The day is finally here! The build-up can stop and let the racing do the talking. Four days of top class National Hunt racing and lots of betting, what more could we ask for?
The main questions have surrounded the potential dominance of the Irish, in particularly Willie Mullins trained horses. Now we will see how good they actually are.
Day One is Champion Day with the Champion Hurdle being the feature race and one where we will hear the famous Cheltenham ‘Roar’ as the tape goes back for the first race.
I’ve tried to be thorough in my research for these races to find some bigger prices rather than give the easy sell on a favourite but sometimes that is easier said than done.
1:30 Supreme Novices Hurdle
There are a few bookie offers out there to take advantage of for this opening race. Sky Bet and William Hill are offering money back as a free bet if your horse doesn’t earn a return on your stake.
The talk has surrounded Willie Mullins Douvan and Nicky Henderson’s L’ami Serge. The pair are the market leaders and top-rated in the race, the races they have ran in they have won with a minimum of fuss.
Douvan looked massively impressive when winning the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in January, as Willie Mullins searches for a hat-trick after winning this race in 2013 and 2014. He eased up to join the leaders and didn’t come off the bridle but my concern is how he will deal with quicker ground despite Clerk of the Course Simon Claisse watering the Prestbury Park track.
L’ami Serge is another top hurdler imported from France by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. He won the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown however that four-runner field was quite weak and the second placed Jolly’s Cracked It will be better on quicker ground.
To take advantage of the bookmakers offers go with Jollyallan (8/1) each-way. He will be the mount of AP McCoy who will be aiming to start his final Festival with a bang. The five-year old won well at Kempton on Boxing Day and was narrowly beaten by Garde La Victoire at Sandown last time out however it was still a good performance. Trainer Harry Fry has previously said he can’t wait to see the horse on better ground and potential chasers tend to go well in this race.
Another selection at a bigger price would be Qewy (14/1) each-way. He was mightily impressive when winning last time out and since then the second from that race has gone onto win. Al Ferof and Shadow Leader had both the same Newbury race before adding the Supreme to their honours. This bay gelding was rated 107 on the flat and won’t mind any sort of ground. The stable is in good form this season and has a few more fancies.
If all goes to plan in this race then it is quite simple that there is only one winner in the shape of Un De Sceaux (8/11). Unbeaten bar falling on his chasing debut he could well be more than a class above the rest of this field. There are a few worries though, especially with his exuberance, which could be costly early on at Cheltenham. One worry for most would be that front-runners don’t tend to win this race with only two winning from the front since 1980.
Another of the Irish raiders that could provide good each-way value is Smashing (25/1). Henry De Bromhead, who trained Sizing Europe to victory in this race back in 2010 and could be the one to go with for value, trains him. He has made three chase starts, winning one and being placed twice. He was third behind Don Poli on his chasing debut and then was a 12l second to Un De Sceaux. One major positive for me was his run for fourth in the Coral Cup last year at the Festival, but was given too much to do in the home straight that day.
Of the rest Vibrato Valtat has a breathing operation and looked good when winning at Warwick; he is Britain’s best hope. Clarcam has form behind Un De Sceaux and Vautour in Ireland. I just can’t have Josses Hill, yet to be impressed.
Advice: Look at the to place market or market without Un De Sceaux.
2:40 Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase
Where do I begin with this wide open 24 runner Handicap Chase? Research has mainly been around the trends of race and that proves the case here.
I think I’ve narrowed it down to around three that are in with a good chance but not all of those actually meet the trends previously mentioned.
Novices have won four of the last eleven runnings and Ned Stark (10/1) is a smart novice, who has won three of his four novice chases. In a decent Grade 2 on New Year’s Day he was fourth with Ptit Zig and Champagne West the front two. Winners of the race tend to high up in the market and Ned Stark is currently second favourite. Jockey Denis O’Regan believes the better ground will suit the horse after battling on well to win at Wetherby last time out. He is definitely one to keep an eye out for next year too. Five of the last ten have been rated in between 142-145, which this horse fits into.
The next pair are both (12/1). Barrakilla and Gallant Oscar are worth noting. The former is an interesting proposition who steps up in trip for this after finishing second in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at the track. He did handle the track but was beaten by a horse who had built up a big lead in Niceonefrankie. In recent years not many Irish horses are sent to this race but when they are we should take note. Gallant Oscar runs for Tony Martin, whose runner in this last year disappointed, but this horse could re-claim the race for Ireland. The nine-year-old stayed on well for fourth in the Thyestes behind Djakadam and should go well again here.
Only two horses in from the last fifteen have carried over 11 stone to victory and one of those was Holywell last year. That is the reason a few of these have been discounted including Annacotty, who won at Cheltenham last time out, and The Druids Nephew.
Advice: Back horses each-way using bookmakers that pay as many places as possible.
3:20 Champion Hurdle
Eight-runners, but what a field! This is one that I have to go with the favourite Faugheen (5/4). This is the race where he can prove himself to be the machine we all think he could be. He won the Neptune Hurdle last year by four-and-a-half lengths and looks to be the best in the race. When winning the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton he showed a tremendous turn of foot and he has already proved that up the Cheltenham hill so there shouldn’t be any worries then. There are two concerns. Firstly he hasn’t had a prep race, but does run well fresh, and secondly he required a second handler before the Neptune as he got buzzed up, however that didn’t seem to affect his performance.
Away from Faugheen my preference is for last year’s winner Jezki who progresses well at this time of the season. He was third in the Irish Champion Hurdle, a mistake at the last flight cost him second or else it would have been him and Hurricane Fly fighting out the finish.
There would be some scenes and lots of sore heads on Wednesday if Hurricane Fly was to win. He won this race in 2011 and 2013 and looks too big at 9/1. To win it he would have to re-write history and would become only the third horse aged 10+ to have won the race in its history.
I do not doubt the quality of England’s hope in The New One after his finish last year in third after being badly hampered by the fatal fall of Our Connor, but his effort when winning at Haydock puts me off him. Yes he won but it was less than convincing with him jumping right-handed and he needed a furlong of the flat to be corrected to win. If he does that today he will blow his chance in a better quality field.
4:00 Mares Hurdle
Willie Mullins is aiming to win this race for a eighth time in nine renewals after Quevega won this race from 2009. In the first year Whiteoak trained by Donald McCain won it.
Annie Power (4/6) is the likely winner to continue that Mullins dominance. The mare has only been beaten once and that was a narrow defeat in last year’s World Hurdle so wasn’t been disgraced.
Bitofapuzzle (28/1 Paddy Power) looks worth an each-way bet following her success in the Warfield Mares Hurdle at Ascot over 3m, which was a brave and game performance. Harry Fry talked up her chances for this race next year but my well take her chance here despite her preference for a longer trip. She won at the Opening meeting here in November. When winning at Ascot she held on from Carole’s Spirit, who also goes in this race.
Glens Melody was second to Quevega last year and has done what she had to in her prep race at Warwick. However she was beaten by Kitten Rock, who goes for the Champion Hurdle and had struggled against good opposition at Leopardstown.
A mention should go to The Pirate’s Queen who defeated Bitofapuzzle at Haydock over this distance and is in with a slight possibility.
Advice: Look at the to place market or market without Annie Power.
4:40 Toby Balding National Hunt Chase
The Four-miler that we all expected Don Poli to go for rather than the RSA Chase however we’ve all been proved wrong.
The Job Is Right (10/1) is well worth an each-way bet. This grey gelding is one that stays all day long and was unlucky in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park when he unseated at the last. He would have easily held on for a place, most likely second behind the winner Djakadam. Mr Derek O’Connor, who was second in this race last year by a neck when riding Shotgun Paddy, will ride him. Trainer Michael Hourigan has always been talking up this horses chances and is one that could go well here.
Very Wood is a short priced favourite for Gigginstown and has course form following his win in the Albert Bartlett last year. This does tend to be a race for the favourites, who have won three of the last five, but for me this is too short. Although only no horse since 1989 has won the race at this age.
Alan King and Sam Waley-Cohen both have good records in this race. This year they pair up with Sego Success who fits most of the trends to win. Perfect Gentlemen for the Mullins team could be one to consider being one of the highest rated in the race.
Main advice for this race is too err on the side of caution and follow some of the key trends.
5:15 CHAPS Novices Handicap Chase
Again research has mainly been around the trends for these sort of races at the festival and that proves the case here.
Seven-year-olds have won six of the last ten renewals of this race and horses to win this race had only won once over fences previously. In the ratings five of the last ten winners were officially rated between 133 and 135. Both of my selections meet at least two of those criteria.
Thomas Crapper (15/2) has been campaigned for this race and is a likely favourite. He was second to Don Poli in the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at the festival last year. He is rated at 134 and is yet to win over fences despite some encouraging runs in behind Irish Saint and Arkle hope Vibrato Valtat. He has previous form around Cheltenham and is one of the bigger prices on the day that I’m confident of performing well.
The other selection is Horizontal Speed (16/1) who is an each way bet. A seven-year-old rated at 137 and has won once over fences but has put in good efforts albeit in small fields against good horses. He was beaten at Exeter by Saphir Du Rheu, who is going to the World Hurdle, but he ran and jumped well and was deserving of his second. He beat Nicky Henderson’s Golden Hoof in a Novice Chase at Aintree on his debut over fences quite takingly. For me he is in with a big shot here if he is kept prominent throughout.
Gorsky Island is Tom George’s second string and probably is better over further while his first choice Stellar Notion was seventh with Generous Ransom winning and Irish Cavalier third last time out, but that reversed the form after Stella Notion won at Kempton on Boxing Day. Both of those could be dangerous so watch the markets in the build up to the race.