Lydia Hislop's Cheltenham Festival preview and selections

La Bague Au Roi and connections
La Bague Au Roi and connections

The Cheltenham Festival is upon us, so it's time for 'Road' author Lydia Hislop's final analysis of the first day, which includes five selections.

1.30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

As the 15/8 favourite, Getabird’s frailties must be closely examined so the fact he’s facing a left-handed track for the first time since running out in a Point is a worry. In his defence, he was an extremely inexperienced horse at the time and the track’s orientation might have been coincidental. Whatever the reason, it can only be construed as a negative however.

It may also be that his dizzy odds owe something to past Supreme winners also trained by Willie Mullins and owned by Rich Ricci, but Vautour was sent off at 7/2 and Douvan at 2/1. This horse also surprised connections when showing enough speed for this race rather than the Ballymore.

Getabird also faces at least three opponents who’ve already established form good enough to hit the frame in most Supremes: Betfair Hurdle winner Kalashnikov, his Tolworth conqueror Summerville Boy and the quirky Mengli Khan. As heavy ground is likely (and we’ll know more on this critical factor only once the first race has been timed), it’s reasonable to throw First Flow into that mix given his form isn’t that far adrift of this marker.

Getabird has already humbled Mengli Khan by nine lengths in Punchestown’s Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle and, though a first-time tongue-tie on the latter is designed to help bridge that gap (I was expecting headgear), the heavy ground counts markedly against him returning to his Royal Bond level.

Kalashnikov wasn’t travelling well from an early stage at both Sandown and Newbury, so the concern for him is whether he can keep in touch with the key competitors on this sharp track. There will surely be no horse finishing more powerfully than him from the second last, however.

Summerville Boy beats Kalashnikov in the Tolworth
Summerville Boy beats Kalashnikov in the Tolworth

Noel Fehily was adamant after Summerville Boy won the Tolworth that he "hated" the ground. His jockey may yet prove to be correct, but at the moment the formbook says that heavy-ground Grade One success was by far his best performance yet.

There’s no good reason for him being a longer price than Kalashnikov and he will thrive on the likely good pace provided by a clutch of potential front-runners. We even know he handles Cheltenham. He’s the obvious play as things stand.

First Flow doesn’t need to lead but wasn’t going to run here until the weather rightly made his trainer Kim Bailey re-assess. He’s straightforward, generous, unbeaten over hurdles and improving at the right time. The concern is that connections deem him relatively raw for the task (albeit such a worry might also legitimately apply to Summerville Boy).

The argument for Claimantakinforgan (third in last year’s Festival Bumper), Sharjah, Slate House, perhaps Lostintranslation and probably the mare (receiving a very handy 7lb allowance) Dame Rose greatly relied on a sound surface. I’d be prepared to overlook that alleged concern if I fancied Western Ryder, who swaps here from the Ballymore probably for that reason.

Outsiders such as Us And Them and Trainwreck are proven in deep ground but need to find a deal of improvement. Both 2017 Festival Bumper runner-up Debuchet and Paloma Blue handle it; the lightly-raced former may come on for his recent valuable experience and the latter could do much better settled in a well-run race.

Selection:

Already advised 06/12/17: Mengli Khan at 15/2 with Betfair Sportsbook

Back now: Summerville Boy at 8/1 BOG with various bookmakers

15
611-7OR: 150D
9/1
Last RunWatch last race

2.10 Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase

You can date the Arkle from its title inauguration when Chatham won in 1969 or include its predecessor the Cotswold Chase; whatever, this year’s edition musters the smallest field since at least 1946. In fact, since 2011 when the JLT was introduced to this meeting, it has only managed double figures twice.

Nonetheless this is a compelling contest with at least three serious players, two boasting the classic Arkle profile as former high-class hurdlers.

Footpad is the rightful favourite, having (at this stage, at least) improved past Petit Mouchoir in comparison to their three hurdles encounters. It’s his technique that’s made the difference – so far Footpad has jumped like an old, but incredibly efficient, hand. He’s also sufficiently versatile ground-wise and straightforward as regards tactics. There is little not to like bar the 11/10.

The argument for Petit Mouchoir rests on him improving a good deal from his encounter with Footpad last month. He was then returning from a setback that had kept him off the track since last October and he made mistakes at the first two fences, markedly at the second. He’s entitled to take a step forward.

Footpad has the measure of Petit Mouchoir
Footpad has the measure of Petit Mouchoir

The drawbacks are that he tends to get worked up prior to his races and, due to the presence of Saint Calvados, he may neither be able to lead (the run style of his best performances over hurdles) nor his jumping withstand the examination.

That horse has on paper achieved just as much as Footpad; the only quibble is that he’s done so against horses much inferior to Petit Mouchoir and therefore was able to control those races more readily. Of course, this offers the possibility it could be his – rather than that grey’s – jumping that comes undone.

Yet Saint Calvados has so far been a superb jumper and is probably advantaged by heavy ground, hence his promotion to second favourite in some books.

It’s a known unknown whether he can transfer his evident flat-track ability to sharp yet undulating Cheltenham but he doesn’t land steeply in the way that catches many such horses out. Let the record show he’s a five-year-old and they haven’t won since the weight-for-age was altered but only 10 have tried.

Next in the betting is Brain Power, who typically refused to settle in last year’s Champion Hurdle and finished well adrift of third-placed (front-runner) Petit Mouchoir and fourth (never truly involved) Footpad.

He’s also yet to prove he can be at his best racing left-handed and arrives here after unseating and falling on his last two starts. There were some mitigating factors to both of those non-completions but heavy ground will also rigorously test whether his recent breathing operation has worked. Not for me.

Robinshill also has completion issues, having only got round over Ludlow’s forgiving fences. The ground will be fine but he has better form at other tracks and is simply not good enough.

Selection: No bet. None of the three relevant prices appeal, given the presence of the other two horses.

3.30 Unibet Champion Hurdle

As his price reflects, Buveur D’Air is by far the most likely winner of this race but the fact is the single best form-line on offer from this field does not belong to him and neither does he boast their collective career peak. Both those achievements belong to Faugheen and yet he’s still as big as 13/2.

I am not in any way arguing the 2015 hero will return to his brilliant best but even the recovery of his seasonal-debut ability represents form comparable to that which Buveur D’Air achieved when winning this race last year. Therefore, we have the potential for a duel rather than a procession.

Many have retrospectively downgraded Faugheen’s 16-length defeat of Jezki last October due to the collateral form since shown by those horses he beat. In some ways, that’s entirely reasonable but it doesn’t account for the strong time he clocked on the day.

Having not previously raced since his career spike performance in the 2016 Irish Champion Hurdle, it’s possible that Faugheen recoiled from such a huge effort (‘bounced’ in racing parlance) and hence the dispiriting sight of him pulling up in the Ryanair Hurdle next time out.

His second to Supasundae in this year’s Irish Champion Hurdle represented a recovery from that huge retrograde step, albeit not a return to his first-time-out form. I’d half-expected that Leopardstown outing to conclude with news of his retirement but instead (to my mind) it both reduced the threat of him bombing out here and hinted at the possibility of further improvement at Cheltenham.

Supasundae had Faugheen's measure, but it was Mullins' day regardless
Faugheen was second to Supasundae last time

The reunion with Ruby Walsh, who holds so much confidence in him and who got him jumping better than anyone else, is a positive (albeit it carries the corollary risk of him attacking to the degree that hitting the frame could be threatened). It’s also highly possible that first-time cheekpieces might relight this ten-year-old’s fire.

Both Faugheen and Buveur D’Air are capable of functioning to a high degree in testing ground, albeit perhaps the advantage gained via the latter’s slick hurdling might be a tad diminished. Walsh is likely to attack from the front and Barry Geraghty will position the titleholder anywhere he likes in behind.

Although Buveur D’Air has won all three of his starts this term in a manner that suggests he’s still capable of far better, that remains an assumption; he hasn’t had to run anywhere near his best to triumph – probably not even as well as Faugheen’s latest form in defeat.

Henderson’s decision to declare under-achieving Charli Parcs is interesting, the word being he’ll try to set the pace for his stablemates despite never before having made the running in his entire professional life. He’s also said to be unsuited by testing ground, so how long he’ll last in the role is debatable but his presence may be designed to ensure Walsh doesn’t get to control the race entirely at his pleasure.

Aside from the big two – admittedly, a single-figure calculation for some – the rest are much of a muchness.

Supplemented Elgin loves soft ground, is improving and a lot tougher cookie than when seventh to Labaik in last year’s Supreme. (Call Me Lord’s narrow Imperial Cup defeat last Saturday shouldn’t be taken too literally as a boost of Elgin’s Kingwell success, however, as the former was greatly disadvantaged by sticking to Wincanton’s inside line.)

On paper Elgin comfortably holds Ch’Tibello, whom he beat two-and-a-half lengths conceding 4lb in the Kingwell, however the latter handles heavy going and may be ridden the more circumspectly of the pair. He offers some interest each-way in the ‘betting without the favourite’ market, especially if you’re of the opinion Faugheen is a paper tiger.

Heavy rain and snow has seriously disadvantaged three-times runner-up, 11-year-old My Tent Or Yours, as well as my fleeting ‘betting without’ each-way notion John Constable. Identity Thief isn’t good enough these days, if he ever was, and this track might not suit Mick Jazz.

Please take note that seven-times Irish champion amateur Patrick Mullins rides Wicklow Brave because he was on board for that horse’s two best career performances to date: winning the 2017 Punchestown Champion Hurdle (beating My Tent Or Yours) and when third in the 2015 Morgiana. If they can start on terms – Wicklow Brave an aversion to timely starting – they’ll definitely be playing for places.

That leaves the remaining two of Mullins’s quartet of contenders. We may not yet have seen the best of Melon, last year’s Supreme runner-up. He shaped promisingly when third in a slowly-run edition of the International and is said to have resented the first-time hood when underperforming behind Supasundae last time. This (likely) strongly-run race will help him settle and could provoke a career best.

Of course, Yorkhill is the joker in this pack – albeit he could yet also be declared for Thursday’s Ryanair. Why change the habits of a liftetime?

He was a clumsy hurdler when last seen in public over smaller obstacles two seasons ago and has been campaigned confusingly this term: with some promise until ultimately a well-beaten non-stayer in the Christmas Chase and then seemingly unable to jump fences cleanly at two-mile pace well behind Min in the Dublin Chase. His tendency to jump left has worsened, if anything.

He is without Walsh (who rode him masterfully to win last year’s JLT) and Paul Townend rides Melon instead, so the task of managing this head-case falls to David Mullins. The first-time strike-rate of chasers switching to Grade One hurdles is poor. In this, if nothing else, I expect Yorkhill to be no anomaly.

Selection:

Already advised 02/03/18: Faugheen each-way at 5/1 NRNB BOG (currently 13/2) 1/4 odds a place with Bet 365 for the Champion Hurdle (or 13/2 e/w NRNB 1/5 odds a place with Betfair Sportsbook)

4.10 OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle

Apple’s Jade won this race last year narrowly from better opposition than she faces this time around. Furthermore, she has improved again this season, stays further than this 2m4f trip and is very much at home on testing ground. She is hard to oppose.

The market says her main rival is Benie Des Dieux but even though she is an able mare and the chief hope of a trainer who’s won this race in eight of its 10 years, there are serious doubts about her price relative to her profile.

First, she’s switching from fences straight into a Grade One hurdle – a terribly difficult task according to the pitiless stats. Even though this is ‘only’ a mares’ event, admittedly, she still faces a favourite accustomed to beating geldings. Second, Willie Mullins has usually given her more time to recover between starts; this may be happenstance rather than design but it remains a doubt. Third, she only has the third-best form in the race.

The positives are that she handles testing ground and shapes as though a step back up to 2m4f would be very much up her street – and then there’s the very fact of her trainer and jockey, who have monopolised this event.

In opting to run La Bague Au Roi here rather than in Thursday’s Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, Warren Greatrex has prioritised a shallower opposition over suitability of trip. His mare is an improved model at three miles this season but has also long been said to prefer a sound surface – although her latest Ascot success, her best yet, suggests she should cope with this ground.

She finished seventh in the Trull House Stud Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival, probably after having too much use made of her over an inadequate trip. A more conventional ride should see her emerge as the main threat to Apple’s Jade here. You never know, if it’s really testing and stamina becomes the most relevant factor, she might even give her a fright.

Jer’s Girl was still going well enough when falling three out in the hot 2017 edition of this race but she’s been beaten by both the favourite and La Bague Au Roi this term and has since missed work due to a setback.

Indian Stream was a never-really-competitive fourth last year but was in career-best mood going into that race rather than in poor form, as she is now. Kayf Grace is unproven at the trip (shapes as though she’ll stay) and also in the ground but didn’t have a hard race in the Betfair Hurdle last time out.

None of Pravalaguna (albeit ground a positive), Midnight Jazz (well held last year) and Midnight Tour (capable at her best and at this course but below that of late) appears quite good enough.

Selections:

Already advised 31/12/17: Let’s Dance 12/1 each-way for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with William Hill [NON-RUNNER]

Back now: La Bague Au Roi at 5/2 with BetVictor in the ‘without Apple’s Jade’ market

6
711-5OR: 154
5/1
Last RunWatch last race

Other races

In the Ultima Handicap Chase, Shantou Flyer finally gets to step back up to three miles after shaping as if in absolute need of it for most of this season. Heavy ground suits him just fine and a switch of headgear – something that produced a spike of form in January – is a further positive, not to mention James Bowen’s 3lb claim.

When beaten at Cheltenham on Trials Day, Sizing Tennessee ran far better than the literal form after being too aggressively ridden in the conditions for a horse of his stamina. He’s looked like a NH Chase project all term long but connections briefly flirted with the RSA Chase.

His jumping has improved as the season has progressed and he’s mixed it over shorter trips with really quite decent horses in this context, such as Yanworth and Willoughby Court. He handles testing ground and, as a second-season chaser, boasts the ideal profile for this race.

Finally, the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase has a mere 8lb span from the top- to the bottom-weight. Any perceived plot is therefore probably less important than actual ability. Luckily, Any Second Now has got both. He’s chased home a series of classy rivals while learning his trade, is highly capable in testing ground and will benefit from stepping back up in trip.

Selections:

Back now: Shantou Flyer each-way at 18/1 for the Ultima Handicap Chase with Sky Bet (5 places, 1/5 odds)

Back now: Sizing Tennessee at 9/1 with various firms

Back now: Any Second Now at 6/1 with various firms

4
811-9OR: 152BFC
14/1
Last RunWatch last race

15
1011-6OR: 145BFC
8/1
Last RunWatch last race

2
611-10OR: 145
5/1
Last RunWatch last race

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