GC Festival File
Graham Cunningham reflects upon his own 'Golden Hours' in part six of his Festival File series.
By Graham Cunningham
Last Updated: 11/02/13 9:54pm
The markets are still adjusting after a series of major Cheltenham Festival clues and Racing UK and C4 analyst Graham Cunningham is taking a lead from one of his favourite broadcasters as he weighs the evidence in part six of his 2013 Festival File.
Former Radio 1 dinosaur Simon Bates used to bill the whiskery old hits which started his morning show as the Golden Hour. Well, racing fans enjoyed a golden three hours on Saturday. Squeezing this particular quart into a pint isn't easy, but here goes with a golden timeline and a tremendous snap of me great mate Batesy complete with poodle perm, yellow polo neck and a couple of handsome dobbins thrown in for good measure.
1315: Our Conor throws down a persuasive Triumph marker
One Irish Triumph Hurdle winner since 1997 is a worrying stat for those who follow such crude trends but Our Conor heads to Cheltenham with bright prospects of hitting the frame at least after a silky success in the Grade One contest which opened Saturday's Leopardstown's card.
The unbeaten Mullins pair of Diakali and Blood Cotil along with British Grade One winner Ruacana gave this a strong look but Our Conor made them look ordinary, travelling sweetly throughout and easing well clear under a hand ride.
Unaccompanied won this race in similar style prior to finishing second to Zarkandar in the 2011 Triumph. Our Conor's prospects look equally bright based on this commanding success.
1415: Fever followers can breathe again after Deloitte delight
But whether they will breathe easily over what came later at Newbury is another matter.
Champagne Fever is clearly over what ailed him at Naas and took advantage of Waaheb's early tumble to hold Bright New Dawn in gutsy style in a finish which gave a double nod to Jezki.
He'll help make the Supreme Novices' a true test, and Melodic Rendezvous also deserves his place after Sunday's easy Exeter defeat of the ailing Puffin Billy, though others may be sharper on good ground.
That said, this remains a race to enthuse over as both Champagne Fever and the unfeasibly handsome Bright New Dawn have the scope to make up into excellent chasing prospects.
1425: Conti continues his stealthy Festival progress
He jumps like a cat and is making feline progress towards the Festival after another emphatic big race win in the Denman Chase.
Whichever way you slice it, Silviniaco Conti's record aged just seven is mighty impressive and in giving 4lb and an emphatic beating to last year's runner-up The Giant Bolster in a truly-run race he recorded his best figure yet and earned a 5/1 Gold Cup quote.
He doesn't have anything like the same physical presence of Kauto Star or Denman, but he is a very clinical chaser nowadays and the fact that Nicholls is adamant there is more to come makes him a danger to all in a Gold Cup where most of the clues are now public.
Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti are solid at the top of the market, while Sir Des Champs and Long Run don't seem likely to shorten much if the field remains intact.
Perhaps Katenko or Captain Chris can shake things up at Kempton in the Racing Plus Chase, but First Lieutenant is one who would appeal at double-figure odds if you could be sure he would be lining up.
Granted, Mouse Morris's gelding is 0-from-2 against Bobs Worth, but he ran a blinder in the RSA Chase and the Hennessy and recorded a career best when splitting Tidal Bay, Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar in that thrilling Lexus Chase at Leopardstown.
However suggestions that his owner is more inclined towards the Ryanair Chase means that it is probably best to hold fire until his Festival target is finalised.
1440: Destructive duel leaves doubts over Majala and Fago
The general consensus on telly and in print was that Fago would have beaten Majala in Warwick's Kingmaker Chase had he not crumpled two out.
And that view is probably correct, but the clock adds a revealing new dimension and suggests that both horses endured the sort of race that hardly enhances their Arkle chances.
In short, Majala and Fago went off much too hard.
The pair ran six lengths slower from three out to two out than Molotof over half a mile further earlier on, while Majala was over 30 (yes, thirty) lengths slower than Nicky Henderson's gelding from the second last to the line.
Granted, part of that was down to idling. However, this wasn't a race to scare Simonsig and Overturn fans and if Majala and Fago do head for the Arkle their main role might well be to ensure the sort of pace that is fierce even by Festival standards.
1445: Bob bobs home in Moriarty - but will it be Jewson or RSA next?
And is there any profit in trying to guess given that Willie Mullins also has Back in Focus in the mix?
The short answer, for the moment, is probably not. Boston Bob rallied tremendously having been badly outpaced between the last two but this form falls way short of what Dynaste achieved in the Feltham.
Three miles will suit him much better and he jumps soundly but there are still valuable RSA cards to be played, not least by Rocky Creek at Ascot this weekend.
1500: Is it Wishfull Thinking to take on Sprinter Sacre?
The short answer has to be yes, it is.
Wishfull Thinking remains a high-class horse when on his game but this hard earned Game Spirit defeat of Sprinter Sacre's stablemate French Opera hardly suggests he represents a serious threat to the hottest favourite of the Festival.
1520: Champs is Hennessy champ - but how much did we truly learn?
I sometimes think the old-fashioned pursuit of backing horses with coarse banknotes has given way to a world in which chin-scratching cyber-nerds score points off each other via internet debates which end up where they started.
So where are we after a Hennessy Gold Cup in which Sir Des Champs gained the smoothest of trails from stablemate Quel Esprit before kicking off the home bend to hold old rival Flemenstar by a length and three quarters?
The first point to make is that this was nothing like so demanding a race as the Lexus Chase, the leader going through halfway fully seven seconds slower than the Christmas showpiece then slower through each subsequent split until the pace increased appreciably from three out.
The second point to make is that Sir Des Champs made the most of a golden opportunity in willing fashion, jumping better than in the Lexus, but the market has had him onside all winter and I still don't see any great juice in his Gold Cup price at around 9/2.
As for Flemenstar, he now seems to set to miss Cheltenham after a lung infection was identified, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if the staying project is revived at some point.
1535: My Tent can be pitched on the highest ground of all after Betfair blitz
Regular readers will recall being advised that My Tent or Yours was overpriced at 14/1 for the Supreme Novices' in part three of the Festival File.
I'm a shade embarrassed not to have wet my beak for more than buttons at that price, but there is always a real kick about seeing a new star burst onto the scene and this hugely exciting gelding is now as short as 7/4 for the Festival opener after savaging the best field of handicappers assembled on either side of the Irish Sea this season.
Good luck if you have taken the 14s. MTOY is extremely likely to win the Supreme if he replicates this form next month - but as the countdown continues there is still time for a Champion Hurdle bandwagon to gather momentum.
Let's take a look at the evidence. MTOY toyed with the well treated Cotton Mill from a BHA mark of 149 with bang-in-form handicappers filling the next three places and JP McManus already has a strong Supreme contender in Jezki.
His new Timeform mark of 168p leaves him hard on the heels of the very best after just four runs over hurdles and it's a shame so few bookies want to test the water with a 'non-runner no-bet' option as I'm convinced he's simply a much faster horse than the vast majority of those at the top of the market.
1610: Unioniste has it all on to take revenge on Dynaste
There is much to like about Unioniste, who made it four from five over fences at Newbury with a battling defeat of Hadrian's Approach.
However, he was brushed aside by Dynaste at Cheltenham in November and the latter's Feltham win just keeps looking better given what Hadrian's, Molotof and Third Intention have achieved since.
I suspect the poor record of Feltham winners in the RSA is behind the fact that Dynaste is still trading at 9/4. On pure form he's a tough one to find fault with.
Darlan loss deprives Cheltenham of a budding superstar
None of us should ever need reminding that one error is all that separates star jumpers from dead jumpers and last Monday's sorry loss of Darlan at Doncaster provoked the usual predictable reactions.
Twitter went into overdrive with a raft of well-intentioned RIP messages and a few desperately sorry saps attempting to blame AP McCoy or suggesting that JP McManus will merely go out and buy another "toy" to replace him.
Jim McGrath broadened the issue on Saturday's Morning Line, arguing that the risk of death while racing still lies well within acceptable levels, and we can only hope that trend continues as the big spring Festivals draw closer.
It's all academic, now, of course, but Darlan looked like for all the world like a horse who was about to burst clear of the winner of last year's Champion and Triumph Hurdles.
And, with that in mind, it's now crystal clear that this year's Champion will take place without a striking young horse who could have beaten them all.
Ruby on course for another bold Champion bid
Now to Rock On Ruby and Countrywide Flame - and it's hard not to think the former will beat the latter again on 12th March.
Granted, the Donny winning distance was just three lengths as Countrywide Flame plugged on, but John Quinn's stable star was well enough held having stolen a march at the start and I doubt he's good enough to win the Champion.
We know Rock On Ruby is good enough based on last year's success and he's primed to go very well again.
Exactly how well depends at least in part to how Zarkandar and Grandouet fare at Kelso and Wincanton this week.
Once that pair go through their paces the Champion picture will be complete - save perhaps for that tantalising prospect of MTOY coming in from left field as a very dangerous supplementary entry.
Onward Christian soldiers....and stewards need to aim up, too
Radio 5 Live's documentary about the trials and tribulations of being a jump jockey received widespread praise last week.
The thread which ran right through the programme related to the grim dangers of the job and another reminder of how resilient jockeys tend to be was provided at Uttoxeter on Saturday when the hugely likeable Christian Williams rode his first winner after more than two years of injury woes.
I remember doing a feature with Denman's former rider years ago (when my hair was black and his wasn't like Liam Gallagher's) when he told me that he would tackle a long cross-country run first thing on Christmas morning "simply because I know the other lads won't be."
His dedication deserves further success as he juggles riding with his new role coaching youngsters, but it would be wrong to sign off without touching on the fact that some riders still sail very close to the wind as regards ensuring their mounts gain the best possible placing.
I spoke to one experienced pro recently who insists some local stewards simply refuse to believe star riders ever soft-pedal and shook my head later in the week as a good horse came home with a deal of running left in him having been given a a tender ride by any standards.
I also heard the usual cries from various people slating the media for not shining light on these potentially shady corners.
But for legal reasons it's nowhere near so simple as that when stewards fail to act.
Put simply, the refs need to nail their colours to the mast if the scribbling squadron are to do likewise.