Matt Brocklebank has 100/1 and 33/1 tips as he looks ahead to two of the feature hurdle races at the 2019 Cheltenham Festival.
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Roll Champion dice with 100/1 Vision
The 2018/19 National Hunt season is developing into a curious beast and several of the major races look ripe for an upset.
Buveur D'Air is, admittedly, going to take plenty of dethroning in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, but his air of invincibility (did anyone truly believe he had one?) was dispensed with by stable companion Verdana Blue at Kempton on Boxing Day and the title-holder has to be opposed despite easing out to 7/4 in a place.
Annie Power took advantage of the generous 7lb mares' allowance to win three years ago and while Sharjah has clearly developed into a strong contender with back-to-back Grade One wins in Ireland, it looks like the favourite has most to fear from a trio of classy female entries.
Verdana Blue, Laurina and Apple's Jade all have a lot to recommend them, but there are also pretty major negatives when it comes to each of their prospects.
Firstly, Apple's Jade has the best form in the book when it comes to the three. She's slammed her rivals in three outings this term, two of which have come in Grade One company against the boys, and she's seemingly better than ever this season.
Victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on February 2 would inevitably ramp up the pressure on connections to roll the dice but while Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown remain adamant she'll be aimed at regaining her Mares' Hurdle crown at Cheltenham, she cannot be put forward as a bet at 7/1 (NRNB).
Prior to her Christmas Hurdle win, Verdana Blue produced a very brave effort in the Greatwood Hurdle when conceding lumps of weight to Nietzsche, Silver Streak and Old Guard - the three horses who finished ahead of her - and Silver Steak's subsequent efforts when second to Brain Power in the International and again behind Global Citizen at Haydock over the weekend, reflect well on Nicky Henderson's mare.
But a flat track and genuinely quick ground clearly play more to her strengths and it's for that reason she's overlooked at 12/1 for Champion Hurdle glory.
Laurina is much easier to overlook at the current odds. Of course she comes with masses of potential, is trained by the 'right man' and won by 18 lengths in the mares' novices' hurdle at Cheltenham last March.
But all the juice has long gone from her antepost price and there's also still the faint possibility that, given her very quiet campaign, she might yet switch targets to the Mares' Hurdle a little under an hour after the first-day feature.
Last year's second Melon hasn't done anything in two subsequent starts to suggest he should be the same price at Sharjah, while looking a little further afield in Ireland leads to Supasundae, who is no guaranteed starter with the Stayers' Hurdle his likely objective, plus five-year-olds Saldier, Farclas and Gavin Cromwell's Espoir D'Allen.
The latter has been well placed to win a couple of Grade Three events at Naas and Limerick this season and looks to have emerged as the best of the juvenile crop from last term, with We Have A Dream not up to scratch.
Espoir D'Allen is into a top-price 25/1 and looks to have found his position in the market, along with Global Citizen who didn't make much of a ripple following a three-length defeat of that solid yardstick Silver Streak at Haydock over the weekend.
Mohaayed was really disappointing there but won the County Hurdle last March and could be more at home in a strongly-run Champion, though he doesn't hold many secrets now.
On the face of it, VISION DES FLOS has also been exposed as being not quite good enough this season but at 100/1 (William Hill, Betfair) he's potentially a touch underestimated.
He's always been held in high regard by trainer Colin Tizzard and ran third to Poetic Rhythm on his debut for the yard in the 2017 Grade Two Persian War Novices' Hurdle at Chepstow. He didn't improve much on that effort in his next two starts but returned last February following wind surgery and looked a different horse entirely when bolting up in a Listed race at Exeter.
He was thrown in at the deep end the following month but put up a massive effort in the Ballymore, hitting the front on the bridle two out before tiring up the hill and finishing sixth to Samcro.
That run was no flash in the pan, highlighted by impressive Grade One seconds at Aintree and Punchestown where he bumped into Lalor and Draconien respectively.
We won't know just how good Draconien could be until he returns from his layoff but Mengli Khan was back in third at the Punchestown Festival, and back in sixth was Sharjah.
It's now quite evident that wasn't Sharjah's true form but Vision Des Flos clearly cut an impressive figure in the spring and, aged just six, there's hope he can thrive once more at that time of the year this time around.
A chasing campaign this season was aborted after unseating Tom Scudamore first time out at Ffos Las before he didn't quite stay when second to Wholestone over two and a half miles at Aintree.
It was far from a disgraceful effort there, with Unowhatimeanharry back in third, and it was a similar tale in the Fighting Fifth when third, albeit beaten a long way, to Buveur D'Air at Newcastle.
There's a significant leap of faith required to believe that the Vision Des Flos who ended up fifth to Brain Power in the International Hurdle last time can end up going close in a Champion Hurdle itself, but the money really came for him that day (9/2 from 7/1), suggesting the Tizzard team still believe they've got a proper two-miler on their hands, and once again he was in front going well two flights from the finish.
He went backwards up the hill again and to suggest the tactics didn't pan out may be pushing it, but he's still keen enough and will surely be suited by a much stronger gallop at this kind of trip.
The six-year-old may just get that in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in a couple of weeks' time though freshening him up and going straight to the Festival could be a better idea given how good he was fresh last year.
The Tizzards tend not to duck a challenge when it comes to the big meetings and while the County Hurdle and Coral Cup are alternative options, the NRNB on offer with Sky Bet offers a safety net which appeals greatly when playing at such speculative odds.
Antepost Angle: Cheltenham Festival schedule
- Monday January 7 - RSA Chase
- Monday January 14 - Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup & Ryanair Chase
- Monday January 21 - Unibet Champion Hurdle & Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle
- Monday January 28 - Racing Post Arkle & JLT Novices' Chase
- Monday February 4 - Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Ballymore Novices' Hurdle & Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
- Monday February 11 - No preview this week...
- Monday February 18 - National Hunt Chase & JCB Triumph Hurdle
- Monday February 25 - OLBG Mares' Hurdle & Trull House Mares' Novices' Hurdle
- Monday March 4 - Cheltenham Festival handicaps - including Ultima Handicap Chase, Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle and Grand Annual Handicap Chase
- Thursday March 7 - Any other business, including current positions and additional selections
Act now with O'Brien stayer
DARASSO made a really promising start to life in Ireland when second to Bachasson at Punchestown and looks well worth getting on side for Cheltenham ahead of a potential rematch this week.
There is a whole host of possible Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle contenders entered up for Thursday's Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park and they could end up facing off with Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy.
But French import Darasso is as interesting as any of them following his debut for Joseph O'Brien over two and a half miles at the end of last month, where he stayed on powerfully after making an error at the second-last flight.
A winner of two hurdles (Listed level) and two chases for Guy Cherel in France, where he was part-owned by Isaac Souede and Simon Munir as well as the trainer himself, Darasso must have cost JP McManus a small fortune but there's clearly a lot to look forward to.
In a wide-open market currently headed by last year's winner Penhill, the potential of Darasso - one of several summer recruits to the most upwardly mobile yard in Ireland - is a really attractive angle into the race and he could shorten dramatically from the current 33/1 (William Hill, Unibet) on offer.
Bachasson and Penhill are just two of 11 entries for Willie Mullins, who will surely be tempted to send Faugheen down this route.
The 2015 Champion Hurdle hero is 11 now and took a crashing fall in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown but that was only his third ever start at three miles, the previous two yielding wide-margin wins, including a 13-length defeat of Penhill last April.
His legendary status is well factored into the current odds of 12/1, however, and last year's runner-up Supasundae is a bigger danger. He's a model of consistency for Jessica Harrington and is clearly versatile in regards to trip.
Really bad ground over a testing three miles probably found him out 12 months ago and that effort left its mark when beaten at a short price over two and a half at Aintree. He's not done much wrong since and looks a live contender once more with the Irish Champion his final stepping-stone en route.
As for the home challenge, this weekend's Cleeve Hurdle is a high-quality trial featuring a return to timber for Black Op and a step back up in class for impressive handicap scorer Aux Ptits Soins.
It will be interesting to see if Midnight Shadow truly gets three miles as he was shaping that way when beating Wholestone on New Year's Day, but Paisley Park will be tough to beat in the Cleeve.
Only mid-field in the Albert Bartlett last March, he's developed into a top-class stayer and was too tough for West Approach last time out at Ascot in the Long Walk.
Paisley Park will shorten another couple of points with victory this weekend but there's not much scope for a complete price crash - which isn't the case with Darasso, who could be a star in waiting.
Antepost Angle - 2018/19 National Hunt season record
- Stayers' Hurdle (12/01/19) - 1pt win Darasso at 33/1 (William Hill, Unibet)
- Champion Hurdle (12/01/19) - 1pt e.w. Vision Des Flos at 100/1 (William Hill, Betfair)
- RSA Chase (07/01/19) - 1pt win Vinndication at 16/1 (General)
- Cheltenham Gold Cup (14/01/19) - 1pt win Sizing John at 20/1 (General)
- Ryanair Chase (14/01/19) - 1pt win Sizing John at 12/1 (NRNB, General), 1pt win Mister Whitaker at 33/1 (NRNB, General)
- King George VI Chase (27/11/18) - 1pt win Politologue at 9/1
- Ladbrokes Trophy (13/11/18) - 1pt win Sizing Tennessee at 33/1 (WON)
- BetVictor Gold Cup (04/11/18) - 2pts win Baron Alco at 12/1 (WON)
- Unibet Greatwood Hurdle (04/11/18) - 1pt win Hunters Call at 16/1 & 1pt win Off You Go at 12/1 (BOTH NOT DECLARED)
Posted at 1500 GMT on 21/01/19.