NE who witnessed Quevega’s incredible fifth successive win in this race 12 months ago would have had serious doubts about the Willie Mullins-trained mare making it six wins on the bounce in 2014.
Yet, here we are one year on and the 10-year-old is a best-priced 8/11 with BetBright to become the most successful horse in Cheltenham Festival history.
For the last four seasons, the extraordinarily lightly-raced mare has just had the two starts per season – this race at Cheltenham and the three-miler at the Punchestown Festival. She’s won all of those eight starts and arrives here with relatively few miles on the clock.
Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t a horse running at Cheltenham this week I’d rather see win than Quevega, I just don’t see the value in backing her at around 8/11, if not shorter. Yes, she’s without doubt the one they all have to beat, but bookmakers know that and have her priced accordingly.
A competitive field of 16 have stood their ground and a decent pace is almost guaranteed which will be music to the ears of Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh. She’s proved every year since 2009 that the faster they go, the more likely they are to come back.
On paper, her biggest challenger looks to be the John Quinn-trained COCKNEY SPARROW who is available at 8/1 with Star Sports. Ridden this afternoon by AP McCoy, my selection fell when still in contention behind Annie Power last time having previously chased home My Tent Or Yours in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
I expect her to be ridden with patience and restraint by McCoy and her potent flat speed can be seen to best effect on this drying ground.
As for dangers, the progressive Highland Retreat will certainly stay, but probably wants the ground a little softer. The same can be said of French-raider Sirene D’Ainay, who finished runner-up 12 months ago.
Of the others, don’t rule out Quevega’s stablemate Glen’s Melody who could easily hit the frame at a big price, while fellow Irish raider Cailin Annamh also warrants a second look.
COCKNEY SPARROW e/w 4.00pm Cheltenham