Both the big races at Cheltenham today revisit the perennial punting dilemma, in that the most likely winner in each case is not necessarily the best bet. Kasbah Bliss and Voy Por Ustedes dominate the markets on the Ladbrokes World Hurdle and Ryanair Chase respectively, but while their chance is obvious, so are the perils of the parsimonious odds on offer.
Baldly assessed by the official ratings, Kasbah Bliss is not even the most able horse in his race, Punchestowns being ranked 2lb his superior. Timeform does have the French horse ahead, but only by 1lb. Yet he is no better than 11-10 favourite, largely on the basis of his improved form on the Flat since his fine run against Inglis Drever in this race last year.
Certainly there was a persuasive swagger about the way he coasted home on his return to jumping at Haydock last month, in heavy conditions previously considered inimical. But that performance simply reiterated that speed is his primary asset, and a new generation of staying hurdlers seem unlikely to permit any horse to win this race on the bridle.
Admittedly Kasbah Bliss showed that he is made of the right stuff when failing only by a length against a vintage scrapper in Inglis Drever. The chances are, moreover, that he was produced too soon that day, and may well have been idling up the hill.
But the odds leave no margin for error, and the example of his stablemate Punjabi here on Tuesday suggests that Punchestowns (3.20) is going to run the race of his life. Punjabi made dramatic improvement for his prep race and their trainer, Nicky Henderson, was conspicuously unconcerned when Punchestowns was beaten by Big Buck's here in January. For a start, he was conceding 8lb in horrible ground, and Henderson was adamant he would be returning today with a much fitter horse.
Big Buck's is a rather awkward customer, and might conceivably have had more in hand than seemed apparent. He seems certain to play a role once again, but a less conservative each-way alternative is Tazbar, who produced a top-class handicap performance last time and has yet to have his stamina properly examined. A strong gallop would make him extremely interesting at 33-1, but there are few obvious front-runners in this field and, still lightly raced, Punchestowns can make class tell.
By gathering together so many misfits and refugees from the Gold Cup and Champion Chase, the Ryanair Chase permits no illusions about the adulteration of quality achieved by the Festival's extension to a fourth day. True, Voy Por Ustedes and Our Vic beat both Clive Smith's superstars at Aintree last April, but few would pretend that Master Minded or Kauto Star were at their best.
Voy Por Ustedes candidly comes here to avoid Master Minded, but merits respect as a dual Festival winner and his chance is blatant after stifling any lingering concerns about his stamina at Ascot last month. He does have an occasional propensity to whack a fence, however, and he too must assert an official disparity of just 1lb in official ratings with Our Vic.
The latter won this decisively last season and his stable was enduring a barren run when he disappointed at Christmas, but the same is true of Imperial Commander (2.40). Impressive round here in the autumn, this is much the least exposed horse in the field and – as an each-way alternative to the favourite – is preferred to Tidal Bay, whose jumping and attitude seem to be deteriorating.
The rest of the card comprises handicap ballast, but will be frantically competitive. High Chimes (4.40) looked a potential Gold Cup horse in winning the Kim Muir Chase last year, and can follow up off a 12lb higher mark. After a promising comeback, he suffered a nasty cut when disappointing in the Welsh National but has been freshened up since.
TRANQUIL SEA (nap 1.30) was one of the best young hurdlers in Ireland last season and, having started over fences as his build suggested he would, is strongly fancied for the opener after making a promising return from a break last time.
The Irish also have an intriguing candidate for the next in The Rall (2.05), unexposed at this trip and with sound excuses for his last two defeats – having first struggled with heavy ground, and then needed the run after a lay-off.
It meanwhile feels safe to say that Three Mirrors (next best 4.00) will be primed for this, having been sharpened up over an inadequate trip last time.