GC: 20 Festival Questions
Graham Cunningham answers his final set of 20 questions on the Cheltenham Festival on the eve of the meeting.
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It's all a numbers game, really.
Four days; twenty seven races; over 400 horses; dozens of bold riders, edgy trainers and expectant owners; well over 200,000 paying punters; hundreds of battling bookmakers; four true championship races; seven compelling novice contests; eleven brainburning handicaps; enough danger at every flight and fence to make even the bravest nervous; and enough glory and drama to last a lifetime should it all fall into place.
But the one number most punters will be concerned about come the end of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival will sit proudly or sheepishly in the profit or loss column. Channel 4 and Racing UK analyst Graham Cunningham is hoping for the former as the biggest punting week of the year dawns and is concentrating on the best races of the week in the last of his five "20 Festival Questions" features.
1: What will the ground be like?
It looks like you are off to a fair start if you dabbled on good to soft, but spring has arrived in the Cotswolds and it's possible that times will tell a different tale on Tuesday afternoon.
As a rough guide, a time of around four minutes for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' and the Arkle suggests the winter deluge has kept the ground soft; something in the mid 3m 50's indicates good to soft; something in the very low 3m 50's suggests good; and anything under 3m 50 secs indicates the sort of fast ground that Cheltenham strive hard to avoid at the Festival nowadays.
2: And how important are conditions in shaping the races?
Some people will tell you that "good horses go on any ground."
But some good horses go on drying ground vastly better than others and the difference between a tepid pace in a small field on winter ground and an unrelenting gallop on a sound surface is tremendous.
This season's form book is rammed with deep ground evidence and bookies will be praying for shocks now the weather has finally turned. And they will doubtless get a few. But spring conditions usually help the elite athletes shine. And the punters who shine will be those who can separate the gliders from the grinders.
3: How does the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle shape up?
The presence of The Liquidator and Splash Of Ginge ought to make this a true test, but the key question from the home turn could relate to whether Vautour can head them and then blunt Irving's potent turn of foot.
Irving is a danger to all, but Vautour got into a highly impressive jumping rhythm and beat a dual Grade 1 winner without ever being touched with the whip in Leopardstown's Deloitte Hurdle.
He moves like a horse who will have no trouble handling good ground and on what the pair have achieved so far he deserves to be shading favouritism rather than Irving.
4: Which of the longer priced horses will outrun their odds?
Wicklow Brave looks very fast and could thrive off a generous gallop, but I very much doubt that Splash Of Ginge can fend off this pack and the vibes surrounding Josses Hill haven't been positive.
This is much tougher than the Leopardstown handicap Gilgamboa landed from a mark of 128, but Vaniteux has clearly blossomed both on the track and off it recently and the fact that Geraghty has chosen him ahead of Josses Hill is noteworthy.
5: Is Champagne Fever the key horse in the Racing Post Arkle?
In many ways he is, not least because he's two from two at the Festival and several signs (including last week's Leopardstown schooling session) suggest he may go out to try and dominate from an early stage.
However, it's still more about potential than proven form over for fences for Champagne Fever and making all in the Arkle is far from easy. Add in the fact that he's trading at under 3-1 in places and the temptation is to look for an alternative at longer odds.
6: Where does the value lie, then?
Trifolium looks very solid at 5-1. Rock On Ruby is a similar price having never been tested at anything like this level over fences, but Trifolium has already shown his mettle in Grade 1 company and jumped with a very impressive combination of speed and accuracy when bolting up at Leopardstown on his latest start.
His rider Bryan Cooper (who has to pass the doctor to take the ride) seems intent on ensuring that Champagne Fever doesn't get anything like an easy time in front.
The longshot Western Warhorse is another who can ensure the favourite doesn't get his own way on the sharp end and Trifolium - whose sole previous Festival visit yielded a fine third in the 2012 Supreme - looks to have a lot of what you look for in a potential Arkle winner.
"Trifolium has already shown his mettle in Grade 1 company and jumped with a very impressive combination of speed and accuracy when bolting up at Leopardstown on his latest start and looks to have a lot of what you look for in a potential Arkle winner."
7: The Stan James Champion Hurdle: is it a betting race or a bragging race?
It will be both for most people, but deep down we all know the leading players look extremely well matched with around a third of a second between Hurricane Fly and Our Conor on Leopardstown form and even less than that between My Tent Or Yours and The New One based on their Christmas Hurdle duel.
Tactics and conditions take on an even greater importance when the main players are so closely matched and the role of supplemented pacemaker Captain Cee Bee (and possibly Jezki in a hood for the first time) will be highly significant in shaping the race.
8: So who will have bragging rights come half past three on Tuesday?
My head says Hurricane Fly might find one or more of these young guns just a little too strong; my heart says it would be tremendous to see Sam Twiston-Davies ride a Champion Hurdle winner for his dad Nigel; my pocket says it would be helpful if Our Conor confirmed the jawdropping promise of last year's runaway Triumph success; the little devil who appears on your shoulder just before big races asks whether the drying ground might play more to the strengths of My Tent Or Yours; and the contrarian in me wonders if Jezki might even revive in a hood with Geraghty back aboard.
In summary, this is one to watch and relish more than an out-and-out punting contest. Our Conor has been top of my short list for a while now but the return of spring makes My Tent a massive danger and he's now become worth much more than just a small saver bet.
9: Any names to note on the rest of day one?
Plenty, though whether they are all betting propositions is another matter.
Racing's very own elusive pimpernel Quevega remains something of a "don't back, don't lay" horse as she bids to land the mares' race for the sixth year running.
The Rewards4Racing Chase looks mighty tough but the Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase looks well worth a second look given that a couple of leading form contenders - namely Foxrock and Shotgun Paddy - face a much faster surface than they have been used to.
Shutthefrontdoor has had a breathing operation since disappointing at Cheltenham in December and also sports cheekpieces now. His earlier second to Le Bec here makes him of clear interest under Nina Carberry in a race Jonjo has won five times, while Midnight Prayer has work to do on the book but is the sort of sound jumping stayer who could outrun his long price by some way.
10: They say Neptune favourite Faugheen is a machine. But didn't they say the same about Pont Alexandre?
They surely did and last year's 6-4 favourite - with a strikingly similar profile to Faugheen - was put firmly in the shade by The New One.
It would be wrong to hold PA's defeat against Faugheen, who simply hasn't come off the bridle in three hurdle wins, and with a handful of fine staying novices heading for the Albert Bartlett instead his prospects look very bright.
That said, Red Sherlock should provide stern opposition. He beat Faugheen's stablemate Rathvinden fair and square on testing ground here with some smart rivals way back, while the handsome and unexposed Ballyalton is one to keep an eye on at a big price now the ground has come back in his favour.
11: What type of horse will shine in a wide open RSA Chase?
No prizes for guessing it will be a strong stayer who jumps soundly in what promises to be a race which tests those qualities to the full.
Latest reports suggest that one of a posse of freewheeling front runners - namely Corrin Wood - will check back slightly but Annacotty looks bound to push hard and Ballycasey and Sam Winner won't be too far behind him.
The bottom line is that this looks one of the toughest Grade 1 puzzles of the entire week. I backed Many Clouds each way at 20-1 several weeks ago, though confidence would dip a little if the times on day one suggest there are very few softish patches left.
12: No Sprinter Sacre or Simonsig in the BetVictor Champion Chase. Hendo can't win it with his third string, can he?
It all depends on whether Sire De Grugy can transfer his Sandown and Ascot form to Cheltenham.
If he does then Gary Moore's vastly-improved chestnut is very much the one to beat and Jamie Moore is adamant that SDG is a much more relaxed and professional racehorse than the one who hindered his chance with a couple of mid-race lunges on his latest visit to Cheltenham last November.
Don't be surprised if Sire De Grugy touches 11-4 at some point. He's firmly in value territory if he does, but Captain Conan has been the subject of sustained support in the last ten days and the gamble looks built on firm foundations.
Lightly raced and a fine jumper, he went like clearly the second best horse in the race when third to SDG in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December. Further improvement is needed to win here but the list of genuine star two milers on view here is a shortish one and Captain Conan looks one of very few horses capable of rising to the challenge if the jolly does produce his A game.
13: What does the rest of day two hold?
Much work still to do on the bumper and the Fred Winter but the cross country chase and the Coral Cup have been on my radar with Big Shu, Bayan and Ifanbutwhynot all rating a positive mention.
The cross country chase might just throw up a real brother and sister story if Paul and Nina Carberry roll down to the last locked in combat aboard Big Shu and Love Rory.
Big Shu was mighty impressive in this wacky race last year and looks primed to run another huge one even from an 11lb higher mark.
Bayan looks to have been put on layaway in similar style to Gordon Elliott's previous Coral Cup winner Carlito Brigante, while Ifandbutwhynot has a high cruising speed on drying ground and an eyecatching jockey booking in the shape of B. Cooper.
"Big Buck's has to give 7lb to the mighty mare Annie Power. Nicholls will want to stretch her unproven stamina but I doubt Big Buck's can give Annie 7lb and I wouldn't be surprised to see At Fishers Cross confirm Cleeve form with the former champ."
14: We all like a BLT: But what about Thursday's JLT?
It's something of a DLT. No, not the Hairy Cornflake but more of a Do Leave Time to study the final declarations.
I can't see too many ways I'll win on the day three opener if Oscar Whisky wins. Felix Yonger is easier to like with spring ground set to prevail and Wonderful Charm - who was giving Oscar 8lb when pipped by him here in December - looks another highly plausible contender.
Softer ground might have been ideal for Taquin De Seuil, but what about two exciting five-year-olds in Vukovar and Djakadam? Some reports suggest Vukovar might have issues on spring ground, but both he and Djakadam have looked very exciting. All in all, a great deal to chew over.
15: Dynaste: Flat track bully or first class flyer in the Ryanair?
Those in the FTB corner point to the way he failed to hold the rallying Benefficient in last year's Jewson (now JLT) and his flop in the 2012 World Hurdle.
And those who still believe in Dynaste counter that David Pipe's gelding came up the Cheltenham hill with no problems when chasing home Big Buck's in a Cleeve Hurdle and when forging clear of Fingal Bay and Unioniste in a hot novice chase.
Regular readers will know I'm not in the flat track bully corner. Far from it, I'm confident Dynaste can handle Cheltenham if held on to a little longer than last year by Tom Scu.
You have to forgive that poor King George effort to be with him, but even the critics will concede that Dynaste has a great chance if back to the level which saw him split Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti in Haydock's Betfair Chase. I'm on him each way at 7-1 but even at 4-1 I wouldn't want to put anyone off in the slightest.
16: Can STD do an STD job on the great BB?
Don't worry, it's not as unpleasant as it sounds.
The young Sam Twiston-Davies is trying to help the feisty Paul Nicholls carry off arguably his greatest Silence The Doubters caper yet as the ageing Big Buck's bids to win a fifth World Hurdle aged 11.
My hat's off to all three if the ageing champ can deliver one more knockout blow, but the Cleeve Hurdle certainly didn't prove Big Buck's is good as he used to be and the data suggests that old horses who don't fire after a long break are more likely to regress than return to their very best on their second run back.
Nicholls is the perfect man to buck such trends and there will be some surprisingly long prices quoted about BB on Thursday morning given that the race sponsors have been ducking him constantly ante-post in order to push the boat out on raceday.
However, Big Buck's has to give 7lb to a mighty mare in Annie Power. Nicholls will want to stretch her unproven stamina and has the personnel to do just that. But I doubt Big Buck's can give Annie 7lb.
And I wouldn't be surprised to see the resurgent At Fishers Cross confirm Cleeve form with the former champ given that his sketchy jumping won't be put under too much pressure with just two flights to jump in the last seven furlongs.
17: And the rest of day three?
The Kim Muir and Byrne Group Plate are still largely unknown territory for me and the Pertemps Final still looked very tough even after a good hour plus of video work.
That said, the Exeter qualifier looked very strong and it's no surprise to see bookmakers saluting it by placing Fingal Bay at the top of their markets.
Fingal Bay looked rejuvenated after a lengthy break in shading it that day and a 6lb rise looks more than fair.
However, it's safe to say Tom O'Brien was never in danger of picking up a whip ban on If In Doubt and this unexposed stayer looks a must for any short list in the biggest staying handicap hurdle of the season.
18: Will potential or proven form play best in the JCB Triumph?
Le Rocher boasts the proven form after a commanding success here on Trials Day but the ground looks like being much faster come Friday and that edges me towards the considerable potential of Calipto.
Daryl Jacob is confident that good ground will be no barrier to this hugely promising French recruit, who has left a striking impression on both his British starts and looks to possess an ideal blend of speed and stamina for a test such as this.
19: Is the Albert Bartlett a case of the hare and the hound as Kings Palace duels with Briar Hill?
It could well be. Urban Hymn looks a likely lad at long odds here, but Kings Palace and Briar Hill stand out on form and a great deal could depend on tactics with Tom Scudamore and Ruby Walsh likely to have contrasting gameplans.
Kings Palace is a natural front runner with a real zest for jumping at speed, while Briar Hill is the exact opposite of a morning glory and has simply done what he has to to retain an unbeaten record highlighted by last year's impressive Festival Bumper success.
Tom will have a bullseye on his back at the pivotal moment when he tries to make the break for home. And, although half of Ireland seem to rate Briar Hill as banker material, it wouldn't surprise me at all if KP proves the long-term pick of an enviable hand of Pipe-trained novices heading for this year's Festival.
20: Last but not least, whose name will be on the 2014 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup come 3.30 on Friday afternoon?
Cheltenham's engraver might not thank me for suggesting it if he's on a tight time budget, but I hope it's that of Silviniaco Conti.
I doubt he would have outslogged Bobs Worth up the hill on testing ground had he not fallen three out last year, but Conti comes back as good as ever following a ruthlessly efficient defeat of the gallant Cue Card in the King George and having the emphasis more on speed than slogging this time can play to his strengths.
It's very significant to hear Geraghty insist that Bobs Worth will also relish good ground and anyone who dismisses a gelding with his stats (3-3 at the festival, 5-5 at Cheltenham and 9-9 when he has put his head in front over jumps) is cruising for a major bruising.
Last Instalment's ability to let rip at his fences from the front will add a fair bit of spice to the mix if he's given the all clear to run, while some people feel the improving Triolo D'Alene gives Hendo a very dangerous second string to his Gold Cup bow.
However, any horse who want to win this Gold Cup surely has to break through the 170 barrier on the ratings scale. I don't think there are many horses on show who can do that. But Silviniaco Conti certainly can. And his rematch with Bobs Worth should provide a fitting finale to one of the truly great shows on turf.
Thanks for reading. And have a great Festival.