Here we are at last! The Festival is about 40 hours away as I’m writing and, as ever, I can’t wait for the feast of racing that will keep me fully occupied for the next five days (including Cheltenham Eve!).
First things first – the weather. As I mentioned in my post at the end of February, the ground is a massive factor and Accuweather pretty much nailed it in terms of the forecast. Clerk of the course, Simon Claisse, is currently predicting soft ground for day one and, based on the hailstorm that I’m watching as I’m typing this, I’m expecting that it will be nearer soft to heavy rather than good to soft. That makes a massive difference. For a normal Cheltenham you need horses that stay, because of the pace of the races and the hill. On soft ground that is even more to the fore and, with a major storm and 50mph winds forecast for Wednesday, could be even more important later in the week (Un De Sceaux and Native River immediately spring to mind). It’s a time to be cautious about graduates from the flat, and to favour National Hunt bred horses and particularly those from France, which conveniently suits my favoured profile!
Returning to my preview post, I’m pleased that my initial selections for day one are unchanged (that will not be the case for the rest of the week!). So, on to the races themselves and, once again, thank goodness for the 48 hour declarations
13.30 Supreme Novices’ HurdleEmbed from Getty Images
5/1 the field is an appetising starter for the first of 28 races and here are my views about the leading candidates.
Al Dancer (5/1 jf)
Yet to be beaten over hurdles, he was an impressive winner of the Betfair Hurdle at Ascot on 16 February, but he didn’t beat much. This is good handicap form and he might be seen as following in the line of Kalashnikov, a similar handicap winner before going close in this one last year. His previous outing was in a Class 3 on the new course at Cheltenham (old course this time) and, again, he didn’t beat much. He’s been declared without a hood (which he’s worn on his previous outings) and, when asked today about it, jockey Sam Twiston-Davies said that they’re going for ear plugs instead. An odd selection for the hubbub of the Festival. Not for me.
Angels Breath (5/1 jf)
This is definitively not one for me. Much hyped (no doubt because of the trainer/owner combination – Henderson/Dai Walters), his much delayed follow up to the Grade 2 Kennel Gate at Ascot in December (when four of the eight hurdles were omitted) was when he was beaten by unheralded Southfield Stone in the Dovecote at Kempton on 23 February. Some have said that he was unsuited by the good ground and fast track but I think that’s more about wanting to believe rather than analysing the cold facts.
Klassical Dream (6/1)
Currently attracting support, this winner of a maiden hurdle at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting followed up with a victory by a head over my selection of the day Aramon at the Dublin Racing Festival on 3 February. I was there and felt that this one is not top class. To be fair, much vaunted Vision D’honneur was third but I’m not convinced that soft ground at Cheltenham will suit.
Fakir D’oudairies (13/2)
An impressive winner of the Triumph Hurdle Trial on the new course on good to soft ground at Cheltenham on 26 January, again not beating too many good ones (second was 25/1), I thought that this one would be one of my Festival favourites. However, it’s pretty obvious that this 4-y-o (no 4-y-o has won this race for 20 years) is turning up here because another JP horse (and possibly most backed of the week), Sir Erec, is the favourite for the Triumph. Could run a screamer but I doubt it.
Elixir De Nutz (8/1) – selection
And now on to my selection, the well-campaigned and highly exciting Elixir De Nutz. I’ve followed him throughout the season to date. Beaten on his seasonal outing in a Class 3 over the course by Thomas Darby, he’s not looked back since. Won the Supreme Trial on the old course on 18 November, followed up (on the old course) on 14 December and won a good Tolworth on soft at Sandown on 5 January. Hard as nails and will win.
Grand Sancy (12/1)
A good French horse but beaten by Elixir De Nutz. Subsequently won the Kingwell at Wincanton but I don’t see him reversing the form with my selection, particularly on the ground.
14:10 Arkle Novices’ ChaseEmbed from Getty Images
This is much more open than recent renewals but, again, I have a firm selection.
Glen Forsa (9/2f) – selection
This is exceptional value. Sometimes (quite rarely) you see one horse break another’s heart and that is exactly what I saw when this one beat 1/4f Kalashnikov at the relocated Kingmaker at Sandown on soft on 15 February. Admittedly it was a three horse race and the third made up the numbers but this was a majestic jumping performance for a novice, in a style very reminiscent of Footpad last year. Put simply, he is this year’s Footpad and my bet of the day.
It’s easy to be heart over head with this horse. He won well over this course in the Grade 2 Arkle Trial (Defi Du Seuil was last) on good ground but his run in the Henry VIII at Sandown in December on soft was desperately disappointing. I would want to have seen him redeem that outing in the meantime before I could support him in this one
This one has stormed up the betting since being highlighted in several Cheltenham previews. I think that he’s the best of a moderate Irish bunch and being put up precisely for that reason. I watched him being comprehensively beaten by La Bague Au Roi in Dublin on 3 February and I just don’t get the hype.
14:50 Ultima Handicap SteeplechaseEmbed from Getty Images
Unlike the first two, I don’t have a strong view about this race. Current favourite Give Me A Copper (11/2) for Paul Nicholls was well beaten last time out on soft ground at Sandown. Minella Rocco (8/1) will never be a selection for me. Mister Whitaker (also 8/1) won the Close Bros Novices last year and I think that is the only reason why he is towards the head of the betting. I’m going to rely on what I’ve heard in the preview nights (and from Barry Orr today) and have an each way on Lake View Lad at an appealing 20/1. Other each way options are Beware The Bear (20/1) and Royal Vacation (soft ground stayer – 25/1).
15:30 Champion HurdleEmbed from Getty Images
This is the best Champion Hurdle for years and is between the first three, with one notable outsider.
Apple’s Jade (2/1f) – selection
Ignore her run in the Mares’ Hurdle last year – she was in season and obviously didn’t run to form. She will not be in season this year (I have no idea how or why that is the case but that’s what I’ve heard!) and her form, that run aside, is impeccable.
Buveur D’air (9/4)
Looking for a third consecutive Champion Hurdle, whether you like him or not, I agree with Matt Chapman that the last two were by no means classics. He only beat Melon by a neck last year and the defeat at the hands of Paloma Blue in the Christmas Hurdle in December was significant. This one is often mentioned in the same breath as the other Henderson star Altior but the Champion Chaser is a significantly better horse.
Unbeaten since transferring from Guillaume Macaire to Willie Mullins in November 2017 and with (mares only) winning form on soft and heavy, she could be a very good horse. However, I’m inclined to attach an awful lot of weight to jockey Ruby Walsh’s one line assessment of her, that “she’ll need to improve”.
Espoir D’allen (20/1)
Although I don’t see this one as a winner, the profile is great (unbeaten this season in three Grade 3s including the Limestone Lad last time out) and I could easily see him running into a place in what is currently a 10 runner race.
16:10 Mares’ HurdleEmbed from Getty Images
I see this as a head to head between Benie Des Dieux (5/6) and Lady Buttons (9/1). In the absence of the main challengers (Apple’s Jade and Laurina) this is an easily winnable race. I selected Benie Des Dieux last month and I see no reason to change. She won this last year and the form of Lady Buttons is just not quite good enough. I was a big fan of Stormy Ireland last year but she didn’t live up to expectations. One for a place at 50/1 is Alletrix.
16:50 Close Brothers Novices’ Chase
I have no interest in this race whatsoever, but will mention that in the preview nights there was support for Tower Bridge (8/1) for J P O’Brien.
17:30 National Hunt Amateurs’ Novices’ Chase (the four miler)
Although trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Derek O’Connor, I really don’t like current favourite Ok Corral (3/1). The form is at best dubious, although I realise that could be a plot. I have been reluctantly convinced by several pundits at Cheltenham preview nights that there is perhaps a better plot in the shape of Discorama (7/1) . The difference with this one is that he ran into a good fifth in the Grade 1 Drinmore (beaten by among others Delta Work and Le Richebourg) and has never run over anything like this distance. He also has form on yielding, soft and (to a lesser extent) heavy.
So the leading selections are:
- Supreme – Elixir De Nutz
- Arkle – Glen Forsa
- Champion – Apple’s Jade
- Mares’ – Benie Des Dieux
An accumulator will deliver 221/1 and the Lucky 15 £622 so a £2 accumulator and £15 Lucky 15 delivers a potential maximum of £1067. Good luck!!