13:30 Cheltenham – Supreme Novices Hurdle
The Festival opener is a real headscratcher this year, with a number of horses who I feel have genuine chances if continuing to progress.
Al Dancer travels well, likes to race prominently and stays on strongly so is unlikely to be too far away at the finish, however the Betfair Hurdle form has not stood up in this race in prior years.
Angels Breath went off a short price for the Dovecote but could only manage third, behind a horse that had previously lost to Elixir Du Nutz. He should appreciate the softer ground conditions but with only two prior runs over hurdles the stats of this race suggest he may lack the experience to win.
Klassical Dream has been heavily supported since being confirmed for this race and is partnered with Ruby Walsh who has won the Supreme five times since 2006, yet for my selection I am opting for Elixir Du Nutz who has won his last three, two of which have come here at Cheltenham, with the most recent victory coming on soft ground.
ELIXIR DU NUTZ (E/W)
14:10 Cheltenham – Racing Post Arkle Chase
Possibly the most competitive race of the festival and a case could easily be made for at least half of the field. The long time ante post favourite Glen Forsa remains the favourite and with three back to back wins he deserves his spot at the head of the market. An absolute demolition of Kalashnikov at Sandown last time out showed just how good he is. Seen by some punters as their banker of the festival but I just can’t side with him in this much more competitive contest.
I’m siding with one of the Irish contender’s in the form of Hardline. The Gigginstown owned runner may have finished third last time out but it was far from a bad performance. As the rain continues to fall his chances increase and the softer the ground the better. A great each way chance as he’s bound to be in the mix and a top three finish is certainly within reach.
14:50 Cheltenham – Ultima Handicap Chase
A big competitive field with 24 runners as I write this. These big handicaps are always a minefield but I’ll be backing Mister Whitaker at decent odds. Mick Channon is not as well known for his jumps horses but with Glen Forsa in the Arkle in the previous race it could be a great day all round for his team. Question marks over the distance (Although breeding would suggest three miles wouldn’t be an issue) it’s offset by the fact he loves Cheltenham having won 2 of his 3 runs over the course and his experience at this venue will surely help. In the safe hands of Brian Hughes I really fancy the horse to at least place if not more.
MISTER WHITAKER (E/W)
15:30 Cheltenham – Champion Hurdle
Buveur D’Air bids to become only the sixth horse in history to win three successive Champion Hurdle Crowns, a feat last achieved by the great Istabraq. Perhaps quite disappointingly his last two victories have been rather downplayed due to an apparent lack of opposition, should he once again come out on top, one would hope the neigh sayers would finally show the horse much more appreciation and his standing as a great horse ought to be on the agenda. Slick at his hurdles and a strong travelling type, his record of twelve wins from fourteen attempts over hurdles really is quite remarkable although his defeat at the hands of Verdana Blue earlier in the season was a major surprise.
Gigginstown Stud looked to have a major challenger for this in the shape of Samco, the brilliant winner of the Ballymore last season here. Unfortunately for him, things never really panned out in open company though luckily for the owners, Apples Jade has always been something of a star hurdler and their decision to send her for this is rather supporting given she would have almost certainly gone off a strong favourite for the Mares hurdle. Unbeaten this season and receiving seven pounds from the males, she lowered the colours of Faugheen a couple of starts back before bolting up in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leoparstown. Toward the head of the market and already proven at the venue, she looks a big player if allowed and easy lead, however, she has flopped here before and come into season, this two mile trip against horses much more proven than herself is another genuine concern and as such, she is opposed.
Laurina is another interesting Mare and she too lurks towards the head of the market. Trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh she is bound to be popular given that pair were responsible for the last Mare winning this and she is as progressive as anything. Like Apples Jade there is a sneaking suspicion she wants further than this and perhaps more worryingly, this is the first time she has faced male opposition. Despite the negatives and the sneaking suspicion she may well be better once chasing, she will be suited to how this will be run and of the mares, she looks the most likely.
Melon and Verdana Blue are the most interesting outsiders although it is difficult to envisage either being good enough to win, and so, despite this looking his sternest test, despite him looking as vulnerable as ever before, it is Buveur D’Air who handed the nod to create a little of his own Festival history and hand owner JP McManus and trainer Nicky Henderson their eighth Champion Hurdle crowns.
BUVEUR D’AIR (WIN) – NAP
16:10 Cheltenham – Mares Hurdle
The selection for this race is Benie Des Dieux and although the price is a little short she won the same contest last year which is a huge plus for people who like course and distance form and a victory over Apples Jade is great form. Ruby reckons this is his best chance of the week which says a lot when he has a fair few handy rides over the next four days.
Not the strongest renewal and having not raced since Punchestown in April last year (which she won) I’m sure this will have been the target at the start of the season. The ground should suit her with it more than likely being soft she ticks a tonne of boxes and looks a potential festival certainty.
BENIE DES DIEUX (WIN)
16:50 Cheltenham – Close Brothers Handicap Chase
Early favourite Riders Onthe Storm is partnered with Brian Hughes who has won this race twice in the last three years. He improved on previous chase efforts when winning in February but both prior efforts over similar trips to today have resulted in wide margin defeats so I am happy to look elsewhere.
A Plus Tard is yet to finish outside the top two since tackling fences. He is again partnered with Rachel Blackmore who has been in the saddle for each of the three chase runs and has had a fantastic season so far. This will likely be the softest ground he has encountered but nevertheless looks a live danger.
Highway One O One has won twice over two miles but proved he stays this trip with an excellent second to Kildisart over course and distance in January. There have been three runners that have been seen again since, producing two winners and a second, so the form of that race looks to be working out well. He is proven on soft ground and therefore gets the nod in a competitive-looking race.
HIGHWAY ONE O ONE (E/W)
17:30 Cheltenham – National Hunt Challenge Cup Chase
This years Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy won this race last year so the contest certainly can throw up some serious talent. It provides an opportunity for young amateur riders to take centre stage and Ok Corral looks a potentially very good horse. A very impressive round of jumping saw the nine year old claim success at Warwick. This is a massive step up in trip however and that could be his undoing.
The Willie Mullins team will have bigger targets over the next four days but their charge Ballyward is a certain contender. Fourth in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at the festival last year he clearly handles the unique challenge that Cheltenham throws up and is pretty certain to finish in the money but at very short odds he just doesn’t seem a realistic betting prospect.
With eighteen runners set to go to post you have to look for each way value and I hope I’ve found an outsider worth backing in the form of Impulsive Star. Top amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen is booked for the ride which is a huge plus and a very eye-catching winner in a stamina sapping race shows he is likely to stay. A solid jumper who’s very consistent at double figure odds he’s definitely worth backing.
IMPULSIVE STAR (E/W)