Thursday 23 March 2017

Looking forward with hope

Ian McClean

'Big Buck's is probably the best staying hurdler of all time. Even at 11/8 I can't oppose him'
'Big Buck's is probably the best staying hurdler of all time. Even at 11/8 I can't oppose him'

'You ever wait for something for so long that waiting for it becomes the something?'

The words of New Orleans jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis certainly strike a chord when it comes to Cheltenham. After all, this time next week what will we have to look forward to?

The eve of the Festival is where it's at. Everyone's opinion is still pure, intact and infallible. By next week, the virtue or folly of it will be all too apparent. The paradox is we have to live Cheltenham going forward although it is best understood looking backwards. So for now, with sublime anticipation and utmost optimism, this is the best shot . . .

Tuesday

The Arkle

A substandard renewal. The received wisdom that the highest rated hurdler is most likely to oblige sees 158-rated Medermit head the market. An ignominious start to his new discipline has gradually been transformed into more of what it is required, but the fact is that his improved technique has coincided with the step up in distance to two and a half miles.

I expect his Achilles heel to re-emerge under the exacting split-second scrutiny that is the Arkle. Dan Breen is a slick-jumping headstrong type fitted with blinkers for the first time and I could see him outrunning his price into the home straight but the most impressive jumping from a novice this season for my money has come from Ghizao and this invaluable asset backed up by top-notch course-and-distance form makes him one of the bets of the week.

Recommended: Ghizao (4/1)

Champion Hurdle

At a pre-Cheltenham evening last week the experts managed to arrive at eight different conclusions for the Champion -- even though there were just four panellists.

A race for the purists, this is probably the strongest and most open Champion in living memory, especially compared to last year. Little wonder McCoy is more wary with Binocular this time around and at 3/1 he makes no sort of appeal. Hurricane Fly is possibly the most fascinating character given that he's missed the party for the last two years and that awful Montjeu stat of zero winners from 44 Cheltenham runners.

I always reserve the utmost respect for unbeaten horses and, to use that dreadful cliché, Peddlers Cross "has done nothing wrong" for his entire life. Surprisingly, Neptune winners (Istabraq and Hardy Eustace) have a better record in the Champion than Supreme winners (Bula was last to follow up in 1971) and if you were looking for one to outrun its price then it's Mille Chief for whom the drying ground could bring about a very big improvement.

Recommended: Peddlers Cross (13/2)

Wednesday

RSA Chase

The race predictably revolves around Time For Rupert which was by some distance the best hurdler in the field (166-rated second to Big Buck's in 2010 World Hurdle) and has transitioned seamlessly to fences.

While the form of his two chase wins is of the highest quality -- Hell's Bay and Quinz have both franked the form significantly since -- the fact that he has only run in two chases raises a question as all previous 11 winners of the RSA had at least three previous fencing experiences.

Compounded with inexperience is Rupert's absence since December 2010 as the last 47 RSA winners had all run in the same calendar year prior to the Festival. However, if he had run in his intended prep race (Argento Chase) for which he was 6/4 favourite and won, he may well be contesting the Gold Cup not the RSA and would be a single-figure price for that.

Given that his jumping has been flawless in what we've seen he's still the bet in spite of the skinny price.

Recommended: Time For Rupert (9/4)

Queen Mother Champion Chase

The ground will play a decisive role in the outcome of this. The big two -- Big Zeb and Master Minded -- have contrasting preferences and Big Zeb is likely to get his.

After Master Minded got beaten last year, connections pledged never to run him on ground that quick again. So, amnesia notwithstanding, I expect the conditions to be his undoing again.

I expect a big run from Sizing Europe and can certainly see him placing at least, but the 14/1 available a week ago has -- like Prestbury Park -- dried up.

Age provides no barriers in the Champion (unlike the Gold Cup) -- 10-year-olds Martha's Son and One Man have won recently and Moscow Flyer won at 11 -- and Big Zeb can crown a blemish-free year by retaining his crown.

Recommended: Big Zeb (3/1)

Thursday

Ryanair CHASE

I was just about to sharpen my pencil for Somersby as bet of the week for this when Henrietta Knight changed her mind (again) to run her stable star in the wrong race and forfeit a gilt-edged Grade One invitation.

It leaves the race a weaker renewal and Poquelin as a bad favourite. The two that stand out for me are Kalahari King and Albertas Run, neither of which has had a glittering campaign this term and both of which are seriously ground-dependent.

Kalahari showed signs of emerging from the doldrums when staying on from an impossible position at Ascot last time.

He has been threatening to improve for a step up in trip for some time and has finally been given the chance (following a hurdles win over the distance at Punchestown in 2008).

He has a good Festival record and while he hasn't won from three attempts, he failed by just a whisker in an Arkle. He just shades selection over last year's winner Albertas Run.

Recommended: Kalahari King (5/1)

World Hurdle

Until recently this looked like having an outcome of monotonous predictability and then along comes Grand Crus out of nowhere.

Here is a horse which at last year's Festival was rated so low he needed 18 horses to come out of the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap to even get a run there. Now here he is threatening to topple the seemingly invincible Big Buck's from an historic three-in-a-row.

However, his rapid ascent has been under very different conditions to those he will encounter on Thursday's New Course. Beating up on inferior horses in testing ground with his grinding, rotavator action is not on the menu here with Willie Mullins' pair (Fiveforthree and Mourad) as well as Zaynar added to the mix.

But all that said, Big Buck's is probably the best staying hurdler of all time and he is still only eight. Ironically, in spite of the fact that he has won 10 straight races since reverting to hurdles, because of his style of racing we still don't know how good he is. Even at 11/8 I can't oppose him.

Recommended: Big Buck's (11/8)

Friday

Gold Cup

Age matters. Unless you're Silvio Berlusconi. And it provides a serious angle to the Gold Cup this year. Last year Kauto Star and Denman took out over 75 per cent of the market. Both were 10 and were beaten by a younger rival. This year they are 11 and the last 11-year-old to win was Mandarin in 1962.

Imperial Commander is this year's hot 10-year-old but we have to go back 17 runnings to find the last 10-year-old to win (Cool Dawn) while many very fancied ones have failed along the way.

At the opposite end, Long Run fares even worse as Mill House was the last six-year-old -- 48 years ago -- to win the race. Furthermore, his form/jumping at Cheltenham in two visits is far below his Kempton efforts.

Second-season chasers have won nine of the last 19 Gold Cups and therein lies the value. Pandorama would have been the choice but the ground has gone for him.

Kempes has been touted by many and on the ground has a chance if his jumping holds up. But I really like outsider Weird Al which is still unexposed after just seven races. He is four-from-five over fences and significantly 2-2 at Cheltenham.

He was a leading fancy for the Hennessy in November and suffered his first defeat, returning a very sick horse.

His rehabilitation has been steady but his record after a significant layoff is excellent. His sire's (Accordion) offspring improve significantly at the Festival when stepped up in trip (have a 42 per cent win-or-place strike-rate over 2m 5f+ in the last eight years).

The trainer Ian Williams is bang-in-form with four winners from his last 13 runners and has always thought this horse a serious Gold Cup contender.

He missed the opportunity to show it last year in the RSA with a last-minute withdrawal and again in the Hennessy. Consequently, he is the forgotten progressive and could just slip in under the radar on Friday.

Recommended: Weird Al (33/1)

Grand Annual

If you are dependent on the 27th and final race of the Festival to get out, then you have my sympathies. Novices have a particularly good record in the race (Pigeon Island and Oh Crick won the last two) but too high a rating has proven a killer.

Shoreacres is a novice (and a second-season one at that, having had his first season prematurely curtailed after a fall ironically against Grand Annual favourite Tanks For That which he would have beaten at Plumpton) which was very impressive in his only race this year at Taunton.

He is favourably handicapped against Tanks For That (7lbs better off) and has run really well at two previous Festivals (fourth in the Champion Bumper and led till the last when seventh in Go Native's Supreme).

His trainer is firing in winners and he could be the ride of AP McCoy if the weights rise sufficiently.

Recommended: Shoreacres (14/1)

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