Picking the winner of the Coral Cup, one of the most competitive races of the entire Festival, is hard enough to do in March, never mind three months in advance- but it could be worth building the sort of profile of horse that should be well suited to it.
Given Paisley Park looks to be so dominant at the head of the staying hurdle division, it will be interesting to see which of the mid-150 bracket of intermediate to staying hurdlers will go for Grade One glory, and which set their sights lower and attempt to take this.
It’s not unfeasible that Paisley Park’s presence may scare some potential Stayers Hurdle runners away, so the top end of the weights here may contain a larger amount of classier horses than usual.
That’s not to say a lofty rating is a problem; first two home last season, William Henry and Wicklow Brave, were rated in the 150s and were undoubtedly on the fringe of being open Graded quality, whilst the third, Ballyandy, has since been placed in a competitive Grade One.
Classy names such as Supasundae, Aux Ptits Soins, Medinas and Whisper also appear on the Coral Cup’s recent roll of honour, whilst year’s RSA winner Topofthegame went down narrowly off a huge burden here in 2018.
One horse who fits into the category of being borderline Graded class is Jane Williams’ hugely progressive Monsieur Lecoq.
This six year old improved to the tune of thirty-four pounds in 2019 and proved remarkably reliable in some of the year’s biggest handicaps- finished placed in the Imperial Cup, Greatwood Hurdle and Betfair Exchange Trophy, as well as winning the Welsh Champion Hurdle at the start of this season.
He’s yet to race over any further 2m1f in Britain, but kept on well enough up the Cheltenham hill pitched into Graded company when fourth in the International Hurdle on his penultimate start to suggest the increased trip wouldn’t pose a problem to him.
The only real stone that could be thrown at Monsieur Lecoq would be his arguably disappointing effort when tenth in the County Hurdle at last year’s Festival, but that race came only six days after his Imperial Cup second- and I don’t think he was particularly disgraced by that performance anyway.
The caveat with Monsieur Lecoq’s profile as a potential Corap Cup contender is that the perceived lack of depth in the Champion Hurdle could prove to be a draw for connections- but he’d rank a much likelier winner of this race and I’d hope he’d turn up here.
A horse at the end other end of the weights to have recently entered Coral Cup discussion is Warren Greatrex’s Portrush Ted.
The winner of the Grade 1 Aintree bumper in 2018, the eight year won on hurdles debut at Perth that summer, but was then sidelined for the best part of a year and a half.
Nevertheless, he showed no ill effect from his absence when defying an opening handicap mark of 131 at Ayr earlier this month.
Any normal rise in the weights for that victory should see him comfortably make the cut for this, and, importantly when considering an antepost bet on a horse in a Cheltenham handicap this early in the season, I’d wager that this would be the target of Portrush Ted were to take his chance at the Festival.
We probably haven’t quite seen this best of his ability yet, and is a horse to keep an eye on regardless of his Cheltenham target.
Only a minimal amount of bookmakers are currently pricing up the Coral Cup, but with those who are, the Willie Mullins pair Buildmeupbuttercup and Saglawy both feature prominently.
The former looks to still have a degree of juice in her hurdles mark of 132, given the she’s rated 98 on the flat, but has never been a horse I’ve found myself enamoured by- certainly on the level she’s seemed to me like a bit of a bridle horse and her hurdles form would leave her with a fair bit to find in an up to standard Coral Cup.
On the other hand, I can see the case for Saglawy’s potential chances in this race.
The six year old was a smart juvenile, if slightly shy of the very best and, as many young horses do in their first campaign outside of juvenile hurdling, he seemed to be a touch difficult to place last season, though proved his aptitude for a competitive handicap when third behind Wonder Laish and Tudor City in the BarONE Hurdle.
His second to Burrows Saint on New Year’s Eve suggested that Saglawy is perhaps on a slightly lenient mark of 147, a repeat of that performance would probably see him competitive.
Aux Ptits Soins was the last novice to win this event back in 2015, and owner John Hales has another novice who features in the current market in Protektorat.
Connections will be hoping for better luck than they were given at Cheltenham last time, when Protektorat was demoted into second for causing interference, and his current mark of 132 would leave them biting their fingernails as to whether he’d make the cut for the race.
Nevertheless, he’s taken a step forward on both of his last previous two starts and certainly is lightly raced enough to continue that progress- though at this stage would need a huge career best to win an open Festival handicap.
Another novice in the market is Challow Hurdle runner up The Cashel Man.
His profile is quite different to that of Protektorat, though, who started hurdling as a three-year-old in France.
The Cashel Man had shown above average flat form, including finished placed in a Cesarewitch, before going over obstacles for the first time at the age of seven- it took Pym, Reserve Tank and Ardlethen to deny him a victory in his first season over hurdles, but that meant he was able to retain his novice status for this season.
He absolutely hacked up on the Ladbrokes Trophy card at Newbury on his handicap debut off a mark of 130- but his new rating of 147 may still have some juice in it if he can reproduce a similar effort to the one that saw him get within a length and a half of the potentially top class Thyme Hill.