The gathering storm: Cheltenham stages jump racing's greatest festival

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The Independent Online

Let's cut to the chase here. Only one horse lines up for the first championship race of the meeting with the palpable right to prove himself in a league of his own. The odds against Sizing Europe in the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle may be too short for some, wary of depleting their reserves so early in the piece. But they would have to be a lot shorter still to vitiate that fever of self-reproach, no less corrosive to morale at this stage of proceedings, should he win.

For all yesterday's gales, it would have taken something pretty apocalyptic for conditions to be any more inimical to the congenial measurement of class than those that prevailed when Sizing Europe came here on reconnaissance in November. Nobody could remember a viler day on the course.

But the Waterford horse gleamed through the muck and sleet. Having travelled with lustrous ease, he lost his position when his jockey chose a different path from the pack coming down the hill. Before you knew it, he was back in front, still on the bridle, and loping eagerly up the hill. After a tentative novice season, he had unmistakably come of age.

It was only a handicap, albeit a valuable one, but those who were instinctively snooty about the form were flabbergasted the following month when the runner-up, Osana, tried his luck in a rather more select field. He made all, and was immediately anointed the best British prospect in a division routinely dominated by the Irish in recent years.

Two of the benchmark Irish hurdlers in that time, Hardy Eustace and Al Eile, provided Sizing Europe with a formidable test when he, in turn, stepped up in class at Leopardstown in January. Sizing Europe responded with an astounding performance, seeming suffused with energy throughout and bounding clear on the bridle.

His talented young trainer, Henry de Bromhead, has recognised that SIZING EUROPE (3.15) clearly goes well fresh. After a very light second season, there seems little doubt that he will run his race today. The horse's one Achilles' heel is perceived to be his jumping, which suggests him to be already yearning for fences. But he coped serenely with a big field here in November, and it may prove that his reach and athleticism may come into their own when he gets a severe gallop.

Though Osana is 6lb better off for their meeting in November, his only real hope of reversing places is the relentless improvement in his stable's overall form in the meantime. David Pipe has kept his powder very dry, and Osana can be relied upon to run for his life today, but it is surely asking him a bit much – as a one-dimensional front-runner – to try to bludgeon this lot into the ground.

Even less has been seen this season of Sublimity. His only start since that stylish success in this race last year was behind Osana in December, when he shaped perfectly adequately in fourth. Overall, it would be some achievement to get enough solid pieces of the phantom together to deal with a more searching task this time.

It would be gratifying to see Harchibald redress a thousand calumnies by winning today. His generosity on the bridle has invited many a charge of cowardice off it, and success on the Flat last month indicates that he is in good heart. The only reservation is that he has already, somehow, come back from the dead this season, and must surely have passed "tipping point" by now.

The value alternatives to the favourite are instead Ebaziyan, who is the same sort of price as when he romped home in the opener last year and has not had comparable conditions since; and Farmer Brown, who has been freshened up after disappointing last time but had previously progressed to the fringe of the elite. He loves pouncing off a strong gallop, and is ridden by the very man for the job in Davy Russell.

An early claim to next year's crown will doubtless be staked in the Anglo Irish Bank Supreme Novices' Hurdle, where it looks hard enough even to pick the best of Nicky Henderson's runners, never mind the other 19. In another race dominated by the Irish in recent years, the defection of Fiveforthree to tomorrow's card leaves Captain Cee Bee (2.00) as the focus of their most insistent briefings. The fact that their owner's retained jockey rides Binocular should ensure a price that makes allowances for this horse's inexperience.

Noland (2.35), one of only two British horses to win the opener in the past seven years, is back for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy. He jumped magnificently over the tough Sandown fences the other day and only the fact that he missed all last season, implying some latent physical vulnerability, reduces confidence that he can outclass these rivals.

Patsy Hall is a real banana skin in the William Hill Chase, having joined Tony Martin since beating no less a horse than Aces Four over course and distance as a novice. There are some pretty stale names in this race, after all, the obvious exception being An Accordion. But in terms of value PONMEOATH (nap 4.0) appeals as the bet of the day at 20-1. Admittedly, he must overcome some ruthless treatment by the British handicapper, but he was promising much more to come in the autumn and may now be primed to show it after a couple of spins over hurdles.

Martin may not have much longer to wait for a winner, however, with Wonderkid (next best 4.35) a luminous candidate for the BGC Handicap Chase over the cross-country fences.

Ashkazar will lap his rivals in the last if he can repeat his performance at Sandown just three days ago. But he has barely had time to be hosed down since and as such would be a precarious option at short odds. Prince Erik (5.10) ran sixth in the Irish Derby and the combination of a visor and Tony McCoy makes him a feasible alternative.

3.15 Cheltenham C4

SMURFIT KAPPA CHAMPION HURDLE CHALLENGE TROPHY (GRADE 1) (CLASS 1) £360,000 added 2m 110yds Penalty Value £205,272

1. 3-2541. AFSOUN (38) (CD) (T Hemmings) N Henderson 6 11 10. M A Fitzgerald

Excellent third in this race last year and returned to prominence when beating Straw Bear in a Grade 2 event at Sandown last month. Each-way contender

2 321-62 BLYTHE KNIGHT (24) (D) (Maxilead Limited) J J Quinn 8 11 10 D C Costello

Classy Flat performer who boasts two hurdle wins, including a novice victory over Osana. Second to Katchit last time out and he may prefer a flat track

3 411-50 BOBS PRIDE (F11) (D) (R Blacoe) D Weld (Irl) 6 11 10 Denis O'Regan

Three times a hurdle winner at 2m but he has been found out in Graded company and finished behind a couple of these in a Flat run last month; dismissed

4 3F-141 CATCH ME (24) (D) (J P O'Shea) E O'Grady (Irl) 6 11 10 R Walsh

Useful Flat horse in Germany and has progressed nicely over hurdles in Ireland. Won a Grade 2 event last month and could run well at long odds today

5 P0450- CONTRABAND (346) (CD) (F Wilson) Paul Murphy 10 11 10 T J Dreaper

Enjoyed his finest moment when beating Ashley Brook in the 2005 Arkle Trophy, but has his own ideas about the game and is hard to recommend over timber

6 453415 BAZIYAN (44) (CD) (P Garvey) W P Mullins (Irl) 7 11 10 D J Condon

Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner last year but he has struggled against more experienced horses this term and was fifth behind Sizing Europe last time out

7 111225 FARMER BROWN (73) (D) (Plantation Stud) P Hughes (Irl) 7 11 10 D N Russell

Handicap winner at Galway in August and has since put in two fine efforts in Graded company. Bit disappointing at Leopardstown last time though

8 455-12 HARCHIBALD (F11) (CD) (BF) (D Sharkey) N Meade (Irl) 9 11 10 P Carberry T

Enigmatic sort who was runner-up in this in 2005. Back to top form when winning at Newcastle in December and a recent Flat win should have him spot-on

9 0462-0 KALDERON (F11) (D) (Miss M Masterson) T Hogan (Irl) 8 11 10 D J Casey

Sixth in last year's Supreme Novice Hurdle and comes into this on the back of a good effort on the flat last time. No forlorn hope

10 1-1321 KATCHIT (24) (CD) (D S J P Syndicate) A King 5 11 10 R Thornton

Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner warmed up for this with an impressive performance last time and back at his favourite course, can go close

11 2F5620 KAWAGINO (38) (D) (K Pike) J Mullins 8 11 10 W P Kavanagh

Far from disgraced when fifth in last year's renewal but his overall form leaves him short of what is required to win at this level

12 102-21 OSANA (87) (CD) (T Barr) D Pipe 6 11 10 T Scudamore

Took his form to a new level when leaving a number of today's rivals trailing over C&D in December and he could take some pegging back once more

13 421-42 PUNJABI (31) (D) (R Tooth) N Henderson 5 11 10 B J Geraghty

Useful novice last year who produced a highly encouraging weight-carrying performance when second at Newbury. He could prove a lively outsider

14 213163 SALFORD CITY (130) (D) (F Galvin) G Elliott (Irl) 7 11 10 Miss N Carberry T

Classy flat horse who has proved himself capable over hurdles. Has been kept fresh for this but has stacks to find on the form book

15 51-F11 SIZING EUROPE (44) (CD) (A Potts) H De Bromhead (Irl) 6 11 10 A J McNamara

Looked a champion in the making when routing a useful field in the AIG Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown last time and looks the one to beat

16 1P-612 STRAW BEAR (38) (D) (BF) (J P McManus) N Gifford 7 11 10 A P McCoy

Cosy winner of Fighting Fifth Hurdle last year and got the better of Harchibald in this year's Christmas Hurdle. However, this requires much more

17 4/11-4 SUBLIMITY (87) (CD) (BF) (W Hennessy) J G Carr (Irl) 8 11 10 P A Carberry T

Was reported not to have been fit enough when fourth behind Osana over C&D in December but the current champion is sure to make a bold bid today

- 17 declared -

BETTING: 5-2 Sizing Europe, 9-2 Sublimity, 5-1 Osana, 6-1 Harchibald, 9-1 Katchit, 10-1 Catch Me, 25-1 Afsoun, Ebaziyan, Punjabi, Straw Bear, 40-1 Blythe Knight, Farmer Brown, 50-1 others.

2007: Sublimity 7 11 10 P A Carberry 16-1 (J G Carr, Irl), 10 ran.

VERDICT:

Sublimity was an impressive winner of this last year, when Afsoun and Straw Bear were behind. However, his only run since, when fourth to Osana here, was hardly impressive. Harchibald comes fresh from a win on all-weather and should be in the shake-up, while Katchit has mixed it with the best, but SIZING EUROPE demolished a select field in the Irish Champion and defeated Osana here and is unopposable today.

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