With just two weeks to go until Cheltenham 2020, Gary O'Brien is here with the first of three antepost previews for the Festival, a look at the Group 1 races, where has has found two he likes at the prices...
"Paisley Park will be many people’s banker in the Stayers Hurdle. He should have the measure of a bunch of rivals over whom he has already proven his superiority but the potential fly in the ointment is the aforementioned Benie Des Dieux."
Most of the markets for the open championship races at Cheltenham are well settled at this stage, and pinpointing horses who are likely to be shorter on the day is far from an easy task.
Gold Cup looks wide open
This year's Gold Cup is a race that I find intriguing and perplexing in equal measure - one could make a case for any number of the runners and much will depend on the ground come Friday 13th.
A real slog could play into the hands of the likes of Santini, but on better going I would probably just favour the ultra-reliable Delta Work. Lostintranslation is clearly a big player if he can recapture his Betfair Chase form, while there is a school of thought that Presenting Percy is being trained for one day only and the horse who stormed home to win the RSA Chase in 2018 could not be dismissed if belatedly returning to that level.
There's four names I've mentioned already and we've only scratched the surface! Best move on for now methinks.
Pentland Hills stands out in Champion Hurdle
Pentland Hills is my fancy for the Champion Hurdle based on the hope that a big field and strong pace could lead to a career-best from last year's Triumph hero, who has also had a minor breathing operation since his agonising defeat in Haydock's trial event in January. However, while he's as talented as anything else in this field, I can't recommend backing him at the current price of 9/2 - particularly as there is still an outside chance of a high-profile supplementary entry.
Two who potentially fall into the latter category are star mares Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle, but as things stand they're on a collision course for the race confined to their own sex later that afternoon.
Supasundae was probably initially underestimated by the layers after a promising return at Leopardstown but he has contracted to a more realistic valuation of his prospects in the interim so if there is any shred of value left it in this market it could be Coeur Sublime.
Runner-up to Pentland Hills in last year's juvenile Grade 1, he made a sparkling seasonal debut at Down Royal in November before flopping when well fancied at Leopardstown's Christmas fixture. However, jockey Davy Russell did report he made a noise on that occasion and a subsequent corrective procedure might just enable him to step up again, although in truth it is a stretch to see him actually winning.
Champion Chase could be best race of Festival
Wednesday's Champion Chase is shaping up to be the highlight of the meeting, and of the big three Defi Du Seuil just shades it for me as he has been pretty much faultless this term. But again the suspicion is that he will be bigger than the current 2/1 on the morning of the race.
Philip Hobbs' charge is probably slightly more tactically versatile than reigning champ Altior, who at least proved his wellbeing at Newbury, while I'm not entirely convinced about Chacun Pour Soi's Leopardstown win. Runner-up Min had been well below his best in landing the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown previously and with the only other credible contender Cilaos Emery falling early it's hard to quantify the strength of the Dublin Chase.
That contest took place over five weeks out from Cheltenham but it would also be a slight concern that he appeared to have quite a hard race, looking a very tired horse in the immediate aftermath. Admittedly he does boast a verdict over Defi Du Seuil at last year's Punchestown Festival but it came at the end of a long campaign for the latter.
Mullins' star a nice price for Stayers Hurdle
Paisley Park will be many people's banker in Thursday's Stayers Hurdle, and in truth he's a very hard horse to take issue with. He should have the measure of a bunch of rivals over whom he has already proven his superiority but the potential fly in the ointment is the aforementioned Benie Des Dieux. Now that non-runner no bet has been introduced I cannot see any downside to backing Willie Mullins' star at 3/1.
That price is probably based on the belief that she won't turn up here but it is worth remembering that the trainer described her as "a real three-miler", while also labelling her as possibly the best mare he's trained, following her reappearance victory in Gowran Park's Galmoy Hurdle.
Her last two runs have both come over this distance and further (previously an easy winner of the Grand Course d'Haies at Auteuil), and while her owner did mention the Champion Hurdle a few weeks back Mullins hasn't shown any inclination to go down that route. She also holds an entry for this, so therefore doesn't need to be supplemented, and would surely go off considerably shorter were she to be given the green light.
Twiston-Davies horse in great heart for Ryanair Chase
All of which leaves us with the Ryanair Chase, and I'm going to go against the crowd here and put forward the progressive Riders Onthe Storm.
The majority verdict on this horse's latest effort in the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase appears to have been negative. It's true that he did look set to be collared by 50/1 shot Traffic Fluide when that rival exited at the last. But that doesn't tell anything like the full story, with jockey Sam Twiston-Davies as good as admitting afterwards that taking on hot favourite Cyrname a long way from home had effectively left the ex-Irish gelding a sitting duck for one who had pottered around in rear for the bulk of the journey.
With the benefit of hindsight he would surely have taken a lead from the below-par odds-on shot for much longer, and in those circumstances I suspect Riders Onthe Storm would hardly have come off the bridle to complete his hat-trick. Whatever your viewpoint on the Ascot contest, this horse is clearly in great heart for his new connections this season, settling better than he has done in the past and showing a real flair for jumping.
Yes it's a worry that he ended up having a tougher race than ideal last time, and A Plus Tard in particular looks a formidable rival, but I still feel at 7/1 with a run he's worth risking each-way.
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