Day Three - The Irish Angle
Donn McClean identifies the pick of the Irish contenders on day three of the Cheltenham Festival, with Annie Power firmly in the spotlight.
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Annie Power or Big Buck's? Easy. Annie Power, every time. (And not just because she's Irish.)
Big Buck's is an institution, a World Hurdle institution, but he is an 11-year-old institution, and no horse aged older than nine has won the World Hurdle since Crimson Embers won it in 1986.
Paul Nicholls' horse was not at his best on his return from a near-14-month absence in the Cleeve Hurdle, and we don't know for sure that that run will have brought him on. And he was so far below his best in the Cleeve Hurdle that it will need to have brought him on significantly if he is to beat Annie Power, giving her 7lb.
Annie Power is unbeaten. Ten runs, 10 wins. Two for Jim Bolger, eight for Willie Mullins; three in bumpers, seven in hurdle races; seven in Ireland, three in Britain; eight on soft or heavy ground, two on good to soft ground; seven over two miles or thereabouts, three over two and a half miles or thereabouts.
None over three.
If there is a worry, it concerns her stamina, but there shouldn't really be a worry. She is by Shirocco out of an Old Vic mare, there is lots of stamina in her pedigree and she stayed an extended two and a half miles well at Cheltenham on New Year's Day when she beat Zarkandar on really soft ground. It is difficult to gauge exactly where the ceiling of her ability is, and it is unlikely that we will know exactly where it is until she gets beaten. She is the most likely winner of the race, and it is correct that she is now favourite.
The value of the race? Rule The World. The Gigginstown House horse finished second behind The New One - who was unlucky in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle - in the Neptune Hurdle last year off an unsuitably sedate pace, so we know that he handles the track and Cheltenham Festival conditions.
He fractured his pelvis at Punchestown on his next run, so Mouse Morris has done well to get him back to the racetrack at all.
After winning on his debut this term at Naas in October, he was well beaten by Jezki in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse in early December. He was again beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown in December by Zaidpour, but that was a fairly messy race, run on soft ground and at a slow pace.
His most recent run was much better, when he made just about all the running and easily beat Jennie's Jewel and Dunguib at Naas in January. He is going to have to step up on the bare form of that run if he is to win a World Hurdle, but you know that he goes to Cheltenham in good form, and Mouse Morris is a past master at getting them to peak for the Festival.
All four Irish representatives in the JLT Chase are interesting, but Felix Yonger has the best form in the race, and he looks big even at 4/1. Second to Simonsig in the 2012 Neptune Hurdle, Willie Mullins' horse beat Defy Logic in the Craddockstown Chase at Punchestown in November, and followed up by beating Trifolium by 15 lengths at Naas in December. Both of those runs were on good-ish ground.
He was beaten by his stable companion The Paparrazi Kid at Limerick over Christmas, and Trifolium exacted his revenge in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown in late January, but both of those runs were on soft or heavy ground.
He just travels and jumps much better off good ground, which he should have tomorrow. He has form at the track and under Festival conditions, two and a half miles is probably his optimum distance at present, he will have Ruby Walsh for company and his trainer's horses are obviously in top form.
Hidden Cyclone was only three parts of a length behind Benefficient in the Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and he ran a cracker to finish third in the Paddy Power Chase over the Ryanair course and distance off a mark of 152 last November. It would not be at all surprising to see him out-run odds of around 10/1 in the Ryanair Chase, but Benefficient could represent better value even at a shorter price.
Winner of the Irish Arkle last season, Tony Martin's horse stayed on bravely to beat Dynaste in the Jewson Chase at last year's Festival. He won on merit, so there is no reason why he should be a bigger price than the David Pipe horse, as he is in some lists.
Benefficient is generally an under-rated horse. He was a 50/1 shot when he won the Deloitte Hurdle in 2012, he was the 10/1 outsider of three when he won the Irish Arkle, and he was a sent off at 20/1 when he won the Jewson last year. He was even the 9/1 fifth-favourite of seven when he won the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas.
His trainer toyed with the idea of allowing the Beneficial gelding take his chance in Wedneday's Champion Chase, but decided instead to wait for the two-and-a-half-mile race, which was probably the correct call. He should run a big race.
Selections (best value bets among the Irish):
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com