SOMEONE asked me the other day if there was one horse I really fancied at this year’s Cheltenham Festival and without a moments delay I told him MONKSLAND in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle.
Regular readers of this column may have followed my advice already and backed Noel Meade’s runner at 14/1 last month, but I still reckon he is worth supporting at 5/1 with Coral. The five-year-old first caught my eye when winning on his hurdling debut over an inadequate two miles in December, before bolting up in a Grade Two over an extra half mile the following month.
Now, it wasn’t just what he beat that day (the runner-up Lyreen Legend was beaten 4 ½ lengths and has won a Grade Two since), it was the effortless manner in which he did it. His trainer immediately spoke of the Neptune as a long-term target and emphasised that Monksland was desperate for decent ground. Well, he gets his ideal conditions today and is a confident selection to follow in the footsteps of Nicanor who won this race for the stable in 2006.
The most obvious danger on paper is Nicky Henderson’s Simonsig who looks to have all the potential in the world. The imposing grey didn’t have to come out of first gear when landing his prep race at Kelso and was originally one of the market leaders for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Connections opted to re-route him to this race as jockey Barry Geraghty felt that his hurdling would be put under less pressure over the extra half mile of the Neptune.
I just have a sneaky suspicion in the back of my mind that Simonsig may well travel like the winner to the top of the hill, but might not get home. He looked to be cruising in behind Philip Hobbs’ Fingal Bay at Sandown earlier in the season, but stopped when popped the question after the last. Geraghty and Henderson were both quick to put the disappointment down to fitness, but I’m not so sure. He is as short as 7/4 with one high-street bookmaker and I’d far rather be a layer at that price than a backer.
In fact, I will be looking to lay Simonsig in-running at the top of the hill on Betfair as I can see him trading extremely short at that point. There is every chance he could trade at odds-on a long way out and that’s when I’ll be reaching for the ‘lay’ button.
As for the rest, I respect Alan King’s Batonnier who was an impressive winner over course and distance in December. He looks sure to run a solid race but would be surprised if he has the class to beat Monksland. Ruby Walsh partners Sous Les Cieux for Willie Mullins and his price has collapsed as a result. He is no bigger than the 6/1 available with Coral and that’s pretty short for a horse who has looked a little tripless.
The Mullins team may have better luck in the day’s opening contest as they saddle two of the top three in the betting in ALLEE GARDE and Soll. Finding the winner of the 20-runner Diamond Jubilee National Hunt Chase for amateur riders over an energy-sapping four miles is no easy feat, but Allee Garde may just be a cut above these. Don’t forget he was beaten just over six lengths when third to Last Instalment in a Grade One at Leopardstown in December over three miles. That’s his best bit of form to date (and better than anything else on offer here) and it’s no coincidence that it came on decent good ground.
Patrick Mullins could have ridden Soll, original ante-post favourite for the race, but made the switch last week. He looks fairly decent each-way value at 6/1 with Paddy Power and as long as he can stay out of trouble early, will surely play a part in the finish.
As for the dangers, the Paul Nicholls team are sweet on the chances of Harry The Viking, while it would be no surprise to see bold shows from Charlie Longsdon’s pair Universal Soldier and Strongbows Legend. However, I’ll also be throwing a few quid at another Irish raider in the shape of FOUR COMMANDERS at 16/1 with Paddy Power. The six-year-old looked to be crying out for this trip when running on at the death in a three mile Grade Two last time and is a sound jumper. His trainer Mouse Morris is a master at preparing one for the Festival and certainly doesn’t bring one over if they don’t have a chance.
The two horses I’d be tempted to oppose on the index with Sporting Index are Teaforthree and Alfie Spinner. That may seem crazy to some people, particularly as the former is challenging for favouritism, but there is a method to my madness. Firstly, I thought Teaforthree had a hard race on very soft ground at Chepstow at the back end of last month and that may have left its mark. As for Alfie Spinner, he’s disappointed whenever he’s met good ground and he won’t get his conditions this afternoon.
I’m at Cheltenham all week and you can get my up-to-date views on Twitter @BillEsdaile.