As the hackneyed analogy of 'the road to Cheltenham' gets more congested by the year, I find there's an increasingly strong case for sourcing alternative transport. What about the train? It's not difficult to translate the build-up to the Festival's championship races into railway lines, only without the exorbitant fares, scalding coffee and FirstGroup.
The World Hurdle would be the simplest line. You can miss out a stop or two, while the occasional train will join from the branch line of handicaps, but you'll almost always stop by the Long Walk and/or the Cleeve before your scheduled arrival on Festival Thursday.
The Champion Chase takes the form of two distinct routes, Irish and British, which occasionally cross at Sandown in December but otherwise remain separate until March, meaning you can never be totally sure who'll pull into the station first.
It's that bit more complicated with the Gold Cup. There are the major stops at Haydock in November and Kempton at Christmas, with final chances to board at Cheltenham and Newbury after the turn of the year, before both sides of the Irish Sea meet at that most dramatic of junctions at the culmination of the Festival.
The biggest challenge for my comparison is the Champion Hurdle. Trying to plot the myriad ways of approaching the Tuesday feature would require something resembling the London Underground map. There's the Central Line (used by Menorah, who went Greatwood-International-Champion without racing outside of Gloucestershire in 2010/11), the Circle Line (often taken by that hardy soul Overturn) and countless more besides: Rock On Ruby travelled in from Zone 6 last season, starting in a handicap at Newbury but taking the express route via only Kempton's Christmas Hurdle on his way to Cheltenham glory.
The Northern Line to the Champion starts with the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle this Saturday and, by happy (if ever-so-slightly contrived) coincidence, it just so happens this year it features a railway-themed favourite.
For anyone under 30, their introduction to the railway probably came from Thomas The Tank Engine and apparently that's where the name of last year's Supreme winner Cinders And Ashes derives from. He was a fine bumper performer the season before his Supreme success and, following three wins in the mud up North, showed what he's about despite enjoying a none-too-smooth journey through the race, holding off Darlan by just over a length. There's no doubt that represented a fine performance, while it's almost certain we've not yet seen the best of Cinders And Ashes, but current quotes of around 2.568/5 mean I'm willing to park him in a siding as far as betting goes.
It was said in Timeform's report on the Supreme that runner-up Darlan would likely prove the best of the field in time and, watching the race again, it's easy to see where such a view would come from. Darlan got a much bumpier ride than Cinders And Ashes at the business end of the race- forced wide turning in, making a worse mistake at the last and then forced to switch- and has a greater selection of solid efforts, notably his win at Aintree the following month. Despite this, he can be backed at around twice the price of Cinders And Ashes.
Time to go steaming in, right? Well, perhaps not. Darlan was withdrawn from the RP Hurdle at Cheltenham's Open meeting due to testing ground and Newcastle on Saturday looks set to be just as soft, if not more so. There's no actual evidence that Darlan won't handle conditions, but the ground is an unknown and it makes current prices that bit less attractive, even if I'd still take him over Cinders And Ashes all things considered.
We talked earlier about Rock On Ruby's rather unorthodox journey to the Champion Hurdle last year, but now as the reigning champion he's being forced to take one of the main lines, starting here. He defeated last year's Fighting Fifth winner Overturn at the Festival in March and was presumably feeling the effects of that run when third at Aintree subsequently. Neither a stiff test of stamina (just touched off in the 21-furlong Baring Bingham as a novice) nor testing ground (won two bumpers on soft) should pose a problem to Rock On Ruby and, quite frankly, he should be favourite all other things being equal. There's a suspicion that, with his destination very much set as Cheltenham again, Rock On Ruby won't be operating at full capacity first time out, but that's more than allowed for in the market at the time of writing.
A quick word on the other three entrants. The likeable Countrywide Flame is the most well-known of them as a shock winner of the Triumph Hurdle in March. He's since improved on the Flat, but that could easily be a mere reflection of his hurdles form rather than an indicator of any more to come back over timber. As such, it's questionable as to whether there's much to be gained in backing him at just 8.615/2 in this.
Trifolium finished immediately behind Cinders And Ashes and Darlan in the Supreme, but unlike that pair there was no obvious reason to mark him up and therefore it's expected that he'll come up short again. Bothy is a useful handicapper but, in relative terms, he'll surely prove something of a slowcoach against these Champion Hurdle-bound rivals.
The Fighting Fifth truly sets the wheels in motion for the Champion Hurdle in March. Darlan is hugely respected as seemingly the number one Champion hope from Nicky Henderson's impressive collection of rolling stock, but there seems to be more going for one that's been there and done it. After just eight starts over hurdles, Rock On Ruby's career has shown little sign of hitting the buffers and he looks a good bet to start his Champion Hurdle defence in ideal fashion, with Kempton on Boxing Day presumably his next stop.
Back Rock On Ruby in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle