The second race of the Cheltenham Festival is among the most exciting of the week as The Arkle offers an exciting combination of speed and jumping mixed with the tension and danger of the inevitable ‘novicey’ mistakes. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the staying races of the Festival as much as the next man, but there is nothing like the excitement of the best two mile novice chasers in full flight and threatening to make a mistake.
We’ve had some memorable winners of this in recent years who have gone on to be superstars in the two mile division and beyond, with Moscow Flyer, Sprinter Sacre and Douvan to name just three, and no fewer than eight renewals of the Queen Mother Champion Chase being bagged by previous winners of this race since the turn of the century.
One of my clearest early memories of the festival is from this race; the first time I seriously followed events throughout the week as I ‘bunked off’ sixth form to spend the week in the bookies and see Azertyuiop triumph.
Last year saw the mighty Douvan win with one of the standout performances of the Festival and this year there is the possibility we’ll have another superstar emerge with two standout performers currently vying for supremacy.
The betting this year is headed by last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Altior, who is a best priced 5/6 at time of writing. Altior caused a slight upset in last year’s Supreme when beating the Mullins/Ricci favourite Min, but he was a deserved winner and won with real class and authority. There was talk this year of a possible tilt at the Champion Hurdle and, being by High Chapparal who isn’t renowned for producing chasers, few would have blamed them for taking that route but they instead opted for a novice chase campaign. So far that choice appears to be the right one as he’s completed three pretty much faultless displays, showing the mix of speed and slick jumping you need for this division. If you were to try to find any weakness in what we’ve seen so far, you could potentially point to the fact he has only beaten a combined total of seven horses so far in his three appearances and hasn’t really been put under any pressure. But, that would be clutching at straws and he goes to the Arkle as a more than worth favourite.
The long-time second favourite for the Arkle and beaten favourite in last year’s Supreme, Min, is set to renew rivalry and try to reverse the form of that convincing victory. Beaten by seven lengths, rumours have abounded that he was injured mid-way through the Supreme and would make his second place finish all the more impressive if actually true. In his two appearances over fences this season he has won with relative ease and looked to improve a fair bit between the two, whilst running in good sized fields against potentially decent opposition. A slight worry would be that he missed an appearance in the Irish Arkle with a banged knee, but if it was just a knock and doesn’t interrupt preparation it shouldn’t be an issue.
Outside of these two main contenders, the field looks a little sparse.
Yorkhill is currently third in the betting available at a best price of 8/1, and although Ruby Walsh said he’d win an Arkle “with his mouth open” immediately after winning last year’s Neptune, it’s highly unlikely he’ll head here with the JLT apparently the target.
Forest Bihan and Cloudy Dream are closely matched on their last appearance, when the former prevailed by over a length, and both seem likely to head here. I’d previously heard good things about Forest Bihan but that was related to handicap chases at the Festival and he’s surely blown his mark now, whilst Cloudy Dream has been very consistent in his four starts without being brilliant. Both are generally available at around 20/1 (bigger in places for Forest Bihan) and would surely be a little shorter in the betting if with more fashionable trainers. The ground and trip should be no problem for either, so I wouldn’t put anyone off backing either each way but I couldn’t have them to win.
Another contender for Nicky Henderson is Top Notch. Most disappointing first time over fences when beaten he has since gone on to land a treble and does have some fairly useful Cheltenham form, but there are question marks over what he has beaten and where he’ll run with other options available. In front of Top Notch first time out was Le Prezien, who has since won at Cheltenham – perhaps fortunately. He wouldn’t be without a chance on what he has shown, but surely wants soft ground which seems unlikely at the Festival.
Le Prezien’s fortunate Cheltenham victory came after Some Plan fell when still in contention. He has since gone on to win two nice chases in Ireland, the last time when left in front after all three rivals fell. At the best price of 25/1 he wouldn’t be without a chance of placing but there are question marks around his previous form at Cheltenham.
Identity Thief is perhaps the most interesting of the remainder. A fairly classy sort over hurdles but just short of top quality, he won his first two appearances over fences in style. However, he has since been pulled up after being struck in to and unseated his rider at the first on his next appearance, whilst he really looked to get worked up around the buzz of the Festival last year.
Others to briefly touch upon include Charbel who beat Top Notch and Le Prezien first time out and followed up with a second to Altior, he’s definitely worth watching next time out. Listen Dear has a sequence of wins behind her but unlikely to run here in my opinion, and Ordinary World ran well without ever threatening behind Min last time out, but he looks like a better bet in one of the handicap chases. Finally, A Hare’s Breath was one to keep an eye on having shown potential in an interrupted career, but he really disappointed last time out so has to be discounted.
This looks like a two horse race to me. Altior is a worthy favourite having shown the best form and beaten his nearest contender comfortably at last year’s Festival. Min has potential to turn around that form but with question marks around his fitness he’s best left alone at the moment. In both cases, the current prices don’t offer a great deal of value and you’d probably be better off waiting for offers closer to the Festival.
With the race likely to cut-up, the best value might be looking for something each way at this point. If you can find a 20/1+ chance and paying the first three places you could be in a good place if only six or seven turn up, especially if Min fails to regain fitness, as you’d realistically only need to beat a few home to profit. There are a few with each way value, but if I was hard pressed I’d have to go with the 25/1 available on Identity Thief. He has two letters against his latest runs and might not be good enough to win but outside of the top two has shown the most class, so represents good value if making it to the Arkle.
Altior/Min to win – look for offers/lengthening of price nearer the time.
Altior/Min Forecast on the day
Identity Thief e/w – 25//1 Stan James