David Croft answers the key questions after 28 entries were revealed for the Arkle Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on Thursday.
By David Croft
The Racing Post Arkle Chase is the second race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival and has a prize fund of £175,000. It is run over a distance of 2m on the old course and is for novice chasers aged five or older allotted a rating of 120 or more by the BHA.
Is Footpad the real deal?:
Footpad (pictured) was a classy hurdler, being a Grade 1 winner and and fourth in the Champion Hurdle, and he has made a seamless transition to fences.
He was won both his chase starts by 11 lengths, the latest at Grade One level at Leopardstown over Christmas. He looks a natural over fences being foot perfect and a very slick jumper complimented by a high cruising speed.
Willie Mullins’ charge is likely to have one more run before the Cheltenham Festival at Leopardstown on February 3. He is versatile with regards to the ground, having won Grade 1s on heavy ground to good ground. He is a worthy favourite.
Who is the strongest British contender?:
At this stage the strongest challenger appears to be the Alan King-trained Sceau Royal, who is in the same ownership as favourite Footpad.
He is three from four over fences, including an 11 length Grade 1 success on his latest start when winning the Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown Park.
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His only defeat came to North Hill Harvey over the Arkle course and distance, although he was conceding 5lb that day and only went down a neck so came out best at the weights. Also, he emphatically reversed that form at Sandown Park.
Daryl Jacob will have the choice of both runners if they both line up. Will they?
That will be a decision that is left as late as possible. The owners have been sporting in the past, running both Peace And Co and Top Notch in the 2015 Triumph Hurdle.
Who could improve between now and the Festival to make themselves a live contender?:
Petit Mouchoir has only had the one chase start but he could not have been more impressive when making all to win easily by seven lengths at Punchestown.
He was rated as high as 164 over hurdles, was a three-time Grade 1 winner over hurdles as well as an excellent third in last year’s Champion Hurdle, when finishing ahead of Footpad and Sceau Royal.
Petit Mouchoir also got the better of Footpad in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in February last season. He holds an entry at the Champions Weekend at Leopardstown, where he could face off against Footpad in a mouth watering clash.
Brain Power has one chase win to his name and more letters in his form than you would want to see. He unseated his rider when looking held behind Sceau Royal at Sandown Park and fell two out in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot last Saturday.
That was a heavy tumble and two uncompleted starts is hardly good preparation for the Cheltenham Festival. He clearly has a lot of ability but he needs to show it on the track.
A horse who is definitely on the improve is Saint Calvados, who has won two novice handicap chases at Newbury since joining the Harry Whittington stable from France.
He been ultra impressive in both his starts, winning them by a combined 19 lengths and he deserves to be tried in a higher grade.
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After his latest win his trainer suggested his next target would be a step in graded company with the Kingmaker Novices' Chase at Warwick the likely target. He has however been solely campaigned both here and in France on very testing ground and it remains to be seen how he would cope with quicker conditions.
How is this year’s race likely to compare with previous renewals?:
The first thing to note is the likely small field size and it will be surprising if there are ten runners or more.
Given the excellent roll of honour of the race it is unlikely that the 2018 renewal will able to match the likes of Altior, Douvan, Un De Sceaux or Sprinter Sacre.
The main contenders do boast Grade One form over hurdles and over fences but lack the X Factor of many recent previous winners.
Penty of the potential contenders have plenty to prove at the highest level.
You’ve got £20 to place on the race today - who do you bet on and why?:Petit Mouchoir appeals at 6-1 non-runner no-bet (PA)
It is a difficult race to be playing at this stage given the favourite is a short price. Do you want to be betting a 6-4 chance ante-post now when he could be bigger on the day? I wouldn’t anyway.
Petit Mouchoir appeals as a good wager at the general 6-1 non-runner no-bet as he could be vying for favouritism should he beat Footpad at Leopardstown.
If he comes up short perhaps he will be re-routed to have another crack at the Champion Hurdle - in which case we would get our money back.
Petit Mouchoir was better than Footpad over hurdles and made a pleasing chasing debut at Punchestown in October. He’s a classy operator and his next run will make the picture a lot clearer.
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