Top racing analyst Graham Cunningham's latest Cheltenham thoughts
Last Updated: 21/01/13 10:16am
Balthazar King: Strong case for the defence
Hands up if the weekend just gone was a major anti-climax. Ascot and Haydock fell to snowstorms, while more abandonments are nailed-on given the moody forecast.
However, there were several Festival clues served up before winter took command and Channel 4 and RUK analyst Graham Cunningham has been pondering these and other matters in part four of his 2013 Festival File.
Un Atout adds further spice to Supreme team
Sir Steve Redgrave once famously said "if anyone sees me near a boat again they can shoot me."
And they can turn the old blunderbuss on me if I ever complain there is too much racing again.
Saturday's Kempton card kept betting shop tills ringing on a bleak day in Britain, but it was thin gruel compared to what was lost and the prayer mats are already out for Trials Day at Cheltenham on Saturday.
Fortunately, Naas beat the weather and served up a handful of possible Festival clues.
Solwhit took advantage of the fact that he was very well in for the Limestone Lad Hurdle but is far from certain to travel for the World Hurdle, while Aupcharlie was simply outslogged by Tofino Bay in the Grade 2 novice chase and remains a viable contender for the Jewson or the RSA Chase under less attritional conditions.
However, Un Atout put down by far the most convincing Festival marker in slamming two fair winners in the novice hurdle and the more I see him the more I feel that Jezki will be far from the only powerful Irish raider in the Supreme Novices.'
It's more about feel than solid form with this handsome five-year-old at present and his closing splits were slow as Davy Russell allowed him to coast well clear of a rival who had been tailed off behind Jezki at Leopardstown over Christmas.
The Racing Post's Bruce Jackson clearly wasn't impressed based on his comments in the Monday Jury feature, but I formed a very different impression and there is something about the way Un Atout attacks his job which marks him out as an exceptional prospect who should be fully effective on spring ground.
The Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown is the next likely target and, given that it takes place on the same day My Tent Or Yours tackles Newbury's Betfair Hurdle, February 9 promises to be a crucial day as regards the Festival opener.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to see both MTOY and Un Atout enhance their Cheltenham claims.
But I am surprised that Jezki is still as short as 3/1 favourite given what a pair of very dangerous rivals have achieved in the last two weeks.
Mullins is spoiled for choice in novice division
Nobody, but nobody, has a team of novice hurdlers to match Willie Mullins this season.
The problem for ante-post punters revolves around trying to second guess which horse will end up where in March but part of the fun lies in some educated guessing - so here goes.
As already mentioned, Un Atout's speed and aggressive jumping make him a natural for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
But Mullins also has to find the right slots for legitimate Cheltenham contenders like Pont Alexandre, Champagne Fever, Pique Sous, Ballycasey, Blood Cotil and Diakali.
Blood Cotil and the freewheeling Diakali are both juveniles who will have their Triumph Hurdle potential tested in the next few weeks, while Pont Alexandre and Ballycasey look bound for the Neptune and Albert Bartlett respectively.
Pique Sous and Champagne Fever add further strength to a tremendously deep team - and the scary thing is that most of this exciting septet also have the potential to make up into fine chasers over the next few years.
Fago may not be the Arkle king - but he could be ideal for the Kingmaker
It's far from unusual for a French recruit to crash the Festival party at a fairly late stage and Fago added an intriguing new dimension to the Arkle picture with a highly encouraging start to his British career at Newbury in midweek.
Admittedly, giving the 134-rated Ohio Gold 4lb and a three and a half length beating isn't going to give Simonsig supporters sleepless nights just yet, but Fago combined speed and accuracy in a very pleasing manner and in most years such a performance would have seen him quoted at a fair bit shorter than 16/1.
This won't look anything like an ordinary Arkle year for as long as Simonsig (and Overturn and Captain Conan) maintain their current rate of progress.
But it seems at least one sizeable exchange layer is keen to "get" Simonsig at present. And, in any case, this feature isn't just confined to the Festival alone.
Suffice to say Fago gave the strong impression there is a good novice chase in him this season. And his slick jumping would make him a very strong contender for a race like Warwick's Kingmaker Chase next month.
Balthazar could be a cross country King again this year
The original plan for this week's Festival File was to split the piece between five solid bets for the Festival at this stage and five potential weak links.
But that plan had to be revised for the simple reason that I couldn't find enough horses to fill the lists based on how I approach things.
The more you scan the markets the more you realise how tough it is to pin down horses who might shorten appreciably, but I am happy to nominate a couple of positives...
Balthazar King in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase on day one is the first positive.
This is a race which hardly rates a mention in most pre-Festival reports, but anyone who backs Balthazar King each way with four places at 8/1 could be looking at a promising ticket come March 12th.
Very testing ground has never been ideal for this gelding and it came as no surprise to see Uncle Junior forge clear of him up the hill in Cheltenham's November cross country chase.
However, that defeat should ensure Balthazar King returns to Cheltenham in March on a workable mark in the mid 140's once the weather takes a positive turn.
The figures suggest he is better than ever this season having defied a mark of 139 over Cheltenham's conventional fences in October.
And the way that Balthazar King jumped and travelled when winning this race last year is well worth revisiting for another reminder that his prospects of doubling up are bright.
NRNB still the key to finding value in Flemenstar
The one horse who seems to divide opinion more than any as regards the 2013 Festival is Flemenstar.
Plenty of people have made up their minds that he won't stay three miles - let alone three and a quarter - and some bookies are happy to lay him at 12/1 for the Gold Cup.
But the 9/1 non runner no bet available with the sponsors remains the way to go if you share my enthusiasm for Flemenstar's Festival prospects.
It's clear that the Hennessy Gold Cup will be crucial in determining which route Peter Casey's gelding will take.
Perhaps Sir Des Champs will outstay him up the hill at Leopardstown, in which case Flemenstar is highly unlikely to go for the Gold Cup and NRNB punters lose nothing.
But if Flemenstar draws the sting from Sir Des Champs to win the Hennessy his Gold Cup bandwagon will be rolling again.I think he can beat Sir Des Champs and co on February 9.
And if he does the job in style then he might just be trading at more like 9/2 than 9/1.
Bullets and Zarkandar need to up their game again
Taking on Paul Nicholls in big races can be dangerous but I'm still not convinced about a couple of of his day one stars.
Dodging Bullets and Zarkandar, currently trading at around 12/1 and 7/1 for the Supreme Novices' and the Champion Hurdle, are the pair in question.
Zarkandar has looked a different horse this season than the one who was badly outpaced prior to coming home strongly for fifth in last year's Champion, but I'm not convinced he can confirm International Hurdle form with Grandouet and Rock On Ruby even before we factor Hurricane Fly and Darlan into the equation.
Dodging Bullets is currently Timeform's highest rated novice hurdler on a mark of 154.
That rating would normally be good enough to hit a place in the Supreme, but I'm not sure he is as good as his third in Darlan's slowly-run Christmas Hurdle suggests and he needs to do something to convert me if he's to carry a penny of my money in March.
Weather is still a going concern as March approaches
One of the more diverting novelty markets in lead-up to each Festival relates to what Simon Claisse will call the ground at the start of the opening day.
It used to be a quietly profitable betting heat until everyone caught on to the fact that the bold clerk tended to bend over backwards to call it good to soft if at all possible, but the theme of ground is well worth touching on with seven weeks to go.
In short, it would be very dangerous to assume this wretched winter guarantees a soft ground Festival.
Testing ground is assured if the weather relents for Trials Day, but a clement start to March can alter Cheltenham's ground massively and a form book full of performances produced in cloying mud will be of limited use if we do get a mild spring.
But that's all for the future.
This Saturday promises Sprinter Sacre, Bobs Worth, Grands Crus and Oscar Whisky and a host of other stars on a blinding Cheltenham card if this wretched snow melts.
My Cotswolds mole suggests that the weather needs to improve appreciably for the show to roll again.
Let him be wrong. Sweet Jesu, let him be wrong.