Talking Horses: Off Your Rocco to confirm Irish Cheltenham dominance

Six of the seven runners in the televised Grade Two Ballymore Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham on Friday were winners last time out and it promises to be one of the most informative novice events over timber in the first half of the winter campaign.

Paul Nicholls’s Gelino Bello, who recorded a comfortable success on his hurdling debut at Aintree last month, heads the market but the memory of Ireland’s dominance at the Festival in March is still fresh and Off Your Rocco (3.30) and Blazing Khal both promise to be stern opponents.

At the likely odds, Gordon Elliott’s makes most appeal. A defeat at Galway in July during the trainer’s six-month ban is the only blip on his record to date, and he improved for the step up to Friday’s trip at Limerick last time out.

Cheltenham 1.45 Magic Saint was successful in this race last season off the same mark of 152 and Paul Nicholls has given him a very similar prep as well, with a run at around two-and-a-half miles to put him straight. On the prevailing ground, however, two miles is very much his trip, and the inconsistency which made him a dubious betting proposition a couple of seasons ago seems to be a thing of the past following wind ops over the last two summers.

Cheltenham 2.20 A match for a £13,000 first prize is not quite the spectacle that armchair punters might hope to see, and one bookmaker suggested on Thursday that it is “a waste of terrestrial TV coverage” when two handicap hurdles on the card are not included on the ITV4 schedule. It could be an intriguing and informative contest with an eye to the future, however, as My Drogo, one of last season’s best novices over hurdles, launches his chasing career against Gin On Lime, a Grade Three winner over fences last time out. Neither has jumped an obstacle at Cheltenham before and while My Drogo has the physique to be a top-class chaser, Rachael Blackmore is likely to make this a real test for the favourite and is a fair bet at around 5-2 to make her partner’s experience count.

Cheltenham 2.55 Balko Des Flos unseated Blackmore at the Cheese Wedges on his debut over the cross-country course at the Festival in March but followed up with an impressive run into second place in the Grand National at Aintree. He is set to carry top weight here as a result but this former Ryanair Chase winner has the class to give a stone or more to Friday’s field if he can adapt to the cross-country course’s unusual test.