Alex Hammond: Imperial Rule
At last it seems we may be able to enjoy some top class jump racing as Cheltenham officials gave Saturday's card a tentative go ahead on Friday.
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Trial's Day must pass a 7am inspection on raceday morning, but that is in place just in case the local forecast proves to be incorrect. What a treat we are in for too as many trainers are keen to get runs into their festival contenders before time beats them with less than 7 weeks to the start of one of the greatest meetings in the sport.
There is an 8 race card to savour as the rescheduled Victor Chandler Chase has been saved from Ascot and added to the card.
That's great news for Nicky Henderson who runs many of his big guns this weekend. None bigger than Sprinter Sacre who is a very short price (1/5) to win this 2 mile chase.
There are no prizes for saying I think he will win, but can you see any of the other 8 runners beating him? He is rated far superior to his rivals and it will take a serious error to see him demoted. There is no such thing as a certainty where horses are concerned, and he's not my kind of price, but it will be great to see this magnificent chaser in action and this is a race to savour.
If I were to have a bet it would be an each way wager on William's Wishes (12/1 with Sky Bet) in the hope Evan Williams' improving chaser can make the frame.
The Argento Chase is the Gold Cup trial and it will be fascinating to see how 2010 winner Imperial Commander fares on his first start since pulling up in the 2011 renewal.
He has had a couple of racecourse gallops and has the added advantage of receiving weight from all of his rivals in this. He is a horse that goes well fresh, so he certainly should be that!
Plenty hinges on the participation of ante-post favourite Tidal Bay who has been suffering from a foot abscess this week and Paul Nicholls won't make a decision until the morning as to whether he runs or not.
He is an enigmatic character, but his new team seem to have got to the bottom of him and he is a talented performer despite his advancing years.
Grands Crus is a horse I haven't given up on just yet. He had a breathing operation after his disappointing performance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup and he subsequently finished third in the King George. Whilst not setting the world alight there, David Pipe will be hoping he can get back on the Gold Cup trail here. He does have to prove that he stays this trip so I'll be happy watching rather than backing him in this.
Hunt Ball was the most improved chaser in training last year and his original plan was to run at Taunton in a handicap last weekend. With the meeting off he has been rerouted here, but I can't have him as a potential Gold Cup winner. I think he prefers better ground than he will get in this and it could be that he's most effective over a shorter trip.
Midnight Chase goes very well here and he will be a popular each way selection. It's a leap of faith to back Imperial Commander in this after such a long layoff, but I think he is the horse I'd most like to have on my side. He will have done plenty at home and those racecourse gallops will have helped sharpen him up.
I think it could be a very good day for local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. The New One is the emerging star in the yard and he continues his hurdling education in the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle.
He is 4/1 for the Neptune at the festival after 3 unbeaten runs over hurdles. His jumping hasn't always looked fluent but this race will do him the world of good. His only defeat in a 7 race career came in the Cheltenham Champion Bumper last March.
His main rival comes in the shape of the Mark Bradstock trained half brother to Carruthers, Coneygree. He is also unbeaten over hurdles and although he won over 3 miles last time out he was successful over 2m 5f the time before. However, I think he is more effective over the longer trip and this embryonic chaser may get reeled in by the favourite over this 2m 4½ f. It looks like a high quality contest.
Another of Nicky Henderson's stars, Oscar Whisky, bids to win over 3 miles for the first time in the Cleeve Hurdle. He is most comfortable over 2m 4f, but if he is to become a serious World Hurdle contender he will need to put up a bold show in this.
Big Bucks won this race 12 months ago, but he is sidelined at the moment and that has thrown the stayers division wide open. It's up for debate whether this horse stays 3 miles against the likes of Big Bucks, but his trainer doesn't think he lacks stamina.
Reve de Sivola stays well, he won the 3 mile 1 furlong Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot last time out, that was his first run for a year. He didn't meet anything of the quality of Oscar Whisky at Ascot though. He didn't really take to chasing and a return to this sphere should see him reproduce his best.
Kauto Stone is an interesting runner back over hurdles for Paul Nicholls having pulled up in the King George. He is a dual Grade 1 winning chaser, including most recently in the JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal on his penultimate start.
He is also a proven stayer and he will be my selection in this as the niggling doubts remain about the stamina limitation of Oscar Whisky and at the likely prices I'd like to take him on.
There is also some very good racing to look forward to in Ireland with many of the Irish Cheltenham contenders having their preps.
On Saturday the Irish Arkle has attracted a small field, but Willie Mullins will be hoping Arvika Ligeonierre can emerge as a serious rival to Simonsig in the Cheltenham 2 miler. He is currently 7/1 for the Cheltenham race with Sky Bet.
Oscars Well was no match for the Mullins horse in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase over Christmas and I can't think he will reverse the placings here.
One the same card there is a classy looking Grade 2 Novice Chase and Willie Mullins looks capable of plundering another decent prize.
He saddles Marito who is unbeaten in 2 starts over fences for Ireland's champion trainer. He just held on over 2 miles last time out from another of his rivals Mount Benbulben.
However, he looked to be crying out for the step up to this sort of trip (2m 5f) and I think that will put more distance between the pair. Texas Jack looks his biggest danger and can benefit from some Paul Carberry magic.
Moving onto Sunday and Hurricane Fly is the star on show in the Irish Champion Hurdle. He faces some tough competition though as Nicky Henderson sends Binocular over for his first run since last year's Champion Hurdle.
Hurricane Fly was very impressive in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle last time out where he seemed as good as ever. He should take some beating in his bid to win this race once again en route to the Champion Hurdle for which he is currently 7/2 joint favourite with Binocular's stablemate Darlan.
I said earlier there was no such thing as a certainty in racing, but I think this chap falls into that category, he will be very short as a result.
On the same card I hope Urano can get off the mark over hurdles in the opening maiden hurdle. He one of my horses to follow this season and hasn't done much wrong in his two hurdle outings so far just coming up against a couple of decent types.
He can win the opener for the Mullins/Walsh combination. It looks like a Willie Mullins benefit this weekend in Ireland.
Sprinter Sacre in the Victor Chandler Chase/ William's Wishes @ 12/1 with Sky Bet (each way)
Imperial Commander in the Argento Chase
The New One in the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle
Kauto Stone in the Cleeve Hurdle
Arvika Ligeonierre in the Irish Arkle
Marito in the Novice Chase
Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle
Urano in the Maiden Hurdle