World Hurdle Preview: Place your faith in King

Smad Place (centre) could be overpriced in an open renewal.

With the entries for the World Hurdle revealed, missing a rather big name as expected in the shape of Big Buck's, Timeform's Tony McFadden seeks to find a bit of value...

"That run signalled a step in the right direction, though, considering his tame reappearance only seven weeks earlier, and, while many horses fail to appreciate the severe test of the World Hurdle, Smad Place's stamina looks assured having seen out the trip thoroughly last year..."

Throughout history all sports have had individuals emerge with so much natural talent that they have stood head and shoulders above their rivals. Be it the unfathomable batting average of Australia's Donald Bradman, the amazing technical ability and goalscoring record of Lionel Messi, or the sheer endurance and strength of Lance Armstrong, all three men have redefined the standards of excellence in their sport without any explanation as to why they were so superior. Ok, you've got me, one of those feats is probably easier to explain than the others. 

In racing, many point to Tony McCoy as the standard-bearer of riding excellence having secured an unprecedented 17-consecutive jockeys' championships, with an 18th victory seemingly a formality. However, with thoughts turning to the Cheltenham Festival, there is little doubt in my mind that Ruby Walsh is the finest rider of either hurdles course at Cheltenham, his tactical prowess placing him well ahead of his contemporaries. The amount of times his rivals have pressed on down the hill only to be claimed by a fast-finishing, patiently-ridden Walsh mount is hard to count; from a statistical viewpoint, the 34 Cheltenham Festival winners that Walsh has ridden, the last 10 coming over hurdles, is further testament to how he has mastered riding at Prestbury Park. With the continued backing of Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls his already-formidable tally will surely become even more impressive.

One horse that has played a big part in Walsh's Festival success is Big Buck's, a four-time winner of the World Hurdle blessed with Armstrong-like levels of stamina without needing to resort to the special polos. Injury has cruelly intervened this year, however, and he will be unable to defend his crown, but Walsh could still have a favourite's chance should stablemate Tidal Bay, or star mare Quevega run.

Timeform's National Hunt team wisely took the decision to remove the squiggle from Tidal Bay after his Lexus win, just as the campaign was threatening to reach 'free Deirdrie' proportions, and the reformed bad-boy of jump racing would be a fascinating contender if connections opt to revert to hurdles. However, at the time of writing, the Gold Cup remains a viable alternative and ante-post betting is tricky enough without selecting a horse that appears no more than 50-50 to be targeted at the race. Similar sentiments apply to Quevega, who Willie Mullins has stated will attempt to claim a fifth Mares' Hurdle crown on the opening day of the Festival. Clearly plans change and it wouldn't be the greatest shock were Quevega's connections to take the bold move and go for the World Hurdle, but it is hard to entertain backing her as an ante-post investment as things stand.

The Cleeve Hurdle, which takes place on Cheltenham Trials Day over the same C&D as the main event in March, looks set to provide some much needed clues. Oscar Whisky, who patently looked as if he didn't stay the trip in the World Hurdle, will reportedly be given another chance to prove his staying credentials. Initially, this top-class and consistent performer appealed as a back-to-lay proposition as I felt he could perhaps win a poorly-contested trial, beating inferior rivals, without fully needing to stay. However, the Cleeve looks as if it could be a hot race this year with Reve de Sivola a likely runner, not to mention Tidal Bay and Smad Place as possible contenders, and the ante-post dream on Oscar Whisky could be short-lived should he tire up the hill again and be rerouted to the Champion.

Reve de Sivola is the solid horse towards the head of the market, having delivered on his promising novice hurdling campaign three seasons ago with a devastating victory in the Long Walk Hurdle, beating last year's World Hurdle third, Smad Place, by 14 lengths. However, the fancy prices on Nick Williams' horse have evaporated in the past fortnight and he no longer looks to be tremendous value, particularly if you take the view that he was flattered in the Long Walk, benefitting from a well-judged and aggressive ride. 

Conversely, Smad Place wasn't seen to maximum effect at Ascot, travelling well in the rear and briefly looking dangerous before finding himself unable to sustain the effort. That run signalled a step in the right direction, though, considering his tame reappearance only seven weeks earlier, and, while many horses fail to appreciate the severe test of the World Hurdle, Smad Place's stamina looks assured having seen out the trip thoroughly last year. Neither Big Buck's or Voler la Vedette stand in his way this year and it isn't difficult to make a case for Alan King's charge at a generous price of 21.020/1 in what looks to be a weaker renewal.

Adding further intrigue to this year's race is a strong Irish challenge, headed by Noel Meade's Monksland. Third in the Neptune behind Simonsig, Monksland seemed to relish the step up to three miles at Leopardstown, finding plenty for pressure to overhaul Zaidpour and reverse the Hatton's Grace form. He displayed a good attitude on that occasion and certainly deserves consideration, though whether he is entitled to be four times as short as Zaidpour is highly debateable. 

Always well regarded by Willie Mullins, Zaidpour burst onto the scene three seasons ago with an impressive victory at Punchestown and, though he has come up short in some top events, he is a high-class, versatile horse that shouldn't be underestimated. One point worth mentioning is the perceived notion that he is more effective going right-handed, and statistically, yes, there are more 1s next to his name racing clockwise. However, when the only times you race left-handed are in Graded affairs at premier venues such as Cheltenham and Leopardstown your strike-rate is going to suffer, and on Timeform ratings Zaidpour's Tara Hurdle win at Navan last season ranks just 2 lb below his best ever performance. He may offer a spot of value at 36.035/1, but those odds looks so generous they might inidcate he is not a certain starter.

To summarise, Ruby Walsh could once again hold the key to the World Hurdle should Tidal Bay or Quevega turn up, and either of them would more than likely start as favourite to give him his fifth successive win in the race. However, both horses could potentially run elsewhere, throwing the ante-post market wide open and making it of interest to punters, and the play at this stage could be to side with a likely starter at a big price. Smad Place has proven himself to be effective over C&D and a repeat of last year's effort would see him right in the firing line. He hasn't been able to replicate that effort so far this term, but his latest run was encouraging and he is overpriced at 21.020/1

Recommendation

Back Smad Place @ 21.020/1 in the World Hurdle

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