RACING writer Scott Wilson runs the rule over the contenders for Cheltenham next week.


The Northern Echo:

Elixir De Nutz and Tom O'Brien (left). Picture: PA

THE Festival starts with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (1.30), and unlike a number of recent editions, which have featured a short-priced favourite, this year’s renewal looks wide open.

Al Dancer is a worthy favourite on the evidence of his Betfair Hurdle win, but it’s debatable what he beat last time out and he’s a short enough price now. As a juvenile, Fakir D’oudairies is a massive danger with an eight-pound allowance, but his lack of experience could be a factor.

It could be worth chancing one at a price, and I’ll be backing ELIXIR DU NUTZ and GRAND SANCY each-way. The former has won his last three and looks rock solid, while the latter deserves plenty of respect after disposing of Sceau Royal and Vision Des Flos last time out.

The Arkle Chase (2.10) has cut up recently, and the absence of ante-post favourite Le Richebourg is a big disappointment. He has the potential to be a real superstar.

Defi Du Seuil is likely to start favourite if, as looks increasingly likely, he goes for this instead of the JLT. I’m not convinced his jumping will hold up though, especially if GLEN FORSA adopts his usual front-running tactics. He was a revelation when winning at Kempton and Sandown, and can continue his ascent of the novice ranks.

The Ultima Chase (2.50) is the first handicap of the Festival, and until final declarations are confirmed, it’s hard to be too bullish. The Paul Nicholls camp have been raving about Give Me A Copper, but previous Festival form can count for a lot in the handicaps and I’d expect MALL DINI to go well at an each-way price.

The Champion Hurdle (3.30) is the first-day feature, and look set to be an absolute cracker with a pair of top-class mares, Apple’s Jade and Laurina, taking on two-time champion Buveur D’Air.

For all that Willie Mullins clearly loves Laurina, I can’t have her at odds of around 7-2 given that her only runs in open company this season have been facile successes at Sandown and Punchestown.

I could definitely see Apple’s Jade winning, indeed the Gordon Elliott-trained hurdler has arguably been the star of the jumps season so far. She couldn’t have been more impressive as she won by 16 lengths at Leopardstown in February, and her mares’ allowance brings her right alongside Buveur D’Air in terms of ratings.

BUVEUR D’AIR is one of the most under-rated horses in training though, and if he can claim a third Champion Hurdle crown, perhaps he will finally be regarded as one of the greats. If, as expected, he sits on Apple’s Jade’s shoulder, he has the class to pick her off.

Apple’s Jade was beaten by BENIE DES DIEUX in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle (4.10), and the reigning champion is a deservedly short-price favourite to defend her crown. The fact she hasn’t run at all this season is a concern, but Mullins adopted a similar approach with Quevega and it didn’t do her any harm. MISSY TATA is worth each-way interest at big odds.

The Close Brothers Novice Handicap Chase (4.50) looks typically competitive, although a number of potential runners still have multiple entries at this stage. RIDERS ON THE STORM looks the best of those at the top of the market, but CASTAFIORE might be the one to be on at a double-figure price.

The opening day ends with the National Hunt Chase (5.30), and while OK Corral has been backed off the boards in recent weeks, I’m not sure he wants the stamina test of four miles. The Graham Wylie-owned BALLYWARD is sure to stay, and he gets the nod ahead of DISCORAMA, who makes each-way appeal.


Champ and Battleoverdoyen are vying for favouritism for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (1.30) that starts day two of the Festival, but neither boasts rock-solid claims.

Champ looked good when winning the Challow Hurdle, but the form of the race has taken a succession of knocks. Battleoverdoyen won a Group One at Naas in January, but the race fell apart when a couple of leading fancies underperformed.

KLASSICAL DREAM looks to be the pick of Willie Mullins’ novice contingent this year, and assuming he swerves the Supreme to run here, he looks to have every chance. The underrated CITY ISLAND, from the unheralded Irish yard of Martin Brassil, is an alternative each-way option.

The Northern Echo:

DELTA WORK, above, assumed favouritism for the RSA Novices’ Chase (2.10) earlier this week when Santini suffered a setback to his preparations, and last year’s Pertemps winner should have every chance of claiming another Festival victory.

The form of his Drinmore win over Le Richebourg could not have worked out any better, and he is chosen to get the nod over Santini and Topofthegame, his main rivals at the head of the market.

The Coral Cup (2.50) looks as fiendishly difficult as ever, with a number of those prominent in the betting far from guaranteed to get a run.

Mullins and Gordon Elliott could field five or six runners each, and I like the profile of WHISKEY SOUR, trained by the former. Previously placed in a County Hurdle, he looks to have been laid out for the race. It’s best to have two on three on your side, and the Joseph O’Brien-trained EARLY DOORS also makes strong appeal if this ends up being his assignment.

The second day feature is the Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.30), and it’s impossible to look beyond the imperious ALTIOR. Nicky Henderson’s chaser is the best horse in training, and looks bomb proof as he tries to claim a third win in the race, albeit at extremely cramped odds.

Min is likely to chase him home if he lines up here instead of in the Ryanair, but with Altior likely to scare away a host of potential runners, the race could be ripe for a long-shot running into a place. The veteran GOD’S OWN might well fit the bill.

Altior is not the only star running on day two, with Grand National-winner TIGER ROLL set to defend his Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase (4.10) crown. The popular nine-year-old has looked better than ever this season, and is impossible to oppose. TEA FOR TWO boasts a classy record over conventional fences, and could run into a place.

The Boodles Juvenile Hurdle (4.50) has attracted a strong line-up, so it will probably pay to stick with the head of the market. O’Brien has dominated the juvenile division this season, and his BAND OF OUTLAWS should be hard to beat.

Paul Nicholls boasts a fine record in this race though, so FRIEND OR FOE has to be respected despite his lack of experience.

The Champion Bumper (5.30) has been dominated by Irish horses in the last few years, but while Envoi Allen and Blue Sari are vying for favouritism, I’m not convinced that either will be suited by the rough-and-tumble nature of the race.

Meticulous finished second to Envoi Allen last time out and can overturn the form, but this could be a rare occasion when the Bumper stays in Britain. Harry Fry’s GET IN THE QUEUE looked extremely impressive when winning at Exeter, and has attracted a lot of support in the last few days.


The JLT Novices’ Chase (1.30) is a difficult race to call until the final declarations are confirmed. I’m convinced this is the right race for DEFI DU SEUIL, and I’d be much more interested in him here than if he lines up in the Arkle.

The Northern Echo:

Defi Du Seuil ridden by Barry Geraghty

Phillip Hobbs is keeping his cards close to his chest though, and if he opts for the shorter race, the JLT could prove the most open Group One at the Festival. If the race cuts up, PRAVALAGUNA will start much shorter than her current odds of around 20-1 and could go close.

The Pertemps Hurdle (2.10) tends to be a race for plots, and there are few on the entry list that have clearly been campaigned with this race in mind all season. First Assignment boasts the strongest form, but he might have risen high enough in the handicap.

You’re looking for a horse with a bit in hand, and Dan Skelton’s NOTWHATIAM boasts an interesting profile. He hasn’t been overly extended in his last couple of runs, and his handicap mark might well reflect that.

The Ryanair Chase (2.50) boasts a host of interesting entries, but some could opt for the Arkle and a few will desert to the Gold Cup.

Min tops the market, but he strikes me as a natural two miler rather than a horse that wants two-and-a-half miles. Footpad cannot be trusted after a couple of dreadful displays this season, so while Un De Sceaux merits respect despite his veteran status, a slight preference would be for MONALEE, who looks ideally suited to this trip rather than the longer test of the Gold Cup.

The Stayers’ Hurdle (3.30) boasts one of the shortest-priced favourites of the Festival in Paisley Park, but while Emma Lavelle’s stable star has been beating all and sundry in Britain, I’m not convinced the form amounts to a lot.

Faugheen would be a hugely emotional winner, and cannot be ruled out, but at odds of around 20-1, I’d be sweeter on his stable mate, BACARDYS. He was finishing with a flourish when he fell at the last 12 months ago, and while his jumping will always be a concern, he will relish a truly-run stamina test.

If JANIKA runs in the Brown Advisory Plate (4.10), he will be hard to keep out of the frame. Nicky Henderson clearly rates the six-year-old, who was a star in France before crossing the Channel. MENGLI KHAN has been a disappointment since turning to fences, but if he goes down the handicapping route, his novice form as a hurdler means he merits respect.

This is the fourth running of the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle (4.50), and all three of the previous editions have been won by Mullins. For once, though, he doesn’t boast a short-priced favourite, and while Epatante and Honeysuckle might be more exciting options, the Paul Nicholls-trained POSH TRISH looks rock solid. She doesn’t run a bad race, and should almost certainly be favourite.

Day three ends with the Kim Muir Challenge Cup (5.30) for amateur riders, and it can often pay to side with whatever is being ridden by the select band of amateurs that regularly mix it with the professionals.

Sam Waley-Cohen will be on IMPULSIVE STAR, and having caught the eye when winning at Warwick last time out, he should not be far away. THE YOUNG MASTER has looked rejuvenated this season, and could be a decent each-way shout.


The Triumph Hurdle (1.30) opens the final day of the Festival, and SIR EREC has been touted as the Irish banker ever since he cruised to victory on his hurdling debut in December.

He might well start odds-on, but he will be hard to beat, especially if his stable mate, Fakir D’oudairies lines up in the Supreme.

Nicholls has the second favourite in Quel Destin, but he boasts an even more interesting runner in PIC D’ORHY, who has never raced on English soil after starting his career in France. His lack of experience on this side of the Channel is a concern, but Nicholls wouldn’t be running him if he didn’t think he could win.

The Northern Echo:

Southfield Stone and Harry Cobden clear an early flight before winning The Sky Bet Dovecote Novices Hurdle Race. Picture: PA

Nicholls also boasts a live contender for the County Hurdle (2.10) in SOUTHFIELD STONE, and his form received a massive boost when he saw off Angels Breath in the Dovecote last month.

That form makes him a major player in handicap company, and he is taken to just see off Mr Adjudicator, who boasts a host of entries but is likeliest to turn up here.

The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (2.50) can often be a gruelling contest, and it generally pays to side with a novice with plenty of experience.

Nicky Henderson clearly rates Birchdale highly, but at odds of around 7-1, COMMANDER OF FLEET could be one of the bets of the week. The Gordon Elliott-trained novice is battle hardened, and should relish the step up to three miles after impressing at two-and-a-half.

This year’s Gold Cup (3.30) looks one of the strongest for years, and CLAN DES OBEAUX is a strong selection. The King George winner has improved out of sight in the last 12 months, and proved his Kempton win was no fluke as he followed up in style at Ascot last month.

Presenting Percy was sensational in last year’s RSA, but should not be favourite given that he has never won a chase in open company. Native River would have to come into the equation if the ground really cut up, but next week’s forecast means that looks unlikely.

It’s impossible to trust Might Bite on the evidence of this season’s displays, so if you’re looking for an each-way option, I’d plump for the Graham Wylie-owned BELLSHILL, who is finally getting it together at the very highest level after a couple of near misses in previous years.

UCELLO CONTI has gone close in the Grand National on a couple of occasions, and while Stand Up and Fight has been the talking horse in the Foxhunter Chase (4.10) market all winter, I can’t see him finishing ahead of his Elliott-trained rival.

The Johnny Henderson Grand Annual (4.50) is always a minefield, but the Nicholls camp regard MAGIC SAINT as one of their best bets of the week. He bounced back from a disappointing run at Ascot with an authoritative performance at Wincaton, and looks to have the right profile for the race. CADMIUM is of interest at much longer odds.

After a switch in the schedule, the Festival ends with the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey’s Hurdle (5.30), and Elliott freely admits he has laid out DALLAS DES PICTONS for the race. The market reflects that, but his appeal is obvious. For one last roll of the dice, try CANARDIER at around 20-1 to claim a place.