Alex Hammond: A Belt-ing bet?

Sky Sports News racing expert Alex Hammond gives her thoughts on the big stories and fancies Beltor to run a big race at Newbury.

Beltor: Could offer some each-way value in the Betfair Hurdle.

The Champion Hurdle has been blown wide open by news of Faugheen's absence. Following Saturday's win for Buveur D'Air, what's your latest assessment of the race?

Well, we had been hanging on for an update over Faugheen's participation and then came the bad news, which didn't feel like a huge surprise. It's a blow to Willie Mullins and his stable who have had a rollercoaster of a season and to see the stable stars at the Festival would have been a real fillip, but it's not to be. Given the manner of Buveur D'Air's victory at Sandown last Saturday and the way the race has fallen apart somewhat, he is in there with strong claims and it's certainly more open than it was. It's worth reminding ourselves that he beat Petit Mouchoir in a Grade One Novices' Hurdle at Aintree back in April and he is a proper hurdler i.e. he is slick and quick over his obstacles which makes him very efficient. The best hurdlers skim over their flights of hurdles, wasting very little time in the air, and he certainly does that. He didn't look as comfortable over fences and I think given the circumstances it's a smart move.

Top Notch made it a fine day for Nicky Henderson at Sandown. Is he classy enough to win the JLT and do you expect Yorkhill to be lining up against him?

Who knows where Yorkhill will go?! Until we are given a steer on that I'll keep my powder dry. He could revert to hurdles and be supplemented for the Stan James Champion Hurdle yet, so anything is possible. Top Notch is a thoroughly likeable little chap. He is getting better and better over fences and has plenty going for him in the JLT. His fencing is now slick and professional and he has an attitude you can't buy – to add to that he has some decent form at Prestbury Park. If I were to look for negatives, his size may just mean he lacks a touch of scope for the fences at the festival, but he certainly has the engine, so you could do worse.

France Galop have this week announced a female riders' allowance. What's your take on their decision and would you entertain the idea of a similar move here?

This is a tricky one and my first reaction was that it is undermining to female riders as it implies they are not considered equal to their male counterparts. I know this was a view shared by some of our leading female riding talent and they are in a better position to make a judgement on that than I am. Having said that, to coin an old phrase, "pride comes before a fall" and it may be foolish to completely reject the initiative. In everyday life, if you were told that a rule may be brought in that could see you excel in your career or give you at the least an equal opportunity, would you dismiss it out of hand? It goes without saying I'd love to see all women given the same opportunities as men, notwithstanding a dangled carrot, but in racing that is still unfortunately not the case, even if times are changing and the gap appears to be closing slowly. There are some exceptionally talented female riders on the flat and over jumps and their sex is no barrier to individual opportunity. However, there is still a discrepancy and the introduction of this 2kg allowance in France will no doubt give the girls a better chance of getting more rides. I'd love to say that in this day and age that anyone with enough ability will be given an equal chance to progress, but that's not always the case, so maybe it's worth considering. It's got everyone talking anyway, which can't be bad, and I'll watch with interest to see how things pan out on the other side of the Channel; I'm sure I won't be the only one!

Altior is due to run in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase on Saturday, won previously by the likes of Master Minded, Well Chief and Sprinter Sacre. What are you expecting to see from him and is the Arkle now a penalty kick following Min's setback?

Well it will be a major blow to his Arkle claims if he doesn't make light work of winning on Saturday. His closest market rival is Fox Norton and as much as I'm a fan of Colin Tizzard's exciting recruit, he has to give 5lb to Altior on Saturday and that should be incredibly difficult to do. The Arkle looks like it could be a penalty kick, but we've seen shocks before in that race; remember Western Warhorse beating Champagne Fever in the 2014 renewal? I spoke earlier about scope, a quality that allows horses to jump large obstacles with ease, and Altior has it in spades. It makes life so much easier when a horse has scope. He/she has the ability to get out of trouble and uses less energy to get to the other side. I won't be taking a short price about him just yet, but given the form of the Henderson yard, he will be hard to oppose.

Can you give us a main fancy and perhaps a live outsider for Saturday's Betfair Hurdle?

Sticking with the Nicky Henderson theme and the JP McManus-owned Consul De Thaix looks an obvious choice. He has twice come up against his stablemate Brain Power and twice had to concede defeat, but Brain Power is very smart and has been supported for the Champion Hurdle. He's unlucky not to have won a race and is a novice on the up with just five starts to his name so far. I must also admit to being a fan of Movewiththetimes and I hope he can live up to expectations and run a big race here for Paul Nicholls. He is another string to McManus's bow and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him go very well. He has taken time to learn his trade and still looked inexperienced in his races so far. That may have accounted for a moderate run behind Moon Racer at Cheltenham when things didn't go right for him. However, the penny will be dropping all the time and he is well thought of by connections. He doesn't look badly treated off his mark of 136 and of the McManus duo he's the one that will be carrying my cash on Saturday. If the 11/2 currently on offer with Sky Bet isn't appealing enough to you, then Beltor might well offer a bit of each-way value (14/1 at the time of writing) for Robert Stephens. He said recently that the horse has regained his confidence after a win on the Flat at Kempton and an improved effort over hurdles at the same track over Christmas. He was a Grade Two winner as a novice when he won the Adonis and while I can't see him winning this, he can run well.

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