THE wait is finally over. The snow has disappeared and the horse boxes are starting to roll into town from all over the UK and Ireland.
On Tuesday at 1.30pm the famous Cheltenham roar will go up as the novice hurdlers jump off in the Supreme. The Festival promises to be absolutely thrilling as always and hopefully I can help to guide you through the madness with a race by race guide for all four days of the festival. Who are the equine superstars likely to be? When is a good thing not a good thing? And most importantly, who should we be backing each day? First up is Day One where the highlight is the Champion Hurdle but the supporting card is just as exciting. The important thing to note is that at the time of writing the ground is officially described as soft rather than the usual good or good to soft ground that you would expect for the Festival. That's worth bearing in mind when we're looking at the horses that would typically enjoy good spring ground. In previous years I wouldn't put too much weight on form that horses have during the winter on deep ground but we may not to give that a little more consideration than usual.
Day 1: Tuesday 13 March
1.30pm – Supreme Novices Hurdle (2 miles, hurdles, novices only)
The ante-post favourite for the race is Getabird for the familiar combination of owners Rich and Susannah Ricci, trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Ruby Walsh. That triumvirate won the race three times in a row from 2013 to 2015 inclusive but Altior for Nicky Henderson won in 2016 and last year Labaik for Gordon Elliot sprung a huge shock at 25/1. Getabird has looked very good in his two hurdles races in Ireland so far but I don't think he justifies short priced favouritism. The second favourite is KALASHNIKOV who was absolutely stunning in the Betfair Hurdle last month at Newbury. That race is the most valuable handicap hurdle in the UK, including all of the Cheltenham Festival handicaps and he didn't win it with a particularly low weight. He beat rivals of all ages and did so despite appearing to be slightly outpaced at points and being a bit inexperienced. The form is rock solid and if anything I think the horse will improve again. If he was trained by Nicky Henderson or Willie Mullins he would be a much shorter price for this. Summerville Boy beat Kalashnikov two starts ago but I think you can put a line through that race as far as Kalashnikov is concerned and Summerville Boy hasn't been too impressive in two runs he has had at Cheltenham this season so that would put me off him. First Flow has done nothing wrong and the soft ground will be in his favour whilst Slate House could make his odds look daft if he bounces back to his early season form at Cheltenham. The selection for me though is definitely KALASHNIKOV who I am hoping can get the week off to an absolute flyer.
2.10pm – Arkle Novices Chase (2 miles, fences, novice chasers only)
There is a terrific race in store here despite a smaller field than some of the other races. The favourite is FOOTPAD who was a good quality hurdler (4th in the Champion Hurdle last year as a 5 year old) but jumping fences really seems to have brought out the best in him and he is worthy favourite. His jumping style is really impressive and I'm looking forward to watching him on Tuesday. Petit Mouchoir is second favourite and was second to Footpad in the Irish Arkle last month. He was slightly better than Footpad over hurdles last season (3rd in the Champion Hurdle and beat him by a length at Leopardstown before that) but the quality and style of Footpad's jumping over fences seems to have given him the edge. The best of the British challenge to these two Irish-trained horses comes from Saint Calvados. A couple of weeks back you could get 11/2 and bigger about him but he has been backed in and the best price available now seems to be 3/1. He has looked really good over fences winning three races from three and I would have been tempted to take a chance on him at 11/2 but I am concerned that he doesn't have the underlying class that Footpad has so at the current prices I am siding with the favourite.
2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (3 miles 1 furlong, fences)
I had my eye on Snow Falcon for this race but he hasn't been declared so presumably goes for one of the other races he is entered for later in the week. Gold Present is a really obvious one near the top of the market along with Coo Star Sivola. Gold Present beat Frodon back in December and hasn't been seen since and if there was likely to be good to soft ground on Tuesday I think he would be my clear pick. It looks like it could be on the heavier side of soft though and with top weight over this distance I think he will struggle. All of his good form has been on good to soft or good ground. Coo Star Sivola by contrast looks to have a strong chance on the likely soft ground but his price is just a touch short for me now. The one that I like is the Venetia Williams trained YALA ENKI who absolutely bolted up at Haydock last time out in the mud. He will definitely stay this trip, will love the soft ground and is a bigger price than horses like O O Seven and Singlefarmpayment who aren't certain to stay or to like the ground. I can see Yala Enki out running his current odds and finishing better than anything else up the hill.
3.30pm – Champion Hurdle (2 miles, hurdles)
Last year's winner Buveur D'Air returns to defend his crown and is a very short price across the board to do just that. His form is rock solid although he hasn't had to come off the bridle this season so it will be interesting to see how he reacts if he is actually tested here. Another champion is back in the shape of Faugheen who won the race in 2015 but has been plagued by injury since then. He made a return in November with a fabulous victory at Leopardstown but was then very poor over Christmas (pulled up) and less than impressive in January when second to Supasundae. He really didn't look like the force of old and it would surely be one of the all-time great training performances if Willie Mullins could get him back to his best which I think he would need to be to win this. He will have plenty of nostalgic supporters at the current price but I don't think I'll be one of them. My Tent or Yours has been second in this race three times and although he is now 11 years old I wouldn't bet him against getting a place again. Barring a mishap he won't finish ahead of Buveur D'Air though so I am struggling to recommend a bet. The really interesting runner is Yorkhill who Ruby Walsh regarded as the best horse in training not too long ago but who has had a stinker of season this year running over fences. His return to hurdles is very much an afterthought and it is unlikely that Walsh will choose to ride Yorkhill rather than Faugheen but even so if he bounces back to the form of his win in the Neptune Novices Hurdle (now the Baltimore) two year ago he would have a strong chance here. I have to admit that I absolutely love the horse and have backed him almost every time he has run on a racecourse so I am definitely biased. He is likely to either go very close or to flop completely and he might be worth a small investment just in case the return to hurdles is just what he needs. Of the other runners Wicklow Brave is good quality but maybe just a bit below what is required and Elgin has developed into a really top class handicapper this year, so much so that he has been supplemented by his owners to get an entry in the race. That is noteworthy but I think he is just a little bit below what is required to make the frame here. I would be interested in him at a price of 25/1 or 33/1 but the current best price is 16/1 which is too short. In summary then I'm not sure I can advise a bet in this one. I am likely to have a small sentimental bet on Yorkhill but it will be very much in hope rather than expectation. Perhaps like me if you like doing a few short priced selections in an accumulator for a bit of interest you can put Buveur D'Air in with Footpad and Apples Jade.
4.10pm – Mares Hurdle (2 miles, hurdles, female horses only)
I'll keep this short and simple: Apples Jade is miles better than the rest here and wins this barring an Annie Power style disaster. I'm not going to recommend a bet at the current prices (8/13) but don't be afraid to get involved if the price drifts a bit closer to even money on Tuesday morning as bookies look for your business. We'll also throw her into our accumulator for a bit of craic.
4.50pm – National Hunt Chase (4 miles, fences, novice chasers)
This one really is interesting as a whole bunch of novice chasers try to outstay each other over a marathon 4 mile trip. Add into that mix the fact that all of the jockeys are amateurs and it becomes even more intriguing. Jury Duty is very tempting with Jamie Codd booked for the ride. Codd is the best amateur jockey in Britain and Ireland as far as I'm concerned and regular readers will remember that I tipped up Jury Duty for the Pertemps Final last year where he ran well in third place. My concern though is that this often takes a real dour stayer to win and I'm not sure that is Jury Duty's game. I think he is a classy horse who will end up as a solid 3 mile or maybe even 2.5 mile handicapper in time and I don't think he will be suited to this stamina test. I might have been willing to take a chance on his stamina at a nice each way price but he has been backed into favouritism and I'm not tempted. The horse I fancy to win it is actually Jury Duty's stablemate FAGAN who is also trained by Gordon Elliott and will be ridden by Barry O'Neill who my Irish sources assure me is an extremely capable and talented amateur jockey so we have nothing to worry about on that front. Fagan looks the type to me that will thoroughly enjoy this sort of stamina test and it was noticeable that Gordon Elliott ran him a couple of times in the autumn and then decided to put him away for the rest of the season with this race in mind. His owner Ronnie Bartlett (of potato fame) loves a Cheltenham winner and this race will have been the plan right from the start.
5.30pm – Close Brothers Novices Chase (2 miles 4 furlongs, fences, novice chasers only)
A really tough handicap to decipher given the number of novice chasers with potential that we have seen this season. I have managed to whittle it down to three or four that I fancy. As it happens I think the market has it right because the horses I like are near the top of the market. De Plotting Shed, as the name suggests, looks like a Gordon Elliott plot for the race. He is rated 150 over hurdles and was decent quality but has managed to get in here off a rating of 143. I suspect he is a good bit better than that and will go very close. Barney Dwan was an excellent second last year in the Pertemps Final over hurdles and despite winning two races this year he gets into this race on a handicap mark that is lower than the mark he had for the Pertemps last year. Don't ask me how Fergal O'Brien has managed it but he looks like one who will give a very good account of himself. Until final declarations I had been torn between BARNEY DWAN and Movewiththetimes but the latter has not been declared so that makes my choice a whole lot easier.
- 1.30 – Kalashnikov – 4 points win at 5-1 with Betbright
- 2.10 – Footpad – 5 points win at 5-4 with Betbright
- 2.50 – Yala Enki – 1 point e/w at 16-1 with Betbright
- 3.30 – No bet (Buveur D'Air for the accumulator)
- 4.10 – No bet (Apples Jade for the accumulator)
- 4.50 – Fagan – 2 points e/w at 10-1 with Betbright
- 5.30 – Barney Dwan – 3 points e/w at 8-1 with Betbright
- Day One Accumulator – 3 point win treble on Footpad, Buveur D'Air and Apples Jade (pays just over 9-2)