Reach for the Sky
Our Man On The Spot previews all the action on the fourth day of the Cheltenham Festival.
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Guitar Pete has been on the go for a while but beat Tiger Roll and Plinth, a rare National Hunt runner for Aidan O'Brien, in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown last month and got the better of Lindenhurst in the autumn, though was beaten far and square by Royal Irish Hussar on similar ground here in November. The latter couldn't follow up at Doncaster the following month, however, when well behind runner-up Broughton. John Ferguson's useful Flat performer was making his hurdling debut that day and has since won easily at Musselburgh beating Clarcam, who was also second to Guitar Pete earlier. Willie Mullins' pair Abbyssial and Adriana Des Mottes both warrant respect but the drying ground is a worry and John Quinn also holds a strong hand. Pearl Castle has shown a good turn of foot to win twice at Doncaster and Rutherglen is three from three over timber and also scored on the Polytrack last month. CALIPTO probably has the best form and is worth risking on the faster ground. He had little to beat last time but had earlier got the better of Activial on his UK debut at Newbury and the runner-up impressed when successful in a Grade 2 at Kempton on his next start.
Irish trainers have been responsible for six of the last seven winners of this ultra-competitive handicap and more than a quarter of this year's 28-strong field have travelled across the Irish Sea. Willie Mullins, who has produced Thousand Stars and Final Approach to win in the last four years, saddles three with the market and jockey bookings suggesting the lightly-raced ARCTIC FIRE is his best hope and he gets a tentative vote. His last two runs have been in Grade 1 company and he wasn't disgraced. Gordon Elliott's Flaxen Flare always seems to run well in these big handicaps and was an impressive winner of the Fred Winter 12 months ago while Edward Harty's Minella Foru and Thomas Foley's Never Enough Time arrive in form and will be prominent in the betting. Lac Fontana could prove the best of the home team as five-year-olds generally do well in this and, after a couple of near-misses last season, he's won twice over this course and distance this campaign. Lyvius could also figure if sharpened up by a pair of blinkers while Philip Hobbs has been bullish about the chances of betfair hurdle fourth Cheltenian, who is a former Champion Bumper winner and ran in last year's Supreme Novices'. Alaivan was sixth in the betfair while Strongpoint and Jumps Road both arrive off the back of recent wins, though the latter was undoubtedly lucky at Newbury and has a penalty to carry.
Briar Hill powered clear to win last year's Champion Bumper and has won all three starts over timber, though only beat one rival in a Grade 1 at Naas on his penultimate run and had only two in opposition at Naas last time. The step up to 3m should suit, however, and he'll probably be sent off a short-priced favourite given his yard's form. But there has to be better value elsewhere in what looks a terrific contest packed with promising stayers. Captain Cutter is also unbeaten over hurdles and a Grade 1 winner while Champagne West beat Deputy Dan at Warwick in December and has won both starts since. Deputy Dan has since beaten Masters Hill in a Grade 2 at Warwick but would have preferred a softer surface. Mosspark is another unbeaten gelding and arrives off the back of a Listed victory at Huntingdon while Urban Hymn showed plenty of resolution to beat Blakemount and Sausalito Sunrise in a Grade 2 at Doncaster and isn't without a chance. KINGS PALACE has avoided the recent heavy going as he was put away after beating Masters Hill by 14 lengths here in December with a bold, front-running performance. He bounces off this good ground, jumps well and stays so looks the complete package and is a value alternative against the favourite.
Last Instalment certainly looked a class act when beating Tidal Bay in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month. First Lieutenant was only third with Lyreen Legend and Lord Windermere further behind and it's difficult to see any of that trio reversing the form here if Philip Fenton's star chaser handles Cheltenham's undulations and the faster surface. But it's very difficult to ignore defending champion BOBS WORTH, who is five from five at the track and has won at each of the last three Festivals. He may not be as big as some of his contemporaries and isn't the greatest of jumpers but he's all heart and will be powering up the hill again as others drop away. His stamina again cane into play in the Lexus Chase last time when out-staying First Lieutenant. Silviniaco Conti was still in touch and going well when falling three out 12 months ago and won the King George in December but he was up against some non-stayers that day. Last year's fourth The Giant Bolster has a good record at The Festival and could have place claims with the ground drying out with the progressive Triolo D'Alene possibly the pick of the remainder.
Oscar Delta was desperately unlucky in this last year as he appeared to have the measure of defending champion Salsify when jinking on the run to the line and unseating Jane Mangan. He's been aimed at the race again and will be a threat to all with a clear round. Divine Intavention eventually finished second last year and hasn't done much wrong again this season while Doctor Kingsley was last of the four finishers in an eventful contest, though finished tailed off. Tammys Hill and On The Fringe are among Ireland's top hunter chasers and closely matched on the form book. Both go on the short-list and Made In Time should go well. Rebecca Curtis' charge won over 2m4f at Ludlow last time but was earlier put in his place by Pearlysteps over 3m on the same track. Alan Hill thinks HARBOUR COURT could be very smart but he was hampered and unseated his rider at the first at Kelso on his last start under Rules. He's had a confidence-booster between the flags since, however, and will enjoy the good ground better than most. He's also jumped safely around here in the past so gets the nod.
Paul Nicholls saddled Salubrious to win this 12 months ago and has three entries this year. Top weight Virak and Urbain De Sivola would have preferred a softer surface so Caid Du Berlais may be the pick of his trio back over the smaller obstacles. He finished second in the Fred Winter at last year's Festival. David Pipe will be hoping Vieux Lion Rouge can complete a four-timer and give him a first win in the race named in honour of his father while Willie Mullins' Don Poli is lightly-raced and still improving, though looks to have his fair share of weight. All three of Nicky Henderson's runners won last time and Nico De Boinville, who has already had a winner at The Festival, partners the unexposed Full Shift and Philip Hobbs has a quartet of starters. We were impressed with the way THE SKYFARMER won over 2m over a shorter trip here in December. He shot up the weights as a result of that success but the heavy ground was a legitimate excuse at Ascot in January and he stays 2m4f. It may be significant that he was also declared for the more valuable County Hurdle at the four-day stage but tackles this instead under promising 3lb claimer James Best. Hobbs' Royal Regatta also has each-way claims and the consistent Dolatulo is worth a second look along with Junction Fourteen.
The home team usually end the meeting on a high but the gambled-on Alderwood, who had won the County Hurdle 12 months earlier, took it last year for Thomas Mullins and previous course form can also be important. Oiseau De Nuit won the race in 2011 and beat Tanks For That at Aintree last spring. This is his time of year and he's come up against Sire De Grugy in his last three starts so will appreciate this easier task, though isn't getting any younger. McCoy will have to work hard to keep the enigmatic Mr Mole interested while Next Sensation is unlikely to be allowed an uncontested lead and is climbing the weights. Eastlake beat French Opera here in December but may also be too high in the weights now. His Excellency could go well if in the mood while a strong gallop would suit Astracad and Easter Meteor but the handicapper looks to have given NED BUNTLINE every chance off a mark of 138 and Noel Meade's novice can come out on top if his lack of experience doesn't prove too much of a disadvantage. Competitive Edge also catches the eye near the foot of the weights but they may go too quick for Dare Me.