Weekend review: Big reaction
Our team attempt to answer the big questions following an informative weekend on both sides of the Irish Sea.
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Four-time World Hurdle winner Big Buck's was beaten by Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross on his return to competitive action in the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at the weekend - could you be tempted by the 5/2 that is still on offer for Paul Nicholls' great to win a fifth? If not, what is your idea of the winner of the race?
Matt Brocklebank: Big Buck's is a brilliant champion but he's not for me this year after such a below-par performance. A wise man once told me 'the Festival is no place for old bones' and, in this instance, I'm going to stand by that adage and side with a younger rival. Is he entitled to improve for the run? Of course - but the air of invincibility has obviously been shattered and I'd rather take the 10/1 about stablemate Zarkandar, who has only found genuine Champion Hurdle contenders Annie Power and The New One too good so far this season, and remains open to considerable progress when stepped up to three miles for the first time in March.
Ben Linfoot: Betting on 5/2 shots six weeks before the race isn't my thing, but that's not to say I think it's a bad price. For 90 per cent of Saturday's Cleeve Hurdle Big Buck's looked his old self and I think he simply got tired on the very heavy ground up the hill. He jumped well, bar leaving his hind legs in one or two, travelled well and looked the class act right up until his tired leap at the last. The writing was on the wall for him from then onwards, but he battled well and was only beaten three-quarters of a length in the end. He came out the best horse at the weights after giving Knockara Beau 8lb and At Fishers Cross 4lb and I'd expect him to come on for the run plenty in the World Hurdle - where he should get better ground. Yes, he's dotted up in heavy on flat tracks like Newbury plenty of times, but he's only encountered heavy ground at Cheltenham once before - and that was when he was receiving all the allowances in the Cleeve when his winning run began 19 starts ago. In a nutshell, following Saturday's performance, I think he can get somewhere near his best efforts when turned out again in March and that could be good enough. There looks very little in the division who could get near his best efforts and only Annie Power looks to potentially have his level of ability looking at those at the top of the betting...
Ian Ogg: I could. Two out on Saturday I thought he was going to win and win well but he just got tired in very taxing ground and, while we would have expected him to have overcome that previously, he was entitled to need the run. The stat about World Hurdle winners aged older than nine (last was Crimson Embers in 1986) will be trotted out plenty of times between now and March but the longevity of Kauto Star's career proved that Nicholls can keep his horses at the top for longer than many people expect. Of course, Big Buck's is returning from an injury and there's the possibility that Annie Power is an exceptional performer but the same can't be said of many others in the field and she's far from certain to line up which makes the prices on offer tempting.........just as they were on Saturday!
Michael Shinners: Although it was fantastic seeing the great Big Buck's back in action, I was ultimately disappointed that he couldn't win. He was ridden slightly differently to how Ruby Walsh rode him and although it could be argued he was in front plenty early enough, the fact he couldn't beat Knockara Beau would worry me. The horse I took out of the race was At Fishers Cross who bounced right back to form after a couple of poor runs. The Rebecca Curtis yard has been a little quiet of late, but that run shows he is coming back to form and potentially open to further improvement.
Annie Power took her career record to a perfect 10-10 with a facile success at Doncaster, once again highlighting her versatility in terms of trip. Now she's had her final prep, where would you be aiming her this spring?
MS:: I don't think it matters which race she runs in. If she goes for the Champion Hurdle she wins and if she goes for the World Hurdle she also wins! At odds of 1/6 she was entitled to win easily, but the way she does it, simply proves the class that she has. When looking at the races, the World Hurdle looks the easy option, therefore I would slightly prefer that route.
MB: Annie Power no doubt has that touch of star quality and I can really see her capturing the public's imagination in a serious way in the build-up to the Festival. There were some interesting comments from owner Rich Ricci and trainer Willie Mullins post-race that suggested it's not yet a given she will make the trip to Cheltenham at all, and one or two Irish experts raised the Aintree Hurdle as a serious option, but I'd love to see her adding another fascinating dimension to what is shaping up to be a classic of a Champion Hurdle.
BL: If you were looking for the easiest option you'd go for the mares. If you were looking for the next easiest option you'd go for the World Hurdle. The Stan James Champion Hurdle would undoubtedly be the toughest test she could have at Cheltenham, but I think it's the right test for her and if she were mine there would be no doubt that I'd go for the Champion. Not only have you got the prestige, the thrill of speed and the extra prizemoney, but in the long-term I think it would be better for her than a three-mile slog around Cheltenham in the stayers race. Is she good enough to win the Champion Hurdle? We don't really know as her form is hard to gauge, but the gut feeling is she could well be up to standard and it would be fascinating to see her line up in what promises to be a vintage renewal.
IO: Willie Mullins could have a second career as a diplomat and he must have some very sporting owners. The connections of Hurricane Fly and Quevega will almost expect Ruby Walsh to ride their horses in the Champion and David Nicholson respectively but Rich Ricci is one of the biggest owners in the yard. You'd love to be a fly on the wall to hear the discussions. There's an assumption that she will go for the World Hurdle despite having never run beyond an extended two miles four because of that pair and because she shapes as though she's more at home at trips beyond three miles. The defeat of Boston Bob may well have added further ballast to that argument but I'm not convinced. There are meetings besides Cheltenham in the spring and it could be that she won't head over if Hurricane Fly and Quevega make it to March in one piece.
"I doubt that a ten-year-old Hurricane Fly will have the legs to see off this potentially special younger brigade. I'd fancy Our Conor to reverse the form with him at Cheltenham, but whether he can see off The New One is a different matter. And if Annie Power turns up..."
If forced to pick just one, which horse stood out for you on Cheltenham Trials Day as a Festival winner-in-waiting?
MB: Trials Day had a slightly strange feel to it with the old guard of Wishfull Thinking, Knockara Beau and The Giant Bolster all showing they still have what it takes to cut it at the home of National Hunt racing, but it was the Nick Williams-trained four-year-old Le Rocher who really looked the part for me. He was keen in the early stages, jumped a little sloppily on occasions, yet still had the engine to beat the 138-rated Kentucky Hyden by 10 lengths in the Triumph Hurdle Trial. Ease underfoot is clearly favourable but he won on good-to-soft in France and I expected him to take all the beating in the Triumph itself.
BL: I liked the way Red Sherlock knuckled down in the Neptune trial, but while I'm sure he's got plenty of races in him in what promises to be a successful career I wouldn't necessarily say he's a Festival winner in waiting, not this year anyway. If I had to back one horse that ran at Cheltenham on Saturday for the Festival it would be Le Rocher for the Triumph. Nick Williams hinted afterwards that this could be his Triumph horse rather than stablemate Fox Norton and that could be significant in itself. This was the best juvenile form we've seen this season and he's loads of room for improvement and has proven his liking for the track. Ideally you'd like to know how he'll get on on better ground, but at 12/1 (Ladbrokes) that's a chance I'd be willing to take.
MS:: Le Rocher was very impressive in the Triumph Hurdle Trial, beating some very useful performers. He jumps well and looks to have a touch of class. The worry is if the ground turned up quick, but the way the weather is at the moment, soft in the description wouldn't be a surprise.
IO:: Lac Fontana powered through the mud to win the last in impressive fashion and should still be feasibly handicapped despite what will probably be a double digit rise in the handicap. He was treated for stomach ulcers since his run in November and that certainly seems to have worked the oracle. He's always been held in high regard and, now that they've got to the bottom of his problems, he looks capable of fulfilling those expectations. He's versatile with regard to underfoot conditions and can make his mark in one of the handicaps with the County looking the obvious race given his profile.
Hurricane Fly belied any fears of a midweek stone bruise to win a fourth BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday. Our Conor put in a much-improved performance in second but Jezki finished last of the four runners. Can either of the latter duo upset the reigning champion in March?
MB: Hurricane Fly looked beaten for a stride at the final flight but his wicked turn of foot got him out of trouble yet again and he turned on the after-burners to pull away at the line. I promised myself after backing him last season that I wouldn't be going in again at the 2014 Festival and I'm sticking with that call as I believe there's simply too much young talent for him to fend off this time. Our Conor's Triumph demolition job will live long in the memory and I can certainly see him taking another step forward and relishing the return to the Prestbury Park Hill.
BL: Absolutely, I wouldn't trust the form of Sunday's race for a second. The proximity of Captain Cee Bee tells you everything you need to know and it turned into a sprint in the straight. Hurricane Fly still has the speed to win a small-field Grade One in Ireland, we know that, but can he quicken off a potentially stronger pace on better ground in the Champion Hurdle? I doubt it. I doubt that a ten-year-old Hurricane Fly will have the legs to see off this potentially special younger brigade. I'd fancy Our Conor to reverse the form with him at Cheltenham, but whether he can see off The New One is a different matter. And if Annie Power turns up...
IO:: I think Our Conor can probably improve again from that run and he loomed large and looked a live threat before being put in his place by the undisputed champion. There is a chance that he can reverse the form but I'm not sure that I'd be brave enough to put money on it. The track at Cheltenham may well suit Jezki better than the sharp inside circuit of Leopardstown that was used on Sunday but it's still a stretch to see him reversing the form in March. His form, of course, ties in closely with My Tent Or Yours and, by proxy, The New One and the latter is the same price as Hurricane Fly in some books. Just saying..........
MS: I don't think either can if I'm being honest. After a slightly interrupted preparation, I felt that Hurricane Fly was there for the taking and so did our traders as he was the Price Boost. The mistake at the last could have been pivotal but he showed great guts and class to get back up and if there is a challenger I believe it lies with either The New One or My Tent Or Yours.
Which novice hurdler or chaser were you most impressed with across the weekend's action from Leopardstown?
MB: Gilgamboa looks a quality novice going places and has been plotted brilliantly by Enda Bolger and connections. He looked a long way ahead of the assessor when winning the Boylesports.com Hurdle and, much like the J P McManus-owned Alderwood, I can see him heading for the County Hurdle with leading claims before a crack at Graded company come Fairyhouse and Punchestown later on.
BL: Trifolium certainly looks the leading Irish hope in the Arkle following his excellent win (how is Champagne Fever still favourite?). He has Festival form after being third in Cinders And Ashes' Supreme and with more improvement likely on better ground he'll be hard to keep out of the frame.
MS:: Trifolium looked really good on Sunday in the Arkle trial, beating some very useful rivals very easily. I also wouldn't give up on Felix Yonger who made a bad mistake when the pace quickened but then stayed on again. Better ground and a longer trip could be perfect for him.
IO: I haven't caught up with all of the action from Ireland yet but it was hard not to be impressed by the performance of Trifolium even though Defy Logic patently failed to reproduce his Christmas form and Felix Yonger also ran below expectations. I don't suppose he'll ever be a price given his profile and connections but Ted Veale keeps on catching the eye and did again on Sunday. He could end up being very attractively handicapped over fences.