ONLY two favourites have won the Racing Post Arkle Chase in the last 19 years, but I’m almost certain none will have arrived at Cheltenham with a bigger reputation than Nicky Henderson’s Sprinter Sacre.
The six-year-old was recently described by his pilot Barry Geraghty as, ‘the best he has ever ridden’, and that’s coming from a man who has steered so many household names to victory around Cheltenham. He is unbeaten in three starts over fences, winning by an aggregate 46 lengths in some head-swivelling times, but there are plenty of reasons to suggest that he may not be value at a best-priced 5/6 with Paddy Power.
Firstly, even though he may have beaten them in record times, even his trainer admits he hasn’t yet been properly tested. Yes, he beat Peddlers Cross at Kempton, but that rival made a hash of the first and the race was over from that point.
Away from the quality of today’s opposition, a more worrying concern is his ability to get up Cheltenham’s famous hill – something he famously couldn’t manage 12 months ago when emptying in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Admittedly, he has had a breathing operation since and the Arkle is half a furlong shorter in distance, but it remains lodged at the back of my mind.
He is unquestionably the most exciting prospect in the race and could well win from here to Timbuktu, but something tells me I should be reaching for the ‘lay’ button on Betfair, rather than the ‘back’ one. His aggressive devouring of each fence may be spectacular to the eye, but one day may be devastating to the wallet. The fences at Prestbury Park hold no prisoners and if he measures one wrong, he could easily end up on the floor.
It may seem crazy to suggest it, but as a tipster I’m paid to advise you on the best betting opportunity in the race rather than just pass on my thoughts on the most likely winner - the actual market on the race should steer you in the latter direction. For that reason, I cannot advise backing Sprinter Sacre and I’m also passing over Al Ferof.
Paul Nicholls’ runner won the opening race last year and is the clear threat to the favourite on paper. However, I just don’t think he has the speed to win this year’s race and connections have already talked about stepping him up to three miles next term. If you do fancy him, I’d advise you to back him in-running on Betfair as I’d be amazed if he didn’t hit a double-figure price turning for home.
That leaves Cue Card and MENORAH, with marginal favouritism for the last-named at 9/1 with Paddy Power. Now, it may seem strange to be recommending a horse who has failed to complete two of his four novice chasing starts, but I’ve got a sneaky feeling that if he gets into a rhythm, he could be a real threat to the favourite.
Trainer Philip Hobbs is suddenly in far better form and even though our selection looked clumsy last time, he’s spent some time with expert jumping coach Yogi Breisner. The highest-rated hurdler has won five of the last 11 runnings of this race and Menorah was 8lb clear of today’s rivals over the smaller obstacles. He can be backed each-way at 9/1 with Paddy Power who are also giving punters their ‘win’ money back if they finish second to Sprinter Sacre.
Regular followers of this column should be sitting on a decent-looking ante-post position on MONTBAZON in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Alan King’s runner was advised at 20/1 for the opening race of the meeting a few months ago and currently trades at as short as 13/2 with Paddy Power. His trainer has issued a very positive bulletin on his well-being over the weekend and there is certainly no reason to abandon ship now.
That said, I cannot help but advising having a few quid on Jessica Harrington’s STEPS TO FREEDOM at 7/1 with Coral. The Irish have won eight of the last 13 runnings of this contest and this fellow beat our other selection Montbazon in last year’s Aintree Bumper when trained by Gordon Elliot.
He has been favourite or second-favourite for this race since winning a Grade Two at Cheltenham back at the Paddy Power Open Meeting in November and it’s a slight concern he hasn’t seen a racecourse since. Yet, connections are adamant that he’s in rude health and arrives as a fresh horse and gets his favoured decent ground. There aren’t many trainers better at readying one for the festival than Harrington and he should go very close.
As for the others, Irish raider Galileo’s Choice is respected, although he may lack for experience. While in-form Charlie Longsdon’s Vulcanite looks sure to put up a bold show at around 20/1, now that his stable are firing again.
Interestingly, the one horse for serious money in recent weeks is Nicky Henderson’s Darlan who has leapt to the top of the betting after crashing out at the second last in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury when seemingly still full of running. He is already as short as 4/1 and has been backed as if he ran out the most comprehensive of winners that day. We will never know whether he would have won, but one thing is for sure, he took an extremely heavy tumble that day and I worry that it will affect him.
There is also a concern that he may be far better suited by a flat track as his worst piece of hurdling form came at this very venue. One thing for certain is that he looks sure to travel ominously well throughout the race and he looks ideal lay in-running material on Betfair as I’d be surprised if he didn’t trade very short at one point with AP McCoy motionless in the saddle.
STEPS TO FREEDOM e/w 1.30pm Cheltenham
MENORAH e/w 2.05pm Cheltenham
MONTBAZON 20/1 e/w 1.30pm Cheltenham