Paul Nicholls: The verdict on all my runners on day one of the Cheltenham Festival
Paul's Cheltenham Festival kicks off with Prospect Wells in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle
"If we are anywhere near Sprinter Sacre after jumping the last, then I would be hopeful that we would win this up the hill. But Sprinter Sacre is clearly a horse of great potential, and I am not losing sight of that. But I can tell you that Al Ferof looks absolutely amazing at the moment, the best he has been all season."
A busy Festival for master trainer Paul Nicholls and his team begins with Prospect Wells in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle - one of nine horses in action on the first day. You can get Paul's view of each and every runner across all four days of the 2012 Cheltenham Festival exclusively on Betting.Betfair. Read on for the first day verdict
13:30, Supreme Novices' Hurdle
Was quite a challenge when he first came to us - actually that's an understatement, as we couldn't even get him to jump a pole at first - but we got there in the end with him and he was very impressive at Chepstow on his hurdling debut.
We then decided to throw him in at the deep end against Steps To Freedom in Grade 2 company at Cheltenham, and looking back at the race, I really think we should have won there. We were beaten a neck as he got worried out of it close home after looking sure to win - I gather he traded at the minimum price of [1.01] on Betfair - but at least that told us that we had a serious novice hurdler on our hands.
He then went to Newbury and won well before taking his chance in the Ladbroke off a mark of 142 and he ran perfectly well in finishing a 1 ½ length fourth to Raya Star, especially as the race wasn't as strongly-run as I had hoped.
As an afterthought - the race cut-up at the five day stage - we then took him to the Tolworth in January but that wasn't the reason why he ran so badly there. We found him to be suffering from a trapped epiglottis after Sandown and we corrected that with an operation, bringing in a specialist over from Ireland, and since then he has progressed really well. Slowly but surely, but he is working really well again now.
If he comes back to that Cheltenham form, then he will not be far away here and don't forget that, as a Group 2 winner, he would have picked this lot up and carried them on the Flat. This is a devilishly difficult race, but it lacks a stand-out performer going into it and I think Prospect Wells could run a big price at big odds. Runs in a tongue strap for the first time.
14:05, Arkle Chase
I was at Newbury when Sprinter Sacre won and it was a visually stunning performance, just as his earlier successes at Doncaster and Kempton had been. And the form had real merit too, as the runner-up French Opera is certainly no mug. So I have the utmost respect for the horse, especially when Nicky and Barry come out in such glowing terms about him and compare him with previous greats.
But I genuinely wouldn't swap Al Ferof for him. I know Sprinter Sacre may have improved for a breathing operation subsequently, but the facts of the matter are that we had that horse 5 ¼ lengths away in third when winning the Supreme last season, and we haven't done too badly in our three starts over fences either.
Al Ferof gained valuable Cheltenham experience when winning here in November, and the education continued when he beat For Non Stop by a neck in the Grade 1 Henry VIII in December. Some people were not impressed by that form but I was genuinely delighted as Sandown takes some jumping, he knuckled down really well when challenged and the runner-up showed the form wasn't too poor when winning a Grade 1 race of his own at Newbury last time. And then his third in the Victor Chandler at Ascot against proven and seasoned Grade 1 horses completed his preparation for this. Timeform rate his third to Somersby there as the single best piece of novice chase form this season, and that includes Grands Crus' Feltham win.
Yes, he will probably need further in time - Ruby got off at Ascot and said this was a horse for the King George in December - but you often need a stayer to win an Arkle, not an out-and-out speedball. If we are anywhere near Sprinter Sacre after jumping the last, then I would be hopeful that we would win this up the hill. But Sprinter Sacre is clearly a horse of great potential, and I am not losing sight of that. But I can tell you that Al Ferof looks absolutely amazing at the moment, the best he has been all season.
14:40, Jlt Specialty Handicap Chase
Is clearly not the same horse as a few years back, when his chase wins included a John Durkan, and after all his problems it is hard to believe he is running at the Festival again some six years after winning the Supreme here - no doubt quite a few Betfair customers remember that as I gather he traded at [1000.0] in running!
But last season's success in the Aon showed he can still cut it a high level and he has prospects off a mark of 148. He has been dropped 4lb after his two runs this season but, although he has been well beaten in both, one of those starts came in the Grade 1 Lexus and he was still going well enough in fourth when a blunder 3 out at Ascot put paid to his chances.
Ruby wasn't downhearted by that Ascot run, as he immediately got off him and said: "Go straight to Cheltenham." Is two from four at Cheltenham and one of his other starts saw him finish third in an Arkle.
I give him a real each way squeak here.
15:20, Champion Hurdle
Finished 11 lengths behind Zarkandar in the Triumph Hurdle last season and has clearly made great strides this season, winning the Greatwood here impressively off a mark of 149 and then following up with a highly creditable four lengths and a neck third to Grandouet, where Harry was unable to claim his 7lb.
Of course, he is unable to claim here as well and many will be put off by that. I can understand why that would be construed as a negative. But Harry knows the horse very well and I was very pleased with his 9 1/2 length seventh to Zarkandar in the Betfair Hurdle last time - don't forget he was giving the winner 11lb there, so actually came out the better horse at the weights.
I would also expect him to improve for that run - he came from some way off the pace there and his preparation for that race wasn't ideal. But he is in great form at home and I think he has a better chance than odds of around 66-1 imply.
He appears to have been around for ages but he is still only an 8yo and, on the whole, has kept his form remarkably well since winning the 2008 Triumph Hurdle here, giving his owner Andy Stewart his first winner at the Festival.
I personally wouldn't read too much into his run at Wincanton last time. It is a track on which he normally excels but I don't think he gave his true form that day; he didn't cough afterwards, as some reports suggested, but he was very quiet after that run and that isn't like him.
He was only just touched off by Punjabi in this race in 2009 and some of his handicap efforts since then, including a 2 1/2 length win off a mark of 160 at Newbury on New Year's Eve, are the equal of that. So time hasn't diminished him. It is probably asking too much of him to reach the frame again today but, on official marks, he has a better chance than three-figure odds imply.
Rock On Ruby
Was agonisingly just touched off by First Lieutenant in the Neptune at the Festival last season but a surprising amount of top class two milers come out of that 2m5f contest, and this fellow could be another one. He reappeared to give the well-handicapped Empire Levant 24lb and a 6 length beating and then may well have beaten Binocular in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton but for slightly missing the last.
Even so, we had to be thrilled with his neck second there (Overturn was 8 lengths away in third) and that confirmed to us that we have a Champion Hurdle hopeful on our hands. And, in theory, 2m around Cheltenham should suit him far better than 2m around Kempton. Of course, we are all up against it taking on Hurricane Fly, but we have an improving horse on our hands who has Festival form in the book. I think he will run a big race.
Thank god we ran him at Kempton first time out last season, as who knows where we would have been with this horse now. For those who don't know I very nearly pulled him out of his debut run at Kempton because of the worsening ground, but we took our chance and the rest is history.
Of course, I am sure his talent would have come to the fore anyway and he comes into this race an unbeaten, dual Grade 1-winning horse, on the upgrade. He showed a real turn of foot to win last season's Triumph - the form of which is working out so well - and showed he had guts allied to his class when coming back from an unpromising position to win the valuable Betfair Hurdle on his reappearance.
Yes, he has to improve on the bare form of his win off a mark of just 151 there but there are reasons to think he will improve massively. Firstly, he is unbeaten and we haven't got to the bottom of the well as regards his talent just yet, and secondly he came back coughing after Newbury so he may have won there despite not being A1.
It has been well documented that I would prefer that the Champion Hurdle was run on the New Course for Zarkandar (on which he won the Triumph) rather than the Old but that's a minor point. He is never one to show much at home, but let's hope that he keeps showing it on the track.
One note of caution though. I am always a bit nervous when horses have been coughing, as it can leave a mark that only comes out in a race. But hopefully that won't be an issue today.
16:40, Olbg Mares' Hurdle
It is an obvious thing to say but we are all playing for places against Quevega. But I go into this 2m4f race with an improving mare, who is suited by the trip and ground.
Has come a long way since being beaten off a mark of 117 last March and was given a peach of a ride by Ruby when beating Kentford Grey Lady over 3m at Ascot last time. The step back in trip will not be a problem. Looks to have as good a place chance as most.
17:15, Pulteney Land Investments Novices' Handicap Chase
I have deliberately kept him fresh for this race and a mark of 132 gives us a chance. Admittedly that was the mark on which he only managed to finish a 9 length fifth to subsequent winner Stewarts House at Newton Abbot in August but he came out and won nicely over 2m4f here in a novice chase in October, though the race rather fell into his lap after For Non Stop and Jolly Roger fell. But he jumped well round here and that was a positive. Has been keeping Kauto Star company in some of his work leading up to this, and I'd be hopeful of a decent run.
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