Sky Sports Racing's Alex Hammond looks ahead to the 2023 Cheltenham Festival and nominates the horses she'll be keeping an eye on.
Last week I was telling you about some self-inflicted cold in my world. Well, this week winter has reared its ugly head once again, and from one of the driest seasons I can remember, we’ve had rain, sleet and snow.
At the time of writing Cheltenham’s ground is described as soft, something we could only dream of a month ago. It’s not a bad place to be just a few days away from the premier jump racing fixture of the season. The type of ground we should expect for the start of the meeting is becoming clearer, as are running plans, so let’s try and find some winners.
I’ll be there on Tuesday, with bells on, as the Closutton Racing Club mare, Shewearsitwell takes up her engagement in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. This is such a fun club to be involved with, and one that materialised thanks to the St. Patrick’s Day Derby ten years ago. For those of you that aren’t aware of what was the most important race of festivals of old (my views, not those widely held), the St. Patrick’s Derby was a charity race run at the end of the card on Thursday for many years and is responsible for raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for cancer charities.
I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in the 2013 renewal, which meant dusting off my boots for an intense period riding out, crow=barred in between my early starts on Sky Sports News. Fellow Sporting Life columnist Richard Fahey was kind enough to provide me with the horse, a kind chestnut called Mica Mika, and off we went.
Needless to say, rustiness was an issue (for me, not him), and I gave him the sort of ride that ordinarily may have caught the eyes of the stewards (waited with, stayed on well, too much to do – you get the picture). However, on that day friendships were formed, and lifelong associations made.
One of my fellow competitors was James Fenton, a member of An Garda Siochana (the Irish police) a man with a huge passion for racing and breeding. Having survived his own cancer diagnosis he spends a large portion of his time studying pedigrees, and has been instrumental in setting up a number of successful syndicates. So much so, they have accumulated 47 winners to date, all trained by the maestro Willie Mullins. When James asked if I’d like to be involved, I jumped at the chance.
One of my greatest ambitions in racing is to have a runner at the Cheltenham festival, and as syndicates are proving, it makes the dream possible for so many people. So, here we are, with an outside chance of making it into the hallowed winners enclosure. She’s a 14/1 shot with Sky Bet, and if we can make it into the top four it would be a dream come true.
Away from the main event there’s some pretty tasty action!
The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is one of my favourite races thanks to its competitive nature and that wonderful Cheltenham roar. I’ll take my roar as it comes though, as opposed to the remixed dance version that has been released (I’m an indie chick through and through, but I like the sentiment). I made myself listen to the whole 3 minutes and 5 seconds and it hasn’t converted me to that genre of music I’m afraid.
Despite listening to the most enthusiastic trainer I’ve ever spoken to in Barry Connell on Sky Sports Racing last week, I’m firmly in the Facile Vega camp. Connell feels Marine Nationale is practically unbeatable and I was swayed having listened to his reasoning, but I’m hoping Facile Vega bounces back from his disappointing run at the Dublin Racing Festival to get Willie Mullins off to the perfect start. He's 7/4 favourite with Sky Bet, Marine Nationale is next best at 7/2.
The Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase is race two, and I’m with Willie again here and El Fabiolo. I interviewed Patrick Mullins on Get In last week, and his eyes lit up at the mention of this lad. Jonbon’s Warwick performance dampened enthusiasm and whilst he’s 6/4 joint favourite with my selection, he has it to prove after that run.
The Ultima Handicap Chase is next up and I’m not saying I’ve been swayed by trainer talk, but another of our guests on Get In was Lucinda Russell, and she is very hopeful about the chance of Corach Rambler who has all the ingredients to win this again. Previous festival form is a useful guide if you have that to call upon, which we do here. He’s 6lbs higher in the handicap this time round, but that doesn’t look harsh after his decent fourth in the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury last time out. He’s 6/1 at the time of writing.
Then it’s the Unibet Champion Hurdle and whilst Constitution Hill isn’t appealing as a betting prospect at 1/3, I’d like to see him win and do something special. If Sharjah takes up his engagement in the race I’ll be on him each way at a whopping 40/1. He’s been runner-up in this race twice and it’s worth a punt at the price if he lines up again (he’s also in the Stayers' and the County Hurdle).
The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle is incredibly hot with Honeysuckle making her swansong in the race and another former Champion Hurdle winner, Epatante, also in the field. Brandy Love looks progressive for Willie Mullins and the rain and snow that’s fallen will be music to the ears of Love Envoi’s trainer Harry Fry. And then there’s the small matter of Shewearsitwell!
The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle betting is dominated by horses that will be short enough thanks to their connections. Bad is an unknown quantity but his French form isn’t anything to shout about and despite his Bordeaux win looking impressive, he didn’t beat anything sensational there. It remains to be seen if Ben Pauling can get more out of him on his UK debut in a race as hot as this. It might be worth taking a chance on Perseus Way, who was runner-up to smart juvenile Nusret at Kempton in the Adonis last time out. Perseus Way didn’t get much luck there either and his rating looks about right. He’s 9/1 with Sky Bet.
Onto Wednesday, and the opening Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. I’m with Good Land for Barry Connell, who may well be celebrating a Tuesday win with Marine Nationale. Good Land is a 5/1 shot and that looks fair as he takes on a Mullins battalion, and Hermes Allen for Paul Nicholls amongst others.
The Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase is next up and I’m sticking with The Real Whacker for Yorkshire based trainer Patrick Neville, despite strong support for Gerri Colombe, who is 13/8 favourite. The Real Whacker is 9/2 with Sky Bet and that looks very enticing given that he is unbeaten since going over fences. His trainer is considering a tilt at the Gold Cup, which looks beyond him this year, but that tells you the esteem they hold this horse in.
Race 3 is the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle where Noel Meade’s Beacon Edge is on my shortlist. At 12/1 he offers each way value, and it’s worth noting he has run well in a Stayers’ Hurdle at the festival in the past. He’s been running well since reverting from fences and seems happier back over the smaller obstacles.
I’m sticking with Edwardstone in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. Alan King is happy with last year’s Arkle winner and despite his lack of magnetism with racing fans, I love him, and hope he can make it a festival double. He’s 7/4 joint favourite with last year’s Champion Chaser Energumene.
If Delta Work is in the same form that saw him spoil Tiger Roll’s farewell party last year, he’ll be hard to beat in the Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country race) once again, and his price reflects that (even money favourite).
The Weatherbys Champion Bumper is often Willie Mullins’ for the taking, but I’m going to take him on as he bids for a thirteenth win in the race. I’m not sticking my neck out here, but I’d love to see veteran trainer John Kiely win with the JP McManus owned A Dream To Share. I was lucky enough to meet John a few years ago, got a tour of his yard and gallops, and share breakfast with him and some friends, and it would be magical to see this horse win a festival race for him. He’s 3/1 favourite to do so.
One of my main selections of the week goes in the opening race on Thursday. Mighty Potter is one of the most exciting novice chasers in Ireland and he’s 11/8 favourite to win the Turners Novices’ Chase for Gordon Elliott. Two of his three chase wins have come in Grade 1 company and he won’t mind the ground.
I was seriously impressed with Thanksforthehelp at Chepstow last time out and he’s 5/1 for the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle for David Pipe and JP McManus. He’ll sneak in at the bottom of the weights thanks to that Chepstow win and a reproduction would see another big run.
It’s Shishkin all the way for me in the Ryanair Chase after his dominant display in the Ascot Chase. He thrived for the step up in trip and travelled supremely well going that half a stride slower. His 4/6 price is fair enough, but not overly attractive as a stand-alone bet. Maybe the 8/1 on offer with Sky Bet for Shishkin and Constitution Hill both to win any race by 8 lengths or more each is more appealing.
I was a fan of Blazing Khal for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, but we’ve been told by trainer Charles Byrnes that he could miss the festival having suffered a cut when winning the Boyne Hurdle on his return last month. Having seen a photo of the injury, it looks nasty, so let’s hope he makes it. He’s currently 100/30 joint favourite, but it might be worth waiting to see if he’s declared (in which case he’ll be shorter than that). It’s a conundrum.
It's understandable that So Scottish is 100/30 favourite to win the Magners Plate Handicap Chase. He needs a few to come out to get a run but with Emmet Mullins at the helm, he'll be cherry ripe for the race if he gets in.
Another of my top picks at the festival is Ashroe Diamond, a 7/2 shot to win the Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. She’s good over a hurdle and has festival winning form thanks to her win in the mares’ bumper at Aintree last spring. I’ll like to have her against hot favourite Luccia.
The JCB Triumph Hurdle kicks off Friday’s action, and once again Willie Mullins seems to hold the key with Blood Destiny, Lossiemouth and Gala Marcea just three of his entries. Of those, I like Lossiemouth who gets a 7lbs fillies’ weight allowance. She’s 7/4 joint favourite with Blood Destiny. At a bigger price, Bo Zenith could be one for each way punters at 20/1 for Gary Moore.
The McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle will see a maximum field of 26 race over the 2 miles 1 furlong of the New Course. I fancied Colonel Mustard for last weekend’s Morebattle Hurdle, and he wasn’t disgraced in second. He was third in this race last season and can run well again off a slightly higher mark.
The Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup is the biggie, and what a race we have in prospect here. There have been question marks over the stamina limitations of favourite Galopin Des Champs, last year’s winner A Plus Tard has strong claims if he can bounce back from his bad run in the Betfair Chase last time and the leading British hope is the Paul Nicholls trained Bravemansgame, who won the King George last time out. Noble Yeats is on my shortlist with the Grand National winner showing he has the class to mix it in this company when third in the Cotswold Chase on his first run since Aintree.
Ahoy Senor and Sounds Russian finished in front of him there and enter calculations. Stattler won the NH Chase last year but isn’t just a plodder; he’ll outstay stablemate Galopin Des Champs if it comes down to a real slog. I’m pinning my colours to the Noble Yeats mast, who is a 7/1 shot with Sky Bet.
The St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase is the Gold Cup for amateurs. It looks devilishly difficult but Chris’s Dream for Henry de Bromhead (8/1) has made my shortlist, as has Cat Tiger for Paul Nicholls (20/1).
I’m sticking with 5/4 favourite Allegorie De Vassey in the Mrs. Paddy Power Mares’ Chase. Willie Mullins has won both runnings of this race and this mare has a great chance of making it three after two commanding wins over fences.
I’ve sharpened my pin for the festival finale, the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. Willie Mullins has the favourite in the shape of Spanish Harlem, who was a winner over hurdles in France before joining the yard. This will be his handicap debut and the bookies are understandably running scared. Galopin Des Champs had a very similar profile when he won this race for Mullins two years ago. I’d be inclined to back Iroko each-way for trainers Oliver Greenall and Josh Guerriero. He’s taken a while to mature but has won both his starts this term and is improving. At 12/1 he makes each way appeal.
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