Will this be the day Benie Des Dieux and Laurina return? Cheltenham's Relkeel Hurdle betting certainly suggests there's a good chance.
Benie Des Dieux is the favourite at 13/8 with Unibet, while Laurina is a 6/1 shot - trainer Willie Mullins adamant she won't be started on ground firmer than soft - and last year's winner Wholestone is no bigger than 2/1 for a repeat.
Only Oscar Whisky (2011 and 2012) has successfully managed to defend his crown in the Relkeel Hurdle, with Agrapart, Camping Ground and Zaynar all trying, since the race was elevated to Grade 2 status in 2006.
Wholestone is going to be the latest horse to try to emulate Oscar Whisky, having gone on to be third in the Stayers' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, and second in the Aintree equivalent - both Grade 1s over 3m.
The forecast good-to-soft ground at Cheltenham should suit the seven-year-old, after he made a winning seasonal debut on decent ground, over the Relkeel Hurdle distance of 2m4f at Aintree.
While a disappointing effort back over 3m followed, the flat course at Newbury is a possible reason for that below-par effort last time out, with Wholestone’s only previous disappointment coming when finishing last of six in the same race at the start of December 2017.
He could benefit from the drop back in trip this time, and clearly likes the new course at Cheltenham, winning three times from six starts, and placing on the other runs. I’d be reluctant to say he’d appreciate any rain, but it certainly won’t inconvenience him and at 2/1 with Unibet he rates a solid win-bet in this Grade 2 contest.
There has to be doubts surrounding participation of both the Willie Mullins-trained mares, including Relkeel Hurdle betting favourite Benie Des Dieux (13/8 Unibet).
She has been entered several times in recent weeks without being declared, as has Laurina (6/1 Paddy Power), with both waiting for an opportunity to race on testing ground, and preferably not against each other.
Both mares are Cheltenham Festival and Grade 1 winners, with Benie Des Dieux having won her last five starts, and Laurina, two years her junior at age six, has won her last four. The distance being ideal for both, they would be very short prices for victory if indeed lining up.
The other mare in the Relkeel Hurdle odds is Apple’s Shakira (14/1 Paddy Power), who was pulled up on her seasonal debut last time out. The ground was potentially too testing for the four-year-old, who was also burdened by topweight in the handicap hurdle.
While not a Grade 1 winner, she has won three of her four starts at Cheltenham, the worry for her being that recent form, and the fact she has not run over further than 2m1f. The short answer then is, wait until after declarations.
It falls to the Evan Williams-trained Clyne to provide the best each-way value in the Relkeel Hurdle odds on New Year's Day.
The eight-year-old showed good form over hurdles last season, notably when winning off a mark of 146 in a handicap hurdle over 2m4f at Uttoxeter. That effort did show Clyne handles heavy ground and his subsequent third in a Grade 1 over the same trip at Aintree was his first placing at the highest level.
It may well turn out to be the case that he's better over a longer distance given he ran well to place second in a 3m Grade 2 at Newbury on his first run this season, but given he has a proven liking for softer surfaces, and stays well, he warrants an each-way bet at 10/1 with Paddy Power.
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