Accentuating the positives
Sometimes it pays to keep it simple. The two-mile novice championship boils down to a toss-up between what you think one horse can potentially deliver and compare it to what another has actually delivered.
In this case the speculation of what Simonsig might yet achieve over the larger obstacles trumps the concrete evidence of what Overturn has accomplished this season to the tune of 4/6 as against 11/4 in the market. The tactics of this race are easy to predict. Overturn will attack. Arvika Ligeonniere will keep him honest. And Simonsig will stalk.
Simonsig could easily win, and impressively, in a race likely to be set up for him but at 4/6 it doesn't take too many negatives to persuade me to side with Overturn. Most important for me is Simonsig's lack of match practice.
No winner in the last 10 years has won an Arkle with just two runs over fences. Moreover, in winning two egg-and-spoon contests in just six days in December, he would have accomplished as much had he stayed at home.
Overturn is actually rated 4lbs higher over hurdles and has demonstrated (second in last year's Champion) that he handles the track. We know Overturn's jumping is electric and consequently he will be serving up a spicy dish on Tuesday that Simonsig has never previously tried.
Furthermore, Simonsig fell in one of his three point-to-points; and the one time he has been put under meaningful pressure (at Sandown last year against Fingal Bay), he wilted disappointingly.
As with the Arkle, both market leaders carry an unblemished season's record into the Champion Hurdle. Hurricane Fly is attempting to regain his crown after a limp effort last year – a feat only once achieved in the past by Comedy Of Errors back in the 1970s.
While we have certainly witnessed the heyday of the best hurdler since Istabraq and the question – still unanswered – is whether, aged nine, he is as good now as two years ago; we are still in the dark as to where the peak of Zarkandar's curve lands at this point.
As a Triumph Hurdle winner which was palpably ill-prepared for last year's renewal, Zarkandar has struck with vengeance this year. His disposal of stablemate Prospect Wells first time out conceding masses of weight signalled his prospects for the season ahead, and his defeat of rivals Rock On Ruby and Grandouet in the International just cemented them.
Whilst the New Course's stiffer test would be even more suitable, the winter ground that still prevails together with his price relative to the favourite tilts me towards Zarkandar.
And no. I'm not selecting something to beat Sprinter Sacre which, aged just seven, is probably the best two-mile chaser seen in my lifetime. However, there may be an alternative betting angle to the race. With just nine entries left just three days before final declarations, there are still a few unanswered questions. Cue Card is committed to the Ryanair. Sizing Europe is still vacillating between the two races and Finian's Rainbow is a significant doubt with the ground.
Those three head the list in the 'Betting Without the Fav' market. French import Mail De Bievre, on the other hand, has been supplemented for the race. He cut an impressive dash out front in the Denman Chase on his British debut, jumping with elan until tiring in the straight. The drop back in trip is ideal. He was extremely classy in France, is still only eight with just 15 starts and he will love the ground. With so many doubts about the others, he rates a speculative bet at this stage.
Selection: Mail De Bievre (w/o Sprinter Sacre)
A short-priced grey horse from the David Pipe yard with an unbeaten record over fences and an impressive Grade One Feltham win on his CV. Déjà vu? No doubt the memory of last year's Grands Crus aberration from which the horse has never recovered has been exercising the minds of the brains at Pond House these last weeks.
With no confirmation as yet from the yard, the markets suggest the shorter Jewson is now favourite for Dynaste, but even if he does show in the RSA I feel his speed trumps his stamina and is worth opposing anyway. Boston Bob has for a long time been my idea of the RSA winner.
Most are emphasising how uninspiring he has been so far this season in his two outings but, while the bare form of his Navan and Leopardstown wins is less than exciting, more important is that his jumping has been good.
Successful in six of his eight races to date, he is going to be significantly advantaged by both the ground and the step up in trip. Willie Mullins knows a thing or two about RSA winners (three wins already) and Florida Pearl won this off the back of two runs including victory in the PJ Moriarty. It might not just be with Dynaste where history repeats itself.
Selection: Boston Bob
Together with the Ryanair (both competing with rival Grade Ones in their division for contenders), the Jewson field is most difficult to predict. Amongst the market leaders, five of the top six have another option. Should Dynaste turn up here (instead of the RSA), he will be very difficult to beat. His victory on his chasing debut at the November Open meeting was all class. He stalked Fingal Bay and Unioniste throughout the race, jumping fluently and economically. He switched out to join them at the last and whooshed away from them up the run-in.
So decisive was the burst of acceleration, many forget that the talk afterwards was of the Arkle (and not the RSA). Unioniste has only advertised the form subsequently. With Captain Conan running here only because Henderson has Simonsig in the yard, and so many doubts surrounding the others, Dynaste may look a short price now but he'll be shorter on the day if he shows.
Reve de Sivola and Oscar Whisky served up a treat of a finish in the Cleeve Hurdle at the course in January, leaving many relishing the rematch. That most layers favour Oscar Whisky, however, slightly mystifies me.
We know that if there was a Ryanair Hurdle Oscar Whisky would be odds-on, so invincible is he at two-and-a-half miles. He has only attempted three miles twice and has been beaten twice. Once last year where he curled up badly on the run-in; and once in the Cleeve where he was out-dogged by Reve De Sivola.
On both occasions Barry Geraghty is adamant he wasn't himself. Perhaps himself will show up at the third invitation on Thursday, but for now I prefer to believe what I see rather than what I hear. What went unnoticed in the Cleeve was how sloppy Reve De Sivola was at a number of hurdles – far more so than when he sluiced up in the Long Walk at Ascot before Christmas.
The key races by far for the World Hurdle over the years have been the Cleeve (since upped to three miles); the Long Walk and the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Hennessy day. Reve De Sivola has won two and finished second to Big Buck's in the other. Enough said.
Selection: Reve De Sivola
Three new kids on the block and I believe the prize rests between two of them. I rule out Silviniaco Conti on the grounds that I suspect strongly this slick-jumper is far better suited to a flat track (the yard never intended him for Cheltenham as a novice) and a niggling doubt prevails over the extended distance.
Bobs Worth is hard to fault. Unbeaten at Cheltenham. Unbeaten running left-handed over fences. Suited by a stamina test. Beat the right horses in the Hennessy. Winner of eight from 11 races all-in. In an ordinary year he would be banker material. However, there was something in the manner of Sir Des Champs' victory in last year's Jewson that left an irreversible impression.
Granted, you can easily argue that his season so far (in spite of a Hennessy win) has been underwhelming.
But it was very clear after the Jewson last year that Willie Mullins realised he had a potential Gold Cup winner on his hands – and you can be sure he has been trained like that all season.
March 15, I'll bet, has a big red "X" on it in the SDC box. People rightly crabbed Sir Des Champs' jumping in the Lexus. Watch the replay of his jumping in last year's Jewson and judge him on that.
I expect a career-best effort from Sir Des Champs on Friday – and for it to be a winning one to give the Mullins' name its first Gold Cup since Dawn Run's immortal achievement in 1986.
Selection: Sir Des Champs
It could be a red-letter day for the Mullins family if Alderwood carries home the final race of the Festival. There is little doubt his novice chase campaign has been geared all year for this race (a race won by his owner JP McManus twice in the last decade including last year).
A classy hurdler last season, he beat 25 rivals to win the County Hurdle on Gold Cup day last year so knows the course, the conditions and the day. Afterwards, he went on to win a Grade One and Two at both Fairyhouse and Punchestown Festivals.
His apprenticeship over the larger obstacles this season has been quiet and unspectacular on wholly unsuitable ground – the ideal work-out for a Grand Annual. The consequence is he is 8lbs lower over fences (rated 140 in the UK) than hurdles, and is presently sitting on a long handicap of 10-4.
This is traditionally a deeply competitive contest but he jumped particularly well in the Dan Moore in February, and AP McCoy is likely to take over this time.