With less than three weeks to go before the start of this year's Cheltenham Festival, racing enthusiast Mike Norman has gone through the antepost markets and come up with one wager for each of the four days...
"He is five from five for Phillip Hobbs this season, three of those victories coming at Cheltenham so for a horse so young he is already very familiar with the venue."
Back Yanworth NRNB @ 4/1 in the Champion Hurdle
I keep reading and hearing that Yanworth is not a two-mile horse, and that he won't have the speed to win a Champion Hurdle. The reaction in some quarters to his narrow Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle victory recently was quite frankly ridiculous, with one pundit suggesting he has 'absolutely no chance' at the Festival.
Admittedly Yanworth wasn't ultra impressive in beating Ch'Tibello around Wincanton's 1m7f trip, but he didn't need to be, he could do no more than win off a slow pace, confirming that he's in good order and bang on target to have a crack and what is now a sub-standard Champion Hurdle.
With no Annie Power or Faugheen in the line-up, Tuesday's showpiece is up for grabs and the market is headed by a horse - Yorkhill (10/3) - that needs to be supplemented. It's impossible to take anything Willie Mullins says as gospel when he talks about future engagements, but he has been recently quoted as saying he has no plans to supplement Yorkhill for the Champion Hurdle.
At the time of writing Yanworth is officially rated as the leading English contender, a rating achieved when impressively winning Kempton's Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle over the same distance that he will face at Cheltenham. He is officially rated 9lbs higher than Buveur D'Air, a horse that until a few weeks ago was going down the Chase route, yet rather bizarrely is the second favourite at 7/2 to win the Champion Hurdle.
Of course Yanworth has the potential to be a world beater over 2m4f and beyond, but that doesn't mean he won't have the class to win this far from strong renewal of hurdling's blue riband event. A strongly-run race will suit, he'll power up the hill, and he arguably has the two-mile form in the book that entitles him to be the favourite for the race.
At 4/1 Alan King's exciting prospect looks a rock solid bet. And with the Betfair Sportsbook now going Non-Runner No-Bet on the race you'll get your stake refunded in the unlikelihood that Yanworth doesn't run.
Back Finian's Oscar @ 9/2 in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle (industry best price at time of writing)
It was hard not to be impressed with the hurdling debut victory of Finian's Oscar at Hereford just before Christmas.
Admittedly all eyes were already on Colin Tizzard's 5yo bay gelding after he was bought for a massive £250,000 by top owners Ann and Alan Potts, but the manner in which he spread-eagled a field of promising novices - including the now 135-rated hurdler Acting Lass - was visually very impressive.
He was immediately stepped up to Grade 1 company in Sandown's Tolworth Hurdle, and after being backed as if defeat was out of the question, he once again travelled and quickened in the style of a top class prospect to win by a very easy five lengths.
Tizzard was non-committal at the time as to which race Finian's Oscar would run in at the Festival, saying that he wasn't sure whether his new stable star would be a 2m or 2m4f+ horse in the future.
But all the indications are that he will line up in the Neptune over the longer trip, a race that in previous years has been won by the likes of Istabraq, Hardy Eustace, and Faugheen, before they all stepped back to two miles to win multiple Champion Hurdles between them.
Don't be surprised at all if Finian's Oscar follows exactly the same route as those great Irish champions.
Back Cole Harden E/W NRNB @ 11/1 in the Stayers Hurdle
It's hard to knock the chances of antepost favourite Unowhatimeanharry ahead of this year's Stayers Hurdle, but when you consider that last year's winner Thistlecrack was a similar price in the lead-up to the race after demolishing his rivals in all the key trials, taking 11/8 about Harry Fry's far less impressive 9yo is not my cup of tea at all.
It may be that Unowhatimeanharry is the type of horse that just does enough to win his races, but he would have had a much tougher race in the Long Walk Hurdle had Ballyoptic not fallen at the last, and his narrow defeat of Cole Harden in last month's Cleeve Hurdle was hardly breathtaking either.
In fact it's 2015 winner Cole Harden that I want to get on side here at an each-way price as I can't see him being out of the frame if that latest run in the Cleeve was an indication that he will be back close to his best at Cheltenham.
And there's no reason why he shouldn't be. Warren Greatrex's stable star has failed to get his head in front since that 2015 victory, but he's never been totally disgraced in some top staying races and there was plenty of encouragement to be taken from his latest run, his best effort for some time.
He showed his usual zest that day, leading from the start and looking a likely winner at one stage before just being run out of it in the final furlong.
It's easy to forget that he's still an 8yo too, and therefore should be at the peak of his powers in three week's time on ground that we know he will relish and on a track that brings out his best.
Back Defi Du Seuil @ 2/1 in the Triumph Hurdle
The Triumph Hurdle is a race that has been extremely good to me down the years, and this year I just can't see past the claims of antepost favourite Defi Du Seuil.
He maybe a bigger price on the day, so you don't necessarily have to back him now - it's hard to imagine he'll be a 7/4 chance or shorter come post time that's for sure - but he is by far the most likely winner on the evidence of what we've seen so far.
With alternative races being introduced into the programme, the Triumph is not the hugely competitive affair that it once was, and at this stage this year's renewal doesn't look the strongest with holes to be picked in most of the leading contenders.
Apart from Defi De Seuil that is, who heads to Cheltenham with an unbeaten British record to protect. He is five from five for Phillip Hobbs this season, three of those victories coming at Cheltenham so for a horse so young he is already very familiar with the venue.
He travels extremely powerfully during his races and has looked better with each outing, winning by an aggregate of 22 lengths in his last two victories. And he is already officially rated 155 - last year's winner Ivanovich Gorbatov was rated just 142 going into the race - putting him way clear of any rival with an official rating.
I love the chances of Yanworth if he lines up for the Champion Hurdle on the opening day, bug given we know that Defi De Seuil is a certain runner (barring accidents or illness between now and mid-March) in the Triumph, then the Hobbs charge simply has to be my banker of the meeting.
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