Moon Racer to be the star of Cheltenham's first day
IT is now under a week until the tape goes up on the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and the biggest, most expectant roar in sport will be heard for miles around.
Arguments rage about whether the move to a four-day Festival back in 2005 has been a success, with the variety of races on offer meaning some of the leading lights can avoid each other, thus diluting the quality on show.
That said, judging by the massive crowd at Sean Graham/The Irish News Preview Night at the Europa Hotel on Monday night, interest in the meeting as a whole has definitely not been diluted.
And for many of the racing purists in the room, the opening day of the is usually the best of the lot.
The highlight of that first day, the Champion Hurdle, might not have the glamour of Friday’s Gold Cup but those in the know relish this race each year, and while the 2017 renewal is as much about the horses that aren’t there as those that are, it perhaps promises to be even more of a thriller than would otherwise have been the case.
Faugheen was a brilliant winner of this two years ago for the all-conquering Willie Mullins-Ruby Walsh axis but was unable to defend his title last term because of injury.
In his absence, the brilliant mare Annie Power stepped into the breach for owner Rich Ricci and demolished the field again in the hands of Walsh.
Yet both of those most recent champions have been ruled out this time, leaving us with a wide-open race which certainly split opinion at the top table on Monday night.
As it stands, the JP McManus-owned pair of Yanworth and Buveur D’Air lead the betting at 7/2 (Sky Bet) and 4/1 (generally) respectively, yet I believe there are reasons to oppose both, certainly at those prices.
Alan King’s Yanworth narrowly lost out to Yorkhill in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival last term, and while he drops back in trip from that in the Champion, he perhaps just lacks the turn of foot for this one.
He definitely didn’t impress in his prep run at Wincanton last month, just about beating a field which was well short of top class.
It could be that he needed the outing there, and he did see off the re-opposing The New One handily at Kempton over Christmas, while he seems to do enough and little more.
I have reservations about him and at the price that is never a good thing, while the fact he will have a completely new partner in Mark Walsh is another slight negative.
Of the leading pair, I’d rather have Buveur D’Air, who has been switched back over hurdles by Nicky Henderson after doing little wrong on the novice chase path.
He was third in the Supreme last year, but when you consider that he was beaten by Altior – a long odds-on shot for the Arkle – and Min, it’s not bad form at all.
He then came out and beat Petit Mouchoir at Aintree with Limini well back in third, and both of those are also strong contenders here, so you couldn’t rule Buveur D’Air out, although the value might have gone out of the price.
Petit Mouchoir has been a horse reborn this term since moving to Henry de Bromhead’s yard, falling when going very well in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle before beating a very decent yardstick in Nichols Canyon by seven lengths at Leopardstown at Christmas.
He then won the Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of January, but the way he toiled as the line approached to let Footpad get within a length would be worrying with the Cheltenham hill in mind.
Limini adds an element of the unknown to the race – if she is allowed to run – and the fact she will be wearing the Ricci colours means she will definitely have strong support come Tuesday.
I know a number of people who have backed her for this under non-runner-no-bet terms and are very happy to have done so, but I can’t help but feeling they are being swept away by the fact she would be following a very similar path to glory as Annie Power.
Limini is not as good as that stablemate, something David Casey, assistant trainer to Mullins, was keen to point out on Monday night.
Casey went as far as saying that if it was up to him, Limini wouldn’t be supplemented for the race at all, with his belief being that Vroum Vroum Mag is a better mare and would have a better chance.
That one is likely to go for the Mares’ Hurdle, however, so Limini will probably go in the Champion with slight chances, but nothing more, and you would want bigger than 6/1 with that being the case.
Brain Power is another worth looking at for Nicky Henderson but the one I like most is Moon Racer, and I’m just hoping he is allowed to run by David Pipe and connections.
The 2015 Champion Bumper winner also has an entry in the Supreme Novices’ and would definitely go in that one with a massive chance against Mullins’ Melon and Ballyandy, who he has beaten twice this term.
Yet, such is the wide-open nature of the Champion Hurdle that Pipe and his team are very tempted to go for the big one, with the noises coming from the top table on Monday suggesting it is the likeliest option.
I believe it is certainly worth a gamble, and at 12/1 Moon Racer should be backed each-way with all firms now going non-runner-no-bet.
He won the Bumper well two years ago, crucially with Yanworth back in fourth, and there is nothing like Festival form to go on as a guide each year.
He is three-from-three overall at Prestbury Park, most recently having the well-touted Ballyandy back in third in a Supreme trial back in November.
He has beaten that rival twice this term and whatever he goes in, he has a serious chance.
I firmly believe he would be in the frame in the Champion and is crying out to be backed at 12s, while you can also get him in the book at sixes for the Supreme, knowing it’s money back if he doesn’t run.
If he doesn’t go in the big one, my nod would probably just about go to Buveur D’Air by default, but Moon Racer looks the best route to profit on day one, thereby setting punters up for a great week as a whole.
Moon Racer, Champion Hurdle, e/w, 12/1 (Ladbrokes, William Hill, non-runner-no-bet)
Moon Racer, Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, e/w, 6/1 (888sport.com, non-runner-no-bet)
HAVING taken abuse from colleagues and so-called friends on Saturday night after getting the David Haye-Tony Bellew fight slightly wrong, it was very nice to be able to hit back with a few winners just 24 hours later.
The WGC-Mexico Championship could hardly have gone better for Odds and Ends readers, as three of our four selections returned a tidy profit.
Headline pick Dustin Johnson recovered from a late wobble to claim the title at 7/1, while Jon Rahm and Thomas Pieters also did the business.
Rahm was picked each-way at 30/1 and duly finished third, with Pieters sharing fifth to also pick up place money, having been selected at 70/1.
All in all it was a profitable weekend, despite the David Haye setback, and as it followed on from a pair of correct selections in the EFL Cup final the previous week, there should be a few quid in the coffers ahead of a busy couple of months, with Cheltenham, Aintree and The Masters all to come.
This week’s PGA Tour action comes from the Valspar Championship on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort in Florida.
Most of the big guns take the week off to recharge their batteries but Justin Thomas and Henrik Stenson both play and dispute favouritism at around 11/1.
This a tricky event to get a handle on, played on a precision course, so a couple of smaller each-way bets at decent prices is suggested.
My first pick is Ryan Moore at 28/1 on a layout which suits him to a tee where he was third last year and fifth in 2015.
I’ll also put forward Charles Howell III, a man who has refound form in recent months and has been in the top 15 in each of the last three years in the Valspar.
He can be backed at 40/1 in a number of places, while Luke Donald is a 55/1 chance with Stan James and should also be considered.
The former world number one is creeping back towards form and won here in 2012 and was fourth in each of the next two years.
Hopefully at least one of that trio gets in the shake-up and keeps the winning run going.
Ryan Moore, Valspar Championship, e/w, 28/1 (Bet Victor)
Charles Howell III, Valspar Championship, e/w, 40/1 (General)
Luke Donald, Valspar Championship, e/w, 55/1 (Stan James)