LEGENDARY jockey AP McCoy says reigning champion hurdler Jezki is his most likely winner at his farewell Cheltenham Festival.
The record-breaking 40-year-old, who will retire from the saddle before the end of the current campaign, believes drying conditions should play to the strengths of Jessica Harrington’s stable star, who will be seeking back-to-back wins in Tuesday’s Stan James Champion Hurdle.
McCoy chased home Jezki in last year’s renewal – he was aboard runner-up My Tent Or Yours – but switches to the champion because of his status as retained rider to top owner Willie Mullins.
While Jezki has been beaten in all three starts this season by 2011 and 2013 hero Hurricane Fly, who will be bidding to become the first 11-year-old to win the race since Yorkshire legend Sea Pigeon prevailed more than three decades ago, McCoy is confident of reversing the form tomorrow.
It will not be easy – the eight- runner field also includes Hurricane Fly’s stablemate Faugheen, who will be the ride of McCoy’s great friend and rival, Ruby Walsh.
He announced his intentions on Saturday after weeks weighing up the respective prospects of the two Willie Mullins-trained stablemates – Walsh was aboard Hurricane Fly for his two Champion Hurdle wins, and three successes this season, while Faugheen is still unbeaten and appears to be a rising star of limitless potential.
“The ground has been drying over the last week and that is definitely a plus for Jezki,” said McCoy in his big-race assessment. “I do feel there is nothing like Champion Hurdle form as if you look back over the last 50 years you will see horses winning and then going back and doing the same again or at least performing very well.
“I am very happy to be riding Jezki and although he made a mistake the last day, he had previously got closer to Hurricane Fly than he had done the season before.
“Faugheen has been very impressive and did it well at Kempton on a quick track. He is the one we have to beat.”
As for the rest of the week, McCoy will be heading to Cheltenham more in hope than expectation as he looks to add to his 30 Festival wins which place him second on the all-time list of jockeys behind the aforementioned Walsh.
He believes If In Doubt, who McCoy partnered to victory in Doncaster’s Sky Bet Chase, could run into a place in Wednesday’s RSA Chase – the three-mile championship for novice steeplechasers. “He didn’t jump that well that day but he’s not far behind the leading players on ratings and has a chance of making the frame. The Young Master has solid form in handicaps and is worth an interest despite being raised in grade,” he said.
It would be slightly more surprising if the quirky Mr Mole won the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 40 minutes later – this is the horse that provided McCoy with the 200th winner of the season at Newbury and prompted the champion’s retirement announcement.
However, he says last year’s winner, Sire De Grugy, who came to grief in Mr Mole’s race, is the one to beat after bouncing back to form at Chepstow. Significantly, McCoy is dismissive of the chances of steeplechasing superstar Sprinter Sacre, who was only second in his comeback at Ascot following a 13-month lay-off with a defibrillating heart.
“Any one of six could win the Champion Chase this year and there is no arguing that Sprinter Sacre has by far and away the best previous form,” he explained. “He was the best but his Ascot form wasn’t good enough so I am not sure about him, and if I couldn’t ride Mr Mole then I guess I would want to be on Sire De Grugy.”
As for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, McCoy believes Jonjo O’Neill’s Holywell – a horse that he has previously ridden to victory at Catterick – could be the biggest danger to his mount, Carlingford Lough, who confirmed his class when winning last month’s Irish Hennessy amid emotional scenes.
“It looks wide open, and as Noel Meade said the other day, a good jump separates all of the Irish horses. Road To Riches won the Lexus beating On His Own, Boston Bob, Lord Windermere – the whole lot of them – and the same thing happened again in the Hennessy as Carlingford Lough won that day beating the same horses,” added McCoy.
“Lord Windermere, last year’s winner, seems a better horse at Cheltenham and Silviniaco Conti has the best form.
“If you were to pick holes you could say he is best on flat tracks but Paul Nicholls thinks he is better than he ever was. I do think with the Irish horses you could run the race 10 times and get 10 different results.
“If the ground keeps on drying then you can’t rule out Holywell either. He gave me a good feel the last day Kelso and has been to the Festival and won twice before.
“My best chance of the week? I genuinely believe it is Jezki in the Champion Hurdle. He is the shortest-price of all my rides, seems as good if not better than ever and is the current Champion Hurdler.”