Faugheen to follow script but expect twist or two
The hype has it that all the important stuff on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is a foregone conclusion.
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh will win the four Grade One races with Douvan, Un De Sceaux, Annie Power and Faugheen, which will be crowned the new champion hurdler. It will be another Mullins mauling, another Ruby Tuesday. The headlines have been written. But little can be taken for granted in any sport and definitely nothing on this stage, where the competition is so fierce and where one bad jump, or a wretchedly timed off day, can blow the dream to dust.
It is hard to imagine Mullins, leading trainer at three of the last four Festivals, and Walsh, the top rider eight times, leaving empty-handed this evening, but, though all four are strong favourites, the odds about all four winning are around 15/1, which puts into clearer perspective the difficulty of the endeavour; something is almost sure to go wrong somewhere. It is sensible to examine the alternatives.
Faugheen is unbeaten in eight starts and looks for all the world like a champion hurdler in waiting. But his jumping is by no means flawless and it will be tested to the full on this first assignment against genuine top-class opposition that includes the reigning champion Jezki, the veteran Hurricane Fly, which won the race in 2011 and 2013, and the major home hope The New One.
Possible A victory for Jezki and Tony McCoy, entirely possible, would shake the roof off and mean so much to the soon-to-retire 19-time champion jockey, who will forever wince in anguish when reminded he turned down the ride on the horse last year. But I expect Faugheen (3.20) to step up and deliver.
Douvan, marked down as an Irish banker in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle ever since winning so impressively at Punchestown in January, is regarded as potentially the best in the yard, but has not achieved as much on paper as L'Ami Serge (1.30), the apple of Nicky Henderson's eye.
Un De Sceaux is a take-no-prisoners trail-blazer and has by far the best form in the Arkle Trophy, but might just be too fast for his own good; there are countless examples down the years of hares being caught by tortoises up the final, punishing hill.
Clarcam (2.05) was fairly trounced by Un De Sceaux at Leopardstown, but looked a young chaser going places before that and he represents fair each-way value at 14/1. Annie Power, whose only defeat came when she was narrowly beaten in last year's World Hurdle, is a class above the rest in the Mares' Hurdle and will probably win even if below her best, which might be the case.
The Pirate's Queen has decent place claims at 20/1, but it would be the shock of the day if Annie Power (4.00) drops the baton passed on to her by Quevega.
Mullins, Henderson, Paul Nicholls and Jonjo O'Neill have won 143 Cheltenham Festival races between them and it is understandable when punters fall into the trap of thinking this meeting is just about the big operators. But two-thirds of last year's races went to other stables - Nicholls and Henderson managed just one winner apiece.
That said, Mullins' outsider Perfect Gentleman (4.40) looks almost certain to improve for the step up to four miles in the Toby Balding National Hunt Chase, but it is always worth looking beyond the "Big Four" in the handicaps.
Robin Dickin's Thomas Crapper (5.15), runner-up over hurdles at the Festival last year and successful twice previously at the course, has still to win over fences, but has shown enough to suggest he can come good when it matters at his favourite venue.
Harry Fry, so frustrated when his stable star Rock On Ruby had to be ruled out of the World Hurdle after a lacklustre gallop at the weekend, may still have good reason to celebrate with Mendip Express (2.40), a lightly raced nine-year-old. Smart Freddy, trained in the Cotswolds by former Henderson assistant Ben Pauling, is worth an each-way saver in the same contest.
Pauling struck out on his own two years ago and is already knocking out winners at a healthy strike-rate, but there are winners and there are winners; a victory here would be something to tell the grandchildren about. (© Independent News Service)
1.30 L'Ami Serge
2.05 Clarcam (each-way)
2.40 Mendip Express (each-way)
4.00 Annie Power
4.40 Perfect Gentleman (each-way)
5.15 Thomas Crapper