Finian’s Oscar was dealt a blow in his preparation for the 2018 Cheltenham Festival when failing to impress at Prestbury Park in January. The Colin Tizzard-trained six-year-old gelding went off as favourite in the grade two Cleeve Hurdle but was forced to pull-up in a race won by the Nick Williams rep Agrapart.
Well backed on the afternoon, Finian’s Oscar, under the ride of Bryan Cooper, was saved to run another day when withdrawn near the business end of the 2m 7f contest. Looking to have every chance two out, he was asked for more by his pilot, but it was obvious something wasn’t right, weakening when Cooper threw in the towel.
That disappointment moved Finian’s Oscar’s record to six wins from 10 starts, but he hasn’t been seen getting his head in front since claiming a novices chase at Cheltenham in November, beating nearest finisher Movewiththetimes by 2 ¼ lengths in a four-horse race over two miles four furlongs.
The markets have reacted, with Tizzard’s hope eased to 17.0 for the JLT Novices Chase on Thursday of the festival. Even less likely is victory earlier in the week in the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase, where odds-makers have him written off as a 21.0 no-hoper. An attractive quote but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be entered in that race.
Focusing on the JLT Novices Chase, and the early betting odds on Cheltenham Festival 2018 make for interesting reading. Finian’s Oscar won’t feature if the prices are correct but many shrewd eyes are looking towards Willoughby Court as their champion and he’s been chalked up as favourite in the ante-post folder, shortest of the list at 6.0 when enquiring.
The Ben Pauling-sharpened seven-year-old brown went into 2018 with stats of seven wins and three placed efforts from 11 starts, including a third behind Yanworth in the Dipper Novices Chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Well beaten by a fantastic horse that day, Yanworth edging Sizing Tennessee by a neck in a pulsating finish, Willoughby Court was a full eight lengths behind the winners, despite going off as joint-favourite. Excuses can be made for the bare result, with Nice de Boinville on board when mistakes were made four from home. That seemed to knock the stuffing from the duo and they crossed the line looking flat, with no extra to give.
Connections will be eager to get Willoughby Court home, get him right, build the confidence back up and prove there’s still plenty more big race wins in this horse. The race jolly was a winner at the festival last year, taking the Neptune Investment Novices Hurdle from Neon Wolf, going off at double-figure odds. He followed that with two more victories, including a score at Newbury late last year, smashing Yanworth by three lengths.
If Pauling can get his star back to that kind of form, he’ll be confident of banking the prize money. Willoughby Court will take some beating this year.