The guessing game
Many horses will have multiple entries at the Cheltenham Festival and Ben Linfoot tries to figure what will go where come March.
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Flemenstar (Champion Chase, Ryanair, Gold Cup)
Few horses have initiated as much debate during this thrilling National Hunt season than that of Flemenstar, the strapping Flemensfirth eight-year-old trained by coltish County Meath handler Peter Casey. He trounced Big Zeb in the Fortria, gave Sir Des Champs a good beating in the John Durkan and then looked to be cruising to a win in the Lexus Chase before falling in a hole after the last. 'He doesn't stay!' was the general cry and trainer Peter Casey's knee-jerk reaction was to commit his charge to the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase. Hours later, though, the Cheltenham Gold Cup wasn't ruled out after all with no decisions to be made until after the Irish Hennessy, again run at Leopardstown over three miles. Beaten just half-a-length in soft ground in the Lexus, it wasn't such a bad try on his first start at the distance and if he can settle a little better in the early stages he could still be a monster over staying trips. Mind you, having dismissed the Ryanair as an option earlier in the season it looks like Casey will enter Flemenstar for the 'intermediate' contest this week to make his Festival options up to three.
Verdict: Even if it comes up soft at Cheltenham I can only see Flemenstar going for the Gold Cup. Connections have been lukewarm about the Ryanair all season and if he went out to force the issue in the Champion Chase it would play into the hands of the exceptional Sprinter Sacre.
Tidal Bay (World Hurdle, Gold Cup)
While watching Flemenstar tire after the last in the Lexus the winner Tidal Bay came from an improbable position to say the least under a Ruby Walsh drive to steal the prize. Soft ground looks absolutely key to his chances in any race he runs in at the Festival with his new best friend Ruby Walsh keen for him to revert to the World Hurdle in the absence of Big Buck's. With Silviniaco Conti a certain Gold Cup starter as long as he gets there in one piece Walsh could quite clearly be thinking about the spread of his Festival rides already. But even so, you get the feeling a 12-year-old Tidal Bay won't have the guns to win a Cheltenham Gold Cup despite his new-found consistency and the Ladbrokes World Hurdle will be a tempting assignment with the mighty Big Buck's absent.
Verdict: Tidal Bay's second to Bobs Worth giving him weight in the Hennessy and his Lexus Chase win undoubtedly scream Gold Cup, but the World Hurdle is much the easier race out of the two and I would be surprised if we didn't see old Tidal strutting his stuff over timber come Festival time.
Oscar Whisky (World Hurdle, Champion Hurdle)
Though Nicky Henderson has failed in his attempts, for now, to persuade Cheltenham to stage a 'Ryanair Hurdle' the lure of the Fez ensures Dai Walters' winning machine will turn up at Prestbury Park come March. Oscar Whisky's best result at the Festival came when he was third in Hurricane Fly's Champion Hurdle but his handler is convinced we didn't see the best of him in the World Hurdle last year when he travelled well only to fade into fifth. That remains his only attempt over three miles so it is too early to come to the conclusion that he doesn't stay, especially when you consider how well he finishes his races over two-and-a-half miles. However, you could argue that dropping back in trip for the Champion Hurdle would be a better way of exploiting his obvious qualities over 2m4f.
Verdict: If he were mine I'd run him in the Champion Hurdle, no question. But when you've got Darlan, Grandouet and Binocular in your locker as well have you room for an Oscar Whisky in your Champion Hurdle arsenal? The feeling is Henderson will give the World Hurdle another shot, though it could've been different if Big Buck's had stayed sound.
Captain Conan (Jewson, Arkle)
Captain Conan was backed for the Arkle before his chase debut, after his chase debut and then again after he won the Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown. But then a flash of grey appeared on the novice-chasing scene, a blur going by the name of Simonsig. The Captain will know him well being a fellow Seven Barrows resident and while the Arkle looks the perfect race for the six-year-old, Henderson has the option of keeping his big guns apart with the Jewson now a suitable alternative for top-class novices. Though Captain Conan has never raced beyond 2m2f he's always shaped like he'll get further and the two-and-a-half miles in the Jewson looks well within his compass, even at this stage.
Verdict: In the days of the three-day Festival when the Jewson was a destination for building merchants, not bay geldings from France, Captain Conan would be heading for the Arkle. Henderson would have no choice. But now he has, and with Simonsig screaming Arkle winner in two highly-accomplished efforts over fences thus far you'd think only a setback to the dashing grey would see Captain Conan go down the two-mile route. Jewson.
Puffin Billy (Supreme, Neptune)
Is Puffin Billy the most impressive novice hurdler we've seen in England this winter? It's hard to argue no. His victories at Newbury and Ascot were stamped with class and the former win is working out well. Oliver Sherwood has said he'll be entered in both the Supreme Novices' and the Neptune Investment and as both his victories over two miles have come in the soft winter ground it's understandable that he'll have the latter as an option.
Verdict: If the Neptune is an option the Supreme has to be the plan. Puffin Billy has travelled so well, showing so much speed, in his starts over timber so far that the Supreme looks to be the much more suitable target for this unbeaten five-year-old.
First Lieutenant (Ryanair, Gold Cup)
First Lieutenant has done well over three miles and further this winter, finishing third behind Bobs Worth in the Hennessy before being robbed of the Lexus by Tidal Bay. He's set to turn up for the Cheltenham Festival a fresh horse on his next start., Mouse Morris has already indicated as much, but will it be for the Ryanair Chase or the Gold Cup?
Verdict: As long as Sir Des Champs looks like taking his chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup I would say First Lieutenant looks a likely starter in the Ryanair. Gigginstown Stud supremo Michael O'Leary will want to be represented in his race and First Lieutenant would have sound claims of winning it on his form this season and at the Festival. He won the Neptune over 2m5f in his hurdling days and connections could be hoping he'll deliver a similar late thrust to deny Cue Card (who will surely avoid Sprinter Sacre) and company in the Ryanair.