Lydia Hislop: Open Meeting focus
By Lydia Hislop. Last Updated: 14/11/13 7:16pm
Champion Court: 'Most likely winner'
Lydia Hislop sets the scene for Cheltenham's Open Meeting - a fixture she finds helps focus the mind for the National Hunt season.
When struggling to locate the synapses that connect the National Hunt part of your brain, Cheltenham's Open meeting is the annual jolt that kick-starts the whole process.
Until this three-day feast of top-class jump racing, there would likely be an embarrassing pause before I could name you the winner of, say, last season's Byrne Group Plate or Coral Cup. Such delays on the internal satellite should have been eliminated by Sunday night.
However, even my Flat-saturated senses can recognise Friday's best race, a corker of a novice chase: the top-class hurdler Oscar Whisky versus exciting Taquin Du Seuil versus nascent chaser The Romford Pele in the Steel Plate & Sections Novice Chase.
Oscar Whisky boasts comfortably the best form of the three over hurdles and lacks his rivals' (admittedly slight) chasing experience. This five-times Graded hurdle winner, twice of those at Grade One level, is an exciting recruit to chasing.
However, he's been way below his best on his last two starts - pulled up in the World Hurdle and only fourth in the Aintree Hurdle, comfortably brushed aside by Zarkandar. Eight years of age and 17 hurdle races on is rather late to be switching disciplines, however, and many don't ever make the transition.
Taquin Du Seuil also flopped at the Festival. Trainer Jonjo O'Neill seemed palpably confused by his lacklustre sixth in the Neptune, 17 lengths adrift of The New One. Perhaps a steadily run race didn't suit or, more likely, this horse with a pronounced knee action requires soft ground.
He won't be getting that here and was withdrawn on good going at Cheltenham in October, so there must be some doubt over whether he'll run.
Yet his evident class, cruising speed and the increasing assuredness of his jumping on his Ffos Las chasing debut make him a top-flight prospect.
Given these circumstances, the hugely over-priced horse is The Romford Pele, who made a most taking start to his chasing career when closely chasing home Balder Succes when the winner broke the course record at Chepstow. He hails from a fine chasing family and can improve.
Don't forget that the fourth and final member of this fascinating line-up, The Cockney Mackem, was good enough to finish second in the Byrne Group Plate at the 2012 Festival, albeit he hasn't been in such a good mood of late.
On Saturday, centre stage can only go to the Paddy Power Gold Cup. Johns Spirit is understandably the favourite. He's always threatened to win in the manner of last month's success if he could ever get his jumping together. He had tended to put himself out of contention with his first few leaps in the past.
If you take the 6s, you're betting that he's grown out of that habit. Upped in grade and balanced against the more numerous occasions on which he's undone himself, it may pay to look elsewhere.
Champion Court was rightly a market mover because he brings a touch of current class to the table. He paid the price for trying to go toe-to-toe with Cue Card in the Ryanair, weakening from second to fifth from the last fence. He remains on a feasible mark, only 2lb higher than when beating Menorah here in April, and is the likeliest winner.
Conquisto appears greatly overpriced, as a progressive chaser who beat other improvers in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree, and the 4lb rise he has been handed is more than fair. One nagging doubt is whether Cheltenham will suit him as well as the flat tracks at which he's shown his best form.
Festival winner Rajdhani Express, who followed up with victory at Ayr last season, is another rival with potential still on his side.
Nadiya De La Vega was third in this race last year and, despite a mostly consistent season that included a career-best victory at Fairyhouse, lines up here on a 5lb lower mark. She's an each-way proposition. You would prefer Tony McCoy to be riding her; he'll have a task holding together Tap Night's jumping in this big, strong field.
McCoy might have already been in the winner's enclosure earlier, if he rides the taking Shutthefrontdoor in the Roy Blandford 65 Years At Cheltenham Novices Chase. This horse was value for far more than his winning margin at Aintree last time and put up one of his best hurdling performances at Cheltenham when fourth in the Pertemps. Ambitiously, I'm already thinking RSA Chase.
This Sunday, there are two races that provide particular intrigue. West Wizard is entered in the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle and, having won a Kempton bumper how he liked in March, is already ante-post favourite for the Supreme itself next March without having yet jumped a hurdle in public.
However, Nicky Henderson's exciting prospect faces a rival who has already registered hurdles form that would put him in the mix in most Supremes: Sea Lord. That horse swept aside Life And Soul, who boasts solid handicap hurdling form, by nine lengths at Kempton and, on paper, put up an even better effort on his previous start when winning at Perth.
Sea Lord is unlikely to enjoy deep winter ground so, given he already has extensive hurdling experience, this Cheltenham meeting might even be the last we see of him prior to the Festival itself.
Punchestown Festival bumper winner The Liquidator and second-season novice Lac Fontana are just two other potential rivals in what promises to be an electric contest.
Later on the same card, the Shloer Chase should feature one of the most likeable horses in training, Sire De Grugy. He's beginning to nose his way into the Queen Mother Champion Chase picture, having steadily improved over fences.
His Celebration Chase success at Sandown, beating a back-in-the-game Finian's Rainbow, rounded off his season on a high and his 11-length defeat of Majala on his Chepstow seasonal debut was even better.
However, he may face Special Tiara, who was 26 lengths ahead of him when a shock winner of a Grade One at Aintree in April. That horse unseated at the first on his Naas reappearance but is usually a good jumper. A sound surface may ideally suit him, so this is an intriguing rematch at a course that should suit Sire De Grugy better than Aintree.
Just thinking about these three days at Cheltenham makes you feel more in the swing. Farhh? Never heard of him.