Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 4 December 2016

Wise heads must overrule hearts

CHRIS COOK

Published 13/03/2011 | 05:00

If you are to have any hope of making money on this week's Cheltenham Festival, it will be a good idea to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of the occasion. Committed fans of Kauto Star, for example, will tell you that this great steeplechaser has been unjustly overlooked by pundits and punters and we can expect no end of taunting from them if he should somehow win his third Gold Cup.

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But this horse's achievements are far from forgotten; judged on any of his form over the past year, Kauto Star could not possibly be a 13/2 shot for Friday's race. In the immediate aftermath of his third place in the King George at Kempton in January, he was available at double those odds and that instant reaction seems a more plausible assessment.

Now 11, he is older than every Gold Cup winner since 1969, has not run to his best for 15 months and has won on just two of his five visits to Cheltenham. Yes, he was the first horse to win back the Gold Cup after losing it but if he were to repeat that feat this week, it would be such a monumental achievement that they should melt down every statue on the course to provide material for his. Imperial Commander, the reigning champion, is a year younger and much more of a Cheltenham horse. His trainer can be trusted to have him fit after a four-month absence and it is hard to see why he should run much below his best.

That may not be enough, however, for him to hold off Long Run, whose 12-length success in the King George was easily the best performance by a chaser this season. A six-year-old, he is peaking as the previous generation of champions is passing its sell-by date and should be favourite instead of 11/2. His critics seize on two defeats at Cheltenham but neither amounted to a really bad run and he was, at the time, a five-year-old having just his third and fourth starts in Britain.

A first Gold Cup success would give Nicky Henderson a serious chance of his first trainers' title since 1987 and he has such a quantity of talent going to Cheltenham that he will surely add to his career total of 37 Festival wins. Three more would bring him level with Fulke Walwyn's record. Henderson looks likely to be a force in the handicaps this year and I especially like the claims of his Lush Life, a 16/1 shot for the Pertemps on Thursday. Binocular gives Henderson a serious chance of the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double but this beast runs below his best so often that supporting him at odds of 100/30 seems like a leap of faith.

Tuesday's Champion is full of live runners but Mille Chief is the one that looks overpriced at 16/1. Alan King's hurdler travelled like a dream through the Kingwell at Wincanton last month, though in the end he struggled to outslog Celestial Halo on a surface that was more demanding than the official good to soft. Given better ground, Mille Chief's raw pace may have his rivals in trouble. Though a quarter of his odds, Hurricane Fly is another classy type with the potential to burst clear of the Champion field.

King, who endured a woeful last season, has had a good run since the turn of the year and may finally close the door on his troubles if Medermit can also win him the Arkle Trophy on the Festival's opening day. The grey seemed a most unappealing contender for championship races when refusing at Huntingdon in November but his fencing has improved enormously and he is the most convincing of those at short prices.

A wind operation seems to have brought Master Minded back to something like his former best but he hacked up in his prep race before last year's Champion Chase and was beaten 10 lengths on the day. His backers would have to be concerned about the way he tired at the end of his latest run at Ascot, even allowing for Tony McCoy's willingness to take the blame for a "bad ride".

The defeat of Big Zeb at Punchestown is readily forgiven and the Irish raider, whose jumping seems so much better these days, can retain his crown. JP McManus-owned horses will, naturally, require close attention in the handicaps and, in Qaspal and Quantitativeeasing, he has two talented horses with several possible targets.

Now aged seven, Qaspal is available at double-figure odds for the Coral Cup, the County Hurdle and the Martin Pipe conditional jockeys' race. It seems that punters are turned off by his long absence but connections report they have been protective and none of his problems have been of the kind to deprive him of his ability.

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