By Barry McEneaney

Ryanair Chase

Defending champion Riverside Theatre would appear to face a stiff in his bid to retain his Ryanair Chase crown.

Barry Geraghty’s mount looked an unlikely winner for much of the way 12 months ago, but stuck doggedly to his task and edged out Albertas Run on the run to the line.

Prior to that race, many had opined that Riverside Theatre didn’t act on the track, with evidence offered of his display in the 2010 Arkle Chase.

Horses can win on tracks that don’t play to their strengths and you could make a strong case that Nicky Henderson’s charge fitted into that category, winning despite a dislike of the unique challenges presented by Prestbury Park.

His preparation for his title defence has been far from ideal. His one run this year came in the King George at Kempton at Christmas where he finished a yawning 27 lengths behind Long Run in sixth. Heavy ground and a long absence could be used as legitimate excuses to explain away that abject run, but even if you put a line though that performance, it’s hard to justify why he should be the third favourite for this contest. At a best-price of 6-1, he makes little appeal.

The aforementioned Albertas Run was seeking a hat-trick in the race when touched off by Riverside Theatre in last season’s renewal, but might be another to oppose at the prices.

Jonjo O’Neill’s charge loves to hear his hoofs rattle and the surface won’t be as fast as is traditionally the case. Factor in his advancing years, and the fact that this race will be his first race in almost a year, and he has to be opposed at a best-price 12-1.

Menorah may be another to take on at the prices. He’d be a danger to all with a blemish-free round, but the chances of that seem relatively remote. He may have only fallen once in his ten starts over fences, but his other efforts have been blighted by a series jumping errors. He seems most effective in races with small fields, but even an eight-runner contest might put too much stress on hid fragile fencing.

Cue Card and First Lieutenant head the betting, with the latter looking almost certain to go off favourite. Both make compelling, if contrasting, cases for glory.

The former is a speedier sort, while the latter’s stamina is assured for this trip.

The decision on whether First Lieutenant should tackle the Gold Cup or the Ryanair Chase was only taken on the eve of the Festival and it’s hard to know exactly which race he should be contesting.

A series of top class runs in Grade One races over three miles means he’s always going to be a factor in a contest like this, but only victory here will quell the notion that he shouldn’t have taken his chance in the Gold Cup as a live outsider.

The argument that he is a non-stayer over three miles has, and can, be debated both ways.

Bobs Worth and the Tidal Bay got the better of him in latter stages of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in December over three miles and two and a half furlongs, but both are top-class Grade One runners. First Lieutenant stuck much closer to the pace than either of his rivals that day and stayed on once past, not exactly the actions of a non-stayer.

Video footage of his last start in the Lexus Chase on soft ground doesn’t necessarily prove he’s a non-stayer either. Stop the tape two out in that contest and both Flemenstar and China Rock are travelling better than him. Tidal Bay and Sir Des Champs are being scrubbed along, as you’d expect of horses for whom three miles is a minimum trip. His narrow loss there can’t confirm for certain that dropping back three furlongs is the way to go. One thing that can be said with a degree of confidence, is that this distance is his minimum trip, whether it will prove his optimum one is a different matter.

Cue Card’s victory over half a furlong further than this at Ascot last month doesn’t guarantee that his stamina is assured for this contest, as the pace for the first couple of furlongs in that race was only modest. It seemed certain that Captain Chris was going to throw down a major challenge to the winner, but a calamitous error at the second last ended what had promised to have been an intriguing finish.

Regardless of what would have transpired, the result could only have been viewed in a positive light, such is Captain Chris’ superb record on right-handed tracks. While this trip is probably as far as Cue Card wants to go, the faster pace that should be present here is likely to allow him to use his energy more efficiently, as he’ll be able to settle better in the early part of the race.

It’s devilishly difficult to split the big two, but with First Lieutenant a best-price 9-4 and Cue Cards available to back at 4-1, I’ve opted for the latter.

Champion Court, Ghizao and For Non Stop each have something going for them at their prices, but all three have disappointed on occasion this season.

Champion Court boasts solid form over course and distance, but underperformed last-time out. Ghizao was in the process of running a pleasing race against Cue Card at Ascot, before becoming outpaced after a slight stumble. He deserves consideration at a huge price. For Non Stop wouldn’t appear to be quite up to this level and threw in an absolute clunker behind Menorah over Christmas. However, the hold-up tactics that are likely to be employed on him could hold him in good stead in a race likely to be run at fast pace. More importantly, his record when fresh is so good that he could return to the form that saw him take the Old Roan Chase in October.

Selection: Cue Card
Alternative: For Non Stop

Advised staking policy scale (0-20 points)
Cue Card 3pts each-way 4-1
For Non Stop 1pt win, 0.5pt place 14-1

World Hurdle

Big Buck’s absence from the World Hurdle casts a long shadow over the race.. In his absence, we’re left with quite the conundrum.

Reve de Siviola has been beaten just once over staying trips – by Big Buck’s – since reverting to the smaller obstacles, and repelled the challenge of the recomposing Oscar Whisky in the Cleeve Hurdle over course and distance last time out.

Despite that narrow defeat, it’s Oscar Whisky who is almost certain to be sent off favourite, with his supporters drawing solace from the belief that he’s likely to reverse form on this better ground.

Having been sent of second favourite in this race last year, he travelled with none of his normal zest and finished a well-beaten fifth behind the imperious big Bucks.

While his last run over the trip was far more encouraging, it’s almost indisputable that this is further than his optimum trip.

Reve de Sivola may lack the raw talent of the favourite, but may offer more value with his proven ability to stay the trip.

Get Me Out Of Here, Big Warrior, Solwhit, Peddlers Cross and Wonderful Charm all warrant massive respect if getting the trip in a strongly run race. However, predicting that is fraught with difficulty.

The record of five-year-olds in the race is a poor one, but that didn’t stop Smad Place running a huge race to finish third last year. However, his record this term has been uninspired.

In a race with so many imponderables, it may pay consider two horses at massive prices who boast very different qualities.

Oscar Dara, is relatively speedy, but he had looked a horse with pretensions to stay this sort of trip when scoring at Kempton on his penultimate start, with his pedigree confirming that belief. His run last time out was too bad to be true and could possibly be attributed to the heavy ground he experienced that day.

Crosss Kennon is exposed and his record is that off a solid but unspectacular stay. However, he did finish fourth in this race two years ago at 50-1, finishing just half a length behind Mourad, who rounded off the places.

History has shown that he faced an impossible task conceding chunks of weight to the likes of At Fishers Cross, Inish Island and Medinas over course and distance in December, and while his shortcomings are obvious he could outrun his massive odds of 100-1.

This could prove a race to treat with caution.

Selection: Reve de Sivola
Alternative: Cross Kennon

Advised staking policy scale (0-20 points)
Reve de Sivola 1pt each-way 6-1
Cross Kennon 0.5pt each-way 100-1