With Faugheen’s pulled hamstring ruling him out of a title defence, next Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle now looks more fluid than Maria Sharapova’s tennis career – but somebody has to win it, right?
Super sub Annie Power should start favourite as she tries to make it third-time lucky by finally registering a Cheltenham win after last year’s ass-over-tit final hurdle blunder cost her the Mares’ Hurdle and saved the bookies millions on the Willie Mullins’ four-timer.
But the wonder mare, like Champion Hurdle hope The New One, has yet to add a Grade One win over two miles to her illustrious CV.
An oversight that will be corrected on Tuesday – or a reason to take her on?
On the pull
Stablemate Nichols Canyon is the only horse to lower Faugheen the Mo’chine’s colours when beating him at Punchestown earlier in the season. But he had a war when just denying Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner Identity Thief in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown and the after-effects showed when he folded quicker than some Scandanavian flat-pack furniture when trying to go toe-to-toe with Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Nicky Henderson has a fine Champion Hurdle record and throws a few darts at the board. The lesser-spotted My Tent or Yours, who was second in this to Jezki in 2014, will make his re-appearance after a two-year absence, along with last last year’s Triumph Hurdle trio of Peace & Co and Top Notch and Hargam.
Peace and Co has ruined his season so far by pulling more than a Premier League footballer in a swanky nightclub – but on his day is very talented.
The likely strong pace here can only help his cause and although Katchit in 2008 was the last five-year old to win a Champion Hurdle (also won the Triumph the year before) there’s enough holes in everyone else’s form to make him a value play.
Selection: Peace and Co. Alternative: Annie Power
The likely odds-on favourite Un De Sceaux ticks all the boxes in the Champion Chase but there’s always the risk of a wobbler given the way he attacks his fences.
If he puts in a clear round. last Year’s Arkle winner should follow up for Team Mullins, as the the three former champions in this field look to be on a downward trend in this punishing test for the crack 2m chasers.
Sprinter Sacre was once the highest-rated horse in training but a heart murmur stopped him in his tracks. He has rebounded this season but it’s a big ask to soar to the heights he once scaled. Sire De Grugy seems to retain a lot of his ability and did win the Tingle Creek in December after nudging Special Tiara out of the way.
Don’t need the hassle
He could be the one to get a nice tow into the race as the UDS hares off at 100 mph and expect Special Tiara to be up front hassling the favourite.
Reigning champ Dodging Bullets only appeared a month ago when disappointing at Newbury. While he should improve significantly – his victory last year was not in a vintage renewal while this race seems to bring out the best in the fading Somersby who has been second twice.
Selection: Un De Sceaux. Alternative: Sire De Grugy
Plenty of options to choose from here in the sweet spot and if you haven’t heard the words ‘English banker’ and ‘Thistlecrack’ in the same sentence by now, this is what all the fuss is about.
The multiple Grade One winner added the final piece to the jigsaw when winning the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham last month where five winners and four runners-up have prepped since 2005.
Reigning champion Cole Harden has been there, done that, but trainer Warren Greatrex wasn’t expecting to be upstaged so spectacularly by Thistlecrack in his first title defence.
Last year’s runner-up Saphir Du Rheu started the season as favourite for the Hennessy Gold Cup before being diverted to the smaller obstacles. He was well beaten by Thistlecrack at Ascot in December but the jungle drums from the Paul Nicholls yard are beating louder as the big-race approaches.
Of the Irish challenge, Martello Tower did win the Albertt Bartlett over the same trip last year and should improve for two runs in defeat this season, the latest being when third to Mouse Morris’ Alpha Des Obeaux in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park.
Prince of Scars was a shock winner at Leopardstown over Christmas and may take his chance while Snow Falcon won the Boyne Hurdle at Navan which has traditionally been a fair guide to this race.
Despite the Irish boasting just two winners in this since 1995, they have had six runners-up.
Selection: Thistlecrack. Alternative: Saphir Du Rheu
Cheltenham Gold Cup
The lead up to the Gold Cup has seen more excuses, plausible denials and plain horseshit than a Donald Trump foreign policy speech.
We’ll start with the ‘known-knowns’. The rejuvenated Cue Card has carried all before him this winter, is a former Champion Bumper & Ryanair Chase winner and chinned Vautour in a thrilling King George VI Chase at Christmas.
But no 10-year-old has won the race since 1998 and Willie Mullins’ young guns are stacking up behind him.
The ‘known-unknowns’ are convinced that Gordon Elliott’s highly-rated Don Cossack would definitely have won the King George if he didn’t fall two out, but if my auntie had a ….
Lazybones Don Poli won the RSA Chase last year, clearly stays, but the charge that he is about as quick as Michael Carrick, still may not deter regular jock Bryan Cooper to switching to him from Don Cossack.
Take the hint
If he does, maybe we should all take the hint.
Willie Mullins has yet to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup but all he’s missing is the walk-on girls as he throws enough darts at the board this year to make it a short-price that he hits the bullseye with one of them.
Ruby Walsh has yet to decide whether to ride Djakadam (second to Coneygree last year, but a faller on his two other visits to the Cotswolds) and the unknown unknown of whether Vautour (so impressive in winning the JLT Chase last year) will stay the extra quarter mile of the 3m 2f trip.