Ferdy Murphy the man to be feared in the big handicaps

IT’S been a disappointing season for Ferdy Murphy so far, but there have been some signs of late that his string is starting to hit form again. He has a formidable record at the Cheltenham Festival and punters should take notice when he says that DIVERS, in this afternoon’s Centenary Novices’ Chase (5.15pm), is his best chance of a winner at the meeting.

Murphy has had just 18 winners this season which is a very poor return for a trainer of his calibre, but that means a number of his horses are very well handicapped. Divers has always been a favourite of his and was only beaten a neck by the decent Ashkazar in a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham last April. He was always going to make a better chaser and he could be thrown in off a mark of 132 here.

There are a whole host of other challengers and the two biggest dangers in my book are On Borrowed Wings and Tullamore Dew. The former ran a cracker to almost win a competitive handicap hurdle at Ascot, while the latter was second at 80/1 in last year’s Coral Cup and would have to go close judged on his second to Medermit at Plumpton in December.

The Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (4.00pm) isn’t one for the purists, but it is certainly some spectacle and the only place to start is with ‘King of the Banks’ Enda Bolger. In the race’s six year history, he has won it four times, all for JP McManus-owned horses, and dual winner Garde Champetre will be back with stablemate L’Ami. However, they aren’t getting any younger and have to carry an awful lot of weight.

Ireland have won all six renewals and although there has been money for Maljimar over the past week, I think it will stay in the Emerald Isle. A NEW STORY can hardly be described as improving at the age of 13, but he won this race last year and finished an excellent third in his hurdle prep race at Naas earlier this month. You need a horse that truly stays and Michael Hourigan’s runner was placed in this race in both 2008 and 2009, so is a decent each-way bet at a general 10/1.

Ferdy Murphy runs Poker De Sivola who wouldn’t be without a chance judged on his win in the four-miler at last year’s Festival. However, the trainer has said that this is firmly a stepping stone to the Scottish National and I don’t like backing horses in this race who haven’t experienced the unique course.

Willie Mullins is bringing a very strong team over to Prestbury Park this year and his best chance of a winner could well be QUEVEGA in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle (4.40pm). An infrequent visitor to the racecourse, the seven-year-old mare has won the last two runnings of this race hugely impressively. She goes very well fresh, Ruby Walsh will be in the saddle and it will be a big surprise if the Irish banker of the day gets turned over.

Sparky May is a clear danger, as she is undefeated in four starts this season and got the better of the decent yardstick Carole’s Legacy at Ascot last time. She’d have to be pretty good to beat Quevega, though, and I’m a little concerned that her trainer Patrick Rodford doesn’t have that many runners. The stable have had a good season, but this is a big step up for Sparky May and I reckon she’ll be playing for second place.