There are just two weeks until the start of the Cheltenham Festival and all of the recognised trials for the opening day’s feature, the Stan James Champion Hurdle, are now over and done with. Remaining preparation will take place on the gallops and in the stables, away from the glare of the TV cameras, so now may be a good time to look at our options and examine whether any ante-post value remains.
It was terribly sad to see Darlan suffer a fatal fall in his final prep race at Doncaster behind reigning champion Rock On Ruby as he would have been a serious contender for the big one. Owner J P McManus still has 2010 champion Binocular in this year’s line-up and he’s a 12/1 chance with Coral. The nine-year-old wasn’t given a hard race on his belated reappearance behind current favourite Hurricane Fly (7/4 with Paddy Power and sportingbet) at Leopardstown last month but had a perfect preparation in 2012 and could only finish fourth, behind Rock On Ruby, Overturn and Hurricane Fly. The latter’s credential are there for all to see and he’ll make a bold bid to take back his crown but there remain doubts about his ability to find his telling turn of foot at the end of a fast-run race. Overturn will almost certainly be going over fences in the Arkle Trophy this year but Rock On Ruby (a general 6/1) is on course to defend his title following his Doncaster win and was conceding 4lb to likely rival Zarkandar (5/1 with Boylesports and Ladbrokes) when third at Cheltenham in December, though does have some ground to make up on Grandouet (8/1 with Ladbrokes) on that run.
Along with Binocular and Grandouet, trainer Nicky Henderson has also entered 2010 runner-up Khyber Kim (75/1 on Betfair) and the enigmatic Oscar Whisky (16/1 in several places), though the Stayers’ Hurdle looks a more suitable target for the latter. Here’s a couple I think will run well on the likely good ground at fair odds.
STEPS TO FREEDOM is 50/1 with most bookmakers and 89/1 on Betfair but shouldn’t be ignored. Jessica Harrington’s charge hasn’t run over hurdles since April last year but was a big fancy for last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He didn’t do himself justice that day having been held up well off the pace but showed himself to be a very decent performer again on the Flat and all-weather later and shouldn’t be written off just yet. But I’m more interested in CINDERS AND ASHES, who won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. You can ignore his two runs this season, on heavy ground at Newcastle and Kempton, as he bounces off a faster surface. Donald McCain’s gelding still has time on his side and has yet to run a bad race at Cheltenham – he is the value at this stage at the general 14/1 and, don’t forget, it’s now non-runner-no bet on all Cheltenham races with bet365, BetVictor, Boylesports and Skybet.