Willie Mullins is primed to dominate the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, as the County Carlow handler unleashes a plethora of his big guns on the first day of the National Hunt extravaganza, but his most solid day one contender could come in the shape of Un De Sceaux, who is already a red-hot odds-on favourite for the Arkle Challenge Trophy. We preview the Grade 1 novice chase here and look at the leading players for what will be a stunning second race on the card on Tuesday afternoon.
Main Arkle Challenge Trophy Contenders
Un De Sceaux often slipped under the radar as a hurdler last season, as the seven-year-old eased to some emphatic Graded wins over timber, but it's over fences that has seen the Denham Red gelding propel into the limelight and after some authoritative victories over the larger obstacles he has become an odds-on favourite for the Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Sent off a 1/8 favourite for his chasing debut at Thurles, the Irish raider was a distance clear of his rivals when falling, so next time out he was on the comeback mission, and he duly showed his ability over fences when romping to a facile 12-length victory at Fairyhouse to return to winning ways!
That imperiously dominant display just emphasised his potential, but it was his 15-length beating of Clarcam and Gilgamboa in the Grade 1 Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown that got punters drooling, as adopting his usual front-running style, he merely quickened up with aplomb and stormed clear of two classy performers.
Gordon Elliott's Clarcam had already bagged the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day and Gilgamboa had too notched up a notable win at Graded level, but the manner in which Un De Sceaux just eased clear of them showed that he could be the next big thing over fences.
A best-priced 4/7 with the likes of Paddy Power and Betfred, Un De Sceaux looks a certainty if he can produce a faultless jumping display, as he is sure to have his rivals off the bridle from a long way out with his lead from the front style, but Cheltenham has often found suspect jumpers out in the past and having not visited Prestbury Park before he will be tested to the max on March 10.
His jumping may come under scrutiny when trying to find holes in his chances, but he jumped a lot better when trouncing Clarcam (12/1 for Arkle) last time out and the Mullins camp is sure to have him well schooled for this test, so it's tough to oppose what could be punter's idea of an opening day banker.
Paul Nicholls and the aforementioned Mullins will lock horns throughout the four days of the Cheltenham Festival and the former will saddle Vibrato Valtat in this contest and the Ditcheat inmate is currently a best-priced 5/1 second favourite with BetVictor for this prestigious prize.
Chasing his fourth win on the bounce, Vibrato Valtat has blossomed over fences this term and having failed to get the better of Champagne West at Cheltenham in November he's gone on to win the G1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase, Wayward Lad Novices' Chase and Kingmaker Novices' Chase.
The mercurial six-year-old seems to have relished the move to fences this season and he will enjoy trying to come off a fast pace set by Un De Sceaux, but whilst he is still on the upgrade, he could well just lack that element of class that his Emerald Isle adversary possesses and he may just have to play a minor role at the finish.
Nicky Henderson has trained two of the last three winners of the Arkle and whilst Josses Hill can't be classed in the same quality as the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, who both were red-hot jollies for the event, the Seven Barrows handler still speaks very highly of his previously classy novice hurdler and he has to be respected at 12/1 with bet365.
Two defeats when sent off an odds-on favourite is hardly form that will give you huge confidence, but he appears to possess a huge engine and if Henderson can improve his jumping then he has to be a lively each-way play at a decent double-figured price.
Worth A Second Look
Mick Channon's Sgt Reckless has had an interesting path to the Arkle as having impressed on his chasing debut at Uttoxeter, he was then handed the unenviable task of trying to get the better of Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle, before going on to win a maiden at Lingfield Park on the all weather.
He is 16/1 with the majority of firms and it's tough to assess how he will fare should he take his chance in the field, but a decent fourth to Vautour in last season's Supreme Novices' Hurdle suggests that he could fight it out at this elite level, but whilst the quicker ground should aid his chances, the lack of experience may see him struggle.
John Ferguson's Three Kingdoms has progressed all season over fences and he has notched three wins out of four, with his sole defeat coming to Vibrato Valtat in the abovementioned Wayward Lad Novices' Chase, and he could be an each-way player at 20/1.
It's still not certain that he will take his place in the Arkle, as he still holds an entry for the JLT Novices' Chase later on in the week, but whilst he will need to improve on what he has shown to date, his win in the Lightning Novices' Chase last time out showed he can perform over fences and he could be interesting.
Paddy Power's superb Money Back Special if Un De Sceaux wins the Arkle will have a host of punters aiming to take on the favourite and one horse that could outrun his odds is Henry de Bromhead's Smashing, who has already been beaten his Emerald Isle compatriot this season.
A best-priced 33/1 with Ladbrokes, who incidentally are not offering Non Runner No Bet safety nets so far on the race, Smashing was unable to deal with Don Poli on his chasing debut, whilst his 12-length defeat to Un De Sceaux was encouraging as he had pulled a long way away from his rivals.
His third run over fences saw him break his duck and he was a dominant 33-length victor, so if he can build on that effort in a race he is likely to take his chance in then the 33/1 could be sensational each-way value in what is a wide open contest behind the red-hot favourite.
Of the others, Court Minstrel (33/1) has winning form, but was put in his place by Vibrato Valtat last time out and could struggle, whilst Sail By The Sea is owned by the same connections of last year's shock winner Western Warhorse, and he could well be a potential notable outsider at 40/1 with some firms.
You'd be a brave punter to take on Un De Sceaux with any confidence, as Willie Mullins' hotpot has shaped like he could be the next phenomenon of the chasing arena, but at 4/7 you are not going to get rich quick, so whilst he could hack up in the Arkle he is not a betting proposition.
So, you have to look elsewhere and whilst Josses Hill and Three Kingdoms make some each-way appeal, the one to be with is Henry de Bromhead's Smashing, who has already finished second to Un De Sceaux this season, and hopefully that can happen again and his 33/1 odds are far too big in a wide open field behind the jolly.
Arkle Challenge Trophy Tip
Smashing (each way) in Arkle Challenge Trophy 33/1 with Ladbrokes.com