The glamour of a "plot" horse has so rubbed off on the Cheltenham Festival handicaps that trainers nowadays need all the artistry of old merely to guarantee a run. Of no fewer than 195 entries for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle, for instance, even some rated within 5lb of the weights ceiling are not yet certain to make the final cut of 24 runners.
But the best trainers reliably greet new challenges with new answers. After all, Jonjo O'Neill was able to win two of these handicaps last year only through the same intuition – specifically, exactly where a new peak could take a horse – that also won him the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup with Synchronised, himself an upgraded handicapper.
With at least one winner at each of the past seven Festivals, O'Neill deserves acknowledgement as one of its modern masters. Today he made the short journey from Jackdaws Castle, over the lip of the Cotswolds and down to the racecourse, for the publication of weights for the 11 handicaps. With only a dozen days to go, he has yet to finalise targets with connections of several with more than one entry. But he did offer some helpful insights – and also confirmed that his top hope did not lurk in a handicap, anyway.
Taquin Du Seuil has only been beaten by one horse in four starts over timber, and that was My Tent Or Yours. The latter is hot favourite for the big novice hurdle over two miles, leaving Taquin Du Seuil among the leading fancies for the Neptune, over another five furlongs.
"He's my best chance," O'Neill said. "It's a fantastic race, maybe the race of the week, and he has done all his winning on soft going – so if it dried out a lot, that might be a worry. But he's in grand form and, touch wood, jumps well."
As a triple Festival winner, who again excelled when runner-up last year, Albertas Run qualifies as the obvious standard bearer when resurfacing in the Ryanair Chase – albeit O'Neill implies that the veteran might rather pick and choose his duties nowadays. "He's just another year older – and another year cuter," he shrugged. "He's working OK, he just does what he has to, but he's in good form. It would be a waste of time on heavy ground, so it would be a big help for it to keep drying out."
As for that pack of handicap aces, O'Neill seems inclined to shuffle Shutthefrontdoor over a longer trip, in the Pertemps Final, in preference to the Coral Cup. "I'd be worried about his lack of experience round here, with a lot of runners and hustle and bustle," he said. "He's high enough for what he has done, and I was actually a shade disappointed with him at Carlisle. He was very novicey, and you can't spend all that time in the air when they're flat out round here. You have to be slick. That's why, personally, I'd go three miles with him."
Mr Watson is another with few miles on the clock, and O'Neill again sounds disposed to go up in distance, for the Coral Cup, rather than stay at two miles in the County. "We have been trying to teach him to settle a bit," he said. "He's getting the hang of it now, and you don't usually have too much of a problem holding on to them round here."
Also likely to step up in trip is Merry King, who has a couple of handicap options but looks tailor-made for the four-miler, with his relaxed style and bold jumping. "The proof of the pudding comes now, in the eating," O'Neill said. "Though it still feels a long time to Tuesday week."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Miako (3.20 Southwell) Unexposed and bred to relish first experience of this surface.
Fire In Babylon (6.00 Kempton) Down to a good mark and promised to exploit it soon when closing for third on only his second start for his new stable, and his first in a tongue-tie.
One to watch
Rich Again (James Bethell) Beat only two of his 11 rivals after meeting traffic at Lingfield on Saturday but for the third consecutive start shaped as though capable of better.
Where the money's going
Our Mick is 8-1 from 10-1 with William Hill for the JLT Specialty Chase at Cheltenham.