New Year’s Day at Cheltenham always serves up some quality racing and this year is no different with two of the best hurdlers in training looking to take one another on once more in the Dornan Engineering Hurdle. Despite only existing as a Class 2 contest, the outcome of this race looks likely to have a big impact on the ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival in March. Here are my thoughts and best bets!
On official ratings Zarkander (2/1 BetVictor) comes out on top, rated 7lbs clear of his closest rival in the field. This Paul Nicholls trained runner won the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f last season beating The New One after a perfect ride from his previous jockey Ruby Walsh. His latest run at the International meeting at Cheltenham saw The New One take revenge and beat his rival by 6 lengths comfortably over 2m1f. Unsuited by the step down in trip on that occasion, the stiff 2m4f on offer here will be much more to Zarkander’s liking. He is a gutsy horse who likes to battle from the front and get those in behind in trouble. Despite being a very good, hardened horse he re-opposes a horse who beat him comfortably at Ascot at the start of the season.
That horse was the Willie Mullins trained ANNIE POWER (4/9 Coral), a 6 year-old mare who has endless scope for improvement and who started off her season with an impressive victory. Heavily backed on the day, her natural ability was evident to all when, despite not producing a clear round of hurdling, she was still able to pull away from the Nicholls runner and win with plenty in hand. Her jumping lacked the polished finish normally associated with horses from the Mullins stable but she is relatively inexperienced and could well have come on a good deal for the run. Still in receipt of plenty of weight from her only real rival in the race, she should prove a tough horse to beat providing this more demanding venue doesn’t expose any jumping frailties.
The field is completed by another Nicholls' inmate in the form of Empire Levant (33/1 bet365). This horse is a useful hurdler but by no means anywhere near the class of his rivals today. Needing to find nearly 30 lbs this horse looks to have been entered in the race to ensure a good even gallop and to provide a tow into the race for Zarkander.
Despite only three runners, this is still a fascinating Class 2 event which promises plenty in terms of Festival clues. It was hard not to be impressed by the victory of ANNIE POWER at Ascot. To travel over from Ireland for her first time and to perform so well that was mightily impressive. No doubt she will be sharper for the run, this horse will handle the soft ground and is likely to take full advantage of her mare’s allowance. Her only challenger comes from a horse she has already comfortably beaten and who she still receives weight from. Conditions will be ideal and providing she jumps well, this will prove an easy assignment for her.
In terms of the beating she is rightfully a long odds-on shot, something which will put many off having a bet. Instead it could be worth looking at the ante-post markets for the Festival. She is currently in the mix for the Champion Hurdle, Mares Hurdle and World Hurdle. Unless a problem occurs with Quevega, it is more than likely that she will avoid clashing with her stablemate. Similar remarks apply to the Champion Hurdle where it will be a surprise to see her take on Hurricane Fly. This then leaves the World Hurdle; a race which seems open to challengers considering the recent form of At Fishers Cross and the lengthy lay-off of Big Bucks. Willie Mullins could well be slowly campagining her towards that target, a race which she is currently best priced at 10/1 (Stan James). If she thrives over the stiff 2m 4f on offer at Cheltenham and wins well, those odds could look very generous come 3.15!
ANNIE POWER (WIN) (4/9 Coral)
ANNIE POWER (World Hurdle WIN) (10/1 Stan James)
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