Sunday 24 September 2017

Fab Four still top the charts

The Cheltenham market leaders are a familiar bunch, says Ian McClean

Tony McCoy on Hurricane Fly: 'I sat in the weighing-room at Leopardstown watching him go round and thought there's not much hope for the rest of us'
Tony McCoy on Hurricane Fly: 'I sat in the weighing-room at Leopardstown watching him go round and thought there's not much hope for the rest of us'

There is definitely something in the air. Perhaps it is the arrival of spring.



Although it is far more likely to be the fact that a slew of entries for Cheltenham's championship races and Aintree's Grand National has just been released. Pricewise in the Racing Post is making ante-post selections -- the column must have a love affair with Grahame and Diane Whately as it has already posted Wishfull Thinking for the Queen Mother; Menorah for the Arkle; and Captain Chris for the Gold Cup.

Captain Chris, I ask you? Perhaps, if they rebuild Hadrian's Wall around the perimeter of the racecourse no more than 10 metres out from the running rail.

Pre-Cheltenham dates and venues are popping up like daffodils and even Racing UK is filling the void of the cold snap by running a season half-term report back-to-back with all four days of last year's Cheltenham Festival highlights.

So it seems a convenient interlude to reflect on what has already occurred, to make sense of what might occur in five weeks' time in the Cotswolds.

It seems ironic that the biggest revelation of the season so far centres around the horse already considered one of the greatest steeplechasers of the modern era. That Kauto Star, at 12, has defied nature and arrested his apparent decline is clearly amplified by the following extract from last year's definitive Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide: '(Kauto Star) appears to have lost his speed and has not come close to reproducing his best form on his last three starts so it would appear that age is finally catching up with a true giant of the turf.'

Meantime, he has won the Betfair Chase and a record fifth King George, defeating reigning Gold Cup champion Long Run twice, and is now just 7/2 to become the first horse in history to win a Gold Cup, lose a Gold Cup, win it back, lose it and win it back again.

But perhaps the most fascinating overall angle to Festival 2012 is the emerging possibility of the Big Four (Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and World Hurdle) all retaining their crown. Rarer than a poker of aces, it does seem as if the planets are aligning in a way that just could make the impossible possible.

With Hurricane Fly silencing any doubters in effortless style last weekend, all four now have the one key ingredient that has prevented the majority of champions from successfully defending their crown -- health. At this stage, Long Run, Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe and Big Buck's are all fit, in-form and on track to defend their respective titles.

This fact, in and of itself, is fairly unprecedented when you consider that in the last decade (since 2002) 17 of the 36 champions did not appear on the day of the race. Of the other half or so that did, eight retained their crown while 11 did not. Of those who turned up on the day, the reasons for their defeat broadly stem from one of the following: weren't the stuff of true enduring champions (eg Katchit, Sublimity, Newmill); beaten by better horse; or, more specifically, by an upcoming rising star.

If there's one comment you could make about all four horses this time around, it is that they are certainly no flash-in-the-pan. Indeed, Hurricane Fly and Big Buck's are indisputably two of the finest hurdlers of this or any era. AP McCoy was at Leopardstown last Sunday and saw Hurricane Fly like this: "I sat in the weighing-room at Leopardstown watching him go round and thought there's not much hope for the rest of us. He's obviously been hard to train but he's a very good horse and he looks unbeatable." As for Big Buck's, well, there is little one can add about the nine-year-old going for his 16th consecutive victory except to say that if you'd backed him with a euro and rolled up the winnings every time since his victory in a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's day 2009 you would be €13,717 richer today.

Whilst not (yet) in the same rarefied class as their hurdling counterparts, both Long Run and Sizing Europe are proven chasers of real class and substance. It explains at this stage why both hurdlers are odds-on and the chasers are odds against for their respective targets. Yet even the chasers have won more than half of their contested chase starts and are justifiably at the head of their markets.

Indeed when you examine the competition in the Big Four races this year, it does appear less intense than usual. Challengers to Big Buck's seem non-existent (unless Oscar Whisky proves a revelation at three miles and he's not even certain to go there); Hurricane Fly seems to have far less on his plate than last year; Sizing Europe seems to have just Big Zeb in his way (dress rehearsal at Punchestown today, invitations 2.55 sharp); while Long Run has old enemy Kauto Star

to overcome, unless new kid on the block, Grands Crus, gets pitched in at the deep end.

It is just 28/1 that all four succeed and it is certain all will start at individually restrictive odds. But caveat emptor. Bear in mind that since 1980 there have been just three occasions at the Festival when four horses under 2/1 have won. In 2004, seven horses started below 2/1 and just two of them won. While in 1993 all six horses that started at 2/1 or less got beaten -- some punters are still paying off the debt. Still, at least they missed the negative equity . . .

With the Big Four, along with Sprinter Sacre, Quevega, and Grands Crus all likely to trade under the 'bottle' 2/1 mark, Cheltenham 2012 has the potential to be like the Somme for some.

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