So here we are again. Less than 24 hours to go until the great roar that greets the start of the best four days of the entire calendar year! This time around more than ever we are being treated to a really fantastic opening day! The first four races on the card are all absolutely mouth watering…..for plenty of reasons. If you’ve had a shrewd winter of judging performances, times and above all working out which horses have been very good running in wellies for the past four months then you might be in one or two strong ante-post positions. I have one or two that have gone in the right direction but as always, plenty that won’t even be leaving home!
1.30 – Sky Bet Supreme Novices´ Hurdle Grade 1
The festival opener looks a real cracker as always this year and is a week defining race for myself as by far the best ante-post position I am in comes here in the form of Paul Nicholls IRVING. He is generally around a 5/2 fav going into the race and having backed him at 12/1, 10/1 and 7/1 I’m delighted to be in a strong position. I do see the argument that some pundits are making that the hill will be an issue and he seems to be a speed horse but I also see the positives. Nothing has really come close to getting him off the bridle yet. Ok, Prince Siegfried was upsides when falling at the last at Ascot but he was traveling all over him in truth. The way he sprinted away from his rivals at Kempton in the Dovecote really took my eye. Admittedly Amore Alato who was back in second is no world beater but he is rated 137 and Irving made him look very inferior. The shape of this race will surely suit him down to the ground and I’ll be shocked if he is not firmly swinging away at the bottom of the hill. That is the point where the finger nails will get a shearing.
The market suggests that the main dangers come in the form of the two-pronged attack from Willie Mullins trained Vautour and Wicklow Brave. Of the two I think Vautour is more suited to Cheltenham. He has similar attributes to last years winner Champagne Fever but I can’t help have his run two starts back in the memory when he scraped past Western Boy. If Vautour is a 3/1 chance then Western Boy shouldn’t be 18/1. His win in the Deloitte did nothing for me. Ruby rode them to sleep and whilst some will argue that the last mile was fast, that was clearly aided by the fact the first mile was pedestrian. Wicklow Brave for me is all about speed and his jumping will really come under scrutiny in a race where they are going to go very quick. One mistake might be too many for him. No yard is in better form at the moment than that of Nicky Henderson and the champion trainer has peaked at just the right time after a slow start to the season. NH has both Josses Hill and Vaniteux in the opener. The former was just out stayed by stable mate Royal Boy in the re-routed Tolworth last time (both miles clear of The Liquidator) and I expect a similar story here. Vaniteux has reportedly taken off in the last few weeks having put his disappointing effort at Kempton over Christmas behind him to win at Donny last month. Strictly on that Kempton run and a line through Amore Alato he has an enormous amount to find with Irving. I mentioned the Liquidator who had made a pleasing start to his hurdles career with wins at Carlisle and here at Cheltenham when giving the smart Sea Lord a right good beating. He was blown away though at Kempton and with so much competition for the lead likely here, I struggle to him winning.
I think Gilgamboa could run a big race for AP and JP but he will probably need to run a stone better than his revised mark after his win off 128 in a handicap last time and if there is a single horse that is largely over priced it could be Sgt Reckless for whom the ground could be a big positive and I expect him to run much better than 40/1 suggests he will.
Irving is clearly the selection. If you can get some 3/1 tomorrow then that will do. Both Sgt Reckless and Western Boy are worth backing each way at big prices.
2.05 – Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase Grade 1
This is nice and simple for me this year as I am a huge fan of Champagne Fever. He comes here with plenty of festival positives having won the Bumper and the Supreme on his last two visits and I’m confident he can make it three on the bounce. Festival form is always a huge plus. Yes we have to forgive a poor run last time where he belted the second last having set a lightning pace but that can be said about previous visits and he has had the habit of throwing in the odd stinker. Having said that I think he is a spring horse and will relish conditions tomorrow and was delighted with the glint in the eye when Ruby was interviewed this morning. He loves the hill and I expect him with a clean round to be fending them off to the cheers of the crowd. Once the Irish tuck in early doors I think he might go off shorter than 2/1.
Talking of dangers and of festival form that obviously brings Rock On Ruby firmly into the mix having finished first and second in the last two Champion Hurdles. He looked in his match against The New One over hurdles though that he maybe is quite as good now as a nine-year old and having won two egg and spoon novice chases to date I think he has a lot more questions to answer. Trifolium is a really solid danger and will be in plenty of people’s each way bankers and accumulators. He beat Champagne Fever at Christmas but he was suited by the way things panned out there and I would prefer CF round here. I do think he is the main danger here under the excellent Bryan Cooper.
Of the others, Dodging Bullets has done nothing wrong. His defeat at Newbury though shouldn’t be good enough form to win an Arkle. Valdez is 3/3 but will need to improve again and whilst the ground will certainly suit Grandouet, his jumping at pace is not good enough to win a grade one.
Very much hoping that there will be plenty of Champagne Fever in the Arkle!
2.40 – Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase Grade 3
Another race that I nailed myself to the mast of a runner some time ago and things could not have panned out better! I wrote a festival eye catchers preview for http://www.jpfestival.com in the build up to this week and the main feature of that was Jonjo O’Neills ALFIE SHERRIN. He is a horse I know really well as I fell in love with him when he won his first bumper at Chepstow back in 2008. He landed a right touch in this very race for me two years ago and having tucked into the 20/1 ante-post for him here I’m delighted he has got into the race and that he has been very well backed indeed. Ap McCoy has chosen him to ride too which is a huge plus and I really expect a very big run. He is 5lbs higher than when winning the race in 2012 but he has matured an enormous amount. His run in the grade three fixed brush hurdle last time could not have been more eye-catching and I’m very confident of a big run. He is currently best priced 9/1 with @Coral and I think we may see some hefty public money come for him and I expect him to go off a strong favourite.
Alfie Sherrin – Nap of the day @ current 9/1.
3.20 – Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy Grade 1 (CLASS 1) (4yo+)
What a renewal to look forward too. The ten-year old Hurricane Fly chasing his third Champion Hurdle against the younger brigade, and a very good younger brigade at that! All the way through the season I’ve probably changed my opinion of the likely favourite and the likely winner about ten times. The conclusion I finally arrive at is that this is probably the strongest renewal for some time and in truth there might only be 2-3 lengths between five or six of these! If we go in reverse order of the nine runners. We can put a line through Captain Cee Bee, Grumeti and Ptit Zig who are simply not good enough. Melodic Rendezvouz would be upto this level if we had knee-deep ground to run in, unfortunately for his connections this is not the case so he is also dismissed. The brings us on to the two Irish youngsters in Jezki and Our Connor. I’m convinced we have yet to see the best of Jezki and that there is plenty to come. He has always just come up a length or two short though at the top-level. First time hood is deployed and Barry Geraghty is 4/4 on him so there are positives. Our Connor absolutely routed his rivals in the Triumph last year but conditions will be very different for the Champion this time round. He has been firmly put in his place twice already bu the Fly this season and other than the way the race may pan out there is no obvious reason why he would reverse that form. He is only five mind and still could be improving.
The New One is six now and My Tent Or Yours is seven. There was half a length between them in the Christmas Hurdle after TNO belted the last. That didn’t check his momentum too much though and MTOY was going away at the line. I have to confess to being a big fan of MTOY. I was gutted when he got beat in the Supreme last year, especially as I had a big in running lay in the market at 1.5 thinking he would travel strongly…. well he did and he got matched all the way down to 1.51!! I think he’s a beast. Matured a lot with his racing and I don’t buy into the scenario of him not getting up the hill. If any of them are going to beat the Fly I think it will be My Tent Or Yours. I greatly respect The New One and if he gets beat it won’t be by far.
Hurricane Fly is most people’s idea of the winner and his record fully justifies him being favourite. He may well win again but this is without doubt his toughest test to date and he has been beaten here before. I think reluctantly I will take him on with My Tent Or Yours but this is a race to watch and enjoy. It should be an absolute classic.
Selection – My Tent Or Yours
4.00 – OLBG Mares´ Hurdle (Registered As The David Nicholson Mares´ Hurdle Race) Grade 2 (CLASS 1) (4yo+)
Not much to say here other than banker QUEVEGA. She is a different class to these and should be in all your bets and multiples.
4.40 – Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase Amateur Riders´ Novices´ Chase (Listed Race) (CLASS 1) (5yo+ –)
Four miles for novice chasers and no hiding place! Touch race to assess in that the front two in the market deserve very much to be there in the form of Foxrock and Shutthefrontdoor. On ratings on what they have achieved so far they both have outstanding claims but as a result they will be fairly short. I respect Suntiep but all of his form has been on very bad ground, he clearly though has stamina in abundance. I like the look here of Alan Kings Midnight Prayer who you can get a nice each way bet on at around 10/1. He will need to improve on his recent efforts but he is a strong travelling type that has hinted that this sort of test could bring about plenty of improvement and the forecast better ground may well bring that into play.
Selection – Midnight Prayer
5.15 – Rewards4Racing Novices´ Handicap Chase (Listed Race) (CLASS 1) (5yo+ 0-140)
This is a race that is generally won by quite a classy type and big weights shouldn’t put you off. Ericht heads the weights and has long promised to win one of these big handicaps. I respect Pendra but he is a bit too short really on what he has achieved so I am going to go on a three-pronged attack. Two at big prices we can play each way and then a saver.
The first is OHIO GOLD for the Tizzard team. He has run with credit once or twice this year off similar marks when the yard has been largely quiet. They have now come really good with plenty of winners and he ran really well in this race last year. If he is on a going day then the 25/1 about him tonight is a bit too big in my eyes and he could way out run those odds.
The second is GARDEFORT for Venetia Williams. Very well backed on his British debut last time off a mark of 132 suggests that his opening mark here could be lenient. He made a mid race move after travelling well at Haydock and paid for it quickly. The forecast better ground should be no problem and there is potential that he is going to slip under the radar for this. He is currently 33/1 and in my eyes is probably a 10/1 chance.
I must have a small saver on MANYRIVERSTOCROSS who has hinted a few times that his turn is not far away.
Ohio Gold 1 pt e/w @ 25/1, Gardefort 1 pt e/w @ 33/1 & Manyriverstocross 1 pt win @ 10/1
That just about wraps up what is going to be an absolutely cracking opening day. Fingers crossed that the ante-post positions finally come good for once! Very best of luck all week with your selections! Really not sure how much sleep I am going to get tonight!
All the very best