In the second of his antepost previews on the flagship races at Cheltenham, David Cleary casts his eye over the potential runners for the World Hurdle...
"It may be best to stick with one whose campaign has gone to plan, that is who has been campaigned as a hurdler, and who has proven stamina for three miles but doesn’t need an out-and-out slog. Step forward Cole Harden."
The World Hurdle has attracted a 50% larger entry than the Champion Hurdle, an indication of the much more open nature of the contest at this stage of proceedings.
Whereas the Champion Hurdle market is dominated by a trio with rock-solid credentials, the World Hurdle has last year's winner at the head of the market, More of That, with a little to prove after been turned over at Newbury on his reappearance.
After him - and assuming last year's runner-up Annie Power goes for the Mares Hurdle rather than has another crack at this, if she turns up at all - there is a clutch of horses many of which have failed over fences or might have gone over fences had connections had more time.
So it may be best to stick with one whose campaign has gone to plan, that is who has been campaigned as a hurdler, and who has proven stamina for three miles but doesn't need an out-and-out slog. Step forward Cole Harden.
It has to be admitted there are a few defeats to explain. As a novice, the Warren Greatrex-trained gelding was no match for Un Temps Pour Tout in a small-field event at Ascot and although he was a mile clear of the rest, he was beaten fair and square by Beat That in the Sefton at Aintree. This season, Cole Harden has been beaten on his last two starts, by Medinas at Newbury, then by Rock On Ruby and Vaniteux at Cheltenham.
But taking a closer look at those performances offers a rather more encouraging slant on his chances. At Cheltenham, the six-year-old found the drop back to two-and-a-half miles all against him and yet still acquitted himself well, like Rock On Ruby, conceding 8lb to Vaniteux.
Cole Harden almost caught the wilting Vaniteux for second after getting tapped for foot and while the winner also saw the race out really well, our selection is a proven stayer at three miles, whereas Rock On Ruby has yet to try the trip and wouldn't be sure to stay on pedigree.
At Newbury, Cole Harden was ridden to test the reappearing More of That's fitness and did that job to perfection; or rather, he did it too well, as after seeing off the reigning champion, he had nothing left against Medinas. At Wetherby the time before, Cole Harden had comprehensively defeated Medinas, that race a rather truer reflection of their respective merits.
As for the Sefton, Beat That was a good winner on the day of a race which tested stamina and then went on to win a test of speed for the War of Attrition at Punchestown, where he narrowly defeated Don Poli. Beat That was the best staying novice last season and could be a serious player in the World Hurdle, and yet at this juncture he has a little more to prove than Cole Harden does.
Cole Harden has made the transition from novice to open company in a smooth fashion, whereas Beat That, his chasing career put on hold, finished a long way behind Rock On Ruby and Cole Harden at Cheltenham on New Year's day when making a belated return. Beat That wasn't fully fit and was considerately handled once beaten, but his trainer has made further negative noises since and the horse would need to show more before he'd appeal at the current shorter price than Cole Harden.
Finally, Un Temps Pour Tout is clearly an interesting contender but he has yet to be seen this season and Cole Harden clearly shouldn't be judged on a slowly-run four-runner race in the mud.
Around 21.020/1 looks a fair price for Cole Harden for the World Hurdle and he could well shorten as some of those at shorter odds fall by the wayside, with a few perhaps likely to do so in the Cleeve Hurdle next weekend.
Check out David's Champion Hurdle antepost preview.