With the jumps season fully into its stride, the picture with regard to the relative merits of the leading candidates for the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival (March 10 – 13) is becoming a little clearer. There have been mixed fortunes so far for those who spent the summer at the head of the ante-post markets for the feature races at the four-day extravaganza, writes Elliot Slater.
Let’s start with the Champion Hurdle. Within moments of Willie Mullins’ Faugheen crossing the line four-and-a-half lengths clear of Ballyalaton in the two-mile-five-furlong Grade 1 Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham last season, betting firms were quick to mark him down as a potential Champion Hurdle winner for this season. He vied for favouritism in the ante-post markets for the big race throughout the summer alongside Nigel Twiston-Davies’ The New One, third in last season’s championship race before going on to win in a dramatic finish against former champion Rock On Ruby at Liverpool.
While The New One has done nothing wrong in winning both his starts so far this term and remains a solid 7/2 second-favourite, Faugheen gained rave reviews for his nonchalant victory in the Grade 2 Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November and was immediately slashed to a top price 2/1 to be crowned champion later in the season. He remains unbeaten in seven starts and may next run in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Fairyhouse on December 29, where another good performance would likely see his odds contract even further.
Reigning champion Jezki was out-speeded close to home by the grand old stager and former dual champion Hurricane Fly at Punchestown in the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle. He looked sure to improve for the outing and remains steady at around 6/1, while old Hurricane Fly is now down to a best offer of around 14/1 with betfair amongst others to come back at the age of 11 and win the title again, although the veteran is still longer with some of the likes of Stan James.
There are lots of races to look forward to at the Cheltenham Festival. But the biggest puzzle among the championship events is undoubtedly the Queen Mother Champion Chase, mainly because both of the market principals have yet to be seen in action this term. Both have had niggling problems at the least, and worrying problems in more pessimistic scenarios.
Sprinter Sacre, who raced only once last term when pulling up with an irregular heartbeat at Sandown on December 6, but trainer Nicky Henderson hasn’t been 100 per cent happy with him so his first outing of the term will have to wait. He has drifted out to 4/1 from 3/1 favourite as a result. Last year’s champion chaser, the Gary Moore-trained Sire de Grugy, had been all set to run at Cheltenham‘s November fixture in the Grade 2 Schloer Chase, but sustained a hip injury in the days leading up to the contest and remained in his box.
It has been hard to gauge the full extent of the injury, but connections seem cautiously optimistic that he will be back in the New Year in time to get fully fit to defend his title. He is generally offered at 5/1. With the big two under a cloud, punters have latched on to last season’s Grade 1 Maghull Novice Chase winner Balder Succes, and to Uxizabndre, winner in good style of the Schloer Chase in the absence of Sire de Grugy.
Alan King’s Balder Succes ran well on his first outing of the season hen chasing home God’s Own in the Grade 2 Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter and is a best priced 8/1 shot (from 14’s) as a result. For his part, Uxizandre, also trained by King, jumped well and made all the running at Cheltenham to beat Simply Ned and is definitely progressing. He is now a top priced 12/1. It’s hard to know the relative merits of the King pair, but the Barbury Castle handler will surely been keen to keep the two apart until they may have to meet at the highest level later in the season.
At around 5/2 through the summer in the ante-post list for the World Hurdle, reigning champion More of That looked set to be one of the bankers of the meeting for the British. That was until a very modest first run of the campaign at Newbury on November 29 when he was beaten 25 lengths into third place in the Long Distance Hurdle by Alan King’s Medinas.
Now a 4/1 shot for the World Hurdle, the previously unbeaten gelding, who made incredible progress last term to jump from winning a handicap hurdle off 130 to landing the three-mile hurdles championship with a rating of 169, may now be one of whom to be wary. Of more concern than him being beaten on his seasonal return, he may very well have been in need of the outing, is the fact that trainer Jonjo O‘Neill hinted in a post-race interview that his star turn might be suffering from a breathing problem. Until the extent of that is known, or he undergoes what it usually a minor operation to help his ‘wind’, it might be wise to keep the powder dry as far as backing the JP McManus-owned gelding is concerned.
Medinas has been introduced into the World Hurdle betting at around 16/1 and could be of interest if proving his Newbury win was no fluke. Another horse to emerge as a potential contender is Nicky Henderson’s Beat That, winner of the Grade 1 Doon Bar Sefton Novices Hurdle at Aintree in April before following up in very brave fashion when getting the better of a real tussle with Ireland’s Don Poli in the Grade 1 Irish Daily Mirror Novices Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.
Reported to have done really well through the summer and strengthened up, Beat That is now a top priced 8/1 shot for the World Hurdle and could develop into a serious contender for honours by the time March 12 comes around.
The showcase race of the whole Cheltenham Festival is, of course, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and following his fine win in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock on November 22 Paul Nicholls’ likeable Silviniaco Conti has advanced to clear 8/1 favourite (from 14/1) following a below-par run from his main perceived danger, Cue Card (now out to 20/1), who could only finish fourth.
The pair may well clash again in the King George VI chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, a race in which Silviniaco Conti beat Cue Card by over three lengths in last year’s renewal and will be favourite to do so once again. Willie Mullins’ exciting prospect Champagne Fever, may travel to Kempton to take on the big two, and a good run there would enhance his claims for serious consideration for the main event 11 weeks later for which he is offered at 10/1 alongside last season’s Grade 1 Betfair Bowl winner Holywell (12/1), who remains a persistent whisper to step up in class and go close in the Gold Cup this year, despite not having raced so far this campaign.
The latter comment also applies to Bobs Worth (10/1), the 2013 Gold Cup winner who is set to have his first start of the season in the Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas – a race he won last year – and reigning champion Lord Windermere can hardly be discounted having a two from two record at the Cheltenham Festival. He not only won last season’s Gold Cup, but also landed the previous year’s Grade 1 RSA Chase. Jim Culloty’s pride and joy is a possibly over-generous 16/1-shot to retain his title.
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