Day one of the Cheltenham Festival and the biggest certainty the world has ever seen will land at 1:30pm on Tuesday: the loudest roar ever to reverberate around the Cotswolds will be generated from the stands of Prestbury Park.
It has been two years since patrons enjoyed a Festival on course, and they will make sure the watching world knows about it as it gets underway with one of the most eagerly anticipated Supreme Novices Hurdle in many a year that kicks off four days of extraordinary racing.
A fascinating clash between three talented unbeaten hurdlers who have all produced performances capable of winning the festival opener in a normal year. However, this is not a normal year.
Constitution Hill has impressed twice at Sandown by wide margins, while Dysart Dynamo has similarly swatted away all comers in Ireland.
However, while many onlookers were left a little underwhelmed by JONBON’s win at Haydock, he overcame trouble at the second last and quickened up well to win a Grade 2 giving 5lb to talented rivals. He beat Might I by five lengths giving him 5lb, while Constitution Hill beat him fourteen getting 3lb, so while that reads in favour of his shorter priced stablemate, we know JONBON battles, and that will stand him in good stead as not too many horses come up the famous Cheltenham hill on the bridle especially in championship contests.
A favourable mention also goes to Mighty Potter who hasn’t been seen since winning at the top level over Christmas at Leopardstown. He is unlucky not to be unbeaten as he flew home after a troubled passage in the Royal Bond on decent ground in November and he has largely been overlooked due to the ‘sexier’ profiles of the market leaders.
It doesn’t look like a vintage renewal of the Arkle and I’m not sure if any of these could be troubling the Champion Chasers next season. We shall see.
Edwardstone is a solid if not spectacular favourite. He was a very good handicapper over hurdles and it is his jumping that has propelled him to the top of the two-mile novice chase tree but is a favourite worth taking on.
Blue Lord should have the measure of Riviere D’Etel as he meets the mare on 2lb better terms than when narrowly successful at Leopardstown in the Dublin Racing Festival. Back in third that day was SAINT SAM and he is the tentative selection to turn that form around. That was only his second start over fences and a mistake at the second last cost him valuable momentum, but he stuck to his guns to be only beaten four lengths, rallying well late on. He was second in the Fred Winter at last year’s festival so has proven track form and although looks the third string of Willie Mullins on jockey bookings, he could offer some value.
Gabynako has been supplemented by for the race by connections at a cost of £8,000 which is of interest.
A wide-open renewal of the Ultima Handicap Chase as odds of 8/1 in the field suggest. One to really get stuck into and have a couple of darts.
Gordon Elliott suggested Death Duty was his best handicapped horse of the week having been untouched by the British handicapper from his Irish mark, but the form of his Punchestown win last time took a knock on Sunday and his stablemate Floueur, who was third that day, some seven lengths behind, could be a bigger danger with his festival form in the bag courtesy of a third place finish in the Martin Pipe last year.
Kim Bailey went close last year with a lightly raced novice in Happygolucky and his Does He Know has a very similar profile, albeit winning the Reynoldstown last month means he has a higher mark to overcome. He has won at the track earlier in the season and looks set to run well, especially as novices have a decent record in the race.
For that reason, I will suggest an each-way play on FANTASTIKAS for local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies. He has chased home top novices Threeunderthrufive and L’Homme Presse this season and stays the three-mile trip well, rallying to win at Lingfield’s Winter Million meeting in January. He handles better ground and has a lovely low racing weight off 10-6. With six and seven places available, he should reach the frame and a return for each way bets.
I will also be having a small each way investment on OSCAR ELITE. He was a decent hurdler who looks every inch a chaser but it hasn’t quite worked out this season in good company, the result being he has a decent mark. He was second to Vanillier in the Albert Bartlett last year so has festival form on decent ground and he too can outrun his huge price.
Frodon topping the weights brings some quality to this contest as he beat leading Gold Cup candidates Galvin and Minella Indo earlier in the season and has such a fantastic course record, but this would be something else to give 9lb and upwards to the field, while Lostintranslation, placed in the Gold Cup in 2020, runs in this handicap trying to rediscover his best form.
Honeysuckle, the Queen of Ireland, looks to preserve her perfect record and make it fifteen races under rules without defeat while retaining her Champion Hurdle crown, and it is hard to look past her. Some onlookers weren’t totally enamoured with her most recent victory, despite putting it to bed two hurdles from home with a striking turn of foot, but she did hang slightly right although that is being picky.
Something must chase her home though and there are some decent prices for each way punters as I can’t have Appreciate It who is making his seasonal debut and his first appearance for 364 days since romping home in last year’s Supreme.
It would be some story should Tommy’s Oscar win from the northern stable of Ann Hamilton, who only has the four horses in training. They are operating at a staggering 43% strike rate this season, twelve winners form their 28 runners and it would be a fairy tale in this real David v Goliath affair.
Epatante is a former Champion looking to regain her crown while Adagio saves his best for this track but the one to be with at around 10/1 has to be TEAHUPOO. We don’t know how good he can be but he looked very good in winning at Gowran Park. Only tasting defeat once in his career, he has improved on each of his last four starts and is on a sharp upward curve.
The Irish have dominated this contest winning nine of the last ten renewals, six going to Willie Mullins.
Telmesomethinggirl won the Mares’ Novice Hurdle at last year's festival but has been rather underwhelming in three starts this season, the best of which was last time out over Christmas when third at Leopardstown. She also represents the Henry De Bromhead yard who has hardly been firing on all cylinders recently. She’s another favourite to take on.
Queen’s Brook is a big player now she is truly finding her feet over hurdles, while Mullins fields Relkeel Hurdle winner Stormy Ireland, Cesarewitch runner-up Burning Victory and Irish Champion Hurdle third Echoes In Rain.
I am looking for a shock here though and this prize to stay at home.
MARTELLO SKY has won four of her last five starts, twice over this track and trip (albeit on the other course). Her win at Sandown last time out was quite striking as she hated the sticky ground and it was her attitude and will to win that got her home.
She is still improving at the age of six and stayed on well behind Telmesomethinggirl at last year's Festival when eighth despite a few mistakes, mistakes that seem to have been eradicated this season. She hasn’t got stacks to find on the figures and at around 14/1 and with some firms paying four places, she rates the bet of the day.
One of the talking horses of the Festival has been Gaelic Warrior in the Juvenile Handicap. Word has it he works like a much better horse than a mark of 129 that he has been awarded by the assessor and his most recent start in France is solid where the first, second and fourth have all won subsequently.
In fact, they’ve landed six races between them. The fact remains though that you are being asked to take a short price in a competitive handicap about a maiden who has never seen a British style hurdle or a track as unique at Cheltenham, so I’ll let him run and maybe win at around 5/2.
The Tide Turns was a fair fourth behind Champion Hurdle hope Teahupoo at Gowran Park and for one so inexperienced it was a good effort for trainer Gordon Elliott who has a good record in this race, winning three of the last nine renewals.
Petit Tonerre could be anything and is likely to be a lot better than the bare result of his Market Rasen win but I will go for BRAZIL for owner JP McManus, trainer Paddy Roche and jockey Mark Walsh.
A beautifully bred brother to St Leger winner Capri, who was useful himself when with Aidan O’Brien, his profile suggests this race has been the target. He ran in some good maidens and although on the bare form has a few lengths to find with The Tide Turns, his latest win at Naas was very impressive and there is no doubt he will have come on again.
All but one of the last eight winners have carried over eleven stone in this race so weight is no barrier, and the cream usually rises. At around 9/1 with extra places on offer, he rates a solid each-way bet.
The field of just seven runners in this race should ring alarm bells for those advocating a fifth day at the festival. The National Hunt Chase always attracted a decent field, despite never really having many finishers over the week’s longest trip.
There is no doubting the quality turning up though as five Irish raiders take on a pair of Rebecca Curtis trained runners, a decade on from her success in the contest with Teaforthree.
Run Wild Fred and Stattler head the market and this pair come from very different ends of the chasing experience spectrum. Run Wild Fred has had ten chase races which include runner up efforts in the Irish Grand National and a Grade 1 plus victory in the Troytown at Navan, a very competitive handicap. Stattler meanwhile is two from two over larger obstacles, both in novice company and is owned by Ronnie Bartlett whose colours have been carried to victory in this race twice in the last four years including last year by leading Gold Cup candidate Galvin.
Vanillier is a big player. As we know he stays well on account of his Albert Bartlett romp at last year’s festival, while Braeside, stablemate of Run Wild Fred, also won’t fail through a lack of stamina having won a Cork Grand National.
I am going to suggest a small play on PAT’S FANCY at around 8/1 with Betfred paying three places each way. He was a massive 56 lengths behind Vaniller last year at the festival and does have something to find on the figures, but he looks all about stamina and decent ground will suit.
He chased home Bravemansgame at Newbury (in receipt of plenty of weight) but never gave up, running on well all the way to the line. His Chepstow win over Christmas has been franked and has a very experience amateur on board in Barry O’Neill. I fancy him to run well for Rebecca Curtis and hit the first three.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change