WITH less than seven weeks to the start of the Cheltenham Festival, all roads are leading to the home of jumps racing. The markets for the four feature races are taking shape, and here's how things are looking as plans for the leading protagonists are cemented
STAN JAMES CHAMPION HURDLE
One of the main sub-plots behind any Festival is the annual Great Britain vs Ireland battle, and this year's Champion Hurdle promises to set the tone on the opening afternoon.
It has the makings of an all-time classic, with reigning champion Hurricane Fly spearheading a strong Irish contingent that will also feature last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Our Conor, as well as the highly-rated Jezki. Annie Power could also line up, although the target for Willie Mullins' unbeaten mare is likely to cause plenty of head scratching until the final declarations are announced.
Is Hurricane Fly still at his best now that he is ten years old? It looked that way as he comfortably disposed of Our Conor and Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle over the Christmas period, and Sunday's Irish Champion Hurdle, with the trio all involved, should provide further pointers. If Hurricane Fly wins that without breaking sweat, he'll be a short-priced favourite come Champion Hurdle day.
The British challenge is likely to come from The New One and My Tent Or Yours, both of whom have been heavily supported in the ante-post market.
They met in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, with Fighting Fifth winner My Tent Or Yours triumphing in a thrilling finish after The New One made a mess of the last.
Will that form be franked come March? On good ground, My Tent Or Yours should take all the beating, but if the going turns soft, The New One's superior stamina, as underlined by last year's Festival success over two-and-a-half miles in the Neptune, could be crucial.
Best odds: 10-3 Hurricane Fly; 7-2 The New One; 4-1 My Tent Or Yours; 8-1 Jezki; 9-1 Our Conor; 10-1 Annie Power; 14-1 Un De Sceaux; 25-1 Melodic Rendezvous; 33-1 Grandouet; 40-1 Rock On Ruby.
BET VICTOR QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
Prior to the Christmas programme, the incomparable Sprinter Sacre looked certain to go off as one of the shortest-priced favourites in Cheltenham history.
He still might, but the two-mile division was blown wide open when Nicky Henderson's reigning Queen Mother champion surrendered his unbeaten record because of a health scare in late December.
An irregular heartbeat resulted in him being hastily pulled up at Kempton, and while subsequent tests have suggested he should have returned to full health by the time he lines up at Cheltenham, there is a lingering element of doubt over his participation in the Champion Chase on day two of the Festival.
If he lines up at the top of his form, he wins by a distance. As things stand though, you would have to be a brave gambler to take ante-post odds of evens money without the guarantee of a run.
Should Sprinter Sacre drop out of the running, it would be hard to look beyond the claims of Sire De Grugy, who benefited from his rival's untimely withdrawal in December to claim a facile win.
Gary Moore's eight-year-old has improved with every run this season, and last weekend's 11-length victory in Ascot's Clarence House Chase confirmed his status as the main challenger to Sprinter Sacre's crown.
It would be interesting to see whether Sire De Grugy could give a fully-fit Sprinter Sacre a run for his money, but if the race falls apart, he will be many people's idea of a Festival banker.
Al Ferof would be an interesting outsider, although two miles would not appear to play to his strengths, while the improving Dodging Bullets is more likely to run in the Arkle.
Best odds: Evens Sprinter Sacre; 11-4 Sire De Grugy; 10-1 Benefficient; 12-1 Captain Conan; 16-1 Arvika Ligeonniere, Hidden Cyclone; 25-1 Baily Green, Sizing Europe, Dodging Bullets, Al Ferof.
LADBROKES WORLD HURDLE
Like the Queen Mother Champion Chase, discussions surrounding the World Hurdle are dominated by the health of a much-loved champion with injury concerns.
Big Buck's missed last year's Festival after suffering a leg injury and, in his absence, the doughty Solwhit claimed an unexpected success.
It is now more than 13 months since Big Buck's last took to the track, but Paul Nicholls is confident his 11-year-old will be primed to win his fifth World Hurdle come the middle of March.
He is due to compete in Saturday's Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham, and the outcome of one of the most eagerly-awaited races of the season will have a major impact on the World Hurdle market.
At the moment, it is difficult to assess the odds as there are serious question marks over the three market leaders. Big Buck's' fitness might be open to debate, but at least he should run. It is hard to say the same of Annie Power or Quevega with any confidence.
Annie Power also has entries in the Champion Hurdle and Mares' Hurdle, although the rumours emanating from Willie Mullins' yard suggest the World Hurdle is the mare's likeliest route. If that is the case, she represents a huge challenge to Big Buck's' 18-race winning run.
Quevega has won the last five Mares' Hurdles, and given how reluctant Mullins has been has to alter her programme in the past, it would be a major surprise if she was not defending her crown again on the Festival's opening day.
At Fishers Cross looked like being a major contender after running away with the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle over three miles last year, but the current campaign has been something of a disaster, with the seven-year-old's jumping regularly going awry.
Best odds: 9-4 Big Buck's; 7-2 Annie Power; 5-1 Quevega; 6-1 More Of That; 10-1 Boston Bob; 12-1 At Fishers Cross; 14-1 Reve De Sivola; 16-1 Zarkandar, Saphir Du Rheu, Celestial Halo, Monksland.
BETFRED CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP
Having wobbled when he started his season with a hugely disappointing run in the Betfair Chase, last year's Gold Cup winner, Bobs Worth, was right back to his best as he demolished a top-class field to land the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last month.
He beat some decent opponents that day, although the subsequent announcement of an injury to Sir Des Champs has slightly blunted the form. Sir Des Champs has been ruled out of Cheltenham along with fellow Irish star Flemenstar, meaning English horses dominate the top of the betting.
If he repeats his performance from last March, it is hard to see Bobs Worth relinquishing his crown. A thorough stayer capable of performing on pretty much any ground, Nicky Henderson's champion does not have many chinks in his armour. Perhaps the lack of a blinding turn of pace will find him out.
His main rival is likely to be King George winner Silviniaco Conti, who produced a career-best performance at Kempton on Boxing Day. It is hard to know what would have happened had the Paul Nicholls chaser not fallen when going well three out in last year's Gold Cup, but it must be a worry that his jumping was exposed as the race hotted up.
Cue Card was the runner-up in the King George, but while Colin Tizzard continues to insist that last year's Ryanair winner stays the Gold Cup distance, most available evidence suggests otherwise.
First Lieutenant always seems to run well at the Festival and will fly the flag for Ireland, while Dynaste is surely better than his tame King George effort might suggest.
Captain Chris would be half his current odds if the race was taking place at anywhere other than Cheltenham, while former winner Long Run's best days are surely behind him.
Best odds: 9-4 Bobs Worth; 7-2 Silviniaco Conti; 8-1 Cue Card; 12-1 First Lieutenant; 16-1 Al Ferof; 25-1 Dynaste, Boston Bob, Rubi Ball; 33-1 Rocky Creek; 40-1 Captain Chris, Lord Windermere, Long Run.