Arkle Challenge Trophy: Back Lord to make Ferny feel Blue
There is often a potential star sat atop the market many months out in the Arkle Challenge Trophy, and this year that is Ferny Hollow. The exciting chaser dominates the ante-post betting at 6/4 best price at this point after some impressive chase performances on his return from more than a year off the track, but we look elsewhere for value in the 2m Grade 1 contest on March 15...
Willie Mullins has won four of the last seven renewals of the Arkle and usually when he has a short-priced ante-post favourite they are worthy of serious respect. Superstars like Un De Sceuax and Douvan were warm orders for months to win their respective attempts at the race and duly obliged to stamp themselves out as elite two-mile chasers. Ferny Hollow looks to be treading the same path in 2021/22.
The racing world seemed to be at Ferny Hollow’s feet after winning the 2020 Champion Bumper ahead of stablemate and 15/8 favourite Appreciate it. He was sent novice hurdling the next winter and on his debut over obstacles dispatched another horse destined for greatness in Bob Olinger, beating Henry De Bromhead’s stable star by a length at Gowran Park in November 2020 over two miles. With the exploits of the horses he defeated (Appreciate It the 2021 Supreme winner and Bob Olinger the 2021 Ballymore winner) as the season headed into spring, it is clear Ferny Hollow would’ve been in the shake up to be the top novice hurdler last season had he stayed sound. However, after his victory over Bob Olinger he suffered a season ending setback and was not seen again until December 2021.
There was much conjecture over what Mullins would do to split up Ferny Hollow and Appreciate It, as both looked to be obvious Arkle contenders as Cheltenham chat continued over the summer months. A setback for Appreciate It meant Mullins confirmed he would stay over hurdles in the 2021/22 season and in his chasing absence Ferny Hollow has taken the mantle as Arkle favourite following two fiendishly impressive performances over fences. On chase debut he jumped soundly and triumphed over Coeur Sublime by 4 lengths at Punchestown on December 5th, before kicking on again to hand weight and a beating to promising mare Riviere D’etel at Leopardstown 21 days later. At best price 6/4 his chance is obvious but he makes no appeal as an ante-post wager two months out, particularly knowing his fragile history.
If Ferny Hollow is to be upset on Day One of the Festival, the most likely rival to beat him according to the odds is Edwardstone, trained by Alan King. A second season chaser, he has looked rejuvenated this season over fences and is finally showing some of the potential he promised in his hurdling days. He has three victories to his name since this season started by a combined 33 lengths and has seemed to improve with every start. However, at 9/2 it is hard to conclude he is any value up against a rival as daunting as Ferny Hollow.
The one who could give Ferny Hollow the biggest fright is actually a stablemate, the talented but quirky Blue Lord. The double green runner has always been fondly thought of at the Mullins yard and despite his error prone nature (exemplified by his last flight fall behind Appreciate It in the 2021 Supreme) his connections were confident he was destined to be a better chaser than hurdler. This prediction has come true this season with his two performances both catching the eye, first beating El Barra by 5 ½ lengths at Fairyhouse with a fine front-running effort, before beginning 2022 with a career best effort with a 20-length demolition of Lifetime Ambition at Navan. In this performance he did not front run as he had at Fairyhouse but still raced prominently and his change of gear when shaken up by Paul Townend was a sight to behold, putting the contest to bed in a matter of strides. He looks set to face off against his stablemate at the Dublin Racing Festival and if putting up a good showing, or even defeating Ferny Hollow, then his current price of 5/1 for Arkle glory will surely shorten considerably.
Following the top three in the market there is a fair gap in pricing to the next in the betting, another Mullins contender in Hauts En Couleurs priced at 14/1. Undoubtedly a smart prospect and still only five years old, there is undoubtedly more to come from this runner but horses his age have a poor record in this race (winning only 4 of the last 24 renewals) and he looks to be up against it facing his two more glamourous stablemates. Additionally he is also entered in the Turners’ Novice Chase and looks more likely to run there so can be passed over for this race.
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Riviere D’Etel comes next at the same price and in truth it is very hard to see how she can turn the tables on Ferny Hollow considering the commanding nature of his victory over her last time out and the fact that he will be giving her less weight at Cheltenham than he was tasked with doing last time. Bob Olinger is almost certain not to run but is next in the betting nonetheless at 16/1, and Third Time Lucki is the same price after starting the season well before disappointing last time out.
Yet another Mullins runner Saint Sam is priced up at 20/1 and were he to take his chance he would have an each-way chance in this race. His chasing technique impressed many on debut at Fairyhouse and his confirmed liking for Cheltenham (2nd in last year’s Boodles) means he could nick some place money.
If it is to be any other winner than the ones mentioned then the bookmakers will be celebrating in the second race of the festival as an outsider will have ruined plenty of day one accumulators in just the second leg. Hopefully this is not the case, however, and we see the big guns perform to their best ability in what is always one of the best jumping spectacles of the year.