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Aintree Hurdle preview

Small But Perfectly Formed
Tom Essex (@cynically_me)

John Smith's Aintree Hurdle

Racing has never been shy of shooting itself in the foot and small fields - which fly in the face of those campaigning for greater and/or minimum prize money - do little to generate either emotional or financial interest. Indeed, they often make for largely unspectacular viewing, but this year's Aintree Hurdle can be forgiven its diminutive, six-runner status.

As the adage goes, it's small but perfectly formed.

Contenders
Six may become five rather sooner than expected, with Michael Scudamore's Saphir River due to contest a Listed handicap hurdle on Friday. An early mistake put paid to his chances in the Coral Cup at Cheltenham last time, but pre-Festival murmuring suggested he was held in some regard by his Herefordshire-based trainer. Despite graded-race form in France, a top class renewal of this contest is almost certainly beyond him at this stage; but a less competitive event may well be his for the taking.

Third Intention is another to hold an alternative engagement at the meeting, but carrying top weight over an inadequate trip later on on Saturday's card probably isn't ideal. There's also the small matter of £4,256 just for finishing fifth here. And in reality that's as well as he will do. His useful novice form was finally built upon with an impressive victory in the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell in February, but he followed that with a lacklustre effort at Cheltenham just over four weeks ago. Colin Tizzard boasts a modest strike-rate at the track and has been short of both runners and winners of late.

Although he comes in to the race with the lowest rating of the four main protagonists, Zarkandar is easily the most interesting. Despite concerns about the wellbeing of Paul Nicholls' horses at the time, he was an ultimately comfortable winner of the Betfair Hurdle on his reappearance. Second-placed Get Me Out Of Here and fourth-placed Sire De Grugy have both won since, but it is Zarkandar's effort in the Champion Hurdle that really catches the eye. Time may show that running him so soon after Newbury, with rumours about the yard still lingering, was a mistake, but it's hard not to be fascinated by the way he finished the race. Off the bridle and apparently going nowhere four hurdles from home, he ran on well under modest pressure to be beaten just 7l by front-running stablemate Rock On Ruby. The step up to two-and-half miles can only be in his favour and any rain will hold few terrors.

He may not be at the very top of the hurdling tree, but Thousand Stars is surely one of the most adaptable horses in training. After being narrowly beaten by the re-opposing Oscar Whisky in this race last year, the admirable grey went on to land successive Grade 1 contests at Auteuil and Punchestown. That in itself is perhaps unremarkable, but the difference in the distances of those races - an impressive ten furlongs - lends credence to the argument that Thousand Stars is a little better than he's sometimes given credit for. Big Buck's eventually had his way with him in the World Hurdle last time, but Oscar Whisky finished one-and-a-half lengths behind in fifth and no horse was travelling better approaching the home turn. The step back in trip may well be key, with no other horse likely to make the running.

Oscar Whisky has the potential to rip this race to shreds, but scarcely believable victories over Get Me Out Of Here and Poungach have been book-ended by visually awkward performances at Ascot and Cheltenham. A final-flight fall at the former venue gifted victory to Overturn, but he was by no means certain to win and there's little doubt he was disappointing at the latter course just under a month ago. A lack of stamina has been offered as an excuse for that defeat, but the way the race was run should have suited him and connections seemed unfazed by the step up in trip beforehand. It's possible that his high cruising speed and apparent turn of foot are better deployed on slower ground, but a strong gallop could find him out.

It's often easy to get carried away with impressive handicap victories, but so dominant was Rock On Ruby at Newbury in November that top honours appeared to be a mere formality. And so it proved with a power-packed win in the Champion Hurdle succeeding a narrow defeat to the revitalised Binocular at Kempton. A heartbreaking, last-gasp loss to First Lieutenant in last year's Neptune Novices' Hurdle proved that stamina was of no concern and Noel Fehily appeared reluctant to leave anything to chance in stalking the dogged, battle-hardened, pace-setting Overturn. A near four-length success gives every indication that Rock On Ruby will be just as effective over this trip in Grade 1 company, but it can also be argued that he had the run of the race last time.

Analysis
Whether set to participate or not, the exclusion of Saphir River and Third Intention is fairly self-explanatory. Less obvious is the decision to put a rather bold line firmly through Thousand Stars and Rock On Ruby. Whilst the former has cemented his place in the hearts of many, he remains the likely front runner and the rest of the field is never going to be too far behind. Rock On Ruby will benefit from being towed in to the race, but he won't have the same tactical advantage that saw him storm to Cheltenham glory and is vulnerable to a 'quicker stayer'. Oscar Whisky's turn of foot could settle this race in a matter of strides, with the forecast rain very much in his favour, but Zarkandar still has the potential to be significantly better than we've seen. He has to concede age and experience to higher-rated rivals, but he finished so well in the Champion Hurdle that it's hard to believe he won't improve markedly for the step up to two-and-a-half miles.

Advice
Zarkandar
3 point win (from 5) @ 5/2 general

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