Ben Linfoot: Cheltenham in focus

Ben Linfoot tries to get through the January gloom by pinpointing the best bets in the Cheltenham Festival championship races.

Brain Power: Could he be the one for the Champion Hurdle?

It's that time of year again. The jumps racing between now and the middle of March is pretty mediocre, except for a few days here and there, and there are few signs of the short days getting longer yet. For the racing fan, only the glare from the Cheltenham ante-post markets on Oddschecker shine a light through the January gloom.

Yet betting on the championship contests at this stage requires plenty of imagination or none at all, it seems.

The best accumulative odds in the punting village about the four favourites (Faugheen, Douvan, Unowhatimeanharry and Thistlecrack) winning the championship races is 35.75/1 at Coral. That's pretty skinny with two months to go, especially when Faugheen hasn't been seen for a year. Will we even see him before the Cheltenham Festival? Nobody knows.

At least the Stan James Champion Hurdle market allows the imagination to run wild with severe question marks hanging over the market leaders. The other three championship contests are all dominated by in-form horses that look clear of their contemporaries on recent evidence.

But two months is a long time in racing. Plenty can change between now and March 14. More than a bit of guesswork is required, obviously, but below is a horse for each championship race that could well belie their current odds in just over sixty days' time.

Stan James Champion Hurdle

Brain Power – best price 16/1

This looks an ante-post market to be interested in. Neither the first or second favourites, Faugheen and Annie Power, have been sighted this season and though both are entered in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of the month we all know they won't both turn up there.

In fact, reading between the lines of Patrick Mullins' quotes in the Irish Independent a few days ago, it would be no surprise if neither of Rich Ricci's big guns showed up at Leopardstown.

"Hopefully Faugheen can start to sparkle in his work and we can get him back to the track," Mullins Jr said.

"Neither he nor Annie has sparked and Dad is taking a patient approach… Annie Power only had one run before Cheltenham last year. If we're not 100pc happy at the end of the month with either, we will wait some more."

Hardly the sort of quotes you'd expect to be hearing about the first and second favourite for the Champion Hurdle. I'm more and more convinced Annie Power will turn up in the Mares' Hurdle with Vroum Vroum Mag going for the Stayers'.

Away from the Mullins big guns Yanworth is next best at a top-price 5/1, but does he have the speed for a Champion Hurdle? I wouldn't bet on it at those odds.

And does 8/1 chance Petit Mouchoir's Ryanair Hurdle victory at Leopardstown sufficiently prove he's a different horse to the one that was well beaten in last season's Sky Bet Supreme? He looks very short to me considering the limited evidence.

Also rated 162 like Petit Mouchoir is Nicky Henderson's BRAIN POWER and he's been trimmed from 20s to 16s in the last few days. It's easy to see why.

When Altior was winning the Sky Bet Supreme last March, Brain Power was in his box at home following two good runs in novice hurdles. Henderson took a quiet approach with him, and four days after Altior's Supreme success Brain Power was winning at Kempton at odds of 2/5.

He was stepped up in grade after that, finishing third in the Grade One Herald Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown, four-and-a-half lengths behind Petit Mouchoir and seven-and-a-half lengths ahead of Yorkhill.

This season, though, he has stepped up significantly since getting stuck in the mud behind North Hill Harvey in the Greatwood Hurdle on his reappearance at Cheltenham.

A win at Sandown was followed up by a convincing success off a mark of 149 in the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle at Ascot, and though 'trust' could be the key word given we were peering through the fog trying to watch most of the race, there is no doubt he sauntered to an easy five-length victory in the end.

The handicapper saw enough to put him up 13lb to that new 162 rating and that puts him right up there with the 'best of the rest' behind Faugheen and Annie Power.

He's improving and would be well suited by a strong pace and spring ground. He may well take on Yanworth in the Contenders' Hurdle at Haydock next month where he really could announce himself as the best of British in the Champion Hurdle picture.

Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Ar Mad – best price 25/1

It's incredible we have a horse trading at 2/5 for a championship race two months before the event, but there we are. Douvan is an exceptional talent and he absolutely deserves those sort of quotes ahead of the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Unbeaten in 12 starts since joining Willie Mullins, there isn't a horse on British and Irish shores that has got within three lengths of him and most opponents are beaten much further. He's got it all and the two-mile chasing division looks decidedly weak behind him following the retirement of Sprinter Sacre.

At least his presence will scare plenty off so a small field is likely. You might well get favourable each-way terms ante-post, then, and with that in mind perhaps the 25/1 about AR MAD is worth considering, or if you think the win part of that bet is pointless, there's 9/1 available with Betfair Sportsbook in their 'without Douvan' market.

You might say he fluffed his lines when tearing off in the Tingle Creek last time, but that was his first run in 10 months and you can't help but feel there is a serious two-mile chaser there if his eagerness to get on with things can be channelled in a positive way. He was, after all, only beaten three-and-a-half lengths in the end after rallying.

He's mainly gone right-handed over fences and could well do so again next time in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot, but the Champion Chase is the obvious race for him and if there is one I like at a bigger price that could chase Douvan home, it's this lad.

Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle

Ballyoptic – best price 16/1

Douvan is 12 from 12 for his most recent trainer and the favourite for the Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle, Unowhatimeanharry, is seven from seven for his.

Rated 123 when he joined Harry Fry, Unowhatimeanharry has risen 44lb in the handicap following his unbeaten run that culminated in his first Grade One triumph in open company in the JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot last time.

On this season's form, he's a worthy 5/2 favourite. But while he didn't improve between the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and the Long Walk, BALLYOPTIC, second in the former race, probably did.

I say probably, because again we are dealing with a race that was run in thick fog, but Ballyoptic was only headed at the last flight where he fell under Richard Johnson.

The jockey was adamant he would've given Unowhatimeanharry a proper race had he stood up, too, saying in his Betway blog a couple of days later: "He just lost his back legs. It's a little hard to understand exactly why, but these things happen and all I can say is that he ran a great race.

"He jumped and travelled really well, and coming to the last he wasn't stopping. We were a little bit up on Unowhatimeanharry at the time of falling and I don't think there would have been much between us at the line."

A Grade One winner as a novice, Ballyoptic has only had four runs out of such company and seems to be getting better with each race. His style of running should also lend itself to Cheltenham, as he keeps on grinding and finds plenty for pressure. The hill should hold no fears.

He's a proper stayer and there has to be a doubt about the participation of all of those between himself and Unowhatimeanharry in the Stayers' Hurdle market (Vroum Vroum Mag, Nichols Canyon, Faugheen and Jezki).

We'll likely learn more about the respective talents of the pair in the Cleeve Hurdle at the end of the month, but it wouldn't be a surprise if Ballyoptic narrowed the gap again. The price discrepancy, as things stand, between himself and the favourite looks a little too big and he could be worth getting onside now.

Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup

Minella Rocco – best price 40/1

With poor Coneygree ruled out of the Gold Cup and Don Cossack still recovering from injury, it remains to be seen if a previous winner will line up in this year's race at the Cheltenham Festival.

That leaves the door open for Team Tizzard, who could well scoop up all the major prize money in this race given their embarrassment of riches in the division.

Thistlecrack is the star and a best of evens now following his King George romp and the Coneygree news. His arrival at the top table at Kempton was mightily impressive and it's very hard to quibble with his quotes.

The one thing that lingers in the back of the mind when considering his chances at evens, is that his worst performance over fences came at Cheltenham where he had some trouble at the open ditches.

I'm sure that experience will have done him more good than harm, if that's a saying, but at least his prohibitive odds mean there are some fancy prices being banded around about some good horses.

Stablemates Native River and French import Alary have been cut in recent days, while Cue Card is friendless in the betting suggesting he'll be rerouted to the Ryanair where he's the 5/1 favourite.

The Irish challenge looks the biggest threat to the Tizzard clan, with Djakadam and Outlander looking the most serious challengers if Don Cossack doesn't manage to make it to the race in defence of his title.

But the one horse that stands out at the prices is MINELLA ROCCO at 40/1.

Jonjo O'Neill's horse would in all likelihood have given Many Clouds a race in a Listed contest at Aintree last time had he stood on his feet, but a crashing fall at the last denied us the chance to see just how close he would've got.

Thankfully he was fine after that tumble, and though he will have to improve his fencing substantially to get competitive in a Gold Cup there's no doubting he has the potential to improve.

After all, he did beat Native River in last year's four miler, so we know he has the engine and Jonjo has a bit of previous when it comes to turning a stout stayer into a Gold Cup winner as he did the same thing with Synchronised.

Many Clouds himself would be interesting at 50s, but Oliver Sherwood seems adamant he's going to Aintree again via Newbury and Kelso, so another tilt at the Gold Cup seems unlikely for him which is a shame.

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