Unioniste poised to strike
Channel 4 commentator Simon Holt previews the feature races from Saturday's card at Cheltenham.
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The big races so far this jumps season have been dominated by Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, the two outstanding trainers of their era.
After Saturday successes for Nicholls with Al Ferof (Paddy Power Gold Cup) and Silviniaco Conti (Betfair Chase) in November, Henderson has bounced back over the last two weekends with Bobs Worth in the Hennessy Gold Cup and Sprinter Sacre in the Tingle Creek.
Now it could be Nicholls' turn again as he fields a fascinating runner in the Paul Stewart IronSpine Charity Challenge Cup Gold Cup, a race perhaps best known as the December Gold Cup these days.
That horse is the four-year-old Unioniste who, despite being set to race from 6lb out of the handicap, could be open to massive improvement after his third at Cheltenham (on the Old Course) behind Dynaste and Fingal Bay last month on only his third run over fences.
Like most ex-French horses, Unioniste - a half brother to the very useful staying chaser My Will - boasts plenty of experience for one of tender years having won two of eight starts (a hurdle and a chase) across the channel before being transferred to Nicholls and the ownership of John Hales, and I feel he has been dangerously underestimated by the handicapper here.
It could be that he will still be too green to do himself justice but, on the other hand, the vast majority of his rivals look thoroughly exposed and he may never be so lightly weighted again especially with Harry Derham claiming 5lb.
Nicholls is also represented by Cristal Bonus, a fluent winner of quite a modest affair at Down Royal on his reappearance having run second to Menorah on his final start last season at Aintree. Highly regarded, he is certainly one to keep an eye and gets the assistance of Ruby Walsh.
One would expect Walkon, runner-up to Al Ferof in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, to provide stiff opposition though he has tended to run best when fresh in the past. Additionally, Alan King's grey may have had a hard race (along with third-placed Nadiya De La Vega) as very few finished in really arduous conditions.
Quantatitiveasing, last year's winner of this contest, was pulled up that day but couldn't be ruled out if returning to his best especially as he sees out this trip particularly well while the top weighted Wishfull Thinking looked on the way back to something like his best form here last time.
Later on, Nicholls and Henderson are sure to figure strongly yet again in the Stan James International Hurdle with representation from Zarkandar and Grandouet respectively but both could be foiled by the current champion hurdler Rock On Ruby who makes his eagerly awaited reappearance for rookie handler Harry Fry.
On a line through that great battler Overturn, there is little between Rock On Ruby and Grandouet (who won this prize 12 months ago but has been off the course since). However, of the pair, Rock On Ruby could just have the greater stamina - remember he was second in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle here at the Festival over 2m5f in 2011 - and resolution than his strong-travelling rival.
This is his chance to prove that he is not a below-average Champion Hurdler as many people seem to believe.
If either are short of full fitness, then Zarkandar - a winner at Wincanton already this season - could be there to take advantage (especially as he receives 4lb) but he appeared to lack tactical speed when only fifth behind Rock On Ruby in the Champion Hurdle and, at the highest level, might just want a little bit further.