Fingal Bay set for explosive start to Cheltenham Open


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The Independent Online

Though exploits of Kauto Star are unlikely to be matched any time soon, at least it seems his absence from the scene may be cheerfully borne. As the jumpers have gathered momentum there have already been tantalising glimpses of the future from emerging talent such as Cue Card, Silviniaco Conti, Kauto Stone, For Non Stop and Flemenstar. And more frissons are likely during the three-day meeting at Cheltenham that starts today.

Another of the best novices of last season, Grands Crus, heads the betting for tomorrow's Paddy Power Gold Cup, the most valuable of the 18 races at the fixture that traditionally ratchets up levels of anticipation. And the one who is expected to be the most exciting of the lot as a senior, the two-mile star Sprinter Sacre, is scheduled to strut his stuff on Sunday. Thankfully, the king is not dead. But long live the princes.

Though "only" a Grade Three handicap, tomorrow's two-and-a-half mile feature has been taken by some proper horses en route to greater things. Imperial Commander, for instance – the winner four years ago – in due course followed up at the Festival, in the Ryanair Chase and then the Gold Cup itself, on his next two visits to the track.

Today's opener, which is a contest for first-season chasers, has just as impressive a pedigree. The past six winners have included Grands Crus, Weird Al, Imperial Commander and no less than Denman, and among those placed was Exotic Dancer and Don't Push It. Even some of the ones who came home riderless deserve mention, given that they include the likes of Cue Card and The Giant Bolster.

The proven class act, over hurdles at least, among today's five runners is Fingal Bay (1.15). The six-year-old, who won over the smaller obstacles at this meeting a year ago and went on to score at the highest level, looked absolutely at home on his debut over fences at Chepstow last month. He missed his chance for glory at the Festival because of a pulled hamstring, but is already among the favourites to make amends in the RSA Chase in March.

Likewise, the two expected to dominate today's Grade Two novices' hurdle – Dodging Bullets (2.25) and Tominator – feature prominently in the ante-post lists for its Festival equivalent, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. Dodging Bullets' greater experience over obstacles and at the course may serve him well, at least for today.

One of Cheltenham's specialities is its Marmite offering, the series of cross-country races over the quirky fences on the infield. There will be keen interest in the sporting presence of the Czech raider Orphee Des Blins, long-priced but easy winner last month of the world's most famous contest in the category, the Velka Pardubika. But the Irish raider Sizing Australia (3.00) – whose top-class Henry De Bromhead stablemate Sizing Europe made it two from two for the season with an electric 20-length success at Clonmel yesterday – looks primed after a pipe-opener at Naas.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Sizing Santiago (4.05 Cheltenham) Not the first to have improved for a switch to his current stable and, as a half-brother to the same outfit's high-class three-miler Take The Stand, is likely to relish today's step up in trip.

Next best

Archie Stevens (12.00 Lingfield) Has got his act together in the past month and, after quickening well clear at Wolverhampton last week, looks capable of transferring his progress to better company.

One to watch

Cantlow, a creditable second on his debut over fences over two miles, looks certain to start to repay owner J P McManus