As we look forward to the Showcase meeting, the road to the Cheltenham Festival – Britain’s only “real” racing festival – begins here. So before we begin the preview, here’s a few things to look out for as the season develops.
The Champion Hurdlers
Oh to be Rich Ricci. Many of us face dilemmas in life – whether it be what to watch on TV, which takeaway to get or whether you should have that last pint – but none can surely be as pleasurable as the one Mr Ricci has. Does he make the Champion Hurdle the target for the defending champ, Annie Power? Does he allow Faugheen the machine to reclaim what many think he would have won again? Does he allow them to take each other on? There are a couple of factors to consider here; firstly, Annie Power has tried and failed to win the World Hurdle before, and her sparkling performance in March may persuade connections to keep her over 2 miles. Surely she is far too good to go back to the Mares’ Hurdle. Secondly, Faugheen is blessed with speed and stamina; he won over 3 miles in a point-to-point before joining Willie Mullins and so it may be he goes the World Hurdle route. Least likely, in my humble opinion, is that they lock horns. Of the challengers to the Mullins domination, Apple’s Jade was astonishing when beating her Cheltenham conqueror Ivanovich Gorbatov by 41 lengths at Aintree, and Gordon Elliott is a huge beneficiary of the Gigginstown / Mullins split with her alone. Joseph O’Brien has already stated this is the target for Ivanovich Gorbatov, whilst Yorkhill could be the Wylie’s likeliest option for Champion Hurdle glory (although also see Novice Chasers…). Any ante-post bets should be postponed until Messrs Mullins and Ricci have made their plans clear.
The Champion Chasers
Last season will live long in the memory of all racing fans as the brilliant Un De Sceaux looked primed to continue to sweep all before him; prior to Cheltenham, he’d never been beaten when staying on his feet. Indeed, he’d never even been headed by another horse during a race. So when Special Tiara made a bold bid to make all in the Champion Chase on that Wednesday afternoon, it posed a new challenge to UDS. What nobody quite believed, but what everybody hoped for, was that Sprinter Sacre could return from the serious heart problems that had plagued him for nigh on two years. As he laid down the challenge to UDS, Ruby frantically tried to respond but couldn’t. A repeat victory by Sprinter Sacre at Sandown a month later proved it was no fluke, and that Nicky Henderson had indeed worked a miracle. Both Sprinter Sacre and Un De Sceaux have a whole new challenge on their hooves this year, in the form of the brilliant Douvan. Unbeaten in Britain and Ireland, and twice a winner at the Festival (the Supreme Novices and the Arkle), if he maintains that level of form then it is hard to make a case against him, although at a best price of evens there is little appeal to back him now. The slight spanner in the works for Douvan fans is that Douvan is so talented he could go over any distance, and so may go over distances further than two miles.
The Staying Hurdlers
Of last year’s novice hurdlers, two immediately spring to mind for this race – Yanworth, who ran into a good one in Yorkhill but certainly wasn’t disgraced over the 2m5f and could be suited by further, and Unowhatimeanharry who won the Albert Bartlett over 3m and was hugely progressive last season. Harry Fry has confirmed he’s staying over hurdles, for now at least, and similar progress this year would make him a serious contender. Nichols Canyon has the honour of being the only horse to have beaten Faugheen, in the Morgiana last season, but the suspicion is he will be suited by further and his first attempt over three miles in America in May was promising. Ahead of him that day was Rawnaq, the recent US Grand National (which is actually a hurdle race over 2m5f – go figure) winner and the World Hurdle is his target for a $500,000 bonus. He is certainly interesting as American horses have become more globetrotting in recent years but Cheltenham would still have a huge novelty factor. Thistlecrack is the favourite for the World Hurdle if he doesn’t take to fences, whilst as mentioned above Faugheen could target this if he and Annie Power are kept apart. This is also the stated target for Jezki, a very consistent performer (and indeed Champion Hurdle winner) who loves Cheltenham but beat the mighty Hurricane Fly over 3m back in 2015, and if he’s recovered from injury then at 8yo he can still be a big player.
The Staying Chasers
Thistlecrack – in the absurd position of being ante-post favourite for both the World Hurdle and the Gold Cup. I can understand the first but he’s never jumped a fence in public and caution must be advised (see The Novice Chasers for more on Thistlecrack). Coneygree is unbeaten over fences after his phenomenal novice season which culminated in him winning the Gold Cup at the first time of asking (and hence setting the gold standard for Thistlecrack to target), he won by 25 lengths on his comeback victory last year before injury denied him the chance to defend his crown. A superb jumper and blessed with the ability to front run and just keep going, the Bradstocks are making positive noises about his prospects this year and the hope for all racing fans must be that he returns with the same enthusiasm this season. Don Cossack is the defending champ, but will only get one run in January to prove his fitness. He is a classy act but it would be a remarkable performance from both horse and trainer to retain his title. Cue Card was rejuvenated last season, and went oh so close to completing the £1m Jockey Club triple crown (winning the Betfair Chase and the King George VI before falling when in contention two out at Cheltenham). He is getting on a bit and will certainly find it harder this season against such a top class line up. That line up is also likely to include Djakadam, twice runner up in this race and still only a 7yo, and quite probably Vautour unless Rich Ricci goes for the RSA again. In my opinion Vautour does have the stamina to compete in and win a Gold Cup, but as talked about in the Champion Hurdler section he’s often reluctant to pitch his big guns against each other. And finally a word for Don Poli, who stays all day and could use the Gold Cup as prep for the Grand National, as bizarre as that might sound. If it comes up heavy ground in March and it becomes a slog in the mud, he may be the one to be on.
The Novice Chasers
The most talked about novice chasers in racing will consist of two excellent winners at the 2016 Festival: Altior, who is following the route of recent Supreme Novice winners (Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan to name but three) in going straight to fences with the Arkle the aim in March rather than targeting the Champion Hurdle; and the outstanding Thistlecrack, who is targeting the Gold Cup itself in his first season. Thistlecrack is a machine, but his first two races will definitely be ones to watch before any ante-post bets as he could well go the way of Big Buck’s and revert back to hurdles if he doesn’t take to the fences. Another novice chaser familiar to many is The New One, whom Mrs Potter has instructed me never to back again. That’s the way with cliff horses and I can’t promise her anything… Other notable newcomers to the chasing ranks include Old Guard, last year’s Greatwood and International winner, who had a dreadful blunder on his first chase start and narrowly won on his second start at Exeter but will need to work on his jumping. The Willie Mullins duo of Min (beaten by Altior in the Supreme Novices but still highly regarded as a potential chaser) and Yorkhill, who won the Neptune and so who may be aimed at the JLT like former winner First Lieutenant rather than the Champion Hurdle route by previous winners Faugheen and The New One, will also be ones to watch. Prince Of Scars, Auxs Petits Soins and Buveur D’Air should all make an impression over the season.
The last two winners of the Cheltenham bumper, Moon Racer and Ballyandy, already served us up a treat at Perth when they went head to head for the final few obstacles. Moon Racer prevailed with a gutsy showing on the day but both could be big players over the season. Bacardys, third in the Champion Bumper to Ballyandy but who turned the tables impressively at Aintree, and Battleford (runner up at both Cheltenham and Aintree) could also be stars for Willie Mullins whilst Mullins and Ricci are sure to have several big players up their sleeves. Le Martalin was very impressive when winning at Galway in early October, as was Death Duty who followed up his strong bumper form from last season when winning on debut at Roscommon. The early ante-post favourite is Senewalk, but as we’ve yet to see him on a British course I’d rather wait for a while before rushing to back anything. Augusta Kate, the Willie Mullins mare, had some decent bumper form last year and will have an array of options as the season progresses, but the most likely at this stage would be the Mares Novice Hurdle. Jenkins showed some promise in two races last season for Nicky Henderson and could be another to keep on your radar.
Monbeg Worldwide has already laid down a marker in the bumper sphere with a comfortable win at Roscommon, whilst Monty’s Award landed a gamble in the bumper at Worcester on Wednesday. The reason that victory has significance is because it’s the race where Ballyandy made his winning debut last year. The familiar names of Josies Orders, On The Fringe and Any Currency love it round Cheltenham, whilst Vroum Vroum Mag is quite simply a brilliant mare – she has won over 2m in the Irish Champion Hurdle, over 2m6f in a Mares’ Novice Chase and over almost 3m in a Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot. Her versatility makes her a firm favourite but it’s hard to define a target for her. Bristol de Mai, Blaklion and Black Hercules were horses who I enjoyed developing last season and also deserve a mention.
So onto the action, and given the ground is officially good (having watered plenty on Thursday), it may still be a bit too quick for some horses. It’s also early in the season, so the selections should be taken tentatively – I wouldn’t be wading in with big stakes but make sure you have your notebooks handy as there will be plenty of pointers for the season ahead.
2:10 – Neptune Novices’ Hurdle –
Just 5 entrants for the curtain raiser over 2m5f, and given the quite frankly ridiculous stable form of Paul Nicholls it’s hard to look past EL BANDIT under Sean Bowen. This 5yo has won his last 4 starts and is only 1lb higher than for his last victory at Chepstow. He should have no problems going on the ground. Temple Ross won what was effectively a 2 horse race at Newton Abbot last month but may find this trickier, whilst the other three all won last time out as well so a small field shouldn’t prevent a good running of the race.
Selection: EL BANDIT (win)
2:45 – Novices’ Chase –
The good news for each-way players is that there are currently 8 declared for this 2m novice chase, and whilst Marracudja and Aristo De Plessis are worthy of their places at the top of the market – and Marracudja in particular looks to have so much potential – it’s a couple of Irish raiders where I think there might be some value. Jessica Harrington sends two – Gambling Girl and Neverushacon, it’s with Neverushacon’s last time out conqueror RIDESTAN I prefer. Although carrying top weight, he’s still got plenty of scope to improve over fences (just 4 chase starts compared to 11 on the flat and 8 over hurdles) and Henry de Bromhead is sure to have him ready for his British debut.
Selection: RIDESTAN (ew)
3:20 – Handicap Hurdle –
A big field of 17 runners declared for the 2m5f handicap, and unsurprisingly it looks incredibly competitive. The bookmakers will be paying 4 places but we’ll keep it simple and stick with one selection. The favourite is Valhalla, which isn’t surprising as he’s still only 6 and can be forgiven his defeat last time out over 3m2f, so the drop down to 2m5f should suit him well. However, at a general 4/1, he’s plenty short enough. My Wigwam Or Yours hasn’t been seen since December 2014, but given the maestro, Nicky Henderson got stablemate My Tent Or Yours into second in a Champion Hurdle after a similar period out that shouldn’t be of too much concern. Washed Ashore looks a threat, and do Ballinure and Robin Of Locksley. However, I’d prefer to side with ALTESSE DE GUYE. She’s won round here before, albeit over hurdles and over 3 miles, and she looks weighted to go well again today for the Martin Keighley yard.
Selection: ALTESSE DE GUYE (ew)
3:55 – Novices Chase –
An extended 3m is the challenge ahead of these novices, although there is plenty of experience in the field given the vagaries of what defines a novice. Indeed, TIGER ROLL has 8 starts over the bigger obstacles since May, winning 3 of those and finishing second a further 3 times. With Gordon Elliott’s stable making an early challenge to Willie Mullins’ supremacy, his charges are all running well and he will be tough to beat. Henry de Bromhead saddles two, and Cottersrock has won over fences on good to soft and over hurdles on good, so should also run a big race, but I’m siding with the experience favourite.
Selection: TIGER ROLL (win)
4:30 – Maiden Hurdle –
The two at the head of the market again look very strong, with Khezerabad and Garo de Juilley being French imports for the powerful yards of Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls respectively. However, it’s tough to find value in either of them as on pedigree they look difficult to split, they’re sure to have schooled well at home and whilst Khezerabad was third in the Adonis last season, Garo de Juilley could be anything. Casper King has finished second on all three of his hurdle starts to date, but again looks to be priced well. So it’s with CKALCO DES LOGES, for the Skelton brothers, we’ll go. He has only won a point-to-point in his young career to date, but that can very often lead to bigger and better things and so I’ll be watching with interest, from both a betting perspective and with an eye on the future.
Selection: CKALCO DES LOGES (ew)
5:05 – Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase –
Regular readers of my service will know that when it comes to amateur riders, I often find it profitable to focus on the jockey and not the horse. So whilst that means I reluctantly pass over the likes of Fingerontheswitch, Azure Fly and Conas Taoi, I am happy to go with the excellent Jamie Codd on CECIL CORBETT. The biggest compliment I can pay Mr JJ Codd is that he’s up there with Nina Carberry in my eyes, and around Cheltenham, that means a lot. We’ll go with the win only in spite of the large field, as there isn’t much value in his price in the place market.
Selection: CECIL CORBETT (win)
5:40 – Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle –
I’m torn between two here. First, and most obvious, is Wishfull Dreaming for Philip Hobbs and Ciaran Gethings. He won at Chepstow on October 9 under the champion jockey Dickie Johnson, which was his first start in almost a year. There may be a bit of a bounce factor in play and with a penalty, for that win, he could be vulnerable. But as a full brother to Wishfull Thinking, he could also be top class. However, I can’t get away from CLIFFS OF DOVER, in spite of the obvious risks attached. He’s won twice since October 14 (that’s not a typo) and is penalised for those, but at just 3yo he could still have so much more to offer. Being a son of Canford Cliffs he shouldn’t be made for hurdling, and if it was sticky ground I’d be reluctant, but the good ground should help him. Both those victories have come under Harry Cobden so the partnership is proving fruitful and I’m hopeful it can again.
Selection: CLIFFS OF DOVER (ew)
If you want of my random thoughts as the season progresses, then my Twitter handle is @theonlyhorseguy