Long Run to thwart Gold Cup veterans
This afternoon's 2011 Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup looks set to provide a fittingly high-octane climax to a fantastic week's racing in Prestbury Park.
As the old guard of Kauto Star, Denman and Imperial Commander return for yet another crack at jump racing's most prestigious crown, they are due to be challenged by an assorted bunch of rising stars. Unfortunately, Pandorama, one of those expected to lay down a challenge to the three previous holders, may not step into the ring.
Noel Meade has made it clear for some time that his eight-year-old, beaten only once in 10 starts when he has completed the course, would not run unless there is sufficient cut in the ground. Rain is forecast for the Cheltenham area this morning, but, after another day of Cotswold sunshine yesterday, it may be too little, too late.
Willie Mullins' commanding Hennessy Gold Cup winner Kempes is another out to upset the established order, while Mouse Morris's outsider China Rock completes the Irish contingent.
Of course, it is Long Run, and his owner-amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen, that most is expected of.
Just a yearling when Kauto Star made his first Festival appearance in 2006, Nicky Henderson's prodigious French import is out to confirm the devastating impression he left when crushing that giant of the game in the King George.
With no six-year-old successful in the Gold Cup since Mill House in 1963, no amateur since 1981 and Henderson's CV lacking only the blue riband event of the 'big four' at the Festival, how Mr Waley-Cohen copes with the expectation will be fascinating.
Hard as it may be to believe, once again the remainder of the card is full of serious Irish prospects. In the opener, Dermot Weld is out to end a 21-year Festival hoodoo with Unaccompanied, while the County Hurdle and the Foxhunters' also promise to throw up Irish-trained winners in a week that has been an absolute beano for the raiding party.
1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle 2m 1f
Nicky Henderson has won the past two runnings of this and has a leading chance here with the ex-French Grandouet. Despite being beaten on his first couple of runs in England, including by Sam Winner here in November, Barry Geraghty's mount has improved to win impressively twice, so he looks sure to figure prominently.
Sam Winner's momentum took a knock when he could only manage fourth behind Marsh Warbler, well beaten here on Tuesday, at Chepstow in January.
Nonetheless, that form has generally worked out well, and Paul Nicholls will have left no stone unturned in getting him back to peak form.
Smad Place, third at Chepstow, has since won readily at Wincanton. He is another that represents a trainer and jockey combination that has an excellent record in this.
The chief Irish hope is Unaccompanied, a mare that has done nothing wrong in her two hurdling outings, culminating in a Grade One win at Leopardstown in February.
Both her wins came on testing going, so she will not mind if the ground slows, but it's worth pointing out that she also has winning form on firm going on the Flat.
Verdict -- Unaccompanied could be a bit special.
2.05 Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f
A good race for Irish horses even when the English handicapper was perceived to be compromising their chances, it's hard to get away from a number of raiders that look well treated.
Alaivan, which beat Wednesday's facile winner Carlito Brigante four lengths in a two-horse race last time, races off a pound lower mark than he would at home, a rating that is just four pounds higher than Carlito Brigante's.
Edward O'Grady's charge is two from two this term, having finished third behind Soldatino in the Triumph last year.
Dirar, winner of the Ebor in August after finishing third in the Galway Hurdle, has been laid out for this, with a third on the Flat three weeks ago sure to leave him just right on his first hurdling start since Galway.
MCR Hurdle hero Final Approach is up 16lbs for his Leopardstown win, though that form took a knock when runner-up Call The Police bombed on Wednesday. Their stable-mate Blackstairmountain is another unexposed sort on his handicap debut.
Alarazi, a good winner of the big handicap at Sandown on Saturday, must be considered under a five-pound penalty, while Ski Sunday won well at Kempton in January. Those two look the pick of the English horses.
Verdict -- Alaivan gets a marginal call over Dirar
2.40 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 3m
Bobs Worth is a worthy favourite for Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty. Unbeaten over hurdles, he won going away from Rock On Ruby over two and a half miles here in January.
That one pushed First Lieutenant all the way on Wednesday, so Bobs Worth has the form in the book if he sees out the three miles. Kilcrea Kim has been progressive in handicaps, winning two of three since initially scoring twice in novices. His only defeat came when fifth in a decent race here in January.
Gagewell Flyer is probably the best of the Irish runners, though it's interesting that Ruby Walsh has opted for Paul Nicholls' Join Together. If a good drop of rain falls, Gagewell Flyer, a dual Grade Two winner at home, wouldn't be without a chance.
Join Together has taken his time to adapt to hurdles. He was a facile winner at the third attempt at Chepstow last time, and won't mind the ground either way.
Verdict -- Bobs Worth is hard to oppose after Rock On Ruby's run on Wednesday.
3.20 Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase 3m 2f
Yet another mouth-watering renewal of a race that never fails to capture the imagination.
The three horses responsible for winning the last four Gold Cups take each other on once again, while the scintillating King George winner Long Run is another string to the bow of the home team.
Add into the mix Lexus and Hennessy heroes Pandorama and Kempes, not to mention the improving Midnight Chase, and all the ingredients are there for a championship race to savour.
The weather could be critical to the outcome, as some rain is forecast.
Pandorama remains a horse of immense potential. In just five chasing starts, he has won three Grade Ones, but he needs the heavens to open. While the least experienced chaser in the field, he is also the most unexposed, and it would be a shame if he had to be taken out due to a lack of give underfoot.
Kempes' chance would be better if the rain stays away. Although still a bit of an unknown quantity, he doesn't have the profile of a winner of this prestigious event.
Long Run looks a frightening prospect at times. Like Kauto Star before he won his first Gold Cup, there is a theory that Kempton rather than Cheltenham is where he excels.
From two starts at the London venue, he has now won two Grade Ones with ease, yet he has failed to fire in two outings at Prestbury Park.
Still, we all know how spectacularly Kauto Star dispelled that myth, and you couldn't discount that old stager again today.
Had he not hit the second-last hard in the King George, he would have been a good second, so there aren't many better than him.
While rain wouldn't help Kauto Star's cause, Denman probably needs it to come, though it may not matter one way or another to Imperial Commander.
Last year's winner seems versatile in relation to going, and he is a course specialist.
Midnight Chase is the rags-to-riches story of the race. Another Cheltenham specialist, he comes into this having won his last four handicaps here, but is still a whopping 22lbs below Imperial Commander in the ratings. This might be a bridge too far.
Verdict -- Long Run has youth and class on his side.
4.0 Christie's Foxhunters Chase Challenge Cup 3m 2f
The presence of On The Fringe in this is intriguing. Enda Bolger's six-year-old won his first point-to-point 12 months ago, before going on to beat Kilty Storm, which had been second here, in the Champion Hunter Chase at Punchestown.
On his only outing since, he hosed up in the Raymond Smith Memorial at Leopardstown, with a subsequent easy winner, Good Egg, 10 lengths behind in third.
If he copes with the hullabaloo of the Festival, there is no more exciting contender.
The 2010 winner Baby Run continues to impress in this sphere with two more wins to his name since last year, while Gone To Lunch also catches the eye. Runner-up in the Scottish Grand National in April, he has won two point-to-points on the way here.
Verdict -- On The Fringe could be a class apart.
4.40 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle 2m 4f
This looks a race to avoid from a betting point of view, though Sir Des Champs is bound to be popular given his profile.
A hurdle winner in France last year, he won like a nice horse on his debut for Willie Mullins at Navan in January. He had horses rated 126 and 131 well behind then, so 134 may not be a bad starting point now.
Qaspal makes his first appearance since landing a gamble in the Imperial Cup a year ago, but couldn't be fancied strongly after such a lay-off. King Of The Night represents Paul Nicholls.
That one's only defeat over flights came when he was outclassed behind Cue Card here in November and he got back on track with a comfortable win at Doncaster in January.
Verdict -- King Of The Night's experience to give him an edge over Sir Des Champs
5.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (Handicap) Chase 2m
Robert Tyner's Askthemaster is the only Irish hope in the finale. Although an unlikely contender on his Cheltenham debut, the 11-year-old has been in decent heart over fences this term.
He finished second to Rubi Light at Punchestown in November before winning easily at Leopardstown the following month. Off a 13lb higher mark, he wouldn't be without an each-way squeak if the ground softened up.
Tanks For That will be popular under Barry Geraghty having run a good second to Woolcombe Folly here in December, while his stable-mate Anquetta is a progressive sort that brings winning form into this.
De Boitron is another that could play a part. Ferdy Murphy's charge flopped here in November, but won here previously and ran better when second at Catterick recently.
Verdict -- De Boitron to be thereabouts at a big price.