In a time when the Grand National is increasingly seen as a race for only high-level staying chasers and the perceived importance of the Cheltenham Festival is growing by the year, a handicap hurdle buried halfway through the second day of the Festival attracted almost twice as many entries as the most famous steeplechase in the world. A total of 84 horses were allotted a weight by BHA Head of Handicapping Phil Smith on his 'lost weekend' in early-February, yet there have been 167 hopefuls entered in the 2013 Coral Cup.
Tasked with picking one from 167 is enough to tempt most into embarking on a lost weekend of their own, yet perversely it's just this sort of challenge that a certain breed of bettor lives for. Finding the winner of a big-field handicap, especially ante-post, offers a windfall that a punter can dine out on, literally for days but metaphorically for years.
With that considered, we can pay lip service to the market leaders in the Coral Cup without seriously considering them as bets. It may not be very 'Timeform' of me, but I can't help but ask where is the fun in looking at 167 and picking one at 5/1?
So it is that we skip by the likes of Wonderful Charm (could be very good but has an absence and fairly stiff mark to overcome), Gevrey Chambertin (as Wonderful Charm, but without the absence), Master of The Sea (progressive but essentially a stayer) Cotton Mill (possibly just high enough now in this class) and Edeymi (interesting but under-priced because of connections) and look a bit further down the list.
If it's a big price you're after, you go do worse than General Miller. He's clearly been difficult to train, as evidenced by three runs in the best part of three years up to now, but he's just as clearly talented on his day: he beat Menorah at Aintree as a novice and matched Overturn for longer than anything else in a handicap at Perth a couple of summers back. On his latest reappearance, General Miller went well for a long way despite being taken hopelessly wide and was eased off when beaten. On his best form he'd be Timeform top-rated on weight-adjusted figures and, given the impression left last time and the fact he's currently a juicy 55.054/1, General Miller might well be worth a small interest.
Somewhere in between the favourites and the live outsiders, we have a couple of professional Festival handicappers, Get Me Out of Here and Son of Flicka. They were second and first respectively in this very race last year, while the year before both of them had been runner-up in different Festival handicaps: Get Me Out of Here the County and Son of Flicka the Martin Pipe. Son of Flicka in particular had been quiet in the intervening time and it's been a similar story in the last 12 months, while Get Me Out of Here has rather followed suit this season, his runs falling largely on unsuitable ground. Son of Flicka is 1 lb better off now relative to Get Me Out of Here (albeit 2 lbs worse off in absolute terms) and duly holds a slightly more prominent position in the betting.
It'd be no surprise at all to see both Get Me Out of Here and Son of Flicka back at their best come the day, though whether either has enough in hand to win as competitive a handicap as this is somewhat doubtful. Races like the Coral Cup are traditionally won by unexposed types, up-and-comers, and that's the profile of the horse that jumps off the page this year.
It's fair to say that JP McManus likes a winner at the Festival, in the same way Imelda Marcos likes a pair of shoes, and he's gone about achieving his aims with particular fervour this year. McManus has already bought Jezki, Wyck Hill and My Tent Or Yours this season to name just three Festival hopefuls, but it's one of his most recent acquisitions- the Charlie Longsdon-trained Pendra- that piques interest in the Coral Cup.
Pendra won his first three starts- a bumper, a maiden hurdle and a novice hurdle- before being launched into the highest grade for the Tolworth Hurdle. There he was a gallant second to Melodic Rendezvous, beating useful sorts and subsequent winners alike. Melodic Rendezvous has since beaten Puffin Billy and is among the market leaders for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, yet Pendra finds himself in handicaps off a BHA mark of 139.
Just on what he's shown so far, Pendra looks among the best-treated in the Coral Cup. Then there's what he's yet to show- which is less tangible, of course, but not difficult to make out just beneath the surface. Firstly, there's the fact he's made just the four starts, leaving him with obvious scope for improvement. There's also his breeding: by Old Vic out of Mariah Rollins, who was useful at up to three miles, it's a small wonder than Pendra was able to show near-smart form over two miles. He'll probably get three in time, but for now 21 furlongs should be more than sufficient to draw improvement from him.
There are unknowns, as you could only expect with such an unexposed hurdler: will Pendra cope with the big-field scenario of the Coral Cup? How will better ground suit him?
No one knows the answers, not even Charlie Longsdon, but he is reportedly singing Pendra's praises to anyone who'll listen and has said that he'd be disappointment if AP McCoy doesn't pick his charge over McManus' other runners, which include Get Me Out of Here. Longsdon is of course a trainer heading for the top, needing that breakthrough horse to help him on his way. Pendra could be the one, and he needn't be one in a million: just one in 167.
Back Pendra @ 15.014/1 in the Coral Cup