Swan a real Pearl in Betfair
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt previews Saturday's feature action and he's backing two against the field in the Betfair Hurdle.
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That potent big-race trainer-jockey combination of Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh, who took last year's Betfair Hurdle with Zarkandar, get my vote to stage a repeat with PEARL SWAN - a horse with a similar profile - in Saturday's renewal at Newbury.
Like Zarkandar, Pearl Swan was a leading hurdler in his juvenile campaign and needs a stiff or fast run race at two miles; and he was running on strongly enough to make the frame in the Triumph Hurdle (a race Zarkandar won in 2011) at Cheltenham in March before falling at the final flight.
On a previous outing on the same course, the French import again came from way off the pace to beat the subsequent Triumph third Grumeti (only for the placings to be reversed in the stewards room) on which form he looks well handicapped. Had Grumeti turned up for this gig, Pearl Swan would have been meeting him on 10lb better terms.
More recently, Nicholls will have been relieved to get a pipeopener into the horse in a jumpers bumper at Kempton last month, and the five-year-old shaped well in finishing second to the formerly smart flat runner Fair Trade.
My chief reservation about Pearl Swan is that he sometimes looks short of tactical speed and can find himself well back behind the leaders, but Newbury's long home straight should give him ample time to deliver a powerful late run. Hopefully, he can get there in time!
Nicholls will also run Dark Lover, up 17lb for a wide-margin win at Cheltenham last time, and the juvenile Caid du Berlais (6lb out of the handicap) who made an encouraging debut on these shores when second at Chepstow last month.
Like Pearl Swan, COTTON MILL - another leading young hurdler last season - also looks attractively weighted. John Ferguson's charge was running a stormer in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle over 2m5f at the Festival only to inexplicably crash through the wing of the second last.
It is highly unlikely that he would have resisted the challenging Simonsig that day but he looked set to finish a good second or third and the form has a respectable look with Monksland and Close House (the eventual third and fourth) taking sharp rises in the ratings this season.
Cotton Mill ought to have enough pace to cope with this drop in distance, albeit on his first run of the season, and drying ground conditions would increase his chances.
The ante-post market has been dominated by My Tent Or Yours whose trainer Nicky Henderson has won this race on four previous occasions and will have no less than six representatives this time.
My Tent Or Yours, the mount of Tony McCoy, travels like a very good horse but he has twice been beaten at Newbury and boasts very little experience for a race of this nature. This is the six-year-old's first run in a handicap (and it's one of the most competitive handicaps of the entire season) and, given that one or two bits of his form have failed to work out, his price looks short enough for all his potential.
Stable companion Cash And Go (Barry Geraghty) and the Gordon Elliott-trained Cause Of Causes, who finished second and third behind Olofi at Cheltenham in November, boast good handicap form and will be ideally suited by the likely fast pace while David Pipe has three useful players in Ronaldo Des Mottes, who has been lightly raced since finishing second to Get Me Out Of Here in this race in 2010, the raised-in-class Home Run (9lb out of the handicap) and Swing Bowler, an unbeaten mare whose pedigree by Galileo out of David Johnson's smart jumper Lady Cricket certainly takes the eye.
Swing Bowler impressed with her attitude at Musselburgh last time; she came off the bridle on the home turn but then found plenty to win going away earning herself an 11lb rise up the ratings. This looks tougher but there could easily be more to come.
It will be a big surprise if Silvianaco Conti fails to consolidate his Cheltenham Gold Cup prospects in the supporting Denman Chase at Newbury but the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown is far more intriguing with the promise of a rematch between Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs.
Ireland's top two staying chasers ran contrasting races in the Lexus Chase behind Tidal Bay last time; Flemenstar travelled like a class act for much of the journey but emptied on the run-in while Sir Des Champs stayed on strongly after losing his place through sticky jumping.
Flemenstar's stamina will again be the big question here (he does race keenly) but I expect Sir Des Champs to jump better if conditions underfoot dry up a bit. Willie Mullins' gelding has won at the last two Cheltenham Festivals on goodish ground and remains a leading contender in my book for the race that matters most.
In the meantime, the Irish Hennessy is a race to watch and enjoy.