The last Group 1 race of the Flat season has been run which means focus of attention for racing followers turns to the jumps season which leads to four days of championship races at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Champions Day has been added to the calendar to provide a day of championship Flat races. The National Hunt season has a well established finale at Cheltenham early every spring.
The Aintree Grand National meeting develops every year in terms of major races. Two more Grade 1 contests will take place at the 2014 renewal but Cheltenham is still the most important fixture in terms of determining the best jumps horses over all distances and levels of competition. The meeting is seen by many as the best in the world in either code.
The Festival used to comprise just 18 races over three days. Some have said the addition of an extra day has diluted the quality but the meeting is one that justified an extension into the Friday which now features the Blue Riband race of the season, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The meeting begins on Tuesday when the highlight is the Champion Hurdle. This day was voted the favourite of the year in a recent poll in the Racing Post.
The jumps season has a narrative that is now firmly established. The autumn schedule features several major handicaps, including the Paddy Power Gold Cup and Hennessey Gold Cup. The Betfair Chase at Haydock in November is the first Grade 1 chase of the year and the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day is a significant mid-season championship for chasers.
The early months of the year feature an increasing number of trials for Cheltenham which takes place in the middle of March. Novices and experienced horses have opportunities in chases and hurdles there to be seen as the best in their division. There is then a three week gap to the Aintree meeting which brings together horses that have run well at Cheltenham and others that have been targeted at the meeting due to suitability to the flat track.
Nicky Henderson won the trainer’s championship last season, for the third time and first time since 1986-87. Paul Nicholls won the title in the seven previous years. Henderson is a short priced favourite to win most prize money again this season and that looks a bet to place in view of the strength in his stable. Sprinter Sacre, Long Run, Bobs Worth and Simonsig will be running in all the major chases this season.
Willie Mullins has indicated he will be sending his best horses to Britain more often. He will have to win most of the major races at the Cheltenham Festival to end the season at the top of the trainer’s standings. Hurricane Run and Quevega could be two of his bankers but he doesn’t appear to have enough top grade chasers to win more prize money than Henderson, though he may have a horse in the stable that could win the first one million pound Grand National.
Betting on ante post markets can be fraught with danger, especially more than four months before a specific race. The benefit of this form of betting is that the odds on offer can be much better than on the day of the race. With this in mind only small stakes are suggested for a quartet of horses that should be hard to beat at Cheltenham in the spring.
Bobs Worth has now won three different races at the Cheltenham Festival. The horse is unbeaten in five starts at Cheltenham so clearly relishes the conditions at the course. Bobs Worth looked beat two out in last season’s Gold Cup but stormed up the hill to beat Sir Des Champs by seven lengths. The horse is a high class staying chaser, possessing great amounts of stamina and a willing attitude.
Bobs Worth’s season began in the Hennessey Gold Cup at Newbury in November with an outstanding weight carrying performance. Denman won his first Hennessey from just one pound higher in the ratings. Bobs Worth only ran twice last season after missing several engagements. Having made just six starts over fences in total the horse could show even better form this season which can culminate with another win in the Gold Cup.
Our Conor was visually the most impressive winner at last season’s Cheltenham Festival. The horse won the Triumph Hurdle by 15 lengths, storming up the hill in a manner of a top level horse. The four year old championship race has benefited from the introduction of the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdler with stronger fields and now genuinely identifies the best hurdler amongst the juveniles.
Our Conor is now prominent in the betting for the 2014 Champion Hurdle which could turn out to be the best renewals for many years. The New One has already put down a marker for the race and My Tent Or Yours is another horse graduating from the novice ranks with the ability to be the best hurdler of the season.
Hurricane Fly has the best form of the potential field. The horse has now won two Champion Hurdles and 16 Grade 1s in his career in total, a tally he shares with the legendary chaser Kauto Star. However, Hurricane Fly will be ten by the time the 2014 Cheltenham Festival tales place. He will still be tough to beat but Our Conor is one of the younger horses with the ability to win this season’s Champion Hurdle.
The shortest priced winner at last season’s Festival and the biggest favourite this season is the brilliant Sprinter Sacre. The horse won races at the three major spring festivals at Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown last season. He beat Cue Card by more than four lengths over two miles four furlongs at Aintree to prove himself to be more than a two mile chaser. There’s absolutely no reason to oppose the horse and he has to be the banker of any ante-post Yankee or accumulator.
The fourth horse to make the bet is At Fishers Cross in the World Hurdle. Big Bucks will be trying to win the race for the fifth time but this is another veteran of the jumps game that could be vulnerable to a younger horse. The last time Big Bucks lost a race Frankel was still a foal and Barack Obama a President-elect. As long as there are no lasting affects from his injury setback Big Bucks is still the best staying hurdler in training.
However, At Fishers Cross was unbeaten in six starts last season, including two handicaps and success over The New One at Cheltenham in January. The horse won at both major festivals, impressive on both occasions. Still open to improvement the horse has several lengths to make up on Big Bucks on official ratings but looks the most likely British trained animal to win the stayer’s championship race and complete an accumulator that pays almost 200/1 at best odds at the end of October.