Our columnist is siding with Lalor in the Racing Post Arkle and he has a tip for every race on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
APPLE’S JADE can take full advantage of her useful 7lb mares allowance to deny Buveur D’Air a third successive Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on an enthralling opening day of the Festival.
Gordon Elliott’s mare has done most of her racing over further but she made easy work of dropping back to the minimum trip by demolishing a top-class field in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last month, probably running a career best as she made all.
She hacked up by 16 lengths from Supasundae who had won the same race 12 months earlier.
Although her Festival record has yielded a win, second and a third, Apple’s Jade looks at the height of her powers now – connections have spoken of being more in tune with her hormones these days – and she will be hard to peg back.
Buveur D’Air’s two wins in this race have been against lesser company - in retrospect - but it was to his credit that he dug deep to beat Melon last year when clearly below his best (he was s sick horse afterwards).
However, he is one of the slickest jumpers of a hurdle you will ever see and has gears aplenty. The recent rain will also help him.
Buveur failed by a whisker to give stablemate Verdana Blue 7lb at Kempton on Boxing Day and that mare is rated 9lb behind the selection. Verdana Blue has a terrific turn of foot, however, although it would be more effective on a sounder surface.
So what about Laurina? Unbeaten in six hurdles starts since joining Willie Mullins and a facile winner of the Dawn Run Novices Hurdle at last year’s meeting, she has potential with a capital “P”. Her level of form is already high class and who knows what more she has in her locker?
The opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle looks wide open.
Al Dancer’s win in the Betfair Hurdle puts him right into the picture and he arguably boasts more solid form than the same owner’s Angels Breath whose reputation does not seem to be dented by his defeat at Kempton.
He was, after all, giving Southfield Stone 5lb.
Southfield Stone had earlier finished third to Elixir De Nutz in the Tolworth Hurdle and the form could not have worked out better with runner-up Grand Sancy landing the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton.
There does not look to be much between all of the above so I narrowly prefer Fakir D’oudairies, who as a four-year-old, gets the 8lb allowance. There was no denying the authority of his win on the New Course in January and he has since been snapped up by JP McManus.
Four-year-olds are rare runners in this, however, and even Binocular was beaten in the race a few years ago. Indeed, the last juvenile hurdler to win it was Hors La Loi back in 1999.
The Racing Post Arkle has been weakened by the absence of Le Richebourg, Master Dino and Dynamite Dollars. That said, it is still tricky and if Lalor can return to the sort of form that saw him defeat Dynamite Dollars by seven lengths over course and distance in November, than he will take some beating.
He was not at that level at Sandown last time behind the same horse but this is a horse that does seem to show his best form in the spring.
Both Glen Forsa, at Sandown, and Duc Des Genievres at Gowran Park, put up tremendously impressive front-running performances and are right in the mix, too.
There is no denying that the Paul Nicholls team really fancy Give Me A Copper in the Ultima Handicap Chase. However, although pleasing when fourth after a long absence at Ascot last month, he does need to improve a bit which of course he could easily do.
However, at a decent price of around 25/1, last year’s third Vintage Clouds could be worth an interest. He won on his reappearance at Haydock but was pulled up in the Welsh National and has since had a wind operation, which is said to have gone well.
Just 3lb higher than last year, he should give a good account. And if you like him, you must also consider Coo Star Sivola, last year’s winner off a 3lb lower mark. Coo Star had been placed before in the Fred Winter and Martin Pipe hurdles and seems to save his best for the Festival. His form has been a bit patchy this season, though.
Benie Des Dieux is expected to go odds-on to defend her crown in the OLBG David Nicholson Mares Hurdle and there are plenty of each-way options here.
Top of them has to be Lady Buttons, who was due to take on Altior in the Champion Chase but takes this easier option. Tremendously talented, she only just does enough and looks sure to be involved.
There was a big tip going round the preview nights for Tower Bridge in the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, so keep an eye on how Duc Des Genievres (who beat him at Gowran) goes in the Arkle.
Good Man Pat looks to have been given a chance after a good third in a Grade Two at Kempton last time when he also returned with sore shins.
He had won at Plumpton the time before that and had also run well at that course on his chase debut behind Master Dino. With a clear round, he must go well for Alan King and Wayne Hutchinson.
But I do fear A Plus Tard, who had beaten Duc Des Genievres at Naas two starts ago.
Finally, OK Corral can take the NH Chase under Derek O’Connor who is confident, apparently, that his mount will stay the trip. The dam is a sister to Tidal Bay and O’Connor, who came over to ride him at Warwick, is going for this third win in the race.
Ballyward looks an obvious danger.
1.30 FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES, 2.10 LALOR, 2.50 VINTAGE CLOUDS (EW), 3.30 APPLE’S JADE, 4.10 LADY BUTTONS (EW), 4.50 GOOD MAN PAT, 5.30 OK CORRAL