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Of all the new races introduced into the programme in the last few years, the Betfair Chase has arguably been the biggest success, (the mighty Kauto Star being a standing dish clearly helped.) Since his retirement it’s continued to flourish and was arguably the chase of last season, when Cue Card beat Dynaste 4½l, with Silviniaco Conti another 1¼l away 3rd, (3m1f, soft).

Those 3 line up again, having suffered mixed fortunes since last year’s renewal. With race fitness on his side, Cue Card (7/2) put up a top class performance in this. He then looked to run out of stamina with the King George, (officially over 1f shorter,) at his mercy.

There’s been much controversy about the accuracy of race distances and the winning times of the Betfair (3m1f) and King George (3m) were virtually identical, (both run on soft ground.) The going may have in reality been more testing in the King George – but Haydock is a pretty quick track nowadays and the fences are soft for a Grade 1 track, even by today’s standards.

This all adds to this race being more of a test of speed at the trip, rather than emphasising jumping and staying. That should suit Cue Card as he has plenty of boot, (he now also has the assistance of Daryl Jacob, which is a plus). If he turns up in the same form as last year then he’s the most likely winner.

That’s a big if though. He missed the rest of last season with a pelvic injury. He was a bit disappointing on his return in the Haldon, finishing behind a horse 10lb out of the handicap - albeit it looked like a prep run after he’d been off since Christmas. The problem if you want to back him is that you don’t know if he retains his ability, and he has little in hand even if he does.

With a run under his belt Silviniaco Conti (100/30) turned the tables on Cue Card in the King George, though it did look more of a case of Cue Card stopping. He’s had some hard races though and looks increasingly quirky. In the Gold Cup he looked like the winner only to go sideways on the run in, and didn’t look straightforward when beating Dynaste at Aintree either. He might just have been short of fitness when disappointing on his return in the Charlie Hall, but Paul Nicholls has reached for headgear, (cheekpieces,) and I’d want to see him show his old sparkle before backing him at these sorts of odds. If he bounces back, he has every chance.

Taquin Du Seuil (11/2) has been backed during the week and also has cheekpieces on for the first time. He’d blown the cobwebs away when a distant 3rd to Wonderful Charm at Newton Abbot, so it was disappointing that he could manage only 4l 2nd to Menorah when getting 5lb in the Charlie Hall. He looked good when winning the JLT in the spring but it’s hard to recommend him on this season’s efforts at shortish odds. He’s closely matched with Double Ross on both the JLT and Charlie Hall form, yet Double Ross is 25/1.

Harry Topper (14/1) needs it to rain and to rain hard. He’s a genuine mudlark who stays all day. He’s not quick though and his jumping is suspect. I’d expect him to emulate last season’s runaway win in the Denman, with another big race win at some point during the season when the ground is deep. However, with the emphasis likely to be much more on speed here, he’s opposable unless there’s a downpour overnight.

That leaves Dynaste and Menorah. I might be the only boy marching in tune to the band, but I still think Dynaste (4/1) is a stayer. All he looked to do in the Feltham and in this last year was stay. He got injured in the King George and then outclassed the Ryanair field, back at 2m5f. He was slightly disappointing at Aintree (3m1f) when only 1½l 2nd to Silviniaco Conti, which has caused some to question his stamina - but it’s always dangerous to place too much reliance on post Cheltenham Festival form. He goes really well fresh and even if he isn’t the stayer I think he is, then he should get the trip on this sharp track. I think he’s the most likely winner with the Pipe team going well.

At the prices though, the value has to be with Charlie Hall winner Menorah (9/1). He thrashed Taquin Du Seuil there giving him 5lb, with Double Ross, (received 4lb,) and Silviniaco Conti further back. Everyone seems desperate not to give him the credit for that.

He’s always been a class act, winning the Supreme as a novice hurdler. In his novice chase season, he slammed the ill-fated Cristal Bonus and Al Ferof in a Grade 1 at Aintree. He ran some decent races whilst the Hobbs team were out of form the following season, and then after an interrupted preparation last season he bounced back with a terrific performance at Sandown at the end of April. He’s now put together two top class performances in a row, (both RPR of 172,) yet is written off in the market. He’s not a strong stayer but this isn’t a big stamina test and I think he’ll get the trip.

The big question mark is how the ground will ride. He’s best on good ground, but he acts with cut, (won the Peterborough on heavy,) and the ground didn’t look too bad today. Third Intention won the Graduation Chase in a time over 3 seconds quicker than Fago did on officially soft ground last season. The forecasts vary between minimal further rain and it being biblical overnight, so if you have the luxury of waiting to see the likely conditions tomorrow then that may be the best way to play it.

Having to make a call at this stage, I’m gambling that the ground isn’t too bad and he can get through it. If it becomes bottomless then, based on Richard Johnson’s comments earlier in the week, there’s a good chance he’ll be withdrawn – in which case we can switch to Dynaste with no harm done.

Menorah’s had jumping problems in the past, (though he’s jumped well the last twice), hasn’t been consistent and the ground isn’t ideal. But his price more than compensates for that – he’s always been as talented as any of these and if he puts it all together again he’s got a great chance.

1pt Menorah to win the Betfair Chase (Haydock 15:00) @ 9/1

It’s a pity that The New One and Faugheen don’t clash tomorrow, and Faugheen should win easily at Ascot, but The New One faces some meaningful competition at Haydock.

The New One is a top class hurdler but he’s very short at 1/3 for a horse that’s yet to win a 2m hurdle with a top notch opponent in it. The two times he tried, he was edged out by My Tent Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle and was then an unlucky, fast finishing 3rd in the Champion.

It’s likely he doesn’t face a top notch 2miler here but Zamdy Man and Hawk High (20/1) are talented and unexposed prospects, Aurore D’Estruval (14/1), impressed in a mares race last time and Melodic Rendezvous (5/1) has a fantastic record on testing ground.

I think there is consensus amongst many who backed The New One in the Champion, that he was the moral winner and that he should be followed blind – which is forcing his price down for all his targets.

Of course he’s likely to win but I’m keen to oppose him on value grounds. The right call is probably just to lay him at that sort of price, (given his propensity to make mistakes he might be a lay-to-back for in running players.) However, I can’t resist testing whether my fancy for last season’s Supreme, Zamdy Man (25/1), is up to the task.

Last season he beat Nicky Henderson’s highly regarded Oscar Hoof, (who received 8lb,) here, with dual subsequent winner Franciscan, (who received 2lb and is now rated 139,) 3rd, and subsequent Elite Hurdle winner Purple Bay, (who received 2lb and is now rated 161,) in 4th.

He then beat £450,000 purchase Un Temps Pour Tout here in a Grade 2, and Un Temps Pour Tout then beat Cole Harden, (now a 20/1 shot for the World Hurdle,) by 16l before a fine 3rd off 150 in a big handicap at Punchestown, (both at around 2½m.)

Venetia Williams decided not to run Zamdy Man in the spring festivals as he was still strengthening up. He obviously needs to improve a lot to beat The New One but loves both ground and track and the yard is going well. He’s value to cause a surprise.

1pt Zamdy Man to win the Betfair Price Rush Hurdle (Haydock 13:50) @ 25/1

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Cheltenham Countdown

The best Cheltenham Festival blog on the planet returns for 2015!

Over the past three years our National Hunt expert Matt Tombs has held our hands on the road to the Cheltenham Festival, with analysis and bets through the season, but the main focus being on the four days in March that brings the racing world together.

Matt has turned a profit every year, and in 2014 ante-post bets on Jezki (12/1) and Balthazar King (33/1) ensured it was another successful Festival. View the archive of years past at 2014, 2013 and 2012.

You can also follow and contact Matt on Twitter.

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Cheltenham Portfolio:

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Bentelimar - Supreme Novices - 0.5pts e/w 50/1 - U/P

Un De Sceaux - Arkle - 1pt 6/1 - WON

Smashing - Arkle w/o Un De Sceaux - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Arctic Fire - Champion Hurdle - 1pt e/w 33/1 NRNB - 2nd

Polly Peachum - Mares Hurdle - 1pt e/w 10/1 NRNB - 2nd

Cause Of Causes - National Hunt Chase - 1pt 8/1 NRNB - WON

Wounded Warrior - National Hunt Chase - 1pt 10/1 - N/R

Vroum Vroum Mag - National Hunt Chase - 1pt 20/1 NRNB - N/R

Cocktails At Dawn - Novices Handicap Chase - 1pt 16/1 NRNB - U/P

Jarry D'Honneur - Novices Handicap Chase - 1pt 16/1 NRNB - N/R

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Nichols Canyon - Neptune Novices - 1pt 6/1 NRNB - 3rd

Arbre De Vie - Neptune Novices - 1pt 20/1 NRNB - N/R

Champagne West - RSA Chase - 1pt 16/1 - N/R

Valseur Lido - RSA Chase - 1pt 10/1 NRNB - N/R

Simply Ned - Champion Chase - 1pt e/w 33/1 - U/P

Sire Collonges - Cross Country - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Moon Racer - Champion Bumper - 1pt 12/1 - WON

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Apache Stronghold - JLT - 1pt 16/1 - 2nd

Caid Du Berlais - Ryanair Chase - 1pt 25/1 - N/R

Un Temps Pour Tout - World Hurdle - 1pt 20/1 - U/P

Whisper - World Hurdle - 1pt 20/1 NRNB - U/P

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Rich Coast - County Hurdle - 1pt 20/1 NRNB - U/P

Shantou Bob - Albert Bartlett - 1pt 25/1 - U/P

Martello Tower - Albert Bartlett - 1pt 12/1 - WON

Dynaste - Gold Cup - 1pt 25/1 - N/R

Smad Place - Gold Cup - 1pt e/w 25/1 NRNB - U/P

Current Event - Foxhunter Chase - 1pt 14/1 - U/P

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15 or more - Total Irish Winners - 1pt 9/1 - Lost

Mullins treble - Novice Hurdles - 1pt 20/1 - Lost

Fred Winter - Longest Winning SP Race - 1pt 20/1 - Lost

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Other bets:

Shanahan's Turn - Novice Handicap Chase - 1pt 12/1 - U/P

Pearlysteps - Champion Hunters Chase - 1pt 9/1 - 3rd

Rivage D'Or - La Touche Cup - 1pt 6/1 - U/P

Lots Of Memories - World Series Hurdle - 1pt e/w 40/1 - U/P

Ballynagour - Punchestown Gold Cup - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

No More Heroes - Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle - 1pt 10/3 - U/P

Ange D'Or Javilex - Martinstown Handicap Hurdle - 1pt 40/1 - U/P

Modus - Champion INH Flat Race - 1pt 5/1 - 3rd

Valseur Lido - Growise Novice Chase - 1pt 9/1 - WON

Mallowney - Boylesports Champion Chase - 1pt 13/2 - U/P

Saint Are - Grand National - 1pt 33/1 - 2nd

Corrin Wood - Grand National - 1pt 100/1 - U/P

Cole Harden - Liverpool Hurdle - 1pt 11/4 - 2nd

Nichols Canyon - Mersey Novices Hurdle - 1pt 7/2 - WON

Sizing Granite - Maghull Novices Chase - 1pt 6/1 - WON

Simply Ned - Melling Chase - 1pt 22/1 - U/P

Carraig Mor - Mildmay Novices Chase - 1pt 14/1 - 2nd

Roi Des Francs - Sefton Novices Hurdle - 1pt 13/2 - U/P

Blue Heron - Aintree Hurdle - 1pt 14/1 - U/P

Silviniaco Conti - Aintree Bowl - 1pt 3/1 - WON

Dresden - Red Rum Chase - 1pt 14/1 - U/P

Neverownup - Fox Hunter Chase - 1pt 40/1 - U/P

Wicklow Brave - Betfair Hurdle - 1pt 20/1 - U/P

Houblon Des Obeaux - Denman Chase - 1pt 10/3 - 2nd

On His Own - Irish Hennessy - 1pt 7/2 - U/P

Apache Stronghold - Flogas Novice Chase - 1pt 5/1 - WON

Un Temps Pour Tout - Cleeve Hurdle - 1pt 11/4 - 3rd

Robinsfirth - Classic Novice Hurdle - 1pt 8/1 - U/P

Arctic Fire - Irish Champion Hurdle - 1pt 12/1 - 2nd

Twinlight - Clarence House Chase - 1pt 6/1 - U/P

Katie T - Boylesports Hurdle - 1pt 12/1 - WON

Lord Windermere - Lexus Chase - 1pt 13/2 - U/P

Dedigout - Leopardstown Xmas Hurdle - 1pt 33/1 - U/P

Le Vent d'Antan - Beginners' Chase - 1pt 3/1 - WON

Al Ferof - King George - 1pt 6/1 - 3rd

Purple Bay - Christmas Hurdle - 1pt 20/1 - 2nd

Simply Ned - Dial-a-Bet Chase - 1pt 10/1 - 3rd

Corrin Wood - Rowland Meyrick - 1pt 8/1 - 3rd

Ma Filleule - King George - 2pts 33/1 - N/R

Hello George - Ladbroke - 1pt 14/1 - U/P

Caid Du Berlais - December Gold Cup - 1pt 7/2 - U/P

Zamdy Man - International Hurdle - 1pt e/w 12/1 - U/P

Dodging Bullets - Tingle Creek - 1pt 10/1 - WON

Irish Saint - Henry VIII - 1pt 13/8 - U/P

Ma Filleule - Betfred Chase - 1pt 9/4 - U/P

Benny's Mist - Grand Sefton - 1pt 12/1 - 3rd

Rocky Creek - Hennessy Gold Cup - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Aurore D'Estruval - Fighting Fifth - 1pt 4/1 - 2nd

Real Steel - Drinmore - 1pt 12/1 - 3rd

Tandem - Royal Bond - 1pt 10/1 - U/P

Menorah - Betfair Chase - 1pt 9/1 - 2nd

Zamdy Man - Price Rush Hurdle - 1pt 25/1 - 2nd

Caid Du Berlais - Paddy Power Gold Cup - 1pt 16/1 - WON

Sausalito Sunrise - Club Novices Chase - 1pt 3/1 - 2nd

Simply Ned - Shloer Chase - 1pt 9/4 - 2nd

Regal Encore - Greatwood Hurdle - 1pt 16/1 - U/P

Jezki - Morgiana Hurdle - 1pt 4/5 - 2nd