With the weights for the handicaps and the final first entries for the Cheltenham Festival, it's time for David Cleary to offer up the first of his day-by-day previews...
"Maire Banrigh looked an expensive flop after her first couple of starts over hurdles, but has been a different proposition since wind surgery early last year, winning her next two starts over hurdles and all four of her races over fences. Her form puts her firmly in the mix and her jumping looks most assured, which will be vital when it comes to the Arkle."
With under two weeks to go, there's still plenty of uncertainty as to which horses will go where. That's par for the course with the four-day Festival, but day one looks set to throw up three fascinating matches if all stand their ground.
Benie des Dieux against Honeysuckle is a mouthwatering prospect in the Mares' Hurdle, hard to see the others getting a look in if both at on their game. Benie des Dieux is looking to regain her crown after falling at the last with victory all but hers last year. Honeysuckle hasn't quite got the same level of form, but she is the clear second pick on form, has won all seven starts over hurdles and could yet have more to offer. There remains a chance that one or other could duck the field of battle, but the alternative engagements, Stayers and Champion, would be tougher still.
The Mares' Hurdle doesn't look a race for a bet at this stage, but the Arkle is a different matter. It's hard to find fault with the ante-post favourite Notebook, though he looks short enough, given the narrowness of his victory in the Irish version last time. At Christmas, he got the better of Fakir d'Oudaries at Leopardstown, the runner-up currently second in the Arkle market. That looks shorter than he should be, given that he was in receipt of a very generous weight-for-age allowance when he met Notebook before and they meet at level weights this time. Fakir d'Oudaries has more to find than his position in the betting suggests.
Cash Back probably ought to be second favourite, given he was narrowly denied at level weights by Notebook earlier in the month. Olly Murphy's Brewin'Upastorm remains a horse of abundant potential as a chaser but his lack of experience over fences is a worry in a race that seems sure to be run at a furious gallop. He has had just the two starts in novice chases, both in small fields over easy fences. Rouge Vif, Global Citizen and Esprit du Large all won graded races last time out and have their claims, but the most interesting at the current odds of 16.5 is Maire Banrigh.
Maire Banrigh looked an expensive flop after her first couple of starts over hurdles, but has been a different proposition since wind surgery early last year, winning her next two starts over hurdles and all four of her races over fences. Her form puts her firmly in the mix and her jumping looks most assured, which will be vital when it comes to the Arkle. Although she won over two-and-a-half miles last time, the drop back to two miles is likely to suit her at least as well.
Chance Debonair to master Supreme rivals
The Supreme is set to feature an Anglo-Irish battle of sorts, with Shishkin heading the market from Asterion Forlonge. Oddly enough both are in the same ownership, so it is slightly surprising one of them isn't being rerouted to the Ballymore. Perhaps Shishkin who won over nearly two-and-a-half miles last time, might be, though the market suggests not. Asterion Forlonge has an entry in all three novice hurdles.
These aren't the only pair towards the top of the market with more than one option during the week. One runner who both looks overpriced and has just the Supreme entry who might be worth a small interest at 42.041/1 is the Colin Tizzard-trained Master Debonair. He didn't appear to stay when sent off a short-priced favourite to beat the highly promising Sporting John at Ascot earlier in the month. Master Debonair had looked a good prospect himself prior to that reverse and the market looks to have overreacted to his latest run.
Before moving onto the rest of the card, a quick word about Elgin, who was put up as a Champion Hurdle bet in this column last week. Embarrassing doesn't begin to cover his run in the rearranged Kingwell Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday. Nothing came to light afterwards, which is both good and bad, though he was reportedly due to be scoped to see if anything amiss could be uncovered. 'They are not machines' is the philosophical response.
Hard to resist Malarky
The remainder of Tuesday's card is made up of three chases. The new look National Hunt Chase is a difficult race to have a bet in at this stage, as Copperhead, who would be the obvious favourite, may well go for the RSA instead.
The novice handicap chase is fiendishly dificult, though Annie MC would be worth an interest if she takes up this engagement (the Plate might be an even better option), given she is a horse that the handicapper has no handle to get a grip on how good she is. His hurdles colleague was left with egg on his face after she bolted up in the otherwise competitive mares final at Newbury last spring and this would be her first chance since to run in a race of that type.
The Ultima could be the other race for a bet at this stage. The Conditional has been mentioned previously here for this race, though he is so well handicapped he might not get a run - he's currently no.61 in a race with a maximum field of 24. In any case, the price has long gone and he has four alternative entries. Saint Xavier is definitely an interesting horse for going back over fences for the first time for Betfair ambassador Paul Nicholls, though entries at Kelso and Doncaster this weekend suggest a quieter option for gaining his Grand National qualification. And yes, his owner-rider is a concern, but the price is likely to reflect that and the horse has looked pretty straightforward over hurdles since switched to front running.
However, at shorter odds, 19.018/1, it's wiser to side with Mister Malarky after his return to form at Kempton at the weekend. He's been put up just 4 lb for that victory, which seems very fair, and his record in the hustle and bustle of big-field handicaps is good. He's still got untapped potential as a staying chaser and the Ultima is his only Cheltenham entry.
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Back Maire Banrigh at 16.5 in the Arkle Chase
Back Master Debonair at 42.041/1 in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Back Mister Malarky at 19.018/1 in the Ultima Handicap Chase