Day One - The Irish Angle
Donn McClean provides his expert views on the strong Irish challenge for day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
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Take Christmas Eve, add it to the night before your birthday, roll that up with the night before your granny's annual visit, laden down, as she usually is, with toys that you usually only see on television, and then you are getting close.
This the best night of the year by some way, Cheltenham Eve, when all the pots are overflowing with optimism and all the contenders are still potential winners. You almost don't want it to start because you know that, once it does, it will roll on uncontrollably through to Day Three, Day Four, and suddenly they will be running the Grand Annual and you will be starting the countdown again at 361.
Wicklow Brave could be the value in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Winner of his last five races, three bumpers and two hurdle races, he was most impressive at Punchestown last month in beating Lieutenant Colonel and subsequent Grade 2 winner Real Steel on ground that was probably softer than ideal and off a pace that was probably slower than ideal. He should relish the better ground and the faster pace that he is sure to get in the Festival opener.
He will have to jump a little better than he did that day, but that was only his second run over hurdles, and it is reasonable to expect at least a little improvement. Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride Vautour instead, which makes sense, he was impressive in beating dual Grade 1 winner The Tullow Tank in the Deloitte Hurdle on his most recent run, but it may have been a marginal call, there may not be as much between the two Willie Mullins horses as the betting suggests, and Paul Townend is a good rider.
Champagne Fever is the right favourite for the Arkle. The Champion Bumper winner, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner, and he schooled well at Leopardstown eight days ago, but it is just a little bit of a worry that he missed his two most recent engagements and that he has only run twice over fences to date.
Trifolium may be a more solid option at a bigger price. Third in the 2012 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the Gigginstown House horse jumped superbly when he won the Irish Arkle at the end of January, and it is easy to see him tracking the pace early and travelling well down the hill. Also, he could be even better on the better ground that he will have than the heavy ground on which he raced that day.
There is not much left to say about the Champion Hurdle. Hurricane Fly is a monster, he has the best form in the race, he is the highest-rated horse by some way, he is the reigning champion and he should be clear favourite for the race. He sets the standard that the others must strive to reach. He is 10, and no 10-year-old has won the race since Sea Pigeon, but he is an extraordinary 10-year-old, just as Sea Pigeon was an extraordinary 10-year-old.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Our Conor is probably the most exciting horse in the race. Just one five-year-old has won the Champion Hurdle since See You Then won it as a five-year-old in 1985, but Our Conor was an exceptional juvenile last year, a record-breaking Triumph Hurdle winner.
Barry Connell's horse has been coming along steadily this season. He hasn't won yet this term, but his run in the Irish Champion Hurdle was a big step up on his seasonal debut in the Ryanair Hurdle. A similar step forward would bring him very close.
He appears to be improving through the season just like Hardy Eustace - trained, like Our Conor, by Dessie Hughes - improved through the season in 2004 and 2005, following the Hardy Eustace template. Interestingly, in the season leading up to his first Champion Hurdle, Hardy Eustace was beaten four times out of five. In the season leading up to his second, he was beaten three times out of four. You can't win a Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in January.
Then there is Quevega, on for six from six, and you couldn't begrudge it to her, nor bet against her.
The creatures will soon be stirring.
Tuesday Selections (best value bets among the Irish):
1.30 - Wicklow Brave
2.05 - Trifolium
2.40 - Wrong Turn
3.20 - Our Conor
4.00 - Quevega
4.40 - Foxrock
5.15 - Art Of Logistics
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.