Breathtaking Simonsig can light up Cheltenham

BILL ESDAILE PREVIEWS THE ARKLE AND SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE

SPRINTER Sacre became the first favourite since Azertyuiop back in 2003 to land the Racing Post Arkle Chase 12 months ago, and stablemate SIMONSIG can follow in his illustrious hoof prints this afternoon (2.05pm). He is a best-priced 8/11 with Blue Square Bet, but regular readers of this column will be sitting pretty as we backed him at 3/1 just before Christmas.

The seven-year-old, a hurdles winner at both last season’s Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals, threatened to be even better over fences and has done little to dispel that theory in two starts over the larger obstacles to date. A 49-length chasing debut victory at Ascot was followed by a mere 35-length dismissal of the useful Hinterland at Kempton over Christmas.

Admittedly, he has faced only four rivals on each occasion and only Hinterland had any chance of getting within touching distance on form, but it’s the manner of his victories that have really caught the eye. There is also the fact that both came on heavy going, meaning that the soft ground he is set to face this afternoon will hold no fears.

The same cannot really be said for his main market rival, Overturn, whose trainer Donald McCain has been desperate to avoid soft ground all season. The nine-year-old, rated 4lb better than Simonsig over hurdles, has switched to fences relatively late in life, but has won all three starts in emphatic fashion.

However, it’s his ‘catch-me-if you-can’ running style that puts me off as there is every chance he will simply just set the race up for Simonsig by giving him a nice lead. Front runners have a terrible record in the race with only one winner making all since Analogs Daughter over 30 years ago.

It’s dangerous to set contests of this quality up as a two horse race, but it’s virtually impossible to make a case for any of the others. Irish raider Arvika Ligeonniere fell last time out in the Irish Arkle and I’d be worried about his jumping.

Ladbrokes are dangling a carrot in front of our noses by returning stakes of up to £25 on Simonsig should he get beaten, but I’m confident that won’t happen. The stunning grey has produced two virtually flawless rounds of jumping so far and even though both victories have been at Grade Two level, he can add a Grade One Chase victory to his CV today.

Nicky Henderson also saddles hot favourite My Tent Or Yours in the opening contest, the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (1.30pm), but I’m far less keen on his chances. He was mightily impressive at Newbury last time in the Betfair Hurdle and although he has won three of his four starts over hurdles in pretty emphatic style, this represents a very different test.

I cannot remember a novice lining up in this race with a rating higher than 162, but plenty of well-fancied horses have been beaten. In fact, Henderson has saddled Binocular, Darlan and Sprinter Sacre in recent seasons and all failed to win. There is no doubt that My Tent Or Yours is hugely talented, I’m just not sure that a fast run race around Cheltenham will play to his strengths.

They went a ridiculously slow pace at Newbury last time and the race seemed to somewhat fall in his lap. It’s worth remembering that the runners in the three mile hurdle on the same card covered the two mile trip of the Betfair Hurdle in a faster time. I’ve got a feeling that My Tent Or Yours won’t get up the famous Cheltenham hill and for that reason I’ll be laying him on the exchanges.

Owner JP McManus is also represented by second favourite Jezki, who has been brilliant over hurdles in Ireland this term. But, he seemed ill at ease on the track here last March in the Champion Bumper and that performance still plays on my mind.

The two that interest me are the Willie Mullins’ pair of Un Atout and CHAMPAGNE FEVER, with slight preference for the latter at 8/1 with Coral.

Davy Russell’s mount Un Atout is a perfect two from two over hurdles this season. He’s yet to race in Graded company but is the apple of his trainer’s eye and his jockey feels he could be the best he has ever sat on. That’s high-praise from a pilot with so many big race wins and he’s hugely respected.

However, the vibe from the Mullins stable is that Champagne Fever has come to hand at just the right time and it’s interesting Ruby Walsh has jumped ship from Dodging Bullets to ride last year’s Champion Bumper winner.

His proven stamina will mean he is likely to be ridden aggressively and the six-year-old may be the one they all have to catch turning for home.

■ Pointers…
CHAMPAGNE FEVER e/w 1.30pm Cheltenham
SIMONSIG 2.05pm Cheltenham (already advised at 3/1)