1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle: ALAN KING appears to hold all the aces in this year's Triumph Hurdle with Grumeti and Balder Success, who are both towards the top of the market after making smooth transitions from the Flat to jumps.
Baby Mix is another that looks a top-class recruit to hurdling and his win in the Adonis at Kempton suggests he'll be a major player. But if you look back at the tape, there are valid arguments for thinking that SADLERS RISK will reverse the form at Cheltenham. Rated 95 on the Flat when trained by Mark Johnston, Sadler's Risk saw off Sea Moon (short-priced favourite for last year's St Leger) in a hot Leicester maiden on his third start and was competitive at Group 3 level on a couple of occasions after that. Sent off the even-money favourite for his hurdles debut at Kempton, Sadler's Risk jumped well and quickened up impressively on the home turn to put the race to bed. He won by 17 lengths and afterwards Hobbs explained that he was expecting such an authoritative display. They didn't go fast enough in the Adonis and Paddy Brennan was allowed to dictate a dawdle. That won't happen this time and a more hectic early pace will play to the strengths of Sadler's Risk. Hobbs trained Detroit City and Made In Japan to win the race in the last ten years and Sadler's Risk could provide him with a third success. Of the Irish, Shadow Catcher has been the subject of some very favourable schooling reports and represents our best chance for Gordon Elliott and Paul Carberry.
Selection: SADLER'S RISK Danger: Shadow Catcher.
2.05 Vincent O'brien County Hurdle
RUBY WALSH put forward Ted Spread as his charity bet at a recent Cheltenham Preview Night and, after sneaking into the race with just ten stone, he has to be of huge interest following his bloodless victory at Taunton in January. Backed into 5-4 favouritism, Ted Spread barely had to come off the bridle to sprint past a useful yardstick in Pacha Bere. He was given a 15lb penalty for that performance and that may be just enough to guarantee him a run in this race. That Taunton triumph was his first start for Paul Nicholls and he looks sure to improve further. A classy sort on the Flat (ran in the 2010 Epsom Derby won by Workforce and finished his Flat career with a rating of 104), a fast-run 2m at Cheltenham would be right up his street. But at an even bigger price, DARE ME could be fantastic value. A leading bumper performer a couple of years ago, Phillip Hobbs' charge made a smooth transition to hurdling, winning his first two starts in that sphere at Exeter, but he picked up an injury after the second of those and missed all of last season. He reappeared at Cheltenham in January and ran a race full of promise behind Module. Only for a mistake at the last he would have finished among the placings. Hobbs ensured he got more practice for Cheltenham by running him in a decent Tauton handicap won by Sire De Grugy. He encountered a troubled passage in that and was short for space passing the omitted second last. He kept on well to finish third but I think he's better than that. He's also better than a mark of 135 and provided more prominent tactics are deployed, Dare Me represents excellent each-way value.
Selection: DARE ME Danger: Ted Spread
2.40 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
IF WILLIE Mullins decided to pitch Boston Bob into the longest novice hurdle at the festival, he could go off at a very short price. He has done everything right to date and looked a real stayer when galloping on strongly to beat Lyreen Legend on awful ground at Leopardstown. That form has been franked since by the runner-up and both Mullins and Walsh have made no secret of the high esteem that they hold Boston Bob in. Indeed, I've never seen the champion trainer so bullish about a horse. He thinks he's the real deal. He is the most likely winner should he turn up but there are valid grounds for thinking that MOUNT BENBULBEN could turn around the form from their meeting at Navan before Christmas. With just four runners in the field, Paul Carberry was forced to make the running and he didn't like it. He jumped out to the right at every second hurdle and seem to hate being out on his own at the head of affairs. Expect completely different tactics to be used at Cheltenham and Carberry is a dab-hand at riding hold-up performers. This horse has always been the apple of Elliott's eye and we may see why next week.
Selection: MOUNT BENBULBEN Danger: Rocky Creek 3.20 Betfred Gold Cup
THE HEADLINES have been dominated by Kauto Star and that notorious schooling fall which may or may not force him to miss the highlight of the entire week. It will be an absolute shame if the two-time champion isn't back to try and make history as he has appeared as good as ever this year when winning both the Betfair Chase and the King George. However, on both those occasions Ruby Walsh was allowed to dictate his own fractions up front and he certainly won't get his own way in this with Midnight Chase almost certain to force the pace. If Kauto Star is 100 per cent and recent reports suggests he will, he is likely to run his usual sound race but at 12 years of age, he certainly isn't any faster than he was last year and, with youth on his side, LONG RUN is without doubt the most likely winner and looks poised for revenge. My guess is that Nicky Henderson is only getting the hang of how to best train Long Run now and he's realised that he is a thorough stayer rather than a speed horse. He chased home Kauto Star at both Haydock and Kempton but both those contests weren't truly run race and the end-to-end gallop of a Gold Cup will be much more to his liking. The main concern from both of those starts was his jumping, which seemed to have deteriorated from last year but it was much better at Newbury last time and, while he wasn't overly impressive, he got the job done despite giving 10lb to stablemate Burton Port. That was a much better run than it looked and he is put forward as a confident selection to retain his crown. It seemed as if Burton Port went into every notebook after that Newbury race but the one that caught my eye was What A Friend. He jumped and travelled beautifully throughout and wasn't given a hard race either. He always runs his race in the Gold Cup and might do so again at a huge price.
Selection: LONG RUN Danger: What A Friend
4.00 Christies Foxhunters Chase
THE KEY trial for the Foxhunters was run at Newbury in January when Chapotergeon quickened up impressively under Richard Barber to beat Cloudy Lane by 16 lengths. But a word of warning. He didn't stay 2m5f that strongly when running under rules and the trip looks sure to stretch his stamina. MY FLORA was sent off 11-4 favourite for that Newbury race and she jumped superbly throughout before coming crashing down at the second last. She probably wouldn't have won had she stayed on her feet but the way she travelled throughout the contest made me think that she would be a major player at Cheltenham. She was too keen at Newbury and exerted far too much energy in the first mile. Expect Tom David to play his hand much latter this time and a recent point-to-point success by eight lengths proved that she is none the worse for that Newbury spill. She'll go off at around the 101 mark and will almost certainly give you a run for your money. My Flora is only eight, a toddler in a race full of veterans, and she will be getting 5lb from the rest of the field which will make a big difference on the day. The home challenge is headed by Salsify who won at Leopardstown on Hennessy Day. Rodger Sweeney's stable star glides through his races and better ground will suit. He's only seven and there may be better to come too.
Selection: MY FLORA Danger: Salsify
4.40 Martin Pipe Conditional Handicap Hurdle
TWELVE MONTHS ago, Sir Des Champs landed a huge gamble in this race when coming from the clouds under Emmet Mullins. He was a classy winner and there are likely to be quite a few well-handicapped horses in this year's contest too. Like in the Grand Annual when I'm always keeping an eye on Nicky Henderson-trained runners, it's a similar story here as David Pipe is sure to have one or two up his sleeve in the race named after his father. French import BALGARRY could be the one from Pond House this year. His debut on British soil last week was mighty impressive. He went up just 5lb for that display which certainly wasn't overly-harsh given the authority with which he won. He was sent straight to the front by Conor O'farrell and never looked like being reeled in after jumping fluently throughout. He looked far better than a 135-rated handicapper when winning that and he might prove that point at Cheltenham. Donald Mccain's Bourne is a big danger but I've a sneaky suspicion that the handicapper has caught up with him and I'd prefer to be on the lightly-raced Balgarry instead.
Selection: BALGARRY Danger: Bourne
5.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase
WHILE THE hill is a big concern for a horse that doesn't like to get into a battle, it was impossible not to be impressed by TOUBAB'S recent Sandown stroll and, immediately after the race, Paul Nicholls pencilled in the Grand Annual as his next intended target. Not the Arkle, not the Jewson, both of which he might have had a chance in, and it may just be that Nicholls thinks Toubab is well-handicapped off a mark of 143. Provided French Opera stays in the race, he will have to carry just 10-7. His jumping is quick and fluent and will allow him to creep into the contest under Ruby Walsh. He chased home Lancetto at Cheltenham already this season and would have won with a more patient ride. If you stopped the tape of last year's Grand Annual coming down the hill there was only one winner and that was Tanks For That who appeared to be hard on the bridle under Barry Geraghty. But he didn't get home and was swallowed up in the home straight. He seems a more relaxed horse this year and won at the Open meeting last November so he could be a major threat to Toubab if he settles early on.
Selection: TOUBAB Danger: Tanks For That