Joy of six for Quevega
Our Man On The Spot previews all the action on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
- Related Content
1.30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle
The Irish dominated this traditional Festival opener at the start of the century but the home team have fought back in recent years, though Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh won it 12 months ago with Champagne Fever, who goes in the next. The pair team up this year with Vautour and he's unbeaten since arriving at Muine Beag, though was made to fight all the way by Western Boy at Punchestown in January. Mullins also runs the prolific Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido while Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa won a valuable handicap at Leopardstown in January. But the home defence looks strong this year and Irving is likely to make a bold bid to extend his unbeaten record, though will probably have to jump a little better than he did at Kempton last time. It's 22 years since Nicky Henderson last had a winner in this but My Tent Or Yours went very close last season and the Lambourn trainer has a strong hand again. Josses Hill will relish the likely fast pace but Barry Geraghty rides VANITEUX, for which little went right at Kempton in December when he finished behind Sgt Reckless. He'd impressed at Sandown earlier and again at Doncaster last time and the drying ground won't be a problem so he gets the vote. Splash Of Ginge won the betfair at Newbury last month but had earlier proved no match for Irving at Ascot when receiving weight.
2.05 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase
Unconvincing wins against minor opposition over the larger obstacles suggest former champion hurdler Rock On Ruby represents little value in this. His jumping has hardly been foot-perfect so far and only two nine-year-olds have won the Arkle Trophy since the Second World War. Winning form at The Festival is always a plus so last year's Supreme Novices' winner Champagne Fever shouldn't be ignored but we can't see any reason why the grey should reverse Leopardstown running with TRIFOLIUM on identical terms. Charles Byrnes' gelding was hugely impressive when ridden more aggressively at the same track next time, reversing form with Defy Logic and earlier Navan running with Felix Younger, who declines a re-match. If he takes to these fences, he'll take all the beating. Valdez probably needs more in this grade and the company looks too hot for Brick Red while Western Warhorse probably needs further and may get outpaced on the drying ground. But Dodging Bullets should confirm Kempton running with the disappointing Grandouet and lost nothing in defeat in the Game Spirit last time.
2.40 Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase
David Pipe has half-a-dozen entered in this at the four-day stage but relies on only The Package and Standing Ovation. The former was pulled up in the race last year behind surprise winner Golden Chieftain, who looks to have been aimed at a repeat but is 14lb higher. Fruity O'Rooney was fifth 12 months ago and second to Alfie Sherrin in 2012 when The Package finished fourth but neither of that trio make much appeal this year as they are all in the veteran stage now. You could probably place TIME FOR RUPERT in that category as well but he's lightly-raced for his age and usually runs well here. Paul Webber's charge was fifth in the Gold Cup two years ago. He's improved with every run this season and could give connections another big victory to celebrate and he's undoubtedly well treated at present. Cantlow looks to have his fair share of weight, by comparison, while Holywell made hard work of winning a novice chase at Doncaster last time and needs to brush up his jumping though he is a recent Festival winner and stays well. He makes more appeal than Restless Harry and Newbury scorer Hadrian's Approach but Tour Des Champs was well backed when third in the Betbright Chase at Kempton last month and could have place claims again. Wrong Turn is on an upward curve but climbing the weights as a consequence and Renard has a poor record at Cheltenham.
3.20 Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy
A third Champion Hurdle and a 20th Grade 1 victory for Hurricane Fly certainly can't be ruled out as the 10-year-old, aiming to become the oldest winner of the race since Sea Pigeon in 1981, has looked as good as ever this season. He found a fine turn of foot to hold off Our Conor in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January when Captain Cee Bee and Jezki were third and fourth but improvement is expected from the latter today in a hood and the runner-up has had this as his aim all season. He was hugely impressive when running away with the Triumph Hurdle here last year but five-year-olds normally have to be something extra special to win this and his time may come in the years ahead. A lack of maturity might also count against Ptit Zig while Grumeti and Melodic Rendezvous were firmly put in their place by My Tent Or Yours in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November. The latter, just beaten in last year's Supreme Novices', has improved again this season and got the better of THE NEW ONE in a terrific tussle for the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton but the latter's trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, is adamant his charge would have won had he not dived at the last and will be better suited by Cheltenham, where he has already won four times. Providing there is a decent gallop and he puts in an error-free round, the six-year-old could just out-last his rivals up the hill.
4.00 OLBG Mares' Hurdle
QUEVEGA, who has won four times at Grade 1 level, can make history by becoming the first horse to win the same race at The Festival on six successive occasions. William Mullins' wonder mare has won for the last four years without a prep run so her absence since winning at Punchestown last April isn't a problem and she has at least 22lb in hand over her rivals according to official ratings. Cockney Sparrow suffered a heavy fall behind Annie Power at Doncaster last time and may need a confidence-booster but the selection's stablemate Glens Melody arrives in terrific form having won back-to-back Listed races at Warwick, though she was well beaten in the Relkeel Hurdle at this track earlier. Cailin Annamh hasn't raced since giving weight and a beating to Little King Robin at Punchestown in October but beat Jennies Jewel at Gowran earlier and could have each-way claims. Highland Retreat is also much improved and her defeat of Carole's Spirit and Mickie at Ascot in January is a strong piece of form. Down Ace has yet to taste defeat under Rules but she may be biting off more than she can chew this time and French raider Sirene D'Ainay's best efforts have come on heavy ground.
4.40 Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase
Plenty of these have already demonstrated their staying ability. Shotgun Paddy's victory in a Grade 3 handicap over 3m5f at Warwick in January is probably the best form but the runner-up disappointed next time and whether Emma Lavelle's charge will reproduce that effort on quicker ground is a concern, though Derek O'Connor is a good jockey booking having ridden Chicago Grey to victory in 2011. Last year's successful trainer/jockey partnership team up with Suntiep but his comparative lack of experience over fences may be a problem and Foxrock could prove the best of the Irish. Ted Walsh's gelding was second in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown in December and has done little wrong since. He has the beating of Rogue Angel on Naas running in January. Jonjo O'Neill has trained the winner of this four times in the last 12 years so knows what it takes and SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR is a lot better than he showed when sent off favourite over 3m2f here in December. Placed over hurdles at last year's Festival, he's one of the few guaranteed to relish the drying ground and Nina Carberry can afford to take her time over this marathon trip. Midnight Prayer comfortably beat Adrenalin Flight in the autumn and won by a distance at Warwick last time so may prove the pick of the remainder.
5.15 Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase
This is normally won by a relatively unexposed type but we are going against the trends this year. OHIO GOLD is having his 10th start over fences but was third in this last year off a 2lb higher mark and he again ran well at the track in January when fourth to the promising Indian Castle and RSA Chase entry Annacotty. Just beaten at Kempton earlier, he looks fairly treated and could go close at big odds. Pendra has yet to prove he stays this far but there are possibilities about easy Kempton scorer Present View and Musselburgh winner Ericht will enjoy the drying ground, though was well behind the selection at Kempton and is 7lb worse off. Buywise will need to improve again to compete a four-timer but Buthelezi has plenty of natural speed and could figure if handling these stiff fences. Art Of Logistics tackles this rather than the Arkle but doesn't look particularly well treated. Dursey Sound and Close House are better handicapped but have been a tad disappointing so far over the larger obstacles. Manyriverstocross was third in last year's County Hurdle and Attaglance is a former Festival winner so they could be the pick of the remainder, though Baby Mix is also interesting.