There was an A list panel last night for the London Racing Club Cheltenham Preview. Chaired with a light touch by Barry Faulkner, the remaining trio of speakers - 'dodgy' Dave Nevison, 'loquacious' Lydia Hislop and 'gorgeous' George Primarolo - were allowed to inform, provoke and otherwise entertain a healthy crowd.
But what of their views? Which nags did they have a shine for, and which lacked a winner's lustre according to our panel of experts?
The panel started with the Graded hurdles, then moved on through the handicap hurdles, Graded chases, and handicap chases. Here were the key points they had to make (so far as my Guinness-addled brain can remember it!).
Supreme Novices' Hurdle - Cue Card's to lose. Lydia was very sweet on his chances and made a clear distinction between Cue Card and last year's 'pegasus' Dunguib.
The Irish horse came into the race last year rated 156, against Menorah's 147 and Get Me Out Of Here's 150. This year, Cue Card is rated 159 to Minella Class' 148, with the rest lower rated. In other words, Cue Card is eleven pounds superior on ratings to any of his rivals.
Does that make him good value at 9/4? The general consensus was no, it didn't, but he was far and away the most likely winner. My personal view is that, come the day, Â£40 to win Â£90 (or Â£4 to win Â£9) wouldn't be a terrible way to ease oneself into the Festival - would be a nice winner to start with, but wouldn't cripple the bank if it went west...
No especially strong cases for anything else in the race, with the Henderson pair of Spirit Son and Sprinter Sacre lambasted for having achieved slightly more than nothing to date in their facile victories. Also, it was noted that the former had only run on very soggy ground, which is was unlikely to be at the Festival.
Champion Hurdle was next, and the view was that whilst Binocular's form in winning last year was the best in the race, that level was unlikely to be good enough to win this year, given the far stronger field assembled.
Menorah was a very highly regarded horse from all corners of the panel, and indeed ended up being the charity bet of the night. As I - and many of you - have also backed it, fingers crossed for that!
Peddlers Cross was given a nice talkup, and Lydia - who was present at Jockey Club HQ earlier in the day - reported that the beaks had loosened their sentence over formerly condemned man, Jason Maguire, so that he may now take his ride on the unbeaten McCain runner.
Nobody was particularly enamoured with Binocular, and in some quarters it seemed to stem to a personal vendetta against connections, which I found fairly interesting!
Some liked Oscar Whisky, Mille Chief was put up as a bridle horse (which I think might be a bit unfair), Hurricane Fly was pooh-poohed for perpetually beating up one horse (Solwhit) who may not be that good in any case. The Fly was also noted as having never made the Festival before.
All panelists agreed - and take heed here - that Festival form, either good or bad, was a strong portent to prospects the week after next.
In the Mares' Hurdle, there was sentimental support for Paddy Rodford's Sparky May, but logical support for Quevega, who is bidding for what the Yanks call a 'three-peat'.
Personally I think the 20/1 about Banjexed Girl, an ultra-tough and consistent (nine times out of ten in the first two) is a very robust each way selection. She has no other entries and is likely to run. In my opinion, she only to beat one of the trio of Quevega, Sparky May and Carole's Legacy to pay 5/1 a place (if you can find a quarter the odds the first three).
Day two, and the Neptune saw universal disapproval of the merit of Oscars Well form to date. Soft ground specialist was the charge. Against him, Bobs Worth was popular though there was a suspicion that he might find one too good somewhere in the field.
Put up as a big price outsider was James Ewart's Aikman. Personally, I think he has plenty to find but he is progressive and there was some sager judges than me making the positive noises. You can get the stand out 50's with VC. He most certainly will not be that price on the day. Whether he's good enough is another question.
There wasn't much of a view on the Coral Cup or indeed any of the handicaps, hurdle or chase. One that did get a mention - two actually - was/were Domination (which I'd backed the night before last) and Kumbeshwar (which I'd backed in the wrong race), both in the Fred Winter. I suspect that Kumbeshwar's light was illuminated too early when he won on debut and that would have attracted the attention of the handicapper.
Domination's route to here has been a tad more surreptitious, with a significantly improved winning performance last time having laboured before. Lydia shared my view that he'd improve for better ground, and he'll be shorter on the day as well.
Molotof, twice runner up, has very good form and a commensurately high weight. It's not inconceivable that he'd be good enough, but it would be some performance off 11-10.
No takers for the Pertemps Final (look when the final declarations are made was the eminently sensible riposte to Faulkner's prompting), so to the World Hurdle.
There were those (Dave Nevison) who felt Big Buck's is a shoo-in. There were those (Lydia Hislop) who felt that Grands Crus still had plenty to prove despite impressing to date. And there were those (Matt Bisogno) who felt that either Mourad or Fiveforthree might usurp them both. Obviously, I wasn't on the panel and was just whispering my dissention from the cheap seats.
I'm not suggesting that BB won't lead home GC. Rather, I'm saying that the prices leave no margin for upside in either case. Not for me.
To Friday's hurdles, and the Triumph. Zarkandar was well liked after his impressive Adonis romp last weekend; A Media Luz was considered certain to pull her chance away by not settling; Grandouet was perceived to be a fragile favourite, there by default; Smad Place had a chance on early season form but may not have improved; not much else was worthy of mention.
I tend to agree that Zarkandar will take a lot of beating, despite relative inexperience. It's unlikely to be a big field, and he might be able to lob along and pick up late. I may back him on the day, but given that I have about 20 ante-post tickets in this contest already, and have a terrible track record of locating the gold medallist, I should probably just sit tight...!
The Albert Bartless was an interesting betting heat, proffered Primarolo, the Tote's PR man, and fine chap (we had a beer with him after where he offered thoughts on the plight of the Tote - that's for another day).
His rationale was robust: the top horses in the race had multiple entries and it could fall apart. Looking down the lists for a certain runner could reward handsomely. Good logic indeed. But which blinking runner? That's where it got more difficult...
The one George liked, and strangely it's the one his firm is a standout price on, is Mossley. If you can forgive his capitulation last time in the mud at Warwick (which is easy enough given the certainty that underfoot conditions will be more favourable here), then 25/1 about a Grade 2 course and distance winner from the Henderson stable looks fair enough.
I couldn't put you off him. Aikman is also entered here, and I don't know where he's more likely to take up his engagement. So I should point out that now is a good time to go 'non runner no bet'. [Mossley is a best priced 20's with the NRNB brigade, whilst Aikman is 25's with Coral and Bet365]
Bet365 led the charge yesterday and have now been joined by Coral, Paddy Power and Stan James. The skirmish for our folding is underway. Bookie generosity only lasts for a fortnight each year, and it is this fortnight. Get stuck in!
Onto the chase races, and back to Tuesday.
The Arkle was felt to be between the first three in the market, although Finian's Rainbow was crabbed for beating a total of seven horses in three chase starts to date. Ghizao was considered a much more solid investment having shown course and distance form to see off Captain Chris.
Medermit split the panel, with Nevison eulogising about his 14's voucher and Hislop decrying him for having refused. Whilst I think the refusal was a blip, and I see Medermit as having improved, I do feel that he'll be better over further and could end up a Ryanair winner if not a Gold Cup champ next year.
I've sided with the Irish form, and had backed Noble Prince at 25's before he was routed towards the interim novice affair. So, throwing good money after bad no doubt, I have backed Realt Dubh to win a decent amount at 12's. Realistically, one of Ghizao and Medermit will probably win, but if you've missed the prices it might be as well to sit this one out.
Bensalem attracted support from Dave N for the Spinal Research Handicap (formerly the William Hill Trophy), though not from anywhere else, and a look at this horse's 12F form figures (1/11121/12F2F2-52) make it easy for me to consider this one as a flatterer to deceive. Those Cheltenham fences aren't getting any easier, and he'll clout at least a couple this time again.
Take him out and it's 8's bar. I'll hope to find the right one on the day.
The Cross Country was lampooned, despite it offering a good opportunity to find a winner. Look to the Irish at the top of the market, simples.
In the preposterous four mile novice chase for amateur riders (!!!!), it was noted that the top six in the betting were Irish. Considering they've only won one of the last eleven runnings (Another Rum, in 2005 at 40/1) and fancied Irish nags make no appeal in a race like this.
Incidentally, nor does anything else. Except Jonjo's runners. Four wins in the last decade. He's got four entered up: Aberdale, Alfie Sherrin, Born Again and Galaxy Rock. 16/1, 25/1, 33/1 and 40/1 (the first three NRNB) is appealing for the O'Neil scattergun approach. You heard it here first. Or at least you heard it here.
The RSA Chase was big for Nevison, who was all over Rupert. Time For Rupert that is. Again, the price has long gone. 9/4 now having never been bigger than 8/1. I like a rag in this race, and this year will be no different.Wymott, though not a huge outsider, offers hope and a touch of value at around 12/1 (only 10's with the NRNB boys, but he'll probably run so worth the chance in my book. Famous last words?)
Wymott was a Grade 2 hurdle winner and is unbeaten in three easy chase runs. 'Gorgeous' George was very sweet on his each way prospects, and it's hard to argue that you'll get a run from this strapping sort.
In the Queen Mum, the negative vibes around Master Minded were palpable. Lydia defied her 'tom boy' persona by confessing great affection for both this chap and the other Clive Smith superstar, Kauto Star, but she wasn't that sweet on his chances here.
He's considered on the downgrade, a comment that may also apply to Big Zeb who is now a ten year old. The consensus was that it was far from a two horse race, and that the Arkle form from the previous year tends to get overlooked. Festival Form, they bellowed. Or at least Lydia did.
Somersby was la Hislop's suggestion, as it was for both the Gold Cup and Ryanair. I know how you feel, Lyds, I know how you feel. And here's why...
Sizing Europe, my nemesis, was the value each way call. I lumped on when he cruised round and 'something happened' in the 2008 Champion Hurdle; I ignored him to my cost when he won the 2010 Arkle; and I backed him for the Gold Cup this year before he was directed at the Champion Chase. I will back him, and I feel sure his price will truncate.
The 16's has gone but there's plenty of 14/1 non-runner no bet (NRNB).
Thursday's chases followed, and the Jewson Novices Chase to begin, a new intermediate race which cost me my lump on Noble Prinve. I'll be backing him here, and Lydia supported that with a recognition of his fine run in the County Hurdle last year when 5th.
There were for's and against's for Captain Chris, a horse who has had more second's the Dawn French, Jo Brand and the late Cyril Smith combined (sorry).
Wishfull Thinking by contrast was given a strong chance, with the almost hackneyed by now caveat that he needs to continue to improve his jumping (came down when cruising in a handicap hurdle last year, with my dough on him). I'll have a bet on him on the day too.
The Ryanair was next, and Lydia does not like this one. She appears a traditionalist and is seemingly no fan of any of the new races. I tend to share that view, though I'm not always accused of being a traditionalist.
Nevertheless, a winner was sought and suggestions were offered forth. Poquelin from Dave N, Riverside Theatre from my mate Jerry (immediately dispelled as a flat track specialist from the panel - sorry Jerry, as I was saying, it's the Aintree Melling Chase for this one!), and Somersby for Lydia - who conceded she'd already backed and lost her stake on both the Ryanair and Gold Cup with this chap.
With no views on the handicaps, it was onto Friday and the main event, the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Imperial Commander was recognised as an aging player, Kauto Star and Denman were noted as capable veterans for the frame, and it was suggested that an upset may be on the cards this year, with a 'changing of the guard' (I love that cliche!).
Long Run was considered unsuited to Cheltenham's undulations and doubtful in terms of stamina (I tend to agree), Diamond Harry had bad vibes from a reliable stable source (the trainer, Nick Williams, apparently!), Kempes was felt to have been over-hyped on the back of a single run, Midnight Chase not good enough (though certainly as game as they come), and then it was 25/1 the rest.
Although I was totally wrong with my answer previously (Sizing Europe), I maintain that there's a strong possibility of either Imperial Commander or a complete outsider winning the race. As such, I think 7/2 about the Commander is fair and would save on that on the day. Down the list, I'm looking to detonate a bomb, and I'm actually toying with Synchronised.
He's a doughty stayer and safe jumper generally, with a Welsh National under his belt this season. If you believe the argument about the regression of the top rated horses, this could actually turn out to be the worst Gold Cup for a very long time. Indeed, it's possible it will be no more than a limited handicap. He's 66/1 with Coral and Stan James (NRNB).
I should add that Lydia put me onto that one, so I can't take any credit (assuming any may be due!)
So Synchronised and also Tidal Bay. The Bay may be a bit of a monkey, but he's talented and consistent. In ten runs round Cheltenham, he's been in the first two seven times, and the first four nine times. 33/1 with Hills is a good each way price on a horse who will stay, and has class.
Ignoring the Foxhunters (maybe the favourite, but I'm sorry I haven't a clue), that leaves the Grand Annual. I like Lastoftheleaders, and so does Gavin. The panel didn't have much of a view, so we'll leave it at that.
Food for thought? Waste of words? What do you think? Who do you like? Leave a comment and let us all know.