Duke Of Lucca to strike in Cross Country for Hobbs and Johnson again

Bill Esdaile
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Philip Hobbs has won two of the last three renewals with Balthazar King

OONE of my lasting memories from last year's Cheltenham Festival was watching trainer Martin Keighley throw down his racecard in frustration.

He’d just seen his charge Any Currency suffer defeat by the narrowest of margins to Philip Hobbs’ Balthazar King in a thrilling renewal of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.

Any Currency is likely to line up as favourite for the race this afternoon (4.00pm), currently around 5/1 in an open looking betting market.

And, although he won over the course and distance last time out, he’s not a prolific visitor to the winner’s enclosure. In fact, he has just four to his name from 29 chase starts, with the one here on far softer ground than he’ll get today.

The 12-year-old has form on a good surface, but is vulnerable to younger legs. As a result, the one I like is Hobbs’ DUKE OF LUCCA at 7/1 with Betway.

He won a big handicap on good ground on Grand National day at Aintree last year and actually went off as the favourite in the race Any Currency won here in December.

The gelding was really well-backed that day, suggesting connections think he is on a good mark and he was getting the hang of this unique test when unseating.

Duke Of Lucca reappears here off the same mark and I sense he comes here with maximum stable confidence behind him.

The danger is probably Sire Collonges, who has been trained specifically for this race and comes here fresh. But at the prices I’ll stick with Duke Of Lucca.

There have been whispers about the French raider Toutancarmont, but all his form is on very soft ground and this is a different assignment altogether.

Gordon Elliott has a fantastic record at Cheltenham, particularly in handicap hurdles. I’m very interested in his HOSTILE FIRE in today’s Fred Winter (4.40pm).

The same connections won this race two years ago with Flaxen Flare, and this son of Iffraaj looks to have been laid out for this race.

He was second on his first two starts over hurdles but then won impressively at Fairyhouse in January. He was then put away for this and sneaks in at the bottom of the weights with Davy Condon in the saddle.

This contest has been something of a bookies’ benefit in recent years with 33/1, 25/1 and 40/1 winners in the last three years.

However, the layers took a battering yesterday and I fancy them to be beaten up again in this courtesy of Messrs Elliott and Condon.

Hostile Fire is 8/1 with Betway and that is worth taking.

Of the others, Unanimite for David Pipe is interesting. He ran on the flat at Wolverhampton last time, but had some solid form over hurdles prior to that. I could see him out-running his 14/1 quote with Paddy Power.

The lucky last is the Weatherbys Champion Bumper (5.15pm). Willie Mullins saddles seven of the 24 runners, with his son Patrick on Bordini.

Ireland’s Champion Trainer has won this race an astonishing eight times. But it’s very difficult to work out who the best from Closutton is this time, so I’m going to ignore his battalion and look elsewhere.

Dermot Weld won this 12 months ago with Silver Concorde. I think he can win back-to-back renewals thanks to VIGIL, who was fifth in this last year and will be ridden by top flat jockey Pat Smullen this time.

There’s no way Weld would have kept him in training if he didn’t think he had a big prize in him.

The fact that he has already raced in a Cheltenham Champion Bumper can only be an advantage, so snap up the 10/1 with Paddy Power.

There are plenty of others with a big chance, including Pipe’s Moon Racer. He was a ready winner over course and distance back in October.

I wouldn’t rule out Supasundae on his first start for Henry De Bromhead either, having previously won a good bumper at Ascot when trained by Andrew Balding.

■ Pointers…
DUKE OF LUCCA e/w 4.00pm Cheltenham
HOSTILE FIRE e/w 4.40pm Cheltenham
VIGIL e/w 5.15pm Cheltenham