GC: The Festival Questions

  • Last Updated: February 18 2014, 12:06 GMT

Three weeks to go and the Festival countdown is gathering pace. Ascot and Navan provided the pick of the action over the latest weekend and Channel 4 and Racing UK analyst Graham Cunningham casts his eye over the leading players in the second of his "20 Festival Questions" features.

  • Trifoloum: Looks solid bet for the Racing Post Arkle
  • Many Clouds: All hope not lost for the RSA Chase 
  • Un Temps Pour Tout: Deserves a crack at the Neptune 

1: What can we deduce from My Tent Or Yours bolting up in a jumpers bumper at Kempton on Sunday?

Put simply, we can deduce that he heads into the biggest test of his career at the peak of his powers.

It should come as little surprise that MTOY clocked much the fastest time of the day, but Timeform's Dan Barber dug deeper to point out that Nicky Henderson's gelding clocked a time faster than four of the last five Queen's Prize winners despite the fact that he was humping 11st 2lb and hardly came off the bridle.

MTOY could clearly win a good race on the Flat given the chance, but what about the Champion Hurdle?

I started this season with him in my top two only to waver a slightly after his narrow success in the Christmas Hurdle.

But I'm less inclined to waver now. MTOY is likely to travel like a dream for much of the race and I don't think the suggestion that he is brittle off the bridle holds too much water any more.

Our Conor just tops my short list, but MTOY is very close behind. And I'm also nibbling Annie Power at big prices on the exchanges in the belief that there is much more chance of her running on day one of the Festival than many people suspect.

2: He keeps on winning - but is Melodic Rendezvous a legitimate Champion hope?

What's not to like about a horse who wins as often and tries as hard as this chestnut?

Very little is the short answer. But the longer - and potentially embarrassing answer - is that nothing Melodic Rendezvous has achieved in public thus far suggests he will win this year's Champion.

A tepid pace resulting in a much slower time than the earlier handicap hurdle may have been less than ideal, but Jeremy Scott's gelding had to dig fairly deep in Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle to master a horse who had been blown away twice by Annie Power this term.

I have loads of time for Melodic Rendezvous and the team behind him. But you have to lay sentiment aside when punting on championship races. And logic suggests MR will come up short on March 11th even if he has the testing ground that suits him so well.

3: Is it surprising to see Mullins and Walsh so cool on Un De Sceaux as a Champion contender?

Hard to say. Willie wonders whether "it would be the right thing to do," while Ruby rightly points out that blazing a trail in the Champion would be "a very different ball game" than dominating three and four-runner races.

Un De Sceaux's absence from Cheltenham would clearly deprive the race of a very dangerous floater. Far more importantly, his absence would greatly reduce the the chance of a strongly-run race which would give some special horses the chance to show precisely how good they are. And for that reason alone a rethink would be very welcome.

4: Another week gone and no nearer an Annie Power decision?

In theory, that's exactly how things stand. But maybe we can piece together a few clues.

It's tough to assess what the likely absence of Un De Sceaux says about Annie's potential Festival target - perhaps it says nothing at all.

And some might say last week's defeats for Doyly Carte and Zarkandar - both "Powered" at least once this winter - didn't exactly frank Annie's form.

But let's factor in the phone book as well as the form book. A sensible Irish judge who isn't known for gilding the lily is confident that Annie will run in the Champion rather than the World hurdle unless something derails Quevega's Mares' Hurdle bid.

"But let's factor in the phone book as well as the form book. A sensible Irish judge who isn't known for gilding the lily is confident that Annie will run in the Champion rather than the World hurdle unless something derails Quevega's Mares' Hurdle bid."

As Barry Davies once said: "Interesting. Very interesting."

5: Does Reynoldstown defeat spell the end of any RSA Chase hopes for Many Clouds?

Saturday's second to the revitalised O'Faolains Boy didn't enhance his prospects - but nor did it damage them irreparably.

Oliver Sherwood is adamant that Many Clouds will be sharper next month. In addition, it's also worth noting that Many Clouds was conceding 4lb and left the impression he went head to head with the freewheeling Gevrey Chambertin a fair way earlier than ideal.

Either way, Many Clouds confirmed that he jumps very well indeed. Ridden with a little more restraint, I could still see him running a lot better than his 20-1 quote suggests on March 12th.

6: Champagne Fever misses yet another big race - should his Arkle backers be concerned?

You need only look back twelve months for a big, grey previous Festival winner who won the Arkle on the back of just two chases having been absent since Christmas, but whether Champagne Fever can emulate Simonsig remains to be seen.

Simonsig lined up for the Arkle after giving a good hiding to the smart Hinterland at Kempton. By contrast, Champagne Fever heads to the Festival after a Leopardstown defeat which saw him blunder badly two out after Ruby Walsh took the unusual decision to bang heads with confirmed trailblazer Defy Logic from the word go.

Willie Mullins decided to bypass Sunday's Flyingbolt Chase at Navan due to testing ground. I doubt Champagne Fever needs the jumping practice - his technique looks sound despite that Leopardstown blip - but his preparation hasn't gone as sweetly as I thought and it's a little surprising to see him as short as 11-4 all things considered.

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7: Alan King has won the Arkle twice - can Valdez give him a third?

There is little doubt I will end up out of pocket if he does. Valdez is three from three over fences and a good attitude and a sound jumping technique are both points in his favour.

However, he took all day to wear down Arnaud at Doncaster on his latest start. Arnaud's wily trainer Charles Byrnes has a far stronger Arkle hope housed at his Ballingarry base and on Donny evidence Valdez seems unlikely to be good enough in three weeks' time.

8: Rock On Ruby's Festival form figures over hurdles read 2 1 2 - can he shine again over fences?

It's never wise to dismiss a horse who has withstood the Festival heat so often and it's no fault of Rock On Ruby that he has had tiny fields to beat over fences thus far.

Seldom flash yet always professional - a bit like his rider Noel Fehily - he isn't built along classic chasing lines but his jumping has looked solid thus far and he's finally reached his correct price at 7-1 or thereabouts.

9: Dodging Bullets or Hinterland as the main Paul Nicholls hope?

The former is rated 155 on BHA figures, while the latter is currently pegged on 154.

And choosing between the pair is tough. The suspicion remains that Nicholls would like to split his aces (Hinterland also holds a Champion Chase entry) but both horses jump well and have already reached a level to hold clear place claims.

10: Can Grandouet give Henderson a third consecutive success?

He's certainly no Sprinter Sacre and he probably isn't a Simonsig. What Grandouet is is a high-class hurdler who ran Hinterland close at Sandown before forcing tactics backfired badly behind Dodging Bullets at Kempton.

I wouldn't dream of laying such a smooth traveller at 16-1 if the monsoon season ever comes to an end. Whether I could bring myself to back him to truly seal the deal when things get tough is another matter.

11: So where does the Arkle value lie as things stand?

It goes against the grain to desert Champagne Fever having been in his corner for much of the winter but it's hard to rate him great value at current odds..

The fact that Hinterland could rock up in the Champion Chase makes him a risky ante post proposition, while Sunday's Navan winner Bright New Dawn would be a natural if the makers of "Sprinter Sacre - The Movie" ever wanted a body double but doesn't look good enough to win an Arkle even if he does make the trip.

Dodging Bullets has plenty of plus points despite his narrow Newbury defeat, while Felix Yonger will be a market springer on good ground if he runs here rather than in the JLT, but Trifolium appeals as a very solid win and place option at 6-1.

True, Charles Byrnes's gelding played second fiddle to Felix at Navan in November, but he's thrived since and jumped beautifully when taking his revenge in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown in January. He's proven at the Festival having finished a fine third in the Supreme two years ago and looks bound to go well in a wide open race.

12: Is it wise to let Captain Chris take his chance in the Gold Cup again?

That depends on your definition of wise. If that definition involves beating Bobs Worth and company going anti clockwise then the answer is probably no, but Captain Chris is in the form of his life after his dominant Ascot Chase win and where else can he run before the next big right handed Grade 1 contests at Punchestown in April?

The Captain gave me a very costly start to the 2011 Festival when blasting my theory that he wouldn't jump straight enough to win the Arkle but three subsequent visits have yielded a PU in an Argento Chase, a wayward fourth in a Ryanair and a remote sixth in last year's Gold Cup.

His sidewinding tendencies cost him dear last year. And, for all that he's a proven G1 performer who deserves another chance against the best, those same tendencies will probably do for him again on March 14th.

13: What price should Bobs Worth be to repeat last year's Gold Cup success?

He probably deserves to be 9-4 favourite - but why would anyone take that price with over three weeks to go and a strong likelihood that a couple of firms will stick their necks out and go longer nearer the day?

Here is a horse with a formidable set of stats which include a record of 3-3 at the Festival, 5-5 at Cheltenham overall and 9-9 when he has put his honest nose ahead in a jumps race.

His win in a steadily-run Lexus at Leopardstown win didn't provide conclusive proof that he's right back to his best after that Betfair Chase flop. But anyone who takes a big position against him on the day would be well advised to take another good look at those stats first.

14: How many serious dangers are there if Bobs worth is on his game again?

Not many on the figures and the market looks to have most of them dead right at present. Silviniaco Conti's claims are clear cut after his King George success, while Last Instalment has added a new layer of intrigue in more ways than one with his emphatic Hennessy success.

I'm still open minded about Cue Card's stamina and Dynaste's plans have yet to be made public - so all in all this a race I'm happy to come back to nearer the time.

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15: Can Un Temps Pour Tout justify his massive price tag in the Neptune?

Put it this way, he looked a lot more like a 450 grand horse in trouncing the useful Cole Harden over two and a half miles at Ascot than when beaten by Zamdy Man over two miles at Haydock.

Strong galloping is clearly his forte and he helped force a searching pace to halfway before being allowed to cruise home from the last.

David Pipe suggested he might be one for the Coral Cup, but he might not be quite so keen on that option once the handicapper reveals his handiwork. UTPT deserves a crack at the Neptune - and if the ground stays soft so much the better.

16: And what about Pipe's other novice hurdlers?

The Pond House hand looks a strong one. Granted, The Liquidator blotted his Supreme Novices' copybook with a lacklustre performance at Kempton, but the unbeaten Red Sherlock put down a persuasive Neptune marker by beating a smart field at Cheltenham last month and Kings Palace is very much one to look forward to in the Albert Bartlett.

The fact that Kings Palace hasn't been seen in public since December means he hasn't had as much publicity as most good novices, but he's been very strong in the Albert market.

And with good reason. Kings Palace is Timeform's highest rated staying novice and it's hard to think of a member of the current crop who attacks hurdles with such accuracy and enthusiasm. He bolted up in a bumper on soft ground but his free flowing style might be at its most potent if the ground comes up good on March 14th.

17: What chance Foxrock can put Ted Walsh back in the Festival headlines in the National Hunt Chase?

The plus points are obvious in that he's a sound jumping stayer with two Grade 2 successes on his dance card after toughing it out to land the odds in Sunday's Ten Up Chase at Navan.

It's also likely that at least a couple of his main market rivals - notably Corrin wood and Sam Winner - could head for the RSA Chase rather than the four miler.

Others will come to the fore, with Mendip Express, Shutthefrontdoor and the progressive Midnight Prayer high on the short list, but Foxrock has had the day one closer as his target all season. It's easy to see him starting at least a point or two shorter than the current 6-1 on offer.

18: Any handicappers to note from the weekend?

Kaylif Aramis scored another success for the "first time after a wind operation" brigade in a strongly-run race at Ascot and looks Coral Cup bound next.

His young rider Ryan Hatch continues to look fine value for his claim in races like this, but Heath Hunter is the one to note for next time.

It might not be at the Festival given that David Pipe's gelding is currently rated just 125, but Heath Hunter fared much the best of those who helped cut out a severe gallop and he's surely still handicapped to do some damage under less forceful tactics.

"It might not be at the Festival given that David Pipe's gelding is currently rated just 125, but Heath Hunter fared much the best of those who helped cut out a severe gallop and he's surely still handicapped to do some damage under less forceful tactics"

19: What does the coming week hold in terms of Festival clues?

Kempton looks the focal point with the possibility of a couple of clues for the Triumph and Supreme Novices' Hurdles.

John Quinn's runaway Donny winner Pearl Castle looks set to find Harry Fry's promising French recruit Activial as one of his main stumbling blocks in the Adonis, while it will be interesting to see how bookmakers price up a potential clash between Irving, First Mohican and Amore Alato in the Dovecote.

Irving needs to win well to cement his place as second favourite for the Supreme. I'll be surprised if he isn't too sharp for First Mohican. And although Amore Alato is useful, it would be disappointing if Irving can't outpoint him, too.

20: Any Crabbie's Grand National hints to finish off?

Nothing to shout about from the Aintree entrants in the Haydock trial but much more promise at Ascot as last year's Aintree third Teaforthree looked right back on song when pipped by the rejuvenated Restless Harry.

He took to Aintree extremely well last year, but is he really that well treated off a 2lb lower mark this time around?

This year's race promises to be stronger and it's hard to argue that he represents great value now he's been trimmed to 12-1 favourite.

On a separate point, these are early days to be dogmatic about exactly what is needed to win a National now the Aintree fences have been modified.

Sound jumpers like Teaforthree will clearly never go out of fashion. But logic suggests that they may not enjoy the edge they once did at Aintree now those unyielding wooden cores have been replaced by synthetic inners.

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