‘Magnificent 7’ primed for shootout at Cleeve Hill

With just over a week to go before the start of the annual Shootout at Cleeve Hill between punters and bookies, it is time to review of what I hope will be the ‘Magnificent 7’. To read the initial previews select the horse’s names below. Today the ground dried out to good, good to soft in places on the old and new courses. With rain forecast the ground is very likely to be good to soft (as they’ll water if no rain) and this will suit all selections. Their chances would only be affected on extremes of going. In terms of prices we have beaten the bookies on all selections apart from Big Bucks, with prices now all lower than when selections where advised. In the case of Big Bucks, the drift was anticipated so best odds guaranteed with William Hill was recommended. All in all we are in great shape for ‘shootout’.

Tuesday 10 Mar 2009 – 2.05pm
Original – 25/1
Irish Independent Arkle Chase

Original has travelled over from France this weekend and is housed at Jean-Rene Auvray’s stable in Lambourn, prior to his journey to Cheltenham. Confidence is high in the French camp headed by Marcel Rolland, “He’s very well and I think he’s better than when he ran at Kempton. He has been working very well. He hasn’t really had a break but with the winter the gallops were very hard. He’s better going left at Cheltenham than he was going right at Kempton.” There has been little change in the make up of the Arkle or the betting market since I put up Original, although the best price is now 20/1. James Davies has been confirmed as the jockey as all the better known names snubbed the trainer at Kempton. If you haven’t yet invested this is a great each bet in an open race so have a few quid on this cheval to get your Festival off to a great start. The price is far greater than it should be due to the xenophobic British bookies and punters, who often overlook French raiders.

Tuesday 10 Mar 2009 – 3.20pm
Celestial Halo – 12/1
Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle

It’s all systems go for Celestial Halo who was subject to very bullish comments from the Champion trainer yesterday. Following a schooling session involving his star studded team on Friday, Paul Nicholls said, “I’d pick out Celestial Halo as the one who looked awesome. He is razorsharp in his mind and his jumping: I can’t stress how much he’s improved since Sandown when he was rusty.” I don’t think I’ve heard such confidence from a trainer before and the horse is still a double figure price. I made Celestial Halo my banker last year after he was beaten at Doncaster, knowing there was plenty of improvement to come. Last time out he won so with improvement to come he must have a cracking chance against the hot favourite Binocular at this year’s Festival. Following Nicholl’s comments his odds were cut but he’s still very backable at 10/1. Ruby Walsh has a great chance of bagging his first Champion Hurdle and I really can’t see him being out of the frame.

Wednesday 11 Mar 2009 – 2.05pm
What A Friend – 10/1
RSA Steeple Chase

It’s disappointing that Ruby Walsh has chosen to go with Cooldine rather than What A Friend in the RSA Novices Chase and I have to say my confidence is not as high as it was, because when it comes to long distance chases Ruby is the top man. However, Sam Thomas is an able substitute and it seems we should not read too much into his choice, as today Ruby has revealed that he made the choice as he knows Cooldine better and not because he thinks he’s the better horse. Ruby said,”I’ve gone for him simply because I know him better than What A Friend. It doesn’t mean he’s the better horse.” Sam has ridden What A Friend in his two chase wins so perhaps we shouldn’t be too disheartened. Also, interestingly Ruby has been on the ‘wrong one’ twice in this race before. It’s not all doom and gloom. The horse is fresh and well and is already being talked of as Paul Nicholl’s Gold Cup horse for next year. What A Friend is available at a best priced 11/2 so at least we have beaten the price by 45%, since I put him up. Some of the others in the Magnificent Seven are currently better value than this.

Wednesday 11 Mar 2009 – 2.40pm
Big Zeb – 14/1
Queen Mother Champion Chase

The focus here is very much on Master Minded who is a searingly hot favourite at a general 1/3. Yes, last year he was devasting and he should go well again but surely last year’s romp can’t be repeated? For me this race is all about each way value. All is well with Big Zeb and in what looks like shaping up to a small field he is one of only a few who can give the favourite a scare. Colm Murphy has a great record at Cheltenham with the few horses he brings over and I am confident Big Zeb will add to this. Matt O’Connor rides. Paddy Power offer the best price at 12/1 which is good value.

Thursday 12 Mar 2009 – 3.20pm
Big Bucks – 5/1 – NAP
Ladbrokes World Hurdle

Not really much recent news on Big Bucks but he’s well and ready to take his chance. In the initial post, I put the case and nothing has changed since then. I believe he has the ability and class to beat hot favourite Kasbah Bliss. It’s worth remembering that jolly has been beaten in all four visits to Cheltenham whereas Big Bucks has both his hurdle races. It was also reported this week by paddock observers that Kasbah Bliss was as fit as a fiddle before his impressive victory at Haydock so there might not be too much improvement to come. In contrast, the younger Big Bucks is a horse of unlimited potential who only does enough and we have the magnificent Ruby Walsh doing the steering who’ll be keen to win his first World Hurdle. Big Bucks is now out to 6/1 with William Hill and is good value at that price in what is in essence a three horse race.

Friday 13 Mar 2009 – 1.30pm
Walkon – 9/1
JCB Triumph Hurdle

‘I’m very excited about Walkon’, screamed the headline in today’s Racing Post and there was positive comment from jockey Robert Thornton too – no matter man to have on your side in a juvenile race at Cheltenham. He’s continued to progress and goes into the race with great credentials and in the care of a trainer who works wonders with his team of juvenile hurdlers. It was encouraging to see Trenchant win when I went to Kempton Park last weekend as this one is considered way behind Walkon in the pecking order at Barbury Castle, where Alan King trains. We’re on at a great price of 9/1 and he’s now into 5/1. Baring accidents I can’t see him being out of the first four and most bookies are taking each way bets on these terms. It’s difficult to say he’s value now but he’s certainly an ‘each way bet to nothing’.

Friday 13 Mar 2009 – 3.20pm
Exotic Dancer – 16/1
Totesport Gold Cup

With the vibes getting more negative about Denman every day, the chances of solid horse Exotic Dancer increase. He’s well and on target and as previously stated has had a much better preparation this time around and must have a great chance. It looks like AP McCoy will take the mount and that adds to the confidence. 12/1 is still available and that is fair value for the fifth favourite. I would be very surprised if last year’s winner finished in front of him, assuming Denman gets to the race. Finish your Festival in style with Exotic Dancer!