13:30 - Skybet Supreme Novices Hurdle
The first race of the Festival is finally upon us! It is well known for the roar of the crowd signalling the beginning of the Festival, followed by a strongly run race with prominent runners tending to get the better of horses trying to come from off the pace. With just the one winning favourite in the last twelve years this is a an extremely competitive race so although we need to look for those who have already performed to a high standard and shown a winning attitude it is important to also look for signs of likely further improvement. With this in mind my selection is Asterion Forlonge who was an impressive winner of the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown in February, with his trainer Willie Mullins being quoted immediately afterwards saying he looks very much a Supreme horse. With a high cruising speed and a big engine to boot, the unbeaten six-year-old definitely created a lasting impression and it would be no surprise to see him follow Champagne Fever, Vautour and last years’ winner Klassical Dream in following up victory in the Chanelle Pharma with victory here.
There looks to be plenty of depth to the race with Shishkin, Fiddlerontheroof and Abacadabras all worthy of consideration. Shishkin looks to have a very bright future following a couple of convincing victories earlier in the season, however my suspicion is that the form isn't quite as strong as some of his rivals so I am happy to take him on. Fiddlerontheroof will relish the conditions and arrives here on the back of an impressive victory in the Grade 1 Tolworth Novices Hurdle although this will be his toughest test to date, while Abacadabras has only been beaten by Ballymore favourite Envoi Allen so far this season and perhaps has the strongest overall form, however looks an out-and-out two-miler so may struggle to stay up the Cheltenham hill in testing conditions.
ASTERION FORLONGE (WIN)
14:10 - Racing Post Arkle Trophy
Henry De Bromhead looks to have a strong team travelling to this years' Festival, with a number of exciting runners expected to run well. None more-so than Notebook who is unbeaten in four since going over fences, giving 7lbs and a beating to Fakir D’Oudairies on penultimate run and then coming out on top after an almighty duel with Cash Back in the Irish Arkle last time out. He isn’t flash, in fact goes about his business with the minimum of fuss, but travels extremely well throughout his races and then stays on strongly in the finish. Having won both the Racing Post Novice Chase and the Irish Arkle, he is attempting to emulate Douvan in 2016 and Footpad in 2018 in adding this race for the hat-trick… and I think he has the class to achieve it.
The aforementioned Fakir D'Oudairies is perhaps better than he has shown so far this season so would have to be considered a danger, although I am not convinced he can reverse the form off level weights, while Cash Back goes in search of a fifth win in the last six renewals for trainer Willie Mullins, but has been prone to a couple of jumping errors and will need a clear round if he is to challenge.
A final mention goes to Put The Kettle On who will need to improve on what we have seen to date, but does have the benefit of a course and distance victory to her name and is also proven in testing conditions. She may not win but looks overpriced and could be worth a small each way play.
14:50 - Ultima Handicap Chase
The first handicap of the meeting and what a tough one it is to call. Many, if not most, of these have a chance with the likes of course and distance winner The Conditional a major contender however with so many going to post for any punter you have to look for value and I feel that the horse that finished sixth in this last year Activial is the one to be on especially at such decent odds. A strong finish when seen here twelve months ago a return to a course he acts well on and with less weight to carry makes him a serious shout. A former Grade 2 hurdle winner who will relish the softer ground it's hard not to fancy him at the prices.
15:30 - Unibet Champion Hurdle
The premier championship race of the day is being somewhat ridiculed by many as one of the poorest renewals in recent memory and sadly it's hard to disagree. The horses lining up in this years renewal all have an abundance of questions left to answer and there isn't the usual stand out superstar in the mix.
Epatante could be a potential super star but only time will tell. Pentland Hills was expected to hit dizzy heights after last years festival win but has perhaps dissapointed and the remainder just aren't seen as Champion Hurdle calibre.
Never the less there's plenty of outsiders that seem worth backing at bigger prices. The likes of Not So Sleepy and Cornerstone Lad will relish the ground and may have place claims at big odds but it's the Irish raider Darver Star that seems to have a little bit of class having mixed it with some serious operators all season, will enjoy cut in the ground and hails from a yard who knows what it takes to win the race.
Perhaps will find one too good this afternoon but definitely worth an each way play.
DARVER STAR (E/W)
16:10 - Close Brothers Mares Hurdle
Seen as simply a two horse match race between Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle with the remainder more than likely to be fighting it out for third and in all honesty I couldn't argue against such an assessment.
If Lady Buttons some how managed to find her head in front at the winning post I imagine it'd be the biggest roar we'd hear all week and although she did well to finish fourth in the race last year the best she could hope for is place money once again.
The defending champion Roksana may go well but is unlikely to put in a repeat performance and Stormy Ireland could have enough in the tank to battle for the third placed spot but is unlikely to trouble the main duo.
So the duo in question look two very classy animals however I feel the Henry De Bromhead team have made a grave error in sending Honeysuckle for this race and not the earlier Champion Hurdle. I actually feel she'd have had a better chance of winning the Champion Hurdle especially with her mares allowance than this contest simply because I feel Benie Des Dieux is simply that good. She looked the likely race winner when falling last year and here with a smaller field and hopefully a clear round of jumping Benie can bounce back and claim success.
BENIE DES DIEUX (WIN)
16:50 - Northern Trust Company Novices Chase
Although the earlier handicap on the card looked tough this novices race looks even tougher. With less form to go off this looks an absolute minefield for punters and one that should be approached with caution.
Imperial Aura could be one of the classier types in the race however it's difficult to go with a horse at the current odds in what looks a difficult race to decipher.
Of the more fancied runners it's actually the lightly raced Galvin who peaks my interest the most and although his fall a few starts back is a slight concern he seems to have been mapped out with this race in mind.
There's been a few knowing words for bottom weight Whatmore who could go well for each way punters and the same can be said that Jarvey's Plate who beat the formidable Reserve Tank is very generously priced and should be staying on in the closing stages.
It's hard to narrow them down but Galvin looks a decent shout for one with a more serious chance.
17:30 - National Hunt Challenge Cup
The amateur jockeys get their chance to shine with some of the more well established names grabbing a ride in this. To call such riders amateurs seems a tad unfair with the majority more than capable of mixing it in the paid ranks.
The Irish often play a big part in this race and currently have the red-hot favourite with the Willie Mullins trained Carefully Selected likely to go off as the short priced favourite. The horse has an obvious chance but is too short price wise to place a serious bet and for that alone trying to locate horses at a bigger price has to be the answer in this one.
UK based trainers Fergal O'Brien and Kim Bailey often do well at the festival, especially with their handicappers and this race could be no exception as they send out Newtide and Ocean's Cove respectively.
Newtide is a recent Grade 2 winner who looks to possess a potential bit of class and the fact that Barry O'Neil (Current Irish Champion Amateur Jockey) is booked for the ride rings very positive notes.
Ocean Cove was destroyed by 17 lengths last time out but don't let that put you off too much as I feel it's a case that the more of a stamina test this is the better! With the rain continuing to pour and the step up to this marathon trip it should play into his hands and as long as the horse isn't too far behind at half way expect a big run from a horse who is a massive price at the moment.
OCEAN COVE (E/W)
written by Dean Kilbryde & Rory Paddock
Check out our thoughts on all the big races from Day 1 in the video below.