THE rain-softened surface is a massive plus for Sir Erec and he is fancied to justify plenty of hype in the JCB Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham today.
A particularly smart sort on the flat, he has taken well to jumps and has won both of his races to date, both at Leopardstown.
He started off in a maiden at Christmas, going off favourite, before scrambling to a neck defeat of his main market rival, the Willie Mullins-trained Tiger Tap Tap.
Then Sir Erec stepped straight into Grade 1 company at the Dublin Racing Festival in early February and went off the 13-8 favourite to beat some smart opposition. Tiger Tap Tap renewed rivalry, but could only finish fourth, as Sir Erec made all of the running, bounding clear from the final flight to score by six lengths.
On the lead-in to Cheltenham there were doubts regarding the horse’s actual participation, after he reportedly suffered a stone bruise.
There is also the possibility, of course, he may have been somewhat jarred-up, like so many horses through the campaign, because the official good ground last time was far faster than ideal.
In any case, Joseph O’Brien has given him the green light to face the starter, so is obviously happy with the horse’s current well-being.
It is worth noting the son of Camelot revelled in soft or heavy ground when running on the flat. For instance, at Limerick in October, on a heavy surface, he left his previous decent form solidly behind when taking a Listed contest by four lengths.
A week later, at Ascot, he did even better, on soft ground, when a length and a half and a length third behind Stradivarius and Thomas Hobson in the two-mile Group 2 British Champions’ Long- Distance Cup.
Only someone foolish would be in any way dogmatic regarding the likely outcome of the Magners’ Cheltenham Gold Cup. A whopping 16 runners make this some puzzle and it is no exaggeration to say that literally any result is possible!
It has been well documented that Presenting Percy has had the most unusual preparation, with his publicity-shy trainer Pat Kelly now asking his charge to have a first outing over fences this season in the biggest race of all.
The eight-year-old, of course, does have an outing under his belt, having landed a Grade 2 over flights at Gowran Park in late January.
He was taken to Galway on a couple of occasions of late for a school over fences, but that is surely the bare minimum required for a test as tough as this.
Clan Des Obeaux will be a popular choice to rekindle the glory days of Kauto Star and Denman for the affable Paul Nicholls. Only a seven-year-old, he jumped right into Gold Cup contention when landing the King George v1 Chase at Kempton at Christmas.
Clan Des Obeaux confirmed the good impression created then in the Grade 2 Denman Chase at Ascot last month, cruising to an 11-lengths defeat of Nicky Henderson’s Terrefort.
I have doubts, however, that he will stay this punishing three and a quarter-miles plus. Impressive and all as he was at Kempton, He didn’t appear to have a whole lot left in the locker at the end.
There is a world of difference between what he faces this afternoon and a flat three miles such as Kempton.
Last year’s winner, Native River, is entitled to the utmost respect and, you’d imagine, his shrewd handler, Colin Tizzard, has only had his mind set on this prize with twelve months.
Native River was beaten thirteen and a half lengths into third behind Clan Des Obeaux in the King George, but that track was never going to play to his strengths.
Willie Mullins runs four in an effort to finally break his duck, in a race that has repeatedly slipped through his fingers, and all of them have a life of sorts.
The fact Ruby Walsh rides Bellshill makes him the starting point. A very good sort and a thorough stayer, he warmed up for this when taking the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
Bellshill displayed great courage to beat Road To Respect by a short head, in a contest that was more notable for those who didn’t run, rather than the four that eventually did.
Five horses declined the engagement on the day, due to the relatively fast ground, and the worry now is the hard race Bellshill had may have left its mark.
Mullins’ Kemboy was good when winning at Leopardstown at Christmas, as was his Invitation Only in landing the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park.
But the final, hopeful, nod falls on a fourth member of the Mullins team, Al Boum Photo, who is best known for a race he didn’t win.
That came at the Punchestown festival last April. He was in control of a three-mile plus Grade 1 when his unfortunate rider, Paul Townend, had what could be best described as a brain-freeze and, inexplicably, guided Al Boum Photo around the last fence, instead of across it.
Al Boum Photo has had just one run this season, at Tramore on New Year’s Day, giving Total Recall 10 lbs and a six-lengths beating, with Invitation Only a further 16 lengths away in third.
Ucello Conti, successful in a point-to-point at Aghabullogue and in hunter chases at Thurles and Navan, has long had the St James’ Foxhunter Chase as his main target and should give us a big run.