Monkfish’s odds for Cheltenham Festival Novices’ Chase slashed after emphatic win at Leopardstown

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Monkfish’s careerwas somewhat slow out of the blocks, especially for a horse from Willie Mullins’ top-class yard. He won just one of his first four races despite often being lined up for starter’s orders as the market favourite. However, after an emphatic 11-length victory at Fairyhouse in December 2019, his career has taken off and jockey Paul Townend and Mullins have never looked back.

That impressive Maiden Hurdle victory at Fairyhouse was topped by a 20-length triumph in a Novice Hurdle at Thurles in January of last year, which prepped Monkfish perfectly for the Cheltenham Festival. The seven-year-old was the 5/1 joint-second favourite for the Spa Novices’ Hurdle on the final day of the meeting. However, he went on to win the race, pipping Latest Exhibition over the line by a neck. That was the start of a fierce rivalry, but the Paul Nolan-trained horse is often left in awe of Monkfish.

Since the narrow victory at last year’s Festival, Monkfish has gotten back to going about his business with ease. A victory in the Racecourse Services Beginners Chase marked another comfortable win at Fairyhouse, whilst Latest Exhibition then fell afoul of dual victories for the Mullins-trained house at Leopardstown.

The first of which was in the Grade 1 Novice Chase at the end of December. Latest Exhibition was pushing Monkfish along as the duo approached the last fence. However, the latter was ridden clear as the finish line approached, and some three lengths separated the foes as they romped home.

It was arguably Monkfish’s most recent victory at the course in the suburbs of Dublin that will have trainer Nolan scratching his head and wondering if Latest Exhibition will ever get the better of Monkfish. The seven-year-old raced 11-lengths clear of the eight-year-old in the Grade 1 Novice Chase, in what was perhaps his most dominant showing to date.

Townend and Monkfish set the pace for much of the race, and under little pressure, the seven-year-old was able to display his fine jumping ability, which is arguably the best of any novice. There was a hint of threat from Latest Exhibition around two fences out. However, a slight change in gear from the jockey resulted in Monkfish storming clear and there was nothing jockey Bryan Cooper could do about it as he once again watched on ruing the fact that the Mullins-trained horse beat him and Latest Exhibition over the line again.

“Today I was more impressed than any day. It looks like he might be getting better with each run, it was the ease with which he did it,” Mullins said after the victory earlier this month. “Everything is just so effortless. He just goes down, jumps, gallops. He seems to always be in the right position, he has huge scope – no matter where he is he gets his shoulders off the ground and bends his back.”

Now, as the Festival approaches once again, Monkfish’s latest victories have resulted in his chances of winning the Festival Novices’ Chase in the Cheltenham day 2 odds being slashed. In December, the seven-year-old was fancied at around 9/4. However, he is now the 5/6 odds-on favourite, and not even the unbeaten Envoi Allen, who is the second favourite at 8/1,can get close to him in the market.

Fellow Rich Ricci-owned horse Royale Pagaille, who has found a bit of form of late, is also 8/1, but given that Ricci may not want him to clash with Monkfish, he could be diverted to the Gold Cup, while Eklat De Rire and Latest Exhibition are further out at 14/1.

The Race to Cheltenham is well and truly on, but one of the biggest questions ahead of this year’s festival has to be: can anybody stop the mighty Monkfish?