As people far and wide continue their search to remedy the 'January Blues', one failsafe tonic for fans of National Hunt racing is that the countdown to the Cheltenham Festival is well underway. The 2013 meeting kicks off on Tuesday 12th March and as usual, the four day equine extravaganza cannot come quick enough.
There's a famous saying within Jumps Racing that "all roads lead to Cheltenham" and with the majority of entries in the Festival's 27 races having raced at least once already this season, there's plenty of clues out there if you're looking to untangle any of the antepost markets, most of which look set to be hugely competitive affairs.
As always, sees the usual hype surrounding a number of "talking horses" that the media, bookmakers and racing fraternity simply can't see getting beat in their target races. However, history tells us that reputation and odds mean nothing when stepping out to do battle at Prestbury Park. Last year, it was Hurricane Fly who went down when the 4/6 favourite to win the Champion Hurdle, along with Sizing Europe who suffered defeat in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at odds of 4/5 who left the punters out of pocket. There was also Grands Crus, who flopped when well backed at 6/5 to win the RSA Chase, proving that no runner that sets out to win at the Gloucestershire track over the four days in March is unbeatable.
Here are this year's so-called "untouchables", the top five favourites according to the latest odds; are they sure fire winners or there to be taken on?
The Nicky Henderson trained Simonsig heads the market for the Arkle with most firms now odds on about the winner of last year's Neptune Novices Hurdle recording back-to-back victories at the Festival
The seven year old followed up that Cheltenham win with an easy 15 length victory in the Mersey Novices' Hurdle before making the transition to fences this season. The grey's debut over bigger obstacles came at Ascot in December where an effortless round of jumping saw him demolish four rivals by 49 lengths! That was followed up just six days later with another impressive win in a two mile Grade Two Chase at Kempton's Christmas meeting, this time hosing up by 35 lengths!
Based on what we've seen on his two starts over fences, it's difficult to argue the opinion that Simonsig is one of the 2013 Festival's "bankers". He looks a real star in the making and the manner in which he stayed up the Cheltenham hill on his only start at the track in the Neptune 12 months ago suggests he shouldn't have much trouble winning providing he puts in an unblemished round of jumping.
Overturn, Arvika Ligeonniere and Captain Conan are currently battling for second favouritism for the spectacle on day one of the four day meeting and whilst all three remain unbeaten and would probably be a justified favourite in any other year, 2013 looks an exception and none have shown the breathtaking class that Simonsig has oozed on his two chasing starts to date and as such, it's safe to say that he is the first of two runners from the Henderson yard that has to be regarded as "untouchable".
When Quevega lines up in the Mares Hurdle on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, she will be bidding to win the race for a fifth consecutive year and if successful, will break the Cheltenham Festival record set by herself and Big Buck's last year for four successive wins in the same race.
The Willie Mullins trained nine year old has yet to race this season, however, that is not unusual as her two previous Cheltenham successes came on seasonal debuts and that looks like it will be the case once again this year.
Some sceptics argue that Quevega has had little in the way of quality rivals to beat in her four Mares Hurdle victories and that theory could be seriously tested in this year's renewal with likely challenges from two promises young mares.
The Dermot Weld trained Unaccompanied spent the summer in listed company on the flat in Ireland before returning to hurdles with a credible second to Hurricane Fly in the Grade One, Istabraq Festive Hurdle, at Leopardstown in December, a race she won 12 months ago.
Her only start at Cheltenham came in the 2011 Triumph Hurdle where she finished second to Zarkandar, form which cannot be ignored and if the Mares Hurdle is confirmed as the target, this six year old rates a serious danger to Quevega's crown.
The Nicky Henderson trained Une Artiste also merits respect having made great strides this season. Winner of the Fred Winter at the Cheltenham Festival last March, this five year old has won her two starts this season and looks to be on an upward curve. Currently a 7/1 chance in the antepost market along with Unaccompanied, she certainly represents potential value at this stage.
Whilst Quevega sets a very high standard and thoroughly deserves her place at the head of the betting, she could well face her toughest assignment yet as she bids to become a record breaker for a second time and at a best price 8/11, she is best left from a betting perspective and certainly doesn't look unbeatable this time around.
Every now and again, a genuine superstar emerges on the scene and in Sprinter Sacre, it looks like the National Hunt has been blessed with one to savour for the next few years.
Yet another inmate from the Nicky Henderson Seven Barrows operation, Sprinter Sacre announced himself to the chasing world just over 12 months ago when landing a novices chase at Doncaster in December 2011. This followed a modest season as a novice hurdler, which culminated in finishing third in the Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham two years ago.
However, a faultless round of jumping resulting in a 24 length demolition job on his first start over fences showed that his future was firmly in the chasing division. His second win came in the Wayward Lad Chase at Kempton where he again found winning easy when the 11/10 favourite, the last time he was odds against! The seven year old has since won four more times over fences, extending his unbeaten sequence to six races with a cumulative winning distance of 81 lengths! That run included victory in the Arkle at last year's Cheltenham Festival and the Grade One, Maghull Novices Chase, at Aintree in April.
His first start out of novice company came in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December where normal service was resumed as he showed six useful rivals a clean pair of heels in a fifteen length victory. His next engagement will be the re-arranged Victor Chandler Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday 26th January (providing it gets re-scheduled) and if he emerges from that in the manner expected, the next stop will be the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival, for which he is already as short as 2/5 to win, the shortest of any other horse in all 27 antepost markets for the Festival.
That is certainly a price that does not represent value given he'll be up against Fininian's Rainbow and Sizing Europe, past winners of this race but the duo both have question marks to answer. The Henry de Bromhead trained Sizing Europe came unstuck when trying to defend his Queen Mother crown 12 months ago and Sprinter Sacre's stablemate, Finian's Rainbow, flopped badly on his seasonal debut at Newbury in November. Sizing Europe probably represents the bigger danger of the two but even at his very best, could be no match for Sprinter Sacre.
Another Irish Raider in the shape of Flemenstar could pose a threat if opting to run over the two mile trip instead of the Gold Cup but whilst he's been impressive in victory over the past 12 months, losing just one in eight starts, he too would have to improve beyond all recognition on what has been seen so far to upset the favourite.
He may not be a betting proposition but it is hard not to see Sprinter Sacre justifying the hype come 13th March. The manner in which he is winning every race suggests that there's no knowing just where his upward curve will end and it has to be thought that only a fall or other error stands in his way of becoming the champion two mile chaser. As such, he's pretty untouchable!
The David Pipe trained Dynaste is another that has taken to bigger obstacles 'like a duck to water' since making the switch at the start of the season. The seven year old's hurdles career came to a halt in the World Hurdle when finishing eighth behind Big Buck's and prior to that, only boasted modest form with his only wins coming in handicap company.
However, the Pond House runner looked a new proposition when tackling fences for the first time at Cheltenham in November when defeating the highly regarded Fingal Bay by four and half lengths. He has since followed that up with wins at Newbury and Kempton, impressing on both occasions and the RSA Chase has been highlighted as his Cheltenham Festival target, his odds for which have contracted from 14/1 to 5/2 in the space of his last three starts.
The question as to whether he can be considered as untocuable is open to debate though. There's no doubting he sets a high benchmark for other three mile novice chasers but there are others in the division who merit respect, none more so than Boston Bob, who finished second when 6/5 favourite to the late Brindisi Breeze in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival. He has only run once since that defeat and that was his chasing debut at Navan in December, which he duly won. The Willie Mullins runner is entered to run in the Irish Arkle at Leopardstown on Saturday and that should give a better indication of how much of a threat he could pose Dynaste but at 7/1 currently to win the RSA, he looks solid each way value and cannot be ruled out as a leading contender to win the race.
Another Mullins runner, Back In Focus, also deserves respect after winning three from three over jumps this season and whilst it remains to be seen whether the Irish champion trainer would run both in the race, he certainly boasts a strong hand in this race, which he last won with Cooldine in 2009.
The Paul Nicholls trained Rocky Creek is another one who features prominently in the antepost market having won his last two starts over fences, the most recent of which was an impressive display of stamina on soft ground at Warwick on the 12th January.
All in all, as good as Dynaste has looked and as unsurprising it would be to see him win the RSA Chase, he cannot fall in to the category of untouchable amidst what looks to be a tough bunch of rivals.
In what looks to be one of the most wide open renewals of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in years, it is Bobs Worth who is the clear favourite at this stage. The Nicky Henderson trained eight year old boasts an impressive record of four wins from fours starts at Cheltenham, including victory in last year's RSA Chase and the Albert Bartlett 12 months previous. His only run this season however came at Newbury in December when he was the impressive winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup, the form of which will come under scrutiny when he lines up in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham on Saturday.
If he adds another victory to his already impressive form ahead of the Gold Cup, especially at Prestbury Park, it will hard to make an argument against him not making it six from six at the Gloucestershire track. However, this is the Cheltenham Gold Cup and as history tells us, anything can happen!
Sir Des Champs from the Willie Mullins yard represents possibly the best chance of an Irish victory in the race since War of Attrition in 2006 and whilst his two runs this season haven't sparked floods of money for the seven year old in the antepost book, his win in the Jewson Novices Chase last March and a 36 length victory in the Champion Novice Chase at the Punchestown Festival prove what Sir Des Champs is capable of on his day. Fellow Irish Raider, Flemenstar, who beat Sir Des Champs back in December, could also feature but as mentioned, a decision has yet to be made as to whether he'll take his chance in the Gold Cup or Queen Mother given stamina doubts which came to light in the Lexus Chase last time out.
Silviniaco Conti from the Paul Nicholls yard is another who deserves respect. Without a Gold Cup winner since Kauto Star in 2009, the Ditcheat yard will be hoping that Silviniaco Conti can end that drought based on his two wins this season, which came in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and Betfair Chase at Haydock back in November. The form of those two races has worked out quite well for the seven year old and he will go to the Gold Cup as genuine contender.
With a wealth of rivals queuing up to take on Bobs Worth, whilst the Nicky Henderson runner looks the one to beat at this stage, is by no means a "cert".