Arkle party should produce fireworks
This year's chasing newcomers have serious potential, says Ian McClean
Somebody asked me recently about my favourite race at the Cheltenham Festival. To my mind, there is nothing more pulsating in jump racing than watching the speediest young novices hurtling around the Cheltenham contours and clearing the birch with the fluency of arrows like they do in the Arkle.
It is just under a decade since the five-year-old Azertyuiop turned his attention to the larger obstacles. The fanfare that attached to his transition was memorable. A 154-rated hurdler going over fences was something of an anomaly and much was made of the boldness of the decision. As it transpired, it was a masterstroke, with Azertyuiop winning eight of his 15 chase starts over three seasons, finishing his career with a BHA rating of 178.
In spite of improving nearly two stone for the switch to fences, he would certainly have won far more races were it not for the presence of Moscow Flyer and Well Chief in what is now recognised as the most gilded era of two-mile chasers in modern times.
Before he transferred into open company Azertyuiop remained unbeaten throughout his entire novice campaign with four wins culminating in a dominant win in the 2003 Arkle. If anything his novice season's lustre was diminished by the lack of competition (as SPs of 4/6, 5/4, 1/3 and 5/4 reveal).
Based on this year's intake, I feel we are entering a new golden era for two-mile chasers. The timing is ripe. Yesterday's hero Master Minded has left the division and Queen Mother Champion Sizing Europe will be 10 when he defends his crown next March. Old adversary Big Zeb will be 11.
As the old guard's sheen begins to fade, brighter new lights shine and, with horses like Peddlers Cross, Al Ferof, Sprinter Sacre, Cue Card, Menorah and Walkon all now under way in their new careers, witnessing the type of Azertyuiop-like dominance of the Arkle come next March isn't even the remotest possibility. Indeed, with the sublime overall quality of this year's crop of two-mile chasing freshmen, I predict the standard of this season's Arkle field will far outstrip the elders in the Queen Mother.
Fascinatingly for the season ahead, of the half dozen recruits mentioned above -- and I could also include Solwhit although he hasn't yet made a public appearance over fences -- only one (Sprinter Sacre) was not rated at least as high as Azertyuiop over hurdles so to have more than half a dozen 150-plus rated hurdlers vying for the same crown next March is a mouth-watering prospect.
Five of the six horses mentioned have already won at least once over fences so the fear that they might not make it in their new discipline is already diminished. And even Menorah -- the only rookie in the bunch not to have registered a win -- jumped like an old hand at Exeter before unfortunately decanting Richard Johnson with the race in the bag.
Champion Hurdle runner-up Peddlers Cross looks for all the world like he's been jumping fences all his life and his two victories at Bangor have done nothing to suggest he isn't capable of at least equalling his 170 hurdles rating in his new career. He missed an engagement at Haydock yesterday owing to the ground and is likely to be rerouted to Kempton over Christmas instead.
Al Ferof is also a perfect two-for-two at this stage and has the added feather of a Grade One chase in his cap already over fences. He is unlikely to be subjected to deep winter ground so it wouldn't be too surprising if he only appeared once more in the spring before the Arkle. If the same strategy worked for stablemate Azertyuiop, who's to say it won't work again?
Festival Bumper winner Cue Card may not be perceived as having the speed for an Arkle. However, Philip Hobbs would have said precisely the same about Captain Chris before the race last March and the evidence is how that horse is due to contest the King George over Christmas. His previous defeat at Newbury owed more to the jockey than the horse. He could appear at Plumpton tomorrow in an effort to qualify for a £60,000 bonus.
Perhaps the most interesting of all is the lowest-rated hurdler of the glittering sextet, Sprinter Sacre. A giant which had yet to fill his frame last season, he travelled best of all through the Supreme Novices only to empty against more mature types up the Cheltenham hill. His win against meaningless opposition at Doncaster last weekend was spectacular at times in the jumping department -- as was the time.
It is likely that many of these will not have met before March and gained plenty of match practice along the way. The prospect of some or all arriving in the Cotswolds on top of their game should be enough to see you through even the darkest of bleak mid-winter.
Sunday Indo Sport