Hotpots or potless?
Ben Linfoot takes a look at some of the hot favourites at the Cheltenham Festival and decides whether they are deserving of support.
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JEZKI - Supreme Novices'. Best price 4/1
JP McManus' latest recruit isn't a hotpot in the sense that he's a very short price, but 4/1 is certainly short enough for a race as competitive as the Supreme Novices' with the second-favourite River Maigue six points bigger at 10s. And I would be very wary of backing Jezki at 4/1 - in fact I would be staying well away from him at that price. He was very impressive in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on his latest start but it now transpires that could be his last outing before the Festival and that decision might prove a mistake. No less than 12 of the last 13 winners of the Supreme had run in the 52 days leading up to the Festival and Jezki's longer absence could well be against him in by far the biggest field he'll have run in over hurdles. He was eighth in the Champion Bumper last year as well so there is a question mark about him coming up the hill while all of his winning during this campaign has come in the soft winter ground. We're not guaranteed better spring ground conditions at Cheltenham if this bad weather holds up but it is another thing to consider, while you may also take into consideration the fact that only three favourites have won the Supreme in the last 21 renewals. His Royal Bond win took a knock too, with Champagne Fever's subsequent effort. He's going to have some serious opposition for the Festival opener, most notably from Puffin Billy, Melodic Rendezvous and McManus' other big hope My Tent Or Yours, and with plenty of lively outsiders in the mix too, I would be staying away from Jezki.
SIMONSIG - Arkle Trophy. Best price evens
Last year Nicky Henderson aimed his stylish winner of Kempton's Wayward Lad Novices' Chase at the Arkle and his mere presence scared off plenty of would-be rivals. We could be saying the same this year as Simonsig looks sure to go off an odds-on favourite and you would think the opposition will be limited in numbers. Donald McCain decided to swerve Sprinter Sacre last season with his long-time Arkle hope Peddlers Cross, the Kempton clash enough proof of who was king of the castle, but he'll be hoping his latest Champion Hurdle runner-up turned-novice-chaser Overturn can give Simonsig a race. Now, Overturn is a likeable racehorse. He just seems to have a lot of love for the game and he tries his hardest every time he runs, whether that's in a Chester Cup or a novice chase at Donny. He has bags of class too. But, you get the feeling his gung-ho tactics from the front will play into the hands of Simonsig in the Arkle. Henderson wanted a lead for Sprinter Sacre all last season and never really got one, although Cue Card gave him a fairly nice tow into the Arkle, but he looks certain to get a race theoretically run to suit Simonsig at the Festival. Hinterland got 31-and-a-half lengths closer to Captain Conan than he did to Simonsig and that Kempton run is the standout piece of two-mile novice chase form this campaign. I couldn't have Arvika Ligeonniere, who wasn't convincing when jumping to the right in his win at Leopardstown, and beyond that it's hard to think of a horse who might give the hugely-exciting Simonsig a race.
QUEVEGA - Mares' Hurdle. Best price 4/5
She turns up, she wins. It's been a theme of the Festival for the last four years and once again the OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle looks a penalty-kick for Willie Mullins' wonder mare. There are only two things for ante-post punters to consider in my view. One, do you want some of your Festival funds tied up in a 4/5 chance for two months, when, if she runs, will she really be significantly shorter on the day? And two, is the prospect of her turning up in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in the absence of Big Buck's a real enough possibility for you to think she might not turn up for a fifth OLBGDNMH? On a line through the now-retired Voler La Vedette, you'd have to think she would have a major chance in the World Hurdle with her 7lb mares' allowance. Voler La Vedette got as close to Big Buck's as any horse last year and Quevega subsequently gave Colm Murphy's charge a good beating at Punchestown. She'll get an entry for the World Hurdle, but ultimately I think she'll go down the mares route once more. Why not? A fifth Festival win in a row would be an incredible achievement and there is one more thing to consider. Would Mullins be admitting he swerved Big Buck's over the years if he suddenly aimed Quevega at the World Hurdle? Perhaps things like that don't bother top trainers. Even so, the lure of a fifth Mares' Hurdle, undoubtedly the much easier option even with Big Buck's sidelined, should be too strong.
DYNASTE - RSA Chase. Best price 5/2
The problem I have with Dynaste is this. Is he really and out-and-out stayer that will cope with the rigorous demands of an RSA Chase? He jumps well, he looks classy, his form looks good - particularly his Cheltenham win that Unioniste boosted in the big December handicap at the same track. But can you really see him battling up the hill in a gruelling RSA Chase? I can't and would be much more interested in him in the Jewson. Three times over hurdles - admittedly against Big Buck's - he shaped like a non-stayer at this track and the Feltham he won over Christmas wasn't the best renewal of the race. Certainly, it didn't convince me he would stay three miles against top-class opposition at Cheltenham. Interestingly, the 18 winners of the Feltham have never gone on to win an RSA Chase, however six beaten horses from the same Kempton race have, including Bobs Worth last season. But back to Dynaste. I like him as a horse, I think he could be top-class and I would be interested in backing him for the two-and-a-half miler which he could well run in yet. But, though the alternatives at this stage look few and far between, I'd be against him at the prices for the RSA.
SPRINTER SACRE - Champion Chase. Best price 1/2
I couldn't back any horse at 1/2 for the Queen Mother Champion Chase two months in advance of the race. So many things can go wrong in horse racing that you couldn't advise it as a sensible investment. But, leaving sense out of the equation, if he turns up he wins doesn't he?! I'm hugely excited by this horse. Even writing about him now perks me up on this dreary Monday. His Tingle Creek win - watch it again here, go on, you know you want to - was astonishing and you could confidently call him the winner just after the Railway Fences, a huge distance from home in a Grade One. I don't think there's a two-miler in training who can hold a candle to this fellow with Sizing Europe probably best equipped to at least give him a race. Given Sizing Europe's Festival pedigree I would love to see him tackle Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother as he might just spur Nicky Henderson's behemoth into producing a proper ratings-busting performance. As much as I love Flemenstar I don't think he could cope with Sprinter's speed if connections did decide to drop him back in distance and nothing else will get near him, especially with reigning champ and Seven Barrows yard-mate Finian's Rainbow seemingly likely to avoid him by going for the Ryanair.
VERDICT: It has to be hotpot.
BOBS WORTH - Gold Cup. Best price 3/1
My natural instinct is to take on a 3/1 favourite for the Gold Cup two months before the race, and I did by putting up The Giant Bolster each-way in our ante-post preview. The thinking behind that was that last year's runner-up is overpriced in the race due to one lacklustre run in heavy ground in the King George. I can forgive him that. And, despite Bobs Worth's obvious qualities, I don't think he's head and shoulders above his contemporaries, as the market seems to suggest. Even if I strongly fancied him I wouldn't be backing him now, as he could go straight to the Festival and be an even bigger price on the day. Of course, there's an obvious counter-argument. He put in the best performance by a staying chaser this season when he won the Hennessy, a Hennessy that was franked by second and third Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant when they fought out the finish in the Lexus. On top of this, he has a perfect record around Cheltenham, including wins in the Albert Bartlett and the RSA Chase at the last two Festivals. But, in Flemenstar, Long Run, Silviniaco Conti, Sir Des Champs, The Giant Bolster, Captain Chris and more he has some potentially serious rivals. If I were a Bobs Worth backer I'd be worried if the ground rode soft too. On balance, I'd have to be against him at the prices.