The calm before the ROAR!
13:30 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Melon has been the talking horse for a while and did what he needed to do on debut. The form of that Leopardstown race looks weak with the second running three times since without success. Horses that have only ran once over hurdles do have a poor record, so he is one I want to take on.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Ballyandy won the Champion Bumper last and that can act as a good guide for this. That’s because four of the last 14 winners of this have finished in the top four of the previous season’s bumper. He then showed his capabilities over obstacles when winning the Betfair Hurdle last time. In that he travelled smoothly before putting the race to bed. He could still have more to offer and he’s more of a battle-hardened runner, which is likely to help.
I was taken by the way River Wylde quickened up at Kempton to claim the Dovecote last time when beating Elgin making it three from three over hurdles. Nicky Henderson has taken his time with this son of Oscar and he’s continually progressed from his two wins at Ludlow to scooping that Grade 2 race. His trainer ended the Mullins/Walsh dominance last year with Altior and this six year old can give him another winner in the race.
One at a huge price and is a course winner is Pingshou. He beat a nice type in William Henry he in a Novices’ Hurdle in December over a furlong further here and should be suited by the drying ground. This seven year old has had his problems and should be helped by returning to this trip after his previous effort on New Year’s Day over four furlongs further. Colin Tizzard is expecting to have a good festival and this son of Definite Article is going under the radar.
River Wylde (8/1)
14:10 – Arkle Novices’ Chase (Grade 1)
The first of the group ones should go to last year’s Supreme winner Altior. This unbeaten seven year old has taken beautifully to fences and seemingly jumps for fun. There shouldn’t be a doubt that he wins this and goes on to win the Champion Chase in the future.
However, I’m taking a look at the ‘without Altior market’. Kim Bailey’s Charbel tops that market and he bumped into Altior at Sandown when beaten by six lengths, so that is an indication of how classy the Henderson runner is. This six year old won an enthralling race on his chasing debut beating two good types in Le Prezien and Top Notch showing he is capable. He’s been kept fresh with this in mind but I’m not entirely sure this track will suit him.
Forest Bihan is three from four over fences with his only defeat coming up against the equally smart Waiting Patiently, who unfortunately misses the festival. Brian Ellison’s charge stayed on well after overcoming a bad blunder in the latter stages of that contest. He can’t afford to make any mistakes here but he has been progressive and Aidan Coleman will ride him quietly giving him a chance to find a rhythm. If he finds a groove early on then he can take a hand in the finish ahead of Cloudy Dream once more.
Forest Bihan w/o Altior (6/1)
14:50 – Utima Handicap Chase
In my Cheltenham ante-post write up for Picksfromthepaddock I put up Singlefarmpayment as one to follow at the festival and I can’t go against my word.
This seven year old has won on two of three outings at this venue showing he handles the stiff finish and its undulating nature. He was brought down in a Novices’ Handicap Chase here in January when well fancied to run another good race. Now he’s learnt to relax he settles better into his races and he is one to have on side with a race that should be run to suit his style.
Using the trends I’ve ruled out horses rated over 150+ after the last winner of a mark that high came back in 1983, so that does rule out last year’s winner and top weight Un Temps Pour Tout.
Jonjo O’Neil can get them right for the big occasion and 2014 winner Holywell is lurking on a good mark. He ran well in this last season when second and is 5lb lower today after some poor showings after late. If bouncing back then this festival old-timer could strike.
Vintage Clouds could run a huge price here for a trainer in rampant form. Sue Smith has had seven winners from 17 runners (41% strike rate) in the last 14 days. This seven year old has been the model of consistency despite a minor blip when falling in Grade 2 company. He was third in a Grand National trial at Haydock last time and the handicapper has dropped him 2lb, so he’s well weighted here. The grey will be given a patient ride by Sean Quinlan but could run into the frame.
The Druids Nephew won this race off this mark back in 2015 and Neil Mulholland is a trainer to watch with his handicap chasers during the meeting while he also has The Young Master who should be suited by the drying ground and was on this mark when third last year.
Vintage Clouds (33/1)
15:30 – Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)
The feature of Day 1 is the Champion Hurdle and it’s a wide-open renewal with no Willie Mullins/Ruby Walsh dominant force after Faugheen and Annie Power of recent years.
Last year’s Neptune second Yanworth is the current favourite and is likely to be better suited by this test rather than the one he encountered when winning the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. You can’t crib his form but his jumping can be a little untidy and in a race of this status against some of these opponents it could mean to losing ground at a vital stage in a race. Mark Walsh gets the leg up following an injury to Barry Geraghty that has ruled him out of the festival.
It should be three from three this season for Petit Mouchoir but for coming to grief in the Fighting Fifth when going well and just edging into the lead. Henry de Bromhead has found the key to him after getting him from Willie Mullins following the Gigginstown fallout and you feel he’ll make his presence felt in a race of this nature.
The Fighting Fifth has proved a good trial in recent years for the Champion Hurdle and the winner of that race placed here at Cheltenham between 2011-2014. With the way he was travelling you have to feel he would have won that race if not falling.
He’s since won twice at Leopardstown when making the running. He was triumphant in the Irish Champion Hurdle in January where he galloped all over Nichols Canyon when setting a decent gallop and lasting the trip to hold off a possibly flattered Footpad.
Even though the front-running tactic isn’t one to usually suit Cheltenham he has stamina in his pedigree to suggest he’ll get up the hill and he has an engine to match. The New One may be ridden positively, so it’ll be interesting to see how Bryan Cooper rides the grey.
Nicky Henderson’s pair Buveur D’Air and Brain Power are second and third in the market respectively. The former had two goes at chasing earlier in the campaign and despite winning both he didn’t look best suited to the larger obstacles just yet, so reverted back to hurdles. No horse has come back over hurdles and gone on to win a Champion Hurdle, so that trend is against him.
Brian Power is one Henderson has been talking up in recent weeks. The way he won a Novice Hurdle in March last season suggested there was a bit of quality about him because he did plenty wrong but still won cosily. He’s come into his own it’s fair to say and he showed a good turn of foot to win at Ascot in December. However horses that haven’t ran in the same calendar year as the festival have a poor strike-rate, so that could be against him and he didn’t run particularly well on his only visit to this track in the past even though he has matured a lot since.
As expected the drying ground is seeing support in the market for Brain Power rather than stablemate Buveur D’Air.
At bigger price it is worth pointing out Ch’Tibello, a Scottish Champion Hurdle winner last season and was only a length behind Yanworth in the Kingwell last month. Dan Skelton’s inmate has since had a wind operation, which means we could see more of him in his finishing effort if all has gone to plan. His owners have spoke confidently on his chances in recent days but he’d need to take a big step up if wanting to reverse the form with Yanworth.
Petit Mouchoir (8/1)
16:10 – Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride Limini instead of stablemate Vroum Vroum Mag on the basis that she is still improving.
You can see that argument and she returned to the track after a 298-day break to see off Apple’s Jade when quickening up well after the final flight. She has festival winning form when winning the Mares’ Novices’ event on its inaugural running and she is the one they all have to beat for a yard that has dominated this race since its inception.
Vroum Vroum Mag toiled to victory at Doncaster when only beating Midnight Jazz by a head. She is defending her crown but it’s far more competitive this time around. In December she was beaten on her return to the track by a narrow margin and despite the quality we know she has is one I’d take on to possibly miss out on finishing in a place.
Apple’s Jade does have work to do to reverse form with Limini but I can’t see her not placing in this. She had to make her own running when beaten last month and it is unlikely she’ll have to do the donkeywork here. The five year old should really have won the Fighting Fifth but was inconvenienced by the fall of Petit Mouchoir. She rallied well late on under pressure and over this trip would have been the winner. Gordon Elliott has put the tongue-tie on for the first time and that should help to bring out a strong finishing effort.
A fly in the Irish ointment could prove to be Briery Queen. She was behind Lifeboat Mona and Midnight Jazz in the listed Mares’ race at Sandown but she deserves credit for that effort because I’m not entirely sure the track would have played to her strengths. That was her fifth attempt going right-handed and is yet to win despite a few good placed efforts, so coming to this left-handed course could see her in a better light with all four wins going this way round. Noel Williams’ inmate has a course and distance win to her name and this mare could be looked at to sneak into a place at a big price.
Apple’s Jade (9/2)
16:50 – National Hunt Challenge Cup
The four-miler for Amateur riders is a race where you generally look for the ‘bigger’ names and the betting is a solid guide.
Jamie Codd is onboard A Genie In Abottle for Noel Meade and he has ran like he’d make a decent stayer on good ground, so the drying weather will be in his favour. He has been well touted for the contest. Edwulf has had jumping issues in the past but he won well on heavy ground at Naas last time. Last year’s winning jcokey Derek O’Connor is on board and is another name to look out for.
Beware The Bear has won his last four and has definitely suggested that a strong test of stamina would suit him, especially with the way he won at Newbury on the last day. Sam Waley-Cohen won this back in 2009 and is one of the top amateurs in the field.
Champers On Ice ran better than his sixth place finish suggest here in January. That trip was very inadequate for him and he produced a strong finishing effort after never really being put in the race. He holds some decent hurdles form from last season and has gone well over fences. David Pipe has added the tongue-tie and he is a big player in this race.
However it’s a race there could be one to creep into it at a big price and one whose stamina has already been seen in abundance is Dancing Shadow. He romped home at Doncaster in December to get off the mark then he arguably stepped it up once more to win the Edinburgh National over this trip. He was ridden quietly before coming into contention late on and won that in decent style. This is a step-up in class for Victor Dartnall’s runner but he’s a sound jumper and ticks plenty of other boxes.
Bigbadjohn snatched victory from Flintham at Ascot in a Grade 2 chase last time and Rebecca Curtis’ charge should go well by the way he finished that race. There is stamina in his pedigree and a bold show should be expected. Flintham might be better suited on deep ground, which he won’t be getting. He is well-related though being a brother to Carruthers, who won over 3m4f and a half-brother to Gold Cup winner Coneygree.
A horse that hasn’t shown too much over fences so far is Missed Approach. He won on heavy ground at Lingfield three starts ago but hasn’t done much since. He is one that should stay and Warren Greatrex has put the cheekepieces on. There is potential there and he could prove to be better than what he’s shown, especially in a well-run race.
Dancing Shadow (28/1)
17:30 – Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase
There are plenty of potential angles into the closing race on day one. Some of them point to Zamdy Man because JP McManus owned runners and top weights are two positives. This eight year old has won three times this season all over 2m and is stepped up in trip but I do like the form of those contests, especially the way he beat a solid yardstick in The Dutchman at Newcastle last time. Venetia Williams has her horses in fine fettle and he could prove a player.
I like the Dan Skelton pair here but the preference is for Two Taffs. He ran over an inadequate trip last time and on ground that didn’t suit, so I’m happy to put a line through that. His previous two efforts over fences were encouraging and the return to this trip is a big plus. Cheekpieces and a tongue-tie have been added in a bid to give this seven year old further improvement and first-time headgear has proved a profitable angle, especially in this race.
Foxtail Hill has won his last two when able to dictate from the front. That’s something that could leave him vulnerable if trying that tactic once more because there are plenty of other pace angles in this big field. His win here in January has been franked with the second and third have won since. The stable form has to be a slight concern with Nigel Twiston-Davies only having one winner since the Betfair Hurdle.
Alan Fleming’s Tully East is back in a handicap, which could see him in a better light. He was a well-beaten second in a Grade 3 Novice Chase last time beaten by a nice type who won again on Sunday. He was a 50/1 fourth in the Martin Pipe last season and is one to have on the shortlist here.
I’ll go out on a whim and say that Deans Road shouldn’t be underestimated. Henry de Bromhead is a shrewd cookie and is a very good trainer of chasers. This eight year old hasn’t been seen since finishing second in a Grade 3 in October and he travelled quite well throughout the race but a mistake at the last all but cost him any chance of closing on Westerner Lady. He has gone well before after winning off the back of a 132-day break and he ran well behind a smart type in a bumper on the back of a 230-day absence. At 33/1 he is a huge price given they’ll go a good gallop and he should travel well for a long way.
Two Taffs (12/1)
Deans Road (33/1)