The day has finally arrived for four days of top-class racing and we’ll be able to hear the Cheltenham roar as the tape goes back for the Supreme.
The main question on this opening day surrounds whether it will be the dominance of Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and Rich Ricci everybody is expecting?
The ground has been drying out and the going description has been changed to good to soft, soft in places. The weather forecast looks set fair for the week, so you’d only have to expect the ground to keep drying.
So, here we go!
13:10 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The latest recurring theme in this race has been the Mullins, Walsh and Ricci factor and that’s why Min is the price he is to follow in the same footsteps as Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan.
There has been plenty of hype around this horse after winning his two races for Mullins by a combined total of 23-&-a-half lengths. There was a lot said about him prior to his racecourse debut where he bolted up by 14l despite pulling early on. He beat Gurteen that day and he has shown he could be useful. The slight concern was about the drying ground with his form on soft and heavy but Mullins has stated all his homework is done on good ground, so he could improve for that.
Those two runs have sent everyone into frenzy surrounding him but this is a much stronger race than what he has contested previously. He is still unexposed and we don’t know what else there is to come. He is probably the most likely winner but with every man and his dog scrambling to back him it has made it a race where there could be a nice each-way bet at a bigger price.
There is a field of 14-runners, so I’m going to put two up against Min.
Altior has won all four starts this season for Nicky Henderson, including a success over course and distance. That came in a race contested by only three rivals after Drumlee Sunset unseated at the start. It looked a slowly run affair and despite a few problems with the loose horse he kept on well off the bridle to see off Maputo. The best form looks to be his last run at Kempton where he was a wide margin winner over Open Eagle, who has since finished second in a Grade 2 Novices’ Hurdle. There have been plenty of winners in behind and some good types that haven’t yet got their head in front. At Kempton he did seem to hit a flat spot turning for home but he found another gear as he bounded clear in the home straight. One thing that is impressive he has slickly he gets from A to B and that could stand him in good stead in a race of this nature. He is more of an each-way shot to nothing.
At a bigger price is the Gigginstown representative Tombstone. He looked a proper horse when winning a few good bumpers that have worked out well then he beat Pylonthepressure on his hurdling debut. Gordon Elliott gave him a crack at the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle over Christmas where he raced far too keenly and the ground was more than likely against him. He ran on well to only go down by just under 1l. The stronger gallop in a race of today’s nature should help him settle better, which is a big plus. He was second in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle beaten by Bleu Et Rouge, again he was being nudged along but again heavy ground and the extra trip probably didn’t suit. His breeding may suggest better ground should suit him, which he is likely to get here at Prestbury Park. So overall a return to the 2m trip, a likely stronger gallop to help him settle plus drying ground would give you encouragement in his chances after contesting in some top prep races in Ireland. At a double-figure price he does appeal.
Others to give a small mention to include Buveur D’Air, who has only contested in a Maiden Hurdle and a Novices’ Hurdle but hasn’t put a foot wrong. He’s on the upgrade and has transferred his bumper form over hurdles. Dan Skelton’s North Hill Harvey is one that could be very much overpriced to sneak into the frame. He’s been second to Barters Hill on his stable debut before going in nicely around this track. Last seen 33-days ago he was beaten in the Listed Sidney Banks Novices’ Hurdle by a very nice type of Warren Greatrex’s called Ma Du Fou. One slight concern is that he could be more of a stayer and lack a turn of foot at the business end of the race. Willie Mullins’ other charge is Bellshill. He is one of the more experienced in the field. He was well behind Tombstone last time out on the heavy ground and did make jumping errors, which could be costly in this field. His last two wins have been over further, so this may not have been his first target.
Advice: Altior (7/2 Each-Way)
Tombstone (14/1 Each-Way)
14:10 Arkle Chase
Un De Sceaux last year and you have to say that Douvan looks a certainty here to make it back-to-back wins in this race for Mullins and Walsh.
Basically if he stays upright he wins. He’s one to put in your first day and weekly multiples. The six-year-old is likely to go off in front where he’ll be able to find a rhythm, which will see him jump for fun. It was only a three-runner race he won at Leopardstown last time but the way he jumped was a super sight to see and it is fully likely he’ll be able to do the same here. You have to expect him to keep his winning sequence going and make it four winning favourites in the last five renewals.
The presence of Douvan has meant he only has to face six rivals. The market has this right with Vaniteux being second in and his career has improved for the switch to the larger obstacles. From three starts he has only been beaten by Ar Mad, who sadly misses the Festival through injury. One small worry would have to be the fact that he can throw in the odd sketchy jump, which will see him lose vital ground against a horse of Douvan’s quality.
Sizing John has followed Douvan home on three occasions already in his career and was third to him in the Supreme last year. He’s won fairly convincingly twice over fences when he hasn’t crossed paths with Douvan. He does look to have quality in him and his jumping looks solid. Henry de Bromhead stated in November after he won the Grade 2 Craddockstown Novice Chase that the soft/heavy ground isn’t what he prefers, so the drying ground again could be a positive. He can give the Mullins favourite the most to think about and he is the one I’m expecting to take second.
Overall this is Douvan’s race to lose. He is the banker for many on Day One. If you don’t want to back him in the win market then the value may lie with Sizing John in the ‘without the favourite’ market. A forecast of that pair may well be worth a small percentage of your stake.
Advice: Sizing John without Douvan (2/1 – Bet365/Paddy Power)
14:50 Ultima Handicap Chase
The first handicap of the Festival and is one where you can start to narrow the field on trends. One trend of previous years has been about the mark of the horse – six of the last eight winners have been rated between 142 and 146. If you took that literally this year then you’d narrow the field to just three runners and considering there are a few well treated horses in this field then that is one trend to turn a blind eye too.
Out Sam heads the market for Warren Greatrex, who could have a double on the day. This son of Multiplex has won his last two and he looks really well handicapped on his current mark of 139. Greatrex has been patient with him and the placing has been crucial to his success so far. He seemed to relish the step up to 3m at Newbury last time and could be ahead of his mark here. The concern for me is that he has contested in two small-field races and this big field of 24-runners could just test his demeanour.
Kruzhlinin looks to be one to have one side after his win at Kempton 66-days ago and that victory came on the back of an 11-month absence. The handicapper has reacted to that win by putting him up 10lb but he looks one that could have more to offer considering he’ll be a lot better for that run. His long-term target is the Grand National but Philip Hobbs is good at placing his runners, so this nine-year-old has to be considered.
Jonjo O’Neill is a trainer that has a good record in this race having won it three times from 2009. He saddles Beg To Differ, who fits a few of the trends, including the one in the opening paragraph and one about headgear. He is set to run here rather than in the Midlands Grand National on Saturday. This six-year-old has a solid profile and his record over fences reads 3321. The second came here on New Year’s Day when 8l behind Perfect Candidate and it was that run that saw the visor put on for his Sandown win. A worry would be that he has shown a tendency to make a few jumping errors and if they go at a strong gallop then he could be in some trouble.
One trainer that is likely to have a good Festival is Colin Tizzard. Theatre Guide can kick start that in a race that he finished 11th in last year. He is likely to be settled towards the rear of the field, which means Paddy Brennan should be able to pick them off as some of them tire towards the end of proceedings. He’s been a rejuvenated character this season having had four runs with form figures that read 3231. He ran on well late in the Hennessy to which many questioned him staying on through tired horses. His win at Kempton 17-days ago showed he is in good form and the way he stayed makes me feel this could be a race to suit his style.
We’re now in the time of year that Holywell thrives. He has two Festival wins to his name, including this race two years ago. He has won over further previously, was fourth in last year’s Gold Cup then a close third in the Bowl at Aintree. He has the class to carry top weight and is a big danger on all things known. Neil Mulholland tasted success in this race last year with The Druids Nephew. Carole’s Destrier looks his best chance in this race and this eight-year-old is now rated 151 but has won off a 1lb higher mark in a weak previously. He stays well and comes here quite fresh having not been seen for 101-days.
Paul Nicholls doesn’t have a good record in this race being 0 from 18. Southfield Theatre was very well beaten in his last two stars but faced some top horses in Don Poli and Coneygree. Over track and trip he was second to Don Poli in last year’s RSA Chase and is now rated 4lb lower than that run, so with him down in grade he could be slightly overpriced. Ballykan is definitely one that will relish the drying ground with the majority of his best form coming on good ground. He didn’t fare too badly at Kempton when behind Theatre Guide after a near three-month break. He is currently around the 40/1 mark and I wouldn’t put you off him with Daryl Jacob back in the saddle.
Advice: Kruzhlinin (10/1 Each-Way)
Theatre Guide (14/1 Each-Way)
15:30 Champion Hurdle
The quality of this race has been lost with the absence of last year’s front two Faugheen and Arctic Fire. The Willie Mullins pair both miss out through injury and without them this race has been blown wide open. It’s a head scratcher in all honesty with who actually will claim the near £250,000 for connections.
The place to start surrounds some of the strongest form. That lies with My Tent Or Yours, who was second in 2014 but hasn’t been seen since finishing third in the Scottish equivalent. He was meant to run in the Kingwell but Nicky Henderson pulled him out due to the bad ground, therefore he has only had two racecourse gallops but he did look a picture of health. He can be buzzy before his races making him keen. You have to take it on trust that he is ready to go, so if you wanted to back him see how he behaves prior to the race.
Annie Power has been supplemented for this race and she receives the 7lb sex allowance. This race is an afterthought due to Faugheen’s injury meaning she may not have had the ideal prep. One bigger concern is that she is unlikely to get a soft lead, which she has had in the past, plus there is a doubt about her speed through the air. She is one Mullins’ horse I’m willing to take on.
Now is the time to try and split Identity Thief and Nichols Canyon. The former narrowly prevailed in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle over Top Notch after previously running out a winner at Down Royal. He has steadily progressed this campaign and there could be more to come from him here but again he won’t have an easy time out in front. Therefore Nichols Canyon could get a race run to suit his stamina. He was third in last years Neptune before winning the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. He did have fitness on his side when he beat Faugheen in November plus he has form over Identity Thief on ground that was less likely than ideal. With the ground drying and what looks to be plenty of pace he has solid claims for owners Andrea and Graham Wyllie.
In a below average renewal Lil Rockerfeller is one to take a punt on. He is a reliable type for in-form trainer Neil King. He was a comfortable winner of the Grade 2 Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell after running a nice race to finish third in the Grade 3 Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle at Ascot. The fact he has won and placed over further stands him in good stead with the number of front-runners that could set it up for him. He is one that usually runs his race and the fact connections have taken the plunge to supplement him shows they trust their five-year-old.
With the weak nature of the race then this has to be The New One’s best chance of winning this race. He has dined at the very top table throughout his career with wins in the International Hurdle and the Neptune, as well as a third in 2014. He does seem a horse to have his problems and when finishing fifth last year it was noted he jumped right-handed but the fact he won at Haydock last time can reduce that worry. He has to have an excellent chance but he isn’t one that I’ve warmed to.
Advice: Nichols Canyon (6/1 Each-Way)
Lil Rockerfeller (33/1 Each-Way)
16:10 Mares’ Hurdle
Many accumulators fell by the wayside in this race last year when Annie Power and Ruby Walsh hit the deck. This time around many punters will be hoping it’s a different story approaching the same flight for Walsh aboard Vroum Vroum Mag.
The Rich Ricci owned seven-year-old is unbeaten in eight starts for Willie Mullins since moving from France. She’s a very likeable mare by the fact she is so versatile surrounding the trip. She won the Grade 2 Warfield Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot last time over 3m when seemingly cruising through the race and not really looking to have broken sweat. She is best priced at 11/10 and barring any accidents looks like the one they all have to beat.
If you take the favourite out of contention then it’s a pretty open contest for the place money. Polly Peachum was second by a head last year in fortuitous circumstances after the fall of Annie Power. She is a worthy second favourite here and this eight-year-old won by a head from the The Govaness at Sandown last time showing her toughness. Nicky Henderson’s charge has one win and one second from two starts around here and the drying ground should see her in a better light.
Harry Fry had given Bitofapuzzle a try over fences but that plan looks to have been shelved after an unseat and pulled-up. She was third in this last year before going over to Fairyhouse to win a Grade 1 Mares race. She is a big rangey mare and if she gets an end-to-end gallop she is definitely one worthy of some money back against her own sex. Two starts at this track have seen a win and a third, so she looks one that can fill the frame once again.
Tara Point is set to make her return to the track after an absence of 441-days. She was a close third in a Grade 2 against the males at Sandown in a race won by Vyta Du Roc. If she is ready to go then she is a very interesting proposition. Aurore D’Estruval has had a wind operation, which Rebecca Curtis will be hoping to see her get closer to Vroum Vroum Mag than she was when finishing ninth at Ascot. This is likely to be Lily Waugh’s last race and the nine-year-old comes here in form, so is worthy of her place but overall it may be a bit of a harder task than what she’s previously faced. The Govaness has form ties with Polly Peachum after the Sandown run where the ground would have been unsuitable for both. She won here last April and is interesting with Richard Johnson in the saddle for the first time.
Advice: Vroum Vroum Mag (11/10 Win)
Bitofapuzzle without the favourite (8/1 – Bet365)
16:50 Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase
A real test of stamina over 4m ridden by the amateurs makes you feel that Minella Rocco worth taking on at his current price.
Jonjo O’Neil’s record in the last five years is questionable plus you look at this horses pedigree and you have to wonder why he’s running here. He’s had eight career starts and looks a middle distance horse. He was a narrow second to Vyta Du Roc at Ascot in a Grade 2 and is here off the same mark. I couldn’t have him looking at the pedigree, which makes you think he lacks stamina. One positive would be the fact that Derek O’Connor is in the saddle.
Another race where I’m putting two up at prices in what is a puzzling contest. The first one is Vicente who has plenty of experience over these fences and looks one of the stouter stayers in this line-up. He won here in November beating Un Temps Pour Tout in a race that Blaklion fell giving plenty of weight to his rivals. Blaklion stayed upright in December to reverse the form with this Paul Nicholls charge plus he has added a Grade 2 race to his name. Looking at this race sees plenty of front-runners, so with that in mind it could require a strong stayer, which he seems to fit the bill.
The other at a price is Shantou Flyer, who has already recorded a win around this track. Mr Barry O’Neill has ridden this horse on three previous starts, which means he has already built up a relationship with the horse, something that not many other the other runners have had after their recent runs under professional handling. This better ground should see him in a better light compared to pulling up at Navan last time on desperate ground. Again he looked a proper stayer when winning here in October, so Colin Bowe’s inmate has to be looked at.
There are others at the front of the market that are worthy of mentions including Southfield Royale. He does have stamina in his pedigree and stayed well on heavy ground two starts ago to win a Grade 2 Novices’ Chase at Doncaster. Nina Carberry takes the ride and she is one of the better jockeys in this field. Noble Endeavor has Jamie Codd on board and he is an amateur usually to side with. However the horse underneath him has question marks over staying trips. Definitly Red does look a stayer and has course form but he may want to get his toe in and the drying ground could be against him. He does have Gold Cup winning jockey Sam Waley-Cohen in the saddle.
Advice: Vicente (16/1 Each-Way)
Shantou Flyer (33/1 Each-Way)
17:20 Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase
This race sees one of my stronger fancies on the day. I touched upon his trainer possibly having a double and of Warren Greatrex’s pair I’m really keen on Aloomomo.
This son of Tirwanako has taken very nicely to chasing. He cruised around Uttoxeter on his seasonal return before winning again at Warwick over this trip. The Hennessy Gold Cup day form from Newbury is usually worth following and I have been following the race he won since. Plenty of horses in behind have since won including a few that didn’t see out the race due to the conditions. He travelled so nicely that day and stayed strongly to suggest that he’d enjoy it around Cheltenham. He had a prep run over hurdles and was a close third to Lanzarote Hurdle winner Yala Enki. He is off a mark of 140 but he has kept improving this campaign and looks to have the credentials to take this race.
An interesting point in one of the preview books was about horses running in first-time headgear have a good strike rate. This bared fruit last year when Irish Cavalier won in first-time cheekpieces. One that fits that brief is Thomas Brown. He suited last time at Kempton in the race won by Theatre Guide but he previously was a convincing winner at Doncaster and the handicapper only put him up 2lb, so he could be another ahead of his mark. He ticks plenty of boxes that he stays further than this plus better ground should suit.
One that catches the eye is Jonjo O’Neill’s Rezorbi. This five-year-old was making an encouraging debut for the yard here at the end of January when he came to grief whilst making progress into the race and looking likely to run into a place. Falls can put punters off a horse but it may not be such a problem as many think. He is a bit of a dark horse and off a relatively low mark he could upset a few in this race. For me he is the one that could offer a bigger price come the start of this race if you don’t fancy the favourite.
Killala Quay is vaguely interesting after his win last time out. That might put him back in good heart and that race recorded a good RPR and yet he has only been put up 3lb by the handicapper. He’s off 139 and has previously won off this in the past. This nine-year-old did jump left handed, so the switch to this track may suit however he may not get his own way out in front. Willow’s Saviour has only had three starts over fences but acquitted himself well in big-fields over hurdles, especially when winning the Ladbroke Hurdle back in 2013. This is the race that the Skelton’s have targeted for him, so he’ll be in good order.
One horse that is stepping up in trip and could be interesting is Domesday Book. The Irish don’t have a great record in this race but Henry De Bromhead is a shrewd trainer in terms of placing and despite only having had three starts over fences could improve for the extra distance.
Advice: Aloomomo (6/1 Each-Way)
Rezorbi (20/1 Each-Way)
Let me know your thoughts, comment below or tweet me @m_kirby95.