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Cheltenham Festival: Marine Nationale connections pushing on for Arkle success

Trainer Barry Connell has said he is still at a loss to explain Marine Nationale's disappointing display at the Dublin Racing Festival, but he and his team are still planning to run him in the Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

Last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner at the Cheltenham Festival was the 4/7 favourite for the Grade 1 Goffs Irish Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown, but he failed to live up to the hype on Saturday afternoon.

Marine Nationale's odds for the Arkle crown drifted as a result, but he is still the leading contender for the contest as he tries to make it two wins in two at the Cheltenham Festival.

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Il Etait Temps hampers Connell's plans

After last year's stunning victory in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, Connell confirmed in the summer that Marine Nationale would be campaigned over fences during the 2024 jumps season.

The seven-year-old was unbeaten over hurdles, winning all five outings since making his debut at Punchestown in May 2022.

After beating Facile Vega in the Supreme Novice Hurdle, Marine Nationale was given a 288-day break as Connell and his team prepared him for a campaign over the larger obstacles.

Connell originally planned for him to make his reappearance in a beginners chase race in November, but he did not run until December 27th at Leopardstown.

Thankfully, Connell's runner took to fences with ease on that occasion as he beat Firm Footings by eight-and-a-half lengths, but he was not able to follow that up at the Dublin Racing Festival.

On a day of world-class racing at Leopardstown, Marine Nationale was considered one of the bankers of the day, but he finished fifth of six, with Il Etait Temps a worthy winner after a gutsy display.

While Willie Mullins and his team were left celebrating, Connell is hoping to find out why his runner failed to sparkle for the first time in his career.

"He seems fine this morning, but we'll have to run a lot of further tests on him this week, so we won't know until later in the week what the full clinical picture of him is," Connell told reporters.

"He's sound anyway and seems to have come out of the race OK, so we're a little bit in the dark."

Arkle still the plan for connections

Marine Nationale remains the 11/4 antepost favourite for the Arkle in March, but it was no surprise to see him drift in the market after Saturday's disappointing performance.

As long as the veterinary checks are clear, Connell plans to get back to work with his stable star, and he has every confidence that he can get Marine Nationale firing ahead of the Arkle at Prestbury Park.

He added: "Our intention is to just put a line through this and head on to Cheltenham. 

"Hopefully, we'll get spring ground at Cheltenham, and he's proved his liking for the track there."

Il Etait Temps is 5/1 to win the Arkle on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival, with Found A Fifty and Hunters Yarn at 6/1 and 9/1, the only other runners in single figures for one of the feature races of the meeting.

Marine Nationale looking to add his name to the history books

Should Marine Nationale prove his fitness ahead of the Arkle, connections will hope he can join an exclusive club at Cheltenham.

Only some of the best jumps horses in history have won the Arkle 12 months after landing the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Nicky Henderson's Shishkin was the last to do so, winning the Arkle in 2021, 12 months after his previous Supreme Novices' success.

Henderson's former stable star Altior was another who landed both prizes, as did Willie Mullins's Douvan.

In recent years, many of the winners of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle have continued over the smaller obstacles the following year, but Connell has big plans for his seven-year-old.

To follow in the footsteps of Shishkin, Douvan and Altior would be a huge statement, but Connell and his team have some work to do in order to get their runner back to his best.

While conditions were not in Marine Nationale's favour, he looked a little flat in the closing stages of Saturday's Grade 1 contest, but there's no doubt that he is a major player if Connell and his staff can get him firing on all cylinders. 

This article was written by a partner sports writer via Spotlight Sports Group. All odds displayed on this page were correct at the time of writing and are subject to withdrawal or change at any time.

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