With just a week to go, Cheltenham Festival punters finally find themselves on that perilous brink between words and deeds. How, for instance, will they respond to Nicky Henderson's assessment of Simonsig's work yesterday as "breathtaking" and "simply fantastic"? After all, this is an odds-on shot in a novice chase. Depending on how things play out for the hottest favourites of the meeting – and Simonsig features among a cluster on the opening afternoon – there is potential for the stakes to be uncomfortably high by the time the bedlam reaches its climax in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
All the talk suggests that this is an unusually open field. It could yet pay, then, to heed the reliably understated Philip Hobbs on Captain Chris, who remains widely available at 20-1. Running through his team yesterday, Hobbs declared: "Of all our horses next week, to me he is very much the one that looks overpriced."
Foiled by Long Run only in a photo for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, Captain Chris looked poised for another close duel – this time with Cue Card – when losing all momentum two out at Ascot last month. Admittedly, he cannot afford to repeat that error on Friday week, and nor is it ideal that he is more comfortable racing right-handed. But that did not stop him winning the 2011 Arkle, and Hobbs reckons him entitled to raise his game on several counts.
"He's definitely better on good ground, which he hasn't had for ages," he said. "And remember, he didn't have his first race until he was six. He should be reaching his prime at nine, and is possibly still improving. He has probably just lacked experience until now. And while people talk about the distance as a bit of a question, it could even be that he actually wants it.
"Kempton was only the second time he had tried three miles, and he was obviously staying on well. In fact, he had been flat out before getting into the race, which is unusual. He has travelled well over shorter distances at Ascot, either side of that run – so I do wonder whether there was something amiss. Anyway he was staying on very strongly when fourth in the Ryanair last year."
Hobbs does not pretend to know whether Captain Chris would have seen off Cue Card but for his blunder. "I can't think there would have been much in it," he said. "But we'd definitely have stayed on. Both horses had just come off the bridle when he stood off much too far and landed on top of the fence. The thing is that until then it was the best he'd ever jumped."
Another past Festival winner, Menorah, returns for the Ryanair. "I ran him over three miles in the Aon Chase," Hobbs said. "And while I think he probably stayed all right, he doesn't want that very soft ground." And Balthazar King, who brought his trainer's 16th Festival trophy back to Somerset last year, defends the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase as one of the favourites. "He's in extremely good form," Hobbs said. "He's a much better horse fresh, so we've deliberately not run him since November."
Better ground will suit Planet Of Sound in the JLT Chase, while Colour Squadron (Pulteney) and Sadler's Risk (Coral Cup) have evidently had their handicap targets for a good while now. Hobbs also reserves a favourable mention for Pistol, in cheekpieces for the first time in the Fred Winter. "He pulls up in front and I think he'll be much better suited by a strongly run race," he stressed.
In his 28th season with a licence, Hobbs takes a characteristically temperate approach to the crucible of his year. "I keep reading Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson saying that they would be satisfied with one winner," he said. "I'd say exactly the same – only I would mean it!"
Chris McGrath's Nap: Dubawi Island (4.40 Southwell)
Disappointed at Lingfield last time but worth another chance restored to a surface he relishes, not least with a proficient claimer booked.
Next best: Holy Angel (2.40 Southwell)
Thriving since teaming up with apprentice rider.
On to watch: Realt Mor
(Gordon Elliott) was impressive at Navan on Saturday and must be respected if asked to run under a penalty at Cheltenham next week.
Where the money's going: Gevrey Chambertin
is 8-1 from 10-1 with Paddy Power for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey's Hurdle at Cheltenham next week.