come to an end this season though with the British team looking very strong at this stage. Wonderful Charm is a progressive horse for Paul Nicholls and he is quite rightly to be respected greatly here. Oscar Whisky is a class act on his day but his narrow win over Wonderful Charm in receipt of eight pounds at Cheltenham puts him some distance behind the Paul Nicholls horse at level weights.
Any Willie Mullins horse is to be feared but Felix Yonger looks a little short in the betting given what he has achieved, with stable-mate Djakadam making more appeal at the prices. Taking all of that into account means that it is Vukovar who could have the class to claim a first Cheltenahm Festival win for Harry Fry. He is inexperienced which would be a slight worry but his performance at Newbury was visually impressive, it has been franked since and with masses of improvement still to come from the horse, Vukovar is taken to have too much for this strong looking field.