GC's Festival File: The big questions
It's almost time for the talking to stop and the galloping to start. Graham Cunningham is packing his bag for Cheltenham this Monday, but the big questions are still hanging in the air as he signs off with the final instalment of his 2013 Festival File.
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"Questions, questions, give me no answers." Tony Hadley's plaintive cry from one of Spandau Ballet's preposterous 80's hits keeps running around my brain as the 2013 Cheltenham Festival approaches. It's easy enough to outline the questions. Only time will tell will tell whether the answers work out according to plan.
How testing will the ground be?
It's well known that Cheltenham clerk Simon Claisse benefits from bespoke weather forecasts from moustachioed former Beeb man John Kettley, but the proof of whether the Cheltenham ground is like a pudding will come in examining the times of the early races. If the Supreme Novices' and Arkle winners can't break four minutes then it's testing, alright.
Is My Tent Or Yours a Supreme Novices' banker?
History suggests bankers can get beaten here, but MTOY is a stone clear on Timeform ratings. A mole tells me the race sponsors will be "aggressive on price on Tuesday morning." Interesting.
Is Simonsig an Arkle banker?
Slowly but surely, the partisan fan has given way to the hard-nosed realist in me with regard to the battle between Simonsig and Overturn. My heart says it would be one of the highlights of the week to see Donald McCain's gelding blaze clear. But with the ground set to be testing and a frenetic pace assured this surely sets up perfectly for Simonsig. Some say he hasn't beaten anything in two runs over fences. That's nonsense. He treated the useful Hinterland and the bang-in-form handicapper Wings Of Smoke like fifth-raters at Kempton and if the ground is genuinely testing then I just can't see past him even at 8/11 or thereabouts.
Is Hurricane Fly a Champion Hurdle banker?
Probably not. I don't want to knock him, but to me he's a 9/4 or 5/2 shot.
Is it surprising to see Rock On Ruby fitted with blinkers?
You bet it is. It's clear Harry Fry is a free thinker - and a very talented trainer. But all in all, I'm not sure what to make of the decision to fit such a generous galloper with headgear. In short, I might end up watching rather than punting, especially as the ground could be a shade softer than ideal.
Would it be a good idea to have 48-hour declarations for all Festival races?
It would help a lot of punters get a much better handle on some very difficult races; it would help a lot of media outlets publicise the entire cards rather than a select few races; it would help promote the entire event around the world and increase betting turnover at a time when revenue is crucial. Oh, but a few trainers might not like the idea. As you were, then.
Can Enda and Nina strike again in the cross country chase?
I hope so. Balthazar King had been top of my list for this day one oddity until the ground turned testing, but Arabella Boy is Bolger's up and comer in a division he has dominated and Nina Carberry gets on extremely well with him. There are four places on offer for each way punters in a race featuring loads of no hopers. Arabella Boy is highly likely to fill one of them. Possibly the first one.
Can Quevega be beaten in the mares' race?
Not if she's the horse she was this time last year. And she probably is the horse she was this time last year.
How hot is the National Hunt Chase?
In a word, very. Back In Focus has the highest BHA mark of 150 and jumps very safely, but he faces a posse of strong improvers headed by Buddy Bolero, Godsmejudge, Merry King and Rival D'Estruval. All in all, a very strong four-miler and the winner will surely come from towards the head of an open market.
Is Pont Alexandre an Irish banker in the mould of Istabraq and Danoli for the Neptune?
Oh yes, I think he is. I really think he is.
Is it a good thing that Dynaste has switched to the Jewson from the RSA?
You can't blame David Pipe for being seduced by the easier option. But you can suggest the BHA race planners who have allowed a Grade One winner to run in a Grade Two with no penalty whatsoever should be donning the dunce's hat. The whole idea of the Festival revolves around having the best of the best in against each other. Serving up softer options with no penalties simply undermines that ethos.
Who will take advantage of Dynaste's absence from the RSA?
Hard to say, but it's a fair bet at least one big priced runner will reward each-way support with Houblon Des Obeaux and possibly Super Duty fitting the bill if given the chance here.
Can Sprinter Sacre possibly be opposed in the Champion Chase?
Probably not given his swaggering brilliance throughout his chasing career, but from a fan's perspective we really need a horse to rock up who can provide a true reflection of how SS stacks up in relation to great two milers like Badsworth Boy, Pearlyman and Master Minded. Step forward Sizing Europe, who has a superb Festival record and a BHA mark just 7lb below Sprinter Sacre if connections choose this ahead of the Ryanair. He's a deadly-accurate jumper who looks as good as ever aged 11. And if he peaks in March again this could be more of a race than many expect.
Are there any tempting plots in the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter?
There could be a dozen - but these handicap puzzles look a bit too tough at this stage.
What price should Dynaste be now he's going for the Jewson?
He's a sound-jumping Grade One horse in a Grade Two race with no penalty and a proven Cheltenham record. Would you like to lay 2/1? I certainly wouldn't.
Is 4/1 too short a price for Sam Winner in the Pertemps Final?
On the face of it, yes. But I've spoken to Dan Skelton numerous times of late and he is absolutely adamant that this is the pick of a powerful posse of Paul Nicholls handicap projects.
Is the Ryanair an attractive punting option at present?
Not until the Sizing Europe and First Lieutenant plans are finalised.
Will Oscar Whisky get up the hill in the World Hurdle?
He did so in a bog for the Cleeve under a defensive ride, so why wouldn't he do the same under more positive tactics on less demanding ground? He's far from banker material but a bold effort looks highly likely.
Who will triumph in the Triumph?
Not sure. The big three at the top of the market - namely Far West, Our Conor and Rolling Star - set the bar high. Probably too high to expect a surprise.
And what about the Gold Cup?
I took a chance a chance on First Lieutenant a few weeks ago and he's capable of going close if he runs. That could be a big if based on recent vibes and it's hard to make a case for any of the market leaders being massively overpriced at this point.
No, I'm happy to sit and wait with the highlight of the week still four days away.
The last three months doing the Festival File have been great fun, but the amount of complex data that needs crunching has left me a little dazed and confused.
As that man Hadley put it: "To cut a long story short I lost my mind."