The Cheltenham Festival Previews stepped up a gear or two last night, with attention turning to Dublin as Betfair hosted a panel of experts giving their opinions on the forthcoming Cotswolds festivities.
Ex-jock and a current jock in Andy McNamara and Davy Russell provided a useful ‘hands on’ viewpoint. The outspoken and ever colourful tipster Mark 'The Couch' Winstanley did his best to pinpoint value options. One of the best racing presenters on TV - At The Races Gary O’Brien, along with Irish Daily Star Sports Editor Brian Flanagan and Betfair's Barry Orr were also on hand. Finally, Champion trainer and Betfair Ambassador Paul Nicholls travelled over to complete the knowledgeable and rather entertaining panel.
The event was streamed through the Betfair website and created a decent buzz through social media, clearly attracting plenty of Twitter followers. The esteemed group were guided through the feature races on all four days by well-known Irish presenter Denis Kirwan; a regular at such gatherings.
Douvan appeared to be everyone’s certainty on day one of the Festival, along with Vroum Vroum Mag in the Mares’ Hurdle. No real surprise there then. Several of the panel voiced their concern over Annie Power’s ability to take on the boys in the Champion Hurdle. Though her talent is undeniable, a lack of experience at the highest level, coupled with little evidence of how she would cope with a championship two mile pace had several scratching their heads over her status as short-priced favourite.
Identity Thief appeared the overwhelming fancy of the gathered experts with his Fighting Fifth victory and subsequent promising performance behind Nichols Canyon sighted as evidence of his vast improvement.
The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle was next on the agenda. ‘The Couch’ was unable to see past Yorkhill as the major challenger to race favourite Yanworth. He pointed to the victory at Sandown in the Tolworth as arguably the strongest novice hurdle form when looking at contenders for the Neptune. His thoughts were mirrored by Gary O’Brien who sees Yorkhill as a huge player. However, in recent days the word from the Mullins camp is that the horse is more likely to head for the Supreme, a decision that the panel appeared hard to fathom.
No More Heroes was another popular choice as a favourite that needed to be followed. Davy Russell was on-board Don Cossack in a racecourse gallop at the weekend, and had Elliott’s novice for company. He was clearly impressed with the way he pinged his fences alongside the more experienced Gold Cup bound stable companion. More Of That was put up as the main danger, though he could be on his way to the JLT.
Russell also spoke of Road To Riches when the conversation turned to the Ryanair Chase. He was adamant that Noel Meade’s chaser had failed to see out the Gold Cup trip last March and that he would be a major player in the shorter event. ‘The Couch’ was pretty derogatory of the chances of Al Ferof despite money having come for the horse in recent weeks. Village Vic had a number of fans having impressed at the track throughout the winter. Smashing was another name put forward, though soft or heavy ground would enhance his chances.
When attention turned to the Ryanair World Hurdle, the panel appeared pretty unanimous over the chances of Thistlecrack. Davy Russell has him down as a horse for multiple bets, and Winstanley was in agreement that Tizzard’s impressive hurdler looks a certainty.
One favourite the panel seemed keen to take on was the Irish trained Ivanovich Gorbatov, currently at the head of the Triumph Hurdle market. There was a swell of enthusiasm behind Paul Nicholls’ Adonis winner Zubayr, and he again voiced his opinion that the horse has similar qualities to previous Triumph winner Zarkandar. Davy Russell felt that the use of a pin was the only way of finding the winner in what appears a wide-open renewal.
One of the winter’s on-going debates resurfaced when the panel turned their attention to the Gold Cup. The Don Cossack or Don Poli dispute splits opinion among those that love and follow our great sport. O’Brien and Andy McNamara were dismissive of Poli’s chances in favour of Don Cossack. Mr O’Brien went as far as to say that he would find it unbelievable should Bryan Cooper choose to ride the RSA winner over Gordon Elliott’s beast.
Davy Russell’s opinion was probably the most pertinent as someone within the Gigginstown camp. He rode Don Cossack in the aforementioned gallop and Waxed lyrical of the horse’s stature, enormous stride and flowing action. However, he also mentioned the Gold Cup trip being ideal for a strong stayer such as Don Poli. Interestingly, he also said that if Ruby says Vautour will stay the trip, then the horse almost certainly will.
Don Cossack remained the popular choice of the majority of the panel, in a renewal that has captured the imagination for so many reasons.
The panel were asked for their handicap fancies, with Nicholls given the opportunity of going through many in his care. One that caught the eye and ear was his latest French import Diego Du Charmil. He’s been kept for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle, a race the champion trainer won last season with another from France in Qualando.
For many out there, these gatherings serve little purpose. Often the panellists simply churn out the same old snippets that were already public knowledge. Some jockeys may fear upsetting owners or trainers and therefore have reservations when asked to reveal any juicy pointers. Trainers are also likely to focus on their own yard, and in fairness probably have little time for anything other.
Nevertheless, for many the previews are a great way of cranking up the excitement levels as the Festival approaches. Last night’s Betfair panel proved entertaining and informative. Davy Russell is often brutally frank in his analysis and delivers his opinions in an engagingly entertaining and droll manner. In contrast Gary O’Brien gives a thoughtful reasoned approach to his comments in keeping with a man who has a wealth of knowledge to convey.
I’m of the opinion that these previews are an enjoyable part of the Festival build-up. To be able to watch the event live was a huge plus, and though I’m still left scratching my head over the Gold Cup, I have a few more names to ponder over, as the main event looms large.