In our latest ante-post Cheltenham Festival preview, we’ve picked out an Irish challenger who looks made for the chasing game.
Ah, the Arkle. I do love the Arkle, and not only because it’s named after the greatest racehorse of them all.
A staple of Day 1 at the Cheltenham Festival, the Irish Independent Arkle Chase is a haven for those of us who have an opinion. As far as absolute, proven form goes, there isn’t a great deal to go on, at least not in the chasing game, as all the contenders are to varying degrees inexperienced over the bigger obstacles.
You might have one eager student of novice chases who believes he’s picked out the one to beat, and you might have another with a polar opposite view, and both of them could be wrong.
That’s the beauty of Cheltenham, and the novice chases in particular. Everyone approaches the Festival armed with at least a few confident choices, more often than not you’ll be force-fed very, very humble pie ... and you’ll walk the same plank the next year, the next year and the next year.
All racing is about opinions but the Arkle is one of those races where opinion is most prevalent. In the Championship races – the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase, the Stayers Hurdle, the Gold Cup – there is at least some amount of proven form and ability. When it comes to the novices, potential is as yet unfulfilled, absolute ability unknown. It’s all on the track, on the day.
For the 2012 edition, Nicky Henderson’s Sprinter Sacre is the warm favourite (a general 9/4 across the board) and you can’t exactly argue with that, given his demolition job on last year’s Champion Hurdle runner-up Peddlers Cross in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton at Christmas.
Yes, he looks a fine jumper and yes, a breathing operation last summer may well have made a big difference. However, the feeling is that Peddlers Cross hasn’t really taken to fences - he’s been given an entry in the Champion Hurdle this week, for instance - so I'll look elsewhere.
Peddlers Cross is the second favourite but again, there are doubts. The talk after that Kempton run was that he might step up in trip, and while that Champion Hurdle entry may just be a precaution, it does at least suggest some level of uncertainty from the Donald McCain yard about where to aim him. On the face of it, the form of that Champion Hurdle run behind Hurricane Fly would make him very difficult to beat, but he came into that race in phenomenal form – unbeaten in seven races – and this is a year later, in a very different environment. I won’t be taking the 5/1 on offer.
So now that there’s a red line through the top two in the market, where next? Al Ferof is interesting. Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner, when he rattled home late under Ruby Walsh, he’s lightly raced with a fine strike rate (six wins from nine runs, including his last five) and has a good record at Cheltenham, finishing runner-up to Cue Card in the Bumper two years ago before last year’s Supreme win. The odds of 11/2 look fair enough. I’d rather be on him than the front two, but it’s still short enough for ante-post purposes.
Cue Card is also interesting in that he had a massive reputation that was clobbered when he was a beaten favourite behind Al Ferof in the Supreme last year. He’s looked good enough but not spectacular in his four chases to date and he’s never really lived up to that early billing, so it would be a surprise if there weren’t a couple too good for him here.
Menorah is similar to Peddlers Cross in that his connections do not appear to be wholly certain about which way to go - he was favourite for a Champion Hurdle trial at Cheltenham before Christmas before being switched to the larger obstacles. He has looked a bit tentative when it comes to jumping, and perhaps that's understandable given the late switch in focus. With face and eggs at the ready, I'll say 'No thanks'.
Looking down the field, For Non Stop is no forlorn 28/1 chance provided he shows up here – he will have also options in handicap and handicap novice chases. He was a close second to Al Ferof at Sandown and Cue Card last time out, and was running a fine race in the Coral Cup last year before tipping up at the last when looking booked for second. You could see him possibly making the frame.
For the selection, though, I’m plumping for Blackstairmountain from the all-conquering Willie Mullins yard. Unless I’m missing something – it happens most days – it’s difficult to see why he’s a 16/1 chance. He’s unbeaten over fences and has already won a Grade 1, in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas. (He also won a Grade 1 over hurdles at Punchestown two years ago.)
You could argue that he looked a weak finisher on the evidence of the defeat to Voler La Vedette at Punchestown last April but that opponent is a formidable one in two-and-a-half mile hurdles and in any case Blackstairmountain, who travels like a class horse in all his races, looks a lot stronger at the business end this year, grinding out that win over David Pipe’s Notus De La Tour at Christmas.
He could be even better on better ground, and he’s also definitely being aimed at the race – Mullins said following that win last month that he would go for the Irish Arkle in February before the Cheltenham version a month later.
Taking all that into account, 16/1 looks too tasty to turn down.
1pt win, Blackstairmountain (16/1)
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