Another Cheltenham Festival race and another short-priced favourite to contend with. This time however, the mighty Willie Mullins operation doesn’t hold the race ace, that honour falling to British trainer Colin Tizzard who is going to saddle Thistlecrack.
Currently hovering around the 6/4 mark with just over six weeks to the Festival, that tells you the story.
Is he as solid as the price suggests, though? Here, Declan Rix studies the 2016 World Hurdle in closer detail.
2016 World Hurdle ante-post preview
Having annihilated the Cleeve Hurdle field in his prep run for the World Hurdle, there is now little doubt Thistlecrack (5/4) is the horse to beat. An easy 12 lengths winner under Tom Scudamore while carrying a Grade 1 penalty, there can now be few questions asked about this improved eight-year-old.
Despite last season’s highly successful campaign few thought this son of Kayf Tara would reach his current heights. Much of that was probably down to his lesser-known connections and trainer Colin Tizzard, a handler who doesn’t often dine at the top table with the likes of Mullins, Nicholls, and Henderson. While true, Tizzard has often shown himself capable at the highest level in the past when given the ammunition.
A successful 2014/15 saw Thistlecrack win his maiden Grade 1 contest when taking the Doom Bar Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. Fortunate to win by 13 lengths given he was left clear at the last obstacle, that shouldn’t take from what was going to be a probable smooth victory.
Next time he was a fast-finishing runner-up behind the classy Killultagh Vic in a Punchestown Grade 1 novice hurdle before being put away for the current campaign. This season started in good fashion at Newbury with a Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle win before he showed improved form to score stylishly at Ascot in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle.
Thistlecrack’s latest success in the Cleeve has strengthened his position at the head of the World Hurdle market further, so much so he can’t be considered for an ante-post bet here. This strong-travelling, classy and straight-forward horse may well need to underperform to lose at Cheltenham such is his form this season.
A horse, despite being the current second-favourite, who needs to improve to win this year’s World Hurdle is Vroum Vroum Mag (5/1). While it’s a Championship race where Willie Mullins doesn’t have the race favourite, the Irish champion trainer is right on the heels of favouritism with this mare.
There is a sense however, that this Rich Ricci-owned seven-year-old is as short in the betting due to her connections. On the book, there can be little doubt about that; her form this season doesn’t entitle her to be a 5/1 shot.
For starters, the daughter of Voix Du Nord has yet to contest a race in proper open company. All eight starts since she was bought from France in 2014, where she has mixed hurdles and fences, have come against her own sex.
The sternest test of her career will come on the biggest stage and against some classy geldings, this exam is very much a baptism of fire. So how will she fair? We don’t know at this stage, but she does need to improve, of that, there is little doubt.
She may well, however. You can never put a line through a Rich Ricci-owned, Willie Mullins-trained horse that is unbeaten in its last eight starts, that would be naïve. This circumstance, along with a top-class pedigree (from the immediate family of the Grade 1 winner and Grand National second Saint Are) means there is plenty to suggest she can be a major player in the World Hurdle despite her price lacking value.
The seven pounds mare’s allowance she’ll receive from her male competitors at Cheltenham is another significant factor in her potentially running well. In receipt of that weight, it brings her further into calculations. She’s a hard horse to get a handle on fully given the ease of her victories against her own sex and despite her raw form needing improvement, we still respect her chances.
The horse that left Thistlecrack clear in the lead after a final flight fall at Aintree last season was Alpha Des Obeaux (7/1) and it looks like the pair could renew their rivalry again at this year’s Festival. It’s certainly a clash we look forward to seeing once more given Alpha Des Obeaux was bang there coming to the last with Thistlecrack before his departure.
While there is little doubt Thistlecrack has gone on to improve significantly this season, given Alpha Des Obeaux was two years his junior, and obviously still is, at Aintree there may be an angle in suggesting the Gigginstown House Stud horse has more scope to progress this campaign.
Officially, in the handicapper’s eyes, he has to improve 13lbs to reach the recent Cleeve Hurdle winner’s level, but we feel that number is a touch high and Mouse Morris’s horse can again put it up to the race favourite.
The six-year-old has yet to win in Grade 1 company, but behind Thistlecrack at Aintree, Nichols Canyon at Punchestown and Arctic Fire at Fairyhouse, he has acquitted himself well behind classy horses. He did disappoint on the bare form at Leopardstown over Christmas behind Prince Of Scars in a Grade 1 on ground that was too soft for his liking, but the winner on that sort of terrain may well show himself to be a classy operator in time and we rate the form higher than most.
It is at least encouraging that Alpha Des Obeaux goes to Cheltenham in good form having won the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in great style by 11 lengths. While beating a first-time out At Fishers Cross and the Grade 1 penalty-carrying Martello Tower is not top-class form, it was the style of the victory that struck us most.
The first-time cheek-pieces certainly helped him – he looks a lazy type and does little in front – and given the ground was far from ideal it goes down as a good win. Back on spring terrain, we feel it will improve the son of Saddler Maker further. A bigger field where he can get a lead for longer is another factor that can aid his cause. He’s a lovely horse, a big player in the World Hurdle and whatever the result at this year’s Festival is one to keep in mind over fences next season.
Last year’s impressive World Hurdle winner Cole Harden (8/1) will be back to defend his crown this year and is another that has to be high on the shortlist. He’s been there and done it, all at the tender age of six and so commands respect. Now a year older, you’d like to think he could at least match last year’s ability if not even improve a couple pounds.
The problem this season however, is the son of Westerner hasn’t been allowed to show if he actually has progressed. Cole Harden is a proper spring ground horse and going descriptions that read ‘heavy’ and ‘soft’ are simply no good in showing him at his best.
Since his brilliant World Hurdle victory, Warren Greatrex’s stable star has only run on favourable going once when finishing a sound runner-up to Whisper at Aintree in the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle. Just two more efforts have followed, coming this season; one behind Thistlecrack in the Long Distance Hurdle and the other behind Camping Ground in the Reelkel Hurdle, both on unsuitably soft going. Based on those two runs, despite never remotely looking like winning, he appears to be in similar form this campaign.
Connections have decided in prepping him differently for this season’s World Hurdle, choosing to duck another match-up with Thistlecrack in the Cleeve and go directly to Cheltenham off a long absence.
This is not ideal despite the fact it appears Cole Harden retains all of his ability. It puts extra pressure on Warren Greatrex and another big trainer performance is required to retain his crown. Greatrex is a young and less-established handler with the ability to do this however, so Cole Harden remains a big threat to all. The better the ground the better his chances.
In a contest where so many horses far more prominent in the betting are coming into the race with major question marks, it’s a surprise to see Martello Tower as big as 25/1 for this year’s World Hurdle. The 2015 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winner’s current price looks like a major overreaction to his form this campaign.
Most of the season the son of Milan had been trading around the 16/1 mark, but after two, what most bookmakers feel were bad runs, his price has doubled. While the Barry Connell-owned horse has yet to win in either of his efforts this campaign, he hasn’t been as disappointing to warrant a doubling in price.
Making his eagerly awaited seasonal debut over the Festive period at Leopardstown on heavy ground against race-fit and classy horses was always going to be a tough ask first time out. Despite being beaten over nine lengths, Martello Tower shaped much better and going forward, it was a lovely start to the season.
Just four weeks later connections sent him to Gowran Park for the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle where he again faced Aplha Des Obeaux who was over five lengths ahead of him over Christmas at Leopardstown.
The curse of his Cheltenham Festival success the year’s previous would come back to haunt him however, now dropping in class he would have to carry a Grade 1 penalty. So having been beaten by Alpha Des Obeaux on level terms over Christmas, he now had to concede seven pounds to that rival.
Granted, Mag Mullins’s horse should’ve strip fitter for the run at Gowran, it was still a tough task. While he was beaten 13 lengths, under the circumstances it was a fine run. A bad mistake four out didn’t help his cause either so we feel it was another sound effort.
Given his win at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, his current price looks pretty big. The form of his Albert Bartlett sends mixed messages, but he did finish ahead of the current RSA favourite No More Heroes and had other top horses strung out all over Prestbury Park. That course and distance experience can only stand to him.
A lack of Cheltenham experience and more importantly Festival familiarity would have to be a negative for Prince Of Scars (16/1), but such is his progress at the moment he warrants a serious mention in this piece.
No more than a useful novice hurdler last season when winning just one race, his maiden, the son of Flemensfirth has made huge strides of improvement this season. Having started the campaign officially rated 130, the six-year-old now sits on 155 with the distinct chance of further progress.
He has only had seven runs in his career and given his size, it’s obvious why. Prince Of Scars is a big, leggy and possibly still weak horse and it appears as if connections have given him plenty of times to come to himself.
He has run three times this season though, and won on all starts, the last coming in the Grade 1 Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. Despite being sent off a 10/1 shot in a five-runner race, he belied his odds to score in impressive fashion from Alpha Des Obeaux and Martello Tower.
This form puts Gordon Elliot’s horse right in the mix for place honours and with further progress likely, he may have the ability to go close. The problem where this piece is concerned however, is his trainer wants to look after him this season and he may not run. Spring ground is also a potential negative.
Best of the Rest
British champion trainer Paul Nicholls has a whole host of potential runners, but many of them come with caveats. Last season’s World Hurdle runner-up Saphir Du Rheu (16/1) would have to be of interest on his 2015 running, but this season hasn’t exactly gone to plan after a great start at Carlisle.
He has been asked to revert to hurdles after seemingly not convincing connections over fences. Last time out at Ascot he was well-beaten by Thistlecrack where a breathing issue was to blame. He now goes straight to Cheltenham on the back of a poor run, off a long break and having undergone surgery. It’s far from ideal.
Ptit Zig (25/1) is another Nicholls horse switching from chasing and despite a positive step forward in the Cleeve Hurdle behind Thistlecrack, is facing an uphill struggle. Aux Ptits Soins (14/1), last season’s Coral Cup winner at the Festival is a hugely interesting type, but is hard to recommend given he has yet to run since.
Charlie Longsdon’s Kilcooley (16/1) was a classy winner of this season’s West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby on his only run this campaign back in October, he hasn’t been seen since and is another best left at this time given the circumstances. The older brigade of At Fishers Cross (33/1) and Bobs Worth (33/1) will find it tough against younger, classy opposition.
One horse at a big price that could run well is Snow Falcon (50/1) who finished an honourable fifth in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival. He’s a fair price, but it’s probably a bit fanciful thinking he could hit the frame for Noel Meade.
The BetBright Verdict
Yet another Cheltenham Festival championship race where a favourite looks rock-solid. Thistlecrack is the one they all have to beat and even if those right on his tail, where the market is concerned, significantly improve and he runs his race, it may not be enough. Where this piece is concerned however, he offers no value for an ante-post bet so we’ll look elsewhere.
The second and third favourites, Vroum Vroum Mag and Alpha Des Obeaux, respectively, are worth taking on at this juncture on value grounds. This is especially the case of the former who, while obviously respected, doesn’t deserve to be outright second-favourite on the formbook. On the other hand, Alpha Des Obeaux is possibly better than his current official rating and has some classy form in the book. While the case however, his price may not be a whole lot shorter come raceday.
The defending champion Cole Harden is another that looks pretty short in the betting, especially when you consider his form this season. To be fair to the horse, he hasn’t had his conditions, but connections changing a winning formula in not having a prep closer to the Festival is off-putting and he’s likely not to be too much skinnier on the day.
Many horses sitting to the fore and midtable in the betting have current well-being to prove – some more than others – but this is especially the case of Annie Power, Aux Ptits Soins, Kilcooley, Saphir Du Rheu and Whisper. On their day, these are good animals, but are best supported come March and not now, should they line up.
At this stage, the two horses we like are Martello Tower and Prince Of Scars, but it would have to be MARTELLO TOWER who is most interesting at the current prices. While an important factor – the price – the fact last season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winner is more likely to turn-up here is also of critical importance. We want a run for our money.
Should he make it here safely, the eight-year-old may well be half the price. His two efforts this season have been more than satisfactory given the circumstances. There is also a small chance his Galmoy Hurdle effort, although a sound run, possibly came too quick after his seasonal debut on heavy ground and the son of Milan was below his best. He ticks plenty boxes and while he does need to improve, he doesn’t have to progress as much as the 25/1 odds say to hit the frame.
Prince Of Scars is a horse we really like especially with next season and chasing in mind. He’s not certain to run though, and that means he is best left. He’s probably a bit too inexperienced for Cheltenham at this time anyway and spring ground is another concern we’d have, but he’s a real unknown quantity still.
1pt each-way MARTELLO TOWER @25/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.
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