Well well well, what a first day to the Festival! It encapsulated everything we could have asked for…and more. By the time Douvan, Faugheen and Un De Sceaux had rolled in we were bathing in the glow of future Champions and Kings elect. And then it was time for the Queen… Ah.
The sport was majestic and the day wonderful. So many high points and the awesome displays of Willie Mullins’ Musketeers, who we referred to yesterday, were incredible. Fair play to the man – getting three top horses to deliver the goods on the big stage is no easy task, and yet they made it look oh so easy! Incredible.
Every punter throughout the land will be forgiven for being lulled into a false sense of security. Seeing ‘good things’ roll in only gives us the confidence to go bigger, braver, bolder next time. In our haste, dizziness, blind belief we follow, and when the unthinkable happens, we’re left looking like a startled baby sitting on the floor of the platform, thumb in mouth, crying for Mummy.
Poor Annie Power. She could run that race ten more times and ping the last, bounce up the hill and win eased down, jockey standing in the stirrups, saluting his faithful admirers, drowning in their admiration. Not this time. We mentioned yesterday but a few of the pitfalls that stand in front of any National Hunt horse. We didn’t mention trying to impersonate Evil Knievel.
“Oh, for f…”
Short priced favourites can face all manner of challenges, and therefore looking for value should be a good strategy for the next 3 days. Some nicely priced horses were placed yesterday, allowing value for those who don’t want to duel with such short odds. At Trivial Pursuits we managed to introduce you to a 14/1 winner and a handful of placed horses. I assure you Mr Power sends his warmest regards.
Alas St Patricks Day will stay where it is, and Day One won’t be renamed just yet. Nonetheless, Willie Mullins did have an excellent day, proving the rude health of his stable, something to remember for the rest of the week. A brilliant first day, and a lovely way to set us up for Day Two.
The first race of the day, off at 13.30, is the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle over 2 miles 5 furlongs. Often the selection for the best young hurdlers who show a bit more stamina and a slight less turn of foot than those running in the Supreme, it is a fascinating renewal.
A good case can be made for many of the runners, which is proved by the fact that 6 of the 10 horses having a forecast SP of 12/1 or less. Intriguing as it is, this is no walk in the park.
Will Willie Mullins kick on from where he left off? He’s won this race 3 times since 2008. Nichols Canyon is a worthy favourite having shown high class form on the flat, and having won all starts over hurdles bar dropping Ruby Walsh from the saddle once. Generally he jumps well, but he does like to bowl along in front and it is questionable how he will settle if challenged for an early lead. Mullins’ other entry also has a good chance, and although Outlander has strong form, he could be anything and I worry whether he will be able dominate this high class field. Windsor Park has a good chance with solid form against Canyon, and Vyta Du Roc shouldn’t be underestimated.
Preference is instead given to Parlour Games (6/1) though, who also was high class on the flat, has shown quality form since switched to hurdles and seems to be suited by Cheltenham, a big plus. The drying ground will enhance his finishing kick, and I fancy him to give John Ferguson his first Festival winner. Beast of Burden has also looked mightily impressive in his lower class assignments to date, and is selected as the each way punt for those demanding better prices as he looks to fulfil his promise.
Up next is the RSA Chase over 3 miles. Often a stepping stone for future Gold Cup winners, we have a cracking renewal with strength throughout the 9 runner field.
Don Poli is a worthy favourite, a winner of the Martin Pipe hurdle at last years Festival. He has improved since his change to fences and been very impressive in his two victories this season. Yet another favourite from the Willie Mullins yard, and ridden by the lovely Bryan Cooper, he may well be victorious.
His main market rival is Kings Palace, from the David Pipe yard. Winner of three chases this season, two of those victories have come at Cheltenham, form which will stand him in very good stead. He has beaten some good horses, and although he likes to lead from the front in his races, he is selected for win bets. Generally available at 4/1, this represents value for a very likeable horse.
The Young Master is an alternative, who has shown hugely improved form this season but he may just come up short in this company. Southfield Theatre may offer a little each way value, but his odds are teetering around the 7/1 mark and that price may just be too short to make it worthwhile.
The third race is the cavalry charge of the Coral Cup, a race of 26 horses galloping over 2 miles 5 furlongs.
There is no easy answer here and a case can be made for most. It has proved favourable to take on the favourite in recent years, and we will do this again.
This year’s favourite is Paul Nicholls’ Aux Ptits Soins, who will be making his British racecourse debut. As such, the handicapper has given him a handicap mark without knowing much about him, as he has no real form to compare him against. With 2 wins and a third from his 3 starts in France, he looks to have plenty of ability and could be anything. Generally available at 6/1, jockey and trainer alike often need a race to get to the bottom of a horse and know how to use him, and as such, although his mark could look charitable after the race, we will take him on.
Nicholls’ second string is very interesting. Lac Fontana hasn’t had much fun over fences this season, but today he reverts to hurdles where he acquitted himself so well last year. Victorious at Cheltenham and Aintree last year, he could return to his previous form, and partnered by the excellent Sean Bowen who takes a further 5 pounds of his back, he represents value at 20/1.
Another intriguing runner is Taglietelle. Trained be the ever-so-shrewd Gordon Elliott, he has been pencilled in for this race for some time and his handler knows how to ready one. His form is solid and at 14/1 he also represents good value.
Other interesting runners worth a second look are Willie Mullins’ Un Atout (will he return to his previous hugh class hurdling form?) and Baradari, who has proved he can handle a big field at Cheltenham already. Venetia Williams will have a winner at some point this week, surely, so could it be this chap?
The main event of the day is the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Probably the greatest race in the racing calendar, this sees the best 2 mile chasers attack their fences at top speed, needle in the red.
The field this year includes three previous winners in the shape of Sprinter Sacre, Sire de Grugy and Sizing Europe, as well as a dusting of young pretenders with big reputations.
Sprinter Sacre will always be the darling of the National Hunt racing world; a huge horse with an honest persona who loves his racing, his victory in this race in 2013 was mesmerising. Unfortunately his subsequent injury interrupted his progression into folklore, and although showing promise of his old self on his return at Ascot in January, he has questions to answer. He would be the most popular winner, undoubtedly, but has it to prove.
Can Sprinter Sacre come back to regain the crown?
Similarly Sire de Grugy has also had an interrupted preparation. The 2014 victor unseated in his debut, but put wrongs right with a commanding victory at Chepstow last month. He didn’t beat much that day, but he did all that could be asked of him and showed his class again. As such, he has less question marks next to his name and we will side with him at 7/2.
Champagne Fever from the Willie Mullins yard could also be crowned champion, and with 3 runs at the Festival and results of 1st, 1st and 2nd, he has a live chance. He has been running over further this year though and this race often demands a 2 mile specialist. Dodging Bullets is progressing nicely and could throw down a challenge, but those looking for each way value are directed towards Simply Ned, who should be staying on as they climb the hill and shows a little value at 16/1.
The Fourth race off at 16.00 is the Cross Country race, over 3 miles and 7 furlongs and any obstacles that the imaginative course designer can dream up.
Enda Bolger is the go-to man for such a race, especially after the dominance of Spotthedifference, but it is not sure whether Quantativeeasing quite has the same aptitude as his illustrious predecessor.
Spotthedifference… A legend of the long-game
Duke of Lucca has been promising to win a race of this type, and hails from the Philip Hobbs that has had a tremendous record in this race in recent years. He is selected to go on at odds of 7/1.
We see the main danger being put forward by Any Currency, 2nd in this last year and victorious at the November meeting, but he has gone up in the weights and may struggle one pound of top weight.
At a big price Charingworth may give you a good shout for your money. A winner at Cheltenham in November, he may be as big as 50/1.
The penultimate race at 16.40 is the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle for 4 year olds. A handicap generally for horses who have progressed from the flat, this is always a fun puzzle to try and solve.
Zarib from the Dan Skelton yard, ridden by brother Harry, has strong form and looks progressive. All Yours, trained by Skeltons mentor Paul Nicholls, has already shown form franked by good horses.
Selection however goes to a couple of longer price horses. Tip weight Golden Doyen has been running against the cream of juvenile hurdlers, and had his sights lowered from the Triumph to this assignment. He has strong course and distance form and as a big horse, shouldn’t be too inconvenienced by carrying top weight. He is worth a good each way bet, generally available at 16/1.
Another worth an each way flutter is Sebastian Beach. With a nice weight on his back, he will improve for the dring ground, and Jonjo O’Neill knows how to ready one for a contest like this. He is certainly interesting at 25/1.
The final race of the day is the Champion Bumper. A 2 mile National Hunt flat race, the race is generally dominated by the Irish. This looks set to be the case again. With limited racecourse experience there are all sorts of question marks dangling around and you’d be forgiven for reaching for your crystal ball.
Willie Mullins has no less than seven (7!) runners, anyone of whom could prove victorious. Bordoni seems to be another high class recruit and is partnered by son Patrick, therefore worth respecting. As likely favourite it is doubtful whether this shows much value though, and there may be more value in one of his other horses. Which one though, I don’t know, and I doubt he does either. Pylonthepressure would probably get the nod.
Last years winning trainer, Dermot Weld, has an interesting runner in Vigil. A short priced 5/1 in this race last year, he has only run once since and should have strengthened up and matured with the extra year under his belt. The experience will be invaluable and we side with him at 11/1.
Those looking for each way value could look at a whole host of horses. With such patchy evidence to work with, our only advice is to once again remember that a new day starts tomorrow, therefore try not to go bananas.
And so onto another fascinating day of racing awaits. We hope to see stars in the making in the Neptune and RSA, and the crowning of a Champion in the Queen Mother. It should be another enthralling day, but remember, as proved yesterday, absolutely anything can happen amongst the drama and romance of the Cheltenham Festival.
by The Ferret
Race 1, Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle (1:30) – Parlour Games @ 6/1
Race 2, RSA Chase (2:05) – Kings Palace @ 9/2
Race 3, Coral Cup (2:40) – Lac Fontana @ 16/1, Taglietelle @ 14/1
Race 4, Queen Mother Champion Chase (3:20) – Sire De Grugy @ 7/2 (nap)
Race 5, Cross Country (4:00) – Duke of Lucca @ 6/1
Race 6, Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle (4:40) – Golden Doyen @ 16/1, Sebastian Beach @ 25/1
Race 7, Champion Bumper (5:15) – Vigil @ 9/1
For more odds go to Paddy Power… Click here to see ’em!