Antepost Angle: Right on Cue?
Matt Brocklebank tackles the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup and Stan James Champion Hurdle in the latest instalment of his Antepost Angle column.
CUE CARD can bring the house down on March 17 by becoming the oldest horse since What A Myth in 1969 to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
He unfortunately missed the Festival due to injury in 2014 and again in 2015 but was in the process of running a brilliant race when agonisingly falling three from the finish in the Friday feature last spring and, had he stood up, would surely have given Don Cossack more of a battle to the line than eventual runner-up Djakadam (also 8/1 at the time of writing).
Colin Tizzard's superb steeplechaser has amassed over £1.2m prize-money throughout his glittering career and won seven Grade Ones including the Ryanair Chase (four seasons ago), but this is the glaring omission from his resumé and the decision by his owners to have another crack at Gold Cup glory, rather than drop back to the intermediate trip of the Ryanair following his Kempton eclipse, should be applauded.
Last season was undoubtedly Cue Card's finest – winning the Charlie Hall Chase, Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase before his mishap at Cheltenham. He bounced straight back to land the top-class Betfred Bowl with ease at Aintree, though a sixth outing of the campaign understandably proved beyond him when well held at Punchestown.
There have been mixed messages this term when it comes to trying to assess whether he's now past his best, but Cue Card absolutely pulverised Coneygree at Haydock, having seemingly needed his Charlie Hall comeback more this time around, while it's worth recalling there was precious little splitting he and stablemate Thistlecrack in the betting going into the King George.
There is now a relative gulf between them in the Gold Cup market, Thistlecrack 15/8 and Cue Card 8/1, and at the prices the latter is worth backing to exact his revenge having struggled to lay a glove on the imperious winner on Boxing Day.
The 2016 King George hero clearly paid the price for trying to match strides with his classy, younger stablemate and ended up having to rally to hold Silviniaco Conti and Tea For Two at bay, in a bunched finish for the places.
It might pay not to take that form too literally and there are certainly reasons to believe he'll be more of a force once freshened up after his early-season exertions, and returned to Cheltenham.
Cue Card has loads of experience of the Prestbury Park undulations and there's a sound case for him simply being a much better horse on left-handed tracks.
He's been beaten in eight of his last 10 chase starts going right-handed, with a much better record the other way around, recording eight of his 11 career wins over fences racing clockwise.
That may sound like a pretty simplistic view but with Thistlecrack's untouchable aura blown away by the heroic Many Clouds and a continuation of the novice's slightly suspect jumping on Saturday, Cue Card has all the qualities to lower the favourites colours and make up for last year.
Slotted neatly between them in the betting is another representative from Venn Farm in deepest Somerset – Native River.
He looks slightly over-rated on a mark just 3lb below that of Thistlecrack and 2lb below Cue Card, considering what he's achieved on the track, but there are always horses in the Gold Cup field who have progressed through the handicap ranks and he certainly merits his place in the race, if not the market.
Native River took advantage of a quirk in the system to win the Welsh National without a penalty for his previous Hennessy success and, having performed really well at Cheltenham and Aintree last term, he's evidently not just a winter horse – for all it's hard to deny stamina is his primary asset.
The Irish entry looks strong, numerically at least, but Djakadam hasn't quite been good enough in the last two Gold Cups and was beaten fair and square in the Lexus when last seen.
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Outlander took top spot at Leopardstown over Christmas and has now just about found his place in the market around 12/1 ahead of a potential rematch with Lexus second Don Poli in the Irish Gold Cup back at Leopardstown this month.
They could face Empire Of Dirt – another from the 'progressive handicapper' category – as well as Minella Rocco, and the latter is coming in for support following Many Clouds' weekend win.
Jonjo O'Neill's charge, who defeated Native River in the National Hunt Chase at last year's Festival, appeared set to give Many Clouds something to think about when departing at Aintree in December and he's obviously been kept fresh for the spring since.
A bold show in Ireland could see his price collapse again but it's hard to see Minella Rocco finding enough improvement to beat Thistlecrack and Cue Card in the main event, and Paddy Brennan's mount is definitely the solid, standout value at this stage, in spite of his advancing years.
It's worth casting the net a little wider in search of the potentially most rewarding Stan James Champion Hurdle bet.
There are so many question marks over the participation of what would be leading players if they make the race, including the market leader himself.
Faugheen was reported "much better" by Willie Mullins on Monday after being taken out of Sunday's Irish Champion Hurdle very late on, but he now presumably has to go straight to the Festival without time for a preparatory run.
After already losing Annie Power in this category due to injury, Mullins will do everything he can to get the 2015 hero to Cheltenham in shape, but he's a poor price despite his obvious talent.
You get the impression Yanworth has yet to fully convince his own trainer, Alan King, that he's quick enough for the race so backing him at 7/2 is madness, while Petit Mouchoir is enjoying a fantastic season but his forceful tactics aren't easy to carry out in this event and mean he could set it up for something else.
You're then into the likes of Brain Power and Superb Story, who won handicaps from ratings of 149 and 145 respectively to earn their tickets, so there simply has to be better value floating around at much longer odds.
Buveur D'Air's slightly surprising weekend entry in the Contenders Hurdle, as well as the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, at Sandown has led plenty to believe Nicky Henderson is considering a late switch back to timber for the dual chase scorer, who after all was far from disgraced behind Altior and Min in last year's Sky Bet Supreme before beating Petit Mouchoir in the Grade One at Aintree's National meeting.
He's got the raw ability to figure and, together with Stayers' Hurdle challenger Jezki, offers owner JP McManus the option to play a dangerous second-string, should he so wish to give Yanworth some back-up.
The New One looked every inch a stayer at Haydock, where Clyne proved he could mix it in Grade Two company, but nothing really has the potential of MOON RACER and David Pipe's novice should be backed with one of the firms offering money back if he doesn't line up.
Beaten only once in his six-race career so far, Moon Racer has obviously been quite a fragile sort to train but that only heightens the chances of connections rolling the big dice if they can get him to Cheltenham in top form.
He's already eight years old but his record at Cheltenham reads three races, three wins. A length and a half victory over Modus in the 2015 Champion Bumper features among those successes, with well-known names Wait For Me, Yanworth, Supasundae, Bellshill and O O Seven among the vanquished.
When last sighted in public Moon Racer won the Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle – a race won by Altior on his way to Festival success last term – and the falsely-run nature of that race won't have played to his strengths.
As a consequence he's definitely rated on the conservative side with an official mark of 141, a figure he looks likely to prove way off the mark if given the chance this season.
The Champion Hurdle is the ultimate opportunity, with the Supreme obviously his more likely target, but the Pipes – who have a bit of history when it comes to pitching novices into open company at Cheltenham (albeit with a sad postscript) – seemingly have precious little to lose in what could turn out to be a wide-open race for the hurdling crown.
Moon Racer is 40/1 in a place but the 33s (NRNB) is readily preferred.
Antepost Angle Cheltenham 2017
Posted at 1440 GMT on 31/01/17
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