IRVING - Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle
We've been waiting all winter for a horse to stamp their authority on the Supreme market and ex-German Flat performer Irving finally did just that after hosing up in the Dovecote at Kempton. He's hurdled well in the main, making minor errors on his last two starts but winning both to make it four from four over timber. His Dovecote success marks him out as the best two-mile novice hurdler we've seen in England so far this season and he's clearly one of the more likelier winners in the Festival opener. But is he banker material? Not for me. I have my doubts that Cheltenham will be ideal for him considering his standout piece of form came on a flat speed track, while the Irish challenge - always worth noting in this race - is formidable. Vautour, Wicklow Brave and Western Boy all look highly-credible challengers and at prices around 5/2 Irving is easily passed over.
QUEVEGA - OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
Five times. She's done it five times. We don't see her all season, she turns up, she wins. One day it's not going to happen and last year she looked an unlikely winner two out, admittedly after clipping heels with another rival at the top of the hill, but she won. She was only a length and a half clear at the line, but her superiority over the rest was probably worth more than that and she remains head and shoulders above the other mares (apart from Annie Power, but she won't run, will she, unless Quevega has a setback). Will age catch up with her? At 10-years-old it's the one thing layers will be clinging on to, but it's not enough to take a strong view against her. The problem is, none of her opponents look good enough to take advantage even if Quevega's declined a little. It would be a phenomenal achievement from horse and handler were she to win a sixth consecutive Mares' Hurdle, and I couldn't bet against it.
SIRE DE GRUGY - BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase
In the absence of Sprinter Sacre, Sire De Grugy inherits the mantle of Champion Chase hotpot after a highly-successful season. He improved massively in 2013, by 24lb on official ratings, and his wins in the Tingle Creek and the Clarence House Chase mark him out as the outstanding candidate for top two-mile chase honours. Purely on the formbook, he should probably be shorter than the generally available 2/1, but there remains a nagging doubt that he isn't at his best around Cheltenham. In two starts at the track he's finished second, both to Nicky Henderson-trained horses that will be in opposition on the Wednesday; Kid Cassidy and Captain Conan. Perhaps he's better going right-handed, perhaps he doesn't jump Cheltenham very well for whatever reason. Is it enough to put me off considering his excellent form at Sandown and Ascot? Well, yes, actually. Sprinter Sacre's absence means plenty more will take their chance in the race than would otherwise have been the case, and, perhaps perversely, I think SDG would've had a better chance of winning the Champion Chase had Sprinter Sacre turned up.
BIG BUCK'S - Ladbrokes World Hurdle
Big Buck's might not be as good as he used to be, but he might not have to be to win a fifth World Hurdle crown. He still came out of the Cleeve the best horse at the weights and it's reasonable to assume he will come on for the run and will improve on what is likely to be better ground. But the opposition is key. For if Annie Power doesn't turn up, the field doesn't look as good as those he has beaten in the past. If that's the case, he could well have regressed a little and still win. But if Annie Power does turn up, she will be a formidable opponent with her mares' allowance. Voler La Vedette almost beat Big Buck's in receipt of 7lb and Annie Power looks a better mare on what we've seen from her. Will she stay? It's a fair question given she's never tackled the distance, but to my eye she looks as though she'll relish it and with connections seemingly leaning towards the stayers' prize, I couldn't possibly have Big Buck's as a banker. If Annie Power doesn't take her chance, there are still enough doubts about Big Buck's to make a reasonable case against him.
BOBS WORTH - Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup
It's tough to retain your crown in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The ultimate test, it takes plenty out of a horse first time around while second time they have a whole new bunch of up-and-coming upstarts to repel. Well, they should do, but last year's novices have proved themselves to be a fairly moderate bunch and it's pretty much a case of same again in this year's race. Sir Des Champs is out, but Gigginstown have a replacement in Last Instalment, as long as he isn't banned, but the main threat is a familiar one; Silviniaco Conti. He went into last year's Gold Cup unbeaten in three starts that season, but fell at the third last when travelling well. He was travelling much better than eventual winner Bobs Worth at the time, but Nicky Henderson's charge found plenty up the hill to keep his tremendous Cheltenham winning record intact. This season, Silviniaco Conti improved from his Betfair Chase third to take the King George in spectacular style, his form tying in closely with the season's other standout staying chaser, Cue Card, who unfortunately misses the big one. Bobs Worth was a remote sixth in the Betfair, but bounced back to winning form in the Lexus. That race didn't take as much winning as the King George did, but Bobs Worth is likely to improve again at his beloved Prestbury Park. But, all things considered, including price, Silviniaco Conti looks a better bet to me.