Where Legends come first
Our Will Hayler looks at how the markets have responded to the defection of Sprinter Sacre from the BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase and thinks there's a decent bet to be found as a result.
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In a Cheltenham Festival that has been characterised so far by a slightly sterile feel to the betting markets, Sprinter Sacre's withdrawal from the reckoning finally gave us a brief taste of ante-post anarchy.
Yes, it was clear that Sire De Grugy should be promoted to favouritism in the absence of last year's winner, but of just as much importance is how Sprinter Sacre's non-participation might now affect the running plans of a number of other horses with multiple options to run at the Festival?
Captain Conan was already pencilled in to run in the Champion, as was Kid Cassidy, despite both being stablemates of Sprinter Sacre. Barry Geraghty will now likely ride the former and his price has come down more dramatically than most as a result of the re-shuffle. Interestingly, Henderson is already on record as saying that Captain Conan was simply not himself when beaten by Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek and that he expects much better at Cheltenham.
Will Tony McCoy now partner Kid Cassidy? Well, possibly but Alderwood must now also come into the mix for the race if he pleases trainer Tom Mullins with his progress over the next couple of weeks. Having twice proved a winning gamble for the Cheltenham Festival in the last couple of years, his price could crash if the champion gets the leg-up.
Tony Martin's most recent bulletin on Benefficient was that he was undecided between the Champion and the Ryanair and one can't help but wonder whether this development will tip the balance in favour of the two-mile option - likewise with Al Ferof. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him take his chance in the race now.
Therefore, the possible defection of the likes of the above horses from the Ryanair will have as significant an effect upon that race.
It's Dynaste who has been best-backed for that contest in the hours since news about Sprinter Sacre broke and - regrettably for those of us who may have backed him for the wrong race - he must now be considered a more likely runner in the Ryanair than in the Gold Cup.
Dynaste's Haydock form behind Cue Card would give him an excellent chance in the Ryanair, although I can't help but wonder whether the prospect of Cue Card also going for the Ryanair rather than the Gold Cup might just see a switch in plan back to the longer trip. The latest from Joe Tizzard on Sunday was that connections are still to make a final call on Cue Card's running plans.
At last, a Cheltenham puzzle for punters to solve rather than a race in which all of the prices seem... well... about right. The varying possible running plans of all of the horses named above and more have injected interest and life into the betting for the Champion Chase, the Ryanair Chase and the Betfred Gold Cup.
Also to be taken into account is that while several firms are offering non-runner money-back concessions on two of those races, only one is doing so on the Ryanair - and not unexpectedly, their prices on the contest are marginally tighter than most.
But amidst all of the uncertainty and possible permutations of participation, I'd be 95 per cent sure that First Lieutenant will run in the Ryanair Chase and 95 per cent certain that if you take the 6/1 available now, you'll be sitting on a decent voucher on the day.
There's no doubt that he has run a bit flat on a couple of occasions this season, and a suspicion that he might be getting a little bit wise to the game. But he comes alive on some better ground in the spring and his performances at the last three Festivals have all been very good.
The year after his 2011 Neptune Novices' Hurdle success, he was unlucky to bump into the following year's Gold Cup winner when second in the RSA Chase two years ago (not all RSA Chases are as good as that one) and was then clear second-best behind Cue Card in the Ryanair 12 months ago.
The indications from connections suggest that a repeat bid at the Ryanair (which, lest we forget, is sponsored by the horse's owner) is favoured over a tilt at the Gold Cup, Gigginstown having Last Instalment for the race over the longer distance in any case.
I'm not quite sure what he's going to be up against, but I am sure that I want him in my corner.
I can't resist a far more speculative saver on Lyreen Legend at 20/1 too.
Having shaped with plenty of promise behind Bobs Worth first time out in the Lexus Chase, he - like First Lieutenant - completely blew out behind Last Instalment earlier this month in the Hennessy.
But on better ground he's got to be worth another chance taking the same route as First Lieutenant in dropping back from having finished second in the RSA Chase to contest the Ryanair rather than facing the biggest guns in the Gold Cup.
It's fair to say that last year's RSA isn't really working out this season. But I've seen enough from Lyreen Legend in other starts to allow me to think he's got to be worth a bet at the price.