Sunday 18 February 2018

Cheltenham candidates ready to stake their claims

Hurricane Fly among Irish horses that can lay down marker ahead of Festival, writes Ronan Groome

Such is the effect of the weather so far this season, there has been little to digest in the top class senior and novice hurdle divisions. While that has been a cause of frustration for all concerned, it makes for extra intrigue this week, as the Cheltenham candidates begin to confirm their claims.

Christmas Hurdle

Kempton, St Stephen's Day

You might struggle to name a better hurdle race than last year's Christmas Hurdle duel between Binocular and Rock On Ruby, with Tony McCoy just getting the better of Ruby Walsh in a thrilling finish.

Of course the runner-up would go on to Champion Hurdle glory in just his second season, and the three main protagonists in the race this season will be bidding to follow a similar path, with Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame and Supreme Novice Hurdle one-two Cinders And Ashes and Darlan due to do battle.

The inclusion of Darlan is interesting, and although probably down to coincidence, his presence here instead of Binocular perhaps signifies a changing of the guard for Nicky Henderson, JP McManus and McCoy. The son of Milan should take up a leading role later this season but may just be short of match fitness on his seasonal debut.

Countrywide Flame is a horse that will probably be underrated every time he runs this season, as you might expect of a 33/1 Triumph Hurdle winner trained by an unfashionable handler. Yet there was so much to like about his performance in beating Cinders And Ashes in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and he should be favourite for this race.

Raya Star and Dodging Bullets are noteworthy, as two rapid improvers that should be at home on a course like Kempton.

Istabraq Hurdle

Leopardstown, Saturday

If Kempton's Christmas Hurdle is about the next brigade staking their claim, the Istabraq Hurdle is very much about the current crop, with Hurricane Fly in his own back yard bidding for a 13th Grade One success and a fifth at Leopardstown. A 1/3 favourite, he should have no problem dispatching rivals he is used to on ground he is also used to.

Yet, for the long term, it is worth noting that nine of Hurricane Fly's 12 wins have come when there was plenty of cut in the ground. He did win his Champion Hurdle on good ground, but he did so only just, and looked beaten fair and square on fast ground in the race last season. He is a fair price at 5/1 for the Champion Hurdle now, and he should remain around that price after this week.

Woodies DIY Hurdle

Leopardstown, Friday

How quickly things can change. Big Buck's was a general odds-on shot for a fifth World Hurdle next March but his season-ending injury has caused all bookmakers to wipe their boards, and now ante-post prices resemble the Grand National market more than anything else.

And, even at that, the two market leaders – Oscar Whisky and Quevega – are both very unlikely to turn up in the three-mile championship event. It makes for a wide-open affair and the Woodies DIY Hurdle should showcase the best of what Ireland has to offer.

Voler La Vedette disappointed on her seasonal debut at Navan, and then found Zaidpour and Monksland ahead of her in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, but her return to three miles is key as she improved her rating by 7lbs when stepping up last season.

Zaidpour is unlucky to be around the same time as stablemate Hurricane Fly, but it seems logical now after his win in the Hatton's Grace that he will be given a try at three miles. Monksland would be another fascinating runner in just his second season over hurdles, while the hope is that Thousand Stars can come back to his best form after a really bad run on his seasonal debut.

There hasn't been an Irish-trained winner of the World Hurdle since Michael Hourigan sent over Doran's Pride in 1995, but the race is there for the taking now, providing one horse can step up to the mark.

Future Champions Novice Hurdle

Leopardstown, Thursday

Part of the intrigue of the National Hunt season is the guessing game that takes place in each novice division, but if all contenders show up for this two-mile Grade One event, we should have a much clearer picture for the Neptune and Supreme Novice hurdles.

We know how promising Waaheb was as a bumper horse and it was good to see him come back after a 538-day absence to win in good fashion at Fairyhouse. Yet it is worth pointing out that on the same day, Henry De Bromhead's Sizing Rio clocked a time 10 seconds faster than Dermot Weld's gelding and looks like a potential top-class horse after a Grade Three win at Navan.

Un Atout, another French recruit for Willie Mullins, could be anything, as could stablemate Annie Power, which was a 13-length winner of her maiden hurdle at Thurles.

The standard will be set by Royal Bond winner Jezki. Jessica Harrington's gelding travelled supremely well at Fairyhouse to win his race from Champagne Fever. At times he tended to jump to his left, so Leopardstown will suit, and without doubt he is the one to beat.

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