What a wonderful day of racing. Hours away from the start of another fantastic Festival, the magic has become even more magnificent with a lineup that any of the world’s premier catwalks should be proud of. Milan, Paris, Tokyo…no, we’re in the bosom of Cleeve Hill at Prestubry Park for another magnificent Cheltenham Festival…
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh team up with not one, not two, but three Cheltenham Festival heroes; firstly two-time Festival winner Champagne Fever bids for a third victory in The Arkle, Hurricane Fly bids to emulate the great Istabraq by winning the Champion Hurdle for the third time, and Quevega aims to rewrite the record books with a 6th, yes SIXTH, victory at the Cheltenham Festival in the OLBG Mares race. And we haven’t even mentioned The New One, Irving, Rock On Ruby, My Tent Or Yours…oh, my mouth isn’t merely watering, I’m dribbling like an overflowing trough!
Nerves and the ability to handle the pressure on the big stage will be imperative. The stakes are at the highest in what is without doubt the pinnacle of the National Hunt calendar. Who can handle the pressure, the weight of expectation, the dreams and urgings of the 60,000-odd crowd will be those who can make their own luck and be at the business end when the cards are sorted. With so little room for error guaranteed by ultra-competitive racing, this really is a joyous spectacle as well as an intriguing betting contest.
It’s nice to be able to say that we are on the threshold of the first day of the finest festival in the world of National Hunt racing. No caveats, if or buts or maybes, just the first of four days of brilliance. This is the stuff of so many dreams, of owners and breeders and jockeys and stable staff, people who have put in money and effort, blood sweat and tears, culminating in this week. Many are about to go under starters orders and how they cope under that tremendous pressure, that tremendous honour, will be what divides champions from mere competitors.
Anyway, onto the feast in store. Wow, what a day! What a week! Momentum, belief, recent form and the knowledge of how to handle the big days and big races will be as vital as ever. Once again the big names occupy the main stage, and again give good reason to be feared. Nicky Henderson’s yard are doing their best to impersonate an unstoppable steam engine; Willie Mullins has a stellar cast with almost a favourite in every race; big names who love big days are licking their lips and eyeing up their prize.
Day One is the strongest I can remember for a very long time. The feature races, centring around the Champion Hurdle, but ably flanked by the Supreme Novices Hurdle and the Arkle are all mouth-watering propositions. Featuring Champions galore, champions elect and deserved champions who may never quite reach those lofty heights, the racing is nothing short of absolutely first class.
As with every year there are the keys signs to look for in your quest for backing a winner. Course winning form around Cheltenham is extremely valuable, with a knowledge of how to handle the unique undulations, sharp corners and gruelling finish invaluable. JP McManus has always cited the ground as a key determinant of a horses chances, and the going will play a huge part this year. Sodden doesn’t do justice the quantities of water we have all endured, and as such form-lines may be turned on their head as horses who need to feel a little more traction for the turf finally feel ground they can kick on from. As ever the competition is fierce, the riddles enigma-esq and the potential prizes glorious.
In short, look for a horse that likes Cheltenham, has form on good ground (even though it may be a little while ago, before all the rain), has a trainer in good form and has a jockey who wears pretty colours. Double the age of your cat, subtract your IQ and that will give you the number of the winner. Easy.
RACE 1: Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The first course on our menu is the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, a Grade One (top class) race for young hurdlers over 2 miles. As ever the curtain raiser is a cracking event, with resounding strength in depth. There are 18 horses lined up to take on the event, and as ever when quality is deep a case can be made for many. Irving has done more than can have ever been asked of him in 4 hurdle starts so far, winning all four and beating some decent beasts at the same time. His form is rock solid, he has a serious turn of foot that may be needed come the home turn and he is a worthy favourite. His price of 4/1 is short, and there isn’t a lot of value when one sees 17 other high class horses. That said, you’d be a brave man to offer bigger odds. Willie Mullins has a full hand of potential winners, a theme you may see recurring throughout the week. Vantour, ridden by his number one jockey Ruby Walsh, come across the Irish Sea with a massive reputation. At 4/1 joint-favourite, we are spoilt with the best English and Irish novices opposing. Thereafter Mr Mullins has another two runners in Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido who are also unbeaten over hurdles and could be anything. You could forgive Messers Mullins and Walsh for not knowing which of there 3 has the best chance, the strength is so impressive. Bryan Cooper, the newly appointed retained jockey to Gigginstwon Stud and Michael O’Leary (Mr Ryanair – aim your eggs….) had a fantastic Festival last year and his mount Valseur Lido shows a little more value at 16/1. However for strong each way value Josses Hill is put forward at 20/1. Although he appears the second string of Nicky Henderson’s horses on jockey bookings he has top form and is expected to step up to the mark for a yard that can do no wrong at present.
Win: Irving, 4/1 EW: Josses Hill, 20/1
RACE 2: The Arkle
Once the roar for the first has gently died down, we move on to race two which is no less intriguing and exciting. The Arkle is again a Grade One race, a novice chase for the best young chasers about. Last years Supreme Novice winner has progressed onto chasing and once again shows spades of ability in his new discipline. Champagne Fever, again for the Mullins-Walsh partnership, was a class act over hurdles and is a deserved favourite. He has won at the two last Cheltenham Festivals and undoubtedly has the class to make it a hat trick. That said, he made a hash of his jumping on his latest start at Leapordstown and there will be no room for similar errors. As such, he may be worth taking on at a very short 5/2. The primary alternative is Rock On Ruby, a previous Champion Hurdle winner who loves both Cheltenham and the Festival. He has only has two starts chasing, beaten two rivals on his first occasion, and only one on his second, but his young trainer Harry Fry is a master at setting a horse up for a race and he has a real chance. At 4/1 he is value to take on Champagne Fever and you can be sure he will be there or thereabouts coming to the last. The only question mark would be his lack of chasing experience, after only 2 starts in small fields. Dodging Bullets is appropriately named, and his form appears bullet-proof. With 3 of his 5 wins have come at Prestbury Park, the conditions will suit to a tee. He will be there fighting at the end. It should be very close between him and Rock On Ruby. For those looking for a little more value, Valdez at 7/1 could be the each way option. He has won his three chase starts for Alan King and looked like a natural chaser.
Win: Rock On Ruby, 4/1 EW: Valdez, 7/1
RACE 3: Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase
The third race is the Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase, a big field handicap Grade 3 over 3 miles 1 furlong. With 24 runners it really is a bit of a lottery, however there are some little gems of information to pick upon with the chance of landing a jackpot. Ackertac is a course winner who is handled by the shrewd Tim Vaughan who knows how to ready a gamble for a big handicap. He should run a big race with a nice weight from the handicapper and at 25/1 there could be some nice place money for the each way punters. Alfie Sherrin is a rock solid favourite for champion jockey AP McCoy, having won the race before and coming 4th at last years Festival, but at 8/1 there isn’t much value, especially in such a competitive affair. Value can also be found with Time For Rupert, a high class on his day who has dropped right down the weights and must have a chance dropped upgrade (16/1), and King Massini is a horse on the up who could have no end of ability having won around Cheltenham earlier in the season. He must be worth a tipple at a juicy 25/1.
Ackertac, ew, 25/1 King Massini, ew, 25/1
RACE 4: Stan James Champion Hurdle
The fourth race is the feature event of the day, the Stan James Champion Hurdle over 2 miles. With all of the gems in the lineup, it is classier than can ever have been dreamt of a championship affair. The best horses from England and Ireland are fit, on form and descending on Prestbury Park with no excuses, no caveats, just glory in their sights. Where to start… Hurricane Fly was the first horse to ever regain his Champion Hurdle crown after losing it and comes into the race this year having beaten two of his principle competitors (Our Conor and Jezki) twice this season. Ruby Walsh has had the privilege of preparing perfectly for this year, having ridden Hurricane Fly in 3 previous Champion Hurdles, he should have every eventuality covered and have the experience, quality and nous to get his head in front when it really counts. At 7/2 co-favourite, he can use all his skill and cunning to keep the new young generation of hurdlers at bay. The obvious contender is The New One, a beautiful thoroughbred oozing quality. A gelding with a very high crushing speed, he also has an electric turn of foot at the death of a race. After stumbling on landing he was unlucky to go down to My Tent Or Yours earlier in the season and he will be challenging at the death for father and son team trainer Nigel and jockey Sam Twiston Davies. The aforementioned My Tent Or Yours gallops and will love the drying ground, but last years second in the Supreme Novices’ may have to settle for a supporting role today. For those looking for some each way value, try Melodic Rendezvous at 25/1. He has taken many scalps and is as genuine as they come, but he may be found out by the turn of foot of some of these. He’ll never stop galloping though and will being doing his very best for your money.
Win: Hurricane Fly, 5/2 EW: Melodic Rendezvous, 25/1
RACE 5: OLBG Mares Hurdle
The fifth race off at 16:00 is the OLBG Mares Hurdle, for the ladies out there over 2 miles 4 furlongs. Quevega, the star mare, aims to rewrite the record books and win the same race for the sixth time. Yes, the sixth race in succession. That would be a remarkable feat, as the quality of the opposition aside, it is a minor miracle to keep a mare on top of her game and fit for 6 years in a row. It would be a pleasure to see her add the the £669k she has already earned in her career and to set a serious bit of history at the same time. At 4/6 there isn’t a lot of value, but there is more to earn for her victory than just money. Those demanding more value, I would suggest two good value each way shouts; Highland Retreat from the Harry Kane yard is an interesting option at 14/1. The young trainer is a specialist with the mares and she has been set up for the face perfectly. The ground may be a little too fast for her but she is definitely a classy mare. Otherwise the top horse, Callin Annamh is an interesting runner for Jessie Harrington and should run nicely at 16/1.
Win: Quevega, 4/6 EW: Callin Annamh, 14/1
RACE 6: National Hunt Chase
The sixth race of the day is run in honour of Terry Buddlecombe, a father of racing who put so much into our sport. A true character, the race will run in an entertaining and eventful way, truly befitting the man it was named after. For amateur jockeys, literally anything could happen, and the advice is to side with a horse who has a pilot who gives you some trust (or knows how to sit on a horse and which way to go). Favourites have a great record in the race, winning the last three renewals, and Foxrock is a worthy favourite, being trained by Ted and ridden by Mark, father and brother to Ruby Walsh respectively. However at 11/4, in a race where the only thing that is guaranteed is drama, the price is far too short. Better value can be found with Rogue Angel for a shrewd pair, who could be there or thereabouts at the post at a tasty 14/1. Elsewhere Milborough could run into a place under a jockey who recently recorded a victory under rules, Mr B Gibbs, and is value at 33/1.
Win: Foxrock, 11/4 EW: Rogue Angel, 14/1 EW: Milborough, 33/1
RACE 7: Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase
The seventh and final race is the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase over 2 miles 4 furlongs. This handicap is bound to have some well weighted horses looking to make the most of the return to a better surface. The ever-impressive Bryan Cooper seems to have a great chance on Art of Logistics. Sounding like the love-child of Eddie Stobart, the Dessie Hughes trained gelding should relish the return to a firmer surface and has a great shout at 8/1. There is also further great value in the race, with Attaglance looking to have found a ready opportunity to open his chasing account. He has good form around Cheltenham and, having been 4th in the Paddy Power earlier in the season, he should be challenging Art of Logistics coming to the last.
Wn, Art of Logistics, 8/1 EW, Attaglance, 14/1
All in all we are graced with a fantastic day ahead of us. The customary roar of the crowd cannot be loud enough, so deserving are those in the line up. For those having a flutter, I wish you Godspeed. Follow your gut instinct and don’t overcomplicate it – and certainly don’t change your mind at the last minute! Coupling this beautiful spectacle is a ruthless war against the bookmakers and I wish you luck as you advance on your chosen gentleman’s turf accountant.
We’re under starters orders, and the mighty roar will soon be unleashed. Welcome to the Cheltenham Festival…
by The Ferret
All odds supplied by http://www.paddypower.com. For more details on the festival, please check here: