Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Big Four

By Stephen Dwyer

The odds are stacked against them. 16/1 is the current price for the big four to retain their crown. Hurricane Fly, Big Buck’s, Sizing Europe and Long Run are all worthy champions but surely something has to give ?
Cheltenham is no time to get heavily involved in short priced favourites. In recent Festivals the hotpots of Dunguib, Kauto Star and Master Minded were all beaten at odds of 4/5 or shorter. In 2011 Cue Card, Time for Rupert, Master Minded and Poquelin started around the 2/1 mark and again failed to win or in some cases, even place. No question that the “big four” are class acts but there are too many variables for them all to win this year. Although all are proven at Prestbury Park, it is a tall order to win there two years in a row.

Hurricane Fly, the reigning Champion Hurdler faces the toughest race of his career on Tuesday. Granted he was mightily impressive in last year’s renewal but faces a young improver in Zarkandar and an in-form Binocular. He had Peddler’s Cross, Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars behind him in 2011 but none of these are as quick as Binocular on his day. There is one negative against Binocular in that the last winner of the Christmas Hurdle to go on and to Champion Hurdle success was Dawn Run in 1984. Binocular was held by Hurricane Fly at Punchestown last May and it is difficult to see him beating a horse considered by many to be as good, if not better than Istabraq. Last word on this to Tony Mullins who said at a recent preview night that “even another outbreak of foot and mouth won’t stop Hurricane Fly”.
Big Bucks rightly dominates the market for the World Hurdle. At the prohibitive odds of 4/9, he is expected to continue his unbeaten run over the extended trip and remain the highest rated National Hunt horse in the world. Oscar Whiskey and Thousand Stars provide the immediate opposition but the statistics are against them. Both ran in the Champion Hurdle last year and it is twenty years since a winner of the World Hurdle previously ran in the Champion Hurdle. That said pundit Mick Fitzgerald doesn’t rule out Oscar Whisky: “He will (Big Bucks) be beaten one day and Oscar Whisky could be the one to do it”. The Irish have also not had a winner of this race in seventeen years and in reality Big Buck’s is as close to a certainty as you will get at Cheltenham where his odds are the shortest of the entire Festival.

Winner of a Greatwood Hurdle, Arkle and Champion Chase, Sizing Europe will make a very bold bid to retain his title for 2012. He looked the most likely winner of the 2008 Champion Hurdle before almost stopping to a halt due to injury and has done nothing but improve this season.  As good as Sizing Europe may be however it is work mentioning that 10 of the last 11 defending Champion Chase winners were beaten when attempting to defend their title the following year. Nine of those started favourite or second-favourite. At Cheltenham last year Sizing Europe led home an Irish 1-2-3-4, no doubt an in-form Big Zeb will pose a challenge but more may come from Finian's Rainbow. Nicky Henderson believes Finian's Rainbow to be a more settled horse this term and his jumping has improved and is lightly raced. Sizing Europe may have them all on the stretch as he did last year and as it stands he is the one they all have to beat. It will take a very good horse to muscle past him.
Amateur riders only win the Gold Cup once every 30 years. Does this mean that after success in this race last year that Long Run cannot win again ? Connections believe that he can and none more so than his Corinthian pilot Mr. Sam Waley-Cohen. There are doubts as to whether Long Run has trained on since beating a below-par Kauto Star last year but Cheltenham plays to his strengths. The extra distance will suit but he has been held by Kauto Star all season. Nine of the last 12 Gold Cup winners won the King George the same year and Ruby Walsh has adopted different tactics with Kauto Star this year. Long Run has to settle early in his races as he is prone to jumping errors. There could be a big priced winner of the Gold Cup this year as there are doubts over Kauto Star’s age (just two 12 year old winners of the race and in the last 12 running’s of the Gold Cup, 59 horses aged 10 or older have been beaten). The amateur jockey aboard Long Run is also a negative for many who pin their main hope on  believing Long Run’s class will see him though.

From a betting perspective, the 6/4 available for a Hurricane Fly/Big Buck’s double is still short but attainable. Tread carefully however as over the  last four years there have been 67 horses to start under 4/1 and only 12 have won (with Quevega and Big Buck’s multiple winners).
Time then to enjoy but not lose your shirt, after all there are only four days in the year; the rest aren’t Cheltenham.

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