Get better value for your Buck's
Will Hayler previews the Ladbrokes World Hurdle and suggests splitting stakes on two of the field against the market principals.
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With Saturday's Cleeve Hurdle fast bearing down upon us it's high time to stow away a few quid ante-post on the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Despite his absence from a racecourse - other than a gentle amble around Exeter which confirmed little more than he still had a leg in each corner - for over a year now, this is a contest that still revolves around Big Buck's.
He is an awesome performer, who has fought off every challenge in this division for several seasons, but I can't help but feel that at the age of 11 it will require something pretty extraordinary for him to win on Saturday, let alone regain his World Hurdle crown.
Yes, he doesn't have the miles on the clock that many of his age do, and 11-year-olds - even those with less apparent formbook claims - have certainly won Championship contests at the Festival before.
But all good things must come to an end, and even at the stand-out 5/2 on offer in one place at the time of writing, I could not quite bring myself to hand over hard cash with so many questions still to answer.
Annie Power looks a massive threat and would possibly get my vote, but my Irish spies are convinced that her connections favour other targets at the Festival. An entry at Doncaster this weekend over two miles seems to support such a theory.
More Of That's Relkeel Hurdle win has been boosted by the subsequent performances of the second and third and he looks sure to stay three miles, but like the above pair his participation seems not yet to be guaranteed.
Connections have already stated that they see him as a top chaser of the future and with this in mind might opt to avoid a race as tough as the World Hurdle, especially if At Fishers Cross can get back on track with a big run in the Cleeve.
Next in the betting are the Willie Mullins pair of Boston Bob and Quevega. The latter will surely aim to defend her crown in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle but the former is of some interest, even though his price has been squeezed in the last fortnight as punters have got wise to doubts over the participation of some of those priced shorter in the betting.
He has been disappointing over fences and it's not hard to pick holes in the form of his second in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle to Brindisi Breeze, although he did at least confirm that he is a thorough stayer over three miles in that race having been tapped for a bit of toe coming down the hill on ground quicker than he had ever encountered before.
The hurdling form that actually highlights his claims for this contest comes from his previous victories in a Navan Grade One and Leopardstown Grade Two, where he comfortably accounted for some useful sorts in Lyreen Legend and Mount Benbulben over two and a half miles.
Boston Bob is reportedly set to line up in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park rather than the Cleeve. I expect him to win that and book his place in the World Hurdle there and then as, unlike other Festival possibles from his stable, it's hard to imagine his owners preferring to keep their options open. Take the 10/1 before that happens.
One of the punters whose counsel I trust most can't have Boston Bob at all. "Name me the last slow horse to win the race since Anzum," was his slightly jaundiced view when I mentioned that I was having a bet on him. I can't have that view at all, even if I take his point about speed proving as important as stamina in recent renewals of the race. Boston Bob is not a slow horse.
Those looking for other horses more likely to run than some of the market principals will be considering Reve De Sivola and Celestial Halo.
Reve De Sivola is a likeable sort but has to be rejected despite his typically-tough display to win the Long Walk Hurdle last time out as he appeared to run right up to his best when a clearly-held fourth in this race last year.
Celestial Halo heads an interesting collection of Paul Nicholls' back-up entries for Big Buck's, although intriguingly according to Andy Stewart - who owns or part-owns most of them - even a comprehensive victory for Big Buck's in the Cleeve is unlikely to prevent their being thrown into the mix on the day as well. Indeed Daryl Jacob has already been pencilled in for the ride on Celestial Halo. (And I'm not going to get involved in unpicking the details of that messy situation).
Among the Nicholls batallions, Celestial Halo, Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar are all available in places at 16/1.
Celestial Halo we know all about and he remains in the midst of a career renaissance he has enjoyed ever since being stepped up to this trip. His second to Solwhit last year was a fine effort and he would be a fair each-way bet if he ran to the same level, but we do know he has no scope for further improvement and it is quite hard to see him winning.
Representing the same connections as both Big Buck's and Celestial Halo, it would have been no surprise if rapidly-improving handicapper Saphir Du Rheu had been given another target, but this was nominated as a target in the aftermath of his facile Lanzarote Hurdle win earlier this month.
Sceptics would point to his disastrous effort at the Festival last season when sent off favorite for the Fred Winter last season, but clearly something wasn't right there and frankly he wouldn't be the first class horse to blow out in that particular bunfight.
He is reportedly being targeted at one of the Rendlesham or National Spirit for his prep (Stewart clarifying that he will only take up his engagement in the Cleeve if Big Buck's misses the race) and either race could provide a good opportunity to notch a hat-trick of recent wins and see his World Hurdle price sink to single-figures.
Jockey bookings clearly remain a thorny issue here (I know I said I wouldn't mention them - sorry) particularly with Zarkandar also a possible contender, but Stewart is likely to ensure that his runners have the best possible jockeys aboard come the day - he has booked both Barry Geraghty and Timmy Murphy for big-race rides in the past. Even keeping Harry Derham on board wouldn't be a massive minus given his knowledge of the horse.
There are a number of interesting, theoretically-possible participants from even further left-field such as Fingal Bay and Meister Eckhart but so many have form and wellbeing issues it makes sense to stick those with solid recent form in the book and already reported as being geared towards the race.
Of course, I might be completely wrong about Big Buck's, and in some sort of perverse way I wouldn't be that disappointed if I was. He does, after all, have an almost magical will to win and that in itself is a quality that punters like us can only admire.
But even if he does win the Cleeve, I can see both Boston Bob and Saphir Du Rheu lining up against him on the day and neither at odds much, if at all, longer than available now. The possibility that things won't go as well as is hoped for Big Buck's this weekend must therefore make them both worth a bet at this stage.