Thursday 25 December 2014

Time is right for Captain Conan to wear the champion's crown

Ian McClean

Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30

Last Instalment has a chance on the right ground
Last Instalment has a chance on the right ground
Our Conor
Captain Conan never got the credit he deserved last season

Cheltenham at championship pace is as unforgiving as Game of Thrones and any chink will invariably be outed.

TUESDAY

Arkle

Year after year I need to remind myself that Rule No 1 in the novice championship races is that a horse needs to jump. Cheltenham at championship pace is as unforgiving as Game of Thrones and any chink will invariably be outed.

Neither horse at the top of the market, Champagne Fever nor Rock on Ruby, has recorded enough race-practice for me in this context. Rock on Ruby has beaten just three rivals in his two races, while Champagne Fever has won a beginners chase before capitulating under pressure in Leopardstown's Grade 1 over Christmas. Neither appeals on that basis and their price is more reflective of their hurdles rating than anything achieved in a starkly differing discipline.

The two horses with the best jumping profile lie just beneath the head of the market. Both Dodging Bullets and Trifolium jump for fun and have had four runs each in preparation for Tuesday's big ask. Both have decent Festival course form over hurdles (Dodging Bullets ran exceptionally in a Triumph while Trifolium finished a close third in a Supreme on his only Festival run) and they are now officially rated within a pound of each other. Choosing between them isn't easy, but marginal preference is for Trifolium on the basis that his Leopardstown Arkle win witnessed a mighty step forward now he's learned to settle better. Similar improvement again might just see him edge it.

Champion Hurdle

Arguably the race of the week. And arguably one to savour rather than to labour with five exceptionally talented rivals rated within a few pounds of one another. Now that Captain Cee Bee has been added into the mix, any fears of a false pace are allayed and consequently the race's intrigue is now as deep as its quality.

We will discover whether the Irish or English form is superior as there has been no cross-over of form-lines until this point of this season and we will also learn the regional outcome of which horse is better in the My Tent Or Yours versus The New One rivalry, as well as the Our Conor versus Jezki versus Hurricane Fly debate. Above all, we will find a winner – and hopefully on merit.

Old master and dual champion Hurricane Fly is being assaulted by a battalion of second-season recruits which, in a typical season, would need to find seven to 10lbs to overhaul the status quo, but this time around are already within hailing distance.

With so little between all the protagonists on both ratings and this season's form, it will boil down to which finds the most improvement on the day and, with that in mind, I am giving my tentative vote to Our Conor on the basis that he would appear to have been trained with just one objective in mind all season. If he repeats the leap in performance he made from Leopardstown to Cheltenham this time last year it should be enough.

WEDNESDAY

QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE

Sometimes horse race markets get formed in the most unorthodox ways. Since Sprinter Sacre didn't make it to the Tingle Creek, Sire De Grugy, which captured the Sandown Grade 1 in the absence of the champion, became touted as the sole pretender to the crown in the two-mile division. Sire De Grugy's win in the old Victor Chandler only cemented the idea and the greater the doubts around Sprinter Sacre's participation, the more the idea of a credible heir apparent grew until at one point SDG was as short as 5/2.

With Sprinter Sacre's withdrawal, SDG suddenly collapsed to 5/4 for the race. As it is now, some sanity has been restored to the market and he has eased to a general 2/1, but he is still the shortest price of any favourite in the 27 Festival races barring standing perennial Quevega and he MUST be opposed. All SDG's victories this season have been magnified by his favoured soft ground; his Cheltenham record does not match his overall record (has been beaten by two of the field on his only two runs here); and he has been over-raced this campaign. No horse to have won any of the big four championship races in the last 16 years has run more than four times since the previous spring.

Captain Conan (nap) already has a win over SDG over course and distance and wasn't right when defeated by Gary Moore's horse in the Tingle Creek. He is a triple Grade 1 winner over fences last season and has never got the credit owing to having Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig in the yard. However, this time around cometh the hour, cometh the Captain.

CROSS COUNTRY CHASE

I have never before missed out the RSA (or equivalent) for a selection as it's traditionally one of my favourite betting races of the entire calendar. However, with no outstanding novice on either side of the water and a labyrinth of contradictory form-lines, this year it is just too open to call. That fact, allied to the participation of Star Neuville in the Cross Country has led me to this race instead on Wednesday.

Barry Connell's charge showed abundant talent as a novice chaser – enough to finish a close-up third to RSA winner Lord Windermere on only his second start and to run in a Grade 1 PJ Moriarty. The Cross Country is a very specialist discipline and Enda Bolger is a Cross Country specialist so the transfer to Bolger's yard was just in time for Star Neuville to compete at Punchestown and just fail there over the banks. With more time, a quiet introductory run over hurdles in February, and a very workable racing weight of 10-6, Star Neuville looks primed for a huge run.

THURSDAY

WORLD HURDLE

With Big Buck's, the greatest staying hurdler of the modern era, facing off with the unbeaten mare Annie Power backed up by last year's defending champion, a Triumph Hurdle winner, an Albert Bartlett winner and a dual Long Walk winner, this promises to be one hell of a race in spite of the absence of Solwhit.

Yet the horse which intrigues me the most hasn't won a major or even competed in any of those. More of That has only ever run four times. He won a maiden hurdle at Folkestone when totally unexpected at 20/1 first time up last season. He'd obviously not been showing much at home as AP McCoy deserted him to ride a better-fancied rival and history might be about to repeat itself here. And so this season after winning two handicaps comfortably, the Beneficial gelding was pitched into the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle. With a rating of 145 from an outfit that doesn't typically waste well-handicapped horses, it was significant More Of That even went that route. In spite of the steep step up in grade, More Of That won again as cosily as he had his three previous victories.

The fact is we don't know if he will stay at his first attempt over three miles, but we also have no idea how good he could be. We only know he is still improving rapidly and at a double- figure price he is worth the risk.

ryanair chase

Dynaste and Benefficient have a private score to settle after the JLT/Jewson last year and my sense is that Dynaste may not be found so naive this time around.

Al Ferof has a good Cheltenham record and can expect to rebound from a lacklustre performance in the Denman Chase on desperate ground. I think Hidden Cyclone is overpriced in the race, but the left-field selection is the parachuted-in Boston Bob now that astute connections have decided a) that he is Festival-ready and b) which race to run in.

The lightly raced nine-year-old has been to the Festival twice. He wasn't at his best when just failing to win the Albert Bartlett behind Brindisi Breeze before having the RSA at his mercy in advance of a last-fence fall last year. He looked to be right back on track when winning comfortably over hurdles at Punchestown before disappointing in the Cleeve, when not punished in the latter stages. He is a horse which still has more talent than he's shown and is definitely a bit of a wild card, but it could just be that a stiff two-five on good ground at break-neck speed will see him in his element on Thursday. The addition of R Walsh just helps shade it too.

FRIDAY

TRIUMPH HURDLE

The thing about the two horses vying for favouritism for the Triumph is that both their trainers earlier in the season expressed the opinion that soft ground was of major incidence to their ability to perform. Somewhere along the way this has been conveniently forgotten, as hype has gotten in the way of substance, but if John Kettley is correct then the balmy tropic of Cheltenham this week could see the ground turn firm-to-hard by Friday, and consequently no place for a mudlark.

Ex-Flat racer Broughton impressed me greatly when winning at Musselburgh after a richly promising introduction at Doncaster in a race that has had a positive influence on the Triumph (winner has finished third and fourth in the last four years). John Ferguson is still a Festival rookie, but it is only a matter of time before he gets on the scoreboard and that time may come as early as 1.30 this Friday.

GOLD CUP

In terms of quality, this might not be the greatest Gold Cup ever run and there's no question that Bobs Worth is likely to make a valiant bid to defend his crown. His Cheltenham record and the fact he won last year's renewal in spite of the tacky ground rather than because of it, means he needs utmost respect but at 7/4 or thereabouts he represents no value at all.

The horse for my money is unquestionably Last Instalment – provided, that is, that he lines up given the week's benign forecast. Keeping it simple: on a line through thoroughly reliable yardstick First Lieutenant he comes out at least the equal of the champion incumbent. Strange as it seems for an RSA and Gold Cup winner but Bobs Worth is a relatively scruffy jumper. Jumping, however, is Last Instalment's biggest asset and I could see Bryan Cooper having the ride of a lifetime at Prestbury Park this Friday and putting his rivals under extreme pressure from the half-way point.

Should Last Instalment fail to line up owing to the sun-rays, I'll be following instead Bobs Worth's stablemate Triolo d'Alene at a big price as a hugely improving young winner of the Hennessy on his previous outing. Ring any bells?

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