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Cheltenham showdowns

As the Cheltenham Festival looms large on the horizon, we look at some of the head-to-head battles that look set to commence around the Cotswolds.

It is hard to say that any race at Cheltenham can be narrowed down to one or two runners but, according to current bookmakers' markets, that could end up being the case this year. Here we take a closer look at them.

Supreme Novices Hurdle



Dunguib v Dunguib

Philip Fenton's star seemingly only has himself to beat in the opening race of the Festival. The son of Presenting was an emphatic winner at the meeting last year when he landed the Champion Bumper in great style, which gives him valuable course form and he is now unbeaten since going over hurdles.

Last time at Leopardstown when landing the Grade One Deloitte Novice Hurdle he faced his stiffest task to date and, while his jumping was far from adequate, he showed more class and ability than most of the field put together and they were certainly no bad yardsticks.

Dunguib appears to be a freak, and is being billed as the best novice since Golden Cygnet, and there is little doubt that only a biblical-style accident can stop him from adding another Cheltenham Festival win, and that is even if his jumping fails to improve.

Dunguib's biggest threat is probably Dermot Weld's Rite Of Passage, but Weld appears set to try and aim him for the longer novice race, and rightly so, as Dunguib certainly wouldn't look out of place in the Champion Hurdle.

Verdict: Dunguib is a worthy Irish banker.

Boylesports Bet: Dunguib 4/6, 7/1 Bar

Arkle



Captain Cee Bee v Sizing Europe

Rarely do horses come back from the sort of injury Captain Cee Bee endured following his Supreme Novices Hurdle season and retain the same level of ability, but Eddie Harty's stable star has certainly defied that logic and currently heads the betting for next month's Arkle.

Unfortunately, he crashed out of the Grade One Novice at Leopardstown over Christmas when just about to lock into battle with main market rival Sizing Europe, but that fall at the last denied us that tussle and helped Sizing Europe maintain his unbeaten record over fences.

Captain Cee Bee put in a confidence-boosting clear round at Naas last time to set him up for a date with destiny at Cheltenham, and it would certainly appear that he and Sizing Europe have it between them, although that is probably an unfair assumption to make when it comes to any race at Cheltenham.

Sizing Europe hasn't put a foot wrong and there is little or no evidence to suggest that Captain Cee Bee would have actually got the better of him at Leopardstown that day; the truth is we will never know.

Henry de Bromhead is wrapping his leading novice in the best of cotton wool and has learned from some previous disheartening Cheltenham experiences with the former Irish Champion Hurdle winner.

Should these two be left battling it out over the last in the Arkle, expect the roar to be deafening as 50pc of the stands will be in one camp and the other 50 in the other. Regardless of the way it goes, it is good that Ireland has potential in the novice chasing ranks and it bodes well for the future at least.

Verdict: Sizing Europe at this stage gets a tentative selection to win this dual. He is unbeaten and couldn't have done much more to date.

Boylesports Bet: Captain Cee Bee 3/1, Sizing Europe 5/1

David Nicholson Mares Hurdle



Quevega v Voler La Vedette

Another contest in which the Irish appear to have a tight grasp. Quevega is putting her title on the line while a setback to Voler La Vedette has meant that connections have committed themselves to this race rather than taking on the Champion Hurdle.

Colm Murphy's mare had beaten Go Native very impressively earlier in the season and then won in mares' company over Christmas, but missed the Irish Champion Hurdle last month due to that slight setback and so will now miss the Champion Hurdle engagement.

Quevega held an entry for a seasonal reappearance last weekend but wasn't declared to run, and it has to be remembered that she did go to Cheltenham on the back of only one run last season, so that shouldn't be a concern this year -- providing she has that run, of course.

Voler La Vedette appeared to labour slightly on her last run and there would have to be a slight question mark over her staying the 2m4f trip of the Cheltenham race. If she does she certainly has the class, but that may prove too big a question mark for most.

Verdict: Providing she has prep run beforehand Quevega should be expected to win the race for a second time; although Voler La Vedette is young enough and classy enough to make her mark, it may have to be over a shorter trip.

Boylesports Bet: Quevega 1/1, Voler La Vedette 5/2

RSA Chase



Punchestowns v Long Run

Probably the least decisive of this list, Punchestowns was always highly thought of by those involved in Nicky Henderson's outfit and since going over fences this season he remains unbeaten, although he has only had two starts in which the opposition was of poor standard.

Those in the know saw enough in those two runs to catapult him to the head of this market, which could be a little bit more competitive than the current odds suggest with the likes of Mikael D'Haguenet and Pandorama in contention.

Long Run has been a bit of a flyer in the betting this week after it was confirmed the French import would be RSA bound.

Defeated just once over fences in France that coming in a Grade One, he is also two from two over the larger obstacles in Britain for Henderson and it will be interesting to see if he pitches the two market leaders against each, other although options appear limited and there is little to suggest they will be able to avoid each other.

Verdict: Long Run is selected to oblige here in this match-up between the stable companions, but hedge your bets as the winner could certainly be found outside of this duo.

Boylesports Bet: Punchestowns 3/1, Long Run 9/2

Champion Bumper



Irish v British

This is a race that Ireland have traditionally farmed since it began, and Willie Mullins has obviously been very popular among punters. Mullins appears to lack similar ammunition this time around, however, and Dermot Weld could well be the man to be feared on this occasion.

Weld has a couple of high-profile market principals in Elegant Concorde and Hidden Universe, although connections have failed to confirm intended targets for the pair.

Willie Mullins' leading fancy at the moment appears to be Up Ou That who was a 16-length victor at Fairyhouse last month, while a possible forgotten horse is Tom Mullins' Tavern Times, another Fairyhouse winner.

The best of the home contingent is last weekend's Grade Two winner Al Ferof who represents Paul Nicholls in a race that is one of the few Grade One's missing from his CV.

Verdict: Hard to look past an Irish-trained winner in truth. There is a rich tradition of higher quality bumper horses emerging from this side of the Irish Sea and 14/1 shot Tavern Times could certainly be worth an each way investment.

Gold Cup



Kauto Star v Denman

Had Denman won on Saturday at Newbury this would have been the most highly billed jump race in memory. All the hype was bottled up and ready to be unleashed for Sunday morning and, while that is now dented, there is still set to be plenty of anticipation with Paul Nicholls upbeat since Saturday's hiccup in preparations.

The early exit from Saturday's AON Chase raised further fuel to the 'Who should be riding Denman?' fire which will be blazing hard long after the Gold Cup in March, and it also brought back memories of how the 2008 Gold Cup winner's biggest flaw is the utter courage that makes him meet fences wrong, as he did last season at Aintree.

Kauto Star has ticked all the right boxes this season and, having created history in last year's Gold Cup, he further enhanced his already glowing reputation with a fourth King George on St Stephen's Day.

While there is all this commotion about Denman, back in Ditcheat, Kauto Star has all his hard graft done and continues to tick over in preparation for his big day on the final day of the Festival.

Whatever about the other races, this certainly seems a definite match because, if both horses put in a clear round and are at their very best, there is nothing around that could either beat them or split them, and let's hope that's the situation we find ourselves in because it would be mouth-watering to see them jump the last upsides.

Verdict: I would have to say that this year's Gold Cup is Kauto Star's to lose. Opinion is divided, and that's what racing needs, but I have always been in the Kauto camp and am not going to depart it now.

Boylesports Bet: Kauto Star 4/6, Denman 3/1


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