Alex Hammond: Al of a chance
Cheltenham fever is really grabbing hold now with less than two weeks until the greatest race meeting in the world (only a personal opinion!).
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With the Sky Bet preview night coming up next Wednesday I thought it was high time I had a look at some of the races to try and see where my hard earned was going to go. For those of you not able to make it to Elland Road (why??) here are some early thoughts.
Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle - sponsors Sky Bet have the Nicholls machine Irving as their 5/2 favourite at the moment and he's a very likeable horse. He has that all important flat speed, but I'm a bit worried that the meeting may start on ground a bit softer than he likes. Vautour is one of a host of Willie Mullins trained horses with multiple entries. This is his target though and he poses a serious threat to the favourite given the prevailing conditions. His stablemate Wicklow Brave is an interesting runner though as he's an improving horse who will suit the strong pace in the festival opener as he can be keen. Mullins won this last year and I think he can win it again, although at this stage I can't quite nail my colours to the mast.
Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase - Last year's Supreme winner Champagne Fever heads the market for the Arkle, but we haven't had the luxury of seeing this horse in action recently as Willie Mullins hasn't been happy with him or the ground. He was last seen in action on Boxing Day when finishing third to Defy Logic in the Grade 1 Racing Post Chase. He made a bad mistake there which put paid to his chances and he comes into the race with just the two runs over fences.
I think the home challenge is strong with Rock on Ruby and Valdez two horses that should run a big race. 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby prefers better ground, so it may be worth hanging fire to see what the ground is like before getting involved because Harry Fry has bypassed a couple of possible races this season due to soft/heavy ground. He acts very well at Cheltenham and thrives at this time of year and has been a bit overlooked despite being 2 from 2 over fences and his yard being in top form, he's a 6/1 shot with Sky Bet.
Valdez can also run a big race for Alan King and at 10/1 looks more appealing than Mullins' favourite at 3s. Paul Nicholls' Hinterland shouldn't be left out of calculations either. He also has an entry for the Champion Chase and although he hasn't run since winning at Sandown in early December, he goes well fresh. If the ground is no worse than soft, I'll be with Rock on Ruby in this.
Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase - Oliver Sherwood has been enjoying a real revival in recent seasons and although he still lacks a horse of Large Action's class, he has some very nice horses in his Lambourn yard. Many Clouds is one of them and he may not be too badly handicapped. The trip suits and he has some decent form this season over fences including his recent second place in the Reynoldstown at Ascot last time out where he may have paid the price for a protracted battle with Gevrey Chambertin. It's a credit to his attitude that he kept on and he is the horse I like for this race at the moment.
"Jonjo feels Shutthefrontdoor may not have the experience for the handicap and if he is under consideration for the Grade 1 RSA he must have a fair shout in this. He comes here fresh having bypassed a recent option at Wetherby and I can't overlook him now."
Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy - This could be the race of the festival. I think I need to get Willie Mullins' name on auto-type as I'll be mentioning it so much in this week's blog, and next week's for that matter. Maybe we'll just say WM from now on to save me getting RSI!
His Hurricane Fly is bidding to win a third Champion Hurdle and for a horse who has won 21 races over hurdles with 19 of those in Grade 1 company he has plenty of detractors. He will meet The New One for the first time in this race and the vibes coming from the Twiston-Davies camp have been very positive. He was beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton over Christmas by My Tent Or Yours, but it's expected that Cheltenham can see a reversal of that form.
AP (phew more initials!) has gone with My Tent Or Yours over Jezki. I've been following Jezki all season and seriously thought he could mount a strong challenge for this crown before the season got going. However, he's not quite stepped up to the mark and has been behind Hurricane Fly both times they've met this term. Realistically he has to improve to beat The Fly and you can bet your bottom dollar now I'm deserting him he will probably do just that. Mind you, I don't expect AP would like to think he got on the wrong one and he will have had a harder time in making the decision, so I'll go with his superior judgement.
If the ground is testing Melodic Rendezvous would be right in there with a chance. He's another horse who hasn't got the credit he deserves. On anything worse than soft I'll be having a saver on him (16/1). Our Conor trounced the opposition in the Triumph last year which has many people naming him as a future Champion Hurdle winner. He hasn't won since that race last year and things haven't gone as smoothly as Dessie Hughes would have wished as he sustained a nasty cut on his reappearance on the Flat.
However, he ran a much better race to be second to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion last time out and back at Prestbury Park you would be brave to completely overlook him. I tend to think Annie Power will run in the World Hurdle, we shall see. I'm going with Hurricane Fly as I still think there's life in the 'old guard' and the youngsters may have to play second fiddle for one more year.
OLBG Mares' Hurdle - Quevega has made this race her own and is bidding for her sixth win in the race. She equalled Golden Miller's record of five consecutive wins at the festival when successful last year and it would be remarkable to see her make it six. Obviously there is the looming threat of stable-mate Annie Power, who is also entered, but I think WM will want to see this 10 year-old make her own bit of history.
If it's value you're after (and who isn't?) I think Highland Retreat (16/1 with Sky Bet) could be worth backing for a place. Trained by Harry Fry, she is a progressive mare with a 50% strike rate over hurdles to date. The ground could still be suitably soft for her at the start of the meeting given that there is an inch of rain forecast over the next week or so. It may dry up as the meeting goes by, but there should be enough cut for her on day one.
Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase - Shutthefrontdoor has been one of my horses to follow this season and so far I wish I'd run in the opposite direction. However, I daren't desert him now as this race might be just the job for Jonjo O'Neill's chaser. He ran like a drain on his last start at Cheltenham in December, but he may just get the ease in the ground that he prefers on day one (he doesn't want it bottomless though). He also has the option of the RSA Chase, and the earlier Handicap Chase on Tuesday's card, but I hope he runs here. Jonjo feels he may not have the experience for the handicap and if he is under consideration for the Grade 1 RSA he must have a fair shout in this. He comes here fresh having bypassed a recent option at Wetherby and I can't overlook him now.
Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase - There is still, no confirmation as to who runs and who doesn't, but a couple of early thoughts. Charlie Longsdon trains Pendra for JP McManus and the horse looks like he could be well handicapped, possibly very well handicapped. He was dropped a couple of pounds when beaten favourite at Ascot on his last start in December and is on 137 now. He was second to Melodic Rendezvous in the Tolworth last season and looks like the step back up in trip won't inconvenience him.
Nicky Henderson's Ericht doesn't looks quite so obviously well handicapped, but he's a lovely novice who won well at Musselburgh last time out. He was fifth in the Coral Cup at last year's festival and has a few entries this year. He's still relatively lightly raced and can't be ignored.
Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle - Where will WM run Faugheen? He's shortest priced for this, but is also in the Albert Bartlett and the Supreme. I think we can rule out the latter as owner Rich Ricci has Vautour in that. The Albert Bartlett may stretch him as he can be keen. I think he'll run here where he'll be bidding to keep an unbeaten record.
David Pipe's Red Sherlock is a smashing horse and despite the fact his tail goes round he has done little wrong. He still a big baby and as a son of the great Lady Cricket has plenty to live up to, but I really like him.
RSA Chase - I always find this race quite tough to master. However, a WM ante-post favourite isn't a bad place to start. He has entered Ballycasey in a few races, but this seems to be his target. He stood in for Champagne Fever in the Dr PJ Moriarty at Leopardstown last time out and won beating Don Cossack. He's short enough here though.
Of the home challenge I quite like Donald McCain's Corrin Wood. McCain is having a fantastic season and his horses are in top form at just the right time. He wouldn't want the ground to dry out too much though as he relishes plenty of cut, so that's one reservation. He is also in the NH Chase, but is fast improving and looks a lovely staying chaser.
Pat Fahy's Morning Assembly jumps well and he is another to beat Don Cossack which he did on his penultimate start. His most recent outing saw him finish second to Carlingford Lough in the Grade 1 Topaz Novice Chase and I think he has an outstanding chance in this race, although he's also in the NH Chase.
Coral Cup - Dunguib is in this race and the County Hurdle (top weight in both) and he must have a chance wherever he runs. There has obviously been controversy surrounding his trainer Philip Fenton of late, but casting that aside, this former Champion Bumper winner looked like he oozed class when winning the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle on his last start and I'm looking forward to seeing him run back at Cheltenham. Until we know who runs where it's tough to go into too much depth. Trainers tend to bat away queries into their running plans at the moment saying they don't know which race they are going for, so until they decide we have to sit and suffer.
BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase - So, no Sprinter Sacre. Whilst that's a great shame, it's a much more interesting race from a betting point of view. Sire de Grugy has been making hay this season and it's been great to see the Moore family enjoy so much success with this talented chaser. The doubt about his love for Cheltenham remains and although Jamie Moore said after his recent racecourse gallop at Plumpton that he didn't think the track was going to be a problem, his defeat in the Shloer Chase remains fresh in the mind. He's top class though and deserves his position at the head of the market, albeit I think he's really short.
Arvika Ligeonniere would be shorter if this was run on a right handed track. He has won a Grade 1 on a left-handed track but ran a shocker in the Arkle last year and that is a major concern. He is a classy individual though and I like him.
Module is a smart horse and Tom George has never made a secret of how much he likes him. He beat Dodging Bullets in the Game Spirit at Newbury last time out and would run here if the ground were soft enough to make it more of a stamina test - he's also in the Ryanair. I would love to see Gary Moore have the winner here with Sire de Grugy, but I think Arvika Ligeonniere is better value in a race where there are ifs and buts about most of the runners.
Glenfarclas Handicap Chase (Cross Country Chase) - Martin Keighley has an interesting runner in this race. He thinks his best chance of a winner at the meeting is with Any Currency. The horse has a decent record in these specialist races and whilst the unusual nature of the race isn't everyone's cup of tea, there are certain horses that can usually be relied upon to run a decent race and this is one of them. He ran well in the Classic Chase at Warwick on his last start on ground too testing for him, so he should enjoy being back over the cross country fences so long as the ground isn't too testing.
Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle - At this stage we don't know who will line up in this race, and there is bound to be a well handicapped horse in amongst them. Dawalan heads the betting for Nicky Henderson after beating Carry On Sydney at Newbury and then running a good race when an unlucky loser in a jumpers bumper last time out at Kempton. I'd be inclined to have Gitane du Berlais on my side if she runs. She's also in the Triumph, but after her last win WM said he would bypass the festival as the ground is likely to be too quick for her and he would be most likely to send her back to her native France for a race. Keep an eye on the weather.
Weatherbys Champion Bumper - Argh!
"Pat Fahy's Morning Assembly jumps well and he is another to beat Don Cossack which he did on his penultimate start. His most recent outing saw him finish second to Carlingford Lough in the Topaz Novice Chase and I think he has an outstanding chance."
JLT Novices' Chase - Vukovar is the horse I'm looking forward to seeing run here. Did you know his trainer Harry Fry has been operating with an incredible strike rate for most of the new season? This horse has been the subject of much chat since his arrival from France and despite being turned over on his British debut at Warwick he made amends by winning very easily at Newbury on his second start for his new trainer in December. He's only a five year old and the Newbury race he won has been taken by some real stars in the past, including Kauto Star and Cue Card, and this horse also could be top class.
Pertemps Network Final - Fingal Bay has top weight to carry, but he also has bags of class and his trainer Philip Hobbs has been in great form this season. He is also favourite in an ultra competitive handicap. However, it's worth bearing in mind he is 5 from 6 over hurdles and three over those were in Grade 2 company and one at the highest level. He returned from 14 months off with a tendon injury in a handicap at Exeter in early February and won cosily. Hobbs had considered running him in the World Hurdle, he's still in the race, but off a mark of 148 he can win this.
Ryanair Chase - Al Ferof! I NEED this horse to run here and I need him to win! He is in my Sky Sports 10-to-follow list and I can still win the most prestigious competition being run this jumps season. That aside, this looks the ideal race for John Hales' grey, he doesn't look like he's crying out for the trip of the Gold Cup and although the Champion Chase is now without it's stand out performer I don't think he wants 2 miles at this level either.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle - Big Buck's may have a fight on his hands if WM decides to run Annie Power. I said last week that if I was going to try and second guess the trainer he would send his unbeaten mare to the stayers race rather than run in the Champion Hurdle or Mares' Hurdle.
I would hate to see Big Buck's beaten again, but my head tells me that this mare would be a tough opponent stepped up in trip. Big Buck's will have improved for his first run back, but he showed his fallibility in the Cleeve and this is an improving freak of a mare who has a chance in whatever race she runs in.
At Fishers Cross has been held back by physical problems, but he ran much better to be second in the Cleeve and only just failed to win. In the same ownership is More Of That, but Jonjo O'Neill trains this horse for JP McManus. He comes here with an unbeaten record and won his fourth and latest start in the Relkeel here in December. He is yet to run beyond two and a half miles, but is an improving young horse who has stayers in his pedigree. He looks an exciting long term prospect and presents AP with another headache.
In summary, Annie Power is a huge threat to Big Buck's if she runs here, but when Paul Nicholls says his staying champion is his best chance of a winner at the festival you take notice.
Byrne Group Plate Handicap Chase - Nigel Twiston-Davies has trained Double Ross to win two races this season and he's the sort of horse who you like to have on your side in a battle. He's 3 from 6 at Cheltenham and has also been placed twice at Prestbury Park. He holds 4 entries this week, including in the Grade 1 RSA Chase, so if he runs here I'd be very interested - remember Sky Bet are non-runner no bet on all the races throughout the week so there's nothing to lose.
Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase - Indian Castle is short for a race of this nature, but Donald McCain usually targets the contest and that makes him hard to overlook. He jumps well for a novice and is very consistent, there will be worse bets to be had this week. It's always worth taking note of jockey bookings in this amateur riders race and having a top jock on side can make all the difference.
JCB Triumph Hurdle - Dessie Hughes' Our Conor ran away with this race last year and it looks like Ireland's most likeable trainer has a great chance of winning this Grade 1 again. Guitar Pete staked his claim to emulate his stablemate by winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown last time out and this track is expected to suit. Our Conor took the same route to Cheltenham and Dessie can do it again.
Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle - Dunguib is in the Coral Cup and this race (top weight in both) and he must have a chance wherever he runs. There has obviously been controversy surrounding his trainer Philip Fenton of late, but casting that aside, this former Champion Bumper winner looked like he oozed class when winning the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle on his last start and I'm looking forward to seeing him run back at Cheltenham. Again we get the 'I'm not sure what's running yet' line from trainers, so until we know more it may be worth hanging fire.
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle - Emma Lavelle is having a great season and I've been following her Mosspark. He is unbeaten over hurdles and won with some authority at Huntingdon last time. He's 25/1 with Sky Bet and I'll definitely be on him each-way. Of the more obvious contenders David Pipe's Kings Palace staked his claim in a trial at Cheltenham in December. He oozes class and is a 'proper horse'. WM has Briar Hill entered and the horse is 5 from 5 under rules. He doesn't do anything in a flash manner, but this looks his ideal race over 3 miles and you can't knock an unbeaten horse. WM has several entries and the quality of his young hurders is enviable. It's King Palace for me with an each-way bet on the Lavelle trained horse.
Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase - Bobs Worth is going to be short in a bid to retain his crown here. I think there's some great value to be had for each-way punters and the two horses that I'm keen on at this stage are Captain Chris (currently 14/1) and The Giant Bolster (16/1).
There's no doubt that Captain Chris would prefer this race to be run right handed, but you can't have everything and it's worth remembering that he won the Arkle in 2011 so it is possible to overcome the problem. He is having a fantastic season winning a Listed race at Kempton in January before stepping up to Grade 1 company to win the Ascot Chase last time out. It seems worth giving this race a shot, and if it was run on a right handed track he would be a much shorter price.
The Giant Bolster doesn't have that problem. David Bridgwater has revived the horse this season and he loves Cheltenham. He was second in this race 2 years ago and ran well again last year and whilst I don't think he'll win, he could run into a place once again.
CGA Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup - I'm off point-to-pointing this weekend and will try and find out who's fancied. But, Mossey Joe changed hands for an eye watering £160,000 in January and is now in the ownership of Barry Connell and has been switched to Enda Bolger. All positives and he has a favourites chance. Bolger also has On The Fringe who is vying for favouritism with his stablemate. This horse is owned by JP McManus, but is a fragile horse to train and as a result is lightly raced.
Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle - It's impossible to second guess what might run here at this stage. David Pipe is obviously usually well represented but I'm not going to take a punt until we know more.
Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase Challenge Cup - The week wouldn't be the same unless there was a Tony Martin trained 'good thing'. Is Ted Veale that horse? Last year's County Hurdle winner has been given a mark of 146 over fences after three runs in graded novice chases. He won the County Hurdle off a mark of 134 but this may not be a bad mark for this versatile 7 year old but he will be priced accordingly.
This is a race Nicky Henderson always targets too as it's named after his father who did so much to save the festival and unsurprisingly he has a strong entry.
Mr Mole at 20/1 could be an each way bet. Paul Nicholls' 6 year-old is still a novice, but has form against some smart performers. He lost a match with Rock on Ruby at Doncaster last time out, but did claim the scalp of Vukovar at Warwick earlier in the season. The concern is his jumping, which has got a bit raggedy since that win. The same can't be said for the WM trained Turban who jumps like a buck, the drop back to 2 miles might just suit him if the ground doesn't dry out too much.
So, there are obviously still several races where final runners are up in the air. I'll be having a good look next weekend when final fields will be taking shape. In the meantime, as I've mentioned, Sky Bet are going non-runner no bet on all the races, so it could be a good time to get involved. For those of you coming to Elland Road, I look forward to seeing you there.......no heckling.....and enjoy the pie!