Irish horses are major players in the Cheltenham betting as ever, so Tony Keenan assesses the Emerald Isle's chances of success in a three-part series, starting with the biggest races at the Festival...
"Hurricane Fly has had more Grade 1 wins than the rest of the field combined and looks as good as ever this year, though quite how good he really is we may never know as he only does enough."
Irish horses won't win every race at Cheltenham though you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise should you attend a preview night over here in the next fortnight. As a general rule, patriotic punting should be avoided but there is a flipside to that argument - we tend to know the horses from our own jurisdictions better than those from elsewhere and that can provide a route into a race.
The Gold Cup market is dominated by English-trained horses though the key trial could have been held at Leopardstown where Bobs Worth was very impressive in the Lexus without being visually so, doing much the best of those not up with a slow pace over a trip that is short of his best anyway. The extended three miles will suit better and he's a solid [3.2] favourite, though like most of the market leaders for the big races he's not one to back now with the big firms knocking each other over to push him out on the day which will in turn lengthen his exchange price.
Silviniaco Conti is one to be against as the King George was a race that Cue Card lost rather than he won. Paul Nicholls' chaser has to prove his full effectiveness over the track too and his best may not be good enough, his peak effort coming in flattering circumstances. His Kempton victim is a big player in terms of ability, but more of him later.
Last Instalment has the 'steroids stink' on him but is the bet; in some ways a win for him would be good for racing as it would force the issue further into the spotlight. Philip Fenton's nine-year-old keeps winning over fences, his only defeat excusable as it came after a long break, and while he's unproven at the track that concern means he's a bigger price than he should be. His jumping was brilliant last time and while a few of his rivals were below form he beat them comprehensively.
It's best to take the Champion Chase and the Ryanair together as the same three horses are shortlisted in both. The front of the market is worth opposing in each race. Neither the first two in the betting in Wednesday's feature - Sire De Grugy and Arvika Ligeonniere - are suited by the track while, in the Ryanair, Al Ferof has yet to show he retains his old ability, First Lieutenant ran poorly last time and is the ultimate nearly horse while Dynaste seems best away from Cheltenham.
The three to focus on are Cue Card, Benefficient and Module. Put simply, Cue Card is the best horse in either race, possibly the best (healthy) chaser in training and would be a good bet in either should he take his chance instead of the Gold Cup, his stated aim. That has been the plan since his Betfair Chase win but the news of Sprinter Sacre's absence could change plans.
Benefficient is a course horse and won a good Jewson last year and despite being a four-time Grade 1 winner continues to be underrated. He's not a superstar but seems likely to run to a figure in the low-160s having had a good prep, something which cannot be said about many of these, and in a down year that could be enough. Module isn't quite so good as that but similar sentiments apply; he's likely to run his race, handles the track and as a seven-year-old still has improvement in him.
With 21 wins from 24 races since joining Willie Mullins, Hurricane Fly should be too short for a bet in the Champion Hurdlebut he looks just that at around [4.4], a good example of the familiarity breeding contempt as an old horse becomes underbet. He's had more Grade 1 wins than the rest of the field combined and looks as good as ever this year, though quite how good he really is we may never know as he only does enough.
The knock against him is the track but he's won a pair of Champion Hurdles and looked to bounce when third in 2012; that year he produced a big effort first time out in the Leopardstown Champion Hurdle off an interrupted preparation and wasn't himself again in the Punchestown equivalent. Still, a below-par year that returned two Grade 1s and a Cheltenham third is not bad. He hasn't been as impressive at the Festival as on home turf but that looks more to do with standard of opposition faced rather than the course itself.
Neither Jezki nor My Tent Or Yours look good enough, they were after all beaten by Champagne Fever over two miles at the meeting last year. The New One looks much the best of the English horses and should comprehensively reverse form with My Tent Or Yours from Kempton; he has a three-part excuse for that day with the track, the mistake at the last and being in front too soon all against him. Quite what that form amounts to remains in doubt, however, and he's priced as if it's rock-solid.
Our Conor could prove Hurricane Fly's biggest danger with his trainer's excellent record of getting them ready for the Festival. He's open to improvement but this is a hard race for a 5yo to win and his jockey's lack of experience at the track is a concern - Danny Mullins has had just 11 Cheltenham rides in the last five years though two of them were winners.
The World Hurdle is more of a 'stay away.' Big Buck's looked to get a moderate ride last time for one coming off a break but Ruby had it right afterwards in saying that the old Big Buck's would have won easily regardless of the steer. With Knockara Beau holding that form down, he has at least 10lbs to find though there are few better trainers to have in your corner for that than Paul Nicholls.
At Fishers Cross wouldn't look good enough, though More Of That in the same ownership has the potential to reach the top; no horse's form has worked out better than his this season but running plans remain up in the air.
Perhaps the race is best left to Annie Power. She has the best form on offer this season, beating Zarkandar not once but twice, and he's a good yardstick having won an Aintree Hurdle last year. That she beat him more comprehensively second time up on worse terms suggests the form is solid and she handles the track too. Stamina is a worry but ability is not.
Back Last Instalment @ [11.0] in the Gold Cup
Back Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle