Ballyalton can continue love affair with Cheltenham


London – Trainer Ian Williams is already in good spirits after saddling London Prize and Saunter to big-race victories last weekend.

And now the wise Worcestershire handler has been presented with a neat opportunity in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham in which to maintain the feel-good factor at his Alvechurch stables.

This race is always a fearfully difficult handicap from a punting perspective, but Ballyalton ticks a lot of boxes and offers logical value in a wide-open renewal.

His trainer’s hot run of form is obviously reassuring, but the 10-year-old also enjoys it at Cheltenham, having won twice in six visits to the track.

He also got to within 4.50 lengths of Faugheen in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the 2014 Festival – after which he spent 20 months on the sidelines.

But it was his performance at Cheltenham in March 2016 that perhaps deserves the greatest scrutiny with this race in mind.

The way he kept going to win a 4000m Listed handicap chase for novices was lovely to see and served clear notice that he was an animal going places in a hurry, even in spite of his advancing years.

Williams is a little concerned Ballyalton, who has admittedly had a stop-start career, might lack the experience of some of the more chiselled campaigners in the field.

That is true from one perspective as he has only raced six times over fences. But to look at things from another angle, it means he is teasingly unexposed compared to many of the obvious candidates in the field.

And as we have seen countless times over the years in this race, a touch of rawness is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ballyalton also runs from just three points higher than when he won at the Cheltenham Festival which probably still keeps him in the “well-handicapped horse” category.

There are no problems with the ground, nor with the appointment of Tom O’Brien, while a recent spin over hurdles at Aintree will have done him the power of good on what was his first start for 18 months.

Apple’s Shakira can lighten Nicky Henderson’s mood by winning the JCB Triumph Trial. The Seven Barrows handler can be forgiven for being preoccupied by the news of Altior missing the Tingle Creek, but this juvenile hurdler can get the show back on the road.

Apple’s Shakira is a full-sister to Apple’s Jade and won the same race on her hurdling debut in France before she was purchased by the JP McManus operation. Even at this early stage, she looks interesting.

Improving stayer Doing Fine is respected in the Handicap Chase. Neil Mulholland’s nine-year-old has plenty of Cheltenham nous and caught the eye at this track last month when an encouraging third behind Cogry.

Connetable should not be discounted in the Listed handicap hurdle over 5200m.

Paul Nicholls’ inmate was never a factor in a Pertemps qualifier at this track in October, yet the five-year-old made enough quiet gains to suggest he could be coming back to hand any time soon.

Should that be the case, Connetable is really well handicapped. – Press Association.

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