Here is my brief preview for the action on the Thursday of the Festival, which is marked by the comeback of Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle.
1.30 2m4f JLT Novices’ Chase
MAIN BET: Wonderful Charm. NEXT BEST BETS: Double Ross, Felix Yonger.
Willie Mullins has thrown a considerable spanner in the works by switching FELIX YONGER from the Arkle Chase in the belief that the eight-year-old now needs further than 2m. I’m not so sure about that, but he’s definitely better on decent ground, which he is guaranteed here, and poses a serious threat to the animal I had previously pinpointed as my nap of the week, Paul Nicholls’s WONDERFUL CHARM. I have not seen a classier novice chaser all season than the six-year-old, who arrived in the UK with such a reputation last term that he won a Grade Two on his first start and was then plunged into the World Hurdle by Nicholls on only his second start. Fences have made him, though, and although he was touched off by Oscar Whisky on his last outing, he was giving 8lbs, which makes him the stand-out here, especially as he proved he handles Cheltenham and especially as his rival, placed in a Champion Hurdle, went on to land a Grade One last time.
Because Oscar Whisky has not looked a natural over fences, it is a formline that might turn out to be misleading. But it also a formline that gives another fancy, Jonjo O’Neill’s TAQUIN DU SEUIL, plenty to find, so I’m going left field to find an each/way alternative to Wonderful Charm. DOUBLE ROSS is exposed more than most, but has become something of a Cheltenham specialist with eyecatching performances, for a novice, in tough, competitive handicaps, His official rating puts him right in the mix -- at attractive odds of around 16/1.
Of the rest, DJAKADAM and VUKOVAR boast healthy reputations at home, but a race of this magnitude is asking a lot of five-year-olds.
2.05 3m Pertemps Handicap Hurdle Final
MAIN BET: Fingal Bay. NEXT BEST BETS: If In Doubt, Upswing, Crowning Jewel.
Of all the qualifying races for the final of this perennial Pertemps Series, none was stronger than the one at Exeter on Sunday 9th February. In fact, it was so strong, so deep, it would have been worthy of the final itself. Yet it was won by a horse shouldering 11-7 on his first appearance for 429 days after sustaining an injury during a catastrophic chasing campaign. That’s a measure of the achievement of FINGAL BAY, so I don’t think we should worry about him having to lump top weight of 11-12 here. After all, in a gesture of amazing generosity by the handicapper, he was raised just 6lbs for that Exeter success. And after all, this is an animal who won a Grade One and a couple of Grade Twos in his novice hurdle days! Let’s hope he avoids the dreaded bounce factor.
Fingal Bay’s biggest threat might well come from that same Exeter race and from within his own stable because Philip Hobbs also saddles another likely candidate in IF IN DOUBT. Owned by JP McManus and improving with every run, the six-year-old has a touch of quality about him and could well reverse the form under a handier ride, now they know he gets 3m.
Lower down the weights, dangers abound, most notably another JP possible in UPSWING, who is improving fast, Nicky Henderson’s MISTER DILLON, who has to disprove a lingering theory that he prefers flatter tracks, and Keith Reveley’s CROWNING JEWEL, for whom this race has been his target since the start of the season.
2.40 2m5f Ryanair Chase
MAIN BET: Al Ferof. NEXT BEST BET: Benefficient
Since assuming Grade One status, the Ryanair Chase has matured into a full-blooded, not-to-be-missed championship contest for horses not quite quick enough for the Queen Mother and not able to stay the Gold Cup trip. It has also become home to Cheltenham specialists, with no fewer than 15 of the last 18 horses to hit the frame boasting previous success at Prestbury Park on their CVs.
Such a telling statistic points to a thrilling shootout this time round between AL FEROF, runner-up to Cue Card in the 2010 Champion Bumper and conqueror of Sprinter Sacre no less when winning the 2011 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and BENEFFICIENT, spectacular winner of the 2013 Jewson (now JLT) Novices’ Chase.
Owner John Hales has been determined to win a Gold Cup with Paul Nicholls’s nine-year-old grey. But stamina doubts which surfaced in the King George were confirmed at Newbury last time -- albeit on testing ground he detests -- so now the Ryanair looks tailormade for him, especially as he is likely to get his favoured conditions and especially as he has also landed a Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham over this trip.
Tony Martin’s eight-year-old will be a tough nut to crack, however. Few novices have jumped these fences with the alacrity he displayed 12 months ago when those left trailing in his wake included DYNASTE. Quite why David Pipe seems intent on re-opposing here is a mystery, especially as the drying surface ought to be leaning him towards the Gold Cup.
3.20 3m Ladbrokes World Hurdle
BIG RACE 1-2-3: 1st Zarkandar, 2nd Annie Power, 3rd Mala Beach.
If the Champion Hurdle is the race of the meeting for most, this cannot be far behind, especially now that magical mare ANNIE POWER has been charged with taking on the bombproof BIG BUCK’S. It’s the classic duel between the indomitable veteran, been there, done it, got the T-shirt, and the excitable kid, scything through the ranks with style and swagger. Both are nigh on unbeatable. In fact, Annie Power has never been beaten in ten starts, while Big Buck’s’ incredible run of 18 consecutive victories was only brought to an end six weeks ago on his return from a 14-month injury absence. Throw into the mix the fact that Ruby Walsh, partner of the king, now rides the pretender to the throne, and you could not have scripted a more intriguing clash.
Most punters will side with one or the other. But is Big Buck’s the horse he was? Nicholls insists he has improved massively since that comeback performance. But he needs to have done. Defeat at the hands of a 66/1 11-year-old veteran does not read well. And what of Annie Power? Will she stay a 3m trip she has not tackled before? Mullins insists she will and even views her as a Gold Cup candidate of the future. But she has a tendency to be keen -- even over the minimum trip over 2m at Doncaster last time.
Tactics will prove key, but while you make your mind up, I’m going to find one to upset the whole applecart. ZARKANDAR has been turned over twice this season by Annie Power, while he wouldn’t be classed in the same bracket in the Nicholls yard as Big Buck’s. But this is a seriously classy customer who was good enough to win the 2011 Triumph Hurdle, has finished fourth and fifth in two Champion Hurdles and beat The New One in the 2013 Aintree Hurdle, yet who has always performed as if he’d be even better over a trip. So far, connections have resisted the step-up to 3m, but now they’re going for it and at a double-figure price, he’s an each/way steal in my book.
There is no shortage of further talent queueing up to take on the big two as well. Not least the JP McManus duo, AT FISHERS CROSS, who is returning to form at just the right time, and MORE OF THAT, who continues to improve fast.
Ireland might belong to Annie Power if she wins. But if MOUNT BENBULBEN can conquer his aversion to left-handed tracks and MALA BEACH can conquer her need for Soft ground, Gordon Elliott has two fascinating contenders.
4.00 2m4f Byrne Group Plate Handicap Chase
MAIN BET: Ericht. NEXT BEST BETS: Third Intention, Une Artiste, Attaglance.
If I tell you there has been only one single-price winner of this handicap in the last 14 years, you will understand how difficult a puzzle it is to solve. We are aided, however, by another persuasive trend which discloses that 24 of the last 26 winners were rated 141 or lower, which inconveniences some of the fancied ones such as the JP McManus duo TAP NIGHT (145) and COLOUR SQUADRON (146)
Given that both will have been laid out for the contest, it’s still hard to categorically rule them out. Similar comments apply to Colin Tizzard’s THIRD INTENTION (143). But I fear the winner will emerge from lower down the handicap, so the likes of ATTAGLANCE, who ran so well here in the Paddy Power Gold Cup last November, BENNYS MIST for Venetia Williams and the Nicky Henderson duo of ERICHT and UNE ARTISTE must be seriously considered.
Amazingly, seven of the last nine winners of the race have been trained by Williams, Henderson or David Pipe. On first inspection, Ericht, once regarded as one of Seven Barrows’s best hurdling prospects, might be thrown in off 140 after taking to fences like a duck to water.
4.40 3m2f Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Handicap Chase
MAIN BET: Indian Castle. NEXT BEST BETS: Edmund Kean, Buddy Bolero, Knock A Hand.
Ever since his subsequent Grand National winner, Ballabriggs, landed the spoils in 2010, trainer Donald McCain seems to have developed an obsession with the Kim Muir. He saddled Super Duty to finish a gallant second 12 months ago, and now he has earmarked the contest for INDIAN CASTLE. Like Super Duty, the six-year-old is a novice burdened with a big weight. But like Super Duty, he will have the assistance of crack Irish amateur Derek O’Connor in the saddle, and in a line-up full of exposed sorts, he is quickly assuming the mantle of banker of the day for many punters. With good reason too on the evidence of his impressive victory over the Cheltenham fences in January when his victims included Grade One winner Annacotty.
Indian Castle’s opponents this time could well include several with the name D.Pipe next to their names. For the Pond House trainer is responsible for no fewer than 12 of the original entries, the pick of which could be EDMUND KEAN, a novice that stable jockey Tom Scudamore is extremely keen on, and BUDDY BOLERO, who began the campaign as a strong fancy for the Hennessy Gold Cup. Forget the former’s disappointing effort last time because he couldn’t handle the hock-deep ground. And while it’s hard to forget how the latter’s jumping went to pieces, either side of missing the Hennessy, his confidence was restored by a win over hurdles last time.
Of the rest, KNOCK A HAND has never quite fulfilled his potential, but there are signs he is getting his act together and this would be a more realistic target than a stronger handicap earlier in the week.