Cheltenham 2015: Meade's Apache Stronghold looks set to run riot
Apache Stronghold looks tailor made for the JLT Novices' Chase at Cheltenham tomorrow.
Noel Meade (below) has always held this seven-year-old in the highest regard and last time out he finally delivered on all of his promise.
As a hurdler, he was not far off the best, finishing second to Vautour at the Punchestown Festival after injury forced him to miss this meeting.
He was always going to be a chaser, though, and he made no mistake at Down Royal on his debut this season.
Straight into top company after that, Apache Stronghold was second to Valseur Lido in the Drinmore, but Meade felt he lost a couple of lengths by jumping out to his left, following the pacesetter who was doing that.
He had to settled for second again when stepped up to three miles, a trip Meade always felt he wanted, when beaten by Don Poli, but his trainer maintains his charge was not at his best that day and it was not stamina which got him beaten.
Last time out in the Flogas Novice Chase he turned the tables on Valseur Lido back at two and a half miles and it makes sense to stick at that trip.
With question marks over Vautour's jumping and Ptit Zig arriving on the back of a fall, Apache Stronghold rates a solid alternative.
The Ryanair Chase can go the way of last year's runner-up Hidden Cyclone.
Andrew McNamara looked to have everything cooked turning into the straight on Shark Hanlon's pride and joy 12 months ago.
Bouncing off the good ground, he had jumped superbly and victory looked assured, only for Dynaste to turn on the overdrive and run him down after the last.
He then fell at Punchestown and on his return this season, which is surprisingly as he is usually so sure-footed.
At Christmas he got back to his best, just reeling in Twinlight on soft ground over two miles.
There is a train of thought that over the minimum distance he is just going a stride quicker than he wants and now he has settled better in his races, connections have surely made the right choice in running him in this rather than the Queen Mother.
With no Dynaste, Al Ferof nor Cue Card, there is every chance he will be able to dominate like last year and as he is a year older he might last home.
Zarkandar looks a stonking bet in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Fourth in a vintage renewal last year when he had endured a very hard season, Paul Nicholls has trained him solely for this race all term.
We have seen throughout the season that Nicholls has no peers when it comes to picking the right race to aim at and after Zarkandar beat the best in France, this was nominated as his main aim.
On the way Nicholls attempted to win the Long Walk Hurdle but he was not the first to find Reve De Sivola at Ascot in heavy ground a tough nut to crack.
That said, Zarkandar traded at 100-1 on in-running as he hit the front on the bridle having looked in a different league to his obdurate opponent, but he made a slight mistake at the last and he quickly emptied on bad ground.
With better ground assured and Nicholls keeping him fresh, it is hard to see him being beaten.
Malcolm Jefferson's string have emerged from a miserable winter just in time to give Attagalance an each-way chance in the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate.
He should arguably be unbeaten at the Festival, having won the Martin Pipe and having been a close second in controversial circumstances in the novice handicap chase last year.
Better ground is just what he needs and back down to a mark of 141 he should be involved once more.
Tom Taaffe's Gold Bullet has been interestingly campaigned but the fact his trainer has called on Ruby Walsh's services twice this season makes him of interest in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup.
Nicky Henderson's Call The Cops was a laughably easy winner back on good ground at Doncaster recently and with just a 5lb penalty he could be a blot on the handicap in the Pertemps Final.
CHELTENHAM: 1.30 Apache Stronghold, 2.05 Call The Cops, 2.40 Hidden Cyclone, 3.20 ZARKANDAR (NAP), 4.00 Attaglance, 4.40 Gold Bullet.
CHELMSFORD: 5.40 Barye, 6.10 Hydrogen, 6.40 Loyalty, 7.10 John Reel, 7.40 Queen Aggie, 8.10 Come On Dave, 8.40 Emily Davison.
HEXHAM: 1.45 Morning With Ivan, 2.20 Endless Credit, 2.55 My Friend George, 3.35 Kapricorne, 4.15 Stickleback, 4.55 Beau Dandy, 5.20 Major Ridge.
TOWCESTER: 1.55 Streets Of Promise, 2.30 Cash And Go, 3.05 Flying Phoenix, 3.45 Musical Wedge, 4.25 Youngdocgallagher, 5.00 King's Legacy, 5.30 Zakatal.
DOUBLE: Zarkandar and Apache Stronghold.