THIS time last week there was still genuine talk of a soft ground Cheltenham Festival.
Now there is every chance that clerk of the course Simon Claisse will be forced to water this evening – ahead of Gold Cup day tomorrow – if no rain materialises.
That is bad news for fans of Ryanair Chase (2.50pm) favourite Un De Sceaux, who has shown all his best form with plenty of cut in the ground.
He was beaten both times he encountered good ground last season, admittedly finishing a decent runner-up on both occasions, and just doesn’t seem as effective on a sound surface.
The step up to this trip will certainly help, but I’m prepared to take him on at the prices and side with EMPIRE OF DIRT.
Gordon Elliott has already taken this year’s Festival by storm and has made no secret of his wishes to run this horse in the Gold Cup, for which he still holds an entry.
He is owned by Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who is yet to win the race he sponsors and remains desperate to do so.
The likes of First Lieutenant and Don Cossack have failed in the past, but I’m confident that Empire Of Dirt can deliver on the big stage this afternoon at 10/3 with 188BET.
He won last season’s Festival Plate here, when trained by Colm Murphy, and seems to have improved again for the switch to Elliott.
A couple of stunning weight carrying performances back home in Ireland were followed last time by a narrow defeat in the Irish Gold Cup.
In fact, a bigger threat could come from another O’Leary-owned runner in the shape of the ultra-consistent Sub Lieutenant.
He too comes here in rude health and it would be no surprise if both saw off the challenge of Un De Sceaux.
The one potential fly in the ointment is Alan King’s former winner Uxizandre who ran so well behind Un De Sceaux last time after a monster layoff.
He is refitted with the cheekpieces that helped him spread-eagle the field here two years ago, but whether he still retains that sort of ability requires a monster leap of faith.
There also has to be a doubt as to whether he can step up from his decent reappearance, but he is unquestionably a danger if he does.
Empire Of Dirt (already advised e/w at 9/1) 2.50pm Cheltenham