The Olympic Games. The World Cup. US Presidential Elections. We are fortunate enough to have these fantastic spectacles every four years, but some events are so special the public demands them annually. Like Arsenal going into full meltdown. Like a doping allegation in the Tour de France. Like a politician with the skills of Napoleon Dynamite stealing the show on Strictly Come Dancing. But nothing like the Cheltenham Festival, when tens of thousands of British and Irish alike commence their Prestbury Park pilgrimage in the hope of winning a fortune but in the knowledge that whatever happens, it will be brilliant. I apologise for the length of this – the following days will necessarily be much shorter.
When my Cheltenham membership badge arrived in September, I was very much looking forward to what had the potential to be a classic National Hunt season, with the prospect of the likes of Vautour, Annie Power, Faugheen, Sprinter Sacre and Min lighting up the season and in particular the Festival in March. The untimely paddock death of Vautour was a precursor to a season of horrors which has seen Sprinter Sacre retired, and Simonsig and Many Clouds joining Vautour in the stable in the sky; it’s not seen Annie Power or Faugheen at all; it’s seen Min twice but deprived us of a clash of future champions with Altior; and it’s seen Don Cossack and Coneygree, the last two Gold Cup winners, retired injured and raced just once respectively. So many reasons to lament the past few months. And then – and then – they came for Thistlecrack too, the most exciting novice chaser since the last most exciting novice chaser in Coneygree.
But in the atmospheric cauldron that is the Festival, new champions will be forged alongside those still standing from last year. You have the magnificent Douvan, unbeaten in his 14 starts in Britain and Ireland (the only horse to beat him was on debut in France when Konig Dax prevailed; Konig Dax raced twice afterwards, finishing 11th of 13 at Catterick before falling at Taunton). You have the unbeaten (over obstacles at least) Altior, a hot favourite to follow in Douvan’s Arkle footsteps. You have the super sub of all super sub’s, Vroum Vroum Mag, a Grade One winning hurdler over 2 and 3 miles, and a Grade Two winning chaser over 2m6f. We still don’t know where she’s going. You have the evergreen Cue Card, vying for favouritism in the Gold Cup at the grand age of 11. And (I can’t not mention him) you have the ultra-consistent and ultra-game-but-never-quite-good-enough The New One, who returns for his fourth consecutive crack at the Champion Hurdle, his sixth consecutive Festival appearance and who once again threatens to render me on the verge of bankruptcy.
As usual, this is not meant to be an exhaustive guide, and you don’t have to follow my selections. Indeed, it’s always more fun to read as many opinions as you can and come to your own conclusion. And some would use the below to actively lay my picks. But there are 28 races in all, and each and every horse will be prepped for this – there are no non-triers at the Festival (heaven forbid it happens it any other time of year). Our task is to try and find a few of those 28 winners, and there are a few ways we can try and narrow down our selections. Mostly, though, is course form and in particular Festival form. It matters. Cheltenham is an undulating track, and many a horse has been stopped by the punishment of the famous hill to finish after the frenetic early pace of a Championship race. If horses have proven they like Cheltenham, and they can cope with the unique atmosphere of 60,000+ braying Tweed-jacketed adults who may or may not be adhering to Cheltenham’s brand new sensible drinking policy, then they simply must be on your shortlist.
Without further ado let’s begin with the race that signals the famous roar, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
1:30 – Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Grade 1, 2m.
An illustrious roll of honour helps give credence to the “supreme” in the title, with the last three winners alone being the sadly-missed Vautour (who went on to win at two subsequent Festivals),
An illustrious roll of honour helps give credence to the “supreme” in the title, with the last three winners alone being the sadly-missed Vautour (who went on to win at two subsequent Festivals), Douvan (last year’s Arkle winner and Champion Chaser-elect) and Altior, red-hot favourite for this year’s Arkle and hitherto still unbeaten over obstacles. The reason I mention these is that all of them had at least 4 hurdle starts under their saddles before arriving at the Festival. That cannot be said for the long-time favourite here, Melon, for Willie Mullins (who also saddles Bunk Off Early, Crack Mome and Cilaos Emery). He has four flat starts in France as a 3yo in 2015 and a solitary Maiden victory at Leopardstown in January this year to show for his career to date, and whilst he could be anything, it’s simply impossible to read too much (either positively or negatively) into his form. However, Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride him which speaks very favourably. Moreover, his task has been made somewhat easier by the fact Moon Racer has been diverted to the Champion Hurdle and the drying ground has seen Neon Wolf head to the Neptune, whilst Movewiththetimes was found to be injured just yesterday. But there are still some serious threats to Melon’s chances, not least the first home in the Betfair Hurdle, Ballyandy. The winner and Movewiththetimes pulled well clear of third placed Clyne that day, but even though Movewiththetimes was giving Ballyandy 1lb, Ballyandy, in my opinion showed much more courage in the finish which will be important here. That win is the best pure form in the race, and I really fancy his chances, but from 5/1 last week he’s in to 10/3 which is plenty short enough. I can’t put you off him. However, if it stays dry (which current forecasts suggest) then I’d be happy chancing RIVER WYLDE and HIGH BRIDGE. Both are unbeaten in 3 hurdle starts and still seem unexposed, and I also think the Nicky Henderson / Nico de Boinville combination will have a good Festival. They team up with River Wylde, whilst High Bridge was 6th in last year’s Bumper and his flat pedigree should see him appreciate the spring ground. He’s not without risk – and the inexperience of his jockey Mr Alex Ferguson could be a negative – but in an open race he could go well.
Selection: RIVER WYLDE
Alternative: HIGH BRIDGE
2:10 – Racing Post Arkle, Grade 1, 2m.
This race revolves around one horse, the aforementioned ALTIOR. He is a gorgeous horse who won the Supreme Novices’ last year by 7 lengths from Min and a further 1.5 to Buveur D’Air, with Petit Mouchoir back in 8th. That form has been franked time and time again, with the injured Min unbeaten over fences and Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir being very prominent in the betting for the Champion Hurdle. Altior has won all his four Chase starts, by 63, 6, 18 and 13 lengths respectively. If (and it’s a big if) there is to be a chink in his armour, though, it may well stem from the fact he’s only faced 10 rivals in total in those four starts. He has proven he can cope with bigger fields in his Supreme win, but there’s just a chance he could be unsettled by the mere prospect of another horse deigning to get near him during a race. Of his main rivals, I really like Charbel and Some Plan. The latter has won 3 of his 4 starts over fences and his sole defeat came when he fell 2 out with every chance, whilst Charbel was 5th in the Supreme last year and has only found Altior too good in his chasing career to date. A Hare Breath looks a big price in an ew market that pays 3 places courtesy of 9 declared runners, but ultimately this is a no bet race for me.
Selection: NO BET, enjoy Altior
2:50 – Ultima Handicap Chase, Grade 3, 3m1f.
The first of the highly competitive Festival handicaps and this looks an absolute cracker, with some old favourites set to lock horns with the up and coming staying chasers. As so often with him, I’m immediately drawn to the loveable rogue Holywell. He won this race in 2014 and was second in this last year (in 2015 he was 4th in the Gold Cup), and he’s 5lb lower in the handicap than last year. That’s largely because he’s not run well at all this year, but the absence of rain is a bonus – in last year’s Grand National, when the heavens opened he clearly didn’t fancy it, hitting the first fence and falling at the second. I’m tempted to back him, but at a best-priced 12/1 I might wait and see how he looks on the day. If he goes to 16s or bigger he’s worth a gamble. SINGLEFARMPAYMENT is the favourite but with good reason; he’s won twice at Cheltenham (although not the Festival) and was travelling well here on Trials Day when he was brought down, and the distance shouldn’t be a problem. He looks nicely handicapped and still unexposed and has to be worth a bet. Noble Endeavour and The Druids Nephew are deservedly prominent in the market, and if Pilgrims Bay can be delivered at the right time (ie 100 yards before the finish as he doesn’t like leading for long) he is an interesting outsider. If Buywise wins I will probably cry a little, but two others I like are The Young Master and UN TEMPS POUR TOUT. The former was third last year and is only 1lb higher, and is also sure to appreciate the better ground; his 5 Chase wins (including one where he was disqualified for not actually being eligible) have all come on good to soft or better. However, Un Temps Pour Tout won this race for David Pipe and Tom Scudamore last year and a mark 7lbs higher, which has been protected by a couple of warm-up spins over hurdles, looks fair.
Alternative: UN TEMPS POUR TOUT
3:30 – Stan James Champion Hurdle, Grade 1, 2m.
This race has been cruelly robbed of its last two brilliant champions in Faugheen and Annie Power, and as a result, it looks an extremely open renewal. I must confess I feel somewhat betrayed. For those of you who’ve read this for a few years, you’ll know of my love affair with The New One. You’ll also know after his defeat in last year’s Champion Hurdle, I was effectively banned from backing him again by Mrs Potter. So to hear she’s on him at 33s for this race has rather turned my world upside down. I don’t know who to trust or who to turn to. What I do know is that this is The New One’s 12th run at Cheltenham, and today’s action is on the Old Course, which hosts the first two days of the Festival. It has a shorter run-in than the New Course (which it follows hosts the last two days) which aside from the quality of horses means it’s harder for The New One to get up to full speed as he lacks a turn of foot. It’s why his only Festival victory has come over 2m5f in the Neptune, and why the only four times in his career (when he’s completed) he’s finished outside the first two in a race have been four times over 2m on the New Course (three Champion Hurdles and the Champion Bumper). So will I back him? The heart says yes. Should you back him? The head says no, and on we go. On Saturday afternoon, it was announced than the fragile but hugely talented Moon Racer – Champion Bumper winner in 2015 – would be targeting this race. At the age of 8, this gelding has raced just 6 times in his career, winning both his starts over hurdles. He’s not been seen on a track since winning here in November 2016, but if the 2015 Gold Cup victory and subsequent absence of Coneygree tells us anything, it’s that you have to take your chances when the horses are fit. When Moon Racer won that Bumper, he had Yanworth 3 lengths behind him in 4th place; by way of comparison, Yanworth has raced 8 times since then, only being beaten by the tearaway tyro that is Yorkhill (more on him on Thursday) in last year’s Neptune. Yanworth is rarely flashy but often does just enough, and I think the price difference between the two is about right given Yanworth’s extra experience, which is often so critical in the Champion Hurdle. Yanworth is the most likely winner but I’ll overlook him here. BUVEUR D’AIR has only been beaten once since graduating to hurdles and fences and there was no disgrace in his losing to Altior and Min in last year’s Supreme; a chasing career was aborted early when he appeared to hurdle his fences and this looks a sensible option. Trainer Nicky Henderson says he would prefer softer ground but I personally don’t think it’ll be too much of an issue; at a best price of 9/2 I think he’s well worth a bet. Brain Power is rapidly improving and could well win, but he has been backed accordingly – I’d prefer double figures about him. Petit Mouchoir has shown himself to be a vastly improved and versatile horse this season, winning a brace of Grade Ones at Leopardstown and looking the likely winner of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle when falling in November. Henry de Bromhead is having his best season to date and a win here would really cap it; Petit Mouchoir does look a value each way bet. Ruby Walsh finds himself in the unusual position of being on an outside in this race; his mount Footpad will have to improve significantly, as will Mullins’ other entrant, Wicklow Brave. Ch’Tibello has had a wind operation when finishing second to Yanworth last time out; it will need to have a big impact if he is to go as close here. Like Moon Racer, Cyrus Darius is a very lightly-raced 8yo whilst Sceau Royal completes the field and is another who has improved now he’s matured out of novice company. In summary, it’s a very open race; it’s hard to be too confident of the winner so we’ll have small stakes on Buveur D’Air and PETIT MOUCHOIR. (And my mortgage on The New One)
Selection: BUVEUR D’AIR
Alternative: PETIT MOUCHOIR
4:10 – OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, Grade 1, 2m4f.
The Mares’ Hurdle is famous largely for two things; firstly, Quevega, the remarkable mare who won this race at the Festival six years in a row, getting each and every punter out of trouble at will. She has recently given birth to a foal by Walk In The Park, sire of Douvan and Min among others; that could be one to watch in the future. Secondly, Annie Power’s fall when surging clear at the last hurdle in 2015 shattered the Willie Mullins accas that practically every racing had on, saving the bookies an estimated £20m / £30m / £40m / £50m / £60m (delete as appropriate depending on which bookie PR you believe). Even with Annie’s defeat, Glen’s Melody won it on the line that year and Vroum Vroum Mag eased home last year to make it a remarkable 8 wins in a row for that man Mullins. He has the favourite here in Limini, whose owner Rich Ricci decided not to supplement for the Champion Hurdle, instead hoping for an easier path to glory here. If declared, she will (shock) race against the reigning champion Vroum Vroum Mag, also for Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci. The vibes about VVM have not been positive and Ruby Walsh choosing to ride Limini looks significant. Limini’s defeat of Apple’s Jade at Punchestown on her first appearance since April was impressive, although it must be remembered that Apple’s Jade was beaten at Cheltenham last year by Ivanovich Gorbatov before beating that same rival by 41 lengths a month later at Aintree. She should not be written off. Jer’s Girl, Lifeboat Mona and Colin’s Sister are all of interest each way, but this looks set to be a thrilling finish between the main contenders.
Alternative: APPLE’S JADE
4:50 – JT McNamara National Hunt Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase, Grade 2, 3m7f.
With any amateur riders’ race, my typical approach is to first ignore the horses and look at the jockeys. Step forward Mr Jamie Codd, whose Cheltenham record is quite superb and is sure to judge the pace correctly. He rides A Genie In Abottle for Noel Meade; this is his first run outside of Ireland and if he’s travelled over well he should have a favourite’s chance. Edwulf, for the young maestro Joseph O’Brien also looks decent, and Beware The Bear has an alluring string of 1s next to his name. However, be prepared to put the CHAMPERS ON ICE for this gelding who was third in last year’s Albert Bartlett and should appreciate the step up in trip. He will be wearing cheekpieces which should help him settle, which is another positive, and this will be his sixth run at Cheltenham (course form of 21336) over ground conditions ranging from good to heavy so we don’t have unknowns there. Bigbadjohn won at Ascot last time out in the final strides from FLINTHAM, but it’s the latter I like here as at Ascot Flintham tended to jump left over every fence. That meant he conceded ground on a right-handed track, and going back left-handed should help him. He’s a big price for a reason, but having been off the track since the Festival last year, his runs in January and February should have him at peak fitness here.
Selection: CHAMPERS ON ICE
5:30 – Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, Listed, 2m4f.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is a bullish trainer. When he believes in his horses, he genuinely believes in them (see The New One, Champion Hurdle, “this is his year”, 2014, 2015, et seq). So when he says Foxtail Hill is his best chance of the Festival, even with plenty of other live chances, it’s worth taking notice. The majority of that confidence comes from his all-the-way victory on Trials Day over course and distance, but of course, there are no guarantees he will be allowed to get away with those tactics again. This is an odd handicap in which just 5lbs separates the top and bottom weights, meaning there are no obvious plot horses or any which are thrown in. I also like Its’afreebee, who is talented but frustratingly inconsistent, whilst Davy Russell is an interesting jockey booking for It’safreebee’s trainer Dan Skelton’s other entry, Two Taffs. For our selections, though, we’ll head north, firstly to Malcolm Jefferson with DOUBLE W’S and secondly to Keith Dalgleish and MIXBOY. Double W’s wins have all come over 2m or shorter, but his best hurdles RPR came over 2m4f and attempting this distance for the first time over fences can be the making of this progressive gelding. His Chase RPRs have been 138, 140, 141 and 146 which suggests there is more to come. Mixboy has won all his three starts over fences and can spring a surprise here. The negatives are obvious – he hasn’t raced south of Sedgefield before, let alone Cheltenham, but Keith Dalgleish is a trainer who often goes under the radar and hence there is plenty to like about his price.
Selection: DOUBLE W’S
Be lucky all!