What an intriguing week stands in front of us.
Day One encapsulates this perfectly, with a championship race right from the top draw (The Champion Hurdle), novices races abundant with future stars (Supreme and Arkle), the top ladies throughout the land putting their best for forward on the dancefloor (OLBG Mares’ Hurdle), and a few good old fashioned large field handicaps to whet the appetite of the gambler who sees huge betting coup dangling like carrot from stick. Amen.
This is also the day when we learn quite how formidable a team Willie Mullins has assembled, particularly in the colours of Mrs Rich Ricci. Ruby Walsh jumps into the saddle on the four horses, all of whom have shown incredible ability so far and boundless potential. Today is the day of reckoning, when we find out quite how good they are.
From sea level to the moon their potential knows no limit, the Three Musketeers of Douvan, Faugheen and Un De Sceaux will join forces with the relatively experienced Annie Power, to try and rename Day One of the Cheltenham Festival, Willie’s Day of the Cheltenham Festival. If they all win, it is not unlikely that St Patricks Day will be moved from its normal home on 17th March to the Tuesday of every Cheltenham Festival.
First up is the Supreme Novices Hurdle at 13.30. Featuring the best 2 mile hurdlers who are tackling the smaller obstacles for the first season, it always churns out future star after future star. This year will be no different.
Douvan is a worthy favourite. He has only run twice in Ireland since being imported from France, but he has shown already that he is high class and with boundless potential. As a five year old and with only limited racecourse experience, he does have chinks in his armour. It would be no surprise to see him romp up the Cheltenham hill, but it will be no easy walk in the park, and he is plenty short enough in the market (approx.15/8).
Main market rival L’Ami Serge has more racecourse experience from his days in France. With three starts and three victories since moving to the expert tuition of Nicky Henderson, his form is rock solid and he would be a good favourite most years.
Both of the market leaders look high class, and could easily win. Neither though have course winning form at Cheltenham, and still at a tender age with potential to fulfil rather than form which is franked, it is worth looking for each way value elsewhere.
Shaneshill is the best of the rest. Runner up at the Cheltenham Festival last year in the Champion Bumper, the experience of the Cheltenham atmosphere and the final surge to the finishing line will stand him in good stead. At 12/1 he makes for an appetising each way bet. Seedling is another with course form who could plug on for minor honours at a more generous price.
The second race of the day is the Arkle Novices Chase run over two miles. The race is always a fantastic contest as the novices hurl themselves at the big obstacles over minimum trip. This year is a strong renewal.
All the pre-race build up has centres around Un De Sceaux, a crack hurdler whose form has transferred to fences. He has only lost once in ten starts, and has been very impressive in slamming high class opponents. At Cheltenham, however, there is no room for error in the jumping, and if he bowls along with the choke out and fails to give his fences sufficient respect, he may just learn the hard way. He is the class horse in the race, but with a fall to his name and such short odds (generally 4-7), our charge lies elsewhere.
Vibrato Valtat has been a new horse since switched to fences. A breathing operation in the summer has helped, and his form is rock solid. Generally at 5/1, he offers better value, and if you search about Paddy Power are offering any losing bets if Un De Sceaux wins refunded as a free bet. Vibrato Valtat should be plunged on when such generous insurance policies are offered.
Elsewhere, those looking to sniff out each way value may look to Josses Hill, who, although slow at times with his jumping this season, was second in the Supreme at last years Festival and could bring value. Three Kingdoms is preferred though, with solid form and tasty odds (approx 20/1). He’d be the suggestion for those looking for more hope than guarantees.
The third race, the Ultimate Business Solutions Handicap Chase over 3 miles 1 furlong, features 24 runners, most of whom a case can be made for. The advice would be try to find a charge you have a fancy for, probably at larger prices, and have a little each way tipple. You’d be a brave man to make this race the ‘legend maker’.
Pendra has invaluable Festival form, being placed last year, but at such a short price (5/1) in such a large field, there is limited fun or value in plunging on here. Those who are seeking a longer-priced hope should look towards Gallant Oscar, who could just be another protagonist in the next chapter of a Tony Martin story of cunning and victory, a man who knows how to plan a handicap coup. Generally at 10/1, he has interesting form back in Ireland and needs respecting.
At larger prices, Cape Tribulation is a course and distance winner, and with the Malcolm Jefferson yard hitting top gear just at the right time, he could represent value, generally at 25/1. Lamb or Cod also has good Cheltenham form, although he has a couple of poor runs to put behind him. With Richard Johnson in the saddle, the perennial bridesmaid to McCoys bride, a case can certainly be made for him at odds of approx 40/1.
The fourth race is the main course in this sumptuous feast, the Stan James Champion Hurdle over 2 miles. Once again featuring a stellar line up, there are stories abounding from every corner, and a case can be made for many of the horses.
Undoubtedly the most interesting of these is Faugheen. Winner of the Neptune at last years Festival, the way he scooted clear of the field and romped home up the hill to such an emphatic victory is still fresh in the memory. He has done nothing wrong once again this year when extending his unbeaten run to 8, and is a very worthy favourite. His price is short, and at not much either side of Even money, you’d have to have a proper bet for this race to make or break your week.
Hurricane Fly was victorious in this race in 2011 and 2013, but has never really received the credit he might deserve for such success. At the age of 11, one must fear that his best years are behind him and he can only hope for place money at best.
The New One, the darling of the Twiston-Davies family, who is trained by father Nigel and ridden by son Sam, is a local favourite. Bitterly unlucky in last years Champion Hurdle, he is looking to put right wrongs. Generally available at odds of 4/1, although he has won all his starts this season, he has at times looked a little sluggish, although that could be put down to ground which has been a little deeper than preferable. We wish him better luck this year, and hope he’s there at the finish.
Last years victor, Jezki, also re-opposes. He has battled, and lost, this season to Hurricane Fly on numerous occasions, but you can be sure he’ll come good when the chips are down and be involved when it really matters.
In short, this Championship contest is an absolute puzzle. Cases can be made for many, and any number of horse would be worthy winners. Faugheen should win. I’d love The New One to win. Jezki has done it recently and may well do it again. The author will probably sit this one out and just enjoy the spectacle that it is. Those who wan to have a plunge should either go big on Faugheen, or have a little win bet on The New One to have his luck improved this year.
After the excitement of the diamond in the crown of Day One, we move onto the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, over 2 miles 4 furlongs. Dominated mercilessly in recent years by the exceptional Quevega, she looks to have selected a natural successor in the shape of Annie Power.
Losing little in defeat in last years World Hurdle, this race looks made for her. As such her odds are typical short, generally available at 4/7. She has proved her class at Cheltenham before though, will love the ground and the trip, and it would be a real surprise to see her turned over.
Those looking for better value may turn to Polly Peachum, closely related to the great Denman, who has been freshened up with this race in mind (12/1). More value could be found in Harry Frys Bitofapuzzle, who will need every hard of the distance and should be staying on up the hill (25/1).
The penultimate race of the day is the Toby Balding National Hunt Chase. For amateur jockeys, the class and ability of the pilot often tells in this race, so do look for a name you may have head of. With 17 runners and some jockeys of limited experience, anything could happen!
This is the race again for a little cheeky bet or two, rather than lumping on in a make or break fashion. The shrewd Michael Hourigan appears to have targeted this race with The Job Is Right, who was freshened up over hurdles recently, presumably with the aim of keeping his chase handicap mark intact. He is generally available at 6/1. Those looking for a little more value may look towards Broadway Buffalo, who will be steered by Ruby Walsh’s sister, Katie, and has solid form already this season (approx. 20/1) or one of Willie Mullins lesser lights on Day One, Perfect Gentleman, partnered by his son Patrick.
The final race at 17.15 is the CHAPS Restaurants Barbados Novices’ Chase over 2 miles 4 furlongs. Again this isn’t a race that should decide your fortunes for the week, and it is probably best to play it safe and ensure you don’t fritter away your stake money for tomorrow. Remember: we do have another 3 days to go!
Those looking for a charge to cheer around could do worse than look towards Irish Cavalier, who may improve for the first time headgear and could turn the tables with his recent course and distance vanquisher, Generous Ransom. At 20/1 the former could offer better value than the latter, who also should be there or thereabouts when it counts most, but odds of 8/1 hold limited appeal. For a longer priced shot, the Mouse Morris trained Dromnea could run well. He has good form this term and Morris is proven to deliver at the Festival with sons of Presenting when the ground is good. He may give you something to shout about at around 33/1.
All in all the curtain rises once again at the Cheltenham Festival with an abundance of quality and more intrigue than DCI Barnaby could shake a stick at. All the racing should be mightily enjoyable, but it is the stars of the show we cannot wait to see bowl along. Quite how good are Douvan, Faugheen and Un De Sceaux? We will find out very soon.
By The Ferret
Race 1, Supreme Novices Hurdle (1:30) – Shaneshill @ 10/1
Race 2, Arkle (2:05) – Vibrato Valtat @ 6/1
Race 3, Ultimate Business Solutions Handicap Chase (2:40) – Gallant Oscar @ 10/1
Race 4, Champion Hurdle (3:20) – The New One @ 4/1
Race 5, OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (4:00) – Annie Power @ 4/6 (nap)
Race 6, Toby Balding National Hunt Chase (4:40) – The Job is Right @ 8/1
Race 7, CHAPS Restaurants Barbados Novices’ Chase (5:15) – Irish Cavalier @ 14/1