Annie Power, unbeaten in eight starts, goes on trial at Cheltenham on Wednesday in the Dornan Engineering Hurdle, but nobody seems really sure which Festival race she is on trial for.
Certainly not the bookmakers, who feature her in lists for the Champion Hurdle (12-1), the Mares’ Hurdle (5-1) and the World Hurdle (8-1). And not even Irish champion trainer, Willie Mullins, is sure what tasks lie ahead for a six-year-old he says “could be anything”.
Mullins has Hurricane Fly, back to his brilliant best at Leopardstown last Sunday, flying the stable flag in the Champion Hurdle, while the formidable Big Buck’s might be standing in her way in the three-mile World Hurdle, a race also now earmarked for the yard’s Boston Bob, clipped to 10-1 by most bookies after his easy win at Punchestown.
So it could be the Mares’ Hurdle and the compromise distance of two and a half miles, perhaps Annie Power’s ideal trip, but this is a race Mullins will be hoping his Quevega can win for a remarkable sixth time in a row.
Wherever Annie Power ends up, only a victory over last season’s Champion Hurdle fourth, Zarkandar, a rival she beat pretty convincingly at Ascot in November, will do this afternoon.
Paul Nicholls now dispenses with the blinkers Zarkandar wore when subsequently beaten by The New One. The trainer also runs Empire Levant, presumably to help ensure a proper pace, but Annie Power (3.05 Cheltenham) and Ruby Walsh should have every move covered.
Oscar Whisky, the winner of this race for the past two seasons, has come late to a career over fences, but early indications are he will take high rank in this discipline, too. He lost out narrowly to Taquin Du Seuil over this course and distance in November and is now 5lb worse off, but that was a tactical affair, run at a farcical pace for much of the way, and while Oscar Whisky (1.20 Cheltenham) has gone on to take the scalp of smart chasing recruit Wonderful Charm, his rival has since been a shade disappointing at Sandown, albeit on ground quicker than ideal.
It is another fascinating contest between two horses prominent in the ante-post market for the Jewson Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and we should not discount Close House appeared to be travelling as well as Oscar Whisky when falling at the fourth last on his chasing debut over this course and distance last month.
Whispering Gallery (1.55 Cheltenham), a Group Three at Meydan for Godolphin, unsurprisingly seemed a little confused at first when asked to jump hurdles last winter, but toyed with the opposition on both his starts and is potentially extremely well treated in the Rewards4Racing Handicap Hurdle.
The locally trained Double Ross, winner of a big pot over course and distance last month, will be a popular choice to follow up in the Fairlawne Chase, but it might be worth taking a punt on Carrickboy (2.30 Cheltenham). A 50-1 victory at last season’s Festival says much about both his ability and unreliability, but his trainer, Venetia Williams, is on a hot streak.
John Quinn’s Hidden Justice (2.10 Musselburgh) flopped in the Triumph Hurdle, but looks on a decent mark for his handicap debut, while Upsilon Bleu (1.35 Musselburgh) is ready to strike after a decent effort at Newbury last time.
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