1. The Tuesday bankers
It’s too easy this isn’t it? Walk into the betting shop tomorrow morning, stick on a treble covering Sprinter Sacre, Hurricane Fly and Quevega and return there later in the day to fill the wallet. Perhaps it isn’t. The Mullins pair looked head and shoulders above their rivals in their respective races, but what about Sprinter Sacre? True, Barry Geraghty says he’s never sat on a horse like him (and that includes Moscow Flyer and Big Zeb), but didn’t he empty spectacularly up the hill last year?
Nicky Henderson says he’s stronger this time around and a breathing op has had the desired effect, but it’s in the back of my mind the opening day ‘bankers treble’ looks too good to be true. History also urges caution.
2. Grands Crus
Not just one for us mere punters but a real problem for connections of the dashing grey. RSA Chase or Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup? The decision, which many believe has already been taken, was always going to be a tight one, but it seems the Pipe team are leaning towards Friday’s showpiece. What he lacks in experience he makes up for in raw natural ability. He looks a very exciting recruit to the staying chase division, but can you back a horse that has only run three times over fences in such a red-hot contest? There are plenty who can.
3. Oscar Whisky
Graham Cunningham, Racing UK’s star pundit, isn’t the only person scratching his head as to why connections opted to go down the Ladbrokes World Hurdle route with last year’s Champion third. He’d have been a similar price to what he is now for the Thursday highlight had he been pitched in against Hurricane Fly again. But it’s Big Buck’s he has in his sights and here’s one horse who could finally take the defending champion out of his comfort zone. If he stays — and there has to be an if — his turn of foot promises to be a potent weapon. Trainer Nicky Henderson has been itching to have another crack at BB with one of his stars after feeling they made a serious tactical blunder when beaten with Punchestowns back in 2009. But can a horse with Oscar Whisky’s natural speed really be a stayer?
4. Long Run
It’s difficult to know what to make of the defending Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup champion. Much of the attention in the build-up to the race has been deflected by the drama surrounding Kauto Star, but his form this season makes unconvincing reading. Two sound defeats at the hooves of his veteran rival in the Betfair Chase and King George were followed by a workmanlike win over a tenderly-ridden Burton Port at Newbury. Connections were happy but the press room was very much split over whether the champ was truly ‘back’. His amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen has attracted a fair share of criticism over the campaign and heads to the Festival on the back of an eventful few months. He and the horse will take confidence from their Betfair Denman Chase victory, but back-to-back Gold Cup winners are rare and there are plenty of people expecting the wait for the next one to go on a little longer.
5. The Going
Cheltenham Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse is first asked for a ground update ahead of the Festival in May the previous year and this time he has been keen to stress how well the track came through the winter. That’s mainly down to a mild, dry February, but it also means the racing surface has dried out significantly. At the time of writing the taps are on at Prestbury Park and will remain so right up to the eve of the meeting to remove any good to firm patches. We’ll start on good ground which is very different to the conditions the horses have been running on all season.
There is a general feeling that such conditions are against the Irish raiders (six successive winners and 13 in total last year suggest otherwise) but it’s fair to say many pages of the formbook can be ripped out if Mother Nature doesn’t intervene with a few significant showers. Just look how the likes of Buena Vista and Albertas Run come back to life when given a bit of sunshine and help from the racing surface.
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