(Festival) Trials and (Betting) Tribulations
Will Hayler takes a closer look at how Cheltenham's Festival Trials Day programme might lead to a shake-up of the ante-post betting markets.
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Whether it takes place as scheduled on Saturday, is delayed to Sunday, or shipped lock stock and barrel to another date in the future, Cheltenham's Festival Trials programme is likely to prove too important to lose if the authorities can avoid it.
Already as short as 3/1 for the Gold Cup, and rightly so with his Hennessy form working out quite so well, Bobs Worth has suffered less disruption than many of his stablemates this season and is understandably likely to go off at a short price to win. His campaign has been kept deliberately light this season and there is nothing but confidence coming out of Lambourn about his chances. However with Tidal Bay probably more likely to run over hurdles in the Cleeve, he may end facing a fairly straightforward task here and it's hard to see how his odds for the Gold Cup could end up dramatically shorter, even were he to win easily.
However Hunt Ball is one to keep an eye on here as his performance is likely to help steer connections towards choosing a Cheltenham target. Owner Anthony Knott has backed Hunt Ball to win a small fortune in the Gold Cup, but the horse could yet be dropped back in trip, especially if he seems not to get the trip up the Cheltenham hill in this contest. He has an alternative entry in the handicap chase over two miles and five furlongs.
Grand National possibles Cappa Bleuand Little Josh would also be worth looking out for if they take their chance. The latter has presumbaly been entered by Nigel Twiston-Davies in the hope that the race cuts up. He needs to finish in the first four in a race over three miles or further in order to qualify for the National and won't be allowed to run unless he can do that in the next two or three weeks. Keep an eye on his entries.
Anything other than an easy victory for Sprinter Sacre is sure to have a dramatic effect upon betting for the Champion Chase. However a straightforward success for him over old foes Sanctuaire and Kumbeshwar may cause barely a ripple. How short can the bookmakers go? Already just 2/5 with Sky Bet, it's hard to see him going less than 1/3 even if he has time for a post-race cigarette by the time the others reach the winning post.
William's Wishes has attracted considerable each-way support against the favourite in the last couple of weeks. His trainer Evan Williams reports that he "would be absolutely amazed" if the horse is good enough to even make the frame in the Champion Chase, but it's not as if William's Wishes hasn't already surprised connections on several occasions already. It will be interesting to see whether he is allowed to take his chance here.
Oiseau De Nuit is still 12lb higher in the weights than when taking the Grand Annual two seasons ago and is caught between a rock and a hard place with the handicapper. That said, he produced an absolute stinker last time out and it will be interesting to see if there are signs of a return to life in this contest, especially if the assessor is prepared to ease his grip.
Continuing the interesting recent trend of giving prep races the same name as the contest towards which they are steering (see also Albert Bartlett), the outcome of this contest is certain to cause a major shake-up in the betting for the... err... Neptune Novice Hurdle at the Festival.
Puffin Billy waits for an easier-looking opportunity next month, but The New One, Cloudy Copper and Coneygree all already appear to have the Festival well and truly on their agendas, although Coneygree may possibly have a better chance back up at three miles.
Chatterbox is an interesting contender from Nicky Henderson's, not least after the trainer's fury over the handicap mark given to stablemate My Tent Or Yours for the Betfair Hurdle after his defeat behind Chatterbox. Henderson also has the well-touted Utopie des Bordes entered up to make her British debut. She isn't the biggest, but has top-class winning form over fences in France so clearly doesn't mind a bit of jumping. Interestingly, she remains eligible for novice hurdles. Which takes us on nicely to the...
And another interesting horse ready to make their debut for the Henderson team, Rolling Star.The winner of his only start over hurdles in France, he has been nibbled at in the ante-post betting for the Triumph but the strength of that Auteuil form is open to question. He's 12/1 with Sky Bet for the Festival but could easily be twice those odds if he fails to make a winning debut.
A good run from Roc D'Apsis wouldn't come as a surprise with Tom George in such fine form, but it would also be a boost for Triumph favourite Far West who had him comfortably in his wake last time out. However Far West's trainer still has other bullets to fire for the Triumph and two of them, Sametegal and Irish Saint are both possible runners here.
However, John Quinn's northern raider Hidden Justice shouldn't be ruled out of a big run. He travelled well and jumped tidily to win at Doncaster on his first start for the stable and wasn't a bad sort on the Flat for Amanda Perrett - probably at least the equal of any of these in that sphere.
Nicky Henderson has to point to prove over Oscar Whisky and although plenty will be patting themselves on the back if he gets turned over through lack of stamina at this three-mile trip, I agree with the trainer that his run in the World Hurdle last year was simply too bad to be true. No race at the Festival has had a more topsy-turvy few weeks with its betting than the World Hurdle after Big Buck's was pulled out and punters and bookmakers alike are still looking for things to clear up. Victory in this key trial for Oscar Whisky would surely see him sent off as favourite for the World Hurdle.
Tidal Bay seems more likely to run here than in the Argento, not least because Ruby Walsh has made noises about the World Hurdle. He has been in excellent form this season and is another whose odds will come crashing down if he wins this. However, at the end of the day, there are no guarantees with Tidal Bay and much will depend upon how the race pans out - a crawl and a sprint would be no good at all.
Walkon is apparently considered a World Hurdle contender and though I can't see it myself, he could throw a spanner in the works with a big run here. Reve De Sivola is already high in the World Hurdle betting after his impressive victory in the Long Walk last time out, but is another for whom victory would surely make him ante-post favourite.
The supporting card:
No horse rated less than 132 got a run in the Pulteney Novice Handicap Chase at last seaon's Festival and a few of the runners in the Timeform Novice Handicap Chase will need to edge up a few pounds in the weights if they are to get a run in that contest. It's an interesting contest too and last year's winner Bless The Wings, although disappointing at the Festival, has gone on to better things since.
Bless The Wings is a 50/1 chance in places for the Ryanair, but that could be a price worth taking if he was to be declared for the two-mile five-furlong Murphy Group Chase. He has already worked his way up to a mark of 150 this season and needs only find a stone or so more to at least be competitive in the Ryanair. Among the many other interesting entries in the race are Gold Cup outsiders Katenko and Bold Sir Brian, while Tartak caught the eye last time and could be on the way back to form. A decent run here could be a portent to something similar at the Festival, perhaps in one of the handicaps over three miles-plus.
Mr Watson looks attractively treated for his handicap debut in the closing contest, a hurdle over two miles and a furlong. His trainer doesn't need me to teach him anything about getting one ready for the Festival but if this horse is to get into the field for the Festival handicaps, he will need to go up a few pounds. It's not impossible to see him running here, winning this, and then being kept off course until something like the Martin Pipe Hurdle or even the Coral Cup. And at this stage of the season, second-guessing the plans of trainers is all part of the fun.