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Arkle for the ages in prospect

January 15, 2017 01:44:03 AM

By: Alex McMahon


"First race" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Carine06

The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is a day which is heralded like few others in horse racing. Months of anticipation are finally burned off as the great amphitheatre in the Cotswolds bustles with excited punters and eager connections.

One of the key races on day one is the Racing Post Arkle, an end of term exam for the season's brightest novice chasers. In recent times, the Arkle has gone the way of odds-on chances like Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig, Un De Sceaux and Douvan. With the countdown to Cheltenham 2017 now well and truly on, the latest bet365 odds show this season's Arkle to be an open market.

The first two home in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last season – Altior and Min – along with Identity Thief, good enough to run in the Champion Hurdle last term, are amongst the ante-post frontrunners and the presence of all three would make the Arkle one of the most eagerly anticipated races of the Festival come March.

The starting point is Altior, a brilliant winner of the curtain raiser for trainer Nicky Henderson last March. That run was the culmination of a five-race unbeaten sequence over timber for the Seven Barrows star. Min had of course started as a red-hot favourite for the Supreme but Altior put six-lengths between them at the line, rubberstamping his quality as he did. His astute trainer pulled stumps after Cheltenham with one eye already on a budding chasing career. A tilt at the Champion Hurdle has been overlooked and with a two-from-two start this season over the larger obstacles, it is clear Altior remains progressive.

"Nicky Henderson" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Carine06

Min was perhaps a more curious case a year ago. Owned by Rich Ricci and trained by Willie Mullins, the French import had a burgeoning reputation before he ever set foot on the racetrack, a by-product of the Closutton whispers. Two facile successes in Ireland were his prep but at Cheltenham he made one decisive jumping error and never truly recovered. Like Altior, he too was put away for the summer after Cheltenham. Reappearing at Navan in late November, Min took to chasing like the proverbial duck to water. There is a school of thought that suggests he might have picked up a minor injury with his errant jump in the Supreme and a fully firing Min versus Altior in the Arkle ought to be much closer than the six-lengths that separated them last time.

There is a danger the Arkle will be billed a duel, but discount Identity Thief at your peril. Trained by Henry De Bromhead, the Gigginstown House-owned runner has smart form behind the likes of Nichols Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag on his CV over hurdles. He proved no match for Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle but is now making plenty waves over fences. His first two starts in this discipline have come at Punchestown, where he has barely put a foot wrong in recording two easy wins. Identity Thief has looked clever and quick in his jumping and, given De Bromhead's record with two-mile chasers like Sizing Europe, he deserves his place in any discussion when it comes to what already is shaping up to be a brilliant renewal of the Arkle.

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