The countdown to the 2018 Cheltenham Festival has begun and, with the advent of 48 hour declarations, we knew Tuesday's final fields on Sunday morning. Hallelujah! Whilst there remains a shadow of doubt about the day one weather, I am assuming it will be at least very soft and (far?) more likely heavy, regardless of the official going description. The thoughts in this post will reflect that assumption.
We get underway to the traditional roar at 1.30pm on Tuesday with the...
1.30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 87 yds)
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Preview
Getabird is a warm favourite here coming, as he does, from the Mullins/Ricci production line and being, as he is, unbeaten. The only relevant piece of form is his most recent start, a nine length verdict over re-opposing Mengli Khan in receipt of six pounds. That puts just four pounds between the pair on BHA performance ratings, with the form arguably anchored by the proximity of the third horse, the decent but by no means top drawer, Carter McKay.
Still, the Mullins horse was a facile winner in spite of the protestations from Mengli's trainer, Gordon Elliott, that his horse was not quite right that day. If you believe Elliott you might be more tempted by his horse's 12/1 quote than Getabird's 7/4. If you like the favourite, I'd be sure you'll get 2/1 on the day and perhaps even 5/2 for small money in the early concessionary skirmishes.
And what of the major British challengers? Kalashnikov is the highest in the betting rank, at 9/2 second favourite. He was somewhat overlooked after his barreling Betfair Hurdle win, still available at 10/1 the day after. Nothing has happened, with the exception of further Prestbury Park precipitation, to halve his odds. He's an attractive each way play, with conditions looking optimal and with that bombproof handicap form in the book.
Whilst most would favour handicap efforts over conditions race in terms of the reliability of the form, it must be noted that Kalashnikov was put in his place on his penultimate start by Summerville Boy. That one, still generally 10/1 - twice the price of his victim that day, had previously been beaten thrice on faster ground. If heavy is the key to him, then the way he finished off two back over course and distance offers hope to his supporters.
There are a couple of 'wise guy' horses in here in the shape of Paloma Blue and First Flow, though both look short enough on what they've done. Paloma Blue was outclassed by Samcro (fair enough) and outstayed by Duc Des Genievres (harder to excuse) in the Deloitte last time, and has been beaten at this trip by horses that want further. He doesn't look a strong enough stayer in the ground to me.
First Flow on the other hand does nothing better than stay: he's a relentless galloper who has won the last twice on heavy, including in a Haydock Grade 2 last time. But his two main market rivals both failed to fire giving the form a hollow look, and his previous win - where he was under heavy pressure in the closing stages despite the eventual 20 length winning margin - cuts little ice in this company. Neither is for me at the prices.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Pace Map
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Tips
A confluence of more reliable but arguably exposed form (Kalashnikov) and untapped potential (Getabird). I expect the current price differential 9/2 vs 7/4 to converge somewhat to 7/2 and 9/4 or thereabouts, and that perhaps aligns to their respective chances more adequately. Certainly there will be a point when Getabird becomes a backable price - he has an obvious chance but one that is over-stated by the market currently to my eye - and that point is 5/2 for me.
The play right now may be an interest in Kalashnikov, whose last day win in the Betfair Hurdle is the best form in the race. His prior defeat to Summerville Boy does raise a question mark over extremely testing conditions, though it was a very wet day at Newbury when he romped in the Betfair.
Summerville Boy is a tricky one to weigh up. His overall form profile is not good enough, but that Tolworth triumph - a Grade 1 - was on heavy and was no fluke. He's a late runner who could pick up the pieces if the jocks in this big field are daft enough to go hard early. Looking at the pace map above, they may just be that. 10/1 is worth a small play in that context.
Bookie concessions aplenty on this race, so shop around.
Best value win bet: Kalashnikov 9/2 (backable down to about 7/2)
Best value each way bet: Summerville Boy 10/1 (unexciting at much shorter than that)
Do shop around!
2.10 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 1m 7f 199yds)
Some eschatological doom-mongering on socia media about the size of the field here, but the simple fact is that the top three in the market tower over their division and have scared most of the rest off. It would be odds-on that they collectively still serve up a thriller. Keep in mind also that bigger fields in the past six years have produced winners at 1/4, 1/4, 4/6, 8/15 and 8/11 as well as the 33/1 Western Warhorse episode. So let's celebrate a depth of quality unseen in recent renewals over a quantity of fawning acolytes in those coronation processions.
To business. Let's first discount the brace of probable also-rans, Brain Power and Robinshill. Robinshill is a stone and a half inferior to the pick of these on ratings, and pulled up in his only heavy ground chase outing - at Newton Abbot.
Brain Power will be a horse a few try to make a case for, but his case is surely not credible at 10/1. He's shown little aptitude for leaping a fence (one completion in three chase starts) and his only two runs on deeper than good to soft ended in a 20 length beating and a tumble last time. Yes, he was possibly going to make a race of it with Un De Sceaux there but I cannot take that form literally. They are likely to go hard from the start here, and Brain Power's jumping, allied to his lack of form on muddy terrain, is expected to find him out.
Three in with a serious squeak then, and it is actually quite hard to choose between them despite market quotes ranging between 5/4 and 3/1, the point in the triangle being Footpad.
Rated around 157 over hurdles, Willie Mullins' charge has improved to a current mark of 160 over fences in an unbeatean hat-trick to date. That includes two Grade 1 scores, the more recent of which was a five length beating of Petit Mouchoir in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle at Leopardstown. There, the second was awkward at the first and downright clumsy at the second; lucky to survive the latter blunder he was going on again at the finish and ought to be a fitter horse this time. He was also the better horse over hurdles, reaching a peak in that sphere of 164 and finishing a place in front of Footpad when third in last year's Champion Hurdle.
But how soft does Petit Mouchoir want it? The former Mullins inmate was beaten on both starts with the word 'heavy' in the going description and he'll have to bid to break that short losing streak here. Moreover, only one of his five career wins has come on soft ground, and that in a maiden hurdle where he thoroughly outclassed his rivals. I backed him ante post, but the ground has gone against him. I couldn't recommend him at 3/1.
If that pair are the established players, with top class hurdle form in the book, Saint Calvados is a left-field Johnny Come Lately, or perhaps Jean Arrivee En Retard. Whacked by French superstar, De Bon Coeur, on his final Gallic gallop, the son of Saint Des Saints - now trained by Harry Whittington - is, like Footpad, unbeaten in three domestic chase starts. His triple includes a win on heavy and two soft ground scores - no worries on the turf with this chap - and each was in relentless, facile manner.
He is a horse of huge potential so, though an unconventional player arriving as he does without top hurdling form, he looks the main threat to Footpad.
Arkle Pace Map
This looks like a two horse race between Footpad and Saint Calvados, which is not ideal for me given my main ante-post wager was on Petit Mouchoir. He can still win but he'd be showing by far the best form he's demonstrated on wet ground to achieve that notable victory.
Footpad was a high class hurdler - third in the Triumph Hurdle, fourth in the Champion Hurdle on his two prior Festival visits - but he wasn't out of the top drawer. As such, his 5/4 odds look a little too tight to play.
At 3/1, Saint Calvados has his ground, has so far jumped very well (in running comments for his three UK wins include the statements "jumped well" twice and, most recently, "jumped with elan"), and he should have no problem with the track after a bloodless win at Warwick last time. He only has two pounds to find on ratings and is the least exposed of these: he looks the value play.
Best value win bet: Saint Calvados 3/1 (backable down to 5/2)
2.50 Ultimate Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 3m 1f)
Ultima Handicap Chase Preview
I'm deliberately going light on the handicaps. They're not my forte - they're very few people's forte in my experience! - so no point me waffling on. I'll take a small chance with any horse that has big field form, and heavy ground form, and is a lightly raced - perhaps novice - chaser.
On my shortlist in that context are Coo Star Sivola and Ramses De Teillee.
Coo Star Sivola hails from the shrewd and bang-in-form Nick Williams yard, and will be ridden by daughter Lizzie Kelly. Far from hiding his light under a bushel - well, not all of it at least - he ran an attractive fourth to Frodon in a 2m5f handicap chase here in January (heavy ground); and took the whole enchilada on his sole subsequent start, a three miler at Exeter.
Fourth in the Martin Pipe at the Festival last year, off a similar perch, he ought to be bang there, though a top price of 7/1 is hardly pant-wetting value.
Ramses De Teillee is a mudlark of the old school. Five runs on heavy have yielded a form sequence of 21212 mainly in novice and graduation company. Trainer David Pipe is no stranger to Festival handicap success. Indeed, since 2009, he has more such wins than any other trainer - seven from 70 starts, and a small SP profit. Moreover, another eleven - 18 in total - were placed. He'll need to brush up on his jumping in this bigger field, but looks the sort to go well for a proven firm.
There will be no shortage of plot horses and fancies, but rather than muck about I'll take this pair against the rest.
Ultima Handicap Chase Pace Map
Ultima Handicap Chase Tips
Coo Star Sivola has an obvious chance, which has not been missed by the market. Granted luck - never a given in such melting pot contests - he'll be thereabouts. And Ramses De Teillee is a sporting each way play which smacks of a sliver of value.
Best win bet: Coo Star Sivola 6/1 betfair sports, 5/1 general (not much in the way of value)
Best value each way bet: Ramses De Teillee 14/1 general
3.30 Unibet Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)
Champion Hurdle Preview
I previewed this race in January here: 2018 Champion Hurdle Preview
Very little has changed since then, except that Buveur D'Air has shortened and nothing has shown itself to be a credible contender to the retention of that one's crown. He handles heavy ground, has yet to be seriously tested and is bidding for an unbeaten streak of ten in a row.
You'd have to be feeling particularly argumentative to suggest that the chance of Faugheen bouncing back to his very best was anything like a 6/1 shot, or that Wicklow Brave might prevail on his first start since getting off the plane from Oz back in November: he attempted the same feat last year and was a fifteen length 7th. He is one from six on soft ground over hurdles, and outclassed two moderate fields in his heavy ground wins, which were incidentally more than four years ago.
My Tent Or Yours may struggle on the ground and it is just very difficult to make a case for anything in either the each way or 'without the favourite' markets. If there is a joker in the pack - and boy, is he a joker - it could be Yorkhill. Willie shuffled his deck for the umpteenth time with this funny fellow, and the cards said Champion Hurdle. He's reverting to the smaller obstacles after an abortive season over fences and, though absolutely bonkers, he has more talent than most of these.
But this is simply a race to watch and enjoy as, hopefully, a champion lords it over his subjects.
Champion Hurdle Pace Map
Champion Hurdle Tips
Win or lose, there are few more solid 4/7 shots than Buveur d'Air. So, while you've got to have plenty of sevens to be nicking some fours, he will take a world of beating.
Nothing appeals particular in the novelty markets with imponderables hovering over all of the rest of the field. Indeed the only certainty is that the vast majority simply are not good enough to win this race. Exceptions, on their day, are Faugheen and Yorkhill, though others will argue hollow cases for Melon and Wicklow Brave. Not for me. I'm settling in to watch a champion set about his business.
Most likely winner: Buveur d'Air 4/7 (hard to quantify but he may actually be value at that price, probably more like a 1/3 shot)
4.10 OLBG Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 3f 200yds)
Mares' Hurdle Preview
An interesting if somewhat unexciting renewal of the Mares' Hurdle. Reigning champion, Apple's Jade, bids to retain her crown in what looks a shallow heat. Gordon Elliott's mare, formerly with Willie Mullins before the infamous Gigginstown House split, has not been out of the first two in a dozen UK and Irish starts, and arrives here off the back of a five race unbeaten streak which began with victory in the race last term.
She is coming in off the back of a layoff - something which has seen her beaten a couple of times in the past - but it is reasonable to expect she's at peak fitness for her first start of 2018. Apple's Jade is clear top-rated, will have no problem with the ground, and looks hard to beat.
If there is a chink in her armour, it could be a contested pace: Benie Des Dieux, representing AJ's former employers, is expected to be gunned under Ruby, and La Bague Au Roi, arguably the only other danger in the race, also likes to be on the speed. In fairness, Apple's Jade does not need to lead, she just likes to, so if having to rate close up, that ought to be fine.
The only other question mark is whether anything is capable of running to a high 150's rating which is presumed to be required. La Bague Au Roi got her career high rating for an impressive demolition job over three miles on soft ground last time. Although she's been versatile as regards trip, that longer range has shown her in the best light to date, and whether she could go with two equally strong stayers who have more demonstrable Graded speed in their form profiles I'm not sure.
Benie Des Dieux is a bit of a strange one. Nothing in her form says she should be 7/2 for a race like this. Of course, the Mullins stable would have had other options and that is somewhat of a tip in itself... until you consider the other options. Let's Dance is a stone below Apple's Jade and was about the pick of the rest. Mullins' other runner here, presumed a social starter, is a 66/1 poke.
Anyway, this mare has raced over fences in her last three starts since being acquired from France, a trio that takes in a beginners' chase and a pair of Listed contests, at Carlisle and Naas. Not exactly going to get AJ quaking in her shoes. Clearly there's more to come from Benie, but she's a horrible price on what she's achieved even allowing that she could step forward seven pounds switching back to hurdles. By the way, switching back to hurdles is not a great Festival tactic: in Grade 1 hurdles at the Fez, such runners are 0 from 17, one place, since 2005. Most were bigger prices, granted, but they were all whacked.
If you can see one of La Bague Au Roi and Benie Des Dieux out of the frame, then there's a sniff of an each way opportunity. Much the best fit for that bill is Gavin Cromwell's Jer's Girl. No stranger to the ferry over, Jer's Girl has form of 1F2 in Britain, the tumble when going well three out in last year's Mares' Hurdle. That was uncharacteristic - her only failure to complete in 15 career starts - and there is little between her and La Bague Au Roi on Kempton Christmas running. Moreover, Jer's Girl is a dual Grade 1 winner at the 2m4f distance, which cannot be said of either of the two mares between herself and Herself (Apple's Jade). I'm not completely certain she wants it bottomless, but then nor am I convinced she won't cope with it, and 16/1 just looks too big.
Mares' Hurdle Pace Map
Mares' Hurdle Tips
I understand that I'm claiming few points for originality on the opening day, but it is really hard to get away from Apple's Jade, especially if, like me, you're struggling to make a case for the second favourite. La Bague Au Roi is an obvious place player at least, but so obvious is she that it has already been factored into her price.
The value each way and/or without Apple's Jade could be Jer's Girl. She's a proven G1 performer who had plenty more to offer when crashing out in this race last year, and there are no flies on her trainer, Gavin Cromwell.
Best win bet: Apple's Jade 4/7 (about right, I'd say)
Best value each way bet: Jer's Girl 16/1 (backable e/w down to about 12/1)
4.50 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 7f 170yds)
National Hunt Chase Preview
A race which has improved in terms of quality in recent seasons, largely as a result of changes to the conditions of entry. No winner since 2008 has returned bigger than last year's 16/1 victor, Tiger Roll, and seven of the ten winners in that time returned a single figure price. The message is simple: don't get too cute.
Of course, those races weren't run on what is highly likely to be a desperately attritional circuit, with the emphasis deeply on stamina and ability to handle give: the spread on finishers may be fairly low (and still a sell).
It's a race where the better horses have been winning, and where the better jockeys have been steering. My shortlist, then, is Mossback, Rathvinden, Jury Duty, Ms Parfois, No Comment and Sizing Tennessee.
Although I wouldn't want to be too far back, I'd also be wary of backing a front-runner, especially one who can make errors, like ten-year-old Sizing Tennessee. In his defence, when he's been good, he's been very good - as when winning here three back over an extended three miles. It is reasonable to assume he was unsuited to the shorter trips he's encountered since, but that jumping concern is hard to overlook.
Mossback hasn't had a stack of goes just yet, but he's awfully short at 5/1 for one so inexperienced. Lisa O'Neill is an excellent pilot who will likely get a bold sight of her fences from close to the head of affairs but I'm also not sold on this fellow's stamina. At the price, I'll let him beat him, which he might.
The other old boy Rathvinden is interesting. It's anathema to back a horse of double digit age in almost any race at the Festival, still less a novice contest. But the nature of this slugfest should play to a veteran's strengths. We've seen with the victories of 14-year-olds Ratify and Pete The Feat last weekend that testing conditions allow maturity, ahem, to come to the fore.
Rathvinden was taken off his feet, literally, over two and a half in Grade 1 company last time, and this slower meter should be more agreeable. He has stamina to prove and isn't an enormous price for that, but he's just about playable.
Talking of price, there is almost nothing to dislike about Jury Duty except his cramped odds. 9/2 may look poor value, but when he wins at 3/1 - as he very well might - we'll be happy enough with the 50% premium. This chap jumps, stays, has the best jockey and arguably the best form and, if avoiding mishap while waited with out back far from the madding crowd on the front, he may prove irresistible approaching the last.
I have had a small bet at 20/1 on Ms Parfois, representing the brilliant Anthony Honeyball yard. She is a bold-jumping, strong-staying, course-winning mare who gets an allowance from the lads and who has a solid enough amateur. The yard's form is a bit of a worry right now, though. No matter, I won't be cheering a horse as much as this one all day.
Talking of yards out of form, it's been a season to forget for the excellent Philip Hobbs. Talk of that stable emerging from the doldrums appear premature, a 9% 90-day strike rate having slumped to a 7% 30-day strike rate. No Comment is too short with that in mind. Further, this will be only the second time the horse has jumped a fence in public. As plots go this is a thick one where 7/1 is readily passable.
The rest ought not to be good enough.
National Hunt Chase Pace Map
National Hunt Chase Tips
The market has this sewn up, by the looks of things. That said, with so little proven marathon form, there is the scope for a shock: it's just that it would be hard to guess from where that might emerge.
In the circumstances, I do like the stalking profile of Jury Duty, even at a short price (there are less in this with a chance than the number lining up might imply). And I think Rathvinden is interesting also, if an unsexy price. I'll reserve the biggest cheer for Ms Parfois, though that is personal loyalties rather than especially punting prejudice, a couple of quid at a tidy price notwithstanding.
Best value win bet: Jury Duty 5/1 Unibet, 888sport (backable down to 4/1)
Best alternative: Rathvinden 15/2 betfair sports (wouldn't want to take much shorter)
5.30 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f 78yds)
Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase Preview
Another handicap and another race where I will be unapologetically (and perhaps mercifully for those who have soldiered this far) brief. As with all such races at the Festival, it's a contest full of improvers, lurkers, ex-jobbers and Graded wolves in 'cap sheep's clothing. In other words, it redefines precarious punting.
De Plotting Shed is an obvious place to start. He arrives here seven pounds below his hurdle rating, which is a good start; and he's trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell. That's an excellent set of connections. He'll handle the ground and was good enough to be fourth in the Punchestown Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1) last April. He is likely to run well, with a price which fully reflects that.
Three heavy houmds off the tee for me then, as follows:
Testify has been to Haydock what molten lava is to the sloping side of a volcano, rolling slowly but inexorably to victory the last twice in hock-deep mud. He has all the weight here, but is only eight runs (five wins) into a career which has been characterized recently by a unbeaten hat-trick since going chasing. There's a good chance he'll bid to make all - see pace map below - and at least that'll keep him out of trouble.
Another on a winning roll is Barney Dwan, whose 148 hurdling peak is five pounds higher than his current 143 over fences - he was actually dropped two pounds for a recent five length win! He handles heavy and receives the services of the excellent Noel Fehily for an upwardly mobile trainer in Fergal O'Brien. I'm not entirely convinced he wants it really heavy, but he has won on it albeit when he may have just been a lot better than his opposition.
A former Grade 1-winning hurdler who loves heavy ground is Le Rocher. That top class score came in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle, on heavy, and he backed that up when winning the G2 Finesse Hurdle on Cheltenham Trials Day that same season, also on heavy. Overall on heavy ground, his form reads 1117113. He probably doesn't have as much up his sleeve as some - basically racing off the same mark as his peak hurdles figure - but the trip and ground are optimal and he's 25/1.
Naturally, pretty much everything else has some sort of chance, and you don't need me to tell you that.
Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase Pace Map
Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase Tips
I couldn't put anyone off De Plotting Shed whose chance is as clear as his position in the market. But, at bigger prices, I quite like Testify and, especially, Le Rocher, the latter looking much too big at 25/1. Barney Dwan is interesting, too, but his price perhaps doesn't fully recognise a reservation about testing turf.
Best win bet: De Plotting Shed 13/2
Alternative: Testify 14/1
Best value each way bet: Le Rocher 25/1
And that's Tuesday's card as I see it. What's your best bet? Leave a comment below and let us know what you'll be backing...