FRONT UP FOR THE PERFECT OPENING

13 March 2005

Last Wednesday, J P McManus, that most legendary of Cheltenham punters, sipped his tea in the Dorchester and shared one of his best bits of homespun philosophy. “When I am busy,” he said, “I am at my least effective. I don’t have time to think.” Everyone should ponder the words as they rush for quick tips rather than painstaking analysis — but after a week tearing around on your behalf here are some horses just the same.

TUESDAY

BACK IN FRONT for the Champion Hurdle.

This is one of the most debated Champion Hurdles for years, not least because the first seven in the betting all come from Ireland. Visiting Ireland at the weekend was to be besieged by stories and images to turn the head and empty the wallet. Harchibald was reported as working badly, Brave Inca well. I watched Hardy Eustace gallop toughly round Leopardstown, Mac’s Joy more impressively at The Curragh. The memory of Essex sprinting home at Newbury is hard to lose but the horse that fits the cool McManus analysis best is Back In Front. Two years ago he beat Kicking King brilliantly in the Supreme Novices, he came back to the course successfully in December, and Edward O’Grady is one of the great Cheltenham trainers. Look no further but take a saver on Rooster Booster each-way.

CHILLING PLACE in the Supreme Novices.

Within 10 minutes of walking into Exeter racecourse on Tuesday two very different experts had confidentially told me that the best Cheltenham bet was Chilling Place at 25-1. He isn’t that anymore but Philip Hobbs reports him in fine shape and he has a better profile than the Irish pair Justified and Publican, and has not had the racing of the prolific winner Marcel.

COMMANCHE WARPAINT in the Sporting Index Chase.

Paul Nicholls runs 30 at Cheltenham but this was the one he made the most compelling case for last week. The horse was up with the leaders over the cross-country fences last autumn and the success of his subsequent breathing operation came in a first ever hurdling victory in his warm-up race 10 days ago. Don’t miss.

WEDNESDAY

MOSCOW FLYER for the Champion Chase.

This, without question, is the best race of the meeting. Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop are the highest rated chasers in the Island, Well Chief not far behind them. Azertyuiop will strip 10kg lighter than when clearly outpointed by Moscow Flyer at Sandown. He will also be ridden more aggressively to pressurise Moscow Flyer into jumping errors. It will be the ultimate examination but if Moscow Flyer can pass it, I believe that he just has the edge in speed over his rival.

CORNISH REBEL in the Sun Alliance Chase.

Even his best friends in the Nicholls yard called him “a bit of a monkey” last week, but Best Mate’s full-brother has shown plenty of talent over fences. Winning in his brother’s absence would be a typical Festival story.

GOLD MEDALLIST in the Sun Alliance Hurdle.

Two years ago he made the running in the St Leger and last Summer he won a Group Two race at Deauville. Philip Hobbs’s five-year-old is unbeaten in three runs over hurdles and there is every hope, nay confidence, that he will remain so this week.

THURSDAY

BARACOUDA in the Ladbroke World Hurdle.

No originality here and no apologies either, for this, quite simply, is the most distinguished runner at the meeting. He has earned 18 victories out of 23 runs over hurdles, running second in the other five, and the two-time winner of this race was edged out by Iris’s Gift last year. He’s a superstar but not absolutely straightforward or even, as trainer François Doumen candidly admits, particularly attractive either in shape or temperament. That said, he’s better than the others. McCoy will have to guard against switching into top gear too soon but it looked to me like owner J P McManus was sipping his tea pretty serenely last week.

OUR VIC in the Daily Telegraph Chase.

David Johnson was holding court a fortnight ago and, while admitting that Our Vic has been lumbered with a superhorse reputation, he still believes there is real talent. This is the race to realise it.

RAVENSWOOD in the Pertemps Final.

Another pearl bonbon from the Johnson lunch. It’s a competitive race but he and Martin Pipe are competitive men.

BROOKLYN BREEZE in the Mildmay of Flete.

Banker of the meeting along with Commanche Warpaint. He has been aimed for the race and all the boxes tick.

FRIDAY

STRONG FLOW for the Gold Cup.

There are serious `ifs’ about all the leading contenders but I am sticking with Strong Flow because of the impression he made winning the Hennessy a year ago and because his fitness is no longer in doubt. Kingscliff’s jumping is not absolutely fluent, the same can be said for Beef Or Salmon and, more particularly, Rule Supreme. Kicking King is the fastest horse but has a stamina doubt, Celestial Gold has a huge chance if he settles early in the race, but this time next week we may be hailing Strong Flow as a real champion.

AL EILE in the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle.

He is due to run first in the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday but this looks his race. He is well handicapped, he ran really well behind Essex at Newbury, and his strong-finishing style will suit a race that takes no prisoners.

AKILAK in the Triumph Hurdle.

Sentiment as well as serious punditry here. Last summer I galloped a nice big three-year-old colt of John Oxx’s on The Curragh. He had just won a maiden race at Tralee and I wondered what would become of him. Seven months later I stood at Cheltenham’s last hurdle and found out. He was Akilak. He had joined the Graham Wylie-Howard Johnson team and was winning first time out at 50-1. He will be much shorter on Friday but he remains a lovely horse with a huge future. Share it with me.

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