GC: 20 Festival Questions

  • By: Graham Cunningham
  • Last Updated: March 3 2014, 19:42 GMT

Graham Cunningham answers another 20 questions on the Cheltenham Festival and the other major racing news.

  • Annie Power: Her stamina is the sole question mark?
  • Dynaste: One of the best bets of the entire week 
  • Monbeg Dude: Appears to have been adopted by 5 Live 

1: What will the BHA do about Last Instalment this week?

If only we knew. Assuming dope tests come back clear - which seems a formality - they will either clear him to travel or rule that the potential threat to the image of racing demands that he should be barred.

I doubt they will provide much detail as to what Philip Fenton told them about why steroids were allegedly on his premises when the Department of Agriculture swooped in 2012.

And, in the absence of such information, the rest of us can only speculate.

The nightmare scenario for the BHA is that Fenton will lift the Gold Cup on March 14th only to be found guilty of possessing steroids in an Irish court the following week.

And the nightmare scenario for Last Instalment's owner Michael O'Leary is that the gelding will spend Gold Cup day in his box only for the case against Fenton to collapse when finally aired in public.

Few will envy Paul Bittar as he addresses one of the knottiest problems of his turbulent time at the BHA, but I'm instinctively against policy based on how something looks as opposed to how it actually is.

Maybe last week's visit to Ireland yielded something persuasive that the public doesn't know about. But if it didn't then my feeling is that Last Instalment should be allowed to take his chance and let justice take its course as and when the Irish courts see fit.

2: How big a threat Is Last Instalment if he does get the all clear?

On the minus side, his connections admit he has "legs of glass" and drying ground on his first visit to Cheltenham would pose him a very different question than he has faced before.

Last Instalment does have a good ground Grade 1 success on his dance card - though the time suggested conditions were softer - but he jumped superbly when winning the Irish Hennessy and it was fascinating to hear a wily old judge like Barry Geraghty mentioning him in the same breath as Kicking King and Denman on RUK last week.

In conclusion, I don't have the inside track as to whether the BHA will allow him to run. But if he does take his chance Last Instalment will warrant maximum respect. And the fact that Cue Card is now out of the picture could make his freewheeling tactics even more dangerous.

3: What's the logic behind Triolo D'Alene limbering up for Aintree in the Gold Cup rather than a handicap?

Connections will be hoping he can emulate Rough Quest by running a blinder before going on to Aintree glory and there will be plenty prepared to take big prices on the back of his Hennessy success back in November.

Vibes coming out of Lambourn suggest he is "working the house down" but it's essential to remember that Triolo D'Alene's Newbury win came off a BHA mark of just 147.

His stablemate Bobs Worth gained his 2012 Hennessy success off 160 and has clearly improved again since, while it's also worth noting that Triolo D'Alene's two previous visits to Cheltenham were hardly inspiring. All in all, he has much to prove despite those positive vibes.

"Only a win will suffice if Regal Encore's to earn a place in the County Hurdle, but Saturday's race promises to set him a stern enough test, not least because Nicholls looks like saddling one or two very dangerous improvers in Lac Fontana and Vibrato Valtat."

4: Cut to the chase. Who wins the 2014 Gold Cup?

There is still time for a surprise development and the market over the next week will probably centre around people trying to find value among the longshots.

That's understandable, but the number of horses who are genuinely capable of running to a mark of 175 plus in this year's race looks small.

Taking on Bobs Worth at Cheltenham has been a very expensive business over the years. That said, Silviniaco Conti was moving powerfully when he came down three out last year and looked better than ever when running down the mighty Cue Card in the King George.

The question of whether he would have beaten Bobs Worth last year will never truly be answered. But Conti comes back to the Festival at the peak of his powers. And, although 3-1 is hardly the bargain of the week with the Last Instalment riddle yet to be solved, it's easy enough to see him giving Paul Nicholls the fifth Gold Cup win of his career.

5: What plans for the mole who kept saying the Champion Hurdle was the plan for Annie Power?

First, an industrial sized dose of this....

And second, a nod of recognition for having what may have been the right steer but the wrong outcome.

It's tough to know exactly how this saga has panned out but it looks like Messrs Mullins and Walsh have gradually held sway over owner Rich Ricci's natural desire to aim high.

The decision will look sound if the Fly wins a third Champion and the Power beats Big Buck's in the World Hurdle.

However, Ricci and the rest of us will now die wondering whether Annie Power was good enough to win the 2014 Champion Hurdle in receipt of 7lb from the boys.

That's a very frustrating scenario for those who believe the very best horses should contest the Festival's very best races. And, whatever happens next week, the absence of Annie and her stablemate Un De Sceaux would leave the Champion minus not one but two horses who would have added a huge amount to the mix.

6: We know where she's going - but will Annie truly stay three miles?

"She was very revved up at the start and I didn't really get her settled until the second last."

So said Ruby Walsh after Annie Power's latest success over two miles at Donny in January and those words have to be borne in mind given that the World Hurdle will test her staying power like no other race she has ever contested.

Pedigree study reveals that Annie is very stoutly bred by Flat standards and she's tends to race keenly rather than over aggressively.

In short, her stamina for three miles is the sole question mark against her, but she powered up the Cheltenham hill when trouncing Zarkandar on New Year's Day and I wouldn't dream of laying her for the simple reason that she might just be much too good for the opposition.

7: What price will Big Buck's go off now?

Much depends on how the Mullins and Nicholls horses shape up over the preceding two and a half days.

If Mullins has had a handful of winners - which looks more probable than possible - then Annie could easily go off as short as 6-4.

And if Nicholls follows last year in drawing a blank over the first couple of days - which is also possible if Irving doesn't live up to his billing - then there is every chance we could see Big Buck's trading at 3-1 or even bigger.

8: And can he roll back the years to win a fifth World Hurdle?

The short answer is that he clearly can if he's the horse he used to be.

And the slightly longer answer is that he makes limited appeal at 2-1 or 9-4 given that he might not be the same horse he used to be at the age of 11.

All sorts of reasons have been advanced as to why Big Buck's might improve bundles for his belated reappearance in the Cleeve Hurdle.

His legion of followers insist he will strip a lot fitter and that a sounder surface will help him considerably. And perhaps they are right, but horses who don't peak first time after a long absence often find it very tough indeed to recapture their very best second time out.

Nicholls is never more dangerous than when given a chance to "silence the doubters" and this is a classic opportunity for him to puff his chest out and send the old king back to the Festival to reclaim his crown.

My hat will be off to him if he succeeds. But I wasn't that interested in backing Big Buck's at shortish odds before Annie arrived on the scene. And I'm certainly not inclined to back him now such a dangerous rival has been confirmed among his opposition.

9: Has AP McCoy chosen correctly in opting for At Fishers Cross over More Of That?

It can't have been an easy call but the fact that More Of That lacks experience and has yet to prove himself over three miles seem to have been key factors.

Either way, At Fishers Cross looked much more like his old self when touched off in the Cleeve on Trials Day and those who point to the fact that his jumping was dire on his first two starts this season need to remember one very important point.

The World Hurdle is essentially a foot race from the top of the hill on the final circuit with only two hurdles to be negotiated in the final seven furlongs. McCoy will be well aware of that and At Fishers Cross looks to have definite place potential if his jumping holds up again.

10: And is there a value bet in the World Hurdle at this stage?

That's a tough one. A little voice inside me insists there may not be a hurdler around who can give Annie Power 7lb but I was hoping to back her at a biggish price over two miles rather than at a skinny price over three.

It's possible to argue a case for various horses if Annie doesn't get the trip, but for a while now my angle in to this year's World Hurdle has simply been to side against the former champion.

The roof will be raised if Big Buck's wins this for the fifth time. But I've laid him. And I might even be tempted into a small place lay if all the leading players stand their ground on the day.

"For a while now my angle in to this year's World Hurdle has simply been to side against the former champion. The roof will be raised if Big Buck's wins this for the fifth time. But I've laid him and I might even be tempted into a small place lay."

11: No Cue Card in the Ryanair this year. Can last year's runner-up First Lieutenant capitalise?

In order to do so he has to turn up and his followers needs to be wary of the prospect of a possible Gold Cup bid if Last Instalment is barred from travelling.

The fact that Cue Card will be absent this year clearly helps First Lieutenant's prospects if he does run and he continues to do his best at a high level.

But certain stats nag away like a stone in your shoe. And the fact that this Lieutenant has found at least one higher ranking officer in eleven of his twelve attempts at Grade 1 level over fences certainly preys on my mind.

12: Daryl Jacob feels Al Ferof is his best chance of the week. Is he right?

The market suggests he is and Al Ferof is probably best forgiven his heavy defeat on extremely holding ground behind Harry Topper at Newbury.

His BHA mark of 168 gives him much brighter prospects than most of the main Ryanair contenders and his Cheltenham record is hard to fault. Indeed, it would come as no surprise at all to see a dashing grey land the Ryanair this year. But whether it is this one remains to be seen.

13: Can Benefficient shine at the Festival for the second year running?

Here's a horse who wins good races at big prices without gaining the sort of fan club his achievements perhaps deserve.

Those who are in his corner will point to the way he rallied once headed in last year's Jewson and his gutsy defeat of Hidden Cyclone in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown over Christmas.

However, Benefficient will probably have to hit another new high if his main Ryanair rivals bring their A games. And, although it's hard to be certain, he might prove more inconvenienced than most if the ground came up nearer good than soft.

14: Can Dynaste bounce back from his lifeless King George effort?

I certainly hope so. There will be no shortage of bookies happy to lay David Pipe's grey given that he was turned over at 11-8 behind Benefficient in last year's Jewson and ran a dull race in the King George on his latest start.

However, Dynaste injured muscles at Kempton and the best of his form - produced when splitting Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti entirely on merit in an exceptional renewal of the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November - reads extremely well in the context of this year's Ryanair.

Laser pen and treadmill treatment have been used to fix the muscle problem and those who argue that Dynaste isn't cut out for Cheltenham have clearly forgotten how he skipped clear of Fingal Bay and Unioniste as a novice.

Put simply, if Dynaste is back in the form he showed at Haydock after a break he is bound to play a major role. The big prices have gone but there is still some 9-2 around and, ridden with more restraint than last year, Dynaste can prove himself one of the best bets of the entire week.

15: What's the best punting strategy with just a week to go?

A ticklish one. The thought of beating the starting price by a clear margin on a Festival winner is nigh-on irresistible to many, but with non runner no bet concessions kicking in all over the place there are very few chances being taken.

Anyone who takes a screen shot of the best prices available now and then contrasts it with the best prices available on the day will find a select group of horses (generally in handicaps) have shortened appreciably.

However, it's nailed on that a lot of star names will be trading at longer odds on the morning of the race than they are at the moment with the added likelihood of an extra each way place being thrown in for good measure.

The message is simple: Pile in if you are confident that you are getting well over the odds. But tread carefully in races where the bookmakers will only start to play their most attractive attacking shots once the final declarations are known.

16: Would a handicap chase for veterans be worth its place at the Festival?

Time has made me change my mind on this one. I used to think the negative publicity if an ageing star lost his life in such a race outweighed the potential positives.

However, it's clear there are plenty of healthy, willing older horses running around who would have little chance of beating younger horses in the Gold Cup or Festival handicaps but every chance of contributing richly to what might tentatively be termed the Veterans' Vase.

The finer points are best left to others to resolve, but a richly endowed handicap over three miles for horses aged ten plus would almost certainly be very popular within the industry.

I doubt it would detract much from the cross country race. And the significant sentimentalist section of the Festival fraternity would lap it up like mother's milk.

17: Ah, the cross country chase. Is it still worth its place at the meeting?

Some of those who have supported the Festival's wacky race - including Alan Lee of The Times - are now suggesting it might be time to quietly show it the door.

On balance, I'm not inclined to go along with that view. Cheltenham have invested plenty in creating the course for a Festival which is designed to showcase all aspects of jump racing.

The cross country race may still signal the time to hit the bar for some, but it's a far less demanding punting puzzle than most of the Festival handicaps and the way Big Shu powered clear last year makes him the natural starting point for any short list this time around.

18: Any significant Grand National clues from the weekend?

BBC Radio 5 Live seem to have adopted Monbeg Dude with Aintree in mind and the combination of royal involvement through Zara Phillips and various rugger buggers headed by Mike Tindall makes it easy to understand why.

Correspondent Cornelius Lysaght was keen to accentuate the positive after the Dude had plugged on into fifth in Saturday's Grimthorpe at Donny, but Michael Scudamore's gelding was simply never at the races after some very clumsy early jumping.

He's most unlikely to be carrying any of my money on April 5th. Then again, that's a comment that has also applied to most of the last twenty National winners.

Godsmejudge did precious little to enhance his Aintree claims in the Grimthorpe, while Mr Moonshine didn't produce his peak form when turned over by Maggio at Kelso and looks vulnerable to better handicapped horses at Aintree having worked his way up to a mark of 149.

On a more positive note, Burton Port finally revived fitted with cheekpieces in a veterans' chase at Newbury and went like much the best handicapped horse in the field until the effort of racing with rare exuberance in front on gluepot ground took its toll from the last.

He ended up having a hard race - and logic suggests any horse who can't beat fellow fossils is liable to find things tough against 39 rivals at Aintree - but Burton Port looked firmly back on track for a long way and those who fancied him when the weights were published are entitled to take a fair amount of heart from his best effort in ages.

19: Any chance of a very late Cheltenham clue or two at Sandown this weekend?

Martin Pipe will testify that it's never too late to stake a Festival claim and the carrot of a hefty bonus for any horse who can land the Imperial Cup and then score at the big show has clearly had the desired effect.

Regal Encore has been surrounded by a lot of chatter ever since he was awarded a mark of 130 for a shock Hexham defeat behind dual subsequent scorer Seeyouatmidnight.

Only a win will suffice if he's to earn a place in the County Hurdle, but Saturday's race promises to set him a stern enough test, not least because Nicholls looks like saddling one or two very dangerous improvers in Lac Fontana and Vibrato Valtat.

20: Is that the end of the "20 Questions" features?

By no means. Time will be at a premium for all concerned next Monday, so the plan is to get straight to the point and pinpoint as many useful angles as possible in the races that haven't been covered in depth thus far. "Bring it," as I believe the kids tend to say.

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