Get on the Hunt at Cheltenham
Simon Holt is back from a break and he's backing Bless The Wings and Hunt Ball on Festival Trials Day.
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It is great news that Cheltenham's Festival Trials meeting looks set to beat the weather on Saturday (albeit subject to a 7am inspection) and, with Sprinter Sacre and Oscar Whisky topping the bill, action-starved jumps fans are in for a treat.
At general odds of 1/5, it will be a major shock if Sprinter Sacre fails to add the recheduled Victor Chandler Chase to his stunning win in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December when he slammed Kumbeshwar and Sanctuaire (both set to reoppose), but he is a betting proposition only to major stakers.
It is no understatement to say that this abundantly scopy seven-year-old is the most exciting two-mile chaser since Master Minded leapt to prominence in 2008, and he is also long odds-on to land the Queen Mother Champion Chase here at the Festival in just over six weeks time.
Last year's winner Somersby (making a belated seasonal debut) and the obviously talented Williams Wishes (unbeaten in his last five starts) provide additional interest amongst the opposition but, with a clear round, Sprinter Sacre must surely take some stopping.
Slightly better odds might be available about Oscar Whisky in the Rewards4Racing Cleeve Hurdle on the basis that the top-class eight-year-old appeared not to stay this three-mile trip when only fifth behind Big Buck's in the World Hurdle last March.
However, trainer Nicky Henderson is far from certain that lack of stamina was the explanation for that below-par effort and has made the point that Oscar Whisky would not have won the race at two-and-a-half-miles which has so far appeared to be his optimum distance.
Given this immensely powerful galloper's style of racing, I find it hard to believe that three miles will be an issue and must give him another chance here to establish leading claims on this season's staying hurdle crown against rivals who look, by some way, his inferior.
While Reve De Sivola, winner of the Long Walk at Ascot in December, is rated only a pound below Oscar Whisky on official ratings, the Racing Post have a difference of 8lb between the pair which, to me, looks more realistic.
In the absence of Bobs Worth and with Tidal Bay only 50-50 to take part, the Argento Chase may well have been robbed of its significance this year as a genuine Gold Cup trial.
Tidal Bay, who has been suffering from a foot infection this week, is a regular player on this day having finished runner-up twice in this race (including behind Midnight Chase last year) and also winning the Cleeve Hurdle in 2010.
Paul Nicholls has done a fantastic job in bringing this occasionally quirky character back to the top of his game and, after a battling win in a thrilling Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last time (Midnight Chase pulled up), he looks to have a big chance providing the hard race in Ireland - and this troubling injury - do not affect him.
In Tidal Bay's absence, Grands Crus and HUNT BALL would have strengthened claims even though both were pulled up in the Paddy Power Gold Cup here earlier in the season.
After that abject display, Grands Crus was given a breathing operation but it was hard to say if he was back to his best subsequently when third behind Long Run in the King George at Kempton where he travelled as strongly as ever but then emptied somewhat up the home straight.
There has always been a slight suspicion that the grey's stamina wanes beyond three miles and, against rivals most of whom he would beat easily on his best form, this is a day of reckoning.
Hunt Ball's stamina is also not quite assured but he ran very well behind Menorah over two and a half miles at Kempton over Christmas on testing ground and connections are confident he will stay. In receipt of weight from most of the opposition, I just wonder if this hugely improved chaser might be the one to be on.
Of course, the one horse who is thrown-in is former Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander, who receives weight all round. While great to see him back, injury problems have intervened in the last few seasons and, at the age of 12, it remains to be seen if he can return to the form of his glory days.
Earlier, there is a terrifically competitive line-up for the Murphy Group Handicap Chase in which BLESS THE WINGS, a winner in novice company on this day 12 months ago, could follow up victories at Wetherby and Newbury.
Alan King's progressive gelding has a good cruising speed and I was very impressed with his attitude at Newbury as he found extra when challenged by Mahogany Blaze in the final 100 yards.
A 5lb rise for that success does not look overly punitive and Bless The Wings can go in again with last year's runner-up Poquelin (now dangerously well handicapped on his best form) and the Sandown winner Katenko likely to be the main dangers.