Alpha can finally deliver for Mouse on Douvan's day
And then, there was Douvan.
At all the preview nights that came and went before Cheltenham, few admitted to having backed him - but he was available at odds-against for much of last year. Now, with the Queen Mother Champion Chase upon us, he is around about 2/7.
The worry, of course, with Douvan is that something could go wrong - though he is to jumping fences what hitting the cue-ball is to Ronnie O'Sullivan. Moreover, his temperament seems bullet-proof, though some will say he is more impressive elsewhere than he is at Cheltenham.
Any viable rival has fallen away and he should win bar a fall. The purists will purr but the men who want to punt may seek alternatives and perhaps they will find it in the Mouse Morris-trained Alpha Des Obeaux in the RSA Chase.
Morris has long extolled the class of Alpha Des Obeaux but his win record is patchy and he also burst a blood vessel when last seen. However, confidence is growing that he can finally deliver today.
His winning would ensure a rambunctious reception; but even that would not compare to the noise if Acapella Bourgeois wins for Sandra Hughes, daughter of the late Dessie, and journeyman rider Roger Loughran. He was awesome in a Grade Two success at Navan last time; the issue is that the ground may be faster than ideal: he would likely prefer soft or heavy.
The Neptune is one race in which the British will really fancy their chances, though it remains to be seen how good Neon Wolf is now that he takes on Irish opposition of high calibre. Bon Papa has gone into the race somewhat unnoticed and seemingly is neither the first string for Willie Mullins nor JP McManus - but this striking specimen has the ability to defy the doubters.
1.30 Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle 2m5f26yds
Neon Wolf, the best son of Vinnie Roe to race over jumps so far, is one of the strong fancies for many for the Festival. He is versatile ground-wise and was ultra-impressive at Haydock in January when last seen.
Mark Walsh rides Consul De Thaix but another JP McManus runner, Bon Papa, is interesting. While ultimately a chasing prospect, he has travelled in a manner so fierce in Irish combat that he may be better suited by a strongly-run race such as this. He is exciting and a big price.
At a much shorter price, stablemate Bacardys comes into the argument, edging Bunk Off Early in the Deloitte after being ridden with restraint. He was beaten two lengths in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and it is no surprise that Ruby Walsh takes the ride now. He won the race on Yorkhill last season.
Verdict: Bon Papa could cause a surprise ahead of big things when he goes chasing next term.
2.10 Grade One RSA Novices' Chase 3m80yds
This appeals as a rather average running of the race and everything seems set for last year's Stayers' Hurdle second, Alpha Des Obeaux, to give it a good go. The main proviso is that he burst a blood vessel at Leopardstown last time, having put in an excellent round of jumping. However, he had been winning in pretty workmanlike fashion before that over the bigger obstacles and he is a natural at his fences. Mouse Morris has prepped him for this all year; no better man for doing that.
The other main Irish hope may prove to be Acapella Bourgeois, though there remains a slight doubt as to whether or not he will run, as the ground has gotten little or no rain so far. He was superb at Navan and certainly has the ability to go close.
Might Bite bids to give the maligned stallion Scorpion his first Cheltenham winner. He could have the best chase form here - albeit to the point of his fall - in the Feltham at Christmas.
When Daryl Jacob asked him for a big one at the last then, the horse hit the deck. It looked a foolish move by Jacob and he admitted as much afterwards. One scribe compared it to a team sending up its goalkeeper for a corner-kick in the last minute while 1-0 up. Whether he will respond to Nico de Boinville's urging if a battle transpires remains to be seen.
Verdict: Alpha Des Obeaux has been a little frustrating but the ability is there. He jumps like a pro.
2.50 Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m5f26yds
A fascinating renewal, since Tombstone was no fancy price for the Champion Hurdle when people expected him to be supplemented, but connections decided to come here instead.
He could be a rare case of a Gordon Elliott-trained horse getting in lightly in a British handicap but there is more to consider than that. He has been tricky to train, having essentially the same injury in three separate legs, and this may be asking a lot of him.
Tin Soldier was initially expected to go for the Martin Pipe race instead of this but connections rerouted after getting the notion that he would get into the race. Ruby Walsh rides and he makes plenty of appeal, despite his inexperience. He appeared to be well-held at Thurles in Grade Two company last time but rallied gamely and looked to have a bit up his sleeve.
Automated, stablemate of Tombstone, scored smoothly at Navan on latest and is unexposed when ridden quietly. Jack Kennedy is the ally and if he can get him to avoid traffic, he is interesting too.
Of the British hopes, Old Guard should not be dismissed. He has shot down the weights and the striking thing about the son of Notnowcato is that he is still only six.
Verdict: Tin Soldier appeals as the right type for this test under Ruby Walsh for owner Philip Reynolds.
3.30 Grade One Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m
There is an argument that Douvan's least impressive performances have been at Cheltenham and perhaps there is an element of truth to that - but opposing him here seems utter folly.
The one day when he seemed to be stretched to something like his limit was when winning the Supreme Novices Hurdle, though it was still hard to fault him and, essentially, he has done what his physique suggested he would do all along: improve over fences.
Perhaps the greatest two-mile chaser we have seen, he has not faced many horses anywhere near his standard, and one of them - Sizing John - has improved for farther. One hopes that one day he will face Altior over two miles.
Douvan is a superb jumper, straightforward to train, and he can get a nice lead into the race from the likes of Special Tiara, which is capable of a good account.
However, it may be that God's Own will chase home Douvan. He actually beat the ill-fated Vautour at Punchestown last season and is capable of winning the race without the favourite.
A Douvan defeat would be catastrophic for virtually everyone involved and the hope for racing is that he does the job in style; he seems to know no other way.
Verdict: Douvan should win this without too much trouble; perhaps God's Own can chase him home.
4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross-Country Chase) 3m6f37yds
Plenty in with chances here and long-term favourite, Cantlow, has eased out in price now, with some lively alternatives. Cantlow was hammered in the race last year but he has won at Cheltenham since, when beating Bless The Wings.
However, the experience of that day will stand to Bless The Wings, which was second in the Irish National last year. He has the assistance of Davy Russell and is around 16/1.
Stablemate Cause Of Causes has been really well-backed in recent weeks for this and last year's Kim Muir winner should run a big race. That said, he has to prove that he likes this test, as he did not look a natural behind Cantlow in January.
Verdict: Bless The Wings looks a bit of value in a really competitive renewal.
4.50 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m87yds
This seems a typically competitive renewal of the four-year-olds' handicap, with so many in with a chance, and the nod goes to Domperignon Du Lys for Nicky Henderson.
The son of Great Pretender struggled on his sole visit to Cheltenham but can be forgiven that and he was brilliant since at Market Rasen. A strong traveller, the chances are he is well-in off 133.
Tony Martin has one of his main Cheltenham fancies in Long Call, which was useful enough on the Flat and is also a nice mover. He is primed.
Project Bluebook is another to consider and has dropped in the handicap since his run at Musselburgh.
Verdict: Domperignon Du Lys is on a potentially nice mark here for top connections.
5.30 Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m87yds
Rarely an appealing betting heat and questionable if this is any different, though it is possible that Carter Mckay will prove different gravy.
He was visually awesome in beating West Coast Time at Naas but he got a really soft lead and Joseph O'Brien seems confident that his charge is capable of reversing the form under Davy Russell. Patrick Mullins again rides Carter Mckay (see his column on Page 8).
Robbie McNamara rode Silver Concorde to victory in this in 2014. Now training, he has not hidden his regard for Quick Grabim, which has been a little mentally raw but has reportedly come to himself.
He bombed at Exeter last time but McNamara expects that he will be much better now, especially going left-handed.
Verdict: Quick Grabim could get trainer Robbie McNamara off the mark for the Festival.
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