Divers and Noble Alan can be our friends in the North

PAUL Nicholls saddles red-hot favourite Mon Parrain in tomorrow’s Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham (2.35pm) and the five-year-old is already as short as 3/1 with a few firms. However, the master of Ditcheat has yet to win this prestigious handicap and he has sent out plenty of well-fancied disappointments over the last few years.

There is no getting away from the fact that Mon Parrain is a hugely exciting prospect and his trainer obviously thinks he is potentially Grade One class. The issue is whether or not he is well handicapped off a mark of 152 (that’s 19lb higher than when he won at Sandown two starts back). Don’t forget that last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Long Run couldn’t win this race last term off 158. Mon Parrain may well be a superstar, but he stopped alarmingly at Aintree after a devastating round of jumping and he’s plenty short enough in my opinion.

I wouldn’t rule out the hugely progressive Wishfull Thinking, but from a mark of 164 he’ll have to produce a lifetime best to carry such a burden. At the prices, I’d far rather take a chance on two northern-trained runners – Ferdy Murphy’s DIVERS at 14/1 with Paddy Power and Nicky Richards’ NOBLE ALAN at 20/1 with Ladbrokes.

Regular readers of this column will know that I tipped Divers to win the Centenary Novices’ Chase at last year’s Festival and he looked a chaser on the upgrade that day. He made a lacklustre reappearance at Carlisle a few weeks ago, but the stable has started firing since and he was obviously using the racecourse experience to blow the cobwebs away. I remember Exotic Dancer bouncing back to win this after a similarly poor showing in the same Carlisle race a few years ago.

As for Noble Alan, he travelled and jumped brilliantly over course and distance in December before falling at the third last. He was just beginning to get involved that day and looks a chaser on a decent mark. Jumping is a big worry, as he also hit the deck on his latest start at Market Rasen when bang in contention, but he’ll relish the decent ground and I just have the sneaky feeling that he is the value if he can stay upright.

Sunday’s Greatwood Hurdle is typically competitive, but Pateese put down a solid marker last Saturday with a very impressive win at Sandown. He is certain to go off favourite and Philip Hobbs has won three of the last nine runnings of this race, including with Menorah 12 months ago. However, it was soft last weekend and although Pateese has form on good ground, he might just prefer a bit more cut.

If you like Pateese, you have to put Via Galilei into the mix, who beat him twice last season. Gary Moore is always to be feared in these big handicaps and this son of Galileo ran a stormer on his seasonal reappearance at Ascot a fortnight ago. He will love the quicker ground and is no forlorn hope at a general 14/1. The same can be said for Alan King’s Kumbeshwar who travelled well for a long way in the same Ascot race and should improve for the run.

Interestingly, four of the last five winners have carried 11st 6lb or more, while four top weights have landed the prize in the past decade. The one who is most interesting at the top of the handicap is Galway Hurdle winner MOON DICE and he should be backed each-way at around 8/1. Ireland have won this twice in the past seven years and this is a horse who is best fresh. He loves good ground and this has clearly been the target ever since Galway.

The meeting gets underway today with a competitive card and CRACK AWAY JACK is worth following on his first start for Paul Nicholls in the paddypower.com On Mobile Handicap Chase (1.45pm). He is top class on his day and the change of scenery could spark a change in fortune for the 2008 Fred Winter winner.

Some people hate the Cross Country Chase (2.20pm), but I’m a fan and I fancy THEROADTOCROKER to cause an upset this afternoon. Garde Champetre will be difficult to beat, but he’s now 12 and I’m not sure if he enjoys quick ground. My selection is a specialist over this unique type of course and nearly won twice at the Punchestown Festival in April.

Back to tomorrow’s card and I will be backing HINTERLAND to land the opener for Nicholls and HENNESSY in the 1.55pm to hopefully give Ferdy Murphy a day to remember. The former is very well regarded by the champion trainer, while Murphy gave Hennessy a pipe-opener at Kelso recently and he could be very well-handicapped.

I’m at Cheltenham for all three days so follow me on Twitter @BillEsdaile for my thoughts.

POINTERS...

CRACK AWAY JACK 1.45pm Cheltenham (Today)

THEROADTOCROKER e/w 2.20pm Cheltenham (Today)

HINTERLAND 1.20pm Cheltenham (Sat)

HENNESSY e/w 1.55pm Cheltenham (Sat)

DIVERS e/w 2.35pm Cheltenham (Sat)

NOBLE ALAN e/w 2.35pm Cheltenham (Sat)

MOON DICE e/w 2.20pm Cheltenham (Sun)