Ed Chamberlin: Vautour to shine
Our star columnist Ed Chamberlin previews the first two days of next week's Cheltenham Festival.
- Related Content
So here we go. Four brilliant days of sport begins with the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle. It's great fun and hugely exciting to be involved with the sponsors and it's the perfect start to the Festival with England and Ireland, Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins going to head to head. This could set the tone for the week.
Round a flat track like Kempton Irving would be very hard to beat as he looks like an absolute speed ball. However, at Cheltenham I'd far rather go with a galloper like Vautour, who looked special when beating The Tullow Tank in the Deloitte in February. His slick jumping is a major asset too.
Tuesday is THE day to be at the Festival and the action will be fast and furious as we rapidly move on to the Arkle. It's not a vintage renewal by any means but it's always a thrilling contest. I backed Grandouet for this in September but have all but given up on him. Champagne Fever would be a disaster for me as he's in Dale Tempest's ten-to-follow list and could win him the Sky Sports competition, though it does sound like the previous Bumper and Supreme winner has had a troubled preparation and his schooling looked a bit 'careful' at the weekend.
Champagne Fever's price doesn't reflect his form over fences, more his Cheltenham Festival record - mind you that is a massive factor. Trifolium is the one that looks bomb proof and sure to be in the mix. Rock On Ruby hasn't looked the same horse since Hurricane Fly broke his heart in last season's Champion Hurdle, while Valdez does not look good enough. Dodging Bullets could be the pick of the home team.
The Festival Handicap Chase follows and my plan is to be disciplined and give all the handicap chases a wide berth this year. My recent record in these races is woeful. They are virtually impossible puzzles to solve and luck plays such a big part in these big fields over fences at Cheltenham. I fully intend to leave the handicap chases alone, though I'm guaranteed to get carried away on the day.
Next up is the big one. The best Stan James Champion Hurdle I can remember. Undoubtedly the race of the season. I've been going round in circles trying to find the winner and defy anyone to be supremely confident of having found the 2014 Champion Hurdler. No result would be a surprise.
Earlier in the season I was determined to oppose Hurricane Fly as he's not at his best round Cheltenham, age is against him, and this is by far the toughest renewal he's faced. However, he looked better than ever in the Irish Champion Hurdle and will be very hard to de-throne.
The New One did this column a huge turn last season but his jumping is a worry in this company. One mistake will prove costly against this lot. Our Conor will run a big race but why should he reverse form with Hurricane Fly, who was going away from him at Leopardstown?
The one I didn't fancy one bit was My Tent Or Yours, who I had down as a flat track bully. However, having shared a bottle of red wine - which he didn't touch - with the champion jockey last week I have changed my mind. His enthusiasm was infectious. If McCoy can get My Tent to settle off a fast pace, probably set by Jezki, he could do them all for speed in the straight. However, the minor setback that My Tent Or Yours suffered this week is a real shame and bad timing. The fine margins in a race of this quality mean it cannot do his chance any good.
I tried, and failed, to wind up AP that he'd chosen the wrong horse as Jezki has been my long-term fancy for the race. I'm hoping he gets a positive ride from the front as nothing has gone right for him in the two defeats against the Fly. Stamina could be Jezki's trump card against the field, though in reality he's likely to set the race up for one of the big guns. The truth is that it's such a good race your selection could run a screamer and finish fourth.
After the Champion Hurdle it will be time to re-group, have a drink with the Sky Bet team and cheer Quevega home to a piece if history.
The day rounds off with another race for novices in the National Hunt Chase. The Irish won't hear of defeat for Foxrock, while I'd love to see my local trainer Emma Lavelle strike with Shotgun Paddy.
However, Shutthefrontdoor is the horse to back here if this is his chosen destination. I put him up as a horse to follow at the start of the season and was a bit concerned after his disappointing run at Cheltenham in December. He's had a breathing operation since then and stable confidence is high in a race that Jonjo O'Neill specialises in.
"I put him up as a horse to follow at the start of the season and was a bit concerned after his disappointing run at Cheltenham in December. He's had a breathing operation since then and stable confidence is high"
Will the hype horse deliver? Faugheen has been described as an aeroplane and a banker by so many judges I respect that it's hard not to get caught up in it all. The key sign for me was after Red Sherlock beat his stablemate Rathvinden at Cheltenham, it only seemed to increase their confidence in Faugheen.
He's been described as fragile and there must be a worry about him coming down the hill plus he'll need to jump better than he did round Limerick at Christmas. I hope plenty of people oppose him as I think Faugheen will win. This is a horse with a serious engine.
The RSA doesn't look that strong again this year and seems to be going a bit out of fashion. Just like last year, the Irish look ahead of the home brigade but I have no idea which is their best.
The Coral Cup is one if my favourite races at the Festival and brings back happy memories of touches landed by Xenophon, Idole First and Son Of Flicka. I hit the bar last year with Fiveforthree. This year I like Un Temps Pour Tout for the David Pipe team. This horse thumped Cole Harden, who is a horse I really like, at Ascot last time and looks to be progressing at a rate of knots. Bare in mind he once beat stablemate Dell 'Arca, giving him weight, in France.
I was fascinated discussing the race with McCoy, who said it is one of the hardest races to ride in all year. He explained how when you're buried amongst the 28 runners you often have to use the wings of the hurdles to judge when to jump. Terrifying.
The Champion Chase is without its headline act: Sprinter Sacre, which is a great shame for the sport. I feel for Nicky Henderson who has had to endure wretched luck this season but he still has many top bullets to fire at the Festival. I feel more sympathy for the Tizzards, who had one major shot to fire with Cue Card and his absence leaves them with little else. A devastating blow for them as well as the meeting. Cue Card would have added so much to the Gold Cup.
The upside to Sprinter Sacre's absence is that it's now a far more interesting betting heat and opens the door to a potentially brilliant story. I have huge admiration for the Mullins, Nicholls and Henderson winning machines but wouldn't it be wonderful to see the Moore family celebrating victory in the hallowed winner's enclosure with Sire De Grugy? It would be 'different' and healthy for the sport.
Whether he's good enough round Cheltenham I'm not sure and a horse to fear is Baily Green for Mouse Morris. Morris is a maestro at the Cheltenham Festival and went so close with Baily Green, First Lieutenant and Rule The World last year. Baily Green looks primed to run a big race in either the Queen Mother or Ryanair.
"A horse to fear is Baily Green for Mouse Morris. Morris a maestro at the Cheltenham Festival and went so close with Baily Green, First Lieutenant and Rule The World last year. Baily Green looks primed to run a big race"
The Fred Winter is something of a lottery but Goodwood Mirage is worth a small bet each-way. He's run with the choke out on all three starts and we are yet to see his full potential over hurdles. He was useful on the level, the Bamfords spent a fortune on him and earlier in the season Goodwood Mirage was set to be Jonjo O'Neill's Triumph hurdle horse.
That plan was scrapped after he bombed in the trial at Cheltenham in January but he really caught the eye last month behind Activial at Kempton when he again pulled hard and jumped to his left. The ferocious gallop they go the Fred Winter should allow Goodwood Mirage to settle and we could see his true colours for the first time. This is a really talented horse.
Wednesday will see an early exit from the racecourse before the Bumper to watch Barcelona v Manchester City.