Well, this time last year I wrote to you about the weather disruption in the run up to the Cheltenham Festival as the ‘Beast from the East’ did its worst.
This time round we’ve almost had the opposite problem with an incredibly dry winter and a mini-heatwave last month.
Hold that thought, the rain has finally arrived and saved the day with the ground expected to be much more fitting for the jumps season and at the time of writing (Thursday) it was described as good to soft, soft in places on all five tracks.
So with normal service resumed, let’s try and find some winners.
SKY BET SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE: Fakir D’Oudairies. I’ve been strong on Joseph O’Brien’s juvenile for a while, as a French import he has plenty of experience and the weight allowance he gets for taking on older horses could just swing it in his favour.
RACING POST ARKLE: Glen Forsa. What’s not to like about Mick Channon’s young chaser? The ground has come right for him, he jumps well and comes here unbeaten over fences. That run includes a tidy defeat of Kalashnikov when dropped to two miles in the rescheduled Kingmaker at Sandown last time out.
ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE: I picked Vintage Clouds as my each-way selection last year and he finished third at 7/1. I bet he won’t be far off again even from a mark off 144, which is 3lbs higher than 12 months ago. Sue Smith has her horses in good form and at 20/1 he is considerably bigger in the market.
UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE: Last year I fancied Buveur D’Air and he did the double but can he complete the elusive treble? I think Apple’s Jade is the fly in the ointment and it’s been reported she’s in the form of her life.
OLBG MARES’ HURDLE: The aforementioned Apple’s Jade looked a certainty in this last year, but could only finish third behind Benie Des Dieux and I won't be opposing last year's winner this time around.
CLOSE BROTHERS NOVICES’ HANDICAP CHASE: Gordon Elliott’s Cubomania could be each-way value here. 20/1 with Sky Bet, who are paying four places. He's won four of his 11 starts over fences and was going well when out-running his 50/1 price in the Grade One Drinmore befire falling two out. He had a host of entries this week, but can go well despite top weight here.
NATIONAL HUNT CHASE: With plenty of hype around OK Corral, I’m inclined to give Paul Nolan’s Discorama a chance. He’s 8/1 with Sky Bet and was unlucky to fall at the last at Naas last time out in the race won by Ballyward when not without a chance. He was second in the Martin Pipe last year, so has Festival form, and there’s plenty to like about him.
BALLYMORE NOVICES’ HURDLE: Samcro was the hotpot in this last year and duly obliged. I’ve been keen on Brewin’upastorm for some time this season and I won’t change my mind, despite his final flight fall at Cheltenham last time out when looking like the winner. The horse I’m most worried about is Battleoverdoyen, who unlike Samcro, has managed to get here with very little hype despite a similar profile for the same connections. Maybe each-way for the former at the price.
RSA CHASE: Is there another Presenting Percy lurking in the field? Santini hasn’t had the ideal preparation for this and I think that will count against him. I like Delta Work and hope he gives Gordon Elliott another winner after what should be a good start to the week. He beat Le Richebourg in the Drinmore and then won another Grade One at Leopardstown over Christmas. He is taking the same path as Presenting Percy anyway having won the Pertemps Final at the Festival last year.
CORAL CUP: Paul Nicholls thinks his Brio Conti has a chance in the Coral Cup. He seems to be improving and off a mark of 146 and with a fine strike rate (5 wins from just 11 starts) he’ll do for me for his in-form trainer.
BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE: Altior...again!
GLENFARCLAS CROSS-COUNTRY CHASE: Tiger Roll...again!
BOODLES (FRED WINTER) JUVENILE HANDICAP HURDLE: Joseph O’Brien probably has the best juvenile hurdlers around and I hope he’ll have a clean sweep with his youngsters (albeit the Sky Bet Supreme isn’t restricted to four-year-olds). Band Of Outlaws is his representative here (what price the Supreme, Boodles and Triumph treble for the trainer Sky Bet??) and the horse comes into the race having won his last two over hurdles. This is his handicap debut over obstacles from a mark of 139 and his trainer should have a good idea of what he’s capable of winning from with his other smart juveniles as a good yardstick.
* The news came through as I was writing this that Sir Erec has suffered a stone bruise, but the trainer is confident he will get him ready for Friday’s JCB Triumph Hurdle. It shouldn’t cause major problems if it’s not too serious.
JLT NOVICES’ CHASE: I’m a huge fan of Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation. Inexplicably Defi De Seuil runs here rather than the Arkle, despite Le Richebourg missing Tuesday’s Arkle (Like Defi he is owned by JP McManus). Still, that should make Lostintranslation a more appealing price. He was beaten fair and square by that rival last time out, but had the measure of Philip Hobbs’ horse the time before at this track in the Dipper Chase (when receiving weight). In reality there’s not much between the pair and hopefully Lostintranslation will make it a real test of stamina which will play to his strengths.
PERTEMPS HANDICAP HURDLE: Sire Du Berlais is another leading contender for Gordon Elliott, but he’s the market leader and I think another of the Irish raiders can run well here. Walk To Freedom may be nine years old, but I think Jessica Harrington’s horse has more to offer over this three miles trip after a strong show last time at Leopardstown.
RYANAIR CHASE: Footpad is a risky proposition having been off since suffering an overreach (a cut to the front leg caused by a hind foot) when finishing runner up to Simply Ned at Leopardstown over Christmas. Having said that, last year’s Arkle winner is dangerous to leave out and as he’s in the hands of champion trainer Willie Mullins. On pedigree he should handle the trip and Mullins has apparently been schooling and working him without hind shoes to stop the problem recurring. In fact he said he may run him at Cheltenham without them too. Road To Respect has been confirmed for this race rather than the Gold Cup as his trainer Noel Meade felt he didn’t get home in the the latter race last year when fourth to Native River. He’s a big danger and his trainer is in flying form at the moment.
SUN RACING STAYERS HURDLE: It’s Paisley Park all the way for me. I was lucky enough to meet the horse at Emma Lavelle’s yard with his owner Andrew Gemmell a couple of weeks ago and I really hope he wins for his connections. Paisley Park has matured this season and is unbeaten in four starts. The absence of Penhill has undoubtedly helped his chance too. Sadly, we won’t get anything like the 25/1 that his owner tells me he is shrewdly clutching.
BROWN ADVISORY & MERRIEBELLE STABLE PLATE: I’ve already backed Spiritofthegames in this for Dan Skelton. He finished third behind leading JLT Novices’ Chase contender Kidisart in a Novices’ Handicap Chase over this course and distance last time out. That was at the end of January and as he goes well fresh the gap between races should be ok. He was a decent handicap hurdler, finishing fifth in the County Hurdle last season, and looks set to be useful over fences too. This will be just his fourth start over the larger obstacles.
NATIONAL HUNT BREEDERS SUPPORTED BY TATTERSALLS MARES’ NOVICES’ HURDLE: Nicky Henderson’s French import Epatante is short enough for this and deservedly so. She’s a Grade One winner in her native country and has now won 2 novice hurdles in the UK for her new connections. She looked to be getting the hang of things at Exeter last time out. However, Paul Nicholls has a realistic contender who offers a bit more value, in Posh Trish. She a tough mare, although giving 5lbs to Epatante means she'll have to be.
FULKE WALWYN KIM MUIR CHALLENGE CUP: Measureofmydreams has been incredibly well supported for Gordon Elliott, I think top amateur Jamie Codd takes the ride. He had his first start for Elliott having left Noel Meade, and his first run for 22 months, at Fairyhouse a month ago and he ran a solid race to finish third. He has already appeared at three Cheltenham Festivals with a bold show to finish third to Minella Rocco and Native River in the 2016 National Hunt Chase when trained by Willie Mullins.
JCB TRIUMPH HURDLE: Cheltenham wouldn’t be Cheltenham without a last minute drama and the stone bruise suffered by Sir Erec on Thursday has made a few nerves jangle the week before the Festival. In the big scheme of things it shouldn't be a major issue as all his work has been done now (a bit like an athlete tapering before a big event). I'm not ripping up my betting slip just yet! Pic D’Orhy is an interesting French import for Paul Nicholls. The Sky Sports Racing French expert Lauren Barbarin highlighted this horse when we worked together a couple of weeks ago.
RANDOX HEALTH COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE: We don’t quite know what’s going to run, or what will get in, but here are a couple to watch out for if they do. He may be lacking in a bit of experience, but Crook’s Peak did nothing wrong at Newbury last time out and he’s improving. Philip Hobbs trains him, and I think another of his runners is capable of running a big race. Gumball beat Verdana Blue on the all-weather at Kempton at the end of last month, which was a bit of a surprise, but could be the confidence boost that was needed to get this former smart juvenile/novice hurdler back on track.
ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES’ HURDLE: This looks a tough race to sort out (is there an easy one at the Festival?), but Derrinross is one to watch for Irish trainer Philip Dempsey providing the ground is soft enough. This horse has a decent engine, but is very ground dependant, which is why he hasn’t run since the end of December. This Irish point-to-point winner has thrived since being stepped up to three miles under rules beating a subsequent Grade 1 runner-up Sams Profile on his penultimate start and winning a Grade 2 at Naas last time out.
MAGNERS CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP: To go with Presenting Percy or not? Coneygree won the Gold Cup with just three previous chase starts to his name and Pat Kelly’s pride and joy has run five times over fences coming into this, so positively experienced in comparison. Regardless of his ability and love of Cheltenham, he’s short enough in the betting, so I’m taking a chance on Native River becoming the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back Gold Cups. In fact, his trainer Colin Tizzard has an incredibly strong hand in the blue riband with Welsh National winner Elegant Escape and former King George and World Hurdle hero Thistlecrack realistic contenders too for the feature prize. It might pay to back that duo each way at big prices.
ST JAMES'S PLACE FOXHUNTER CHASE: Ucello Conti owes me one (or five!). He’s been rejuvenated in the point-to-point and Hunter Chase field with three wins in a row now for Gordon Elliott. He’s well capable of winning a big one and maybe this will be his day.
JOHNNY HENDERSON GRAND ANNUAL: I gave you a couple of horses in last week’s blog and one of them was the Paul Nicholls trained Magic Saint in this. Nicholls gave him a very positive endorsement and expects the five-year-old to be better than a handicapper in time.
MARTIN PIPE CONDITIONAL JOCKEYS’ HANDICAP HURDLE: Another lottery and what a way to sign off the meeting. It’s probably best to follow the money, so there are worse each-way bets than on Canardier, who is lightly raced and relatively unexposed and has come in for support for the race. He’s trained by Dermot McLoughlin in Ireland and things certainly seem to be falling into place for the 7 year-old, who has only run 8 times in his life. He hasn’t run since winning at Cheltenham back in October and I suppose that means the handicapper hasn’t had another chance to put him up. He is entered in the Coral Cup and County Hurdle.