Antepost Angle: Festival fancies
Matt Brocklebank kicks off his Cheltenham Festival portfolio with bets in the Ryanair Chase and Sunbets Stayers' Hurdle in his latest Antepost Angle column.
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SIZING JOHN must be getting sick of the sight of Douvan's rear end and connections should be thinking along the lines of avoiding Willie Mullins' superstar by targeting the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, for which the seven-year-old is a temptingly big price at this early stage.
The Ann and Alan Potts-owned gelding has enjoyed a fine career as things stand, a Grade One novice hurdle at Leopardstown among his four victories, though it could have been a whole lot better had Douvan not been around at the same time.
Sizing John has finished second to his nemesis on no fewer than five occasions, the most recent of which came at Leopardstown over Christmas, while he has also filled third spot in races won by Douvan twice, for good measure.
One of the latter category came in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle a couple of years ago and he returned to Cheltenham 12 months later to go one place better in the Racing Post Arkle - so he clearly likes the place.
After Cheltenham, Sizing John was a disappointing favourite on his first try over two and a half miles in the Merseyrail Manifesto Novices' Chase at Aintree won by the subsequently ill-fated Arzal in April and it's perfectly understandable if that effort sets one or two alarm bells ringing, especially as the decision was immediately taken to revert to the minimum trip at Punchestown later that month, where he also ran below form.
But there are mitigating circumstances in regards both those performances. The most obvious of which is the fact that the then six-year-old had already had four outings earlier in the season and his staying-on Arkle run probably took a great deal out of him physically.
On top of that, the drop back in distance just didn't make any sense at all after what he'd done at Cheltenham and it is hoped this season could be the year he really blossoms over the intermediate trip. The early signs are very good.
The decision taken over the summer to switch the horse from Henry de Bromhead to Jessica Harrington could probably be discussed well into the night but there is little doubt that he is now in the care of a top-level handler and, perhaps even more importantly, one that excels when it comes to aiming her representatives towards the major spring meetings.
Harrington's exploits with Moscow Flyer need little introduction and more recently the County Kildare trainer has tasted Cheltenham success with Cork All Star, Boston's Angel and Jezki (more on him below).
She will have been working back from the middle of March from the point at which Sizing John walked off the box and having discovered beyond any doubt that he simply isn't as brilliant as Douvan (further proof was hardly needed) in the Paddy Power Cashcard Chase last month, the return to a longer distance surely makes considerable appeal.
It's a move that was mooted on several occasions by De Bromhead, who left his charge in the JLT Novices' Chase right up until the latest stage last year, while the pedigree also suggests the Aintree run is suspect and that he may actually improve for more of a stamina test in the right circumstances.
His sire Midnight Legend's progeny also include strong stayers Midnight Chase and Seeyouatmidnight, while the likes of Easter Meteor, Easter Legend, My Petra and Quite By Chance have all peaked over distances around that of the Ryanair Chase (two miles, four furlongs and 166 yards to be precise). His only half-sister to have raced, Scholastica, won over two miles and five furlongs at Ascot and their dam was a triple hurdle scorer at the same trip.
Bloodlines can never be reason to be sure about anything in racing but there is clearly encouragement that two and a half miles on spring ground could eventually prove to be Sizing John's optimum and having bumped into the odds-on Champion Chase favourite on so many occasions it would seem a little foolish to keep banging the head against that brick wall.
Admittedly there is no shame in finishing second to a great horse such as Douvan and the likely smaller field, combined with healthy runner-up prize money of £74,795, may appeal but the Ryanair (worth £170,850 to the winner) looks Sizing John's best chance of Cheltenham Festival success.
He'll go there a fresh horse, presumably with another outing in the meantime and regardless of whether or not he's stepped up in trip for his prep run, 25/1 Ryanair quotes look worthy of investment before we see him next in public.
Competition at the top of the market appears quite strong but there must be a chance Cue Card's team see sense and ultimately stick with the Gold Cup.
Valseur Lido, last year's Ryanair second now with De Bromhead from Willie Mullins, seems certain to drop back in trip following his Lexus run but it's former stablemate Un De Sceaux who rates the most obvious danger.
He looked ready for this kind of test when second to Sprinter Sacre in last season's Champion Chase and has since proved most of his natural speed remains intact when beating Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek.
However, genuine spring ground would probably prove detrimental to Un De Sceaux's chances, while at the same time enhancing Sizing John's, and at four times the price I'm happy to chance the younger horse fully announcing himself.
Sizing John's stable companion JEZKI has a far more certain Festival target, with Harrington recently announcing the Sunbets Stayers' Hurdle at his principal goal.
He's pencilled in to return from injury at Navan this month before a spin over two miles in the Red Mills Hurdle in the middle of February and while history tells us not to expect fireworks first time out from Jezki, he's the one horse in the betting for Cheltenham that genuinely possesses the potential to challenge Unowhatimeanharry at the top of the market.
He's had tendon problems which have kept him off the track since beating Hurricane Fly in the Grade One Ladbrokes Wolrld Series Hurdle at Punchestown in April 2015, which was his first try at the three-mile trip.
That proved the 2014 Champion Hurdle hero's versatility beyond doubt and if he can return anywhere near that kind of form then he's a big player in this year's Stayers'.
Solwhit showed it can be done when Charles Byrnes' former top-class two miler returned from a similar injury layoff to win the World Hurdle three years ago and, despite missing an intended comeback over Christmas, Jezki is reported back in top form following a pleasing workout in the week.
His official rating is identical to that of 5/2 favourite Unowhatimeanharry, who has yet to come up against a gnarled, top-notch Cheltenham expert like Jezki.
He has achieved so much more than Vroum Vroum Mag, Nichols Canyon and Ballyoptic, who are all shorter or the same price, so the 14/1 must be snapped up before he proves his well-being on the track.
Posted at 2015 GMT on 11/01/17.