Progressive Johns Spirit to strike gold for O'Neill
FINIAN'S RAINBOW tops the page in what promises to be an absolutely fascinating edition of the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham this afternoon.
After a confidence-boosting victory at Listowel, Hidden Cyclone leads the Irish challenge in the famous Grade Three handicap, which sees Gift Of Dgab sneak in at the bottom off 10st 1lb.
For all that the combination of Tony Martin and Bryan Cooper in such a prestigious contest is of note, it's hard to imagine the mud-loving Gift Of Dgab being suited to this test.
Hidden Cyclone is less easy to dismiss. John 'Shark' Hanlon's eight-year-old has bundles of class, but is another that has shown the vast majority of his very best form on testing ground. At Listowel, the manner in which he respected his fences early on suggested that a lot of work had been done on his troublesome jumping.
Still, his blunder at the last that day was a pertinent reminder of his sloppiness under pressure, so an unflinching gallop on good ground around Prestbury Park will do nothing to simplify Andrew McNamara's task.
Should McNamara coax a decent round out of Hidden Cyclone, he appeals as being quite well handicapped off 152 for 11st 1lb. As such, there are worse each-way options at 20/1.
Champion Court and Ballynagour have been strongly backed, but the former doesn't have a great record first time up and the latter flopped here badly in March.
Astracad has more each-way appeal, though the one that jumps off the page as being most progressive is Johns Spirit. AP McCoy is on the JP McManus-owned Tap Night rather than Jonjo O'Neill's six-year-old, and the suspicion is that is why Johns Spirit could be backed at up to 8/1 last night.
However, while Tap Night may need softer ground, Johns Spirit will relish the sound conditions, having sluiced up on good going over course and distance on his return last month.
Astracad, fifth then, franked the form when just going down to the re-opposing Conquisto at Aintree, and a 10lb hike is fair given Johns Spirit's progressive profile.
At Aintree in April, he was readily brushed aside when third to Battle Group, but meets that more exposed eight-year-old on 13lb better terms now.
Given their respective make-ups, it's fair to assume that Johns Spirit remains open to that bit more improvement, especially at the famed Cotswolds venue, where Battle Group has never shown his best form.
While Johns Spirit will need to step up beyond anything he has done before, he has the scope to do so on just his 10th chasing start to give Co Cork-born Richie McLernon a major victory.
The three-mile novice chase on the card is another gem, with Dessie Hughes' White Star Line conceding weight to O'Neill's Shutthefrontdoor, Le Bec, African Gold, Bob Ford and Sam Winner. African Gold and Sam Winner were probably the most distinguished over flights, but the McCoy-ridden Shutthefrontdoor could be the one open to keep on side today.
Beaten just twice in eight bumper and hurdle starts, the Accordion six-year-old finished an honest fourth under 11st 8lb in the Pertemps Final over this trip at the Festival in March. He is basically a one-paced stayer that looks made for chasing, a perception confirmed by his last-gasp debut victory over an inadequate two-and-a-half miles at Aintree last month.
Back over a more suitable trip now, he and McCoy could be an extremely formidable force.
In all, there are 22 Irish horses declared at Cheltenham over the next two days. Half a dozen of those are in tomorrow's Greatwood Hurdle, with Gordon Elliott's Flaxen Flare the one of most interest. A smooth winner of the Fred Winter here off 127 in March, Jason Maguire's mount was a game second to Missunited on unsuitably soft ground in the Galway Hurdle.
Flaxen Flare then enjoyed a bloodless stroll at Cork before running admirably to be third to Jezki off a desperately slow pace at Down Royal. He seems to be steadily progressing, so a rating of 141 for 11st 4lb suggests that odds of 12/1 may underestimate his chance.
Best Bet: Shutthefrontdoor