The Irish Independent Arkle Challenge Trophy has long promised to be one of the races of the Festival and it's unlikely to disappoint in that respect.
Sprinter Sacre leapt to the front of the betting after a demolition job over Champion Hurdle runner-up Peddlers Cross at Kempton over Christmas, and strengthened his credentials further when thrashing Grade 2 performer French Opera in the Game Spirit at Newbury in course record time last time. He's now 3-3 over fences and is many people's idea of a banker, but he does have to prove himself at Cheltenham, having looked all over the winner in last season's Supreme Novices' only to fade into third after jumping the last. Connections are adamant he's a stronger horse this season and he's looked a natural over fences, but the next three in the betting are all past Festival winners and he's no value now at odds-on.
Best of the Irish?
The Irish have won two of the past three runnings but will struggle to make an impact this time with their best hope looking to be Blackstairmountain, whose form isn't really up to what's required to win an Arkle. The Grade 1 he won at Leopardstown over Christmas was a weak affair and his chance was made easier by the fall of red-hot favourite Bog Warrior. The latter is potentially top class and is still in the list of entries, but soft ground is a must for him and that's looking increasingly unlikely.
Who's the likely winner?
Sprinter Sacre has looked like a champion in waiting but those nagging doubts about him coming up the Cheltenham hill still remain and he now looks too short at 10/11. Al Ferof is the obvious alternative following the defection of Peddlers Cross to the Jewson, and he arguably has the better form, having finished third to Somersby and Finian's Rainbow in the Victor Chandler last time. He's also been in the first two at consecutive festivals, running second to Cue Card in the Champion Bumper and had Sprinter Sacre as one of his victims when winning last season's Supreme. However, whether he can win an Arkle over 2m, I just don't know, as he gives the impression he's going to be much better over further.
Cue Card's defeat of the smart For Non Stop last time looks solid form and he could make a bold bid from the front, but I've a sneaky feeling that this will the day MENORAH (8/1 Paddy Power) finally gets the hang of fences. Jumping problems have blighted his chasing career so far but but he wouldn't be the first horse to improve following a visit by jumping guru Yogi Breisner and his trainer Philip Hobbs has a knack of getting this type of horse to click on the day, as he showed with Captain Chris in last year's Arkle. Let's not forget either that he's a former Festival winner, that coming in the Supreme Novice two years ago, and he was a mere 3/1 shot in last season's Champion Hurdle, in which he finished fifth. Probably at his best on good spring ground, he could be the one to serve it up to the favourite and should he just fall short we have Paddy Power's generous concession (see below) as insurance.
The Cheltenham fences of course.
The four horses at the head of the market are so solid that it's hard to make a case for anything else, and the rank outsiders are just that.
I may have got Sprinter Sacre wrong and he could dominate the 2m chase division for years but I'm going to stick to my guns and lay him pre-race, and then take some more back in-running if he is jumping and travelling well - it could be all change up the Cheltenham hill!
Best bookmaker offer?
Paddy Power are refunding all losing bets should Sprinter Sacre win the race up to £100 per customer, while Boylesports will refund losing stakes on the second-placed horse.
Where to watch?
Ladbrokes are live streaming the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Ladbrokes TV for min bet of £1 or 50 pence each-way.