Cheltenham Festival: World Hurdle Preview

ruby walshThe World Hurdle is the most prestigious race for staying hurdlers in the horse racing calendar (3.20pm Thursday). The four-time winner Big Buck’s, who was absent through injury last year, is back and bids to reassert his authority over three miles with another record breaking win.

His trainer, Paul Nicholls, thinks he is his best chance of gaining a win in the entire festival – and he has some useful ammunition to be aimed elsewhere. After a tendon injury kept him away from the racecourse for 420 days, the 11-year-old Big Buck’s (3/1) made his comeback run here in the Grade 2 Cleeve Hurdle in January.

Nicholls was pleased with him afterwards, saying he would come on for the run. All the punters that lumped on him weren’t. He started the 6/5 favourite and finished third, a length behind George Charlton’s 66/1 shot, Knockara Beau. The winner’s success was put down to a recent wind operation.

The race was a muddling affair. Big Buck’s new pilot, Sam Twiston-Davies, appointed by his owners the Stewart family, found himself in front sooner than was ideal and he appeared to tire in the closing stages. Big Buck’s may have had a string of 18 top quality victories before the race but we have to judge the horse as he is now. The value of that form has to be questionable. Many punters would also be more confident if he had the assistance of his long term jockey, Ruby Walsh (pictured).

Rebecca Curtis’ mud-loving At Fishers Cross (7/1) finished second to Knockara Beau by a head, staying on well after the last. This talented seven-year-old scored on all of his six outings last season, including three at Prestbury Park. He has been disappointing this time and is clearly suffering from physical problems that have had a negative effect on his hurdling ability. If anyone thinks he is getting back to his best just because he came second in the Cleeve Hurdle they are deluding themselves. It is a tribute to his natural ability that he is able to run on well once the jumping side is finished with.

On his seasonal debut at Newbury in the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle in November he started as the odds-on favourite and finished fourth and last, 22 lengths behind Nicholls’ Celestial Halo. He was obviously physically wrong, long before he made a horrible mistake two from home which may well have added to his issues.  In his only other run this season he hurdled awkwardly and decanted AP McCoy after diving at the last. Owned by JP McManus, he is such a good horse that he might run into place but he really should be resting in a field rather than lining up here.  AP McCoy takes the ride.

JP McManus’ other runner, More Of That (10/1), has attracted some support. This unexposed six-year-old trained by Jonjo O’Neill is unbeaten in his four runs. In his only outing this season he won quite cosily here in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle over two and a half miles in December, beating Nicholls’ Salubrious by just over two lengths. It was a four runner affair in which the favourite, Willie Mullins’ Glens Melody (close second to Quevega in the Mares Hurdle at this meeting), didn’t seem to get the distance.

More Of That is untried over three miles and could be anything but AP McCoy, who has partnered him in his last three runs, has chosen not to here.

Another six-year-old who has yet to experience a three mile contest is the 7/4 favourite, Annie Power. Trained by Willie Mullins, she is unbeaten in her 10 starts. They include three bumpers and four hurdle races in Ireland. She ended last season by winning the Grade 1 Mares’ Novice Hurdle Championship Final at Fairyhouse in imperious style. She saw off her useful stablemate, Glens Melody by 12 lengths.

She has been campaigned exclusively in England this time. She started by beating Nicholls’ Zarkander five lengths in the Grade 2 Coral Hurdle at Ascot in November. Next time she beat him by eight lengths here in January in a two and a half mile contest. Most recently she romped home at Doncaster in the Grade 2 Mares’ Hurdle over two miles. She saw off Donald McCain’s Doyly Carte, leaving her trailing 15 lengths in her wake.

You have to be impressed by the manner in which this mare has won her races. Whilst she has never gone beyond two and a half miles, as a daughter of Shirocco out of a dam by Old Vic, she is certainly bred to get the distance. One concern has to be her habit of making a mess of the last flight. She will benefit from the expert assistance of Ruby Walsh.

Another Irish challenger with decent claims is Mouse Morris’ seven-year-old, Rule The World (10/1). He just missed out at the festival last year, finishing the runner-up to Nigel Twiston-Davies’ The New One by four lengths in the Grade 1 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.

He won first time out this season over two and a half miles at Naas in October. On his next outing he could only finish fourth, 15 lengths behind Jessica Harrington’s Champion Hurdle hero, Jezki, in a Grade 1 contest at Fairyhouse in December over the same distance.  He looked as if he needed further to show his best and was runner-up by four lengths in the three mile Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown to Willie Mullins’ Zaidpour on soft ground. Most recently he won a Grade 3 at Naas in January. The very capable Bryan Cooper will be on board.

As well as Big Buck’s, Nicholls sends out the superbly consistent seven-year-old Zarkander (12/1) who has found one too good on all four of his starts this season.  As well as losing out to Annie Power he was beaten six lengths by The New One here in December.  Most recently he went down to Jeremy Scott’s Melodic Rendezvous by only half a length in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton in February. He has not been tried beyond two and a half miles. If he gets the distance, he should put in another solid performance.  Rated 162, only Annie Power and Big Buck’s are more highly regarded by the handicapper.

Nicholls’ ten-year-old, Celestial Halo (20/1) is rated only 1lb lower.  He was the runner up by two and a half lengths to Solwhit in this race last year. He won the Grade 2 Long Distance Hurdle on his seasonal debut in November but disappointed on his only other start.

He started as the favourite but finished third by 14 lengths to Sandy Thomson’s Seeyouatmidnight in the Grade 2 Betfred Mobile Hurdle in February.  He hung left under pressure and weakened in the closing stages. That performance and his preference for a softer surface than he is likely to encounter make it difficult to support him with any confidence.

Stable jockey, Daryl Jacob, has chosen to partner Celestial Halo rather than the third Nicholls runner, Salubrious. This seven-year-old has run consistently well in his past three starts at Prestbury Park, winning a handicap hurdle at the festival last year. In his latest run in the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December he was runner up by ten lengths to Nick Williams’ Reve De Sivola (25/1).

That was on soft ground over three miles one furlong. He certainly stays but his rating of 153 suggests he will find more than one too good here.

World Hurdle Betting Tips Advice

Despite his trainer’s confidence, there have to be doubts over Big Buck’s claims this year. Even if he is back to his best, he is very likely to see his former jockey, Ruby Walsh, overtaking him. Willie Mullins’ horses have made an encouraging start at the festival and his top class young mare, ANNIE POWER, has to be our pick to win, best priced at 15/8 with Coral, William Hill, SkyBet & Stan James.

Check Out The Latest World Hurdle Betting Odds here