Graham Cunningham Festival File: Part Five
By Graham Cunningham. Last Updated: January 28, 2013 2:05pm
Hurricane Fly: Back to his best and the worthy Champion Hurdle favourite
The freeze looks over and the temperature is rising as the Festival draws closer. Channel 4 and Racing UK analyst Graham Cunningham had a different sort of temperature in mind on Trials Day at Cheltenham but saw plenty to warm him up with the big event just six weeks away.
Talk about good, week, bad week.
It came as a huge relief to see the weather ease enough for Cheltenham to go ahead and being part of the new C4 team's first live show from the home of jumping was a treat.
However, a nasty flu bug left me sandwiched between Nick Luck and Mick Fitzgerald sounding like the bloke from the old Tunes advert (see it here, kids) feeling like death warmed up.
And good week, bad week was a theme for many of jumping's stars as the Festival draws closer.......
More Mullins magic as The Fly and Pont limber up for Cheltenham
It was most definitely a good week for Willie Mullins, with Hurricane Fly and Pont Alexandre both enhancing their Festival claims.
Hurricane Fly took star billing again, notching a remarkable fourteenth Grade 1 success by surging well clear of regular sparring partner Thousand Stars and Binocular in Leopardstown's Irish Champion Hurdle.
Some would say we didn't learn a great deal, but I think we've learned enough about Hurricane Fly this season to believe that he is still at least as good as when winning the Champion Hurdle two years ago.
I'm convinced he wasn't right when third behind Rock On Ruby twelve months ago.
He just didn't travel with his usual verve that day but all the old power seems restored now and I suspect 5/2 or even 9/4 is much more like the right price than the 3-1 on offer with one major firm.
Pont Alexandre is almost certainly Neptune bound after galloping a couple of useful rivals into submission in Grade 2 company and he's now as short as 11/4 favourite.
It would be a big mistake to assume this gelding is a just grinder as his split times from halfway were highly encouraging set against Hurricane Fly's race even allowing that the Fly was cruising from two out.
That said, there is no doubt a soft ground Festival would help him more than most and it's probably safest to sit tight for the moment given that his price is hardly likely to contract much before the big day.
Arvika Ligeonniere's tumble in Saturday's Arkle was one of very few blots on the Mullins landscape.
The fact that Benefficient took advantage having been well beaten by AL over Christmas suggests we are dealing with a legitimate Grade 1 novice here.
However, that tendency to jump out a little to the right remains a slight concern and presence of Overturn and the arrival of Fago on the Arkle scene suggests that making all will be very hard even before the looming presence of Simonsig is taken into account.
Hendo bandwagon continues to roll
It was also most definitely a good week for Nicky Henderson, who shrugged off the disappointment of having to withdraw Bobs Worth from the Argento Chase by saddling Sprinter Sacre and Rolling Star to victory and Oscar Whisky to be beaten a neck by Reve de Sivola in the Cleeve Hurdle.
The fever I suffered last week had various side effects and I like to think that one of them resulted in me tipping Sanctuaire on Saturday's Morning Line.
That inspired move was doomed from an early stage as the Black Jet sauntered home on the bridle and much of the betting on the 2013 Champion Chase will now centre around the "without the favourite" market.
Rolling Star is now a best priced 6/1 for the Triumph Hurdle and the way he pounced on Irish Star was impressive.
That said, there are a good few Triumph cards to be played yet. Two of the last three Triumph winners (namely Soldatino and Zarkandar) only made their British debuts in late February and Hendo himself suggested that he may have "a couple more bullets to fire."
Now to the riddle of whether Oscar Whisky can win a World Hurdle.
On the whole I enjoy the way Matt Chapman stirs the pot on At The Races, but to suggest that three miles "is a trip that Oscar Whisky should never be running over" is bunkum.
Granted, this hugely consistent gelding would run well back at two miles in the Champion, but I suspect a repetition of his third behind Hurricane Fly is the very best he could hope for and his no-nonsense owner Dai Walters isn't fond of being a supporting player.
The bottom line is that Oscar would face seven or eight horses currently capable of running to a mark of 165 or 170 in the Champion, whereas a World Hurdle shorn of Big Buck's would see him face one or possibly two.
One of them is Reve de Sivola, who refused to lie down when Geraghty asked Oscar to pounce on the run-in, but there are two key reasons for thinking things could be different on March 14th.
First, if we get typical Festival ground the World Hurdle will be won in a time between 40 and 50 seconds faster than Saturday's slog, which has to play to Oscar Whisky's strengths.
And second, I think Geraghty was just a little too defensive in leaving his mount with a couple of lengths to make up approaching the last.
Oscar Whisky couldn't quite make it up in the Cleeve, but I fancy him to reverse the form in March. And to my mind, the 5/1 on offer is at least a point too big.
The New One remains a major Neptune player
To see your stable star beaten after trading in-running at 1.01 in a big Saturday race is frustrating.
But to cap the day by having your finest young prospect chinned after trading at 1.02 is bordering on the freakish.
Imperial Commander ran his heart out in the Argento, jumping with all his old fire and travelling beautifully for a long way, but given how sharp he tends to be after a break you have to think he needed to win this getting 6lb from Cape Tribulation in order to foster hopes that he can win a second Gold Cup three years after his first.
Cape Tribulation earned his Gold Cup place under a typically canny O'Regan ride and is the type to run better than the market expects on Gold Cup day, while At Fishers Cross and The New One fought out a tremendous finish to a Grade 2 novice event and in forging well clear of Coneygree both horses figure very prominently in the Albert Bartlett and Neptune markets.Further clues are imminent for both races, but I came away from Cheltenham feeling The New One did plenty to consolidate his Neptune credentials.
The long run between two out and the last on Cheltenham's hurdle track provides a significant clue as to how fast a horse can run and it's well worth noting that The New One covered that three furlong stretch at least 15 lengths faster than all the other good hurdlers in action on Saturday's card.
That's eyecatching by any standards and The New One continues to give the strong impression he will be very hard to keep out of the money six weeks on Wednesday.
Nicholls has the prized mug - but Festival glory is no banker this year
The champion trainer was his usual open self on Saturday's Morning Line and his famed intensity was there for to all to see as he steeled himself to snare a C4 beaker on Britain's fastest growing racing quiz "A Mug's Game".
I particularly liked the way he swiftly passed on the question involving the names of two Henderson horses, but there are some warning lights flashing as regards Team Ditcheat and this year's Festival.
No team can afford to lose Master Minded, Denman, Kauto Star, Big Buck's and Al Ferof in the space of two years and hope to carry on regardless.
Nicholls has been champion trainer seven years running since ending the Martin Pipe domination, but Henderson has reduced his lead in this year's title race to a little over a hundred grand and a glance down the ante-post markets reveals several very notable points.
Henderson has around 15 horses trading in single figures for the Festival. Nicholls has seven or eight.
Henderson has seven horses trading at 6/1 or less. Nicholls has one.
And Henderson has five favourites in the championship contests including Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig trading at odds on. Nicholls has none.
Granted, Nicholls is nothing if not a fighter and his big guns tend to start firing again from February onwards, but a great deal rests on the likes of Zarkandar, Silviniaco Conti and Tidal Bay this spring.
I've heard it said that he remains the value to fend off Hendo's title challenge.
But all the available evidence suggests he will have to win the Grand National again if he's to "blow Nicky out of the water" this time around.
Katenko continues to thrive - and thank goodness for the life of Brian
That dull, banging noise you hear is the sound of me hitting myself on the head with a ruler for not backing Katenko to confirm the striking impression he created at Sandown in part two of the Festival File.
Venetia Williams has this French recruit on a major roll at present and the way he defied a mark of 147 in a very competitive handicap was striking.
"The Gold Cup is an attractive option," says Williams. It's also a very ambitious one, but Katenko jumps with rare aggression and remains a chaser of real potential.
One slightly unusual but important note to end this week - and it relates to Bold Sir Brian finally getting to his feet after that heavy last fence fall in Katenko's race.
Saturday was a superb day even by Cheltenham standards, but it wouldn't have ended with anything like the same glow had Lucinda Russell's gelding not gone back to Perthshire.
To lose such a promising horse so hard on the heels of Brindisi Beeze's death last summer would have been extremely hard to bear.
Thankfully, BSB lives to fight another day.
And, praise the Lord, so do I now this nasty dose of man flu is on the retreat.