This year’s Cheltenham Festival is just 33 days away and as the excitement builds, we’ll be taking a look at some of the biggest races held at “The Greatest Show On Turf”! To kick off our Cheltenham 2012 race previews, we take a look at the Arkle, where we’re keen to oppose the much hyped favourite, Sprinter Sacre…

After his classy win over Peddlers Cross at Kempton in December, Sprinter Sacre currently heads the betting for the 2012 renewal of the Arkle (or the Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase, to give it the proper title) at a best price of 3.30 (SportingBet). However, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of value in backing the horse at such a short price, particularly when you consider that just one favourite in the last ten years has managed to land the Arkle.

Another trend that goes against the Arkle favourite is his age. At just six years old, Sprinter Sacre lacks the experience of his rivals, and with just one six year old winning the race in the last ten years (compared with five seven year old winners and two eight year olds) we’d prefer to back a slightly more mature horse.

As with all of the big races at the Cheltenham Festival, prior course form is crucial. The undulations are notoriously testing and the phrase “horses for courses” has never been more appropriate than at Cheltenham Racecourse. It’s usually a good idea to pick a horse that’s not only won around the course before, but also at the Festival itself. Six of the last ten Arkle winners had already won at the Festival and two of those exceptions had never actually raced at the Festival before.

Betting trends are relevant to the Arkle too, as the winner is rarely a surprise longshot type that emerges from nowhere; in fact, only one horse has won the race at a double figure starting price in the last 21 years! All of the last ten Arkle winners came from the front five in the betting (though remember, the favourite has a poor record in the race) and so that is where we should focus our attention.

One more crucial trend to note when looking for an Arkle winner, is hurdling form. The Arkle winner is always a horse that has shown real class over hurdles before making the switch to the larger obstacles, a point supported by the fact that 11 of the last 12 Arkle winners were rated 142 or better over hurdles. This year however, the main players all comfortably meet that criterion, with Peddlers Cross being the highest rated of all: Peddlers Cross 170, Menorah 162, Al Ferof 154, Cue Card 151 and Sprinter Sacre 149.

Menorah disappointed at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, with a fifth place finish in the Champion Hurdle and has looked decidedly ropey over fences since making the switch, unseating on his chase debut and having fallen since. I’d also feel comfortable ruling out Cue Card, who hasn’t really achieved much since switching to fences and who also has a question mark over his jumping.

Al Ferof (best price 6.50, Coral) looks a really interesting type. Winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the 2011 Cheltenham Festival, he has shown that he can do it on the big stage and he relished the testing Cheltenham run in. The only blot on his copybook is his last time out third place finish, but that was going right handed against older horses for the first time.

Peddlers Cross was taken apart by Sprinter Sacre in their last outing, but the former can also be excused by the fact that he too didn’t seem to like going right handed and given that there were just three runners in the race, we will probably see a totally different performance come the Festival. Factor in that classy Hurdle rating, and he looks a serious contender.

Of those two, we marginally prefer Al Ferof. After the Victor Chandler Chase, trainer Paul Nicholls said he was more than happy with that third place finish and was now targeting the horse specifically at the Arkle (the horse also has a Queen Mother Champion Chase entry at the 2012 Festival). There is certainly no shame in finishing third to the older horses, especially Somersby who is a regular in the QM Champion Chase. Looking back to last year’s Festival, the way Al Ferof travelled when winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year (beating a fading Sprinter Sacre, I might add) reassures me that this is the one for the Arkle in 2012.

Advice:

The Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase
Tuesday 13th March 2012, 14:05

Al Ferof @ 6.50 (Coral)