Imperial Commander can set the gold standard for Festival trials
However disfiguring and dispiriting its latest corruption case, British horseracing could hardly contrive a better distraction than is likely to be prised from winter's grip at Cheltenham tomorrow. True, the course must still pass a dawn inspection, but the groundstaff's hard work in clearing snow from the frost blankets is expected to pay off with as good a card of jump racing as has been staged this winter.
The Festival trials card is reinforced by the Victor Chandler Chase, salvaged from Ascot last weekend, albeit the presence of the mesmerising Sprinter Sacre (1.50) is likely to yield the least competitive race of the day. A forecast wager on Somersby is recommended for any who demand still more stimulation than can be provided by the most spectacular chaser in training.
One caveat that extends through the card is that conditions are likely to be very dead, after congealing under the blankets for over a week. And further uncertainty infects the Argento Chase, already shorn of one favourite in Bobs Worth and not certain to retain another, with Tidal Bay reckoned "50-50" to line up after being declared today – though Paul Nicholls reported him responding positively to treatment for pus in a foot.
The champion trainer has been masterly in his rejuvenation of Tidal Bay, whose late charge is tailor-made to cut down tiring front-runners on this hill, in particular. But he has a penalty for doing just that in a Grade One at Leopardstown last time, and must give 10lb to a past Gold Cup winner. Clearly, Imperial Commander (2.25) requires a leap of faith, sidelined by various problems for 22 months, but he has a history of going extremely well fresh and in his pomp was good enough even to break up the epoch-making rivalry of Kauto Star and Denman. He will look absurdly good value if remotely near his best.
Grands Crus travelled well for a long way in the King George, but has yet to convince as a thorough stayer, and the each-way value could be Cape Tribulation. He is entering his prime, and matched his improvement over hurdles last spring when switched back to fences for an authoritative success at Wetherby on Boxing Day.
The Rewards4Racing Cleeve Hurdle permits Oscar Whisky to settle once and for all the debate over his best trip. He seemed not to get home when tried against Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle last year, but injury to the champion has tempted connections to test the water again. At the odds, the ball is very much in his court and for now the value sooner concerns a couple of rivals who, like Big Buck's, have reverted to timber from steeplechasing. Kauto Stone is one, but Reve De Sivola (3.35) laid down a really persuasive marker at Ascot.
There are also significant Festival rehearsals in a couple of novice divisions over timber, too full of improvers to permit any dogmatic view. That even applies to the Neptune Investments Hurdle, with just five runners, but something has to give and The New One (3.00) could well complete a massive 40 minutes or so for the Imperial Commander stable.
Even the handicaps are likely to prove very instructive with March in mind, not least with Bold Sir Brian (1.15) making his first visit to Cheltenham. The Scottish raider must raise his game afresh but has been brought along with exemplary patience, and an entry for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup itself suggests that he has not yet reached the ceiling of his improvement. He faces another improver in Katenko, but backers may find an undue southern bias inflating the odds in their favour.
Important Festival signposts must also be deciphered over the weekend at Leopardstown, albeit Arvika Ligeonniere faces just two rivals today in polishing his claims as Ireland's leading candidate for the Racing Post Arkle Chase. Tomorrow his stablemate Hurricane Fly can be expected to extend his prolific Grade One record against the reappearing Binocular in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle. He looks right back to his best this season. Hurricane Fly's trainer, Willie Mullins, marshalling another formidable cavalry for the Festival, also saddles one of his top novice hurdlers earlier on the card, in Pont Alexandre. After the famine, the feast.
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