Friday 23 February 2018

Time to get ahead of the market

Punters betting on Cheltenham don't have to follow the established patterns, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

F our weeks from Tuesday at approximately 2.0pm, the Cotswolds will have its serenity seriously ruffled by the raw bellow of over 50,000 pilgrims at the Cheltenham Festival. It is a roar of relief as much as anything that the interminable 361-day abstinence has been bridged in a manner that crosses a visit to Mecca with the arrival of Santa Claus.

Of course the last four weeks are the worst: with the outbreak of pre-Cheltenham events coupled with the chatter of every nostril that passes a winning post in front during the coming days being bound for Prestbury Park simply feeding the Festival frenzy.

Indeed, because ante-post betting begins immediately after the previous year's Festival, it is understandable that markets are well matured by the time we get to this point in the calendar (with almost all the pre-Cheltenham trials concluded) but there are still a few questions to answer and consequently the opportunity still to get on the right side of the market.

The Arkle is a race that always appeals to me -- but this year appears a particularly weak renewal. There are question marks about the front three in the betting. Finian's Rainbow has been beating trees, less than a handful at a time, jumped hairily at Warwick and always came up short when raised to Grade One over hurdles. Ghizao has been transformed by fences but lacked the raw hurdling ability normally associated with an Arkle winner. He is a much better horse on soft ground.

Medermit has the hurdling class (rated mid-150s) but I believe the speed of a typical Arkle could expose his jumping -- he jumped best when stepped up to two and a half miles at Sandown. It is hard to equate UK with Irish form without collateral lines, but the fact that Noble Prince is favouring the two-and-a-half-miler at Cheltenham having just lost by the minimum margin in the Irish Arkle speaks volumes in itself.

Beyond the principals there is a void and the horse to potentially fill that void is the Flat-bred Starluck. It may be late in the season to consider chasing, and the decision may be predicated on the fact that the Champion Hurdle line-up looks the hottest in years, but circumstances aside he has a lot in his favour. Firstly, he is rated 160 over hurdles. Six of the last ten Arkle winners entered the race as the highest-rated hurdler in the line-up. In the last two seasons he has finished fourth and fifth in the Triumph and Champion Hurdle respectively and is already a winner at the course.

Currently 25/1 and although yet to jump a fence in public, he has been extensively schooled and runs at Huntingdon on Thursday. Should he win, there one thing is sure, he will be a single-figure price for the Arkle. Unorthodox I admit, but not unprecedented. Just think Well Chief. Flat-bred with just one run over fences in February en route to Arkle success. Well Chief was five and Starluck is just six. Well Chief, too, had run well in a Triumph the previous season.

Another favourite race of mine is the Grand Annual, a race where novices have a superb record. Ironically, another horse entered in the same Huntingdon novice chase next Thursday is the David Pipe-trained Dan Breen.

Although also entered in the Arkle, my guess is that he is far more likely to be targeted at the Festival handicap finale. After two starts over fences he has a rating of just 135, which probably greatly underestimates his potential, and I suspect the Pipe camp will find this too good a gift horse to pass up.

The Irish import won two bumpers and a hurdle race before starting joint fifth favourite for last year's Supreme Novices, only to cut little ice there. His physique speaks more of a chaser than a hurdler and whilst he only finished second on his debut at Warwick, he showed the benefit of that run to rout a decent field (Grade One hurdle winner second) at Bangor next time where his jumping was a joy to watch. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he passed over Huntingdon on Thursday to preserve his handicap mark and went straight to Cheltenham.

One of the unluckiest losers of the 2010 Festival was Bensalem. Simply cantering at the second last in the William Hill, he failed to find his landing gear on touch-down and paid the penalty. Unraced over fences since (including his run at Haydock yesterday), his chase rating of 143 has not altered. The only thing that has altered is that second-last fence which has been relocated to ensure he doesn't fall over it should Alan King choose to renew his William Hill engagement.

And therein lies the 'if'. King still has to declare conclusively whether Bensalem will remain over hurdles or revert to fences in four weeks' time. My guess, however, is that the strength in depth of the World Hurdle (Big Buck's, Grand Crus, and the two Mullins' runners), allied to a chase handicap mark 10lbs below his hurdle rating, will be enough to persuade him to return to avenge last year's misadventure.

Cheltenham Ante-Post


Starluck, Arkle 25/1

Dan Breen, Grand Annual 16/1

Bensalem, William Hill 10/1

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