Ian McClean marks your card for the week with his day-by-day guide to what’s hot and what’s not
Tony McCoy's assertion that there is no outstanding two-mile novice chaser is reflected very much in the unsteady and yawning market that makes up this year's Arkle.
With Simon Claisse holding fire on the water and rain forecast for early this week, one thing for sure is that two miles at Arkle pace will certainly feel like at least two and a half in real terms. This in turn will not suit either those who enjoy forcing the pace or those who prefer rattling rather than squelching hooves.
Favourite Tatenen will be one to benefit from the prevailing unsettled conditions but at 7/2 or thereabouts is just too short for me. In an open race, the horse that tempts me is Forpadydeplasterer which will be encountering his ideal conditions for perhaps the first time this year. A repeat viewing of his Ballymore Properties run last year confirms that nothing travelled as well through the race as he.
His physique always suggested he would make a better chaser than hurdler (yet he still managed a Grade 1 win in that discipline). After his beginners' chase win in October, his three defeats subsequently have all come as a result of being outstayed -- either on horrible ground (Leopardstown) or over a distance too far. Some have unfairly questioned his resolve. Tuesday is his right to reply -- Pady's Day a week early?
Binocular could prove to be the next See You Then but at 6/4 every assessment instinct in me makes him a lay. If he does win on Tuesday, he could well win three Champion Hurdles but he has yet to prove unequivocally that he has the level of superiority the betting suggests.
For starters, five-year-olds have gone from being the pariahs of the Champion Hurdle scene to suddenly being the most popular flavour as they occupy three of the first four places in the betting. Binocular was beaten at last year's Festival having travelled better than his conqueror Captain Cee Bee throughout the race. This is a far cry from the flat track, good ground triumvirate of wins he has clocked up since. Moreover, his prep work at Kempton didn't exactly set the world alight.
Osana provides the most viable alternative. Still relatively lightly raced for a seven-year-old, his course form is impeccable. A Bula slaughter of subsequent Champion Hurdler Katchit; a Greatwood second to Sizing Europe conceding weight and a gallant runner-up in the Champion on diabolical ground puts him right there on the book. And a most promising preparatory run behind Celestial Halo at Sandown conceding 4lbs doesn't give him a lot to find with Binocular. Dunnes Stores don't have any better value.
Queen Mother champion chase
Highest-rated chaser in training. Most impressive winner at last year's Festival. Hardly out of second gear in two runs this season. Reigning Champion Chaser and still only six. Bar a mishap, it should be a formality with the most likely challenger (Voy Por Ustedes) diverted to the Ryanair. Would think an extreme shift of faith to expect anything other than Master Minded here.
Verdict: Master Minded
It is little surprise Ruby Walsh chose Cooldine over What A Friend -- if there ever was a choice. With only seven races in his life -- and two over fences -- What A Friend simply does not have the battle-hardened experience profile of a typical SunAlliance winner. Over fences, he has only beaten a total of 10 horses in his two races and the white-knuckle endurance marathon that typifies the RSA is going to be a shock to the system of one so inexperienced. Moreover, six year-olds have an appalling record in the race. Horses of the quality of One Man and Our Vic both faltered when favourites aged six. The stats relate that only two six-year-olds have won since 1978 -- and one of those was no less than Florida Pearl in 1998.
Which leads us very nicely to Cooldine. Sporting the same colours as Florida Pearl, his aspirations to RSA glory were hardly shielded by rattling up a five-timer over timber last season and rounding off the campaign with the highest rated performance of any novice in finishing fourth behind Blazing Bailey in the World Series Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.
Throughout his novice hurdle campaign, trainer Willie Mullins was insistent he would be even better over fences. His opportunity to prove it so far has been masked by running over a distance well short of his optimum.
Furthermore, Mullins is the only Irish trainer to win the SunAlliance since 1985 (with Rule Supreme in 2004 as well as Florida Pearl). Beyond that, Mullins has saddled two seconds (Alexander Banquet and Snowy Morning) from a total of just seven runners (ironically, the other three all fell). Believe me, this is the weakest Championship race at the Festival and Cooldine represents the bet of the week.
Not quick enough for Master Minded and not stamina-laden enough for a Gold Cup, the Ryanair represents the perfect panacea for twilight horses like Voy Por Ustedes and Tidal Bay.
Even at this 11th hour time of writing, Howard Johnson hasn't decided on Tidal Bay's target (or confirm that he will arrive in the Cotswolds at all). If he recovers from his stitching and attends, and runs in the Ryanair, and recaptures the form that saw him annihilate the Arkle field last year, he would certainly bustle up Voy Por Ustedes. But that's far too many 'ifs' and 'ands' for me. Voy Por doesn't come with any such terms and conditions attached and while his price is hardly a working man's, his opposition is far inferior and come race time he could easily start odds-on.
Imperial Commander is still a horse of some potential and his defeat of Barbers Shop in the Paddy Power signalled a horse on the up. Winning off 139, he has still got some way to go to match Voy Por Ustedes in the 170s, and with the Timeform 'squiggle' still arched over the Twiston-Davies yard, he is not attractive enough to risk at 7/1.
Verdict: Voy Por Ustedes
The near-immortal Inglis Drever will be a notable absentee from the star-cast at this week's Festival. The triple Stayers' champion was all that prevented Kasbah Bliss from being crowned last March, with the pair fighting out probably the most nail-biting climax to any race at last year's event.
Having finished fifth to Inglis in 2007 as a five-year-old, Kasbah improved substantially from that to just fail the next year. Drever actually began his World domination at six (beating Baracouda), which in turn had begun his reign aged seven.
So from both an age and form perspective, it appears Kasbah Bliss is ripe for the takeover and to my mind nothing Punchestowns or Big Buck's can offer will be good enough to rock Francois Doumen's Kasbah. One thing is sure -- nothing in the field would have the speed to obliterate a Prix Gladiateur field at Longchamp in September.
It appears as if Kasbah's dramatic Flat improvement has transferred itself to hurdles and his technique at Haydock -- where he was ludicrously impressive -- was as polished as either Drever or the Baracouda in their heyday.
That Doumen thinks his home-bred might be even better than his beloved Baracouda is almost enough to encourage the opposition to stay at home.
Verdict: Kasbah Bliss
This year's Triumph Hurdle seems to have a vintage look to it -- with more than a couple looking like they could have a say in next year's Champion even at this premature stage. From amongst Starluck, Zaynar, Walkon, Master Of Arts, Ebadiyan and Hebridean we have promise in the extreme, and should any one of these win with authority, we can be pretty assured he is the real deal.
Choosing between them however is not so straightforward and complicated further by the uncertainty over ground conditions which will have a dramatic bearing on the line-up and the outcome. I couldn't give Zaynar a prayer if it continued dry until Friday, while Hebridean is a likely scratching should the rains come. On balance, the horse with most in his favour is Walkon, defeated by Zaynar at Newbury but otherwise with a flawless hurdles record. And while Walkon has continued on an upward trajectory since Newbury, the same could not be said of Zaynar which will have the addition of cheekpieces on Friday -- a device used by Nicky Henderson in only the trickiest circumstances. If you still have hope in your heart by Friday afternoon, then Walkon it is.
It is said the definition of madness is to continue to do what you have always done and expect to get a different result. So it stands that Exotic Dancer and his connections must be touched with something to expect to finish in front of Kauto Star given the horse has finished behind him on the seven occasions the pair have met. In spite of that, I believe he is the value bet in this year's renewal.
Denman cannot possibly come back from his abysmal run at Kempton. Madison Du Berlais is not a Cheltenham horse. Barbers Shop has too much to prove and Albertas Run needs seriously good ground. Neptune Collonges is the new flavour horse but he was only ever going to be second to Exotic Dancer in the Lexus and yet is half the price of the Ogden horse in spite of a hard race in the Hennessy which was postponed one week -- a race no horse has won prior to Cheltenham glory since Imperial Call in 1996.
Exotic sensibly bypassed the postponed Hennessy race to remain fresh for Cheltenham and strange though it seems looked a revitalised character at Leopardstown with possibly his best ever performance.
The case against Kauto for me is simple. He is invincible at Kempton over three miles. However, he has raced beyond 24 furlongs only three times in his life -- winning one Gold Cup and suffering defeat twice. The Gold Cup he won in 2007 was run at a dawdle and turned into a sprint on good ground.
In last year's Gold Cup, he palpably curled up on the run-in and only just held on for second, whilst he again suffered defeat beyond the three-mile trip at Aintree next time. Neptune Collonges will go for glory early this year, Kauto will challenge him between the last two fences and Exotic will mug Kauto on the run to the line. Madness, I know.
But that's just the week that's in it . . .
Verdict: Exotic Dancer (ew)