Sunday 24 September 2017

Cheltenham puzzle looks hard to crack

Rajdhani Express has the Paddy Power on his menu
Rajdhani Express has the Paddy Power on his menu

Ian McClean

Paddy Power chase is risky race for ante-post punters, says Ian McCleanCall it the Mackeson, the Murphy's, the Thomas Pink or the Paddy Power – but whatever you call it, the feature at Cheltenham's Open meeting in two weeks signals unequivocally that we have arrived in jumps country.

With 49 entries unveiled last Wednesday, it doesn't make finding the winner easy, and the question over favourite Dynaste's participation makes ante-post involvement even more fraught than usual.

Expected to have an initial seasonal outing in a hurdle race yesterday at Wetherby, that notion had to be scotched after some under-par homework on Tuesday. Should last season's leading staying novice elect to appear at Cheltenham he will be very close to shouldering top-weight in one of the season's toughest handicaps and given the Pipe yard (that has won the race nine times) got its fingers burned with a similarly-profiled grey last year (Grands Crus – entered again), it might be a case of twice shy with a seven-year-old that surely has an immense future.

It could easily be that Dynaste will wait another week to meet his rivals at levels in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, where he has an excellent record, and a timing that might be more appropriate to his first big target, the King George.

Moreover, the Pond House outfit has two other entries – both in the same ownership – that command significant interest in Salut Flo and Ballynagour.

Nicky Henderson relies on just the seven entries. Rajdhani Express has had the Paddy Power on his menu ever since his victory at the Festival – a victory he backed up with another Graded success at Ayr in April. He is still upwardly mobile and in spite of suffering for his wins with the handicapper could still have plenty more to offer aged just six.

Jonjo O'Neill has his team in cracking form and his Cheltenham record especially over fences is enviable. Having won the race in 2006 with Exotic Dancer, he relies on Johns Spirit, a bit of a nearly horse from last year which came good in some style over course and distance at the October meeting. Some 'judges' have put this one up at 12/1 ante-post and he now trades at single figures but while he is fit, in form and guaranteed to run, I have my reservations. He has been raised 10lbs for that run; both of the favourites that day failed to give their running so it concluded as a very weak race; and he wouldn't want the ground any softer (big quandary for mid-November).

JP McManus is never far away from these major Festival handicaps and whilst neither of his main contenders may currently feature in single figures in the ante-post market, both Tap Night and Colour Squadron have the potential to be interesting players. Tap Night accomplished more in 2012/13, although I'm not certain Cheltenham is his ideal track, but has paid for it with a starting mark of 152. Colour Squadron, by contrast, failed to win from four attempts last term, yet still started 9/2 favourite for Rajdhani Express's race in March. He has a massive 20lbs turnaround in the weights as a consequence and if turned out primed for the day at HQ, could be a big threat off just 139.

Ireland supplies 11 of the entries. However, with the exception of Tranquil Sea in 2009 we must go back to Bright Highway in 1980 to discover the last Irish winner of the race. Perhaps the most intriguing of the emerald brigade this time around is Hidden Cyclone which – as frustrating as he is talented – nonetheless boasts a 10 from 16 career record.

This time last season his win record was even more pure and, after two impressive early victories, he appeared destined for the top. However, following a tame capitulation in the Lexus over Christmas, the Cyclone's season deteriorated to a wisp in two further runs. As with many in the Hanlon yard, the trainer reckons Hidden Cyclone just wasn't right last season.

A recent impressive win at Listowel confirmed the horse in good heart now, albeit his jumping is still a cause for alarm. His Irish handicap mark of 149 could seriously underestimate his ability, but in what is traditionally one of the most attritional scraps on the jumping calendar, we must still wonder not about the horse in the fight, but about the fight in the horse.

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