2018 Cheltenham Festival Preview

For the first time since 1995, we are likely to see heavy ground for most of the week. Given most racing this season at Cheltenham has been in similar ground conditions, it may to follow more recent track form rather than previous Festival form.

As usual the points system relates to your usual minimum bet; €1, €5, €50 as appropriate.

Tuesday

1:30 Supreme Novices Hurdle (2m)

Willie Mullins provides a short-priced favourite for this race for the fifth successive year (two winners and two second places from the previous four) in the shape of Getabird. He looks the most likely winner and has all the attributes needed to take this prize for the fourth time for owner Susannah Ricci. However, he looks mighty short for this contest at a best price of 7-4. One must remember Vautour came to this race in 2014 with wins in a Grade 1 (Deloitte) and a Grade 2 (Moscow Flyer) and went off 7-2 favourite. Getabird won the aforementioned Moscow Flyer Novices hurdle – a race that Mullins has typically run his best 2m novice hurdler in - in impressive style and in a good time. Many appear to have forgotten that he was also favourite for the Cheltenham Bumper this time last year after two impressive performances. A fragile sort, he has reportedly been hard to train since then and will appreciate the likely easy ground.

Mengli Khan took the early season novice honours with victory in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse but blotted his copybook by jumping through the wings of the hurdle at Leopardstown, before being put in his place by Getabird last time out. Formerly rated 96 on the flat, he was giving the winner 6lbs that day (beaten 9 lengths) and in theory should get closer. I could not have him on my mind for this race. Ex flat horses had a relatively good record in this race until watering the ground for Good to Soft became a regular feature of the Festival – given the stamina now required for this test, we can put a line through most runners of this type.

Two Irish horses who have performed well at Graded level this season are Sharjah and Paloma Blue. The latter was a smart bumper horse who has taken a little time to find his feet over hurdles. He won a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas before a fine run behind Samcro in the Deloitte last time out. He led most of the way that day and with more patient tactics to be deployed I can see him running into a place at least. Sharjah looked booked to win the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Christmas before a tumble at the last. He was disappointing last time out behind Paloma Beach (seventh) and is one who would likely relish slightly better underfoot conditions.

Kalashnikov leads the home challenge after a very impressive win the Betfair Hurdle (richest handicap hurdle in the UK) at Newbury in February. A winner off 141 – he is now rated 154 – and a repeat of that form will see him go very close here but any each-way value has disappeared in recent days. He jumps well and displays a very likable attitude. His only defeat to date came in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown behind Summervile Boy who reopposes here. Tom Georges charge seemed to handle the heavy ground much better than Kalashnikov and his form around Cheltenham earlier in the season (second and third in novice hurdles) suggests he is not good enough to compete here. Claimantakinforgan had a busy campaign in bumpers last season (five starts) acquitting himself well in Graded company. He looks the type to keep going up the hill when others have cried enough but looks 8-10lbs shy of a typical winner of this race.

Slate House is an imposing 6-year-old by Presenting and was very impressive with two wins over course and distance earlier in the season (defeated Summerville Boy on latter occasion). His season has come off the rails with two poor performances in Graded company in December and January when the Colin Tizzard yard was struggling somewhat. With the stable in much better form in the past number of weeks, he appeals as the type who could dramatically outrun his odds.

Selection: Slate House 0.5pt each-way (25-1, Paddy Power)

 

2:05 Arkle Chase (2m)

The key statistic in analysing recent renewals of the Arkle has been ironically to focus on the best hurdlers in the field. 15 of the last 16 winners of the race had an official rating of at least 142 over hurdles with 11 of the 16 winners being in the top two rated hurdlers. It is also a race to focus on the front of the market with 16 of the last 17 winners starting at a price of less than 9-1.

It is hard to see the major trends being disrupted here with a small field and only the front three in the market worth focussing on. Petit Mouchoir was the best of these over hurdles (rated 162) and took two Irish Grades 1s last season before a somewhat underwhelming third in the Champion Hurdle. He was 3l in front of rival Footpad (rated 157 over hurdles) that day whom he defeated on three occasions last season. Over fences, it is Footpad who has been the dominant rival so far with three fast and efficient jumping performances to date including a cosy 5l defeat of Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Arkle last time out. The latter made two dreadful errors at the opening two fences off a 108- day break. He was carrying plenty of condition that day but it hard to see him closing the gap particularly on ground he may not relish.

Saint Calvados was a reasonable four year old hurdler in France last season but has been a revelation in three chase starts in Britain to date. He won two handicap chases (latter of 147) before demolishing his rivals in a Warwick Grade 2. The second, 22 lengths adrift, is a 143-rated chaser of Paul Nicholls – this win is arguably the strongest piece of form of any of the three contenders. His knee action indicates a preference for soft ground and he will take some pegging back from the front. Any each value has disappeared in recent days and at the prices I have gone full circle and am back in the Footpad camp.

Brain Power (159 rated hurdler) looks one of the most underpriced horses of the entire Festival at 9-1. He has never enjoyed the undulations of Cheltenham and has fallen on two of his three starts. Robinshill will be outclassed.

Selection: Footpad 2pt win (5-4, Bet365)

 

2:40 Festival Handicap Chase (3mn)

Coo Star Sivola is likely to start favourite and has a very progressive profile. Fourth in a handicap hurdle at last years Festival off 138, he now runs off 142 after five chasing starts (three around Cheltenham). Doubts about his jockey see me look elsewhere. Gold Present is a stunning beast who may well develop into a proper Grade 1 horse next season. He will need to put up a Gold Cup performance to win this race off 155 – he may leave the English Grand National behind him tomorrow. Singlefarmpayment was our selection for this race last year only to be beaten on the line – he is now 3lb higher despite not winning since and has become disappointing.

Two horses who appeal at bigger prices and who have shown good form at the track when the mud is flying are Cogry and Shantou Flyer. The former appears to have overcome his jumping frailties and has two course and distance wins to his credit. The latter was a fine second to runaway winner Frodon at Cheltenham on trials day and appears to have improved for the switch in stable this year. The outsider of the field, Vic De Touzaine (40-1) ran well in his race for a long way last year. If the Venetia Williams yard was in better form, he might appeal in conditions he will love

Selection: Cogry 0.5pt win each-way (25-1, Sportingbet); Shantou Flyer (20-1, William Hill)

 

3:20 Champion Hurdle (2mn)

A disappointing renewal with last years winner Buveur D’Air likely to be far too good for his rivals on ground that will not inconvenience him as much as others. He has yet to come off the bridle in three starts this season (two Grade 1s) and has developed into a slick jumper with a high cruising speed.

Painful lessons over the years have taught me that good horses never/very rarely come back from serious injury. The superb Faugheen gave all racing followers hope that he might defy such gloomy predictions with a superb display in the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. He never fired when pulled up at Leopardstown over Christmas before a reasonable run when placing in the Irish Champion Hurdle. One could argue he ran to 155 that day some 19lb below his best form – Buveur D’Air is currently rated 169. Willie Mullins has changed his horse's routine in recent weeks in an attempt to spark him back to life but at 10 years of age, he is unlikely to revisit past glories on this occasion. Whilst writing off the former champion, it is very hard to make a case for any other candidate. Stable mate Melon has been exposed this season in open company and looks a mid-150s horse. He is likely to travel well off a strong pace before flattering to deceive. Wicklow Brave ran well for a long way in this race last year before claiming Grade 1 glory at Punchestown. He remains the third highest rated horse in the field and again comes here “fresh” from a run in the Melbourne Cup – it is hard to make a truly compelling case and Punchestown may again be the time to catch him. He has won the four times he has raced with Heavy in the ground description though. Mick Jazz has progressed through the ranks from handicapping company over the past 18 months – an admirable type, he looks a stone short of the class required to be a Champion Hurdler. Yorkhill has been one of the more oddly campaigned stars of recent times – looking for a third successive win at the Festival, he looks to have fallen out of love with racing and is easily discounted.

My Tent or Yours has been runner-up on three occasions in this race – he is now 11 and, whilst sure to run to his mark again, his run of second place finishes looks under threat given his liking for better ground. The likes of Ch’Tibello and John Constable are top end handicappers although the latter may have had a chance of a place on genuinely good ground.

By a process of elimination, I am left with Alan King’s Elgin as a bet against the favourite. A reasonable novice last season (seventh in the Supreme) he began the season rated 140. Pre-Christmas he took two valuable handicaps including the Greatwood Hurdle over course and distance on soft ground. He was not entered for this race prior to a smooth win in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton – now rated 161, connections had no real option but to supplement him. With the King yard in flying form, he can hit the podium at least.

Selection: Elgin without Buveur D’Air 1pt ew (15-2, Bet365)

 

4:00  Mares Hurdle (2mn 4f)

After many years of simple coronations, this race produced one of the finishes of the Festival last season with three excellent mares rising over the last together. Apples Jade was the stoutest stayer of the trio and was getting well on top at the tape. She returns, aged 6, at the top of her game although one might have concerns about her lack of a run since Christmas given she can be a keen going sort. Her main market rival, Benie Des Dieux has not raced over hurdles for almost 30 months and has been seen over fences on three occasions since moving to Willie Mullins. She appears to be such a smooth jumper of the bigger obstacles, it is a shame to see her back over hurdles but this may be driven by injury problems. It is hard to see her having the pace to live with Apples Jade who would be good enough to line up as second favourite in a Champion Hurdle were she to take her chance. La Bague Au Roi appears to be the best of the home brigade and was impressive over 3m at Ascot in deep ground last time out. She was well exposed when a well beaten seventh behind Lets Dance in last years Mares Novice hurdle but she will adore this heavy ground – she is probably the each-way bet. Indian Stream was a fine fourth in this race last year beaten less than 5l. She does seem very ground dependent (prefers a sounder surface) but she should not be a 66-1 shot.

Selection: Apples Jade 4pt win (8-13, Bet365)

 

4:40  National Hunt Chase (4mn)

The conditions of this race have changed dramatically and arguably for the worse over the past 12 years. Now a Grade 2, it attracts the classier stayers who previously would have lined up in the RSA Chase (the Cheltenham authorities seem to take a perverse pride in diluting the quality of their Championship races). Four of the last seven winners had contested a Grade 1 novice chase earlier in the season and three of those were officially top rated.

Gordon Elliott has taken this prize on three occasions and twice in the past three years. Given his seemingly endless supply of staying chasers from Michael O’Leary and Gigginstown, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win this on several more occasions in the next decade. He has two credible contenders here in the form of Jury Duty and Mossback (top rated) – both in the top 4 of official ratings. Jury Duty was one of the best of these over hurdles and ran credibly when third in the Pertemps Final last season. He didn’t exactly scream 4mile chaser to me as he plodded up the hill. Second in a Grade 1 novice at Leopardstown over Christmas, he looked set to claim a Grade 3 prize at Naas in January over 3m before collapsing in the final 100 yards to allow Moulin A Vent by him. Based on that evidence alone, I am prepared to overlook Jury Duty for this test which requires stamina in abundance. Mossback was in a battle with Jury Duty when exiting at the last in the aforementioned Naas race. He stepped up on that when an excellent second to a battle hardened stable mate rated 150 in the Ten Up at Navan in mid-February. He was closing with every yard late on and repeat of that effort would be good enough in this race. Lisa O’Neill won the race for Elliott last year on Tiger Roll and is a very competent pilot.

Rathvinden looked a potential star as a novice hurdler before injury intervened. He has had a surprisingly busy novice chase campaign with 9 runs (4 wins). Given his problems, connections are probably right to get him on the track as often as possible when right. He is an accomplished jumper despite failing to complete on his last two starts (fall and brought down). Freshened up, he will enjoy the ground on the easy side and can get competitive. No Comment should be a 25-1 shot in my book rather than 7-1; he flattered to deceive when fancied over hurdles on a number of occasions, has had one chase start and his stable have been out of form for most of the season. Ms Parfois has had an excellent campaign for Anthony Honeyball but looks short of the class now required in this race. Sizing Tennessee, now aged 10, is effectively a third season novice chaser. He has improved this year and might be one to run on into a place at a double-digit price.

Selection:  Mossback 1.5pt each-way (6-1, Skybet)

 

5:15 Novices Handicap Chase (2mn 4f)

This handicap is now a 0-145 (having been a 0-140) and the weights are much less compressed than usual. Class has certainly come to the fore as three of the last six winners carried top weight.

I would be against the front two in the market in the shape of De Plotting Shed and Any Second Now. Neither may be as good as connections believe them to be and are yet to shed their maiden tag over fences. The former is 7lb lower than his hurdles mark which probably overstated his abilities in that sphere. The latter has been well tried this year and will enjoy the step up in trip – his form really tailed off in his novice hurdle season at this time of year which would be a concern.

Barney Dwan was second in the Pertemps last season and he returns off the same mark. He has had a quiet introduction to chasing having triumphed in 2 of his 3 starts. This has clearly been the plan all season and he can hit the frame at least. Mister Whittaker sneaks in right at the bottom of the weights. He was good value for his 1l win over Theatre Territory (pair 15l clear of the third) over course and distance on Trials Day. He looked like a horse who wouldn’t want to be in front too long on that occasion and he has the right jockey on him with Brian Hughes to deliver him late.

Selection:   Barney Dwan 0.75pt each-way (8-1, Paddy Power); Mister Whitaker 0.75pt each-way (12-1, Bet365)

 

Wednesday

1:30 Ballymore Novices Hurdle (2mn 5f)

Of the four Grade 1 novice hurdles at the Festival, the Ballymore has been by far the most punter friendly with just three of the last 32 winners being outside the first five in the betting. The market leader in particular has a terrific record winning on ten occasions in the last 27 runnings. During the last nine years, only five horses that did not start in the first four in the betting have finished in the first three so do not deviate too far away from the obvious.

It has been some time since I have looked forward as much to a horse reaching a big Festival as Samcro. Winner of a point to point before claiming three bumpers last season – one was in thick fog but he appeared to win easily before scrambling home somewhat in a Listed bumper at Naas. He appears to have progressed significantly this season winning a maiden hurdle, before cruising to a Grade 2 win by 15l. He then demolished most of the best Irish 2milers in the Deloitte last time out with a fantastic turn of foot from the home bend. He reminds me of a classier novice version of Faugheen – they share the same sire in Germany. The scary prospect with Samcro layers is that he is likely to improve with better ground like most progeny of Germany – his most impressive bumper performance was on the good/yielding ground at Fairyhouse last season. He looks unlikely to get such conditions on Wednesday but it should not be a problem, I firmly believe he will take off up the hill and put in a performance to remember. In summary, if the above is not clear, I think Samcro wins and wins easily!

On the Blind Side (now a non-runner) was very impressive at Sandown last time out after a workmanlike performance at Cheltenham. He seemed to become somewhat unbalanced coming down the hill on that occasion and Nicky Henderson has spoken about his sore shins which have kept him off the track since mid-December. Likely to be a top-class chaser next season, he may get outpaced when the action hots up in this race. Black Op showed an admirable attitude when finishing second to the classy Santini on Trials Day at Cheltenham in January. He seems most effective on very soft/heavy ground and is one to consider each-way for those who don’t like odds on favourites. Vision des Flos was an expensive purchase for the Potts family after winning a valuable bumper at Punchestown last season. Things have not exactly gone to plan this season but he looked a much improved model last time out after a wind operation. Back on a sounder surface and the Tizzard yard firing again, he is capable of running a big race.

Next Destination was fourth in last seasons Cheltenham bumper and already looks a much better hurdler. A slick jumper, he would be a worthy favourite in any other year. I struggle to see him having the gears to compete with Samcro. His stable mate Duc De Genievres looks an interesting contender. He was beaten 4l by Next Destination on his Irish debut when getting a gentle introduction. He was outpaced at a key point in the race, last time out when second to Samco, before running on for second place. He is capable of following home the favourite again here.

Selection:  Samcro 5pt win (8-11, Skybet) – I think this is only my third max bet in 10 years of this preview

 

2:05 RSA Chase (3mn)

This looks a reasonably strong renewal of this famous old race. The standout novice hurdle guide has been the previous season’s Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle which has featured five of the last eight winners and that may well have been six had Boston Bob not fallen at the final fence leading. This would quickly point us in the direction of second favourite Monalee who ran a fine race when second in last year’s renewal of the Albert Bartlett which looks reasonably strong form – the winner has not run since but Monalee was 4l clear of the consistent Wholestone (always runs well at track and now rated 155) with a further 8l back to the rest. Monalee made a very impressive chasing debut before a crashing fall at Christmas. He missed a few weeks work post that mishap but returned to win the best trial for this race over 2m5f at Leopardstown. The step up in trip will be relished by this son of Milan and he rates a confident choice to take this prize.

Favourite Presenting Percy is a horse with a tall reputation who has disappointed on the two occasions he has run in Grade 1 company (Punchestown over hurdles and the Drinmore Novice Chase). He oozed class when winning a weak renewal of the Pertemps Handicap Hurdle at the Festival last season off a mark of 146 and he looks to be of a similar standard over fences given he won a handicap off 145 by 11l at Fairyhouse. I was disappointed he could not beat a dour stayer like Our Duke over 2m4f at Gowran last time out in receipt of 7lb and he might be a horse that is just shy of top class.

Black Corton has been the novice sensation of the season in Britain clocking up an incredible 9 wins in 12 starts including two Grade 2s and a Grade 1 (all Graded wins under the impressive Bryony Frost). He is certainly the best Britain has to offer but his dominance of the Graded picture suggests the UK horses are an average bunch. The only horse I remember winning an RSA Chase off the back of such a busy campaign is Young Hustler (winner in 1993 after 15 runs in his novice season) and at this stage Nicholls is unlikely to eke any further improvement out of the son of Laverock. Ballyoptic has won two nice prizes this season but disappointed in the Stayers Hurdle last season when rated 162 and now appears very flattered by that hurdles mark.

Dounikos will relish the soft terrain and was beaten less than 2l behind Monalee. He is likely to be running on when others have cried enough and represents good value for each-way punters at 9-1.

Selection: Monalee 2pt win (7-2, Paddy Power)

 

2:40 Coral Cup (2mn 5f)

I fancied William Henry for this race for some time but it will be a serious performance to shoulder 11-10 to victory in the likely conditions. Three horses who have run well in heavy ground and look on reasonable handicap marks at The Organist (33-1), Red Indian (33-1) and Royal Vacation (28-1). Slight preference is for the last named who has been chasing for most of the season before reverting to hurdles at Cheltenham on New Year’s Days. He traveled well for a long way on that occasion before fading behind Wholestone. Reportedly having had a breathing operation since he may be capable of a bold show at a big price.

Selection: Royal Vacation 0.5pt each-way (28-1, Skybet)

 

3:20 Queen Mother Champion Chase (2mn)

The clash of the generations we all awaited on the Tuesday of the Festival 12 months ago appears to have come to pass but few could have imagined events of the past year. Altior took the Arkle in impressive fashion and has been seen on the racecourse twice since (once this season) whilst Douvan has not been seen since suffering an injury when 2-9 favourite for this race last season. Pre- Christmas, it appeared that neither of these horses would face the starter here but hopefully that is the case. 12 months ago, I slightly favoured Altior of the two at Cheltenham (Douvan would be my selection at other tracks) and given Douvan has not jumped a fence in public in 12 months it is hard to change my opinion. As with Faugheen, it would be fantastic to see him back to his best but it appears unlikely – it would be folly to even advise a sentimental wager on either.

Altior had a breathing problem prior to Christmas but returned on bad ground at Newbury last month with his trademark surging run from the last. He may become outpaced coming down the hill whilst his engine begins to heat up (in-running players may get 2-1 or 5-2 at this point) but if he is within 3-4 lengths turning for home, it is hard to see the leaders withstanding his devastating burst up the hill. Min was the unlucky victim of such a burst of acceleration in a fantastic renewal of the Supreme 2 years ago. Beaten 7l, he looks to have improved as a chaser but one could say the same about Altior. Politlogue is likely to enjoy the soft ground conditions but was readily brushed aside by Altior in similar ground last time out. Special Tiara has been a fantastic servant to connections and lines up for this fifth Queen Mother; victorious last year he is likely to find younger legs too much on this occasion and the ground completely against him. Charbel and Ordinary World are interesting contenders for the minor money behind the likely front two (Altior and Min).

Note: At the time of uploading (Monday evening), there are some doubts about Altior's participation.

Selection: Charbel 0.5pt each-way (40-1, Bet365)

 

4:00 Cross-Country Handicap Chase (3mn 7f)

Cause of Causes is looking for a pretty unprecedented fourth Festival win in a row across three different races – not sure that has been done before at Cheltenham. He took to this unorthodox track in fine style last year sprinting clear from the last to win by 9l. He was subsequently second in the Grand National and whilst we have little to go on from his sole outing this season, he typically comes alive in the Spring. He has not previously performed at his best on soft ground and can be overlooked now.

The usual Enda Bolger/McManus battalion line up in the shape of Cantlow (third last year), Josies Orders (second in 2016 and missed last year) and Auvergnat (fourth of last year). There wont be much between them and all will run their race but none greatly appeal as a betting prospect. Bolger having dominated this event in the formative years has not won it since 2010.

Tiger Roll has been the springer in this market and is seeking a third Festival win. He wouldn’t seem an immediate type for these races to me but had a sighter when fifth over the course in a handicap in December. He has been subject of good schooling reports and if he can stay close to the pace turning for home can make his present felt. The winner that day in December was Bless the Wings who has a fantastic record around this track – 2nd and 3rd in the last two renewals he can run prove very competitive again as a teenager given he handles heavy ground (now aged 13).

Selection: Bless the Wings 1pt each-way (10-1 Ladbrokes)

 

4:40 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (2mn)

The most difficult handicap of the week – I really do despise the race and have never backed the winner. Paul Nicholls has an excellent track record and his horses are worth backing blind in this event.

Selection: No advised bet

 

5:15 Champion Bumper (2mn)

Although bumpers are all about potential, it is worth noting that six of the last 15 winners were top rated on official ratings including the last three after the ill-fated Fayonagh last year. The top three in the ratings this year are Blackbow (134), Acey Milan (133) and Rhinestone (132).

Given he is a four year old, in receipt of 6lbs and has won over the course (albeit over 1m6f rather than 2m), Acey Milan, would appear to tick all the boxes. He was very impressive at Newbury last time out in a race that is traditionally the best UK bumper. That race was run on very soft ground but given he has had four runs in four months, this may be a step too far for such a young horse. In addition, the Honeyball stable which was on fire for most of the Winter has had a noticeable drop in strike rate in recent weeks. Blackbow appears to have been the number one bumper horse in Closutton for quite some time given he was the stable choice for the St Stephens day bumper at Leopardstown and the inaugural Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival. He looked beaten at one stage in the former race before staying on but travelled much more kindly in the latter race which is the strongest form on offer here. He appears to have had the prefect preparation, possesses the ability to travel and to battle which are what is required to win this and can given his owners their third victory in the race.

Rhinstone was second to Blackbow in the Grade 2 but strikes as being flattered by finishing so close and may not be the most straight forward in terms of attitude. Felix Desjy has been the subject of an ante-post gamble. He has plenty to find on the balance of his form and it may be the case that punters are latching on to the fact that Elliott/Gigginstown are sending a horse for a race that they usually avoid with their better long-term prospects – Samcro would have been short odds to take this race last year if he had faced the starter. Didtheyleaveuoutto, a close relation to Gold Cup winner Denman, was very impressive on debut on the All-Weather at Lingfield before winning a Listed bumper at Ascot that included 9 previous winners. He may lack for experience and prefer better ground but he could be the best long-term prospect in the field and cannot be completely dismissed.

Selection: Blackbow 2pt win (5-1, Bet365)

 

Thursday

1:30 JLT Novices Chase (2mn 4f)

This looks a fairly average renewal with a run in the mid-150s likely to be enough to suffice. Modus is top rated and was the best of these over hurdles. He has some reasonable form on soft ground but has disappointed on heavy ground in the past. Invitation Only was a top level bumper performer before an underwhelming season hurdling. He has looked far more comfortable over fences and has done little wrong to date. His stablemate Kemboy is potentially more interesting having twice run well on heavy ground this season. Just below top class over hurdles (rated 144) he ran above himself in last years Ballymore Hurdle to finish fifth. A neat economical jumper he looks just the type for this race. Shattered Love is a Grade 1 winner over fences and receives a useful 6lbs. She seems to enjoy testing ground and can make her presence felt.

Selection: Kemboy 1pt each-way (20-1, Skybet)

 

2:05 Pertemps Final Hurdle (3mn)

Sort it Out (10-1) and Who Dares Wins (12-1) make most appeal of those towards the front of the market. The former was second in the County Hurdle 3 years ago before losing his way. Tried over fences earlier in the season, he was an eye-catching third in the Punchestown qualifier for this race in February. It is a concern that the stable has only had one winner this season but they have shown in the past they can get a horse ready for a big day.

Selection: Sort it Out 0.5pt each-way (14-1, Winner)

 

2:40 Ryanair Chase (2mn 5f)

Defending champion Un de Sceaux returns seeking a hat trick of Festival wins. I would be keen to oppose him on quicker ground but with the likely heavy underfoot conditions, it is difficult to see him usurped given how well he handles such a test. Cue Card is now 12 and horses of that age simply do not win Championship races at Cheltenham. He is easily opposed despite a fine run in defeat last time out at Ascot. His conqueror on that occasion, Waiting Patiently, would have been my selection but his trainer has decided to side-step this challenge. Balko de Flos fell in last years JLT Novice Chase when travelling powerfully. He won the Galway Plate last Summer off a mark of 146 before putting up a career best to finish second in the Leopardstown Chase at Christmas at 66-1. He has not been missed in the market here and now represents little value although he has sound place prospects. Another to fall into that category is Cloudy Dream now that connections have seen sense and abandoned attempts over 3m. Frodon has had another busy season – now rated 162, the highlight was a 17l success over course and distance on Trials Day. He gets on well with Bryony Frost and will relish the soft ground. He can follow Un de Sceaux home.

Selection: Un de Sceaux 2pt win (5-4, Betbright)

 

3:20 Stayers Hurdle (3mn)

A fascinating renewal and a strong case could be made for half a dozen horses. Last year’s Coral Cup winner, Supasundae has headed the market for most of the past 2 months. A very likable sort he finished second on his first two attempts at three miles before dropping back in trip to win the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. He strikes me as a two and half mile horse and may find stouter stayers outgunning him from the last. Yanworth was a disappointing favourite in last year’s Champion Hurdle before successfully stepping up to 3m at Aintree (beat Supasundae), He has had four runs over fences this season – although Buveur D’Air won the Champion Hurdle last year off the back of an abortive chasing campaign, it is not a preparation I would like. Similar comments apply to Bacardys. Penhill comes here with no run this season although his trainer has no issues getting horses 100% after lengthy lay-offs. He showed a terrific turn of foot to win last years Albert Bartlett and on better ground would take serious beating in this event – the likely gruelling conditions mean any physical chinks in his armour will be fully tested. Uknowwhatimeanharry and The New One are now both aged 10 and likely to find younger legs too much for them – the former was a beaten favourite in this last year and the latter is likely to find his stamina ebbing away up the hill. Wholestone has an excellent track record and consistently runs to a mark of 155 – that should be good enough for fourth or fifth in this renewal. The Worlds End has been disappointing this season and would prefer better ground.

The two that interest me most are L’Ami Serge (12-1) and Sam Spinner (4-1). I find it hard to see the former winning – he tends to do everything to avoid having to win – but cannot kick him out of the place positions. For those who play the place only market, he looks one of the better bets of the week. Likely to be last off the bridle, he needs to be delivered right on the line. Second in last year’s County Hurdle off 152, he has since gone on to win the French Champion Hurdle on heavy ground. Sam Spinner is a hugely likeable second season hurdler who has thrived on soft ground this Winter. A 17l handicap winner at Haydock, he progressed to win the Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot beating the best of the UK stayers. He will make this a test from the front and many of them will be crying enough a long way from home.

Selection: Sam Spinner 1.5pt each-way (4-1, Paddy Power)

 

4:00 Festival Plate (2mn 5f)

This race has become the classiest handicap chase at the Festival in recent years. Most of the horses I fancied here – Tully East, Romain De Senam and Bouvreuil would all prefer better ground. The Storyteller has always appeared to be a horse who will take higher rank in due course than handicaps. He will not be greatly inconvenienced by the ground and is a sound jumper for a novice. He rates a token selection

Selection: The Storyteller 0.5pt each-way (10-1, Skybet)

 

4.50 Mares Novice Hurdle (2mn 1f)

Laurina looks a straight forward point and shoot job to give Willie Mullins a third successive victory in this race. She was impressive in a very weak race at Tramore on her debut for the yard before a runaway success in the Grade 3 Solerina Mares Hurdle. The second home, Allextrix, has since franked the form with a win and fine second. The highest rated horse in the race, Marias Benefit, has racked up an impressive five timer this season but appears flattered by her mark of 147. She is likely to try to make all. Her last performance at Doncaster emphasised her battling qualities but the favourite is likely to have too much class. Irish Roe was second that day at Doncaster before flopping in the Betfair Hurdle. She won a mares bumper at the track on soft ground back in 2016 and may be one for each way money.

Selection: No advised bet

 

5.30 Kim Muir (3mn 1f)

This is going to be a serious stamina test. Mall Dini was fifth in the race last year beaten only 3l. He returns on the same mark of 143 and has been prepared with his race in mind all season. He does remain winless after nine chase starts which would be a concern. Missed Approach was second in the four mile National Hunt Chase last year at an unconsidered 50-1 so stamina will not be an issue. He ran well in a hot renewal of the Hennessy Chase at Newbury in December before two placed efforts when his stable was out of form. He has shown a liking for heavy ground in the past and with his yard now firing, he looks reasonable each value at 16-1. The novice Braqueur D’Or has had 11 runs this season including a fine placed effort in the Hennessy. He was one for the shortlist but would prefer a sounder surface than he is likely to encounter.

Selection: Missed Approach 1pt each-way (16-1, Skybet)

 

Friday

1:30 Triumph Hurdle (2mn)

Favourite Apples Shakira appears to have had the perfect preparation with three course and distance wins this season all coming on soft ground. In receipt of 7lbs and with an excellent hurdling technique, she will take all the beating in her bid to become the first mare to take this prize since Snow Drop in 2000. Redicean, was 85 rated on the flat, and has also has three wins from as many starts over hurdles. Crucially, these have all come on the speed favouring flat track at Kempton. He has a high cruising speed and after slopping jumping in his first two starts was much slicker over his obstacles last time out. I feel he may be vulnerable up the hill in these conditions.

The best Irish on offer is the defeat of Farclas by Mr Adjudicator in the Grade 1 at the Dublin Racing Festival. The latter was getting well on top by the line and will not fear the hill given the battling qualities he showed that day. He may just come up against a mare of real quality in Apples Shakira. Stormy Ireland destroyed the opposition by 58l in a Fairyhouse maiden prior to Christmas. It is slightly worrying she has not been since and is hard to back at a single figure price when so unproven.

Selection: Apples Shakira 2pt win (5-2, William Hill)

 

2:05 Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle (2mn)

Looks impossible to solve given 63 still entered at this point. Divin Bere appears reasonably well treated off 141 if he can return to the type of form that saw him finish second in last seasons Fred Winter off 139.

Selection: No advised bet

 

2:40 Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle (3mn)

This is going to be a serious test for young novices and experience is an absolute key requirement. 6 of the 13 renewals have actually been won by second season novices. Calett Mad and Poetic Rhythm both fit the profile. The former has mixed chasing and hurdling and had a wind operation earlier this season. The latter ran well down the field in last year's Ballymore Novices Hurdle but looks a stronger horse this season. He has good course form and showed an admirable attitude when taking the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle in shocking ground at Newbury. Kilbricken Strom was third that day after showing a devastating turn of foot to win over this course and distance in December – by Oscar, he looks a guaranteed stayer and can outrun his odds of 25-1.

I am keen to take on those at the front of the market in these conditions. Santini is a beautiful looking animal and will develop into a terrific chaser one hopes. This is likely to be a very difficult test for a six year old with just two starts under rules. Chef des Obeaux is probably the most solid of the favourites given he has twice won over 3m on soft ground. He strikes me as a horse that may be at his best on flatter tracks. Chris’s Dream was a wide margin winner of a Grade 3 on his debut for Henry De Bromhead – even though that victory came over 3m on heavy ground, I would really have to question the merit of the form and at single figure price here we have now missed any value. Ok Corral was a promising bumper horse who has been lightly campaigned since. He strikes me as the type of horse who will run well for a long way in a race like this before ultimately fading.

Selection: Kilbricken Storm 0.5pts each-way (33-1, Betfair); Poetic Rhythm 0.5pts each-way (14-1. Betfair)

 

3:20 Gold Cup (3mn 2f)

We have not had a heavy ground Gold Cup since 1995 so unsurprisingly stamina is going to be required in abundance. I would have severe doubts about favourite Might Bite's ability to see out a test such as this.

Definitely Red was a game winner of the Pillar Chase over course and distance on heavy ground in December. He adores the mud and will take a lot of beating as long as the ground does not dry out as the week goes on. Others likely to be suited by the ground include Native River (may go off favourite on heavy ground), Total Recall, Djakadam, Killultagh Vic and Our Duke. Those most inconvenienced include my long-range selection, Road to Respect and Minella Rocco. Killultagh Vic is interesting – a classy Grade 1 winning novice hurdler, he looked set to reach even greater heights over fences before a bad injury. He has returned this season and would surely have taken the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown but for a last fence fall. The choice of Ruby Walsh, he can make his presence felt with an error free round of jumping.

The most solid selection is Native River. He enjoyed a fantastic season last time around winning the Hennessy and Welsh Grand National before a brave third place in the Gold Cup when the ground was probably a little too lively for him. He has just one outing this season when he impressed at Newbury. He jumps and stays – Richard Johnson should go out to make this a serious test from the front and he may not seem another rival.

Selection: If ground heavy, Definitely Red 1.5pt each-way (16-1, William Hill)

 

4:00 Foxhunters Steeplechase (3mn 2f)

Paul Nicholls seems determined to turn this race into a veterans' Chase which, whilst in the rules, seems very much against the spirit of this contest. Wonderful Charm is the most favoured of his entries and was an unlucky second in last years race. He never appealed as the type to relish a battle and can be overlooked. Foxrock has never acted around Cheltenham’s undulations. Balnaslow and On the Fringe would prefer better ground.

One at a price that does interest is an Irish raider in the form of Minella for Value. Now 12, he was a close up sixth (beaten less than 4l) at 100-1 in last years renewal and once again comes in under the radar at a big price.

Selection: Minella for Value 0.5pt each-way (25-1, Paddy Power)

 

4:40 Conditional Handicap Hurdle (2mn 4f)

Willie Mullins has won this race on three occasions, each time with horses who subsequently went on to win Grade 1s. If Sandsend is sent to this race, he can go close to making it four. A big embryonic chaser, he won a Grade 3 over 2m at Naas last time out after disappointing on his Irish debut. He will relish the step up in trip and ground should not be an issue. Flawless Escape and Blow by Blow are two to consider for Gordon Elliott who also has a good record in this race but preference is for the Willie Mullins' representative.

Selection: Sandsend 1pt each-way (16-1, Boylesports)

 

5:15 Grand Annual (2mn)

Many of those at the front of the market would likely prefer better ground conditions. I really believe Don’t Touch It is a Grade 1 animal and he may have tons in hand off a mark of 149. He is typically at his best in Spring Festivals with quicker ground so I am reluctantly passing him over on this occasion.

Two against the field (if they get a run) are Bundoran and Powersbomb, two second season chasers. Both ran in the Close Brothers Novice Handicap chase last year finishing sixth and fourth respectively in a race that has worked out extremely well. The former made a mistake at the second last and the slower ground may see his jumping put under less pressure. A fast run 2m seems the ideal test for him. The latter could arguably have finished a lot closer last year but for a slight rush of blood from the usually unflappable Jamie Codd. He has not run this season due to a slight setback which is a worry but comes here off 4lb lower (134) and could be absolutely thrown in on the best of his progressive form last season.

Selection: Bundoran 0.5pts each-way (25-1, Boylesporsts); Powersbomb 0.5pt each-way (25-1, Paddy Power)

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