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SOME racing analysts, tipsters and particularly bookies are keen to start the countdown to the Cheltenham Festival almost from the moment that they have pulled up in the Grand Annual (or now the Martin Pipe) on Friday afternoon.
There is a lot more to jumps racing than the Cheltenham Festival for me so I don't like to start too early on the build-up but I think we are now safely in the right zone to get excited about it. This coming Monday will mark 50 days to go so it seems appropriate to start to have a right good think about things.
Unfortunately, it now looks certain that there will be no crowds whatsoever at the festival. Even the attendance of horse owners would be doubtful at this stage but perhaps in 7 or 8 weeks the position will have improved and they might consider allowing a limited number of owners to attend.
Believe me, I'm trying to get myself a short term gig as a stable lad for the month of March but for some reason my CV keeps being knocked back. They don't know what they're missing.
Another issue that needs some resolution is the question of Irish horses and whether they will be able to travel over for the festival. Clearly, a Cheltenham Festival without Irish punters is going to be tough never mind without Irish trainers and their horses. Personally, I think it would ruin the week entirely and would really devalue any victories that the British horses would have. Hopefully, it doesn't come to that and any difficulties are resolved.
With that problem in mind, I think it's more important than ever to look for ‘Non-Runner No Bet' concessions from bookmakers if you are keen to have an early bet on the festival.
The talk is that ante-post bets will be refunded if horses are unable to travel but bookmakers aren't contractually obliged to do that so take care. At the time of writing Paddy Power and Betfair have gone NRNB on all races and Betfred have done likewise on the big championship races. I would expect others like Bet365 and SkyBet to follow suit very shortly so keep your eyes peeled.
Cheltenham Early thoughts and selections
I'm not a big one for lots of ante-post Cheltenham bets and this year there is even more reason to be wary.
The best betting races tend to be the handicaps and it's too early to dive into those at the moment before we even know the entries. There are however some interesting options to look at in the four big championship races so let's take a quick tour through each of those for some early thoughts:
Champion Hurdle – Tuesday 16th March
Epatante is now an uneasy favourite after underperforming last time out. If you fancy her then now is probably the time to back her when market confidence is low. As the big day approaches she will probably shorten as people look to back last year's winners again and ante-post favourites in multiples. I didn't like that last run so I'm looking to oppose her this year at the prices.
Silver Streak is the obvious contender, having run well under different tactics last time out to beat Epatante. He deserves to be vying for second-favouritism and arguably should be closer to Epatante in price but you might want to see him do it again before accepting the performance at face value.
The one that I really like is SHARJAH who ran well in 2nd place last year and is a horse I have been an admirer of for a few years. He won well last time out in Ireland and looks sure to be involved at the finish.
In terms of having a bet I think 7-1 NRNB is a bit skinny just now and I think we'll get a bigger price nearer the time, particularly if Buveur D'Air runs well on his intended comeback at Haydock this coming Saturday. I'm therefore going to hold off and try to back Sharjah at a bigger price nearer the time. I'll let you know when I think the time is right.
- Champion Hurdle Ante-Post Tip
- Hold off on bets just now
Champion Chase – Wednesday 17th March
I think this is probably the trickiest of the championship races to decipher at the moment. Chacun Pour Soi is the worthy favourite and really looked the part last time out but he is a very fragile horse who has probably had more hiccups and non-runner declarations than he has had victories, including for this race last year when he was scratched on the morning of the race due to an abscess in one of his feet.
Obviously, you would get your money back if you backed him now NRNB at 5-4 but that price isn't particularly appealing to me.
Of the others, I am really struggling to make a case for anything new. I am drawn like a moth to a flame to ALTIOR who just looks too big a price at 10-1 NRNB but the 11-year-old has only had one run since this time last year which was in December at Kempton and he looked a very tired horse behind Nube Negra that day.
He might have needed that race after 10 months off the track and it's entirely plausible that Nicky Henderson can ‘do a Sprinter Sacre' with him to win this race for the third time after missing last year.
That defeat at Kempton was only his 2nd ever defeat over obstacles, having won all of his other 20 runs over hurdles and fences. I would probably like to see him go for a spin over fences before the festival just to see whether he is fit and well but who knows what Nicky will do.
I have however decided to have a small interest in him at the current double-figure odds with Paddy Power who are NRNB. This takes some of the risks out of the equation because if he isn't fit enough to run there is no way Nicky will run him and we will get our money back.
Best case scenario would be a good run beforehand where he looks more like the old Altior and we would surely have some good value in our pockets with 10-1 ahead of the big one, even more so if Chacun doesn't trap for whatever reason.
I can just imagine the scenes if Altior can do it one more time up the Cheltenham hill.
- Champion Chase Ante-Post Tip
- Small each-way bet on Altior 10/1 NRNB (Paddy Power)
Stayers Hurdle Preview – Thursday 18th March
The Stayers Hurdle looks massively competitive this year with the last two winners likely to line up along with plenty of pretenders to the throne including Thyme Hill who has had a great season so far.
The one that I fancy for the race at the moment is SIRE DU BERLAIS who won the Pertemps last season carrying top weight and thus giving weight to a Grade 1 winner (The Storyteller) in doing so.
That was an impressive performance and a repeat would be enough to at least hit the frame in this race in my opinion. The current price of 9-1 NRNB with Paddy Power and Betfair is very fair and I think I'm going to have some of that in the hope that he is sent off shorter on the day, particularly if his owner JP McManus has a bit of a punt on him.
- Stayers Hurdle Ante-post Tips
- Each way bet on Sire Du Berlais 9/1 NRNB (Paddy Power)
I'll be back over the coming weeks with further racing tips and previews ahead of the Cheltenham Festival. The days leading up to Cheltenham Festival you can expect my race by race guides. In the meantime, you can read my separate Gold Cup preview and sit back and dream of that big each-way multiple coming in.
11:40 Cork - Race: 1
11:55 Punchestown - Race: 1