Open look to Festival showdowns

  • By: Richard Dunwoody
  • Last Updated: January 10 2013, 11:56 GMT

With a slight lull in proceedings this week I thought it would give us a chance to reflect on the best of the Christmas action and see how the big four Cheltenham Festival races have been impacted.

Hurricane Fly: Right in the mix for the Champion Hurdle again
Hurricane Fly: Right in the mix for the Champion Hurdle again

Champion Hurdle: The 2011 champion and last year's third, Hurricane Fly, continued to show he's no back number just yet with another easy victory in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle over at Leopardstown and is now most bookies joint-favourite to regain his title at Prestbury Park in a few months. His only defeat in his last 11 starts came in last year's Champion Hurdle, so there will be some using that against him, while at nine-years-old some will say he's too long in the tooth now. After all since 1982, and 30 renewals, with only seen two horses aged nine or older (Royal Gait & Rooster Booster) take the crown. He's respected, all past winners of this race should be, and I certainly think he'll play a big part, but, like last year, he might just be vulnerable to one of the younger brigade.

Darlan was ultra-impressive when landing the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day and the bookies reacted by generally making him the other joint-favourite with Hurricane Fly. That win was also more eye-catching as it came on heavy ground and connections have made no secret that he prefers it a bit quicker. Yes, some might knock the form based on the ground that day, but still had some decent contenders, most notably Countrywide Flame and Cinders and Ashes, well beaten that day. However, he won that race off a mark of 151, and yes, he'll have gone up a fair bit after that victory, but it's worth pointing out that is still 22lbs inferior to Hurricane Fly's current rating of 173, so if he is to take this he'll certainly need to improve again.

Zarkandar, Grandouet and last year's winner, Rock On Ruby, met in the International Hurdle last month, with Paul Nicholls' charge coming out on top that day. He's clearly improved over the summer and having won 6 of this 8 hurdles races then I'm sure we've not seen the best of him yet either. That said, don't forget he' was getting a handy 4lbs last time out and came into the race off a recent win, so also had a fitness edge over his rivals that day. At the time of writing both Grandouet and Zarkandar are around the 7/1 mark and will certainly have their supporters, but at this stage with Rock On Ruby around 10/1 then he's certainly the value call for me.

He'll come on bundles for that first run of the season, will have a 4lb pull based on his last run with Zarkandar come March, while he's yet to finish out of the top three from five previous runs at Prestbury Park.

The final one that is worth a tiny mention is Oscar Whisky. Okay, so it's probably more likely connections will give him another try in the World Hurdle with no Big Buck's on the scene, but should conditions stay on the soft side in the coming months then there is an outside chance he could be re-routed to the Champion. If the ground comes up soft in March then getting home and up that Cheltenham hill will be tough. With his proven form over further and that he's still got a very high cruising speed - don't forget he was third in the 2011 Champion Hurdle - then he would be a huge player.

Queen Mother Champion Chase: With Sprinter Sacre priced around the 1/2 mark then this horse will certainly be going into many punter's banker pile. We'll know a tiny bit more after the Victor Chandler Chase on the 19th of this month, but he's around the 1/5 mark for that Ascot race already and barring accidents already looks home and hosed. Only an impressive win will see his price contract further for the Cheltenham race, but with Paul Nicholls' Sanctuaire, the horse he destroyed at Sandown in the Tingle Creek, bouncing back to form last time out then at least this month's Ascot race does have a sub-plot.

Sizing Europe just lasted home over Christmas in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase, and despite now being 11 years-old he still remains a big player. He was unlucky in the race 12 months ago after that final fence drama with Finian's Rainbow, while being that he's another that's shown a distinct liking for Cheltenham in the past then I'm sure a lot of the Irish will stay loyal to the 2011 champion.

The exciting Flemenstar has also entered calculations in the ante-post betting (around 11/2) after he seemingly didn't get home in the Lexus Chase over three miles last time out. However, it's worth pointing out he's also been given a Gold Cup entry this week despite that defeat so I'm sure punters will be wary of backing him in any Cheltenham race at this stage until we all know his firm target - he's also a Ryanair Chase possible.

The current champion, Finian's Rainbow, could be a nice spare ride for someone here with Barry Geraghty set to ride Sprinter Sacre, and at around 10/1 he'll have his fans too. The heavy ground was probably to blame for his poor showing at Ascot back in November, so should certainly be given another chance, but he's another that's also figuring prominently in the betting for the Ryanair Chase (9/1), so you might want to be sure what his main target is before wading in - that said, don't forget that Victor Chandler are already offering non-runner, no bet on Cheltenham Festival races, so if you do fancy anything with multiple entries at this stage then you'll at least have that safety net.

Ladbrokes World Hurdle: As we all know this race has been thrown wide open this year with Big Buck's on the sidelines, and, therefore, a case can be made for plenty. The mare Quevega will surely go for another tilt at the David Nicholson mares' only race that she's made her own in recent years - it's just a case with that contest being on the opening day of the festival will her trainer Willie Mullins also run her in this? The fact she's as short as 3/1 and as big as 7/1 for the World Hurdle suggests the bookies are not too sure either, so, again, unless you are with a non-runner, no bet firm it might be best to wait.

Oscar Whisky didn't get home in this race 12 months ago, but he does look a slightly stronger horse this season to me and if ridden with restraint does, in my opinion, have every chance of getting the trip this time and is a big player.

Another big player, should he opt for this instead of the Gold Cup, is Tidal Bay. The recent Lexus Chase winner has found his old sparkle since joining Paul Nicholls and this previous festival winner could have a major say. We all know he's at his best in the closing stages of his races, so the Cheltenham hill is ideal at bringing his stamina into play and with no Big Buck's the yard will love to continue their winning run in the race - Tidal Bay could be horse for the job.

Recent Long Walk winner Reve De Sivola was very impressive in taking that race last time, and he's certainly a horse that's found a bit more improvement in recent months. The under-rated Nick Williams yard will have him spot-on for the big day and although some will say he'll need the ground to be really soft, he has in fact won a novice chase at Cheltenham and a Grade One novice chase at Punchestown on good ground back in 2010. At around 10/1 he rates a solid each-way option.

Monksland could be another flying the flag for Ireland after his excellent recent Christmas Hurdle win at Leopardstown. He won a bit cheekily that day and with some decent horses in behind then his shrewd trainer (Noel Meade) could easily be taking this prize back across the Irish Sea - something that's not been done since Doran's Pride landed the spoils back in 1995!

Of the rest, the connections of Peddlers Cross have stated that he's likely to be sent back over hurdles after not firing over fences last season and if back to the form that saw him land the 2010 Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle, or his second in the 2011 Champion Hurdle then he could be interesting at around 10/1.

Finally, the forgotten horse in the race could be Voler La Vedette. Yes, this classy mare has been poor so far this season and has not won now for seven starts, but don't forget she gave Big Buck's an almighty fright 12 months ago in this race and is now yet to finish out of the frame in her two Cheltenham visits. At around 16/1 she's another that you suspect, if she makes the race, might not be quite that price on the day.

Cheltenham Gold Cup: I've already mentioned that the Lexus Chase third, Flemenstar, was given an entry for this race earlier this week, so we'll have to see what happens there. He's currently around 14/1 in the betting and despite seemingly not getting home over 3m last time I wouldn't give up on him just yet. During that race his jockey, Andrew Lynch, rather had his hands tied every time they jumped a fence to pull him back - so was in essence making around 1 length at each fence and then was forced to forfeit that ground by being pulled back into the pack to make sure he got home. As a jockey it's a tricky one as you need to save a bit for the closing stages, but I suspect if we do see this horse over 3m again then Andrew might just let him bowl along, while it goes without saying the ground should be slightly quicker at Cheltenham than he faced that day, which will again help him get home.

After his King George win, Long Run, can still be backed at around 7/1, and that looks a huge price to me. Okay, so he was outgunned in the Gold Cup last season, but he still finished a close third that day and providing the Henderson team can iron out a few tiny jumping issues I'm sure that if he makes the final line-up his loyal fans will latch onto him and he's sure to go off less than 7/1 - remember he was well-backed on the day last year. Plus, it might seem that he's been around for ages but this horse is still only 8 years-old and that's the same age as the so-called 'new kid on the block' Bobs Worth.

That said, it's easy to see why the recent Hennessy winner Bobs Worth is the clear favourite at this stage. The form of that Newbury win seems to be getting better by the week with the third, Tidal Bay, winning the Lexus and then the sixth Teaforthree running an excellent second in last weekend's Coral Welsh National. He landed last season's RSA Chase in great style too, while the fact he's unbeaten from four runs (3 hurdles) at Prestbury Park is a huge plus as we all know having proven winning form at the course has been a key asset in many a previous festival winner. He'll be a tough nut to crack, but at around 3/1 he's a bit too short at this stage.

Paul Nicholls' Silviniaco Conti, who burst onto the Gold Cup scene after beating Long Run at Haydock earlier this season, is another that will be popular. However, I'd have a few tiny reservations about him jumping around Cheltenham in his normal fluent front-running style. After dotting up at Aintree last April he looks a lot more suited to the flatter Liverpool track to me and although he could easily run at both festivals I'd rather be backing him a month later.

So that leaves Sir Des Champs - last seasons' Jewson Novices Chase winner. He's another that absolutely loves it at Cheltenham (2 from 2 at the track) and the way he finished to be a close fourth in the Lexus Chase suggests we've not seen the best of him yet this season. It's goes without saying it's a race every trainer would love to win, but the Willie Mullins camp are still hunting their first success in this contest and you get the feeling that it won't be long before they do break that duck - could Sir Des Champs be that horse?

All-in-all, despite the Champion Chase looking a one-sided affair it's great to see all three of the other feature races looking as open as ever - roll on March!

Have a good week

Richard

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