It’s the biggest four days on the National Hunt calendar next week, with the Cheltenham Festival dominating the sporting agenda. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson takes a race-by-race look at the Festival programme and tries to pick out some winners
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The Festival opens with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (1.30), and the two-mile cavalry charge looks as competitive and tricky to solve as ever.
Irving heads the ante-post market, largely thanks to last month’s romp in the Dovecote Hurdle at Kempton. Paul Nicholls’ star juvenile displayed a sparkling turn of pace that day, and the drying ground should play to his strengths. It’s debatable whether odds of around 9-4 make much appeal, but even though short-priced favourites have a dreadful record in the race, he should be there or thereabouts.
As with many races at this year’s Festival, Willie Mullins boasts an extremely strong hand with Vautour (3-1) and Wicklow Brave (6-1) both well respected. The former’s beating of The Tullow Tank in Ireland last month represents the best form in the race, and Mullins has a good record in the Festival opener.
Nicky Henderson’s Vanituex (12-1) and Josses Hill (14-1) will have their supporters, but at bigger odds, Wilde Blue Yonder (25-1) makes each-way appeal. The horse has fallen at the last in each of his last two races, but provided he brushes up his jumping, he boasts pace to burn.
Having won the bumper in 2012 before triumphing in last year’s Supreme, Champagne Fever (3-1) will attempt to complete a notable treble when he tackles the Arkle Chase (2.05). His Cheltenham form makes him worthy of considerable respect, but he hasn’t taken to fences quite as smoothly as might have been expected and looks worth taking on.
Trifolium (5-1) is another strong contender from across the Irish Sea, but preference is for another former Festival winner, Rock On Ruby (9-2). With a first and second place in the Champion Hurdle under his belt, Harry Fry’s nine-year-old was comfortably the best hurdler in the field, and while he hasn’t really been tested yet over fences, his jumping should be up to scratch.
The Festival Handicap Chase (2.40) is the opening handicap, and punters will be looking to get stuck in at some inviting odds. Hadrian’s Approach (10-1) should have a chance provided he doesn’t make one of his occasional jumping mistakes, but if Sue Smith’s Vintage Star (25-1) makes the starting line up, he looks to be reasonably well treated.
The Champion Hurdle (3.20) comes next, and for many it will be the race of the meeting. Hurricane Fly (11-4) is looking to win the race for a third time, but this is the toughest test he has faced and while Mullins insists he remains as good as ever, time will have to catch up with him at some stage.
The New One (11-4) will have every chance of deposing him if he repeats the form that saw him win last year’s Neptune, but I’ve always been a huge My Tent Or Yours (9-2) fan and see no reason to desert him now. Forget this week’s injury scare – if he wasn’t right, he wouldn’t run. With the ground easing and the pace sure to be frenetic, Tony McCoy’s mount can make his high coasting speed count.
Quevega (4-5) has won the last five Mares’ Hurdles (4.00) and once again finds herself tagged as many people’s idea of a first-day banker. She’ll win if she’s anywhere near her best, but John Quinn’s Cockney Sparrow (8-1) should be chasing her home to claim a place.
The National Hunt Chase (4.40) is the longest race of the Festival, and could well go the way of Jonjo O’Neill’s Shutthefrontdoor (6-1), while the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase (5.15) completes the opening-day card with Ericht’s (10-1) Festival form making him an each-way attraction.
The Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (1.30) kicks off day two, and as with a large number of next week’s races, a Mullins horse heads the market.
Faugheen (3-1) seems to be carrying the support of half of Ireland, but his odds reflect reputation rather than form in the book, and there’s every chance he could go the way of Pont Alexandre, who was a similarly strong favourite 12 months ago, only to fail to live up to his billing.
I’d much rather be on David Pipe’s Red Sherlock (5-1), who has won all six of his races and still looks to be on the upgrade. It might also be worth a dabble on Nicky Henderson’s Royal Boy (7-1), who impressed when beating Josses Hill in the Tolworth Hurdle in January.
The RSA Chase (2.05) looks to be one of the most open Grade Ones of the Festival, although if Mullins has been a regular in the winners’ enclosure on day one, ante-post favourite Ballycasey (5-1) will start at much shorter odds than he is currently trading at.
His credentials are strong, and it would be no surprise to see him succeed. However, at longer odds, Donald McCain’s Corrin Wood (8-1) is a lively northern contender and O’Faolains Boy (14-1) is much better than his price suggests.
The Coral Cup (2.40) is always one of the trickiest puzzles to solve, and it’s even harder at the moment with a high degree of uncertainty about what will actually run in the race.
David Pipe has three towards the head of the market – Vieux Lion Rouge (14-1), Un Temps Pour Tout (14-1) and Dell’ Arca (16-1) – and whichever one lines up will have a good chance. At much bigger odds, Meister Eckhart (20-1) has generally run well at Cheltenham.
The absence of Sprinter Sacre has undoubtedly detracted from the Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.20), although Sire De Grugy (9-4) might well have given the reigning champion a decent race anyway.
Gary Moore’s stable star has his detractors, but on this season’s form, there’s no reason why there should be such a rush to take him on.
The rest of the field lacks a great deal of quality, so Sizing Europe (14-1) and Somersby (16-1) have to come into the each-way equation.
The Cross-Country Chase (4.00) tends to be the preserve of the Irish, although Balthazar King (11-2) struck a blow for the English when he triumphed two years ago and is worthy of support again.
Last year’s winner, Big Shu (4-1), heads the Irish raiding party, with another cross-country regular, Uncle Junior (14-1) also likely to be in the mix.
Dawalan (6-1) is a strong favourite for the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle (4.40), but Nicky Henderson’s four-year-old looks too short for such a fiercely competitive affair. Ivan Grozny (12-1) flopped last time out but could feature if back to his best, but at an even healthier price, Oliver Sherwood’s Carry On Sydney (16-1) looks to have the right profile for a Fred Winter winner.
The Champion Bumper (5.15) tends to be something of a Mullins benefit race, with Briar Hill having hosed home 12 months ago. The Irish champion trainer is expected to saddle up to four runners, with Black Hercules (6-1) and Shaneshill (7-1) topping the market, and at the prices, it could be worth backing both. Of the English hopes, Modus’ (10-1) New Year’s Day win at Cheltenham marks him out as a contender.
Another day; another strongly-fancied Mullins favourite to get things going. Felix Yonger (5-1) has passed up a number of other entries to line up in the JLT Novices Chase (1.30), and the two-and-a-half mile trip should play to his strengths.
He’s improved as the season has progressed, but faces a number of talented rivals in what could be a vintage renewal.
Oscar Whiskey (7-1) and Wonderful Charm (6-1) tie in closely on the evidence of their Cheltenham battle in December, which saw the former just edge out the latter, but preference is for Jonjo O’Neill’s Taquin Du Seuil (8-1).
He was edged out by Oscar Whiskey in a muddling race on New Year’s Day, and while he wouldn’t want the ground to get too quick, he looks to have been laid out for this Festival assignment.
The Pertemps Final (2.05) is generally a favourites’ graveyard, but the Philip Hobbs pair Fingal Bay (8-1) and If in Doubt (8-1) both make appeal as they vie at the head of the market.
Personal preference is for the latter, largely on the back of January’s second place behind Saphir Du Rheu, who has subsequently gone on to bigger and better things. As an each-way saver, Jetson (14-1) was something of a talking horse before last year’s Festival and could make his presence felt again.
Cue Card will not be defending his Ryanair Chase (2.40) crown, but a top-class field will assemble in his absence, with Dynaste (4-1), Al Ferof (4-1) and Benefficient (4-1) currently co-favourites.
Dynaste was superb in the Betfair Chase, but his subsequent flop in the King George would have to be a worry. Al Ferof finished third at Kempton, but isn’t guaranteed to be suited by the Ryanair trip, so I’ll be on Benefficient, who looked top class when landing last year’s Jewson. Generally, it pays to stick with previous Festival winners.
Should that apply to Big Buck’s (5-2) in the World Hurdle (3.20)? The four-time champion was off the course for almost 14 months before finishing third in January’s Cleeve Hurdle, and while his comeback run was far from desultory, it is was difficult to detect the usual sparkle.
In most years, that wouldn’t necessarily matter, but Mullins’ decision to run his super mare, Annie Power (15-8), in the World Hurdle has changed the complexion of the race entirely.
It’s hard to remember a horse attracting so many superlatives despite having achieved so little. As a result, she’ll have to step up considerably to win, but it would be a major surprise if she wasn’t something special and her performance could be one of next week’s stand-out moments.
The Byrne Group Plate (4.00) should be a lively affair, with Lucinda Russell’s Tap Night (10-1) looking extremely well handicapped on some of his previous form. He’s definitely worth an investment, although I’ll also be getting stuck into Rajdhani Express (16-1) who has been hidden away since winning a different chase at last year’s Festival.
Day three ends with the Kim Muir Handicap Chase (4.40), and ante-post favourite Indian Castle (6-1) is regarded by many as the best hope of a northern winner all week. Trained by Donald McCain in the North-West, the six-year-old ran a blinder to finish runner-up to Annacotty at Cheltenham in January.
Malton trainer John Quinn is double handed in the Triumph Hurdle (1.30), saddling both Pearl Castle (14-1) and Rutherglen (16-1).
Strong preference is for the former, especially if the forecast proves correct and the ground has dried out considerably by the final day of the Festival. A recent winner at Doncaster, the four-year-old makes a lot of appeal at double-figure odds, although Activial (8-1) will be a lively rival if he runs.
With a huge field expected, the County Hurdle (2.05) will be a typically frenzied affair, although the ante-post favourite, Regal Encore, almost certainly needs to win today’s Imperial Cup at Sandown just to get into the race.
Dunguib (16-1) will have his supporters despite a chequered career that has seen him fail to live up to his novice potential, but ready preference is for Cheltenian (10-1).
The winner of the Cheltenham bumper in 2011, Philip Hobbs’ eight-year-old missed two years through injury. Last year’s Festival came too soon for him and he flopped in the Supreme, but his fourth place in last month’s Betfair Hurdle suggests he is finally back to something approaching his best.
The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (2.40) looks like a match between last year’s Bumper winner, Briar’s Hill (9-4), and the fancied Kings Palace (3-1) who has been one of the biggest eye catchers this winter.
It was impossible not to be taken with Kings Palace’s rout of a decent field in the Albert Bartlett warm up in December, but the Mullins yard make Briar’s Hill their banker of the meeting, and Ruby Walsh has bullishly stated that the horse will win whatever race it is entered in. Who am I to disagree?
That brings us to the Cheltenham Gold Cup (3.20) and with no Sir Des Champs, Flemenstar or Cue Card, it looks a two-horse race between Bobs Worth (7-4) and Silviniaco Conti (3-1).
It’s hard to know what would have happened had Silviniaco not fallen when well positioned three out in last year’s race, and his King George victory on Boxing Day could hardly have been any more impressive.
Bobs Worth clearly relishes Cheltenham though, and his hard-fought victory 12 months ago brought all his battling qualities to the fore. He has plenty of class as well, as underlined by December’s win in the Lexus, and a second Gold Cup crown beckons.
Hennessey winner Triolo D’Alene (16-1) is an interesting runner who could make the frame, and The Giant Bolster (20-1) also looks overpriced on the basis of his previous performances in stronger renewals of the race.
On The Fringe (3-1) has been winning hunter chases in Ireland seemingly at will, and is a short-priced favourite for the Foxhunter Chase (4.00). However, in a competitive field, his odds are surely short enough, and it might be better to side with either Oscar Delta (10-1) or Pearlysteps (12-1) each way.
The field for the Martin Pipe Conditional Handicap Hurdle (4.40) is likely to cut up once horses are declared elsewhere, so if Lac Fontana (14-1) lines up for the penultimate race of the week, he could end up running at half his current odds.
If you’re still looking for a first winner by the time the Grand Annual Chase (5.15) rolls around then you’ll really be in trouble, but with long-time favourite Ted Veale set to contest the Arkle, there’s every chance of a long-price winner in the last.
Raya Star (16-1) relished the hurly-burly of a competitive field as a hurdler, and while he hasn’t hit quite the same heights over fences, this could be his moment to step up.