HAVING been treated to some belting stories from Arsenal legend Paul Merson, the last guest interviewed at the Unibet-sponsored City A.M. Long Lunch on Friday afternoon, those that ventured downstairs after for the Cheltenham Festival Preview were in good spirits.
Chaired by Channel 4’s Gina Harding, legendary former jockey Mick Fitzgerald and City AM racing editor Bill Esdaile set about tackling the action ahead of National Hunt’s four day extravaganza.
None were in doubt that Faugheen, hot favourite for tomorrow’s Champion Hurdle, looks the real deal.
However, Fitzgerald argued that, even though he’s been impressive so far, he’s been beating lesser quality horses in “Mickey Mouse races”, and is relatively inexperienced at the top table.
But the small field is in his benefit, and the Neptune, which he won last year, is a well-trodden path to Champion Hurdle glory. He thinks “he’ll win by five lengths” and “could be the next Istabraq”.
Douvan is the good thing in tomorrow’s opener, the Supreme Novices’, according to the market and has earned rave reviews from his handler.
But Fitzgerald pointed out how the last two winners, Vautour and Champagne Fever, went off at 7/2 and 5/1, having had far better form in the book. The 7/4 with Unibet is based on hype alone.
L’Ami Serge is “rock solid” and his old boss Nicky Henderson reckons he’ll be even better on good ground.
Seedling has course form and, crucially, will stay, said Esdaile. He rated him a decent punt at 20/1, while Shaneshill was an interesting outsider for Fitzgerald.
The ex-rider said he would lay Un De Sceaux for a place in the Arkle. You’d have to be a “lunatic” to back a horse that had only had three chase runs, and had fallen in one of those, at 4/7, he said.
Even the great Sprinter Sacre was 8/11 when he won this three years ago − “how can this one be so short?”, was Fitzgerald’s argument.
“The dangers are in front rather than behind” for Un De Sceaux, said Esdaile, but punters should “look at outsiders like Smashing and Dunraven Storm, likely to be ridden for a place rather than try and stay with the front running favourite.” Vibrato Valtat was Harding’s pick.
Even 4/6 for Annie Power “is a great price if she’s on form”, exclaimed Fitzgerald. She could do a Quevega and dominate the Mares’ for years should connections stick to this route rather than tackle the boys again.
Esdaile agreed, but said her stablemate Glen’s Melody, in the market without Annie Power, would be his play, hoping he could get “a bit of 9/4”, as she is also in a different league to those lining up.
The handicaps are a minefield and Esdaile warned punters that everything AP McCoy rides will be overbet because it’s the champ’s final Festival.
Wednesday is all about the Champion Chase and the return of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy from injury, plus the emergence of Dodging Bullets and Mr Mole, makes for a mouth-watering clash.
But Fitzgerald thinks Champagne Fever is the standout each-way bet at 5/1 with Unibet. “How did he get beat in the Arkle last year?!” he cried.
Sprinter Sacre is not the same horse as he was when winning this in 2013 and Esdaile “wouldn’t back him with stolen money”.
Sire De Grugy won a poor renewal last year, Esdaile continued, and he agreed that Champagne Fever is a good bet with the front-running Special Tiara likely to set the race up for the two-time Festival winner.
Parlour Games was the Neptune pick for this paper’s editor, but Fitzgerald was quick to call the horse “a big soft b*****d”, to plenty of laughter.
Nichols Canyon might not like this faster ground and Windsor Park was a decent alternative, he added.
Harding had heard leading Irish Flat jockey Pat Smullen say Vigil “will not get beaten” in the Champion Bumper.
Thursday’s World Hurdle is an open-looking race but Fitzgerald is in the Zarkandar camp. This one has always been a “classy type” and he believes he’s better than he was last year when he was only fourth.
If you can forgive Briar Hill’s rather patchy profile, he could turn out to be a big price at 16/1.
Ma Filleule was Esdaile’s best bet of the meeting at 9/2 for the Ryanair and Fitzgerald agreed she is “a winner in waiting”.
Vautour rated a good bet for the JLT, said Harding, who also liked the chances of Edeymi in the Pertemps Final.
The Gold Cup on Friday will be won by Silviniaco Conti said Esdaile. It often just pays to look at the obvious and this one is “the best staying chaser in England and Ireland” and it was a lack of concentration and ulcers that were to blame for last year’s defeat.
Reigning champion Lord Windermere is still a good each-way bet, but he pointed to Djakadam, whose price has been collapsing in recent days, as the dark horse of the race.
Fitzgerald said that Carlingford Lough would not provide McCoy with a fairytale third Gold Cup and thought the key to the race would be the ground. If it was good then it would rule out many, including his main fancy Many Clouds.
Lord Windermere was his tentative suggestion, while Harding liked Holywell, who she believes McCoy would prefer to ride if he could.
The rest of Friday “looks impossible” said Esdaile, but he liked Peace And Co for the Triumph and thought Paint The Clouds was the bet for the Foxhunters. Harding had already nominated that one as her NAP.
Tune in to Sky Channel 212 or Freeview 244 at 8pm tonight to watch Betway’s Cheltenham Festival Preview featuring a return to our screens of the former Channel 4 Racing trio John Francome, Alastair Down and Mike Cattermole.
THE PANEL’S FESTIVAL NAPS
Bill Esdaile MA FILLEULE (Ryanair Chase)
Mick Fitzgerald WINDSOR PARK (Neptune)
Gina Harding PAINT THE CLOUDS (Foxhunters)