Get the Whisky in
No ante-post Cheltenham Festival market is currently in as confused a state as that of the Ladbrokes World Hurdle - and where there's confusion, there's an opportunity for the wily punter to take advantage.
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The surprise withdrawal of Big Buck's, due to bid for an incredible fifth victory until found to be suffering from an injured tendon, has forced bookmakers to draw up an almost entirely fresh market for the race.
But what bookmakers may have failed to take into account is that the absence of Big Buck's has not just opened the race up for those who might have been also-rans, but also for horses who wouldn't have been in the reckoning otherwise. Confirmation that novice Coneygree is to be given an entry is perfect evidence of this. Might connections of Countrywide Flame, Zarkandar or Grands Crus now look at the race in a different way?
Will Hayler looks at some of the horses prominent in Sky Bet's betting for the race and assess their chances of making the line-up.
Chances of making the line-up: 2/10
A repeat of her win in last year's OLBG Mares' Hurdle would simply not be good enough to win, but the fact of the matter is that you can only beat what's put in front of you and away from the mares-only event that Quevega has mopped up at the Festival for the last four seasons, she has shown form that would clearly make her a leading contender.
Weeks after pushing Big Buck's harder than he had been pushed before in the race, Voler La Vedette was far more comfortably put in her place by Quevega at Punchestown with third-placed Mourad giving the form an even more solid feel. While it's obviously unwise to suggest too literal a reading of that form should be taken (Voler La Vedette was probably not as well suited by the heavy going as the winner that day), that and her other Grade One Punchestown performances clearly illustrate that she can handle the boys.
But will connections take the plunge in the World Hurdle rather than take the easier option again? Probably not. Mullins was quoted in the Racing Post as suggesting that Quevega could run in both races, but such a decision is surely long odds-against. Mullins has never been one for off-the-wall decisions and my guess is that the nearest she'll get to the World Hurdle is her name appearing among the entries.
Chances of making the line-up: 6/10
"Don't worry, I'm not saying that we're going to go back over three miles, but it makes you think more than ever than he just can't have been right at Cheltenham last season." So said Nicky Henderson in the winner's enclosure after Oscar Whisky once again made light work of landing the odds at Cheltenham on Saturday.
Nor was that the first time that Henderson has dropped such a major hint that he would be willing to give Oscar Whisky another try over the trip despite his flop in last year's race. At a recent media visit, he made great reference to an article in the Racing Post which suggested his decision to run the horse in last year's race was one of the worst decisions in racing history, suggesting that the author was "on his way to take over tomorrow seeing as he seems to know so much".
And who's to say that Oscar Whisky wouldn't repay that second chance with a much-improved performance? Four times he has come up the Cheltenham hill to victory at the end of two miles, four and a half furlongs, not once hinting that the extra three and a half furlongs of the World Hurdle might prove his undoing.
The Cleeve Hurdle at the end of January would be a logical place to test his stamina over a longer trip, but that won't be happening with owner Dai Walters keener to harvest some of his own money by winning at Ffos Las again.
Provided that conditions don't come up soft enough to bring him into the reckoning for the Champion Hurdle, I have a strong suspicion that instead of waiting for Aintree the temptation to give him another chance will prove irresistible.
Chances of making the line-up: 8/10
Entered along with a number of his stablemates in the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, Zaidpour may make his reappearance alongside Hurricane Fly over two miles. Having got to within two and a half lengths of that rival at Punchestown in April, he may well not be disgraced either. But it is over longer trips that Zaidpour is most likely to add to the two Grade Ones he has already collected and Mullins is already on record as mentioning the World Hurdle as a likely target after his very solid victory in the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse earlier this month.
Said to have strengthened well over the summer, he is quite clearly a talented performer on his day and wasn't beaten far in last season's Champion Hurdle despite the ground being quick enough and the fact that he crashed through the final flight.
Already a winner over three miles, the form of his victory over Voler La Vedette at Gowran that day ties in nicely against some of his potential rivals and the fact that the race is already seemingly on his agenda is another definite positive, although the fact that he has registered only fair efforts on his two previous trips to Cheltenham must rate a mild concern.
Chances of making the line-up: 3/10
There are few more fascinating potential contenders in the betting for the World Hurdle than this talented dual-purpose performer, who only a couple of months ago took the stayers' contest on Ascot's Champions Day card with an impressive late flourish.
He will be nine in just a couple of weeks' time, but has a remarkably low mileage for a horse of his vintage and almost certainly has the ability to win the Grade One over hurdles that has so far eluded him. However part of the reason for the fact that his appearances have been relatively few and far between is a tendon issue, which mean even if he is does make it to Cheltenham he is unlikely to be given too hard a time in the build-up. He hasn't even run over hurdles in public since finishing third to Peddlers Cross at the Festival in 2010.
Weld himself reports that the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot is the preferred target, but has said he will discuss the absence of Big Buck's from the World Hurdle with Rite Of Passage's owner and see whether that might lead them to change plans. If he turns up, he surely won't be an 8/1 chance - but the prospects of that happening frankly don't look great.
Chances of making the line-up: 5/10
Any horse is worth forgiving one disappointing run, but two on the bounce always lead to far greater levels of concern. The subsequent performances of Sprinter Sacre have made the eclipse of Peddlers Cross at Kempton last Christmas seem not so bad, but it was the manner in which his effort folded, rather than the actual distances he was beaten that he must be judged by.
It was all looking so good for Peddlers Cross when he jumped with such aplomb to win his first two starts over fences at Bangor. After all, everything he had achieved over hurdles - most notably his brilliant second to Hurricane Fly in the 2010 Champion Hurdle - had come despite the physical impression that he could only improve even further as a steeplechaser. But the Kempton defeat, followed by a spell on the sidelines and a complete flop in Cheltenham's Jewson Chase, means that Peddlers Cross starts the season with much to prove again.
Connections have already stated that Peddlers Cross will go back over hurdles this season, starting off over two miles four and a half furlongs on New Year's Day at Cheltenham. According to McCain, that run should "tell us where we are going" but reading between the lines it seems perfectly fair to imagine that he will step up in trip to three miles this season and that the World Hurdle could be a perfectly legitimate target. However given his physical problems, you'd probably want to see him do it on the track again before he carried any of your hard-earned. Could that hard run in the Champion have left an indelible mark on this talented horse?
Chances of making the line-up: 7/10
A classic case of a horse whose plans may now be changed as a direct result of the absence of Big Buck's, trainer Colm Murphy had indicated that he would try to avoid the champion stayer but there is now far greater incentive to line up in the World Hurdle.
This gutsy mare was given a brilliant ride by Andrew Lynch in last season's race as he attempted to fly beneath the radar of the favourite with a late lunge, producing her against the stands' rail over the final flight. Maybe that excellent effort took plenty out of Voler La Vedette, because she hasn't repeated the form in three starts since. But the fact that she has undergone a breathing operation points to another possible problem and her trainer is making positive noises about her again now.
If better weather ever arrives and the going starts to dry out again in the spring, I would expect to see Voler La Vedette return to something like her best form. And her best form would quite definitely be good enough.
Chances of making the line-up: 5/10
It was interesting to see this horse mentioned by Paul Nicholls as a possible World Hurdle candidate within hours of him having to break the news of the absence of Big Buck's.
He has looked to have really turned a corner in two starts this season, taking a competitive long-distance hurdle at Wetherby in gutsy fashion before again showing plenty of pluck as he went down with all guns blazing in the Hennessy. You don't need to be Charles Babbage to work out that giving 6lb to Bobs Worth (now the favourite for the Gold Cup) but being beaten by just three and a quarter lengths equates to a hell of an effort.
Tidal Bay's idiosyncrasies, which include his peculiar low head carriage, also sadly - for his backers - include the propensity to produce some stinkingly bad performances just when he seems to have everything in his favour. He was, for example, well beaten when sent off at just 8/1 to win the World Hurdle in 2010. But it would be fair to point out he has found a greater level of consistency under Nicholls and with Graham Wylie having enjoyed such success in the race in the past, it's hard to imagine the owner being against the idea to run him in the race.
All said and done though, the Cheltenham Festival is a war against the bookies. And loveable old rogue though he may be, would you want Tidal Bay alongside you in the trenches?
So you've read all of that, you've watched the videos, and now you want to know what to bet on. Well sorry, but that decision is for you. Horses not even quoted in the betting may yet take major roles in the final market and that's clearly something to consider. But if you asked me which horse, as thing stand, is most likely to go off favourite for the race it would be Oscar Whisky. Nicky Henderson might try to fight it, but he's already admitted that there is an itch to scratch over this horse's performance in last season's race and the absence of Big Buck's could provide enough motivation to give the wheel another spin come March.