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Top Five: Cheltenham clashes we can’t wait to see

| 09.03.2014

This year’s Cheltenham Festival has no shortage of storylines and sub-plots with old and new reputations put on the line throughout the week. Some of the biggest races have been billed as head-to-head battles and below are some overviews of the key clashes.

Irving (2/1) v Vautour (5/2)  –Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

The opening day of the meeting has three vital clashes with Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins drawing swords once more with Irving and Vautour respectively.

The betting strongly suggests that the race is between the pair and the former deserves to be spearheading the market after a dominant display last time at Kempton to maintain his unbeaten record on these shores.

Vautour has been arguably less impressive in securing a hat-trick of victories, however, such is the strength of Mullins’ runners at the meeting in recent years it would be no surprise to see further improvement when it matters most from the French recruit.

This is the first of three key Nicholls vs Mullins duels during the week and could potentially set the tone for the heavyweight bouts to follow.

Hurricane Fly (5/2) v the Young Pretenders (5/2 Bar)Champion Hurdle

Hurricane Fly became the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to regain his Champion Hurdle crown last year, however, if he is going to match another record and join the mighty Istabraq on three victories in the race he will have to overcome his greatest challenge yet.

The younger generation are three-handed in the contest with last year’s Neptune winner The New One, the  15-length Triumph Hurdle victor Our Conor and Nicky Henderson and JP McManus’ Christmas Hurdle winner My Tent Or Yours all seemingly primed to take over ‘The Fly’s crown.

Mullins’ stable star has already defeated Our Conor twice this year but many believe the five-year-old will be more effective around Cheltenham and his main rival less so.

It will be the first time that Ruby Walsh’s partner will have met The New One or My Tent Or Yours and if he is able to prevail his place in immortality will undoubtedly be justified.

Quevega (4/7) v History (7/1 Bar)OLBG Mares Hurdle

Willie Mullins’ super mare bids to become the first horse to win at the Cheltenham Festival six times and is set to go off shorter than ever before for the OLBG Mares Hurdle of which she has dominated since 2009.

The hugely popular 10-year-old has only raced at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals on these shores, a lightly raced schedule that has delivered eight consecutive victories with the last defeat coming almost five years ago.

Those looking for an alternative to Quevega have plenty on their plate with John Quinn’s Cockney Sparrow allegedly best of the rest.

However, everything about the race is focused on the favourite and it would be huge shock and a massive disappointment is she was not to deliver and send the opening day’s crowd home happy.

Big Buck’s (7/4) v Annie Power (7/4)World Hurdle

Big Buck’s has never lost a World Hurdle in four attempts and only injury denied the last of the old brigade of Ditcheat stars a fifth tilt last year. However, instead of going off odds-on as he has done in the last three renewals he has featured in he is set to be only marginally preferred by the bookmakers because of arguably his greatest challenger to date, the unbeaten Annie Power.

Another part of the Closutton galaxy, the six-year-old recorded her 10th consecutive win at the end of January and despite holding entries for several races, notably the Champion Hurdle, connections are positive their charge will stay the distance of 3m at her first attempt.

There were varying interpretations to Big Buck’s much anticipated return performance in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham this year and although the stable said they were delighted with the run despite only coming third there were just as many left with more doubt than optimism.

This is set to be one of the closest duels of the week and if Big Buck’s were to win it would arguably bring the house down like no other horse at the meeting.

Bobs Worth (6/4) v Silviniaco Conti (5/2)Gold Cup

One of the recurring themes of conversations about last year’s Gold Cup is speculation as to what would have happened if Silviniaco Conti had stayed on his feet when arguably travelling stronger than any of the field when he came down three out.

Well, those questions now have a chance to be answered in part as Paul Nicholls’ charge lines up again in the week’s highlight in what looks like a straight clash with reigning champion Bobs Worth.

After ‘Conti’ stayed on past the absent Cue Card in the King George the eight-year-old has been all the rage, however, Nicky Henderson’s star has an unparalleled record at the course with five out of five wins and he deserves to be favourite despite taking time to find his form this term.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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Sam Foster