Dunwoody: Worth taking on
Richard Dunwoody with his verdict on some of the warm favourites at the Cheltenham Festival.
Festival Fancies or Flops? As the week ahead looks likely to be another one full of abandonments, I thought it would be a perfect time to take a look at some of the so-called 'Cheltenham Festival Bankers' with less than 2 months to go......
SIMONSIG (Racing Post Arkle Chase): Yes, with just 3 of the last 20 favourites winning the Arkle then some punters might be looking elsewhere for the winner, but with little strength-in-depth in this division again this season then it will be a huge shock if this horse can't give Nicky Henderson his fifth Arkle. This exciting 7 year-old grey is so far 2-from-2 since being switched to fences and after landing last season's Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle has also already tasted festival glory.
True, he's not really been tested over fences yet, but the fact connections have also given him a speculative entry in the Champion Chase tells you high highly they rate this horse. If the betting is anything to go by he'll have the versatile Overturn to beat, who is another that's made an encouraging start over fences, but have connections left it a bit late to be campaigning him over the bigger obstacles? The last horse aged 9 to win the Arkle was way back in 1988, although I'm not sure too many have tried in his defence, but with 5 of the last 8 winners being aged 7 years-old then Simonsig comes out clear best with regards to the age trends.
FANCY OR FLOP: FANCY
QUEVEGA (OLBG Mares' Only Hurdle): A lot of people were hoping that after winning the last 4 runnings of this mares' only race, and with Big Buck's on the sidelines, then Willie Mullins' charge might opt for the World Hurdle this year. She still might, but if she does then she'll have to run in both races as there is no way connections will not side with the easier option.
Last season's Fred Winter winner, Une Artiste, might give her most to think about, but Nicky Henderson's 5 year-old will need to come on again to bridge the gap in the ratings, while last season's runner-up Kentford Grey Lady is another that has strong claims of hitting the frame again.
At around 8/11 in the ante post market Quevega is short enough with still seven weeks to go, but you suspect as we draw ever-nearer, and the dangers of her not making the race evaporate, then there will be plenty of punters wading in to get one over on the bookies on the opening day of the festival.
FANCY OR FLOP: FANCY
HURRICANE FLY (Champion Hurdle): The 2011 winner is not getting any younger at 9 years-old, but he's shown himself to be better than ever this term with two easy wins. However, let's not forget that his only defeat from his last 11 starts came in last year's Champion Hurdle, when he was a heavily-backed 4/6 shot. He certainly didn't look himself that day, and many felt because the way that race panned out then it was more a great ride from Noel Fehily on the winner, Rock On Ruby, rather than the best horse actually winning.
It's certainly shaping up to be one of the best Champion Hurdles for some time with the last four winners of the race - Punjabi, Binocular, Hurricane Fly and Rock On Ruby - all entered at this stage. Add into the mix the improving Darlan, Grandouet, Zarkandar and two festival winners from last year, Cinders and Ashes and Countrywide Flame, then it looks set to be a cracker.
So, yes, Hurricane Fly's chance is there for all to see, but unlike some of the previous races covered there does seem to be plenty of competition in the race, while we've only seen one horse aged older than 8 years-old (Rooster Booster) land the spoils since 1993. I suspect with him being the leading Irish charge then, like last year, we could see a flood of money for him leading up to the race, but if we do then that will just make him more of a lay in my book. Yes, he's in cracking form, but he flopped in the contest 12 months ago and unlike some of the previous races covered there does look to be plenty of competition in this year's renewal and, therefore, all that equates to looking elsewhere for the winner.
FANCY OR FLOP: FLOP
SPRINTER SACRE (Queen Mother Champion Chase): I've already mentioned numerous times just how good I think last season's Arkle Chase winner already is and could go onto be. I still don't think we've seen the best of him and I've not seen a better jumper of a fence for some time.
At around 1/2 he's too short to risk as a betting proposition with just under two months to go, but come the day there will be bundles of punters doubling and trebling him up with some of the other festival bankers - plus, if the likes of Simonsig and Quevega go in on the opening day then you can expect this horse to be a lot shorter than his current 1/2.
It will be great if Flemenstar takes him on, but he's still engaged in the Gold Cup and Ryanair, so we'll have to wait and see which route connections prefer. Last year's winner Finian's Rainbow could be the forgotten horse in the race after his flop at Ascot last time. However, the heavy ground was against him that day and back on a sounder surface he'll have plenty of each-way support. As will the 2011 winner Sizing Europe, who was also runner-up 12 months ago. He always runs well here at the track and despite now being 11 years-old he's won all this three starts this term and let's not forget he's still a 170+ rated chaser.
That said, it's still hard to look beyond Sprinter Sacre, being that he's done nothing wrong over fences, and whereas Sizing Europe and Finian's Rainbow are certainly no back numbers just yet, they aren't getting any younger, while you suspect that at just 7 years-old there is still a far bit more to come from Nicky Henderson's unbeaten chaser.
FANCY OR FLOP: FANCY
DYNASTE (RSA Chase): David Pipe's staying novice has done nothing wrong so far this season, and his most-recent win over Christmas at Kempton was arguably his best yet. He's also got a win over fences at Cheltenham under his belt when winning at Prestbury Park back in November and with the third that day, Unioniste, franking the form by landing the Paul Stewart IronSpine Gold Cup then it's easy to see why Dynaste is the current market leader for the RSA.
However, let's not forget this race does have a habit of throwing up the odd shock result - we've seen 5 double-figure priced winners since 2002, while big names like Long Run and Grands Crus have also flopped in this race in recent years.
His main opposition looks like coming from Boston Bob and Back In Focus, who are both trained by Willie Mullins and we all know that yard are no strangers to getting one ready for this race. I rode the first of their three winners in the race, Florida Pearl, back in 1998, with Cooldine and Rule Supreme following up for the stable in later runnings. They've also had a few finish second in recent years - Snowy Morning and Alexander Banquet - so I'd much rather be siding with one (or both) of their runners over the likely favourite at this stage.
FANCY OR FLOP: FLOP
BOBS WORTH (Gold Cup): This is not an easy one, as this is another Henderson horse I really do like. He's gutsy, stays and loves it here at Cheltenham, so I certainly wouldn't put anyone off him. However, from a pure value view point I think he's now short enough, so unless you are already on at bigger prices then I'm not sure the 3/1 stands out.
For example, the current King George winner, and Gold Cup victor of 2011, Long Run, is over double his price at around 7/1 and being that he's also rated a pound higher then surely that's better value. Yes, some are saying that Bobs Worth is the more likely to improve, and it's hard to totally disagree with that, but don't forget both horses are still 8 years-old.
I think a lot also depends on who of his main challengers actually make the final line-up as it goes without saying if you are looking to take him on they you'll need to make a good case to at least 2-3 others. Sir Des Champs will certainly fit into that category, being that he's another that loves it at Cheltenham, and after a staying on fourth in the Lexus Chase he should be spot-on come March.
Silviniaco Conti will be Paul Nicholls' main hope of landing a fifth Gold Cup, and after beating Long Run at Haydock in the Betfair Chase is another leading player. If he can get into a nice jumping rhythm out in front then he might be hard to peg back, and being rated 172 is another that's currently on a higher mark than Bobs Worth (171).
Add in lively outsiders like last year's runner-up The Giant Bolster, King George second Captain Chris and potentially Flemenstar then at this stage a case can be made for plenty of Bobs Worth's rivals.
FANCY OR FLOP: FLOP
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