It's finally here. Christmas for grown ups has arrived once more, and the talking stops as the tapes rise at 1.30 tomorrow afternoon. As for each of the four days, here are my thoughts on the opening day and its seven races.
We'll greet the first of 27 races with a cheer and, thereafter, it will be hope over expectation pretty much all the way...
1.30 Cheltenham - Supreme Novices Hurdle
That first race is, of course, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, a Grade 1 over two miles. Recent seasons have seen short-priced jollies here (Cue Card, Dunguib, Cousin Vinny) all beaten, but it's likely to be much more open a betting heat this time around.
My full Supreme Novices Hurdle 2012 Preview is here, and below are a few further thoughts.
Likely favourite, Darlan, is many people's idea of the winner but here's my issue: the one time he was off the bridle, he only just wore down a horse called High Storm literally in the shadow of the post, and that horse and all bar one of the eight horses behind that day have failed to win since, from a collective eleven tries.
Interestingly, that run was here at Cheltenham and, whilst Darlan may a) have been unsuited by the slow pace, and b) have improved a stack since, his price has plenty of consideration of both of these points. I expect there to be stronger finishers in the field than him, and he won't even make my placepot tickets.
[If I'm wrong, there are two other placepot spots available, so I will still have a chance of getting through.]
So who do I like in what is a very tricky race? Well, nothing especially, inasmuch as there are a lot of very promising animals, and we'll know much more about the novice pecking order subsequently.
Without the facility to wager with hindsight, though, I can tell you I backed Tetlami (28/1) and Vulcanite (40/1) on 3rd January, and am pleased to see them both here, and both a good bit shorter.
I recently had a little tickle on Montbazon (12/1) and Colour Squadron (19/1), and that quartet is my four against the field.
There are stacks of unexposed horses up against each other, and anyone who reckons they know unequivocally who the winner is, is either a much better judge than me, or a much worse judge than me... go figure!
Whatever you've backed, the best of luck. With fifteen horses rated within six pounds of each other at the top of the five day declarations, there are plenty of possible winners, and it ought to be a race from which to follow the entire field.
In fact, on that point, backing all runners from last year's Supreme in subsequent starts would have returned 21 wins from 49 starts and a profit of £13.99 for a pound level stake!
There has been a lot of late money for Charles Byrnes' Trifolium and he has some good form. Whilst I might have a small win interest, I'm still happy with my quartet against the field.
2.05 Cheltenham - Arkle Challenge Trophy
This is another race I've already covered elsewhere. Here's my previous Arkle Trophy Preview.
The question we have to answer is this: is Sprinter Sacre unopposable?
For many, the answer is a simple 'yes'. For me, racing is never that simple and, whilst ignorance may well turn out to be blissful, I shall scratch my head in search of a viable alternative.
The reason for my 'against the crowd' perspective? Well, in truth it should be the reasonS, as I believe there are plenty. Here are a few:
1. SS didn't finish up the hill last year in the Supreme, after travelling like much the best horse. But, I hear you counter, he's had a wind op since then. True, and possibly the difference. But still I've not seen this horse win off the bridle since he's encountered obstacles. And I've seen him beaten twice when that happened.
2. Al Ferof has arguably a better level of form. He was the better hurdler, as he proved when beating SS in the aforementioned Supreme last year by more than five lengths. And he's raced against better horses this year, in taking on Somersby and Finian's Rainbow off level weights, and being beaten only five lengths.
SS can boast a bullying of the 134-rated Lightning Rod round pan-flat Donny; a bullying of the almost certainly much better over hurdles Peddlers Cross round the pan flat Kempton; and a bullying of the off for ten months beforehand and giving five pounds in weight and from the same stable French Opera round the flat Newbury.
None of this compares to the level of competition Al Ferof has taken on. Al Ferof has won a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 novice chase, and finished third in a Grade 1 against his elders.
SS has won a Grade 2 novice chase and a Grade 2 against his elders. And let's be clear: it's quite probable that Al Ferof would have stuffed that mob, and I would love to know how SS would have done in Somersby's Victor Chandler Chase.
SS looks visually more impressive, but he's beaten little of note, especially with the defection/dodging by Peddlers Cross, which brings into question the merit of that one's fencing ability.
3. SS is 5/6 and Al Ferof is 5/2. In fact, here are two great ways to play this. Back Al Ferof with Paddy Power at 9/4. It's worth taking shorter because they'll refund your money if SS wins, irrespective of where Al Ferof finishes.
Or back Al Ferof with Boylesports. They'll give you 5/2, and your money back if Al Ferof finishes second to any horse. And you'll be eligible to enter my £250 prize draw if you're opening a new account with them.
Is there anything else in the race? Yes. Menorah. Very, very good horse. Jumping problems. Danger if jumping well. Possible. 9/1 reasonable each way value if you don't mind losing twice should he fall.
Cue Card at 7/1? Erm, not for me. Should have probably headed to the Jewson over further.
2.40 Cheltenham - JLT Specialty Handicap Chase (ex William Hill Trophy)
Ah, the first of the handicaps. In what will be an extremely taxing week from a handicap perspective, I've decided that I will be playing very few of them to anything like proper stakes and, instead, tickle a couple and indulge in broad placepot coverage through them.
I suggest you do likewise. If, however, you deem these to be races to 'go at', then here's a few pointers for the first of many...
...starting with some general handicap chase wisdom.
Since 1996, only 13 of the 63 handicap chases were won by horses carrying 11-00 or more. Of those 13, six were in the amateur riders' race, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, and two were in the new novices’ handicap chase (an emerging trend).
So look low in the weights.
Of the three horses sharing favouritism here in the JLT, I'm against Quantitivesomethingorother, who has top weight of 11-12 and has never won at the trip. In fact, his two wins beyond 2m5f were in novice chases of three and four runners!
I'm also against The Package. Connections (Pipe/Johnson) are massively respected. But it will be a stroke of sheer genius if they can win with this one after a week short of 500 days off the track. Indeed, no handicapper has succesfully defied such a lay off in the last nine years at least.
Hold On Julio has looked extremely progressive this season, but the vibes are not good about his chance. With nothing to be gained from being negative (as the yard will have backed him long ago), I'd be looking elsewhere, despite his overall positive profile.
A perfect trends fit, one I've already backed and the one I like most at the prices is Zarrafakt.
Emma Lavelle is having her best season, she's won a couple of Festival handicaps already (from a very selective handful of runners), and this chap looks to have a fine chance. Beaten a fast diminishing head in a Newbury handicap over a quarter mile shorter than this (and giving the Paul Nicholls-trained winner twelve pounds), and then winning over 3m2f 'with any amount in hand' according to the racecourse commentator.
In a race that usually goes to one of the more considered entries, I would think that Zarrafakt will be a warmish order on the day, and can give us a great run for small money.
One I'm surprised to see in here, because I had a little ante-post on him for the Gold Cup (!) is Magnanimity. It's not a great race for the Irish, this, but this chap was only beaten a length in last year's RSA Chase, so will love conditions.
14/1 is another each way shout in an open race.
And finally, though he's more likely to place than win, Tullamore Dew looks solid placepot material after finishing second and third in the last two Cheltenham Festivals.
3.20 Cheltenham - Champion Hurdle
The joint smallest field in recent times, with just ten runners going to post. But the last two champion hurdlers - Binocular and Hurricane Fly - are here and, if it falls to those two at the last, the short field will be an irrelevance.
Similar types in some regards - both have stood little racing and both have missed Festival appointments in the past - this is one of the most keenly awaited clashes of the whole four days.
In 2010, the Fly sent a sick note. In 2011, Bin was still on beta blockers (or whatever 'The Chemist' feeds his Champion Hurdle aspirants - anyone back Grandouet ante-post this year? Anyone back Binocular ante-post last year AND Grandouet this year?!).
But here, in 2012, we get both in attendance, assuming there isn't one of those many slips which occur 'twixt cup and lip.
Will it fall between them? And if so, who will win?
Well, it is quite possible that it falls between them, as they are clearly the best two hurdlers in the field, and both have proved it at this level. But things often don't turn out that way, and further down the bookie's odds board you'll find four Nicholls runners.
I'd be shocked if Celestial Halo was good enough to show all the way home, and delighted if Brampour was. (I stupidly put fifty quid on him, win only, after he won the Greatwood, which is a decent enough trial in most years. He's twice the price now that he was when I backed him).
Of the more likely pair, Zarkandar was impressive considering all the things he had against him (first run for ten months, slow run race, stable under a cloud) when winning the Betfair Hurdle, and he'll improve plenty from there. But this might just come a year too soon.
Five year olds can win, but not when they're faced with two beasts of the calibre of Bin and the Fly.
Rock On Ruby has shortened markedly in the last week or so, and it's easy to see why. Just nosed out of it on an easier track at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle, this stiffer test should be right for him.
But he's been off for 78 days, and that's a good bit more than any of the last fourteen winners at least. Not for me. A very nice chaser for next season, though.
Overturn will bid to go from tape to line, but will surely be overcome by the multiple challengers he can expect here. He's a very hard horse to pass for only one other class horse in a race, but when they come in convoy it looks like curtains.
A winner? The Fly, from Binocular, in a humdinger. Of course, that's my heart speaking. I've backed both in interesting wagers (16/1 e/w about Binocular, recommended to all here, and a ton double with Sizing Europe at 7/2) so ought to have something to cheer either way. Dead heat anyone?
4.00 Cheltenham - Glenfaclas Cross Country Handicap Chase
For many, this is a case of 'from the sublime to the ridiculous'. But, as is often the case, I am not in the many. I really like the cross country race, especially when a) they go the right way, and b) I have the winner.
Generally speaking the winner is easy to find, and I can tell you that this year it will be trained by Willie Mullins and be either Scotsirish or Uncle Junior.
I've had a nice bet (for me, all pockets are relative) on Scotsirish at 5/1 and William Hill nearly tempted me in again last week with their 4/1 offer.
He's a horse I've always liked because he's a bloody trier. And he has a fair bit of class, especially in the context of a race like this. And he likes banks. And ditches. And brush hurdles. And all of the other assorted impediments the runners and riders are expected to clear.
Scotsirish to win for me, and I think Uncle Junior at 4/1 (1/4 1-2-3-4) is as close to an each way bet to nothing as you'll get all week. That's how I'll be hedging Scots.
Further down, Sizing Australia, Garde Champetre and A New Story are collectively responsible for the last FOUR winners of this, but two look past their peak, with the exception being Sizing Australia.
He's actually quite young for a cross country horse, at ten years old, and has been given what might be described as a surreptitious preparation for this, running down the field in a hurdle, and then a never-put-in-the-race third in another hurdle contest over two miles.
Sizing Australia may well make the frame again, but I can't see him beating the Mullins pair.
Garde Champetre is a place lay. There will be plenty in front of him this time. A New Story is interesting, but at fourteen is too old now, even for a race like this!
Aside from A New Story's 25/1 success when he was massively over-priced (I, and plenty of geegeez readers, backed him), the highest winning odds since this race's inception in 2005 was Sizing Australia's 13/2 last term. The other five were all 4/1 or shorter.
One with a similar profile to A New Story - same trainer, same background - is Dancing Tornado. He's been backed (Pricewise) and I've had a small saver.
But, seriously, don't over-think it. Scotsirish will win and Uncle Junior will make the frame at an each way price (just about).
Both are around 4/5 a place the first four and, for money buyers, this must be seriously tempting.
4.40 Cheltenham - David Nicholson Mares Hurdle
Again, not a race to be over-thunk. Quevega will win, quite probably, and there are more likely races at the Festival to try to find shorties to beat.
For each way players, the combination of a shortie and a lot of dead wood makes for a potential value proposition on the place part of those bets.
Unaccompanied must be doubtful to run here, and even if she did, two and a half miles is too far for her anyway.
The one that interests me most in this context is the Paul Webber-trained Alasi, a mare very much on the upgrade.
She ran in this last year, when sent off at 33/1, and finished a respectable fourth, beaten eleven lengths. This year, she's in much better form and can improve into the places. She has good ground form, which I think will be important this week, and won a Grade 2 hurdle (same as this) last time out.
Those generous bookie types are offering around 14/1, which is 7/2 a place, or 5/4 if you abandon hope of collecting on the win part, and that's better than the 1/2 on Quevega.
The other way to play it might be to try a Quevega-Alasi forecast. You'll get paid higher odds of course, but you'll probably kick yourself if Alasi finishes third.
5.15 Cheltenham - Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase
And we close the opening day, if you see what I mean, with the novices' handicap chase. A new race in 2005, some trends are starting to manifest themselves.
Six of the seven winners had won no more than once over fences, and all winners had finished first or second last time they ran in a chase. These are classic signs of protecting a handicap mark!
Ignoring the inaugural winner, King Harald, the subsequent six have all been rated in the 130’s, and this looks to be where to focus attention.
Seven year olds have won five of the seven renewals, and the only horse younger than this was French-bred Chapoturgeon. Ignore British or Irish bred horses aged younger than seven.
Finally, pay close attention to Ferdy Murphy, who has already won this race twice in its seven years.
All that said, I don't like Nicky Henderson's Triolo d'Alene, and will be looking elsewhere for my wager. He's seven pounds worse off with Ackertac for a two length beating of that rival, who also buggered up the last fence when it was between the pair.
Ackertac races close to the pace which is often an advantage in these sorts of races, where all sorts of carnage can be happening behind; and he's got Cheltenham Festival form.
Specifically, he was sixth in The Race for the Potatoes (Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle) last year behind Bobs Worth. The trip looks fine, and the ground ought not to both him either. From the highly respected Nigel Twiston-Davies yard, Ackertac is another I've backed already, and I think he has an excellent each way chance here.
Hunt Ball is set to carry twelve stone two, which will be a lot less then when bearing both jockey and owner into the unsaddling enclosure during his recent uber-purple patch.
The Hunt Ball has won six of his seven races since late November and just keeps on improving. He despatched Cool Friend the last day off a mark of 127 and has now been allocated 142.
When you consider that he started this run off 69 (!!!!!!), that shows you how much he's improved this season. Again, connections are respected. Kieran Burke used to ride for the excellent Pat Rodford but has now - aged just 26 - taken over the training license.
I suspect that Pa Rodford is still involved in a 'director of football' sort of role, and I like these guys. In fact, I was going to include Rodford in my Winning Trainers manual before his retirement. I am, as you might imagine, tracking the protege's progress... and he's done well so far.
But he's not for me. Too obvious in a race like this.
Aside from Ackertac, the one that smacks of a plotplotplot, is David Pipe's Battle Group. This horse was fourth in the Coral Cup last year, behind Carlito Brigante.
This term, he's been mixing chases with hurdles with a view to, I suspect, protecting his handicap mark.
Of course, the 'capper's nobody's fool, and Battle Group lugs 138 despite a fencing record of 2U2. Since his second second - again, if you see what I mean - he's run twice over hurdles.
The first of them was over a totally inadequate two miles at Cheltenham, where he was taken wide all the way round, the jockey never used the whip, and he was beaten eleven lengths at 33/1.
In his last race, the Grade 2 Game Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell, over a more suitable two and a half miles, he was ridden in last most of the way round and stayed on to be fifth, albeit beaten 22 lengths by the winner, though only thirteen by the second.
I've just watched his three chase starts as well. First time, when presumably they hoped they had a nice staying chaser, he wasn't beaten far by Fists of Fury (who was beaten half a length by Sir Des Champs in a Grade 2 last time!).
Then he was victim of the softest unseated rider you'll ever see. If you've got a Racing Post subscription or can find this on the video archive elsewhere, see if you agree with me that Johnny Farrelly should have been banned for pulling a horse. Absolute shocker. Racing Post comment was 'unseated rider several strides after fence'. Exactly.
Then he was again never put in a three runner race at Southwell.
Now, clearly, I could be woofing up the wrong wisteria. But, at 33/1 with Coral, I've got a few notes each way that says I might not be.
And that, dear friends, is day one of the magnificent Cheltenham Festival.
Fear not if you find fortune's fickle fingers have finagled your funds, as there are yet twenty more opportunities for that inconstant damsel to court you anew.
Conversely, should the lucky lady's light have shone brightly upon you in the first quarter, remember that she has many suitors to attend, and you may not be her favourite by week's end.
[I solemnly promise not to try poetry here again...!]
What are your day one fancies? Leave a comment below, and let us all know. (There I go again...)
p.s. Entrants for the Cheltenham prize draw - win £250 cash - currently have a one in five chance of scooping some money. If you haven't entered, you really should! And here's how you can.