For today’s piece I’ve decided to take a closer look at the Cheltenham Festival ‘shorties’ and assess whether they will thrash the opposition or unexpectedly crash and burn in the cauldron of Prestbury Park.
Year after year horses arrive at the Cotswolds in March with a huge reputation. They’ve often impressed in slowly run affairs, with small fields and usually in deep winter ground. Some duly arrive and conquer, confirming their status as potential stars. But others find Cheltenham an inhospitable place. The ground proves too quick and the opponents run too fast. They feel crowded in the larger fields and the fences are much trickier than those they have encountered before.
You only need to look back to last year’s Festival to see how Cheltenham in March can prove an immense assignment.
Yanworth lined-up as the 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle having won three from three during the winter. Nevertheless, he came-up short when it mattered. Never slick enough over the obstacles, he was then badly outpaced coming downhill. By the time the field had turned for home his race was run.
Douvan was injured during his attempt to land the Champion Chase, but was he also a victim of a soft campaign? He arrived at Cheltenham having defeated 138-rated Realt Mor in a Grade Two at Punchestown. Thrown in at the deep end, in arguably the most intense National Hunt race of the calendar, the 2/9 favourite was forced to go a yard or two faster than at any time during the winter. He stood off way too far at the third and fourth fence, before putting in a short one at the fifth. Those early errors may have caused the physical damage which ultimately led to his demise, though there can be little doubt that chasing Special Tiara on Spring ground played a significant part.
Death Duty looked a non-stayer before coming down at the last in the Albert Bartlett, though during a dominant winter campaign in Ireland had looked sure to appreciate a step-up in trip. He’d ‘kept on well’ to thump Monalee at Navan in December, yet at Cheltenham, when sent-off a 13/8 ‘sure thing’, was run off his feet and had nothing left when faced with the infamous hill. His pedigree shouts stayer! Yet quicker ground and the inevitable stronger pace of a Grade One at The Festival proved insurmountable for the talented young hurdler.
Unowhatimeanharry had swept all aside en-route to last year’s Festival. He’d looked hugely impressive in taking the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot and then the Cleeve at Cheltenham. A 5/6 favourite for the Stayers’ at the off, Harry Fry’s hurdler did little wrong, travelling powerfully through the race, but lacked gears on the livelier ground and was beaten into third.
Each year these stories are repeated and without doubt there’ll be several ‘shorties’ turned over in March. The difficulty comes in predicting which of the ‘Festival bankers’ will fail to deliver.
Getabird is already a 7/4 shot for the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If Samcro heads to the Ballydoyle as anticipated, the Mullins-trained six-year-old will be hugely popular with punters, especially of an Irish persuasion. He’s arguably the sort that we should be taking on. His pair of hurdles victories have come in heavy ground, and as a point-to-point winner, we know he’ll stay much further in time. He could be tapped for toe in a quick-fire Supreme. Nevertheless, at this moment in time I’m a believer rather than a doubter. He’s looked slick and destructively quick in winning those two races. The Mullins/Ricci combo have a tremendous record in the opener and with no Nicky Henderson contender to beat, I’m taking this fella to thrash the opposition much to the delight of the Irish contingent.
The Mullins team have another short-priced favourite for the second race of the meeting - the Arkle Chase. Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, Footpad has been brilliant over the winter, winning all three chase starts and taking to fences like a duck to water. An even-money favourite with most bookies, he’s earned the right to top the market and will be many punters banker of the opening day. Despite a faultless campaign to date, I’m taking Footpad to crash in a renewal that looks hugely competitive.
Petit Mouchoir, Sceau Royal and Saint Calvados could ensure that this is the race of the festival. A strong pace is guaranteed, and the winner will need to travel powerfully before staying on strongly up the famous hill. You could argue that Sceau Royal’s performance in winning the Henry VIII at Sandown was the most impressive by any novice this winter. I just have a slight concern as to whether he’ll be strong enough when faced with Cheltenham’s stiff finish. Saint Calvados was devastatingly good at Warwick last time, though needs to prove himself on a sounder surface. But it’s Petit Mouchoir that I fancy can turn the tables on Footpad. He should improve a ton for the run at Leopardstown last time. And producing two-mile chasers is Henry De Bromhead’s speciality.
Buveur D’Air is a certainty in the Champion Hurdle. Sure to thrash his challengers, those with plenty of cash can still get on at around 4/9.
I’m taking a huge risk with the next ‘Festival banker’. Samcro will look to maintain his perfect record under rules, with plenty believing that he cannot be beaten. Hugely impressive last time in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, he’s odds-on to take the Ballymore. Spring-heeled at his obstacles, he has gears and is bred to appreciate this trip. Those winter wins have come on heavy ground, but he’s by Germany, a stallion that has produced previous festival winners Faugheen and Captain Cee Bee. He has the credentials, but in On The Blind Side and Next Destination, the opposition looks strong.
The former is trained by Nicky Henderson and is also unbeaten under rules. He was mightily impressive at Sandown in December and is highly thought of by his trainer. The Willie Mullins-trained Next Destination is unbeaten over hurdles and ran well in last year’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham. He’s accounted for some decent sorts over the winter and looks sure to run a huge race. Samcro has looked awesome thus far, but I fancy the opposition is strong enough for him to be vulnerable here. Despite a huge amount of talent and a colossal reputation, he’s a crash rather than a thrash.
Like Buveur D’Air, Altior cannot be defeated. A two-time Festival winner, he’s in a different league to the rest. Min may be challenging approaching the last, but Altior will no doubt surge clear approaching the line. This fella is sure to thrash all-comers in the Champion Chase.
Though I’m stretching it a little in calling him a ‘shortie’, Might Bite has dominated the Gold Cup market since his King George success at Christmas. Hugely talented, though undoubtedly quirky, Henderson’s young chaser will face by far his toughest assignment at Cheltenham and I fear the infamous hill will prove his downfall. Almost chinned late-on in last year’s RSA, he faces better horses in March and arguably stronger stayers.
Sizing John needs to bounce back to form, but last year’s winner will probably do so. Native River has been aimed at this one race and looks sure to go close. Road To Respect is a Festival winner and has improved a ton during the winter. And there’s no doubting that Minella Rocco will be charging up the hill as others cry ‘enough’. I wouldn’t be at all upset if Might Bite proved me wrong, but for me he’s likely to crash when challenged by talented and more proven stayers.
So there you have it. Some will leave the Cotswolds with huge reputations intact, whilst others head home having found Cheltenham a place where dreams fail to come true.