Gullinbursti can hit the straps
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt returns with his first selections of 2014 as he previews Cheltenham and Doncaster.
- Related Content
Saturday's Argento Chase at Cheltenham is likely to place great emphasis on stamina and HARRY TOPPER could be the horse who will relish the conditions most.
Kim Bailey's gelding has developed into a useful chaser, albeit one who can be a little slow at his fences and who can occasionally become outpaced during a race.
This was certainly the case on both counts at Wetherby earlier in the season when the seven-year-old came from an improbable position to beat Wayward Prince in the Charlie Hall Chase and the small field and quicker ground at Sandown subsequently probably proved his undoing behind Vino Griego and Rolling Aces.
While yet to run at Cheltenham, Harry Topper looks just the type for this stiff course and, despite having to concede weight to his rivals, he may prove the strongest finisher up the hill.
The obvious danger is Rocky Creek who, in finishing second behind Triolo D'Alene in the Hennessy at Newbury, staked an outside claim on the Gold Cup.
This likeable and progressive chaser has been off since due to a small setback but is sure to have been well prepared by trainer Paul Nicholls.
Rocky Creek receives 5lb from the selection but I just wonder if he is quite made for the slog that this race may entail and my impression has been that he is most comfortable on a flat course.
There shouldn't be too much to choose between this horse and Houblon Des Obeaux on their running in last season's Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot, a course at which the last named seems to go particularly well.
Moreover, Houblon Des Obeaux (a well beaten sixth in the Hennessy on much faster ground) is a confirmed mudlark, though his jumping when successful at the Berkshire course last time left plenty to be desired until he was sent on into the lead after which he was more fluent.
With that in mind, the Venetia Williams-trained gelding could well be ridden more forcefully on this occasion ensuring that there is nowhere to hide for his rivals.
Meanwhile, Hennessy third Theatre Guide continues to make a good impression and his latest second behind Monbeg Dude over an extended trip on this course before Christmas was another fine effort. But he is another for whom really deep conditions pose a slight question mark (pulled up in his only start on heavy ground) while, for all his good performances on this course in the past, The Giant Bolster is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
Champion Court also boasts a useful course record but, again, his stamina is not guaranteed over an extended three miles in testing ground.
Of course, the main focus of attention at Cheltenham will be the reappearance of champion staying hurdler Big Buck's in the Galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle following a period on the sidelines.
This remarkable horse had been completely dominant in this division until forced to miss an attempt on a fifth World Hurdle here last March but, if anywhere near his best, should make a triumphant return in the hands (for the first time) of Sam Twiston-Davies.
Successful in this race in 2009 and 2012, Big Buck's has won seven of his eight starts at Prestbury Park and is unbeaten over hurdles on the course.
Conditions seem certain to suit main rival Reve De Sivola, who again thrived in the Ascot mud to land a second Long Walk Hurdle last time, but one has to bear in mind that Nick Williams' admirable gelding proved no match for Big Buck's on their one previous encounter at Newbury two years ago, is rated 12lb inferior and his only hope here is that the champ is either ring-rusty or not as good as he was.
On his best novice form last season, At Fishers Cross could be dangerous but his jumping has been letting him down of late and he looked held by Reve De Sivola when unseating A P McCoy at Ascot's final flight last time.
At Doncaster, GULLINBURSTI can land the featured Sky Bet Chase wearing a tongue tie for the first time.
Emma Lavelle's talented performer finished a good third behind Harry Topper and Rocky Creek in a novice chase at Exeter in 2012 and trotted up on his reappearance over fences at Market Rasen.
But he was a shade disappointing when third behind Hadrians Approach and Super Duty at Newbury last time, staying on at one pace in the closing stages having held every chance halfway up the home straight.
It may well be that he had a slight breathing issue that day and the handicapper has dropped him 4lb down the ratings subsequently.
Gullinbursti has a few things going for him here: he ran an excellent race on this course over hurdles behind old rival Rocky Creek and his trainer, who is enjoying her best ever season, has a 33% success-rate over the last five seasons on Town Moor.
If the tongue strap works its magic, he could be well handicapped and, consequently, hard to beat.