Darren Norris and Tommy Lyons argue their cases...


Is there value in opposing Thistlecrack in the World Hurdle?

Darren Norris and Tommy Lyons argue their cases...

Is there value in opposing Thistlecrack in the World Hurdle?

YES: Better ground the key to Cole Harden who looks fair each-way value at 8/1, says Darren Norris

At first glance, it’s hard to get overly enthusiastic about this year’s World Hurdle, the feature race on day three of the Cheltenham Festival. The favourite, the Colin Tizzard-trained Thistlecrack, looks one of the biggest certainties of the week after a stellar campaign that has yielded comprehensive victories in the Long Distance Hurdle, the Long Walk Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle.

Tizzard is understandably bullish, claiming last week: “I can’t see anything getting near him.”

That’s a view shared by bookmakers with 11/10 the biggest price available.

However, such cramped odds won’t be making the average punter rich and there’s value to be had from the each-way and the without the favourite market. That’s particularly the case right now as two of the top five in the market, Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag, are almost certain not to run in this race.

Last year’s winner Cole Harden might just be the value each-way play. The Warren Greatrex-trained seven-year-old can still be backed at odds of 8/1 and is 4/1 in the betting without the favourite market.

Admittedly, he hasn’t enhanced his reputation on his two starts this season, finishing third to Thistlecrack at Newbury in November before filling the same position, a whopping 20 lengths behind Camping Ground in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.

However, the ground was against him on both occasions and a huge improvement can be expected in conditions that history suggests will be far better than those he has encountered so far this season.

It’s also worth noting that, since the turn of the century, horses that win this race once tend to run well in it again. Baracouda won it twice, Inglis Drever three times while Big Buck’s prevailed on four occasions.

Thistlecrack’s presence in this year’s renewal means Cole Harden faces a tough task to join that illustrious trio of repeat winners but should he run to the same level he produced 12 months ago he could put it up to the favourite. At the very least, he should be best of the rest.

It’s also encouraging that Greatrex seems unfazed by Cole Harden’s less than inspiring performances this season.

“We’re in exactly where we want to be with the race a few weeks away,” he told the Racing Post last week. “Although I’m wary of other horses, I wouldn’t swap my fella.”

That said, the case for Cole Harden is made on the assumption of decent ground. In the unlikely event the ground comes up soft, the Gordon Elliott-trained Prince Of Scars would have a serious each-way chance.

Unbeaten this season, Prince Of Scars took the notable scalp of Alpha Des Obeaux at Leopardstown over Christmas. Given that Alpha De Obeaux is only available at single figure prices, odds of 20/1 for Prince Of Scars look a little big.

Elliott yesterday revealed Prince Of Scars won’t run in anything quicker than soft so given many firms now are offering non-runner no bet for the four championship races, he looks a shot to nothing.

NO: Thistlecrack is everything a favourite backer should look for, says Tommy Lyons

Twelve months ago Thistlecrack, racing off a mark of 135, was sent off a 12-1 chance for a handicap hurdle at Sandown, and ran an honourable but unexciting fifth behind Ebony Express. Nothing about the performance chalked him down as a future star.

But, in the short time and five runs since he was improved beyond all recognition, winning four times and finishing a close second behind Killultagh Vic in a Grade 1 at Punchestown on the other occasion. The logical reason for the improvement? An increased emphasis on stamina.

That Sandown race was run over two miles but his five subsequent outings have been over a minimum of three miles. Three runs this season have confirmed the progress he showed at the end of the last, and this strong traveller is versatile with regard to ground.

Also boasting winning form at the track, he has less to prove than most of the other short-priced runners at the Festival, let alone his rivals in this race. There’s also the promise of more to come as his most recent outing was arguably his most impressive to date.

There is no reason to expect he will not produce his best in a fortnight’s time, and that is not something which can be said of a number of his rivals.

We can assume Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag will turn up elsewhere, and that leaves Alpha Des Obeaux and last year’s winner, Cole Harden, battling for second favouritism.

Although he earned an overdue victory at Gowran Park last time, Alpha Des Obeaux must produce a career-best effort to be in the shake-up. At Aintree last season he fell at the final hurdle when looking held by Thistlecrack. The winner has improved markedly in the interim, Alpha Des Obeaux must do so now.

Cole Harden ran reasonably on his seasonal debut, at Newbury, but really struggled on bad ground next time. He will appreciate a quicker surface but last season’s form is questionable, and he has a little to find with Thistlecrack on this season’s form.

Saphir Du Rheu is talented but comparison with Big Buck’s doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Aside from being owned and trained by the same people and a marked preference for hurdles, rather than fences, he has a mountain to climb to warrant mention in the same breath as his former stable companion, who won this race four times.

Runner-up in this race in 2015, he was beaten out of sight behind Thistlecrack at Ascot in December and, although he won a Grade 1 over three miles and a furlong at Aintree, can we be sure he wants three miles around a testing track? Despite his ever-optimistic trainer expecting much better, there’s little evidence he can go one place better this time.

Thistlecrack is currently odds against but that cannot last. The improver, the standard-setter and ground-versatile, he is everything a favourite backer should look for in a confident selection - and that is what he is. Why look for a speculative choice that may reach the frame, when the best odds-against shot of the week is staring you in the face?

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox