Paul Nicholls on recovery mission with Arkle challenger Fago
It is not hard to see why only five others should have had the temerity to line up against Sprinter Sacre in last year's race. Whether his stablemate Simonsig already deserves quite so much respect in the Racing Post Arkle Chase is another matter.
The grey was himself an impressive winner at the last Festival, of course, over hurdles. But his steeplechasing career for now comprises two spins within a week, either side of Christmas, against a grand total of four rivals – all so palpably outclassed that he started one race at 2-9 and the other at 1-6. Moreover, he was obliged to miss an intended rehearsal at Newbury the other day, when found to be slightly off colour, and a cold look at his form suggests he has never yet encountered a rival remotely as accomplished as Overturn.
Unfortunately, there again seems to be a lack of depth among novice chasers over two miles. Simonsig and Overturn are already quoted as short as 4-6 and 3-1 respectively for Cheltenham, and the next two in the market both fell last time out. Both command automatic respect, even so, as the chosen representatives of champion trainers either side of the Irish Sea: Arvika Ligeonniere for Willie Mullins, and Fago for Paul Nicholls.
Fago, subject of an infectiously upbeat assessment at his trainer's media open morning on Wednesday, gets an 11th-hour chance to shake up the market at Sandown today. He only has two rivals, but the famous sequence of fences in the back straight gives him every opportunity to restore faith in his jumping.
Fago was included among a draft of French youngsters imported before Christmas by Nicholls, retirement or injury having claimed several of his established stars. "He'd got beat in a Grade One over two miles six furlongs, but led at the last and I think he just wants two miles," Nicholls explained. "He was like Master Minded, when he was in France – he wasn't really getting the trip. He went to Newbury first time out for us over two, and won nicely, and then was hard on the bridle when he fell at the second-last at Warwick."
Acknowledging this mishap as "the last thing we wanted to happen, just before the Festival", Nicholls hopes that Fago can get back on an even keel today, with less than three weeks to go. He is already looking ahead, however – not just to the Arkle, but to next season as well. "If Simonsig and Overturn go off in front, you're not going to be taking them on," he said. "You need a horse with plenty of speed to follow them. The race might just be run to suit him, if they go quick and he can just follow along. Whatever happens, when he has had a summer with us and we can start from scratch, he'll be a much better horse."
Two other Festival runners given a conspicuously positive assessment by Nicholls on Wednesday were in demand with bookmakers. Far West is 5-1 from 6-1 with Paddy Power for the JCB Triumph Hurdle, while Sam Winner is 6-1 from 8-1 with Coral for the Pertemps Final.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Barenger (1.45 Sandown) Did not seem to last home over an extra half-mile last time and his previous third over course and distance looks rock-solid form.
Flavius Victor (2.30 Lingfield)
One to watch
Saoi (William Knight) Has few miles on the clock and was unlucky not to complete the hat-trick at Lingfield on Saturday.
Where the money's going
My Tent Or Yours is 11-8 from 7-4 with the sponsors for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, while his stablemate Binocular is 10-1 from 14-1 for the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
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