GC Festival File

By Graham Cunningham.   Last Updated: 31/12/12 2:23pm

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In the first of a weekly series, Channel 4 and Racing UK's Graham Cunningham shares his early Cheltenham thoughts.

Ten weeks to go until the Cheltenham Festival explodes into life.

Some big names will fall by the wayside through injury, others will lose their form and several leading contenders will end up having their big race targets switched before the big day dawns.

But none of the attendant risks will stop thousands of punters climbing aboard all manner of ante post bandwagons as 2013 beckons.

The Christmas period proved as volatile as ever, with Big Buck's and Al Ferof retiring hurt before Long Run lit up many a Christmas with that grinding King George success.

Every weekend from now on will throw up a series of priceless Cheltenham clues and Channel 4 and RUK's Graham Cunningham has joined forces with sportinglife.com to file part one of his ten-part 2013 Festival File.

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Ever heard the phrase "trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot?"

It's not exactly one for the teenagers in these metric times, but it does seem appropriate when trying to nutshell a Festive period which saw many of the finest jumpers from either side of the Irish Sea bidding to lay down a persuasive marker for the Cheltenham Festival.

The way star jumpers are campaigned nowadays suggest the majority will have one more run at most before March, so it's time to start putting early thoughts down on paper.

GOLD CUP

And the first is that I'll probably be bidding farewell to Long Run as a punting proposition this March.

Regulars will know I was with Nicky Henderson's gelding for the King George and his dogged rally to thwart Captain Chris sent me off for a few days in the Alps with a spring in my step.

However, it was a performance of light and shade in one of the slowest King Georges on record.

The way Long Run refused to be denied shows there is still ample fire in his belly and the fact that he was in the heat of a draining battle from so far out (reaching the fourth last nearly six seconds faster than Dynaste in the earlier Feltham only to record a final time over four seconds slower) gives a broad hint that he is better than the bare result suggests.

However, with no Kauto Star, Bobs Worth, Silviniaco Conti and Al Ferof in opposition I must admit I was expecting Long Run to win by clear daylight.

Perhaps I'm being overly critical. Errors at the last two fences lost him significant momentum - and Ted Walsh ripped into Sam Waley-Cohen on RTE for failing to switch his whip hand - but overall it's hard to think Long Run hit the heights of his previous KG win (or last year's second to Kauto Star) here.

Remarkably, he's never been out of the first three in 24 races now. It will almost certainly be 25 after the Denman Chase at Newbury. And it might well be 26 after the Gold Cup.

Indeed, it's hard to understand why a horse with two King Georges and one Gold Cup on his CV attracts so little love from large sections of the media and punting public.

Perhaps it's the fact that he exposed flaws in the sainted Kauto more than once; perhaps it's his occasionally ungainly style over a fence; or perhaps it's the fact that his amateur rider doesn't fit the beau ideal of how a top rider should look in the saddle.

Perhaps it's a blend of all three. Supporters will rightly point out this lack of love could see him go off at a bigger price than he deserves to come the Festival.

And they might have a point but, for now, the safe call is to look for one to beat Long Run come March 15th.

That one is unlikely to be KG runner-up Captain Chris, who probably isn't as good as this bare result makes him look given that he was held up and outpaced as the race took shape off the final bend.

Add in the fact that the Captain jumped to the starboard bow on his last two visits to Cheltenham and he's very easy to resist, but Leopardstown's Lexus Chase offered much more on the Gold Cup front.

History relates that Tidal Bay charged late under a demonic Ruby Walsh drive drive to thwart First Lieutenant, Flemenstar and Sir des Champs in one of the wildest Grade 1 finishes seen in decades.

And perhaps history will show that there is precious little between the quartet, but Flemenstar is very much the one I want to focus on.

Granted, Tidal Bay crowned his resurgence for Nicholls with a superb effort having looked as if he might spit the dummy at one point, but I simply don't fancy him as a Gold Cup winner aged 12.

First Lieutenant and Sir des Champs clearly remain in the mix, but Flemenstar travelled like a horse with much more ability than all the other principals for a long way only to falter late after looking like he might win in style as he devoured the fourth last.

It was only a matter of time before he was dubbed a non stayer and for a short while it seemed he was destined to step all the way down to two miles for the Champion Chase.

Thankfully, that surprising and somewhat rash plan is now on the back burner. Flemenstar is bred to stay really well and I'm confident he will show three miles is no problem in the Irish Hennessy back at Leopardstown in February.

The Gold Cup is another step, but this hugely gifted gelding is now trading at 12-1 and bigger for his original target.

And that will look very fair if he does what I think he will do on February 9th.

CHAMPION HURDLE

Big races en route to Cheltenham are effectively eliminators and Kempton's Christmas Hurdle saw Countrywide Flame burn out and and dreams of another Festival win for Cinders And Ashes turn to, err, ashes.

By contrast, Darlan looked a real coming force, travelling beautifully in a race that was much more slowly run than the earlier novice hurdle then taking five lengths out of his main rivals from the second last to the final flight.

It was a striking success - but not so striking as to suggest taking 7-2 is the right call given the strength of opposition.

Zarkandar, Grandouet and Rock On Ruby all looked in good heart at Cheltenham before Christmas, while the 2011 Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly simply sauntered clear of Unaccompanied and Thousand Stars in Leopardstown's Istabraq Festival Hurdle.

The most common reply to my tweet asking whether the Fly was truly back was that he "never went away in the first place."

He certainly nodded off for a few minutes when third in Rock On Ruby's Champion Hurdle last March, but the fact remains that Hurricane Fly has only been beaten once in eleven runs since 2009 and the overall impression is that he retains the ability to get his crown back if Willie Mullins can keep him happy and healthy.At this stage I'd place him just ahead of Darlan. And I would be astonished if Ruby even dreams of getting off the Fly to partner Zarkandar if both horses stay healthy until the big day.

RSA CHASE

A rampant David Pipe-trained grey takes his Feltham Chase rivals apart rounding the home turn to end the day hot favourite for the RSA - now where have we heard that before?

It didn't work out last year with Grands Crus - who beat two genuine Grade 1 rivals in Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth - but that's of limited relevance to Dynaste after this demolition job.

Dynaste settles better than Grands Crus and blends accurate jumping with speed and stamina in a very seductive manner. But is it seductive enough to take 5-2 for the RSA so far in advance?

On balance, I'm happy enough to wait. The stat about Feltham winners failing to follow up at the Festival will be trotted out repeatedly and, if you are that way inclined, you can also point out that the likes of Grands Crus, Time For Rupert, Long Run and Our Vic have all been turned over at short odds in the RSA in recent years.

However, on the figures there's little doubt Dynaste fully deserves to be a hot favourite. The BHA handicapper had him on 161 before the Feltham. He must have run to a very similar mark again here and his future looks very bright indeed.

Back In Focus was the other main RSA contender on view over Christmas and it took another relentless Walsh drive to force him past stablemate Aupcharlie on the line in Leoparstown's Topaz Novice Chase.

The first two, who pulled well clear, will go their separate ways now with Back In Focus set to stay over three miles and Aupcharlie poised to step down in trip. But plans can change. Aupcharlie moved beautifully for a long way and looks bound to win a good novice chase to make up for this near miss.

SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE

At last, a Festival contest which Henderson and Nicholls don't have by the scruff of the neck!

Britain's big two will start 2013 thinking they have legitimate claims for the Festival opener as River Maigue and Dodging Bullets did their prospects no harm at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Henderson is rightly confident that My Tent Or Yours can bounce back from Saturday's Newbury defeat on atrocious ground, but much the most persuasive Supreme Novices' marker laid down over Christmas came via Jezki's second G1 win in a row at Leopardstown.

Jessica Harrington's gelding didn't shine on his sole previous visit to Cheltenham in the Festival Bumper, but I'm not going to hold that against him and he put up a commanding performance to bound clear of the highly regarded Waaheb.

The runner-up will probably be better suited by a sounder surface and it's a fair bet there are dozens of good horses running well despite the ground rather than because of it during this sodden winter.

That said, Harrington is adamant that Jezki will thrive on spring ground and I would much rather be a backer than a layer at 5-1 or thereabouts.

ARKLE

Sprinter Sacre was around 2-1 for the Arkle after destroying Peddlers Cross in Kempton's Wayward Lad Chase last Christmas.

Stablemate Simonsig is even money after pulverising Hinterland in the same race and it's hard to quibble with that price given the way he sauntered miles clear of a horse who had been beaten under four lengths in a Sandown Grade 1 won by Captain Conan on his recent start.

Henderson will surely send Captain Conan down the Jewson route now, while it seems Harrington is also eyeing the latter race for Oscars Well after his good second to Arvika Ligeonniere in Leopardstown's Racing Post Novice Chase.

Indeed, the mighty impression created by Simonsig in two chases so far will almost certainly see a few more Arkle hopefuls rerouted to the Jewson.

Arvika Ligeonniere may well be Arkle bound - and he makes for a great sight letting rip from the front - but he did show a tendency to jump right which could prove problematic at Cheltenham and there will be no prospect of an easy time in front if the freewheeling Overturn goes for the Arkle.

Let's hope Overturn continues his progress to launch a challenge to Simonsig on Arkle day, but he will need to thrive if Simonsig is as good as he looked at Kempton.

In short, this was a performance that had Arkle winner written all over it.

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By the time you read this I will be heading for a waterlogged Cheltenham for my first day as part of Channel 4's new racing team.

And, in the spirit of out with the old and in with the new, a few things can surely be relied on.

First, there will be some who miss the old faces (with no ageism intended) so familiar from Highflyer's long and honourable stint producing C4 racing.

Second, there will almost certainly be the odd annoying gremlin in the works as IMG's ambitious new plans are put in place.

Third, there will be some exceptional sport on offer as winter turns to spring and summer.

And fourth, every one of the new team will be giving their all to ensure the action is covered with style and substance during each of the year's 88 live broadcasts.

Ten weeks from now the picture will seem a whole lot clearer both on the track and off it.

In the meantime, a very happy new year and please feel free to add your views to the mix in our weekly skysports.com weekly webchat.


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