Cheltenham Festival: First Lieutenant can assume command
The Festival has lost none of its intensity since expanding to a fourth day in 2005, but those who counselled that "less is more" may yet feel they had a point when they contemplate today's card. Elevated to the Thursday centrepiece, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle has hitherto borrowed lustre first from Inglis Drever, who won three times in four years, and then from Big Buck's, whose record-breaking spree of 18 wins has incorporated the last four runnings.
Injury always seemed more likely to interrupt that sequence than another horse, and sadly the champion is sidelined for a year. The onus is duly on the Ryanair Chase to reinforce the day's quality – and that's where First Lieutenant (2.40) and the mighty Mouse Morris can come to the rescue.
Admittedly, his trainer's candid preference was to run First Lieutenant in the Gold Cup itself, and he has plainly been overruled by the horse's owners – who happen also to be the sponsors of this race. Presumably, however, Morris wanted to go for Gold simply because he thought the horse was good enough for the more prestigious race, and not because he needs the extra distance.
After First Lieutenant was beaten by Bobs Worth in consecutive encounters, including here last year, it was fascinating that a trainer as shrewd as Morris still felt he could beat the Gold Cup favourite. And the implicit conviction about his sheer quality qualifies First Lieutenant as potentially in a different class here.
If anything, albeit judging more superficial evidence than is available to Morris, the horse might even prove better at this trip after being nailed late in the Lexus Chase over three miles last time. Either way, he will be suited by drying ground.
In fairness, Cue Card is a proper Festival horse. He won the bumper, finished fourth in a vintage field of novice hurdlers and hardly needs exoneration for chasing home Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle last year. But he does remain prone to hitting the odd fence, while his fundamental attribute has always been plenty of dash under pressure – potentially making him vulnerable to First Lieutenant's surge up the hill.
Overall, there can be no complaints about the standard of this field, with these smart ex-novices measuring themselves against the winners of the last three runnings. Albertas Run (2010 and 2011) is obviously getting a bit long in the tooth now but at least the ground is coming right, while Riverside Theatre – who won last year for the estimable Jimmy Nesbitt – has been treated for ulcers after a couple of disappointments since and is always dangerous after a break.
But perhaps the each-way value is sooner Champion Court, who is better than he looked in two recent visits to Kempton and adores this track.
Bog Warrior carries the First Lieutenant colours in the big hurdle race, but he was appositely named and conditions may no longer be deep enough. Oscar Whisky is the class act and seemed to stretch out better when given another try at this distance last time, but certainly not in such a way as to fit the mould of thorough stayer historically required for this race. Reve De Sivola, who just held him that day, has meanwhile done his improving in the mud and hardly offers value.
Strictly with the odds in mind, a diffident suggestion is duly made for Smad Place (3.20). Though well beaten by Reve De Sivola last time, he will be much more at home in these conditions and, still only six, is entitled to improve on his fine third behind Big Buck's last year.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Action Master (2.05)