Timeform preview the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sunday...
"...she could hardly be in better hands and could prove this opening mark all wrong..."
Timeform on Dame de Compagnie
The Greatwood Hurdle won't have a maximum field this year (24) with only 19 entered at the five-day stage, but it is still a typically open renewal, an opinion that the ante-post betting market mirrors, with bookmakers generally going 13/2 the field.
Paul Nicholls has won the Greatwood with a pair of four-year-olds this century - Brampour in 2011 and Old Guard in 2015 - and Red Force One and Quel Destin are a couple from that age group who could go well for their trainer in this year's renewal. The latter was prolific as a juvenile last season, winning five of his seven starts for this yard, and proved at least as good as ever when picking up a valuable prize over this C&D on his return last month. The handicapper has taken no chances with his opening mark, though, and it is a slight concern that all his wins in this country have come in single-figure fields. He is therefore passed over at the prices.
Red Force One is a Flat bred - he was useful in that sphere when trained by Tom Dascombe - and doesn't have as much scope as some of the National Hunt types he will face here, but he showed himself to be on a fair mark when chasing home Gumball in a useful handicap at Ascot last time. Admittedly, he looked held at the last, but he was closing on the idling winner all the way to the line and you would imagine this stiffer finish will play to his strengths, so he makes the most appeal of the Nicholls pair.
Philip Hobbs has also tasted success in this race in the past, with the first of his four wins coming courtesy of subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Rooster Booster in 2002. The aforementioned Gumball and Zanza are his two representatives in this year's renewal. The former was value for much more than the neck winning margin at Ascot last time, well in command between the last two flights before idling badly close home. A subsequent 8 lb rise in the weights is workable and on paper this race isn't that much deeper, so another bold show is expected.
Zanza makes plenty of appeal from a handicapping perspective, having escaped a penalty for his win in a conditional riders' event at Newbury last week, and he was also value for extra than the winning margin, too. He left his disappointing reappearance run at Chepstow behind in no uncertain terms, having to weave his way through from the back of a clustered field, but responding well to his rider's urgings and ultimately well on top in the final 100 yards. It is hard to argue with his strike rate over hurdles and he is another who can't be ruled out.
Leading owner J. P. McManus has three horses entered at this stage, namely Countister, Dame de Compagnie and Project Bluebook. The last-named was well backed on his return to this sphere at Wetherby last month and was in the process of running well before departing the race in bizarre circumstances, still going strongly on the bridle in front when his rider took the wrong course two flights from home. He looked sure to play a hand in the finish and usually gives a good account in races of this type, for all he does find winning hard.
The most interesting one amongst McManus' trio, however, is the Nicky Henderson-trained Dame de Compagnie. She was sent off the odds-on favourite for the Supreme Trial at this meeting two years ago after making a good impression on her British debut, and, for all she proved disappointing on that occasion - beaten by the subsequent Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Summerville Boy - she proved herself a potentially smart type when winning a listed mares' event over two and a half miles here on her final start that season. Admittedly, she has a 577-day absence to overcome now, which is far from ideal, but she could hardly be in better hands and could prove this opening mark all wrong.
Benny's Bridge is the ante-post favourite at the time of writing following his impressive reappearance win over this C&D at the Showcase meeting last month. That was his second win in as many starts at this course, so he is clearly suited by the demands that Cheltenham brings, and it was notable how strong he was at the finish that day having been ridden confidently throughout. The handicapper has reacted accordingly by raising him 10 lb in the weights, but there could still be more to come from him and Fergal O'Brien has been a profitable trainer to follow at this meeting over the past five years, recording a level-stakes profit of 24.29 at Betfair SP.
Others to mention include Monsieur Lecoq, who was generally progressive in his novice campaign - winning twice before an excellent second in the Imperial Cup and an eye-catching run in the County Hurdle - and proved better than ever on his return from seven months off when winning the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Chepstow in October. Still young and lightly raced, he may do even better in this sphere and is another who commands respect.
In summary, this is typically a hard race to weigh up, with several potentially still ahead of their marks, and it therefore may be worth going out on a limb with Dame de Compagnie. Indeed, there is some element of risk with her having not been seen for so long, but Nicky Henderson reported her to have worked very well last weekend and she could prove a mark in the low 130s all wrong now making her handicap debut.
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Back Dame de Compagnie in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sunday