The Sky Bet traders' view
Sky Bet have announced an offer that could see punters get stakes refunded on the first race of every day of the Cheltenham Festival.
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All bets placed from 7.30pm on Wednesday March 5, stakes of up to £25 on win singles (or the win part of each-way singles) will be returned on the first race at every day of the meeting if the favourite wins.
We spoke to four traders from Sky Bet's racing desk to find out their views on the four races involved in the offer and to get a steer as to how they expect the betting market to shape up for that particular race.
Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle - Joe Cundall:
The shape of the race has only really begun to form in the last month, with key trials in both England and Ireland throwing up vital clues for the showpiece opening event. Unlike previous years there is no 'banker' to kickstart the festival for punters, but the quality of the field still seemingly remains very high.
At the head of the market at the moment is Irving at 5/2. A very worthy favourite; he trounced some notable rivals in the Sky Bet Dovecote Hurdle at Kempton, showing a devastating turn of foot to clear himself away from some promising types.
The niggling doubt is whether he jumps well enough, and if he will stay a furiously-run two miles and a furlong at Cheltenham. I'd imagine that he will go off as favourite due to the drying ground but I suspect a flatter track with a more forgiving straight may suit this speed horse more than Cheltenham will.
Vautour (3/1) is next in the betting and showed a really likeable attitude to win the Deloitte Novices Hurdle at Leopardstown at the beginning of February. He jumped much better than his previous win at Punchestown and looked a real staying type. "He never looked like getting caught when front running and maintaining his lead from the highly-regarded The Tullow Tank. The drying ground is a huge concern as he looked a real galloping type that may need every yard of the Supreme trip. The Irish are sure to get behind him and with Ruby Walsh on board, it could be a case of déjà-vu from last year's race if he makes plenty of use of him and tries to expose any stamina doubts of his main principals.
Wicklow Brave (13/2) comes into this off the back of only two runs over hurdles. His inexperience just might find him out considering the hustle and bustle of the Supreme. He really could be anything, but his jumping was a little suspect when beating Lieutenant Colonel at Punchestown.
The form of the race has worked out very well though and the horse he beat is very well fancied to run a big race in the Neptune but his jumping would have to improve if he were to be anywhere near good enough to win a Supreme.
Of the double figure priced horses, there are two that I like. Vaniteux at 10/1 was very visually impressive at Doncaster on his most recent start. He had really concerned me with his jumping at Kempton, but those problems looked to have been addressed at Doncaster when he jumped remarkably well. He is reported to be working extremely well and if Barry Geraghty were to ride him, I could see his price going off at nearer the 7/1 mark on the day.
The other one that I can see out-running his odds is Sgt Reckless (33/1) of Mick Channon's. He was well fancied for the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival but didn't run especially well. Since reverting to hurdles he has acquitted himself very well, boasting some top-notch form in the early part of the season. He comfortably beat the highly regarded West Wizard trained by Nicky Henderson by five lengths, before been beaten only three lengths by Amore Alto at Kempton in a race that has worked out quite well, yet had a very muddling pace.
He had a recent spin in a jumpers' bumper at Kempton and won it in fine style. That should put him spot on and I can see him staying on into a place come Tuesday afternoon.
Neptune Novices' Hurdle - Stuart Jones:
The Willie Mullins-trained Faugheen (currently 11/4) is a popular idea of the banker of the meeting and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him go off a similar sort of price to that which stablemate Pont Alexandre did in last year's renewal at around the 6/4 mark.
Having created a huge impression when successful in all four of his starts under Rules, Faugheen's chance is an obvious one, and whilst his hurdles wins so far have been more about style than substance, he undoubtedly has the potential to go to the very top.
Red Sherlock (9/2) and Royal Boy (7/1) head the British challenge and the former is another that boasts an unbeaten record to date, with his defeat of Rathvinden (9/1) at the track in January looking solid enough form.
Royal Boy improved to land an ordinary renewal of the Tolworth last time out, but he probably lacks the potential of the market leaders, whilst similar comments apply to the aforementioned Rathvinden, for all that he was giving Red Sherlock 3lb when the pair met last time. To me, the likely bigger field and stronger pace look sure to enhance the chances of Red Sherlock confirming that form even at level weights.
There is still value to be had in Faugheen at the current prices, especially with the non-runner, no-bet offer, and I expect him to justify shorter odds on the day as he lands the first of what could be many Grade One successes.
JLT Novices' Chase - Ian Stables:
On paper the JLT looks a competitive renewal with plenty of decent animals suited more to the intermediate distance in a race that has been upgraded to Grade One status for the first time this year.
Most of the main protagonists have done nothing wrong in the run-up to this, but with the Irish having such a strong record in the race already (3-0), I believe that with the drying ground likely to suit, Felix Yonger will go off favourite on the day.
He had already comfortably beaten the Arkle second-favourite Trifolium earlier in the season on his preferred going and another high-class horse in Defy Logic the time before that.
The leaders may have gone off too fast in both of those events, but you can't argue that the form is standing up well. He probably bottomed himself out in deep ground on his last two runs, but has now been given a nice break and with previous Festival form (he was second in Simonsig's Neptune) everything points towards a big run on the day.
Wonderful Charm looks his main rival after a half-length defeat to Oscar Whisky last time receiving 8lb. That race probably played to Oscar Whisky's strengths and being the more natural jumper and the likelihood of this being a different type of test should enable Wonderful Charm to comfortably turn the tables. This has been a long-term plan - the question for me is whether he has the required class beat a horse of Felix Yonger's calibre.
Of the remainder, Taquin Du Seuil couldn't beat Oscar Whisky when the ground was in his favour in the Dipper, so I'm unable to see a reason why he should turn the tables now.
Vukovar looks a high-class horse having blown up on his first start since coming over from France, looking in need of the run behind Mr Mole before destroying his rivals at Newbury. My concern with him is that being a five-year-old he will only get a 1lb age allowance at the Festival and, furthermore, being a heavy-topped horse I suspect he may require much softer ground.
He may lack the experience this year for a race of this calibre but could be one to follow as a six-year-old for his up-and-coming trainer.
JCB Triumph Hurdle - Ken Dickson:
A typically-competitive renewal of the Triumph. Calipto, a French import trained by Paul Nicholls, currently heads the market at 5/1.
He has been impressive in his two wins at Newbury this season and the form has been franked by Activial (currently 9/1) who won the Grade Two Adonis next time out.
He will face different demands at the Festival but Nicholls knows what is required to win the race, having taken two out of the last six runnings with Celestial Helo and Zarkandar. He expects Calipto to improve for the likely better ground and fast pace, so he has an obvious favourite's chance.
There are clearly no track concerns for the Nick Williams-trained La Rocher (6/1) who posted arguably the best single piece of juvenile form this season when thrashing Kentucky Hyden on Trials Day at Cheltenham.
That performance came on heavy ground and he'll have to prove he can handle the likely drier conditions at the Festival, but he does have one piece of form on better ground in France and to me looks the one everything else has to beat.
This race produced one of the most visually impressive winners of last year's festival in Our Conor, and Dessie Hughes has another live contender in Guitar Pete (10/1) this time around.
He was readily put in his place by Royal Irish Hussar (14/1) over course and distance in November but has improved since, winning twice in Ireland, and goes there with each-way claims. The latter will likely need better ground to take a hand and add to leading trainer Nicky Henderson's five winners of the race.
Others worth a mention are decent recruit Pearl Castle (14/1) for John Quinn, who won the race with a similar type in Countrywide Flame two years ago, and Tiger Roll (12/1) who would have got closer to Guitar Pete but for fluffing the last at Leopardstown and both line up with decent each-way chances.