Cheltenham puzzle continues to perplex
Suspense builds as Festival clues mount up, writes Ian McClean
WHEN Alfred Hitchcock became the first major studio film director to transfer to the small screen with his Alfred Hitchcock Presents series in 1955, he explained: "I want to bring murder back into the living room -- where it belongs."
Well, it's been murder in many living rooms trying to sift through the Cheltenham implications of the last few days as most of the main protagonists got a final outing before the Festival. And the Master of Suspense himself would have been proud of the fact that even after collecting all the clues, many disagree and everybody's still guessing.
Take Gold Cup winner Long Run as an example. The headline in one of the UK dailies yesterday summed it up: "Long Run silences (some) critics". It seems that there were some still prepared to look a gift horse in the mouth at Newbury on Friday. The Gold Cup winner had given 10lbs to two Hennessy runners-up, putting in his best round of jumping since Cheltenham in March and still there were quibbles.
Quibbles enough for many bookmakers to extend his odds to 5/2 for the mid-March feature. The anti-Long Run lobby are adamant that with a better jump at the last and a more vigorous approach from Barry Geraghty, Burton Port would have run over his more illustrious stablemate. Whilst there are undoubtedly credits and debits to Friday's performance on Long Run's balance sheet, I am reminded of a parallel situation in the 2007 renewal when another seven-year-old, Kauto Star, just prevailed by a hard-fought neck over L'Ami (in receipt of 10lbs) at odds of 2/9.
A month later, Kauto Star cruised to victory in the Gold Cup whilst L'Ami finished seventh. A trial after all is just that and Friday for the Seven Barrows camp was always going to be about building Long Run's confidence. After all, neither horse nor jockey (Sam Waley-Cohen) had won a race between them this season. The two reassuring aspects of the performance are that Long Run's jumping was practically flawless for him and he always travelled like the best horse and was almost certainly idling at the finish.
Zarkandar is another which didn't please everyone when winning the Betfair Handicap Hurdle. His in-running trade of 100 on the sponsor's machine will tell you everything about how impressive the manner of victory wasn't. Yet bookmakers were unanimous in shrinking his price for the Champion Hurdle in spite of the fact that he was unarguably a lucky winner (Darlan fell two out when cruising and nearly brought down Get Me Out of Here who finished second).
The slowly run race would not have suited and it was Zarkandar's first outing since Aintree, but this is a long way from Champion Hurdle form and Ruby Walsh will hardly be losing sleep over any conflict of interests with Hurricane Fly.
From initially looking one of the most openly competitive divisions, the Arkle is taking on the appearance of a one-horse book. But when you have a jockey as experienced as Barry Geraghty describing Sprinter Sacre as "the horse of a lifetime" you have to take note. Particularly when Geraghty was the permanent partner of the best two miler of the modern era in Moscow Flyer.
After a couple of novice successes the Henderson inmate took the step up into open company (in the Game Spirit) in his gargantuan stride and Geraghty's greatest challenge was in attempting to settle the giant gelding -- something he only managed to do on the approach to the last. In breaking Barnbrook Again's 23 year old course record he never came off the bridle and still you get the impression that his career best effort is in front of him.
While Cheltenham clues were concentrated at Newbury on Friday, they were scattered across at least three racecourses and two countries yesterday. Binocular was the highest profile name on display -- although his participation in yesterday's Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton came only owing to the defection of stablemate Grandouet, which knocked a joint at Seven Barrows on Friday morning.
Nonetheless, the former Champion Hurdler demonstrated his well-being with a no-nonsense dispatch of Celestial Halo. The benchmark of Binocular's vitality has always been his hurdling, and yesterday it was slick and accurate. At least it proves Binocular couldn't be going back to try and regain his crown in any better condition.
The market to get the biggest shake-up was the Ryanair, which is beginning to bubble up into one hell of a race.
Riverside Theatre was bidding to overcome an absence of a year and a pelvis fracture to follow up in the Betfair Chase at Ascot. His jumping was a joy to watch and he had too many guns for Medermit as the pair drew miles clear. Some firms promoted Riverside to favourite, while others were more impressed with what was going on at Gowran Park. There, Rubi Light was turning the Red Mills Chase into a solitary procession. Both sets of connections will be hoping they can get their horse to the Festival with conditions to suit.
Finally, the RSA Chase looked ready for a shake-up as Bob's Worth took on Silvianaco Conti in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. But, in the event, neither could cope with the rising profile of Alan King's Invictus, which proved in some way superior to his rivals running out a ready winner. He is now as short as 6/1 for the RSA (12s in places) but that market is likely to see plenty more turbulence when a call is made on Grands Crus.
So even with all the clues of the last couple of days, Hitchcock would pride himself that there are still no fixed conclusions. Long Run's connections might enjoy the title of the first episode of Hitchcock's first TV series -- Revenge.
Sunday Indo Sport