GC: The Festival Questions
Four weeks to go and the Cheltenham pot is beginning to boil. Last weekend saw a clutch of persuasive markers laid down on both sides of the Irish Sea and Channel 4 and RUK analyst Graham Cunningham assesses all of them and more besides in the first of five weekly "20 Festival Questions" features.
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1: What will the ground be?
Your guess is as good as mine. This sodden winter continues but Cheltenham dries quickly and the weather in the final two weeks will be crucial.
However, backing the official verdict to be good to soft at the start of day one has paid off several times in the past. There is a bit of 4-5 around and, how shall we say this, Cheltenham clerk Simon Claisse certainly isn't averse to starting the week on good to soft.
2: How many races can be approached with confidence at this stage?
Not that many, with plans still fluid for any number of novices and the shape of the handicaps even harder to predict. That said, the major championship contests seem pretty well set and they look the obvious starting points.
3: Can Hurricane Fly join the triple Champion Hurdle club?
I have my doubts. The five existing members - namely Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq - all won three in a row.
Hurricane Fly aims to make it three from four and his legion of followers are swift to smite anyone who doubts him.
So smite away. I'm not saying The Fly can't win again aged ten. But I am saying things have panned out perfectly for him in his last two Grade 1 wins. I'm also saying this could be the strongest Stan James Champion field he has faced. And I'll sign off by saying 3-1 makes limited appeal even before you factor in the possible presence of stablemate in Annie Power.
"So smite away. I'm not saying The Fly can't win again aged ten. But I am saying things have panned out perfectly for him in his last two Grade 1 wins. I'm also saying this could be the strongest Champion field he has faced."
4: My Tent Or Yours or The New One?
Pass the creosote as I'm sitting on the fence over this one. The record reflects there is just half a length between MTOY and TNO based on Kempton's Christmas Hurdle and it might have been different but for The New One's last-flight blunder.
I'd love to know just what AP was saying to Sam T-D behind a carefully placed hand as they pulled up at Kempton. I'd love to see My Tent Or Yours head north for Kelso's Morebattle Hurdle on Thursday. And I wouldn't argue with anyone who fancies either of the pair for Cheltenham.
5: Can Our Conor make it third time lucky against The Fly?
I suspect he can for several reasons. First, he got much closer on his second crack than on his first; second, having just turned five the odds are he's still progressing; third, it looks very much as if Dessie Hughes has been preparing him to peak in March; and fourth, the Champion will provide his first opportunity to encounter a truly-run race in a sizeable field since the 2013 Triumph Hurdle.
It's well worth studying the way Our Conor sauntered miles clear of a clutch of rivals who are all rated around 150 nowadays last March. He faces the stiffest test of his life on March 11th but I think he's up to it. And the only thing that stops me taking the 5-1 is the nagging concern that Annie Power might just add an extremely dangerous joker to the pack.
6: Should Annie Power run in the Champion or the World Hurdle?
To answer this question simply ask yourself another, namely "which race would AP be going for if Hurricane Fly wasn't around?"
It's long odds on she would be Champion bound and those who feel she should go for the World Hurdle need to counter the following facts.
First, she has never raced over three miles; second, she's unbeaten over two miles and Ruby Walsh said "I didn't really get her settled until the second last" over that trip at Donny on her latest start; third, she would be top rated for the Champion on Timeform figures with her mares' allowance; and fourth, the presence of her freewheeling stablemate Un De Sceaux promises to make this year's Champion a very strong stamina test.
The very best two milers belong in the best two mile races and Annie Power is clearly one of the best two milers aged just six. There is ample time for her to step up to three miles later on, but she has earned a crack at this year's Champion. Others will disagree, but it would be a real shame if the fact that her stable houses the reigning champ is used to shoehorn her into a World Hurdle which will be easier to win but carries nothing like the same prestige.
7: Can Jezki make it third time lucky against The Fly?
His fan club are forgiving and the excuses for Jezki's defeats aren't hard to find, starting with a last-flight error in last year's Supreme Novices' and followed by traffic and tactical problems on his last two starts.
Perhaps an end-to-end gallop at Cheltenham will see him revive. But even if it does it takes a leap of faith to see him beating three rivals (Hurricane Fly, My Tent and Our Conor) who have had his measure at least once.
8: What did Harry Topper's runaway Denman Chase tell us?
More than anything, it told us he has few peers when it comes to slogging on relentlessly when the ground is deep on a flat track with a couple of fences bypassed on each circuit.
But would his jumping hold up in the heat of a Gold Cup on spring ground? He ran a belter under a big penalty on his Cheltenham debut in the Argento and last year showed that we do still get Gold Cups when the ground is testing.
With that in mind those who can get on each way at 25-1 NRNB could end up beating the market by a fair margin. But the bottom line relates to whether Harry Topper can jump nimbly enough in the most unforgiving arena of all. And, on balance, I'm yet to be convinced.
9: And how about Last Instalment's Irish Hennessy success?
Now this is more like it. Some feel he enjoyed a soft lead, but split times don't necessarily back that up and in this case it's better to take the view that a combination of zestful galloping and superb jumping helped him give a handsome beating to two high-class chasers (Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant) with Timeform ratings of 168 and 170.
Timeform now rate First Instalment 169 - which leaves him 7lb and 10lb behind Silviniaco Conti and Bob's Worth. There is still talk of a possible Ryanair bid - so those who fancy him would be wise to go with the NRNB firms -but the Gold Cup is surely the place for this lad if he stays healthy and Sunday's win has livened the picture up appreciably.
Last Instalment's jumping could be a major asset round Cheltenham. He's unlikely to start 10-1 if he lines up and his presence upsides the freewheeling Cue Card promises to make the 2014 Gold Cup a memorable spectacle.
"Last Instalment's jumping could be a major asset round Cheltenham. He's unlikely to start 10-1 if he lines up and his presence upsides the freewheeling Cue Card promises to make the 2014 Gold Cup a memorable spectacle."
10: Can Balder Succes add to Alan King's fine Arkle record?
Doubtful. It's hard not to warm to a horse who lets rip at his fences like this gelding, but he had to be driven right out to beat Brick Red in Warwick's Kingmaker Chase.
There are more good races in him but forcing the pace in a Racing Post Arkle will be tough given the likely presence of Trifolium and Champagne Fever and logic suggests he might prove vulnerable up the hill next month.
11: How much did Dodging Bullets harm his Arkle chance when beaten by Module in the Game Spirit?
Not in the slightest. A subdued end to last season put me right off this gelding but he's thrived over fences and recorded a career best, travelling very sweetly and leaving the strong impression he would have prevailed under less demanding conditions.
We might see another significant Arkle trial if Champagne Fever runs at Navan this Sunday but Dodging Bullets remains firmly in the mix, especially if Paul Nicholls decides to aim stablemate Hinterland at the Champion Chase.
12: Did Smad Place earn RSA Chase favouritism after his Newbury win?
Not necessarily, though there was plenty to like about the way he made the most of the 3lb he received from Sam Winner.
Third in two Ladbrokes World Hurdles, he looks a very dependable jumper who stays extremely well. And those are very handy attributes when it comes to the RSA Chase.
13: And did Ballycasey deserve to displace him at Leopardstown on Sunday?
Perhaps he did given that he beat two Grade 1 winners in Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough, but when a three-runner race ends with three in a line at the last the trio are either very closely matched or the race was slowly-run.
The Moriarty was run at a very tepid pace and the RSA will present a different tactical scenario altogether, but Ballycasey really impressed with his jumping again and the Cheltenham fences should bring out the best in him.
14: Any others likely to stake a claim in the next week or two?
Time is fairly short, but don't be surprised if the hugely likeable Many Clouds becomes a springer in the market after this Saturday's Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot.
Oliver Sherwood's gelding has shown a very solid jumping technique in winning two from three over fences and the form of his runaway Wetherby win received a handsome boost when the runner-up Indian Castle won a good Cheltenham handicap off a BHA mark of 135.
I don't normally like backing horses for the Festival before their final prep race but Many Clouds is 20-1 and bigger for the RSA Chase at present. He might be a fair bit shorter on the day if I've read the signals right.
15: How much did Calipto enhance his Triumph claims at Newbury?
Hard to say. It isn't his fault that he didn't have a great deal to beat - and he did the job smoothly under a hefty penalty - but it's impossible to put this form on a level with what Le Rocher achieved at Cheltenham last month.
He will head to the Festival open to bags of improvement but from a punting viewpoint it's tough to assess whether he has genuine Grade 1 potential.
16: And what are the chances of Guitar Pete calling the tune?
Dessie Hughes's gelding is 10-1 third favourite after bursting the Plinth and Ivan Grozny bubbles at Leopardstown but I'm not tempted at this stage.
Granted, he jumped well and battled willingly. Against that, his performance lacked the zip shown by stablemate Our Conor in the same race last year and there is still time for others to lay down a persuasive Triumph marker.
17: Vautour very much had the run of the race in winning the Deloitte Hurdle, right?
Not necessarily. Granted, Ruby Walsh dictated steady early fractions, but Vautour increased the pace from before halfway and got from two out to the line around 15 lengths faster than Guitar Pete.
His jumping was highly impressive and this performance surely marks him as the main Mullins hope for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices. In short, he looks a major player.
18: Can The Tullow Tank reverse the form in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices'?
I wouldn't hold your breath. Perhaps a more searching gallop would have helped, but The Tank simply lacked the speed and agility of Vautour from a long way out and trainer Philip Fenton is almost certainly on the right track in favouring the Neptune for his star novice.
19: Is Pricewise on the right track with Donny debut winner First Mohican?
The Segal has landed on too many big priced winners for anyone to doubt him but if First Mohican is a potential Festival winner why did he take so long to master one horse who had been stuffed at Ludlow on his hurdling bow and another who had been beaten in a maiden hurdle at Catterick on his latest start?
Kempton's Dovecote Hurdle might tell a different tale about First Mohican's Festival potential. It certainly needs to if he's to step with Vautour and company next month.
20: Any more honourable mentions?
Most certainly. Fingal Bay faced bang-in-form rivals after a long injury break in a Pertemps Qualifier at Exeter but travelled powerfully before getting the better of a highly progressive stablemate in if In Doubt.
He ought to run well despite a big weight in the Final provided his problems are behind him, while On The Fringe jumped boldly under Nina Carberry prior to being worn down late by Tammy's Hill in a good hunter chase at Leopardstown.
It doesn't look like Tammy's Hill is coming to Cheltenham and, with last year's winner Salsify also ruled out, there is every chance On The Fringe is very fair value for the Foxhunter Chase at 7-1 in a place or two.