WHEN I first became passionate about the Cheltenham Festival back in the late 1980s, the Triumph Hurdle (1.30pm) was a 20-plus runner wide-open cavalry charge packed full of no-hopers.
Now, the introduction of the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle earlier in the meeting, means this race has a very different feel.
Those not good enough to compete in this now have their day in the sun on Wednesday instead, meaning only the very best are left to contend this Grade One contest.
That means we now get a lot less runners, no less so than 12 months ago when only nine lined-up to face the starter.
The field is a little bigger this afternoon with 14 taking their chance, but finding the winner has definitely become a lot easier in recent years.
In fact, Farclas caused a small upset last year when breaking a sequence of three consecutive winning favourites.
This year’s contest looks very much in the hands of Joseph O’Brien’s classy flat recruit SIR EREC who is a bestpriced 11/10 with Coral.
He has been super-impressive in two starts over obstacles, winning a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on his debut where he held on by a neck
to Tiger Tap Tap who re-opposes again this afternoon. The pair locked horns at the Dublin Racing Festival, but this time Sir Erec showed his true class and skipped away from the field to win by a cosy six lengths.
Tiger Tap Tap would definitely have been inconvenienced by the unseasonably quick ground, but it requires a huge leap of faith to envisage him reversing that form this afternoon.
Sir Erec was so impressive in the manner he quickened up and his aggressive hurdling technique looked so slick that he is hard to fault.
Don’t forget this colt was a classy performer on the Flat and was good enough to run Stradivarius to a handful of lengths in the Group Two Long Distance Cup on Champions Day.
There wouldn’t be anything in this field who could get within a dozen lengths of last year’s Ascot Gold Cup hero, let alone give him a scare.
Joseph O’Brien has already had a juvenile winner this week when Band Of Outlaws scored in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle and that shows the quality of his stock.
Sir Erec is unquestionably the best of the bunch and despite a slight injury scare last week, he should take all the beating.
Paul Nicholls won this back in 2011 with Zarkandar and he saddles both Quel Destin and Pic D’Orhy. The former has been in cracking form all season and has won five on the bounce including a Grade One at Chepstow.
He is sure to put up a bold show, but the feeling is he may just not be good enough against these.
As for Pic D’Orhy, we have yet to see him race in the country, but he has plenty of experience in France and is well-regarded by his trainer.
However, both are single-figure prices and for my each-way alternative to the favourite I am keen to take a chance on Gordon Elliott’s COEUR SUBLIME at 20/1 with Ladbrokes.
He was much-touted at the start of the season as being last year’s winning trainer’s best juvenile hurdler, but things haven’t gone to plan.
After making a workmanlike winning debut at Down Royal in November, he was beaten a short head next time on ground that may have been too quick for him.
Disaster then struck at Christmas when he was coming with a winning run before taking a crashing fall at the last in the Grade Two Hurdle at Leopardstown.
That was a real blow and it took him weeks to get over that nasty spill. However, he got back on track last month and even though the run looked poor on paper he scoped badly afterwards.
The cut in the ground and test of stamina will play to his strengths and he looks the value alternative to hit the frame.
Sir Erec 1.30pm Cheltenham
Coeur Sublime e/w 1.30pm Cheltenham