RACING expert Jack Watson from SportNation gives gives us the lowdown on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

Bookies certainly got one over punters last year with just one favourite winning on the opening day of the Festival, however 2020’s curtain-raiser could be very different.

Asterion Forlonge, Notebook, Epatente and Benie Des Dieux are all well-fancied, short-priced contenders that could get the Festival off to a flying start for punters.

The main race of a day is a Champion Hurdle lacking in quality. No previous winner is entered in Tuesday’s feature race, paving the way for a new star to emerge, but also highlighting the absence of star quality and pointing towards a big-priced winner. There are a limited number of pointers here, but the fact Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins have won eight of the last 11 renewals could steer punters towards these two master trainers.

Henderson’s leading entry Epatante (5/2) has been at the top of the market for some time, but is generally considered the best of a bad bunch, which allows you to make a case for many other entries. He won in his last run at Kempton on Boxing Day in a race that has now been dismissed as relatively weak renewal.

Sharjah (14/1) could suit this trip if the race is run at a good gallop, but the official soft going and rain overnight will likely dampen his hopes. Cilaos Emery (6/1), Willie Mullins’ other top entry, has had a chaotic season and was a late entry here, but offers little to worry the field.

Gordon Elliott’s Coeur Sublime (12/1) is an interesting outside shout after a light campaign and offers some good each-way value, but finishing 12 1/2 lengths behind Sharjah last time out suggests being first past the post is unlikely. So, take your pick from the field, even hurdling veterans Ballyandy (16/1) and Supasundae (9/1) are worth considering.

Elswhere, Henderson’s Asterion Forlonge (5/2) leads the way in a hugely competitive Supreme Novices’ Hurdle to kick-off the Festival. However, while Asterion Forlonge is said to be one of the best novices in this division, the top trainer has had just one winner in this race since 1993. If that puts you off, then Fiddlerontheroof (11/2) may take your fancy. He is constantly progressing and is at his best running on testing ground, which he could have by 1.30 on Tuesday. Shishkin (7/2) and Abacadabras (9/2) are short in the betting, and the latter offers the most interest after finishing second to the highly-rated Envoi Allen in December.

Mullins has been bringing over an army of entries for over 20 years and recently revealed Bennie Des Dieux (4/7) is the best mare he’s ever worked with, who, by all accounts is the banker of the week. Henry De Bromhead’s Honeysuckle (11/4) is her biggest challenger, but the imperious nine-year-old, donning the famous pink and green colours that are so often seen in the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham, will take some beating.

In the Arkle, there’s a fascinating contest between Notebook (3/1), Fakir D’oudairies (4/1) and Brewin’upastorm (6/1). Notebook has been in scintillating form all season and has four wins from his last four starts chasing, taking to fences slightly better than his rival in the JP McManus colours, Fakir D’oudairies. Brewin’upastorm is a popular horse to back and the young trainer Olly Murphy is in a great place to claim his first Festival victory with this talented seven-year-old, who has been lightly campaigned this season with Cheltenham in mind. The winner here is likely to come from the top three in the market, but Rouge Vif (12/1) or Cash Back (13/2) may offer a good alternative or each-way interest.

The Ultima is a very open race, where there is some good value to be had. Cepage (16/1) is an interesting one following his win here in January, but his season appeared to be geared towards running in the two-mile four-furlong Brown Advisory, but connections instead opted for the greater trip and he takes up his entry in this instead. Discorama (15/2) has great form at the Festival, twice finishing second, and has had a wind operation after a tricky campaign over hurdles this season.

Highly-rated Simply The Bets was a brilliant winner on Trials Day and is a strong favourite later in the week, which makes Imperial Aura’s (5/1) second on the day look better, despite technically being a beaten favourite. Beakstown (14/1) is one to watch having performed well in very competitive fields previously, this being his handicap debut, however, is something to consider.

Jamie Codd, the Codfather known to those who have successfully backed his Cheltenham rides, has won this renewal twice in the last five years and is onboard the well-fancied Ravenhill (11/2). His form has been nothing to get carried away by, but a couple of good wins over varying distances and differing conditions stand him in good stead in what will likely be a chaotic race. Lord Du Mesnil offers an alternative with his brilliant stamina, while Sporting Fox and Forza Milan are also in with a shout.

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