Timeform's Matt Gardner takes an ante-post look at the Argento Chase, a Grade 2 at Cheltenham on Saturday...
"Bobs Worth could yet prove capable of better than he has shown to date, particularly when considering that this will be just his sixth start over fences..."
Global warming. Warming. A brief sojourn outside confirms that the temperature at present is anything other than clement, and the weather has quite simply wreaked havoc with racing of late with countless fixtures being abandoned and big-name horses being re-routed left, right and centre to complete their preparations for the Cheltenham Festival.
Here's hoping that trials day at Cheltenham goes ahead as planned on Saturday as the card looks magnificent, featuring not only the Argento Chase but the Cleeve Hurdle (Oscar Whisky won't stay), the Victor Chandler Chase (Sprinter Sacre wins) and a potential clash between The New One, Puffin Billy and Coneygree in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle Trial (not sure on that one, but Puffin Billy could be a monster).
The Argento Chase has long since been billed as a Gold Cup trial but, in truth, it has been a poor imitation in recent years. In fact many of last season's competitors, such as Time For Rupert, Diamond Harry and Captain Chris, effectively ruled themselves out of consideration for the Festival's showpieces with their respective performances in this race. Will this year be any different? Well in a word, yes, but first let's deal with those that cannot win this race let alone the Gold Cup.
Elimination Stage One:
That sounds a bit sci-fi doesn't it, though it must be remembered that there is nothing wrong with a scientific approach once in a while. Quite simply, Quartz de Thaix and Cape Tribulation are flying too high here, smart performers though they are. Cappa Bleu ran an excellent race to finish fourth in last year's Grand National, arguably value for finishing a touch closer having been left with plenty to do, and a repeat bid this season seems likely, so he perhaps will not be at the top of his game here whilst Hey Big Spender, who is a high-class chaser when his jumping holds together, has offered little in two starts this season after an 11-month absence and cannot be supported at present.
I may be being a tad harsh with this one but Wayward Prince also goes at this stage. The nine-year-old was a smart novice, finishing third in the 2010 RSA Chase, and for all that he seemed to lose his way last season, his temperament coming under suspicion at the same time, he has seemingly been rejuvenated by the change in scenery brought about by a move to his owner's yard. He returned to his best when winning at Aintree last time but he is unlikely to improve upon that and his best will not be good enough here.
Elimination Stage Two:
This is where we have to get rather destructive, ruling out horses that conceivably have a chance of winning. The Mick Channon-trained Calgary Bay was better than ever when winning at Cheltenham and Doncaster last season, having long since promised to post performances of that calibre, before a lack of stamina found him out in the Grand National. That is excusable, as are his two runs this season on account of the ground, however he is reportedly more likely to head to Doncaster to defend his title in a listed handicap there, so we don't want to be taking him any further in this process.
Another to be dispatched with is Little Josh, who you have to harbour stamina concerns over when remembering his run in this race last year. Admittedly that was on return from over a year off the track but at no other stage has he shown that he possesses the staying power for this sort of trip, a factor which certainly limits his appeal.
Now I can almost hear the steam coming from Anthony Knott's ears at this next dismissal, but time is up for his beloved Hunt Ball, who is likely to get found out in this sort of company. He improved a staggering 90 lb on Timeform ratings last season, winning seven of his nine races, and for all that he got back on track when second to Menorah at Kempton over Christmas, you have to suspect that he will find at least a couple too good here. Bye bye Hunt Ball.
I debated long and hard over Weird Al, as he clearly has the ability to go close in a race like this, as evidenced by his win in the Charlie Hall last season and this decent effort in defeat in the same year's Betfair Chase. However a brace of non-completions in the Grand National and the Gold Cup raised some doubts but arguably more were raised by his effort in this season's Betfair Chase, running creditably on the figures but looking a rather difficult ride and travelling with very little fluency. Seeing as we're being scientific the percentage call is to rule him out before we get sucked into taking a little bit of the 16.015/1 presently available.
Elimination Stage Three:
I have spontaneously added in a fourth stage (not so scientific after all) so just a trio of contenders are set for the chop here, starting with the David Pipe-trained Grands Crus. After his demolition of Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti in the Feltham he was touted as being the next big thing in the staying chase division, but disappointing efforts in the RSA Chase and on his seasonal reappearance in the Paddy Power left many wondering just what had happened to the one-time powerhouse. He went some way to restoring his reputation when third in the King George, having undergone a breathing operation, but he didn't finish his race off quite as was expected and, still so soon after such a procedure, you wouldn't fancy the prospect of him tackling a stiff extended three miles such as this. On ability he's a fair price, but we have to leave him to one side.
Midnight Chase has made it this far purely because of his Cheltenham record and the fact that he seems more likely to run his usual game race from the front than most, but we must now bid him farewell and focus on the returning Imperial Commander. He evidently has the ability to win a Gold Cup, taking the 2010 renewal ahead of Denman, but he has not been seen since being pulled-up in the following year's renewal. Many will point to his tremendous record when fresh before gleefully tucking into the 9.08/1 presently available, but at the age of 12 can he really beat the likes of Bobs Worth and the equally aged yet resurgent Tidal Bay? I'm not so sure.
It's fairly obvious where we are at now, and it is effectively back where we were in early-December. The first two home in the Hennessy Gold Cup, Bobs Worth and Tidal Bay, look set to fight out the Argento Chase and, for all that I am Tidal Bay's most ardent supporter, you simply have to side with Bobs Worth, who tanked through his race at Newbury, jumping impeccably, and beat his reopposing rival readily. The Nicky Henderson-trained eight-year-old could yet prove capable of better than he has shown to date, particularly when considering that this will be just his sixth start over fences, and for all there isn't much juice in his price of 2.021/1 for this race, you can always snap up some of the 4.47/2 on offer for the Gold Cup instead.