Five questions that will be answered at the Cheltenham Festival
The build-up to the Cheltenham Festival is almost complete and the time for talking is (mercifully!) nearly over. While the inclement weather has thrown a googly that could well see the Festival begin on the softest ground that it has commenced on for over 20 years, that won’t dampen what is always four of the most enthralling days of racing anywhere in the world.
There are any number of talking points and controversies that promise to be resolved by this time next week and here are just five of them.
What does Faugheen have left?
At his very best, Faugheen would be sure to be sent off favourite against Buveur D’Air, but he arrives to the Champion Hurdle as an aging competitor with significant doubts surrounding how much ability he retains.
Having been kept on the go throughout the summer months, he returned from 665 days off the track with a devastating winning performance in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown that suggested he retained the vast majority of his ability, but a lifeless display at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting followed by a below-best second to Supasundae in the Irish Champion Hurdle raised more questions than answers.
His supporters will cling to what he showed in the Morgiana and the fact that he has tended to peak in the spring months in the past in the hope that he can show more like his best here.
However, his previous spring peaks have come off the back of campaigns where he was brought along steadily all season, whereas this campaign saw him kept on the go all summer and produce what has thus far been his best effort of the season all the way back in November.
Willie Mullins has shown on multiple occasions that he can spark horses up just in time for the spring festivals, but with Faugheen having had an upside-down campaign and the recent weather being more like that found in the Arctic than spring in Ireland, he faces an uphill battle that will rank up there with his very best training performances if he can pull it off.
Can Samcro walk on water?
That the time for talking is almost over will come as a relief to none more than the connections of Samcro. The bubble of hype that has grown around this horse has not been inflated by Gordon Elliott or the O’Leary’s, but by a racing press and a public hungry for a new star and Samcro will get his chance to justify their opinion of him in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
The six-year-old has looked very good indeed in going unbeaten through a point-to-point, three bumpers and three novice hurdles, with his most recent victory in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival representing the highlight thus far.
On that occasion he showed a turn of foot that one wouldn’t necessarily have expected of a horse dropping back from two-and-a-half miles to two miles, vividly illustrating that he does not lack for pace.
He will step up to two miles and five furlongs in the Ballymore and with the ground likely to be softer than is usually expected for the race, it could well prove to be a stronger test of stamina than ideal for one with the pace he showed at Leopardstown.
As well as that, while he has ticked every box for many visual judges of form, he has yet to run a time or produce sectional times that set him as far apart from his main opposition as his price suggests he is. Of course, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t superior to them, but one would feel a lot safer taking odds-on about him if he had.
Is Altior the superstar he has been billed?
The pre-Festival analysis of Altior’s prospects in the Queen Mother Champion Chase has been dominated by his far-from-ideal preparation and the debate over whether it will hinder him from showing his best.
That is of course a pertinent question, but perhaps not enough coverage has been given to the question of whether Altior’s peak form is quite as good as it seems. Right now, Altior is priced up as the superstar that he is widely billed, but close scrutiny of his form does raise some doubts over its true merit.
Altior’s break-out effort came in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2016 in which he beat Min. It has been well publicised since that Min picked up an injury at the third hurdle that day which saw him ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Over fences, the first of his three best efforts came in the Game Spirit Chase just over a year ago when he defied his novice status to beat Fox Norton by 13 lengths. That form was boosted by that rival’s two subsequent Grade 1 victories, but his trainer Colin Tizzard was adamant that he needed the run badly in the Game Spirit on what was his return from an injury-enforced absence.
Later that season, Altior secured a rather workmanlike victory in the Arkle Challenge Trophy at Cheltenham which was followed by a more impressive hammering of the Champion Chase winner Special Tiara by eight lengths in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.
However, as admirable as Special Tiara is, his Champion Chase will be remembered as one of the weaker renewals of the race in the last decade and while a novice beating a Champion Chaser got everyone excited at the time, it doesn’t quite have the same shine on it when one looks back on it now.
Finally, Altior’s much-anticipated return to action this season saw him readily beat Politologue who had been running riot in the two-mile chase division in his absence. However, subsequent reports from the Nicholls camp have suggested that Politologue had been given a break after his win at Kempton’s Christmas meeting and needed the run at Newbury, which again puts a different shine on the race.
Of course, all of this could be true and Altior could still be the star that he has been billed, as he was anything but fully extended to win all of those starts detailed above. However, a top-form Min could well be the stiffest challenge he has ever faced and wading into him at odds-on off the back of an interrupted preparation is perhaps a riskier venture than many are billing it.
Can Sam Spinner handle the big occasion?
While the staying hurdle division unfortunately lost Nichols Canyon and Unowhatimeanharry hasn’t looked the same horse this season, one potential star that has emerged in the same time is the Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner.
He has been very impressive in winning a valuable handicap hurdle at Haydock in November and the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December, with his performance in the latter confirming his status as a leading player in the division.
However, one concern that hasn’t been given a huge airing on the Cheltenham preview circuit is how well he will cope with the occasion. When one looks through his race record, Sam Spinner has primarily been campaigned at smaller tracks and on relatively low-profile days at bigger tracks.
He will never have experienced anything like the atmosphere and build-up that he will at the Cheltenham Festival and given that he is a free goer that has been seen to get very sweaty prior to his races, particularly on his seasonal reappearance at Chepstow, how he copes with it must be a concern for his chance.
Sam Spinner may well prove equal to the occasion, but personally, if I fancied him I would be looking to place my bet as late as possible just in case the preliminaries get the better of him.
Can Might Bite overcome his Cheltenham issues?
As he was in the build-up to last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Might Bite is once again set to be one of the big opinion horses of this year’s Festival. Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old is best remembered for his quite remarkable victory in the RSA Chase last year where he infamously veered across the track and surrendered a clear lead to Whisper, only to rally and get back up in the final stride.
Since then, he hasn’t shown any similar levels of quirkiness in winning all three of his races, but the big danger is that his quirky streak is linked to Prestbury Park.
Might Bite has run at Cheltenham on four occasions and has twice been in front over the last obstacle. Everyone knows what he did in the RSA Chase, but less remembered is what he did on the other occasion in a novice hurdle at the track in April 2015.
Having travelled easily into the lead just before the final flight, he got very idle and tried to veer to his right just as did in the RSA Chase. The only thing that stopped him veering right across the track was the outside running rail which was mercifully set up in a position that made the track notably narrow. Once he was headed, he picked up again and won with plenty to spare.
Of course, Nicky Henderson and Nico De Boinville will be more aware of this than anyone and Nico will do his best to try and prevent a repeat of it. However, quite what he can do with a horse that seems best suited by making the running or going to the front a fair way from home remains to be seen.
Might Bite looks to be the one to beat in the Gold Cup, but no matter how well the race goes for him, if he jumps the final fence in front his supporters could well be in for a scare.