Our flagship Cheltenham column continues with Lydia Hislop's race-by-race guide and recommended bets for day one of the Festival.
The Cheltenham Festival, presented by Magners: Day One
Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Even in the unfortunate absence of lame Elixir De Nutz, there will be strong and sustained pace here thanks primarily to the presence of Brandon Castle, a zestful galloper who stays well, and Felix Desjy, who’s improved for positive tactics. The four-year-old Fakir D’Oudairies will seek to press the pace, if he can.
Of that trio, only the last-named has reached the benchmark rating of 150+ that usually merits at least a place in this race. However, this year’s edition is unusually deep in this regard – on paper, anyway – and I also fear he may be over-rated on the basis of his wide-margin success at Cheltenham in January.
Fakir D’Oudairies is attempting to win this as a juvenile, as Hors La Loi III did in 1999 and Binocular failed to do in 2008. Both those horses went on to win Champion Hurdles and I’m not convinced this juvenile is that smart. Trampling on a field of inferiors was a different ball-game to this challenge. The 8lbs weight-for-age is not a gift but a necessity.
The strong pace is ideal for both of owner Dai Walters’ representatives, both of whom are in the 150+ club. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has removed the hood from Al Dancer and opts for first-time earplugs to calm him down. They’ve reportedly had a better effect on calming him down than did the hood at home, so the decision makes a lot of sense. His Betfair Hurdle success puts him thereabouts here.
But Angels Breath cleared the bar on only his second start and when circumstances were far from ideal. The Supreme promises a more strongly run race on a less speed-favouring track than Kempton, plus he will strip fitter for his Dovecote defeat when he was too far off the pace. In short, he’s the likeliest to improve markedly.
Understandably, Klassical Dream has been backed since trainer Willie Mullins opted for this race. Both he and stablemate Aramon are rated 154 by the British handicapper and there was little between them when they last met at Leopardstown – Aramon compromising his chance by hanging left and Klassical Dream knuckling down grittily to retake the lead. Of the two, I prefer Klassical Dream – he’s tough and the rain is of benefit.
Grand Sancy is rated 152 after beating a below-par Sceau Royal in a Grade Two against more experienced rivals but this second-season novice pulled up in the Fred Winter at last year’s Festival and I’m not convinced Cheltenham in his bag. Similar comments apply to Mister Fisher, who looks suited by a flat-track environment rather than the undulations of the Old Course.
Of the bigger priced horses, Olly Murphy’s pair are worth a second look. Itchy Feet emerged from his November encounter with Elixir De Nutz as the best horse at the weights, having also not been as well positioned. He may not have improved comparably, of course, but he was progressing at the time. The rain may be a negative.
Stable companion Thomas Darby would ideally prefer a longer trip, yet the strong pace could see him sticking on for a place at a good price. Check out bookmakers’ offers of extra place(s) if you want to bet each-way and pick the best deal available to you.
But in short, I suspect the Dais have it. Of the pair, I prefer Angels Breath.
Back now: Angels Breath at 5/1
Racing Post Arkle Chase
Another race set to be conducted at a blistering pace. Both Knocknanuss and Ornua like to go to the front and to go hard. The latter benefits from plenty of experience and is likely to cut a more collected figure than the former, whose pyrotechnic jumping – at times a sheer guess – is going to come under pressure.
Articulum also likes to go forward but may not be good enough to do so in this context. Us And Them like to press from just behind the leaders and I suspect he’s good enough to raise a second wave of pace should the initial front-runners falter.
I suspect this pace scenario could be bad news for Duc Des Genievres, whom Simon Holt suggested in the Sporting Life Day One Cheltenham Festival Preview video might be a shade soft. The fact he improved so markedly for bossing a field from the front last time might support that theory and he ain’t going to be able to do the same here.
Happily, Glen Forsa doesn’t need to lead – as he proved when winning a Kempton handicap that’s worked out very well – but the argument for him, not to mention his position as favourite, is based on him dominating a three-horse race from the front in which both rivals under-performed. That’s shaky stuff.
Lalor is also too short on what he’s achieved: a course-and-distance defeat of Dynamite Dollars, who subsequently improved markedly, and a thumping by that horse (and runner-up Ornua) at Sandown, when quickly disheartened. Trainer Kayley Woollacott blamed the ground that day but the forecast rain suggests similar can be expected here. He’s drifted to 6/1 and that’s still too short.
Hardline has been consistently backed since trainer Gordon Elliott re-routed him here from the JLT Chase, on the very sound reasoning that a strongly run two-mile contest brought out the best in him to date: a ten-length defeat of Us And Them at Navan in December. This race is set up for him to run well. He’s the most solid of the principals.
Presumably because so much rain is due to fall, Kalashnikov has shortened markedly after drifting out to quite a price following his Sandown defeat by Glen Forsa. I must admit – and with apologies to those at my @bettingemporium table on Saturday night who proffered this selection to little traction on my part – I’m coming around to his chances, having gone through the race again.
There’s clearly an argument that he’s better left-handed and if we buy into him having an off-day at Sandown – trainer Amy Murphy maintains that jockey Jack Quinlan even said the horse was lifeless at the start – then he starts to get interesting, returned to the scene of his Supreme second last year. He was the best of these over hurdles – the classic Arkle profile.
If he can stay in the game by jumping the first three fences cleanly, I can see him coming on strongly late on. However, I am also going to advise a back-up angle. If Knocknanuss departs early, there is a scenario whereby Ornua gets left clear and he’s good enough to make that difficult for rivals who might have opted to let the front-runners get on with it. He might also drift because it’s believed he needs a sound surface yet it was soft enough for when recording a career-best at Sandown.
Paloma Blue must brush up his jumping, although the strong pace should at least help him settle, but I worry that the supplemented Clondaw Castle might prefer flat tracks. Slate House is justly a rank outsider.
Back now: Kalashnikov at 10/1
Back now: Ornua each-way at 14/1 or bigger
Unibet Champion Hurdle
If Apple’s Jade is able to reproduce her improved form of this season back at Cheltenham, she surely wins the Champion Hurdle because dual titleholder Buveur D’Air would actually need to improve to deal with a mare of this calibre and the likelihood is the as-yet-unknown limit of Laurina’s talent does not quite compare, especially over two miles.
However, given Apple’s Jade has never yet been at her best at Cheltenham – even when winning the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle two years ago, she was 7lbs below the best form she registered that season alone – that brings her distinctly within hailing distance of her two biggest rivals. It’s that 2017 Festival victory, rather than her with-excuses defeat in last year’s renewal, that troubles me most.
To repeat: I’m not saying she can’t win. I am saying don’t base your calculations on her delivering a performance comparable to her 16-length demolition of Supasundae last time out. I think she will have to fight for this – and not just on the maths but also because of how the race is likely to be run.
Ben Pauling has said he wants Global Citizen to take a lead so you might think Jack Kennedy will be able to do as he pleases up front on Apple’s Jade but the addition of first-time cheekpieces to Melon says different.
I must admit I was expecting the reapplication of a hood and a dropped-out ride for that horse. Instead, the galvanising element of cheekpieces suggests to me those “different tactics” of which trainer Willie Mullins has spoken will be an aggressive ride, hassling Apple’s Jade on the pace.
That gives Mullins the best of all worlds: Melon gets the shake-up his form this season sorely needs, their key rival isn’t able to dictate her own terms entirely, a sustained strong pace is ensured for Laurina (who stays further) and it offers the prospect of Sharjah picking up the pieces after the final flight after the tiring principals have engaged much further out.
It will be interesting to see where Kennedy positions Apple’s Jade. On the inside rail, potentially inconveniencing rivals on her right-hand flank by habitually jumping right but risking being shuffled back if a rival jumps quicker than her? Or forcing the pace towards the outer, as Bryan Cooper did in victory on her two years ago?
Where will Paul Townend be on Melon? In the scenario I paint, it makes sense for him to hug the inside rail as the combination did last year – but, sitting behind horses, they ran out of room after the third last. It would be a different story up front. Melon doesn’t want to be carried right by Apple’s Jade at each flight.
Ruby Walsh has a relatively straightforward task on Laurina: having tracked the pace, probably not against the inside rail on a galloper who can balloon her hurdles, he’ll want to take aim at Apple’s Jade from the second last. If his mount is good enough to be on the premises at that stage he’ll press from the second last, presumably a couple of widths outside of Apple’s Jade entering the straight.
Walsh will know this risks Barry Geraghty – who has the easiest task tactical ride of the trio – slip-streaming Apple’s Jade and Laurina and producing Buveur D’Air with, on their track records, the likeliest slickest jump of the trio at the last.
But Walsh will reason this requires the champion to be at his absolute best against two smart mares receiving the 7lb gender allowance. Recent evidence states Buveur D’Air was well below form when beaten in the Christmas Hurdle by Verdana Blue and his latest success was too one-sided to offer any substantial ballast.
While his Fighting Fifth success looked brilliant at the time, some who hailed it a career-best have retrospectively downgraded it because runner-up Samcro was said to have been suffering from a severe lung infection at the time. What is inarguable is that Buveur D’Air jumped sharply on that occasion and it was certainly better than last season’s campaign.
He needs a strong pace to thrive – one of two potential reasons that last year’s Champion Hurdle was the lesser of his two victories. The first was a pace collapse; the second was a bug knocking around trainer Nicky Henderson’s yard at the time. There will be no want of a gallop this year.
So, it’s a tricky call in what should be an intriguing race. I reckon Apple’s Jade is the right favourite but Laurina is too short and, with the rain due, might even get shorter. Therefore, given the race denouement I’m envisaging and anticipating a drift, I’m siding with the reigning champion to become only the sixth horse in history to win three Champion Hurdles.
If you like playing in a place-only market, then Sharjah is your only play even if the rain might be against him. None of the rest is good enough.
Back now: Buveur D’Air at 11/4 or bigger
Already advised 29/11/18: Summerville Boy e/w 12/1 – non-runner (injured)
OLBG David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle
Thanks to the exploits of the likes of Quevega, the six-times winner of this contest, and Penhill, we have learned not to worry about the well-being of Willie Mullins-horses making their seasonal debut at the Cheltenham Festival. Plus, he’s been at pains to stress that titleholder Benie Des Dieux has been kept back this season only due to the prevailing quick ground.
So, it’s not her absence that bothers me at a best-priced 11/10, but the form on which her market dominance is based. Apple’s Jade was at least 10lbs below her best when third in this race last year and Midnight Tour, an eight-year-old 33/1 shot, split her and Benie. I wonder whether that race was over-rated?
Even if you take that relatively positive view of the form, it’s still not as far superior to her rivals as her comparative price suggests at 7/1 bar the favourite.
Stable companion Limini was third in the best renewal of this race two years ago but hasn’t been in anything like that form since. Her Galmoy fourth behind Presenting Percy last time looked better but I think she was flattered by a steadily run race.
Mullins – who has won this contest on nine of its 11 renewals – has three further mares in this contest. Good Thyne Tara has the form to get involved in theory but last time was less convincing and the rain may be against her. Stormy Ireland is a one-dimensional front runner who fell at the last in the Triumph last year and is likely to be vulnerable latterly over this half-mile further.
Elimay is perhaps the most interesting of Benie’s stablemates. She received weight when beaten by Good Thyne Tara at Leopardstown but was not well-positioned tactically, had not raced for more than a year and was making her debut for the yard. I suspect she’ll do better and could out-run odds of 20/1.
Yet Roksana has a touch of class. She was second behind Santini in Aintree’s Grade One Sefton Novices’ Hurdle last year and shaped encouragingly on her belated return over an inadequate trip behind Buveur D’Air at Sandown last time. She’s unexposed and could even lay down a proper threat to the favourite. Rain is a positive.
It’s bad news for Mia’s Storm, however, who would otherwise have been a live outsider even over an inadequate trip. Jester Jet was supplemented at the six-day stage and, ridden positively, would have place claims. Lady Buttons has the class to get involved but 2m4f stretches her and the final hill is not ideal for a mare who needs to be delivered into the lead as late as possible.
Back now: Roksana each-way at 7/1
Riders Onthe Storm caught my eye when third behind Hardline in a Leopardstown Grade One novices’ chase. Since then, he’s improved to win at Punchestown and, stepped up in trip for the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, he promises to progress again.
Trainer Tom Taaffe won this event with Finger Onthe Pulse in 2008 and it’s not just the Only Connect-style squidging of consonants that makes me think he’s poised for a repeat. This horse looks capable of maturing beyond handicap company – which is handy, because with a 7lbs weight range, this is a handicap in name only.
While I’m worried about his stamina for the task, I’m going to go with the best-horse-wins-race method and side with OK Corral in the National Hunt Chase, who wouldn’t look out of place in Wednesday’s Grade One RSA Insurance Chase.
Not only has professional amateur rider Derek O’Connor just been booked, he’s also done plenty of the groundwork with the horse – schooling at Nicky Henderson’s yard and riding him to victory at Warwick. OK Corral is also proven at Cheltenham, having finished second in last year’s Albert Bartlett.