Apple’s Shakira’s form was franked in the Fred Winter with Nube Negra finishing third and she defeated the aforementioned on the bridle. She is top class, has course form and will take the beating @ 2/1. It was hard not to be impressed with the way Redicean won the Adonis at Kempton but that has not been a strong trial for this race in recent times and one has to be cautious about the strength of the form. That said Alan King is not a trainer to be taken lightly and the 5/1 looks a fair price. The Spring Hurdle at Leopardstown in February often has a big say in this race and the one-two there, Mr Adjudicator and Farclas, who are closely matched should not be too far away @ 8/1 though there is no reason why placings would alter. The interesting runner is Stormy Island, who is a shorter price than the previously mentioned stablemate Mr Adjudicator, that tells its own story and puts Stormy Island in a very good light. He looks the chief threat to Apple’s Shakira @ 6/1. Sussex Ranger has done nothing wrong and bumped into one last time in We Have A Dream and looks overpriced @ 20/1.
As ever the County Hurdle is fiercely competitive with numerous unexposed types lining up. The likes of Sandsend and Whisky Sour have to be respected but it may pay to opt for horses with handicap experience. Unsurprisingly Willie Mullins has dominated this race winning it four times in recent years and his best hopes seem to be Bleu Et Rouge, Merie Devie and Lagostovegas. Bleu Et Rouge will have to produce a serious performance carrying top weight, a feat Arctic Fire produced to win last year while Lagostovegas has some progressive handicap form last summer and warmed up for this in Febraury, he can go well @ 20/1. Merie Devie was not that far behind Barra, third in the Coral Cup, on her penultimate start and that would give her a chance @ 14/1. The other Irish challenger to consider is Ben Dundee who can be forgiven his latest run but before that was consistent in handicaps and can go well @ 20/1. Spiritofthegames has performed admirably in both the Lanzarote and Betfair Hurdles and could be on the premises @ 20/1 while Flying Tiger drops in grade and this former festival winner should be on the shortlist @ 14/1. At bigger prices Mohaayed @ 33/1 and Sternrubin @ 50/1 are more than capable of running well in this.
Santini’s victory over Black Op back in January looks very good now and he is the one to beat @ 5/1. Nicky Henderson has a strong hand here with Chef Des obeaux @ 11/2, a good winner on heavy ground last time at Haydock but has been beaten by Santini earlier in the season. Mr Whipped should not be given up on just yet as Musselburgh did not suit last time. He can go well @ 28/1. Barry Geraghty has chosen OK Corral, Nicky Henderson’s final runner but he needs to improve plenty to be involved in this, it may be that Tower Bridge comes out best of the McManus horses after a good victory over Jetz at Leopardstown and is big price @ 28/1. Somewhat of an unknown quantity is Chris’s Dream who won by sixty four lengths at Clonmel on testing ground and it remains to be seen how strong that form is but he has to come into calculations 8/1. Reliable and gutsy Poetic Rhythm will run his race @ 14/1 but may find one too good again while Fabulous Saga, a victor over Pertemps winner Delta Work, can go well @ 33/1.
Might Bite is the most talented horse in the race but is not the most straightforward. There are questions to answer: Will he swerve towards the stands in similar fashion to last year? Will he produce enough up the hill on heavy ground? There is no hiding place in the Gold Cup and Might Bite will have to show plenty of resilience up the hill when push comes to shove. The solid horse, proven in conditions is Native River who put in his best performance on his return at Newbury from Cloudy Dream. He has to be thereabouts @ 9/2 presuming that effort has not left a mark. The main Irish challengers, Our Duke and Road To Respect both had their form franked strongly this week. Our Duke @ 11/2 looks a strong contender and his defeat of Presenting Percy now looks particularly good but his lack of Cheltenham form just casts a slight doubt and his jumping could be better. Road To Respect’s Christmas Chase victory was given a massive boost with Balko Des Flos winning the Ryanair well and third, Outlander, just missing out in the Irish Gold Cup. He should handle conditions and is a contender @ 14/1. Killultagh Vic, Definitly Red and Edwulf should all go well but need to find more improvement to trouble the principles.
Burning Ambition ran well behind the talented Gilgamboa at Punchestown and that looks the best form on offer and presuming he handles Cheltenham, is a leading contender. Foxrock also defeated by Gilgamboa last time but by a wider margin than Burning Ambition, does have questions to answer as far as Cheltenham goes having never run well at the course and his jumping is not the best. Paul Nicholls is mob-handed with last year’s one-two Pacha Du Polder and Wonderful Charm, both have to be respected but Virak may be the value @ 14/1 having won both his starts since switching to this sphere and will enjoy conditions.
Quickened Clear’s Best Bets:
Flying Tiger – 2.10 Cheltenham – 1pt win @ 14/1
Last year’s Fred Winter winner has been campaigned in graded company this season, running respectably but obviously not up to that standard. His only foray into handicap company this season was at Doncaster in December carrying top weight on good ground. He will enjoy conditions here, has a nice weight and with Noel Fehily Booked, is worth a bet @ 14/1.
Santini – 2.50 Cheltenham – 1pt win @ 9/2
Santini’s defeat of Black Op earlier in the season now looks rock solid, graded form after Black Op’s performance in the Ballymore. His nearest threat in the market is stablemate Chef Des Obeaux who he has already comfortably accounted for at Newbury and though a fairly obvious selection, he looks too big a price @ 9/2.