The build-up to the Arkle is always one of the most fascinating of the Cheltenham Festival. There’s always the horses fancied to do well in the chasing ranks, but over the course of the season a few outsiders muscle in on the action and announce their ability. This campaign has been no different and we’re left with a very interesting picture with the Festival a fortnight away. Here’s how the story has unfolded over the last few months.
A third place finish in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle marked Sprinter Sacre out as horse of real ability, but the scale of that ability has only become clear during the course of his novice chasing season. The questionable level of opposition he beat at Doncaster in December meant a pinch of salt was recommended to accompany his 24 length victory, but clearly if you beat anyone with ease by 24 lengths you’ve got something special about you. Next time out we got a better reflection of his true standard and the results were good as he recorded a resounding 16 lengths victory over Peddlers Cross at Christmas. The win over French Opera in the Super Saturday Chase at Newbury wasn’t by the same chasmal margin, but it was highly impressive as he won with plenty still in the tank. It’s all in his favour and he’s the one they’ll all have to beat.
The major blot on his copybook is that defeat to Sprinter Sacre over Christmas, but it’s a blot plenty of people are willing to forgive judging by the support he has received since. Peddlers Cross was considered a 9/2 shot for the after that loss, but that price has been gradually chipped away at throughout January and February and he’s now 11/4 for the race. He showed his potential when winning he’s first two chases, both at Bangor, back in November and those displays made the subsequent under-performances at Kempton easier to forgive. Based on events over Christmas, the form book says he’s got work to do if he wants to upset the favourite. But, judging by the betting patterns, people are banking on Peddlers being a different animal when their paths cross on the opening day at Cheltenham.
Devotees of the ‘horses for courses’ philosophy will be paying particular attention to Al Ferof. He’s got a record of two wins, one 2nd place and one fall at Prestbury Park and considered the one of those wins was the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the second place came in the Champion Bumper, he’s clearly a horse capable of mixing it in high class company. He began his chasing career with a comprehensive win in the November Novices’ Steeplechase at Cheltenham and that display saw him become a serious contender for the Arkle. His win in the Henry VIII Novice Chase at Sandown confirmed his talent and even third place behind Somersby in the Victor Chandler Chase wasn’t enough to dampen the belief. He’s currently a 5/1 chance and his record at Cheltenham makes that a very interesting proposition.
Cue Card has had an inconsistent time of things since winning the Cheltenham Champion Bumper in 2010. His novice hurdling season started well with a couple of wins, but when he met top class opposition he didn’t fare so well. It wasn’t an embarrassment, but clearly he found life more difficult. His novice chasing season has had elements of the talent and disappointment of earlier in his career, which ultimately means we can’t blithely write him off. On the evidence of his four length win in the Goals Galore Novices’ Chase at Newbury on New Year’s Eve, he’s heading in the right direction as the Cheltenham Festival. He’s by no means a banker, but he could be a factor if he returns to form right on cue.
Talent-wise, it’s entirely possible that Menorah can go close in the Arkle, but there are a couple of doubts surrounding him. First up is his jumping. His chasing career is only five races old, but already he’s come out second best in a couple of run-ins with the fences. He was about to stroll to a debut chase victory at Exeter back in November when the made a mistake that unseat Richard Johnson in the saddle and his most recent run was a brief one as he fell three fences into a Grade Two Novice Chase at Doncaster last month. Fatigue is also going to be an issue. The Arkle is going to be his 6th of the season and that’s a lot of miles on the clock for someone expected to compete at the highest level. He’s not without hope however. He has shown ability in winning a couple of times this season and his hurdling form shows he loves Cheltenham having won the 2010 Supreme Novices’ and the 2010 Greatwood Hurdle at the track. Finding that form again would put him close.
The Michael O’Leary camp is represented by Bog Warrior, a horse with both remarkable ability and remarkable ability to fall. The lightly raced eight year old has had seven races, five of which ended in victory and two of which ended up on the turf. In fairness, he’s a tidy jumper, but on occasion doesn’t give himself enough margin for error and that has lead to a couple of disappointing results. His wins and winning margin have been impressive at times, showcasing some undoubted ability, but the ground is a major concern. He likes it anywhere from soft to heavy, but good ground is an issue and trainer, Tony Martin, has said he’ll do his best to avoid it where possible. Even a basic knowledge of a British spring tells you it’s entirely possible that he’ll get the downpour he needs, but at the moment it’s looking unlikely hence the price drift through February. If the flood does arrive and the opening day of Cheltenham looks more like the Mud-wrestling World Championships, he’s worth looking at, but otherwise he’s best avoided.