Leading Irish racing writer Donn McClean brings us his five Festival fancies ahead of Cheltenham.
Our Conor has just about everything that you look for in a Triumph Hurdle horse. He had the pace to win over seven furlongs on the flat, yet he has proved this season that he had the stamina to see out a strongly-run two-mile race over hurdles on soft ground. He jumps well, he settles, he handles all types of ground, and he has a superbly willing attitude.
Winner of his first two races over hurdles, Dessie Hughes' horse stepped forward on those performances to win the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown on Hennessy day. That was a strong race. In Diakali and Blood Cotil, he beat two of the best juvenile hurdlers in Ireland at the time, and in Ruacana he had a British Grade 1 winner well behind in third place.
That was a good race. Not only did the right horses come to the fore, but the race was run at a good pace and the time was good, a full five seconds faster than the time that Tennis Cap clocked in winning the handicap hurdle run over the same course and distance later on the day.
Visually, it was also impressive. Our Conor always travelled easily for Bryan Cooper, he stalked Diakali into the home straight, picked up impressively to hit the front on the run to the final flight, pricked his ears, popped over the obstacle, then pricked his ears again before careering clear on the run-in. There was nothing not to like about the performance.
Leopardstown's Spring Juvenile has been a top pointer to the Triumph Hurdle since it was awarded Grade 1 status. The 2011 winner Unaccompanied went on to finish second in the Triumph Hurdle, while last year's first and third, Hisaabaat and Countrywide Flame, finished second and first respectively in the Triumph.
It is easy to see Diakali out-perform his odds in the Triumph as well, he should be better-suited by the extra premium that the Cheltenham race will place on stamina, and Far West and Rolling Star present a strong British challenge. But Our Conor is a deserving favourite.
There is no Gold Cup contender that polarises opinion like Sir Des Champs does. He doesn't have the form to be as short as 4/1, say the anti camp. Wait until Gold Cup day, say the pros.
The antis have a point. Beating a possibly-below-par Flemenstar by less than two lengths in the Irish Hennessy, over a distance that Peter Casey's horse probably doesn't fully stay, falls short of the performance that Bobs Worth put up in winning the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury off a mark of 160. On official ratings, the Gigginstown House horse is actually only the eighth best horse in the race, inferior to The Giant Bolster, inferior to Cape Tribulation. If the Gold Cup were a handicap, he would be getting 13lb from Silviniaco Conti and 9lb from Bobs Worth.
If you are betting Sir Des Champs in the Gold Cup then, you are betting potential over proven form, but that is legitimate in this case. You just get the feeling that Willie Mullins is bringing him along gradually, with the objective of having him reach his peak on Gold Cup day. Not that every other trainer with a horse in the race isn't aiming to bring his horse to the boil on Friday, but you get the feeling that the Gold Cup hasn't just been Sir Des Champs' primary goal all season - it has been his only goal.
Better in the Lexus Chase than he was in the John Durkan, and better in the Irish Hennessy than he was in the Lexus, it is reasonable to expect that he will be better again in the Gold Cup, possibly much better. He will have to put up a career-best if he is to win, but that is the case for every horse in the race, and it is reasonable to expect that there is a career-best forthcoming from the Robin Des Champs gelding.
Still only seven, he has raced just eight times over fences in his life. He still has plenty of scope for progression. Like Bobs Worth, he is unbeaten at Cheltenham, he is two for two at the Festival, he should be better for the better ground that he should encounter on Friday - so it won't be good ground, but it won't be soft to heavy either - and he should improve for the extra two and a half furlongs.
There is every chance that he will drift in the betting as the race approaches. He has always been short for what he has achieved, and there is a sufficient groundswell of opinion against him to suggest that the bookmakers will want to get him on the day. If you are intending to back him, probably best to wait until the morning of the race. The potential downside of waiting is small. It is difficult to see him go off much shorter than current best odds of 4/1.
His stable companion Our Conor is now closing in on his correct price for the Triumph Hurdle, but the Dessie Hughes-trained Lyreen Legend still looks under-rated and over-priced at 14/1 for the RSA Chase.
A high-class novice hurdler last season, the six-year-old has shaped like a highly talented staying chaser this term. He was travelling well when he fell at the third last fence in the Grade 1 Topaz Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, and he ran a cracker on his only subsequent run to finish a close-up fourth behind fellow RSA Chase aspirants Boston Bob and Lord Windermere in the Dr PJ Moriarty Chase on Irish Hennessy day.
A couple of things about that run. Firstly, it probably came up a little too quickly after his fall in the Topaz. He was reportedly a little stiff and sore after his mishap, he had to have over a week off, and his trainer faced a race against time to get him ready for the Moriarty Chase. It is reasonable to expect that he will come on for that run.
Secondly, he travelled supremely well through the race. He and Boston Bob duelled for a little while at the head of the field, but it always appeared that the Dessie Hughes horse was travelling better. He was allowed stride on at the third last, which was probably plenty early enough for a horse who might have just been a gallop short of absolute peak fitness. Even so, he stuck to his task resolutely after he was passed on the run to the final fence to go down by just a total of about a length.
He should be better with that run and that experience under his belt. He should also be better now stepped up to an extended three miles. A half-brother to a winner over a mile and six furlongs on the flat, he was under consideration for the four-miler at one stage, so he should have no trouble seeing out the RSA Chase trip. He could out-perform his odds by a fair way.
First Lieutenant still has the Gold Cup as an option but, now that Sizing Europe has been declared for the Champion Chase, the task that he would face if he ran in the Ryanair Chase instead should be a whole lot easier than it might have been.
Opinion seems to be generally divided on what First Lieutenant's optimum trip is, and his trainer Mouse Morris - who sent out War Of Attrition to win the Gold Cup in 2006 and who knows just a little about these things - is desperate to run him in the blue riband on Friday.However, Gigginstown House obviously have Sir Des Champs for the Gold Cup and, while Michael O'Leary's operation are not averse to running two horses in the same race - the white cap has had a fair airing this season - it is significant that these two horses charted different paths at last year's Festival, despite the fact that the RSA Chase looked like the correct race for both at the time.
But even leaving Sir Des Champs aside, there is a chance that a strongly-run two miles and five furlongs will suit First Lieutenant better than an unforgiving three miles and two and a half furlongs. It appeared that he was out-stayed by Bobs Worth both in last year's RSA Chase and in this season's Hennessy.
In the Hennessy, it was noticeable that he was a little keen down the back straight, and that Bryan Cooper was anxious to restrain him just a little, conserve his energy for the final haul up Newbury's never-ending home straight. Alas, his energy reserves began to flicker on the run to the final fence.
Back over the shorter trip, his rider could be as aggressive on him as he liked. He is a top class horse who is probably better going left-handed than going right and, a son of Presenting, he should appreciate ground that is better than the heavy ground on which he was just nutted by Tidal Bay in the Lexus Chase. He beat last year's Champion Hurdle winner in the 2011 Neptune Hurdle - run, incidentally, over more or less the Ryanair distance - and he ran a cracker to finish second to Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth in last year's RSA Chase, the pair of them clear, so we know that he handles the track. He hasn't run since Christmas, which is a positive, and he should be primed by Mouse to run a big race.
From several different options, the only entry that Alderwood retains this week is the Grand Annual one, and he should be a major player in the Festival finale.
JP McManus' horse managed to win the County Hurdle last year off a mark of 139, despite the fact that he was squeezed up fairly badly against the inside rail as he rounded the home turn. He proved the merit of that performance by going on to win a Grade 2 contest at the Irish Grand National meeting at Fairyhouse, and a Grade 1 contest at the Punchestown Festival, ending the season on an Irish hurdles mark of 148.
After falling on the flat on the run-in on desperate ground on his chasing bow at Navan in November, the Tom Mullins-trained gelding has shaped nicely in his most recent three runs over fences, apparently improving with each run. He stayed on well to beat the useful Noel Meade horse Prima Vista in the fog back at Navan in January, and he ran well to finish second to Lastoftheleaders in a handicap chase at Punchestown on his latest start, travelling well through the race but just giving best to the more battle-hardened winner from the final fence.
A mark of 140 is more than fair for his British handicap chase debut. It would see him set to carry 10st 11lb if top weight Petit Robin stands his ground, or 10st 12lb if French Opera is left as top weight, and either would be fine. As a course winner, it is probable that this race has been his target for a while, and you can be sure that Tom Mullins will have him primed to run for his life, just as he did on the same day last year.
* For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.