Matt Gardner previews the final race of the Cheltenham Festival hoping that the end of the Festival will come with a BANG!
The concluding race of the day, often referred to as the "lucky last", tends to serve three purposes: it either digs you out of a hole if you back the winner having had no other successful bets during the day, elates you further if you've already gone through the card prior to knocking the bookies for six once more (you're not fussed if it gets beat: the holiday has already been booked) or it casts you even further into fits of depression and bankruptcy if you've done your brains on the earlier contests and your selection trails home last.
What makes my quest to find the winner of the Grand Annual an unenviable one is that we could well be approaching this race having no registered winners during the first three days of the Festival. We'd need a colossal result in the race that brings the curtains down on Cheltenham 2013 were that situation to come about, something I'm not certain I can provide- so please back lots of winners throughout the week- but there's no harm in trying so here it goes.
The obvious place to start is with Nicky Henderson as he bids to follow up last year's win in the race which takes his father's name. Bellvano, the victor 12 months ago, sadly lost his life in a fall at Fairyhouse the following month but Henderson will be mob-handed nonetheless with him holding no less than six entries, and it being possible that he could send the full complement out to war.
Of the sextet, French Opera and Petit Robin arguably make least appeal, with the former not as good as he once was and the latter, admirable though his performances over hurdles this season have been, hiding very little from the handicapper. Anquetta, who has had just the one run this term, has a fair record when fresh and finished fourth in this last year, but the suspicion at the time was that his mark pretty much summed him up and a 1 lb drop in the weights is unlikely to be enough.
Tetlami, which was fancied to go close in the Supreme Novices' last year but could only manage to finish ninth, has hit the mark on two of his three starts since being sent over fences, understandably unable to cope with Overturn at Musselburgh when tasting defeat. It would not be a surprise were he to prove capable of better still over fences and this sort of race will suit ideally, but his jumping has not been quite as slick as it could have been and that is a worry, particularly as one mistake can spell then end of your challenge in a contest of this nature.
Kid Cassidy, owned by JP McManus, looks to have been campaigned this term with a tilt at the Grand Annual to the forefront of connections' minds. The demands of this race seemed to catch him out 12 months ago, failing to settle off what was a sound pace and making numerous mistakes on his way to finishing twelfth, but his two starts this season seem to have been about arresting his headstrong nature and sorting out his jumping. It is easy to imagine him being ridden in a similar style to Bellvano last year, creeping into contention as they head for home, but whether his somewhat wayward style of racing can be reined in still remains to be seen.
Of the Henderson army the most solid proposition appears to be his old warrior Tanks For That, which has had this race as his main target for the last two seasons. He was a disappointment in 2011 but ran a cracker last year, jumping and travelling well close to the pace and only caught on the run-in by his stablemate having fended off every other challenge. His two outings this season haven't amounted to much but he will most likely prove to be a different proposition come Friday of the Festival, with it being impossible to rule out him going one better this time around.
Somewhat surprisingly it is not a Nicky Henderson-trained contender that heads the market but one from Ireland, namely Alderwood. The nine-year-old holds a number of entries at Cheltenham but the impression is that he will contest this event, and the advice is to either avoid him completely or lay him. The Thomas Mullins-trained gelding is a relative latecomer to chasing and he could just struggle to match his hurdles form over the larger obstacles, principally on account of his physique and that he couldn't defy a mark of 135 at Punchestown last time despite being relatively well touted in the market. A 5 lb rise since that outing is unlikely to make his life any easier, and he is most certainly not for us at the current prices.
An intriguing entrant is the Venetia Williams-trained Green Belt Elite, which has scored on three of his four outings over fences and looked a natural in the process. He actually beat Oiseau De Nuit, he of 2011 Grand Annual fame, at Wincanton but that was back in 2009 and, for all that he is something of a left-field contender, he looks short enough @(27.00) and we are more interested in another presently trading @(27.00) .
Marshall Zhukov was a fairly useful hurdler but has already shown himself to be much better over fences, and it is not out of the question that he could improve further with the test this race presents expected to suit him down to the ground. The seven-year-old has been labelled in some quarters as headstrong, a description that is not far from the mark given that he has raced freely in virtually all of his races since switching to this sphere. What he has also done however is jump well, a most encouraging sign, and it could just be that his first taste of a big-field scenario over fences could see him unleash all that he has to offer, and we are readily prepared to take that chance at his current price.
Can Nicky Henderson dominate this race?
Quite possibly, as at least three of his potentially runners in make some sort of appeal with Tanks For That the solid and safe option. He's the one to side with if the first three days of Cheltenham have sapped you of all confidence, and your wallet of all cash, but if you're feeling brave and fancy a bit of a flyer you could do much worse than pitching your hopes upon Marshall Zhukov, who seems certain to find this test to his liking.
Best Grand Annual Betting @ Cheltenham Festival
Back Marshall Zhukov