Soft ground means that Zarkandar can be crowned champion

BILL ESDAILE PREVIEWS THE CHAMPION HURDLE AND JLT SPECIALTY HANDICAP CHASE

THE highlight of the opening day of the Festival is undoubtedly the Stan James Champion Hurdle (3.20pm). Normally a test of speed, this year’s renewal is going to be every bit as much about stamina due to the inclement weather.

There are plenty of puzzles for punters to solve, not least the fact that there doesn’t appear to be a genuine front runner in the line-up. This race is normally run at a breakneck gallop, but many pundits have speculated that it could turn into a tactical affair.

The first place to start has to be with the 2011 winner Hurricane Fly, who has won an astonishing 14 Grade One races. The son of Montjeu was a beaten favourite 12 months ago, but Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh are adamant that he wasn’t right then.

He is going to be the big hope of Ireland again, after three wins this season, and if the first two bankers go in his price will shorten dramatically. I have to oppose him, though, at 9/4 with Paddy Power.

I just don’t think he can be improving at nine years of age and this year’s race looks stronger than the one he won two years ago. Those of you who are worried about him should bet with Paddy Power, who will refund all bets on the race if ‘The Fly’ wins.

Last year’s winner Rock On Ruby is back for more under the tutelage of rookie trainer Harry Fry. This is a really gutsy horse who loves Cheltenham, but all of his best performances have been on a sounder surface. He also has to turn around the form from December’s International Hurdle with ZARKANDAR, and I think the weather has scuppered his chances.

Paul Nicholls finally won this race for the first time last season, as Rock On Ruby was officially trained by him. However, he’s the first to admit that the success was all down to his then assistant trainer Fry and he’ll be desperate to win it for himself.

Zarkandar is three from three this campaign and I’ve been very impressed with the manner of those victories. He has really knuckled down and fought when he had to and like his half-sister Zarkava, has shown that soft ground holds no fears.

The concern is that he finished a disappointing fifth in last year’s race, but he is another who wasn’t right at the time, and if you take out that run and his subsequent fall at Aintree, he has won his other seven starts in Britain.

It’s no surprise that Walsh has opted to ride Hurricane Fly instead and Daryl Jacob has been his regular partner anyway. Zarkandar should be hard to pass on this ground and is worth backing at 4/1 with Blue Square Bet, who are refunding bets if your horse finishes second by less than three lengths.

I tipped GRANDOUET at 12/1 in December prior to the International and he ran a cracker to finish second to Zarkandar, especially as he was conceding 4lb. He won’t be in love with today’s ground, yet a bigger worry is the negative vibes coming out of Nicky Henderson’s yard.

There have been at least two big drifts on the exchanges during the past month and it is clear that Grandouet has had a far from ideal preparation. You never know, but you really need to be at the top of your game in championship races and I’m not confident.

The JLT Specialty Handicap Chase (2.40pm) precedes the Champion Hurdle and looks as competitive as ever. Donald McCain’s Our Mick is the 6/1 favourite with Star Sports and he deserves to be the market leader.

He finished an excellent third in this race last year and was right with Katenko here last time before unluckily unseating Jason Maguire three out. There’s not much value left in his price, though, so I’m happy to look elsewhere.

Fruity O’Rooney is another with a big chance and he was only just touched off in this 12 months ago. Gary Moore has had a great season and this 10-year-old is wonderfully consistent, although he often finds one too good.

At a big price the runner I’m interested in is KNOCKARA BEAU, especially now that the rain has come. George Charlton’s 10-year-old has been an admirable performer over the years and finished a highly respectable sixth in last season’s Gold Cup.

He won a decent contest at Kelso in November on soft ground and then ran a promising race in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January, finishing fourth to Reve De Sivola. A mark of 142 looks more than fair back over fences and with Paddy Brennan taking the ride, he is really decent each-way value at 16/1 with Coral.

■ Pointers…
KNOCKARA BEAU e/w 2.40pm Cheltenham
ZARKANDAR 3.20pm Cheltenham
GRANDOUET e/w 3.20pm Cheltenham (already advised at 12/1)