We are now at the core stage of the jumps season and already the ante post markets for the four main championship races at the Cheltenham Festival in March are taking shape. Early betting for the Gold Cup revolves around Thistlecrack and where Willie Mullins places his horses is affecting early prices for the World Hurdle and Champion Hurdle. In Douvan the favourite for the Champion Chase is the shortest price of any horse for races priced up so far.
There are ante post markets for 20 of the 28 races that make up the Festival. It’s too early to create a market for the handicaps because the major trials and weight allocations are the most significant factors in framing betting markets. Running plans are not yet known and there will be some unexposed horses that are being targeted at specific races. Ante post betting for the Gold Cup is a conundrum.
Thistlecrack was the best staying hurdler by some distance last season. The horse was always in command in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham and then sluiced up at Aintree. He was made the early favourite for the 2017 Gold Cup before jumping a fence in public. Despite a number of minor jumping errors the horse has taken fences in his stride and looks a natural. However, running within his comfort zone in three uncompetitive novice chases is totally different to a frenetic Gold Cup.
Coneygree became the first novice to win the Gold Cup for forty years in 2015 so there is a recent precedent. Thistlecrack has the jumping ability, stamina and high cruising speed to win the Gold Cup but at 7/2 there is very little juice in the price. However, even that price could be a steal if the horse continues to progress in the chasing sphere. Connections seem to favour staying in novice company for now but the Gold Cup is the season long target.
However, one potential complication could be the path taken by Cue Card, also trained by Colin Tizzard. The horse won the Betfair Chase at Haydock and is the favourite for the King George. If Cue Card wins that race at Kempton he will earn a £1 million bonus for winning the Gold Cup and completing the treble. Cue Card and Thistlecrack have different owners and the trainer has to keep both factions happy. There could be a situation whereby Thistlecrack wins the race for Tizzard but denies connections of Cue Card the bonus.
The two horses have never run in the same race and Tizzard ideally would like to keep them apart before the Gold Cup. However, the decision might be taken out of his hands if the owners of Thistlecrack choose the King George route which Cue Card will definitely contest barring injuries. Native River is also trained by Tizzard and that horse could run into a place in the Gold Cup and a 1-2-3 for the trainer would not be a total surprise but Cue Card is his best prospect for the race.
There are also complications with betting for the Champion Hurdle which is dominated by one trainer. Six of the 10 shortest priced horses in ante post lists are trained by Mullins. He has embarrassment of riches in the hurdling division and any one of that group would have a chance of winning the race. Faugheen and Annie Power are the latest two champion hurdlers and of the others Yorkhill should not be dismissed. Rich Ricci and Graham Wiley have multiple contenders but Annie Power will be hard to beat again with her seven pounds mare’s allowance.
Four of the Mullins horses that are prominent in betting for the Champion Hurdle also feature high in the ante post lists for the World Hurdle. It could be as late as Cheltenham week before Mullins confirms running plans and Ruby Walsh will have input in that process. Nichols Canyon could be his main runner but the Irish champion trainer’s horses can be opposed with Uknowhatimeanharry. The horse has winning experience at the Festival and is proven at the trip of tree miles.
The banker bet of the four major races is Douvan who is odds-on to win the Champion Chase. He was by far the best horse over hurdles and has won at the last two festivals. He won the Arkle Chase last season which is a natural stepping stone to the two mile chase championship. Douvan will boost an accumulator on the four big races by 72% and combined with Cue Card, Annie Power and Uknowhatimeanharry forms one leg of a multiple that pays 316/1.