The Coral Cup handicap hurdle has been part of the Cheltenham Festival since Olympian won the inaugural running in 1993. Over the years it has developed into a fiercely competitive handicap hurdle, that each year attracts an even more competitive field than the year previous.
Won last year by Whisper off a mark of 153, he followed up his excellent performance when winning this race by winning the Grade 1 Stayers Hurdle at Aintree almost a month later.
In the last 6 years it has paid to be towards the top of the weights, as trainers are sending their better horses towards this contest more so than they did towards the turn of the millennium. Horses rated 140 and above have taken 5 of the last 6 renewals
At this stage many of the field hold multiple entries at The Festival, although it is assumed Volnay De Thaix will top the weights from a mark of 158 should Henderson choose to run.
Garde La Victoire (25/1) has proven a tough nut to crack this season, although his best form comes back at the minimum distance. He is entered in the County Hurdle on the final day and you’d have to think he’ll head there as he looked a non-stayer when fourth behind Baradari at Ascot in January.
Lac Fontana (25/1) foiled a real plunge on Arctic Fire when landing the County Hurdle twelve months ago, but has looked a shadow of his former self since albeit against a higher quality of opposition. He looks on a stiff enough mark here off 151, and on my reading of the form looks better equipped by the test the County Hurdle presents.
Henryville (33/1) is entered both here and the Pertemps Hurdle (same as Bear’s Affair) and his best form would give him a squeak in this at prices. Harry Fry has given him plenty of time to freshen up after a disappointing effort on ground softer than ideal at Market Rasen, although the markets suggest the Pertemps could be his preferred target of the two.
Blackmail (20/1) is a real interesting one for Tony Martin who is a real one to watch in these large field handicaps. His form on better ground reads really well and although he’s only won over two miles over hurdles he won a point to point over three miles back in April 2012 so stamina shouldn’t be a massive problem. Held up in a farce of a race over two miles four at Punchestown in December, on ground probably softer than ideal he has room for manoeuvre off a mark of 147.
Arbre De Vie (16/1) has looked out of the top drawer since joining Willie Mullins this campaign, and drew right away in a decent time at Warwick back in February. Presented a mark of 145 for his first foray into handicap grade he holds several entries including in the graded novice races, but it is possible connections could look to exploit what looks a favourable mark.
If you like the look of Arbre De Vie then you’ve got to consider Aux Ptits Soins (9/1), now in the care of Paul Nicholls. The manner in which Aux Ptits Soins dealt with Arbre De Vie at Auteuil when the pair last met reads well, and like the Mullins runner has already proven himself over the trip, APS looks sure to improve for the step up. He is 11lbs better off for beating Arbre De Vie last March and he has to be strongly considered from a mark as low as 139 based on what we’ve seen.
Le Mercurey (20/1) is another from the Nicholls camp who caught the eye when making late inroads at Ascot when looking well beaten, and is unexposed over this trip although looks more likely to take in the Martin Pipe Conditionals Hurdle on the final day of the meeting instead.
Hammersly Lake (33/1) is a rather interesting recruit for Nicky Henderson, and showed his capabilities with an excellent second over a trip short of his best at Cheltenham back in October. He followed that up with a solid second to Silsol at Newbury over the longer trip in November – that winner since went on to win the Welsh Champion Hurdle off a 7lb higher mark. A poor showing on his most recent start at Kempton in the Lanzarote in a race where very few got into it can be forgiven, and back in a large field on quicker ground he has plenty of scope to improve from his mark of 144.
Royal Irish Hussar is open to improvement now he’s been gelded, and providing he can see out this longer trip is likely to be overlooked because of his form, will certainly enjoy the return to a quicker surface.
Dell’ Arca has been the beneficiary of some rather eye-catching rides this season and there is a possibility he will rock up in this race (for which he is currently 33/1). A solid fifth in this last year off a 4lb lower mark, he looks sure to run his race once again.
Calipto is entered up in the Imperial Cup at Sandown this weekend, which were he to win he would most likely be heading for the County Hurdle as opposed to this.
Of the remainder likely to line up Marinero, Baradari, and Plinth are all respected on what they’ve done so far, in particular the first mentioned who is very unexposed on this sort of ground over a trip as far of this, and pedigree suggests he’ll have no problems with it.
A race which could well revolve around the clearly smart pairing of Aux Ptits Soins and Arbre De Vie as both look well handicapped off their respected marks, the Nicholls runner has been kept back from running in this country to protect his mark and you’d have to give him a real big chance of landing this pot. Ground an unknown however and plenty can go wrong in a field of this size, he is however highly respected.
Blackmail and Marinero are two to keep a very close eye on trained by Tony Martin and both present solid cases for the rigours of this race and they are very much on my shortlist.
However the one that keeps catching my eye is the Nicky Henderson trained HAMMERSLY LAKE who appears to have been forgotten about after a below-par effort at Kempton last time up, and had previously given 2lb to Silsol on ground softer than ideal for a 1.75L beating (Silsol won easily since off 7lb higher).
Forget his run last time out, his form on left-handed tracks reads well and that decent ground effort back in October was strong handicap form at the time and given he looks sure to improve on the step-up in trip, a mark of 144 is certainly within his compass.
Not seen since the start of January, there is every possibility that run could have brought to light a niggling problem, or perhaps he’s had some work done on his wind? Either way 33/1 NRNB I’m willing to take a chance to find out.