Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Four Preview, Tips

It's Friday 13th, Gold Cup Day, the last of four glorious afternoons in the Cotswolds for the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. As well as the Blue Riband itself, there are further Grade 1's in the form of the Triumph and Albert Bartlett Hurdles, devilish handicaps and a hunter chase! It all starts with the juniors in the...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

As fascinating a Triumph Hurdle as I can remember, with established Grade 1 horses, uber-impressive ungraded winners, and a Johnny Come Lately catapulted to favouritism.

Let's start with Johnny, or maybe Jeannie - the ex-French Solo. Trained by Paul Nicholls, he burst onto the scene with a visually stunning performance in the Grade 2 Adonis at Kempton last month. That recognised trial saw him put 13 lengths between himself and Fujimoto Flyer, the latter considered a Triumph contender when the tapes rose but perhaps not as they passed the jam stick.

So, yes, visually impressive; but the race time was the slowest of three on the card over that two mile trip, and there was little to encourage in Solo's sectional splits. He's entitled to improve and will shock nobody if he wins but I'm not quite believing it yet.

Vying for market primacy is the win beast, Goshen. In three goes over hurdles, he's won by 23 lengths, 34 lengths and 11 lengths. Prior to that he'd won his three flat handicaps by 12 lengths, nine lengths and seven lengths. The form of his most recent hurdle start was franked when the second, Nordano, waltzed home by 16 lengths in a competitive-looking Class 2 handicap at Ascot.

Goshen has yet to race in a Graded heat, and he does jump markedly right sometimes, but he's very, very good.

And then there's Allmankind, another talented but mild headcase. He won the Grade 1 Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow last time, but that was in late December. Here we are, eleven weeks later, and the Dan Skelton-trained son of Sea The Moon has not been sighted since. That won't necessarily stop him, of course, and he has a win at Cheltenham previously, too. He is a bold front-runner and, unlike Goshen - who also likes to go from the front, he probably needs to lead.

Aspire Tower is another who has both been ante post favourite for the Triumph, like all those mentioned so far, and generally races front rank, like all bar Solo of those mentioned so far. He was in a scrap when coming down at the last in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle but had previously looked very impressive in turning away Wolf Prince by 18 lengths in a Grade 2.

The chief beneficiary of Aspire's last day tumble was A Wave Of The Sea, who repelled Wolf Prince by just a length and a quarter. Given that he was 35 lengths behind Aspire Tower in that previous G2 and that Wolf was 18 lengths back that day, it is fair to assume that Aspire Tower did not bring his A game. If that's right, and his previous form can be believed, then he is a certain player in this field. A Wave Of The Sea meanwhile has had many tries and looks vulnerable in what is, ostensibly at least, a deep field.

Sir Psycho and the rest look to have a heck of a lot to find.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

Plenty of pace with Allmankind likely to prove the 'speed of the speed'. Goshen and Aspire Tower will be bang there if recent evidence is any guide.

Triumph Hurdle Selection

I've backed Goshen at a good price and I hope - obvs! - that he wins. I think if he can settle behind Allmankind in the early stages he'll have a solid chance, though I am a little concerned about the drying ground. I don't want to be with Allmankind for all that I respect what he's done so far and I think Solo is pretty short though he may improve again - which would see him take plenty of beating. Perhaps the forgotten horse, if there is one, is Aspire Tower, whose form prior to his last flight fall last time was much the best in Ireland. His trainer, Henry de Bromhead, is having a terrific Festival.

Suggestion: Consider backing Aspire Tower at 6/1 general.

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2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Too difficult. Way too difficult. But there is an interesting stat relating to trainers of recent winners: since 2004, the surnames Nicholls, Mullins, and Skelton have won 13 of 16 renewals of the County Hurdle!

Paul Nicholls has four, Willie Mullins has four also, Dan Skelton has three (in the last four years), and Tom and Tony Mullins have one apiece in that time frame. Given how many runners there are in this race, that is a remarkable stat, to my eye at least.

Those vying for favouritism are trained by Willie (Ciel De Neige and Aramon, plus four others) and Dan (Mohaayed), with Paul Nicholls' pair, Christopher Wood and Scaramanga bigger prices.

Skelton's winners were 8/1, 12/1 and 33/1, the 33/1 shot - Mohaayed - being 9/1 this time in spite of no obvious recent form and looking a plot. Nicholls' winners were 4/1, 7/1, 11/1 and 20/1, while Willie's winners were 10/1, 20/1 twice and 25/1.

So I want to risk a Willie wunner at a pwice. It's that sort of wace.

His fancied horse, Aramon, sets the form standard on a fifth place in the Irish Champion Hurdle, form advertised since by both the winner, Honeysuckle - winner of the Mares' Hurdle, and the second, Darver Star - third in the Champion Hurdle. He has a lot of weight but that didn't stop Arctic Fire for the same team three years ago. Paul Townend, winner in 2017 and 2015, rides.

Ciel De Neige was second at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle. Whilst he has more progression and fits the unexposed five-year-old route into the race, he's got a fair bit to find with Aramon. He might find it but Barry Geraghty, who presumably had the pick, has opted for Saint Roi, another in the Willie camp. That one was third in a Listed race at Auteuil on his second run and has since scored in maiden company to show the requisite level for a rating eligible for this. He's very much at the right end of the handicap but whether he quite has the experience for a County shemozzle I don't know: he's a player if he does.

Mohaayed has had a wind op since last seen 83 days ago. He was a nine length seventh in this last year off an 11lb higher mark and this has been the plan, plain and simple, for a team who have made this race their own in recent times. I'll be looking elsewhere though more fool me if he wins.

As usual, lots more with chances.

County Hurdle Pace Map

Not too intensive a pace by the look of things, but that can change in the cauldron of a race like the County. An even gallop is the percentage play.

County Hurdle Selection

Very tricky stuff, and I think I'll side - for beer money only - with Aramon. I like his class, that Irish Champion Hurdle form looking bulletproof if he can handle the war that is a County Hurdle scrap.

Suggestion: Back Aramon each way at 9/1 (six places) 888sport

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2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The Albert Bartlett is the race at which to take a swing at the Festival. It is habitually won by horses who can travel and stay off a strong gallop, and the top of the market is habitually framed around horses that have shown class rather than stamina/resolution in small field jigjogs (relatively).

Since At Fisher's Cross in 2013, who won as the 11/8 favourite, we have now witnessed six double-digit odds winners in a row, including 33/1 and 50/1 scorers in the past two years, a 33/1 winner in 2014, as well as a 33/1 winner in 2010. Go long!

Naturally, there are obvious form cases to be made for those near the head of affairs, most notably perhaps Thyme Hill, who has hinted at wanting a greater stamina test throughout his novice hurdles career to date. Hinted at it but not yet proven his aptitude for it.

So here's a little micro angle: horses that finished top four in a Graded race last time and were priced between 16/1 and 50/1 for the Albert Bartlett won five from 31, placed another four times, and netted 139 points of SP profit. Four of them were trained in Ireland. Back-fitted? A bit. Vague underlying logic? Yes'm.

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Those at double-digit prices roughly fitting the bill include Cobbler's Way, Fury Road and Ramses De Teillee. Cobbler's Way was second to Latest Exhibition in the Nathaniel Lacy last month: having led, he got outpaced before coming back at the winner after the last, going down by two lengths. This stiffer test looks up his street.

Fury Road, like Cobbler's owned by Gigginstown, was the winner of a heavy ground near-three mile Grade 2 prior to being outpaced in the same race as Cobbler's. He too will prefer this test.

Ramses De Teillee is a typically hard-knocking type who has largely plied his trade in handicap chases. This season, switching to timber, he's three from three, all at three miles, two of them on heavy ground, and two in Grade 2 company. A win on good to soft demonstrates versatility in terms of the going, and there are many who have long held a candle for his chance.

The one at bigger prices is House Island. I'm not sure he'll stay for all that he might have just got outpaced the last twice in Grade 2's; but most of his racing has been on flat tracks.

Latest Exhibition is a more obvious form chance, having beaten both Cobbler's and Fury last time; so too Harry Senior, who beat House Island last time. That, of course, is well reflected in their odds.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This could be fast early, which would make for slow motion stuff at the other end. Any or all of House Island, Aione, Cat Tiger, Cobbler's Way and Ramses De Teillee are perennial pace pushers, with another five or so generally prominent. No hiding place looks the likely call.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

I want to take two at longer prices against those at the head of the betting, for all that it's a strategy that will fail at some point soon. My pair are Ramses De Teillee, for whom this test is demonstrably his cup of tea; and Cobbler's Way, who has more to come and might find it for the stiffer demands.

Suggestion: Back Ramses De Teillee at 12/1 and/or Cobbler's Way at 14/1.

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3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

A dozen head to post for a cracking Gold Cup where established players, including the defending champion, take on the next generation of aspirants.

The champ is Al Boum Photo, an eight-year-old trained by Willie Mullins. He gave Mullins a maiden Gold Cup win last term and won the same Tramore Grade 3 on New Year's Day as he did last year en route to victory. We know he's well and we know he's at the same level as last year. If he can traverse the obstacles error-free - a fair 'if' - he has a really good chance of doubling up.

The fact that no horse has won back-to-back Gold Cups since Best Mate rounded out a hat-trick in 2004 attests to the difficulty of defending the title, and there are plenty of legitimate rivals throwing their hats into the ring. Santini, last year's RSA Chase runner-up, is perhaps foremost among them.

Nicky Henderson's charge had an interrupted preparation ahead of last year's Festival but has sailed serenely to the starting line (so far) this term. He has enhanced his claims with a pair of small field wins, first at Sandown where he made hard work of despatching Now McGinty, and then in the Cotswold Chase across these undulations when barreling away from Bristol De Mai. That form showed that staying is Santini's strong suit, but it also showed that he can take a liberty or two on the way round.

A couple of lengths behind Santini in last year's RSA was Delta Work, whose 2019/20 campaign has seen him win the Grade 1 Savills Chase and Irish Gold Cup. With Al Boum Photo in absentia on both occasions, Delta Work has staked his claim to be the best of the rest of the Irish, seeing off the re-opposing Monalee, Kemboy and Presenting Percy.

But there were barely four lengths from first to fifth-placed Percy there, which equates to a single mistake out in the country during the more than three and a quarter miles of the Gold Cup trip; and that brings in those last day vanquished.

Monalee was closest, just a head behind, and that after jockey Rachael Blackmore lost an iron on the run in, a very rare missed cue from a brilliant rider. She'll be keen to make amends but Monalee may have stamina limitations over this test.

Kemboy has had an interesting year, with his ownership being disputed through the courts as a syndicate turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. On the track, he's twice been close behind Delta Work since winning at both Aintree and Punchestown last spring. All four of those runs were in Grade 1's, but he didn't get beyond the first fence in last year's Gold Cup where he unshipped David Mullins. The odd sticky jump is a feature of his game though he generally gets around and often wins.

Presenting Percy has looked a lost soul in the last couple of seasons but he came back to close to his best in that Irish Gold Cup, for all that he has five lengths to find with Delta Work. The proximity of the above quartet leads me to believe this year's Gold Cup will either be won by something else, or it's a very competitive renewal. Probably, though not definitely, the latter.

I'm a fan of Clan Des Obeaux, but not in the context of a Gold Cup. He's got plenty of speed, as shown in two King George victories, but he seemed to run out of puff as they passed the three mile marker in this last year. A different prep, with two fewer battles, this season may offer a touch more late-race energy but I feel there are stronger stayers in the field.

Colin Tizzard is always to be respected with staying types and he saddles Lostintranslation. Hailed by many as the most likely Gold Cup winner in the early part of the season, he has not run since pulling up in the King George. There he couldn't go the pace, something which may be less of a concern in a field not loaded with early sizzle; but he's bidding to be the first winner to have pulled up last time since Cool Dawn in 1998.

Henry de Bromhead's team are in excellent fettle and he runs Chris's Dream. A near ten length winner of the big field Troytown Handicap Chase advertised his top drawer credentials, which he's subsequently rubber stamped by winning the Red Mills Chase, a Grade 2 over an inadequate two and a half miles. A second season chaser, he'll have to improve a good bit again, but he's risen from 146 to 160 to 165 in his last three starts, stays and jumps well, and handles all ground.

For all that I don't want to back him, I wouldn't put anyone off a small each way tickle on Bristol De Mai. Second in the Cotswold Chase behind Santini, he was third in this last year, and second to Lostintranslation in between times. If you like either of Santini or Lostintranslation, you have to give this nine-year-old a place squeak at least.

Real Steel and Elegant Escape don't look good enough, though the latter is a strong stayer.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

Kemboy is the most likely to lead but, given that he didn't get further than the first last year, Bristol De Mai could also be bang there. Clan may be ridden to get the trip which would see him less handy than is often the case, but Monalee and Santini are expected to be nearer first than last.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

A compelling puzzle but not an easy one to solve. The first route in is to say that Al Boum Photo just wins. That's possible but he's got to be the first to do a 'Best Mate' in more than fifteen years. The second is to rate the form of the Henderson yard and the Henderson horse, Santini, as the most progressive. I quite like that though I worry he might blunder his chance away late. The third is to favour the Irish Gold Cup form, which gives Delta Work nothing of note on Monalee, Presenting Percy and Kemboy. A fourth is to believe in the more measured season of Clan Des Obeaux to provide that one some extra pep in the late furlongs; and a fifth might be to play the Hail Mary of Chris's Dream improving over the top of all of them at a huge price. It's a puzzle all right!

I've already backed Santini, and I'm going for the big hit - which I might need to get me out of jail by this point - on Chris's Dream, whose progression I like.

Suggestion: Back Santini at 4/1 general and consider a small Hail Mary play on Chris's Dream each way at 25/1 general.

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4.10 The Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

The amateur riders' Gold Cup over the same track and trip as the main event 40 minutes or so earlier. It's a wide open contest this season, with bookies offering close to 5/1 the field.

One of those on or around 5/1 is last year's winner, Hazel Hill. He was brilliant at Warwick prior to Cheltenham glory in 2019, whereas this season - now twelve years old - he was beaten by the occasionally very talented Minella Rocco. I feel he retains most of his ability but he will need all of it to double up as the oldest winner since Earthmover in 2004.

Minella Rocco has seemingly been revitalised by the change to hunter chases, scoring not just against Hazel Hill but also in the Warwick race Hazel  took en route to Foxhunters' glory last year. He's not reliable, as form in 2019 of 59PPPP8 betrays, but this is a different game entirely. Perhaps it's the key.

Ireland's hopes are headed by the Willie Mullins-trained Billaway, winner of the Naas Hunter Chase in late January. Given connections, it's very likely he will be a) well backed and b) have a good chance, but the form of that defeat of Staker Wallace is difficult to weigh up. Willie ran three in the race between 2004 and 2012, Bothar Na finishing fourth in 2006.

David Maxwell, a pilot who gets plenty of practice by spending plenty of money on decent horses he then rides himself, will try to go one better than last year aboard Shantou Flyer. The Flyer has a phenomenal Cheltenham record: 1F142222. That string includes second places at the last two Festivals, initially in the Ultima and then in this race a year ago. He looked as good as ever last time, albeit in a weak Fakenham hunter chase which he took out by 23 lengths, and his owner/rider has plumped for this one over the smart Bob And Co, who waits for Aintree.

The other one worth a mention is Caid Du Berlais. Trained by Rose Loxton, like Shantou Flyer, Caid was fifth in this in 2018 and pulled up last year. He wasn't really travelling then and proved it to be a false measure of his ability by hacking up in the Punchestown Champion Hunters Chase. The track is the issue, though: since going chasing he's run 1P309F5P. That '1' was in the Paddy Power Gold Cup of 2014. It's 2020 now, in case you hadn't noticed and much muddy form water has passed under the bridge in the interim.

If the ground dried out, which it very well might, seven-year-old Law Of Gold commands a second glance. Winner of the Champion Novices' Hunter Chase at Stratford last May, he's run up a sequence between the flags in between. What that form is worth I don't know, but at 20/1 or so I might buy a small ticket to find out.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

Amateurs and rushes of blood are commonplace in the Foxhunters', and who can blame them? The map below shows only Rules form - your guess is as good as mine regarding how they've gone between the flags.

Foxhunter Chase Selection

Hazel Hill is not getting any younger - very few of these are - but he ought to be thereabouts. Minella Rocco has been on going days since hunter chasing and represents last year's winning prep race form. Billaway could sink me but I just can't weigh that form up, so I'm rooting for Shantou Flyer to finally convert a 2 into a 1. At any rate, he's an each way price and that's the way to back him. I'll have a tiny bit on Law Of Gold 'just in case' as well.

Suggestion: Back Shantou Flyer each way at 9/1 with as many extra places as you can find; likewise, and for smaller money, have a look at 20/1 general Law Of Gold.

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4.50 Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 1/2f)

I have backed the winner of this many times. Let me clarify: I had backed Croco Bay many times in this before he won at 66/1 last year!

Age is actually not a factor in this, two winners (from seven runners) having been twelve and one aged five since 1997. The last five winners have been rested at least 90 days; four of the last five winners had run in the race at least once previously, normally achieving a close up finish.

The one with the best fit is last year's winner, Croco Bay. Aargh. Now 13, he's looooong in the tooth but that didn't stop him winning twelve months ago when he was merely looong in the tooth. His record in the race is 3F51 and he's got to be backed, for pennies at least. Aged 13, racing on Friday 13th, he may come in 13th place... :-/

Marracudja ran down the field last year, but has some high class form since. As a result of that, however, he's now rated 15 pounds higher than a year ago. It will be some training performance if he wins.

Gino Trail pulled up in this last year, having finished second in 2018. A recent move to Fergal O'Brien elicited an easy win a fortnight ago and, while that's not the normal prep for this, he is another old-timer with prospects.

A relative young gun at just ten years of age, Theinval represents Nicky Henderson's bid to win the race named in honour of his old man. He sneaks in at the bottom of the handicap and fits the 90 day layoff angle. He was fourth in this in 2018 and third in 2017.

Grand Annual Pace Map

Gino Trail and Paddy Brennan, if he's fit enough to ride after a fall earlier in the week, are fast and they'll make a bold bid from the front. Close up are expected to be McGroarty, Jan Maat, Adrrastos and, if he gets a run from the first reserve slot, Delire d'Estruval.

Grand Annual Selection

I'm playing a couple of former placed horses against the field in Croco Bay and Theinval. I might chuck in Gino Trail, too, though I think that recent easy win may have taken more out of him than met the eye.

Suggestion: Try Croco Bay and Theinval both at 25/1 with five places

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5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

The last race. It's impossible. It has been an Irish benefit since 2013 when Paul Nicholls (twice) hasn't won it, and that looks a sensible focus. Gordon Elliott famously worked for Martin Pipe, in whose name this race is run, and his Column Of Fire, one of four he saddles in the race - five if the first reserve gets in - looks a player.

He was a closing third when given enough to do in a 28 runner handicap hurdle at Punchestown last time, having previously won an 18 runner maiden hurdle. The big field won't trouble him.

Joseph O'Brien won the race last year, chinning my Gordon Elliott bet, and he saddles a horse I had backed at massive prices for the Albert Bartlett called Assemble. Assemble has form with plenty of Grade 1 types, notably Latest Exhibition and Cobbler's Way. He's just the type dropping into handicaps from Graded races.

22 other possibles but this is a time for licking wounds/counting winnings.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

Similarly to the Foxhunters', there are plenty of inexperienced riders in the 'boys' race'. On known form, Espoir De Romay and Thomas MacDonagh are the two to take them along in what might be a contested pace battle. The winner will likely be minded until fairly late on.

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

I want to back the two Gigginstown horses in the field. Their trainers have won the last three renewals so know exactly what is needed.

Suggestion: Back Column Of Fire to win at 13/2 Hills and Assemble each way at 25/1 Hills.

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day 3 Preview, Tips

The second two quarters are upon us and, for many, the weakest day, from a quality perspective, is Thursday, Day 3 of the Cheltenham Festival. But last year was a sizzler with that brilliant Frodon Ryanair and the equally emotional Paisley Park Stayers' Hurdle. Both are back to defend their crowns, each with numerous challengers. We start as always at 1.30 with a name change...

1.30 Marsh Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

A new name but the same deal: horses lacking the speed for the Arkle and/or the stamina for the RSA; or, some might say, lacking the class for either. Looking at the roll of honour, which includes Defi Du Seuil, Yorkhill, Vautour and Sir Des Champs from just nine renewals to date, that seems like typical racing snobbery. This newish race is up to par already from a standing start.

All that said, it's a wide open race this season and might be one of the less compelling from a quality perspective. As ever, that tends to mean it's a fiendish betting puzzle.

Itchy Feet is the favourite, Olly Murphy's six-year-old arriving here off the back of Sandown Grade 1 Scilly Isles success, the same path trodden by last year's winner, Defi Du Seuil. Before Defi, Terrefort, Top Notch and Bristol De Mail all finished second in the Marsh/JLT having won at Sandown. Simply, it is a very strong trial for this.

Itchy's form isn't all about that one race, either, as he was third to Klassical Dream in last year's Supreme, and is unbeaten in his two chase starts. The horse closest to him at Sandown was Midnight Shadow, himself previously the main beneficiary of Champ's late tumble in the Dipper Novices' Chase. Things are nicely corroborated by that line and Olly's horse must have a great chance.

The one for money this past week has been Mister Fisher, trained by Nicky Henderson. The record of the master of Seven Barrows is not great in this: he's nought from ten, three places - silvers for Terrefort and Top Notch, and bronze for L'Ami Serge.

The case for Mister Fisher is made off the back of two small field novice chase wins, the latter in the Grade 2 Lightning Novices' Chase where he beat Al Dancer. That one was 20/1 in the Arkle while Mister Fisher is around a quarter of those odds for this. Strictly speaking that doesn't make him good enough. He had previously beaten Good Boy Bobby at Cheltenham, a race from which he is the only winner eight subsequent runs. He is also the only one to place from that race - not promising.

The Irish team are headed by Samcro, Faugheen and Melon. Ireland has won seven of the nine JLT/Marsh's to date so their entries have to be taken seriously. Samcro, once vaunted as being of invincible ability, has not been able to vindicate that reputation on the track. Indeed he's been sent off no bigger than 13/8 in a 14 race career that has yielded eight wins, but only one from his last seven starts. That was at 1/3 in a Down Royal beginners' chase.

In his defence, he was running a bold race in the Grade 1 Drinmore, falling at the second last when upsides Fakir d'Oudairies spotting that one eight pounds. A subsequent ten-length second to the resurgent veteran Faugheen pegs his prospects somewhat.

What of twelve-year-old Faugheen? The former Champion Hurdler has looked good, really good, in winning three novice chases, two of them Grade 1's. Most horses his age are lobbing around in hunter chases, the better ones in veterans' chases, and yet here he is a first season chaser, and winning the big pots! He's a legend of a horse and quite hard to write off. Most people will be sufficiently invested emotionally in his success: if there's one horse you'd let beat you and still cheer, it's surely this bloke.

So, while it kind of feels like he should be watching daytime TV in a retirement home somewhere, his track form has been a genuine joy to behold this season. He was unambiguous in slamming Samcro, and gallant in repelling Easy Game: in spite of his age, he has genuine win prospects.

Melon has looked a hurdler and he's looked a two-miler. While his record at the Festival is quietly impressive in defeat (222 in the Supreme and two Champion Hurdles), I'm not at all convinced his conversion to fences.

Marsh Chase Pace Map

Faugheen looks set to bowl along in front and he's going to be great fun to watch.

Marsh Chase Selection

As always it comes down to whether the Irish or the British are the better crop. At this stage (written before Tuesday's racing), it looks like the Brits might hold sway - in this interim distance division at least. The Scilly Isles is a rock solid trial for the Marsh and Itchy Feet was a good winner, beating a reliable yardstick. I quite like him.

As fine a story as Olly winning his first Festival race would be, how awesome would it be if former Champion Hurdler Faugheen prevailed? Well, although that question was initially rhetorical, let me tell you, in the words of Michael Caine: it would blow the bloody doors off!

Suggestion: Back Itchy Feet to win at 7/2 general. Consider a saver to allow you to scream home Faugheen at 6/1 general

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2.10 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

Three miles, 24 runners, a handicap: let's keep this brief.

The last four winners were Irish-trained, the last two by Gordon Elliott. Davy Russell, as good a waiting rider as there is, has ridden three of the last four winners, which is quite remarkable, especially when you consider he didn't have a run the other year!

Last time out winners are 10/100 since 1997 and have by far the best win and place strike rate. What is surprising is that they've also been profitable to back at starting price. Those rested between one and three months have the best win and place strike rates.

Looking at well-rested last day winners leaves two: Third Wind and Skandiburg.

Skandiburg is up only a stone for a second and two wins in handicap company, the most recent of which was over course and distance. A win for him would make it the ultimate 'happy hour' for owners Kate and Andrew Brooks and trainer Olly Murphy.

Hughie Morrison's second season hurdler, Third Wind, hasn't looked back since an aborted a novice chase campaign. He won the novices' handicap hurdle final at Sandown this time last year (soft), and has most recently won a heavy ground qualifier on heavy. Clearly, then, juice in the turf is no issue. A rise of four pounds may also not stop him and, if it is deep on the New Course on Thursday, he looks set to run well.

The pick of the Irish could be The Storyteller. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell, he has the right connections. A sixth place in the Leopardstown Pertemps qualifier last time was the optimal qualifying effort - you have to be sixth or better! - and he'd previously beaten Mary Frances, herself the winner of the Punchestown qualifier thereafter. The Storyteller won the Festival Plate in 2018 under Davy Russell, and was pulled up in the Ryanair last year.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Not bundles of pace here, but a few likely to take things along at a good even gallop.

Pertemps Final Selection

7/1 about The Storyteller is not a massive bargain but he looks sure to run well. The above named pair of British-trained horses are all vaguely statistically interesting, and both are backable prices.

Suggestion: Back The Storyteller win only at 7/1, and either or both of Third Wind (16/1 general) and Skandiburg (12/1) each way with as many places as you can get.

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2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

Just eight go to post for this year's Ryanair. If that seems a little underwhelming, the clash between A Plus Tard, Min, and last year's winner, Frodon, is far from it.

Bryony's ride, and her subsequent interviews, when winning last season will live long in the memory. She was plastered all over the front pages of the next day's newspapers, something which is an all too rare occurrence - in a positive light at least - for the sport. Frodon came into that race off the back of two impressive course wins and was a slightly generous (especially with the benefit of hindsight) 9/2 chance.

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This time he's about the same price but with no such recent form to support the case. Of course, he does have last year's triumph, which was against a deep-looking field. This term, Frodon has played away matches only, at Aintree, Haydock and Kempton, and not quite set the world alight. He was good enough to win the Grade 2 Silviniaco Conti Chase in his final prep and a return to the slopes of Cleeve Hill can be expected to bring about a chunk of seasonal improvement.

But here he faces two tough rivals - one emergent, the other established, both Irish - in the form of A Plus Tard and Min. The former was sent off 5/1 favourite in the novices' handicap chase at last year's Festival and duly obliged... by sixteen lengths! In a Festival handicap! An immediate class elevation followed, and A Plus Tard ran a respectable third to Delta Work in a Grade 1 at Punchestown.

This season he's been second to Ballyoisin in the Fortria Chase (G2) at Navan and then beat Chacun Pour Soi in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas. I, like everyone else, was spellbound by that novices' handicap chase win last March, but I've not been nearly so sold on his two runs since: I can't shake the perception that Chacun might have been undercooked at Christmas and that that form line may not be all it seems. There is also the fact that it was achieved at two miles, whereas this is two and a half.

Betwixt Frodon and A Plus Tard in the betting is Min, a Festival hardy perennial who steps up in trip for this fourth visit. Previously, Min was second to Altior in the 2016 Supreme, second to Altior in the 2018 Champion Chase, and only fifth to, you guessed it, Altior in last year's Champion Chase. Those races were all at two miles, but his form at this 2m4f range is 12111, a string that includes Grade 1 successes at Aintree and Punchestown twice. It feels very much like this is his trip.

He was recently beaten about the same margin by Chacun Pour Soi as that one was beaten by A Plus Tard at Christmas, which gives him six or seven collateral lengths to find; but I perceive that Willie's Dublin Racing Festival team was a lot closer to readiness than his Leopardstown Christmas team, a contention that makes me wary of these collateral lines. Regardless, I don't think there's much between them.

Of the rest, Riders Onthe Storm is unbeaten in his last four completed starts, though did fall behind A Plus Tard in the novices' handicap chase last season and pulled up in a similar race at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival thereafter. Soft ground suits but he has maybe seven pounds to find with the pick of these. As a progressive seven-year-old he may find them.

Aso has no such progress in him but he does have a fine record in this race. Last year, in spite of more feted rivals, he got closest to Frodon; and he was third in the 2017 Ryanair, too. Now ten years old, he might just have lost a bit of his ability, but he is a more interesting longshot than many across the four days.

Both Duc Des Genievres and Shattered Love are previous Cheltenham Festival winners, Duc in last year's Arkle and Shattered Love in the previous year's JLT/Marsh. The last named seems a touch lost in the wilderness and couldn't be countenanced, but Duc Des Genievres has not been so obviously regressive. That said, it is still too big a leap of faith to envisage a second Festival win.

Saint Calvados is a bit more credible than the two former winners, his new held up tactics proving more successful than the absolutely bonkers lead-at-all-costs approach taken in his abortive 2018 Arkle bid. He was most recently beaten the narrowest of margins, a nose, in a Grade 3 handicap chase over course and distance and, if Frodon and Min did here what Saint C and Petit Mouchoir did in 'that' Arkle, Harry Whittington's runner could hit the board. Owned by the Brooks' - who also have Itchy Feet and Skandiburg - it could truly be a red letter day for them.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Frodon will make a bold bid from the front again, with Min in close pursuit. There should be no hard luck stories from a pace perspective.

Ryanair Chase Selection

I've backed Min. I think it's taken connections a long time to realise his best trip, and I think he has the best form. So far. It is perfectly possible that A Plus Tard can improve past Min's level, though that eventuality seems well factored into his odds. Frodon will be a terrific result for the reporters - and for the sport - with a gushing Bryony a thing of beauty, but I have to let him, and her, beat me. Saint Calvados is probably the most credible of the rest, especially if ridden to pick up pieces.

Suggestion: Back Min at 11/4 general

*

3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The Thursday feature, and another defending champion in the form of Paisley Park, trained by Emma Lavelle, ridden by Aidan Coleman, and owned by the excellent Andrew Gemmell. 'Double P' comes here unbeaten in his last seven, six of which have been by less than three lengths: he gives his rivals a sniff and then slams the door in their faces. What a devil!

He's a top price of 4/6 which implies he's a certainty, but is that really true? The level of his form in last year's Cleeve was much higher than the level he achieved in this year's renewal of the same race. That was in large part a factor of the way the race was run, comments which apply similarly to his previous start this season, in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury.

Of course, the argument goes, he won despite the steady pace and he can be marked up accordingly. That is entirely plausible but, as punters, we have to be forensic, all the more so when faced with what is ostensibly being presented as an 'open and shut' case. The fact is that, for whatever reason, Paisley Park's form this season is a seven pounds below his form of January and March last year. It doesn't mean he can't rediscover that prior level, it just means I don't want to take odds on about it.

The next question is who might be able to step in should PP come up short in the Stayers' Hurdle, this year sponsored by PP? That is a tougher one to answer, though the rewards for a correct response would be far greater. Those lovely bookie types have Summerville Boy and Emitom as the most likely pair to lower the champ's colours.

Summerville Boy got closest last time, in that steadily run Cleeve, and he'd previously beaten Roksana et al in the Relkeel over two and a half miles here. Like so many who end up in the Stayers' those form lines appear after a failed novice chase campaign.

Emitom is a horse I love. He's a strong travelling high class animal who was second to Champ in a Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree last spring. This season, he flunked desperately on his debut behind Summerville Boy but proved that to be all wrong when bolting up in the Rendlesham at Haydock. That was on heavy but he does not look ground dependent and is not slow.

The pace will likely be dictated by Apple's Jade, a mare whose popularity is well deserved but whose ability has been on the wane for some time. The horses she beat in the Grade 1 at Christmas - two of which, Penhill and Bacardys, re-oppose here - have looked shy of top class and/or regressive. She's been third and sixth at the last two Cheltenham Festivals and I don't see her on the podium.

Last year's Ballymore winner, City Island, arrives here off a failed novice chasing programme. In his favour he is a Grade 1 winner here, and he has the sort of tactical speed that is often the hallmark of a Stayers' Hurdle winner. But his last hurdle run was ten months ago.

Penhill is a dual winner at the Festival, first when scoring in the 2017 Albert Bartlett and then in this race two years ago. Having missed all of last season, Willie Mullins' nine-year-old has managed to race four times this term - the same as his last two campaigns combined - but he's yet to get his head in front. It seems clear that this has been the target all along, and Penhill has run acceptably in defeat; it wouldn't be the biggest shock if he went close but he's not for me.

It's 20/1 bar those, with the likes of Bacardys - who has suckered cash from me in this race in the past - usually giving himself too much to do from the back of the field. It's not impossible I will be mugged into another small bet but I couldn't possibly suggest anyone else do likewise!

Stayers' Hurdle Pace Map

Apple's Jade is very likely to lead but she may not have it all her own way with Summerville Boy and perhaps Donna's Diamond handy racers. Paisley Park will be ridden midfield probably.

Stayers' Hurdle Selecton

I want to be against Paisley Park but it's really not easy to find one to beat him. The way to play might be 'without the favourite' and in that context I'll happily have a go at Emitom and, less happily, at City Island.

Suggestion: Back Emitom and/or City Island without the favourite

*

4.10 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The last two winners of this handicap chase were price 5/1 or shorter, the previous five were 12/1 or bigger. Ireland used to have a dreadful record but have won three of the last four, their sequence broken last year here their two runners, both 33/1 shots, were unsighted. They are represented sixfold this year, with Ben Dundee - another for the Elliott/Russell axis - the main market hope.

Third in the novices' handicap chase last year off 141, Ben Dundee ran top four in two valuable handicap chases since prior to an eye-catching effort when seventh of 25 in a two mile handicap hurdle. Wrong code, wrong trip, right prep and a mark of 147 doesn't look unduly punitive.

Nick Williams won this last year and he has an excellent record in Festival handicaps. Siruh Du Lac won this last year, the final leg of a handicap chase four-timer. Since then, his only seasonal start was when pulled up in the BetVictor Gold Cup over this sort of distance on the Old Course in November. Connections are respected but it's asking an awful lot to win off an extended layoff and from a nine pound higher mark than twelve months ago.

Loads more with chances. Obviously.

Festival Plate Pace Map

Last year's winner, Siruh Du Lac, will bid to make all again. There doesn't look to be much competition for the lead which should help him - and Lizzie - to stay there for a long way.

Festival Plate Selection

I haven't really got a clue in here, if I'm honest, and I'll have a small 'clueless' bet on Ben Dundee for a bunch of people who know far better than me how to find the winner of this.

Suggestion: Put the kettle on. Or back Ben Dundee for a small interest at 10/1

*

4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

Won by Willie Mullins all four times it's been run to date, last year was a bit of a shock insofar as, for the first time, it wasn't the short priced favourite who passed the post first. Rather, 50/1 Eglantine Du Seuil beat the same stable's Concertista, herself a 66/1 chance. Epatante, Champion Hurdle favourite this year, was the beaten jolly in this last season.

Mullins is clearly the man then and he saddles four this time around. Colreevy is the shortest, her defeat of Abacadabras in a Grade 1 bumper reading very well. She's most recently been turned over in a seven-runner mares' Grade 3 by today's jolly, Minella Melody, but it is possible she didn't appreciate the steady tempo in that short field. With 22 runners here it's likely to be faster and that is likely to set up better.

Minella Melody has to be respected: she's won her last three, all in smallish fields, on varying ground. But she wasn't quite as good as the Mullins mare in bumpers and she's yet to score above G3 company.

Nicky Henderson saddles Floressa, a mare who has good form in open mares' company, for all that she too has to prove she handles the hustle of a big field over hurdles. That said, she was second of 15 in a Grade 2 bumper here last spring, and outclassed a field of modest maidens at Worcester in October.

Last year's second, and still a novice, Concertista returns to try to go one better. The pick of her form is in big fields, as evidenced by a good third in a 27-runner handicap hurdle last time. The slight drop in trip looks good for her, and she's a fair price given conditions are proven.

A handful of other interesting novice mares but this isn't especially a race that excites me.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

This is quite pacy and I'm hoping Colreevy doesn't take too much contention for the lead. If she does it will likely compromise her chance, but she'll be tough to beat if getting it nearly her own way.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

Not one to go mad in, I don't think. Willie Mullins' record is clearly worthy of respect and there are grounds to believe Colreevy can reverse form with Minella Melody. Concertista, second last year, also looks set to run well again.

Suggestion: Back Colreevy 7/1 general and/or Concertista 12/1 each way.

*

5.30 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

Amateur riders in a 24-runner handicap chase. Ouch. The best riders tend to win this year after year, with Jamie Codd having an especially impressive record (three wins). Codd rides top weight and last year's National Hunt Chase winner, Le Breuil, who sneaks in here off 145 having dropped the requisite five pounds in two fair chase efforts this term. Lugging top weight won't be easy but Ben Pauling's charge has shown he handles the track and has class, and he looks fairly treated.

Derek O'Connor rides Champagne Platinum. Nicky Henderson trains, and J P McManus owns so he has the right connections. A promising novice hurdler last season, he ran a bold third to Itchy Feet in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles last time and drops into handicap company for only the second time. Cheekpieces for the first time and steps up six furlongs in trip. He's by Stowaway out of a Roselier mere, which is a good pedigree for stamina.

There are more than twenty further chances in a race where I'm not trying too hard to be clever.

Kim Muir Pace Map

A massive field and it could get messy. Not oodles of pace but enough for an end to end gallop. Derek O'Connor on Champagne Platinum will be playing late.

Kim Muir Selection

I've not looked deeply at the form, so even more caveat emptor than usual applies. I like the plotty look of Champagne Platinum, a horse who was third in a Grade 1 last time and who steps up markedly in trip for Champions League connections.

Suggestion: Back Champagne Platinum for a bit of interest at 8/1 general

*

It's a trappy Thursday and maybe not one to go mad for. But if we're lucky enough to get one and a half winners we should be close to level as we head into Friday, Gold Cup day.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips

One down, three to go. Days of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, that is. 21 more races yet to unfold, seven of them on day two, the highlight of which looks sure to be a mouthwatering clash in the Champion Chase. We'll get to that in due course; first though, this...

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

You need to have speed and stamina for this intermediate test of the novices. You also need to be five or six years old, according to recent history, which relates that French Holly in 1998 was the last older or younger winner - he was seven. Six-year-olds have far and away the best win and place record. And, while Massini's Maguire did win this (on good to soft turf) after only finishing third (on heavy) in his final prep, every other winner since at least 1997 was first or second last time out.

As you might expect, that still leaves the vast majority of the field and all of the players at the head of the market. The race revolves around one horse, Envoi Allen, unbeaten in a point to point, four bumpers and three novice hurdles. That sequence takes in the Champion Bumper, and a brace of Grade 1 hurdles, the Royal Bond and the Lawlor's of Naas.

Although his hurdles form will come under scrutiny from Tuesday's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Abacadabras and Elixir d'Ainay having run up in those two G1's, current thinking is that the Gordon Elliott-trained favourite will be extremely hard to beat. While he doesn't generally win by much, he usually gives the impression there is more if needed and, as he showed when held up in last year's Champion Bumper, he is tactically versatile.

But this is a Championship race and he will not have it all his own way. Sporting John has looked a brute in his own right, albeit in ungraded company. In spite of his lack of black type, JP McManus's unbeaten in three son of Getaway has collateral to put him towards the head of considerations, certainly in terms of the British team.

On his hurdling debut he beat Harry Senior, subsequent winner of the Grade 2 Classic Novices' Hurdle, before bolting up by eight lengths in a field of 18 in an Exeter novice. The second and third, who was beaten 16 1/2 lengths, have both won since giving a robust feel to that effort. And most recently, Sporting John turned away a small but select field of novices in a deep ground Ascot Class 2 event. He gives the impression this step up in trip will suit and is a worthy second favourite.

This race is 'watch your bets' territory as both The Big Getaway and The Big Breakaway are declared to run! The Big Breakaway, trained by Colin Tizzard, is a typical Tizzard staying type. He's yet to face serious competition in two easy novice wins to date and that does raise questions about his ability in a battle: it's not that he has shown he can't battle, but rather that he hasn't shown he can. If you see what I mean.

The Big Getaway is trained by Willie Mullins, winner of this race in 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016. He is the prime mover of a proud recent Irish tradition in the Ballymore that has seen the raiding party claim nine of the last twelve renewals. This fellow is yet another exciting recruit owned by the Connolly's, of Al Boum Photo, Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge note. Like the other The Big, and Sporting John, he's yet to face Graded rivals but was ultra-impressive in despatching Foxy Jacks by 17 lengths last time. That one has since won a big field maiden, beating a horse which has itself subsequently won a maiden: the summary is he must take high rank among Irish novices, without it being clear just where in the hierarchy he currently sits.

Last year's winning connections saddle Longhouse Poet. Trainer Martin Brassil and owners the Mulryan's enjoyed success twelve months ago with City Island though this Yeats gelding has had a quite different route to the Festival. Whereas City Island was unbeaten in two novice hurdles away from the bright lights, Longhouse Poet has run bold races in Grade 1 defeat to Envoi Allen and Latest Exhibition the last twice.

Ballymore Pace Map

Loads of speed, perhaps headed by Easywork, but this looks set to be run at a strong gallop whoever takes them along.

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

This is very likely to be between Envoi Allen and Sporting John but, with most of the favourite's rivals stepping up in grade, it might be worth backing one each way in the 'without the favourite' market. The one at a price of most appeal is Longhouse Poet. I'm guessing that he might again get close to Envoi Allen and his trainer knows what is needed having won this last year.

Suggestion: Back Longhouse Poet each way 'without the favourite'.

*

2.10 RSA Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

This year's RSA squad will be aspiring to next year's Gold Cup and, on that basis, it normally takes a very good horse to win it. Santini, the current Gold Cup joint favourite, was second last off an interrupted preparation and is a case in point.

While last time out winners have won 12 of the last 22 RSA Chases, that came from 128 runners (9% win rate, 28% place). Those finishing second or third on their previous start won the other ten since 1997 at a rate of 13.5%, second placers faring especially well (+49.5 to a 1 point level stake).

Seven-year-olds have the best win rate but are behind both five- and six-year-olds in terms of place rates, so I'd not read too much into age - except to add that 7yo's are +24.45 in the 22 year time frame (stats courtesy of horseracebase).

Those rested for between one and two months have the best win, place and profit records: 13/107 (12% win, 30% place, +43.08).

The vast majority of winners (18/22 - 82%) had three to five seasonal runs, though they also represented two-thirds of the runners (173/258 - 67%).

Trendy types include Minella Indo, Allaho, Easy Game and Aye Right.

In terms of the form, it's an interesting challenge to pick through. The top of the market has been the sole province of Champ all season, though increasingly uneasily it should be said. JP McManus' eight-year-old - bidding to be only the second of that age group to win the RSA since Rule Supreme in 2004 (Might Bite also won in 2017) - is quirky as well as talented.

He won his first two chases, both at Newbury, but almost took the wrong course on the latter of that pair, his rider taking urgent evasive action after the last. In fairness to Champ, it might be argued that it was the rider's fault rather than the horse; but there was no such shared responsibility when Champ walked through the second last at Cheltenham in the Dipper last time. Watching the race again, I noticed a little flash of the tail a couple of strides before the obstacle and he would have fallen at a hurdle let alone a steeplechase fence such was his effort there.

It's possible that he was feeling something, and it is also perfectly possible that I'm overstating things. But we must also note that Champ failed to win the Ballymore when sent off favourite last year; he did run an excellent second, so again balance is required. All things considered, while he has a clear chance granted a clear round, I'm wanting a bit more jam on my bread.

Second choice is Minella Indo, who announced himself on the big stage when springing a 50/1 shock in the 'shock race', the Albert Bartlett, at last year's Festival. He proved that was no fluke by following up in the equivalent Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival and, though not impressive in two chase starts to date, the feeling is that this more searching gallop will again play to his strengths. He has obvious pedigree, as well as stamina, but is a short enough price as a consequence.

The springers in the market are Copperhead and Allaho. Copperhead has been all the rage since winning the Reynoldstown last month. Although neither of the top pair in the betting gave their running that day at Ascot, there was still little not to like about Colin Tizzard's 17-length winner. He is clearly progressive, and has won his last three of four chases. Prior to his Reynoldstown win, he bolted up in a good Class 3 handicap chase over three-and-a-quarter miles and he looks a danger to all if it comes up soft.

Willie Mullins saddles Allaho, third and second behind Minella Indo at Cheltenham and Punchestown last spring. He was an easy winner of a beginners' chase at Fairyhouse at the end of January but has only two chase starts to his name. Moreover, there is no obvious reason why he should reverse hurdles form with his double vanquisher of a year ago.

Gigginstown tend to major in staying chasers, which perhaps explains how they've mopped up Grand Nationals and the odd Gold Cup in recent years. Here they rely solely on Battleoverdoyen, unbeaten in three completed chase starts, including a Grade 1 at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival. If that's the positive, the main negatives are twofold. Firstly, he fell when beaten last time in the 2m5f Grade 1 Flogas Chase; and secondly, he pulled up when sent off favourite for last year's Ballymore Hurdle. The son of, you guessed it, Doyen has bundles of ability but he seems like he can strop a bit in the furnace of top class competition. He won't be on my tickets for all that he has the talent to win.

Easy Game also runs for Team Closutton, and he is interesting, from an each way perspective at least. He's inexperienced, with just two chase starts to date, but they were a win over Allaho in a beginners' chase and a staying-on half length second to Faugheen in the 2m5f Grade 1 Flogas Chase at the Dublin Festival. This extra distance looks ideal. Battleoverdoyen was labouring further back when coming down and I just can't see how they're the same price to win this.

RSA Chase Pace Map

Likely to be run at an honest, though probably not all out, gallop. The smallish field means every runner should have its chance.

RSA Chase Selection

I was very taken with Copperhead at Ascot last time. Having already backed Minella Indo, I think his price is now tight enough on what he's done, for all that he is a proven G1 animal; and I'm in the - seemingly very large - swerve Champ camp; but the one that looks the wrong price is Easy Game. His chase form reads very well and he is entitled to improve again on only his third start over fences.

Suggestion: Back Easy Game each way at 11/1 general

*

2.50 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

26 runners. In a handicap hurdle. Sponsored by a bookmaker. Seriously? You want to bet in this?

I managed to fluke 40/1 advised William Henry in this race last year, and that will likely be it for me for the next hundred years.

Since 2010, the mighty yards of Nicky Henderson (three times), Gordon Elliott (twice), Paul Nicholls, Willie Mullins, and Jessica Harrington (once) have dominated.

Dame De Compagnie, for Hendo, is a far less sexy price than William Henry but has an obvious chance. She's a course specialist and has not been harshly treated for an easy victory in a big field mares' handicap hurdle in December. Her layoff of 88 days is not uncommon in winners of this race and I expect she'll run a big race.

Willie's Bachasson is interesting: third in the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle last time on his first run since finishing fourth in the same race a year earlier, he'd previously beaten Darasso in a rated hurdle. That one runs in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle and, though Bachasson's Cheltenham form (unseated at the last when not out of it in the Albert Bartlett, fell at the 2nd in the Gold Cup) isn't great, the races he's contested were high class.

They are my two wild guesses against the field.

Coral Cup Pace Map

A massive field but no out and out front runner. Hordes of these want to be waited with and it could become quite messy in the closing stages.

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Coral Cup Suggestion: Go for something to eat. If you must bet in a race like this, you're obviously into machismo punting. I'm trying to let that mostly pass me by these days, but will have small interests in the two flagged above, Dame De Compagnie 10/1 bet365 and Bachasson 16/1 general, but try to get 14 extra places!

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3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The expected race of the meeting has lost just a hint of its sheen with the news that Altior was a touch lame on Sunday. It could be mind games, it could be something and nothing, or it could be material. Who actually really knows? The market immediately pre-race will be revealing. Until that time, we have to treat the race as though all three - the other pair being Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi - will run on their merits and the best on the day will win. So what of their respective merits? And are there any others we should consider?

Let's talk about Altior first. He's been the chaser of a lifetime for his owner, Patricia Pugh, and a horse the public have enjoyed since he burst on to the Cheltenham Festival scene as a novice hurdler in 2016. That year, he won the Supreme, the following year he claimed the Arkle, and for the past two years he's been the winner of the Champion Chase.

Rumours of his demise this season, after an arguably ill-judged early clash over a longer trip with Cyrname, have been grossly exaggerated as evidenced by an easy subsequent score in the Game Spirit Chase. Whether that translates into near favouritism in what is the warmest Champion Chase for a number of years is moot; what is not in doubt is that he showed at Newbury that trademark taunting of his rivals: momentarily looking to be paddling while his jockey depressed and released the clutch ahead of that perennial race-winning gear change either just before or just after the last.

It must be soul destroying to be a regular rival of Altior's because he's just so consistently brilliant whilst always offering the (false) hope that he's beatable. At two miles that has never been the case. Yet.

Here he faces the new guard, a pair of three-word French names with a gaggle of their own Grade 1's from which to play Top Trumps. Defi Du Seuil (DDS hereafter) has been a revelation since a moderate 2017/2018 campaign, thenceforth bagging a trio of G1's including the JLT Chase at last year's Festival. Much was made of his fall and rise but surely he was merely a victim of circumstance: a sick horse in a yard full of sick horses at that time. His form before and since seems to support that notion.

This term he beat Politologue in a tactical race over course and distance on his first start, then was all out to hold the now-retired Un De Sceaux in Sandown's Tingle Creek, before most recently repelling the same rival in more convincing fashion at Ascot in the Clarence House. I've been present for all three of those wins, and my on-track view is that he was quietly impressive at Cheltenham, a touch disappointing/fortunate at Sandown, and much the best at Ascot. On the form of his first and third wins he's about the right price, but on that Sandown run he's vulnerable.

Chacun Pour Soi (CPS next time) is the third in the top-knocking trio. He already holds a G1 verdict over DDS, at Punchestown last spring. The general theory is that DDS was OTT when CPS prevailed (too many TLA's - three letter acronyms?) there, and that might be true. But it might also be false. A literal reading of A Plus Tard's beating of CPS over Christmas gives the latter something to find, but that was his first spin of the season at a time when Willie Mullins's horses are often just a note shy of concert pitch.

He was pitch perfect at the Dublin Racing Festival when nearly four lengths too good for needs-further-these-days Min. They were the only two in the hunt from a long way out as Cilaos Emery and Duc Des Genievres capsized, the former at the very first fence. Min is a bombproof yardstick, however, and this line lost little lustre for it being a virtual match.

CPS is eight now, DDS seven, and it seems likely at this stage - given what we know of the Arkle class of 2020 - that the pair of them will have next year's QMCC between them. Whether that is true this time around remains to be seen: either way, I'd not have much between them in betting terms.

I'm not even going to try to make a case for the other four, with the betting - 20/1 bar the top three - telling all.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Hard to predict how this will be run, with Bun Doran and/or one of the Nicholls pair, Dynamite Dollars and Politologue, perhaps most likely to drive the peloton. Altior may even elect to cut out his own running as he did in the Celebration Chase last Aprill. Though it may not quite be tactical, it will probably not be frenetic either: a good even gallop with luck.

Champion Chase Selection

Tricky and probably not a betting race. If the vibes are good, or at least not bad, I might be tempted in to backing Altior at 5/2 or better (once I know he's fit and fine). I'd love to be cheering him home in a three-horse thriller and he's done nothing at all wrong over two miles, ever.

Suggestion: See how the pre-race vibes are and consider backing Altior at 5/2 or bigger. Otherwise, settle in and watch what should be a cracking race.

*

4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

Not for everyone is the Cross Country Chase, but it is for me. It's a little midweek interval of something different: a time to pause for breath and enjoy some very good horses traversing non-standard barriers. And, of course, it features the dual Grand National winner, Tiger Roll.

Let's start with the Tiger. As well as winning the last two Grand Nationals, he has also won the last two runnings of this race; and the bookies have him as a 50% chance to win a third Glenfarclas Chase. His credentials are obvious, his CV peerless almost in the history of the sport. To remind you, Tiger Roll won the Triumph Hurdle in 2014, the National Hunt Chase in 2017, the Cross Country Chase in 2018 and 2019, the Grade 2 Boyne Hurdle in 2019, and the last two Grand Nationals. He'd have probably won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon if he'd entered!

Now ten, he ran a solid trial when fifth in this year's Boyne Hurdle and comes into this race as the obvious horse to beat. But, a year older, this looks a stronger renewal.

Josies Orders, only a 15/2 chance when snatching second last year, is a 25/1 chance this time around. Urgent De Gregaine, the horse Josies chinned for silver, was 17/2 third choice there - where the market had it spot on, the first three in the betting finishing 1-2-3. Urgent is a 10/1 shot now.

The interloper, taking out a chunk of the percentages between Tiger Roll and the rest, is Easysland, trained in France by David Cottin and acquired by JP McManus since winning here in December. That was in the handicap version of the cross country, where he raced from 139. He's since won a Listed Cross Country at Pau to take his unbeaten run to six, and his unbeaten in completed starts sequence to seven.

He is a strong stayer in terms of this game though has tactical speed (has won over two and a half miles in the discipline), and the only slight reservation is his jockey, Jonathan Plouganou, who wouldn't be for the purists. But he does seem to get the job done as he showed in December.

Urgent De Gregaine is twelve now, still relatively young for a cross-country chaser some might say. But the days of the old guard winning might be over: no horse older than ten has won since 2010 and before that 2006. Seven of the last nine winners were aged eight or nine. Easysland is six!

Josies Orders is twelve, too, and it is time to look to younger horses. Eliminating those failing my eleven-plus examination reduces the field notably for all that such semi-arbitrary diktats can cross out the winner on occasion.

Despite plundering the November and December Cheltenham cross country races, the French are 0/11 in this event. They include Toutancarmont in 2015, who ran out when favourite (ridden by M. Plouganout); and Urgent De Gregaine, who has been second and third in the last two renewals.

Those two Urgent runs show the French are getting closer and, as well as that one trying again, they are represented by a duo of d'Alliers, Diesel and Arlequin. Diesel d'Allier easily won the November Cross Country here from Urgent De Gregaine, albeit in receipt of 22lb. He's since run second in a small field cross country at Pau and most recently fell when still full of run behind Easysland in that Listed chase. Only seven, he's entitled to improve in the next couple of years, and he's a cross country specialist.

The real dark horse in this year's renewal is Arlequin d'Allier, who was ridden from the front by Felix de Giles to win a 2m4f cross country conditions race last time. The trip is an unknown as, in truth, is his level of ability; but his trainer, Emmanual Clayeux, has two wins and six more places from a dozen runners on this course. Interestingly, or perhaps merely coincidentally, the two winners were having their first sight of the Cheltenham inner loops - as is Arlequin.

Indeed, Clayeux's Cheltenham debutants have finished 26F124451. His Cheltenham Cross Country runners are 61322P321. Arlequin d'Allier is a big price and his trainer deserves utmost respect.

Might Bite, 2018 RSA champ, merits a mention. He's been both wayward and brilliant, often in the same races - remember that RSA? Or the Kauto Star where he was a mile clear when destroying himself and the final fence? - and is the undisputed back class of this field; but at twelve it's probable he's had enough of this lark. Fair play if he wins - it'll be a tremendous watch!

Yanworth is one of the biggest swerves in racing. He has tons of ability but hates the game and will find a way to lose, as usual.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

A hard one to second guess, not that it will matter much as the race generally changes complexion dramatically in the last half mile. On known evidence, Might Bite will roll along in front. He may be joined by Arlequin d'Allier, who led all the way when winning in Pau last time. Kingswell Theatre is a reliable front-ranker in these types of race.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

Tiger Roll deserves to be favourite and he may well beat Easysland into second. That exacta is not the worst bet by any means, though it is also worth a small win bet on Easysland if you're comfortable with Plouganou doing the driving. I'm going to take the two d'Allier's - hopefully not dalliers - for pennies each way: their trainer is something like the French Enda Bolger and his record over these fences commands utmost respect.

Suggestion: Consider a Tiger Roll/ Easysland exacta. If you're feeling braver, back either Diesel d'Allier (22/1 Ladbrokes) or Arlequin d'Allier (40/1 Victor 1/5 4 places) each way with as many places as you can plunder.

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4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

The Fred Winter as was. With an average winning SP of 25/1 in the past eight years, it was arguably something of a surprise/relief when 7/2 Band Of Outlaws scored last season. He was trained by Joseph O'Brien, who joined Paul Nicholls (three), Gordon Elliott (two), and Nicky Henderson as winning trainers in the past decade. Another handicap race for big trainers then.

Nicholls has had nine placed from 23 since the race's inception, Elliott five from 16, and they look the pair upon which to concentrate. What is interesting is that Elliott's brace of winners were 25/1 and 33/1, and Nicholls also scored with a 25/1 shot as well as two much better fancied runners. So it is worth looking at the second- and even third-strings of these yards.

Although Irish-bred horses have won the last three, French-bred's have a fine record, with six victories in the fifteen-year history of the race.

If I'm going to have a bet in this race - and I am - then I'd rather back a loser at a bigger price than a loser at a short price so, while the cases for the likes of Aramax, Mick Pastor and Palladium are easily made, they're just not offering enough reward for the investment risk of a Boodles punt: for every Band Of Outlaws, there's a Veneer Of Charm, Flying Tiger or Qualando.

On that basis, I'll be siding firstly with Gordon's Saint d'Oroux. Looking very much 'not off' in a Leopardstown maiden hurdle over Christmas, after promising runs behind A Wave Of The Sea and Cerberus, he absolutely hacked up when the handbrake was released last time at Gowran Park, putting 24 lengths between himself and his, granted probably moderate, rivals.

As well as 33/1 winner Flying Tiger, Nick Williams has saddled 16/1 3rd Coo Star Sivola and 33/1 5th Diable de Sivola, from seven runners. As such, his 'brought along steadily' Galahad Quest, a Grade 2 winner here on Trials Day, is worth a go, too. Although beaten 66 lengths by the subsequent Grade 1 scorer and well-touted Triumph hope, Allmankind, he was actually sent off the 13/8 favourite for his debut that day at Warwick. Thereafter, he's clawed back his home reputation by running a neck second to the now 140-0dd-rated Buzz, and then achieving Grade 2 glory in his own right when scoring in the Finesse on Trials Day here in January.

134 seems on the lenient side given that the second, fourth and sixth from that Grade 2 have come out and won on their sole starts since, with just one other horse failing to win.

Boodles / Fred Winter Pace Map

The sensible play in this race is to focus on recent form - earlier efforts perhaps being 'for experience' - so the pace map below shows the last two runs only. It reveals that, unsurprisingly in such a big field, there are a good number who want to race prominently. An even to fast gallop would be my best guess.

Boodles / Fred Winter Selection

Two at fair prices against the 'well touted' runners at the head of the market. Saint d'Oroux is definitely better than he's shown so far, regardless of how he runs here; and Galahad Quest's form has probably been under-valued a touch. Both represent trainers with excellent 'Fred Boodles' credentials and both are solid double-digit prices.

Suggestion: Back Saint d'Oroux 25/1 Skybet and Galahad Quest 22/1 Hills with as many places as you can get.

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5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

Not a race to go all in generally, with 20-odd largely unexposed 'could be anything' types facing off against each other. Reputations form the market here and most of the runners can be expected to show more than they've done to this point. As such, backing Appreciate It at 6/4 or so is at the bonkers end of the brave/bonkers continuum.

Yes, he's looked good in winning his last two of three bumpers, most recently in a Grade 2 at the Dublin Racing Festival. And yes, he ran fairly close to Envoi Allen in his first point two years ago. He was fairly impressive in the Leopardstown bumper last time, cruising home. And the time was decent, for all that he didn't find an awful lot given how easily he travelled up to the leader, Risk Factor, in the straight.

He might well win but I can't be backing a 6/4 shot in a field of completely unexposed uncrossed form lines. Horses priced at 4/1 or shorter are 4/16 since 1997, a group that does at least include Envoi Allen, who was 2/1 when winning last year. So the question to ask is whether you think Appreciate It can be more of a horse than last year's winner, and the answer - granted, with the benefit of plenty of hindsight - is no.

The good news is that it's 7/1 bar, and I'll let the jolly beat me.

Appreciate It has had five runs, in points and bumpers, whereas the four-year-old filly Panic Attack has had just one. That was in a Listed bumper at Market Rasen where she took her field apart hard on the bridle to win by ten lengths. You'll rarely see a more impressive bumper winner and the fact that it was a debut against a bunch of winners in Listed class flags her as a serious prospect.

She'd apparently been balloted out of a similar race at Cheltenham earlier in the season so was obviously held in high regard. The trainer switch from Willie Mullins to David Pipe since Market Rasen is a minor cause for concern, though Pipe is having a far better time of it this term. Four-year-olds don't tend to win a race like the Champion Bumper - just Cue Card, Dato Star and Rhythm Section since the race's inception in 1992 - but fillies have a decent record, Fayonagh (2017) and Relegate (2018) winning from just nine to face the starter in recent years. The Glancing Queen was fifth last year as the only filly to line up.

Panic Attack gets a massive fifteen pounds in weight and sex allowances from the older geldings and, if she can handle the hurly burly, she could go close.

Ferny Hollow represents the same owner, Cheveley Park Stud, as last year's winner. Unlike Envoi Allen, who is trained by Gordon Elliott, Ferny Hollow is housed at Willie Mullins' Closutton barracks. Mullins knows better than anyone how to win this race, and he's often scored with his second-, third- or even fourth-string entries. This five-year-old son of Westerner cost £300,000 after winning his point but took three goes to get off the mark under Rules. He was close up behind some decent horses in defeat, but he doesn't scream bumper winner to me.

Queens Brook looks more credible: a five-year-old mare who won her sole bumper for Gordon Elliott by 21 lengths in a field of 17! Jamie Codd rode that day, as he did Elliott's other mare, Fayonagh, when she overcame a terrible start to bolt up a few years back. He'll be looking to reprise the Fayonagh playbook, albeit ideally with a better beginning.

Arguably the pick of the British form - I still love that Market Rasen line - is brought in by David Pipe's other entry, Israel Champ. This lad has won his last two, both in Listed company, both by a length and three-quarters. The wetter the better for him, too, his wins coming over course and distance on soft and at Ascot on heavy.

The Cheltenham form hasn't really worked out, nor yet has the Ascot race, and it wouldn't surprise me if he finished midfield. Naturally, it also wouldn't surprise me massively if he won, but I don't want to bet him.

Roger Teal has had his share of good horses, including Tip Two Win, and he now has a classy bumper runner in Ocean Wind. A four-year-old son of Teofilo, he was cheaply bought (£9,000) from the Godolphin draft at the Ascot July sale, and he's proved a bargain: in winning twice, most recently in a Newbury Listed event, he's already racked up £19,000 in prizes. His only defeat was a narrow neck verdict at Cheltenham over 1m6f in a tactical affair. He gets the four-year-old allowance but whether he's quite in the Cue Card bracket of four-year-old - or even Dato Star - I'm not sure.

There is an interesting lurker - actually, there are probably loads of interesting lurkers - down the betting list. Elliott saddles Eskylane as well as Queens Brook, and this one has the distinction of beating Appreciate It in a bumper earlier this season. There he finished a head second to Assemble, a wild card of note in the Albert Bartlett on Friday, giving that one a stone, with Appreciate It more than two lengths back in third.

The winner has won again since, the third has won twice since and is 6/4 jolly here, the fifth - sent off favourite this day - has won since, and Eskylane has himself won since, by eight and a half easy lengths in a Navan bumper. He's got a bright future.

A good number of others who might step notably forwards off last day wins, including Darling Daughter, winner of the same Grade 2 Mares' Bumper that Relegate won en route to Champion Bumper success. Elliott has saddled the winner of the last race on Wednesday twice in the last three years and he is well placed to add a third.

Lady Bamford's Adrimel, trained by Tom Lacey, cost £280,000 after romping away with a maiden point last spring, and he's two from two in bumpers since. The first win was facile but with nothing immediately of note in behind, the more recent victory was harder earned but against better horses.

And Five Bar Brian was a good winner on his first start for Willie Mullins after two years off. He was giving more than a stone to the second that day, with the Gordon Elliott-trained favourite a further 13 lengths back in third. There is also The Glancing Queen, fifth in this last year before winning the Grade 2 Mares' Bumper at Aintree, to consider.

Champion Bumper Pace Map

This is little more than finger in the air stuff given how scant the evidence is but, caveat emptor, the pace map looks something like the below. Israel Champ and One True King are two of the more likely to go forward, with Appreciate It probably not too far off the speed.

Champion Bumper selection

An up to par and competitive looking Champion Bumper. I'd certainly not have the favourite at the price he is for all that he can win. Lots of these have some sort of a claim if they can step forward seven or ten pounds. And, as most of them have had very few goes to this point, that's perfectly possible.

I backed Panic Attack at 22/1 after she won at Market Rasen - I know, lucky me, eh? - and I don't think she's any better than fair value now. I like Gordon Elliott's entries, all of which have to be respected given his recent record in the race.

Eskylane has form in front of Appreciate It, ad Elliot's other pair, Queens Brook and Darling Daughter, are in receipt of the mares' allowances.

Suggestion: Split stakes between the Elliott trio of Eskylane (20/1 Skybet), Queens Brook (8/1 Unibet) and Darling Daughter (20/1 general).

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And that concludes a somewhat briefer (relatively, at least) spin through Wednesday's Day 2 action. Plenty of races in which it's hard to take a strong view, and where we may have to be both good and lucky to come out in front I feel.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

It's been wet wet wet and, apart from the state of the turf, the ongoing coronavirus saga had rendered day one an on/off 'sweet little mystery' in its own right for a while but, at this stage at least, it looks as though we're a go on ground expected to be testing.

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Show time! The legendary roar is a real thing and unlike any other exhortation in the sport: it's a cocktail of excitement, anticipation and primal release from 361 (362 this year) days of waiting. And it's felt just as keenly - maybe more so - by the jockeys riding in the Supreme, some of whom can be guilty of going a shade too hard a shade too early.

The top of the market sees two horses split by the Irish Sea but united in ownership: both Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge belong to Joe Donnelly (as too does Gold Cup favourite, Al Boum Photo - lucky guy). What is perhaps strange is that the horse with much the better proven level of form has been the bigger priced of the pair throughout the ante post lead up.

Trained by Willie Mullins, winner of the Supreme five times since 2007 - four of them since 2013 - Asterion Forlonge was a clear-cut victor in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. There he was ten lengths too good for the 5/4 favourite, Easywork, a victory which took his record to three from three over hurdles. Add to that a maiden point win and the six-year-old son of Coastal Path is unbeaten in four.

As evidenced by Jon Shenton in this excellent piece, the Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) is the strongest novice hurdle run either side of the Irish Sea prior to the Festival, with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream all winning there en route to winning here, and all for Asterion's trainer. He should be favourite in my book and, by the time the tapes rise, he very well might be. His run style is from the front and he'll surely make a bold bid.

Currently favoured, however, is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin, winner of the Listed Sidney Banks Hurdle at Huntingdon last time out. Shishkin's form has not worked out especially well, for all that he's been visually highly impressive. Specifically, in the Kempton bumper he won last March, his rivals have collectively run 22 times since without winning; from the Newbury novice in which he fell, his 19 rivals have run 29 times between them without winning; and in the Newbury novice that he won, his 13 rivals have failed to even make the frame from eight collective subsequent starts. Ouch.

In Shishkin's defence, he bolted up from some 140-ish rivals in the Sidney Banks; and Shakem Up'Arry, his closest rival at Newbury, was well fancied for the Imperial Cup before that race's abandonment.

The best British form is arguably brought to the table by the Colin Tizzard-trained Fiddlerontheroof. Bought from Ireland for £200,000, he took a little time to get going before running out a convincing winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last time. Notably, his form on soft or wetter reads 3111 and includes a defeat of the very well-regarded The Big Getaway while still trained in Ireland. Fiddlerontheroof is sure to relish a battle and stamina may be his strong suit; as such conditions set up perfectly, especially if he can control things from the front as he often likes to do.

If such a thing exists, the forgotten horse in the Supreme could be Abacadabras - easy for me to spell (see what I did there?!). A rock solid National Hunt Flat horse who was fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Cheltenham Festival, he was a close up second to Envoi Allen in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle and followed up with a win in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices' Hurdle. Both those runs were in December, however, and Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown inmate has not been sighted in a race since.

That 74 day layoff is a worry, though Altior was off 80 days before winning in 2016 and Summerville Boy had 66 days between runs in 2018. Back in 2008, the mega-trendsbuster, Captain Cee Bee, was off 115 days prior to his Supreme victory, so it's far from a terminal knock.

Though he also runs Elixir d'Ainay, JP McManus's opening race hopes look to lie with Chantry House, unbeaten in four since tipping up on his point debut. Since then he's won his maiden point, then scored for the first time under Rules in a bumper exactly a year ago, and has added two ungraded novice hurdles to his CV. Each of his wins under Rules has been recorded as an odds-on favourite, testament to the regard in which he is held. He retains plenty of upside but it would represent a significant step forward were he to stride past this field.

If you want a wise guy horse - and who doesn't want a wise guy horse? - look no further than Edwardstone. Only a close second in the Grade 2 Rossington Main on Haydock's uniquely soupy surface, he'd previously won a couple of novice hurdles by narrow margins. Ostensibly not much to write home about in the context of a race like the Supreme. But... closer inspection reveals that in the first of them he beat the subsequent Grade 1 winner, Fiddlerontheroof, and in the second he beat subsequent Grade 2 scorer, Harry Senior. That pair are both single figure odds for Cheltenham novice hurdles and yet this chap can be backed at 20/1. It's simply too big about a horse who also has bumper form putting him very close to Chantry House, and who has yet to finish outside the first two in six career starts.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Fiddlerontheroof has been on the front in three of his last four starts, though not when winning the Tolworth. That gives him a touch of versatility and it might be that he takes a lead off Asterion Forlonge, who has won from on or near the pace the last twice. More likely Elixir d'Ainay, Chantry House's owner mate and Asterion Forlonge's stable mate, will be at the head of affairs. Expect Shishkin to also be prominent though behind the front rank and Chantry House to be mid-division in the early furlongs.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

This looks a seriously good renewal of the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, and all of Asterion Forlonge, Fiddlerontheroof, Abacadabras and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shishkin and Chantry House are perfectly credible winners. As such it's probably not a betting race at the current prices.

But there will be bookmaker specials galore on this opening heat of the meeting, meaning shopping around will garner significant value.

I think Asterion Forlonge is the most likely winner; I suspect Fiddlerontheroof will be the main beneficiary if it becomes a slog; but the one who is still the wrong price - for all that he's probably only the sixth or seventh most likely winner - is Edwardstone. His form ties in closely with a couple priced at a quarter of his odds.

Suggestion: Shop around for the best deals. Consider a small each way bet on Edwardstone at 16/1 with William Hill (1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6-7).

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

A first sight of the chase fences as the two mile novices have at it in the Arkle. This looks like being quick, placing an emphasis on both stamina and accurate jumping at speed in the early part of the contest.

The uneasy favourite is Gigginstown's Notebook, trained by Henry de Bromhead. On form he looks to have an outstanding chance: his four chase runs have yielded four wins, the last pair in Grade 1 company. But... that probably leaves him with less scope to improve than some of his rivals for all that they still have to catch him up.

There are a number of causes for concern with this lad in spite of his G1 brace. First, his temperament: he bolted on the way to the start last time, antics which saw him prevail only by 3/4L from the re-opposing Cash Back. Whilst it could be argued he would have won by further if not for getting stressy, the counter-argument is that the cauldron of the Cheltenham parade ring is hardly likely to becalm a buzzy beast.

Secondly, there is the matter of his performance at the Festival last year. Granted, he was a 50/1 shot on the day, but a 51 length last of twelve finishers is hardly the sort of course form about which to get excited. He's clearly a different horse for fences, but those are two big negatives against a Festival favourite.

So what of Cash Back? He's eight years old, the same as that top class pair Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were when winning their Arkles. He was a decent but not top class hurdler, a comment that applies similarly to Notebook, so, while he has definitely improved a bundle there just might be a classier horse in the field. That said, I do think he'll see out the trip better than many and had backed him for small money after his Naas demolition job in January.

Fakir D'Oudairies is a five year old, the same age as four winners between 1998 and 2006, but none since. It used to be the case during those years that the additional maturity of the ex-French horses was a big plus, especially when allied to a healthy weight for age allowance. But the allowance was removed in 2009, and just four five-year-olds have appeared in this race since. They included 11/4 shot Saint Calvados, who was beaten by desperate tactics as much as anything else in 2018, and Tatenen, who fell as favourite in 2009.

Fakir has been beaten a length and a half by Notebook, meaning there is little theoretically between them. However, when one considers that there is still a weight for age allowance in such races in Ireland, and that Fakir was in receipt of seven pounds that day but runs off level weights here, it is quite hard to countenance a form reversal, for all that Notebook may burn some of his fuel before the race starts.

Fourth in the Ballymore and second in an Aintree G1 hurdle, both last spring, was Brewin'upastorm. This season, Olly Murphy's seven-year-old has cosily claimed two small field provincial novice chases, form which has worked out quite well without matching the other single-figure priced horses in the field. Olly's ability to get one ready for the Festival was shown last year when this horse finished a place behind the same trainer's Itchy Feet.

21 lengths behind Brewin'upastorm at Carlisle was Global Citizen. His trainer, Ben Pauling, was in lamentable form at the time (just two winners and four places from 55 runners between the end of June and early December), as well as which that was the horse's first run over fences and first run for 226 days. Nevertheless, as the highest rated hurdler in the Arkle, it was a disappointing seasonal bow.

Fast forward two months to Kempton at Christmas, and the real Global Citizen rocked up in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad to turn away Rouge Vif et al and re-establish his credentials for this gig. He's got the ability, clearly, but there are two reservations: first is that he might prefer flatter tracks, his only race at Cheltenham being when last of seven finishers - 45 lengths behind the sixth horse - in last year's Champion Hurdle; and second, he seems to want to bowl along in front. Here, so too does Cash Back, and potentially any of Fakir D'Oudairies, Put The Kettle On and Maire Banrigh. It could be pretty warm on the front end!

A Grade 1 winner at Sandown last time out, Esprit Du Large deserves a mention. The problem is that he's not been seen since that Henry VIII win in early December, 94 days being a longer absence to overcome than any winner this century.

The lovely mare Maire Banrigh has won her last six races since having wind surgery in early 2018, the most recent of which was an uncompetitive Listed Mares' Chase in which she was sent off 1-4 favourite. Her form isn't a million miles behind the best of these and she is able to receive a valuable seven pounds allowance. That said, she'll only be the third mare to run in the race in recent times, following I'm Delilah (unplaced in 2010) and Kruguyrova (2nd in 2008).

There are bits and pieces of cases to be made for the likes of the Kingmaker winner, Rouge Vif, but the one which makes a modicum of appeal in the long grass is Al Dancer. Winner of the Betfair Hurdle just over a year ago, he won a course and distance novice chase on his first start this campaign. He was caught for toe next time in the Grade 2 Arkle Trial behind Put The Kettle On, who had had plenty of practice by that point.

He's since run a little flatter at Kempton and Doncaster but comes here with the benefit of a good amount of experience, winning track form, and the prospect of a more truly run race suiting better. He could easily bomb out but at 20/1 or so he's playable for small money in what looks a very open race.

Arkle Pace Projection

Plenty of speed on based on recent form. Any/all of Global Citizen, Cash Back, and perhaps Fakir D'Oudairies, Maire Banrigh and Put The Kettle On might vie for the early lead. It'll take some getting with jumping over the first few fences likely to be closely examined.

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Arkle Chase Selection

Notebook is in danger of becoming a backable price such is the concern over his pre-race temperament. Were he to handle preliminaries reasonably well he might be worth a saver, but this is a race in which I don't have a strong opinion. Perhaps Brewin'upastorm - presumed far back from the heat of early battle - can pass them all. He's got stamina and no little class. At bigger prices, Al Dancer may outrun 20/1 odds.

Suggestion: Have a look at Brewin'upastorm (6/1 Betfred) and maybe Al Dancer each way at 20's.

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2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

The first handicap of the week and we're into wild guess territory. A few general patterns might reduce the field a touch. It's usually a race for the British, with Ireland not scoring since Tony Martin's Dun Doire in 2006. They don't have a lot of runners in truth. Seven- to ten-years-old and a top six finish eliminate a few runners but we're still left with most of the field.

One of very mild interest at a fair price is the Dan Skelton-trained Cobra De Mai. He was given a 'never in it' ride in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster last time under a seven pound claimer. Harry Skelton gets back on for the first time this season, having won a course and distance handicap chase off this mark last April. There is a slight concern about the ground and about Cobra's jumping, but there are no such reservations that this has been the plan.

Towards the front of the market, a more obvious one is The Conditional. A non-stayer over 3m5f last time when dropping to fourth in the final quarter mile, the half mile less range will work better. His win over course and distance on soft ground in October has been well advertised since, and he's attractively weighted to go well here.

I'll not pretend I have a strong handle on the form here, so let's move on.

Ultima Pace Projection

Bags of pace on again here, most likely from Activial and Cogry; but any of Vinndication, Cepage, Elwood and Mulcahys Hill could help to force it.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll have a wild guess at Cobra De Mai (20/1 Ladbrokes 1/5 5 places) and The Conditional (9/1 bet365, Hills).

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3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

I previewed this race on 14th February here - Champion Hurdle preview. Nothing much has changed in the interim except that I think it's an even more imponderable puzzle than I did then!

There are not many who cannot win, but there are not many about whom you'd have no reservations: it's a race in which to take a swing at a price and it won't surprise me if the bookmakers offer 5/1 the field on Tuesday morning.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

A solid gallop looks a certainty here, with neither Cornerstone Lad nor Petit Mouchoir having a Plan B. Not So Sleepy is another whose metier is to push on from the get go, notwithstanding that he missed the kick last time. Ballyandy and Coeur Sublime are another pair who tend to be on or close to the front while, at the other end of the field, the likes of Supersundae and Silver Streak are expected to be played late.

Champion Hurdle Selection

A wide open Champion Hurdle and your guess is as good as - quite possibly better than - mine. I tipped and backed Supasundae in mid-February and am happy enough to let him run for me. Both Darver Star and Ballyandy should offer a run for small money, though the price has gone somewhat on Darver now.

Suggestion: Back what you like. I'm hoping Supasundae, who is both old and slow in the context of a Champion Hurdle - but perhaps not in the context of this Champion Hurdle - can make the frame at around 12/1.

*

4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

This looks a match between Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle.

Benie Des Dieux was in the process of running away with the race when coming down at the last and handing it to Roksana a year ago. The Willie Mullins-trained mare is otherwise unbeaten in Britain and Ireland from seven completed starts since December 2016, to which she added the French Champion Hurdle last May. She's fairly lightly raced, then, perhaps attesting to a fragility; though Mullins famously minded Quevega in similar fashion and managed to conjure an astonishing six Mares' Hurdles from her. Her name now exists in perpetuity at Cheltenham with a bar named in her honour!

Benie is nine already so no such opportunity to rack up a sequence exists for her, though she would have been bidding for a hat-trick but for that last flight capsize a year ago. She's won her three starts since and comes here with rock solid credentials.

There is, however, a viable alternative in the form of Honeysuckle, herself unbeaten in seven Rules starts and a point to point. She looked a little workwomanlike when repelling Darver Star et al by just half a length at the Dublin Racing Festival, but that was over two miles. The shortest winning margins in her career have come at the minimum, while at two-and-a-half miles-plus no rival has got within 5 1/2 lengths of her.

Her ratings are closely aligned with Benie Des Dieux and, as a six-year-old, she has the greater scope to improve. Of course, Benie just keeps winning so we don't really know how good she is.

Stormy Ireland will probably force the pace, along with Honeysuckle's owner mate Elfile, meaning it will be a solid test. Stormy was good enough to claim silver behind Roksana last year and, if she gets an easy, she might cling on for a place, but it is hard to see her troubling the top pair if Elfile take her on as expected.

So what of Roksana? Dan Skelton's mare is a hard knocking type who has been a fantastic servant to connections, finishing in the first three in eleven of twelve hurdles starts. As well as winning last year's Mares' Hurdle, she has finished second to Santini in the 2018 G1 Sefton at Aintree, second in the Aintree Stayers' Hurdle, also a Grade 1, and, most recently, second in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle over course and distance. If they were betting on third place in this, she'd be about even money in my book.

The rest are not good enough.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

Elfile and Stormy Ireland are confirmed front-runners, the former looking a potential spoiler working for Honeysuckle. and it is unlikely either will give the other any peace. As such, it is probable that they'll set the race up for those in behind. Honeysuckle tends to race prominently and will get a lovely tow into proceedings, while Benie Des Dieux will not be far behind in this short field if adopting her usual mid-division tactics.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

There are two very good mares in here, one pretty good mare, and some other less good ones. The two very good ones - Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle - should finish first and second, though I wouldn't be bullish about the order; and Roksana should finish third.

Suggestion: Play 65/35 forecasts and tricasts: 65% BdD-Honey-Roksana, 35% Honey-BdD-Roksana.

*

4.50 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f)

Not my strong suit, but the trends are starting to form after 15 renewals, even allowing for some minor tinkering with the conditions.

Twelve of the fifteen winners finished 1st or 2nd last time out; 8yo+ have a moderate record; the top five in the market have won all bar three; all 15 winners ran between two weeks and two months prior to this; all bar one of the last twelve winners had run three or four times over fences.

The two box-tickers are Imperial Aura and Hold The Note.

Imperial Aura has finished second at Cheltenham on his last two of three chase starts, the form of his most recent run working out well enough. That was in the novices' handicap chase on Trials Day in January, a race which has provided the winner of this three times to date.

Mick Channon, he of the windmill arm goal celebration in a distant former life, saddled the winner of this two years ago with Mister Whitaker, and he trains Hold The Note for the same owner, Tim Radford, he of Timico Gold Cup fame in a recent former life.

This fellow has had a different prep - Mister Whitaker actually winning the aforementioned Trials Day novices handicap chase en route to his triumph - but has solid form in spite of being a maiden over fences. Maiden status failed to stop Ballyalton, Irish Cavalier or Finger Onthe Pulse from scoring.

Hold The Note was just run out of it in a three mile Grade 2 last time meaning he has both the class and the stamina for this; whether he quite has the speed remains to be seen, but connections obviously know how to get the job done.

One I like, as much as you can like a horse in a field of twenty novice handicappers, is Fergal O'Brien's Paint The Dream. He finished last of five last time out, but that was over a completely inadequate two miles on a not nearly testing enough track, Ludlow. Prior to that he'd chased home Midnight Shadow in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase, finishing from some way back to get to within a long length of the winner. He looks sure to appreciate the increased emphasis on stamina IF his jumping holds up.

17 others with some sort of a chance!

Novices' Handicap Chase Pace Projection

Torpillo will be front rank, and so too most likely Precious Cargo, Champagne Court, De Plotting Shed and, if he's quick enough, Paint The Dream. The speed they go early is likely to place strong emphasis on the jumping of these inexperienced chasers.

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

I fully respect the chances of the two 'trendy' horses, Hold The Note and Imperial Aura, but I want to take a small chance at a big price. In that spirit, I'm swinging at the maiden chaser, Paint The Dream.

Suggestion: Have a small bit each way on Paint The Dream at 25/1 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6 Skybet.

*

5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)

An amended race distance and qualifying criteria for this year's National Hunt Chase after the attrition of the 2019 renewal. Just 3m6f this time around then, though that is unlikely to make it much less of a gruelling stamina test. Add in the fact this race is contested by novice chasers ridden by amateur riders and you have a precarious punting proposition.

A little surprising, then, perhaps, is that the favourite, Carefully Selected, is as short as 6/4. If his price is surprising - to me at least - his position in the market is not. He was a high class bumper horse, finishing a neck second to Relegate in the 2018 Champion Bumper; and a high class novice hurdler, finishing third to Minella Indo in the Grade 1 Punchestown staying novice hurdle last spring.

This season Carefully Selected is three from three over fences, most recently in a pair of Grade 3's over two and a half, and then three, miles. He ought to stay though this is a three-quarter mile journey into the unknown for him.

A massed rank in opposition as ever in a race where the smallest field this century has been 15. Ravenhill is an interesting one in spite of a fall last time. He's the same age, ten, as Rathvinden, winner in 2018, and Rith Dubh (2002), his age group having an 11% win and 22% place strike rate. Compare that with seven- and eight-year-olds, who have won 15 NH Chases since 1997 but from a whopping 290 runners (5% win, 14% place).

His form lacks the Graded lustre of Carefully Selected's but it has the unarguable substance of valuable handicap performance, most notably when second in the €118,000 to the winner Kerry National two back. He was travelling kindly in midfield when falling halfway through the Troytown Chase when last seen 107 days ago and, while both the absence and the tumble are concerns, he's just the sort of warrior for this job.

Willie Mullins (Carefully Selected) and Gordon Elliott (Ravenhill) have won four of the last seven NH Chases.

Eight of the last nine winners were rated 143 or higher, and that eliminates most of this field. One who passes that test and might be the pick of the home defence is Lord Du Mesnil. Acquired from France where he had solid handicap chase form, in the summer of 2018, he's improved 38 pounds this season so far. That improvement has coincided with deeper ground as can be seen from his form below, sorted by Racing Post Rating. Note the going for his better performances - soft and heavy - and for his least good efforts - faster turf. He will obviously enjoy things if it comes up very wet.

Another worthy of mention is Kim Bailey's progressive Newtide. Newtide has raced exclusively on soft ground and has won his last three, most recently the Grade 2 Towton Novices' Chase at Wetherby. With just seven races on the clock there's sure to be more improvement to come and a light campaign should see him fresher than many in the field.

Possibly the most progressive in the field is the Tom George-trained Springfield Fox. Beaten in three early season novice hurdles, the Fox was given an opening handicap mark of 117, from which he proceeded to bolt up by 12 lengths in a heavy ground three mile Chepstow novices' handicap chase. Reassessed to a ten pounds higher mark for his next and most recent assignment, he laughed at the handicapper's futile attempt to check his new found winning ways as he sluiced home by 17 lengths in a three mile Exeter novices' handicap chase.

He's up another 15 to 142 now, but that's clearly just a guess on the part of the handicapper: it is far from impossible that he steps forward another ten pounds from that mark - and if he did so he'd just about win this. The niggle with him is that he's gone from the front and, again, that might not be ideal with a number of other pace protagonists in opposition.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

The likes of Springfield Fox, who took a liberty at the first fence last time, and Carefully Selected are confirmed front runners. Lord Du Mesnil and Lamanver Pippin race close up, too. They could be sorted out with still three miles to go!

National Hunt Chase Selection

It's an open looking race, though the favourite's credentials are solid. Sadly, his price is terrible for a contest of this nature and I have to let him beat me if he can. Against him, I respect Ravenhill and Lord Du Mesnil, but the one I want to be with is Springfield Fox. If he can get into a nice rhythm over the first few fences then he looks as though he'll just keep rolling. He's highly progressive and is a tempting price.

Suggestion: Back Springfield Fox at 8/1 e/w bet365, Skybet, 888sport

*

Good luck with your first day wagers. Remember, very few people have their last bet of the week on Tuesday, so whether you're in front or behind by 6pm, there's still a lot of pushing and pulling to be done over the remaining three days.

Matt

Stubbornness and occasional obstinacy are two of my less desirable characteristics, writes Jon Shenton. That may explain my historically neutral view of the Cheltenham Festival. Sure, I look forward to it, enjoy the seemingly 12-month build up to the next one and attend every year for at least one day.

However, I haven’t really “got it” in the same way that others seem to. I’m sure I’ve spouted the cliché of a winner at Southwell pays the same as a winner at Prestbury Park on more than one occasion to a non-plussed audience (and perhaps in one of these articles, too!). However, that’s all starting to change, mainly through penning my latest articles on the novice hurdling programme and linking it to Cheltenham. Now it all suddenly and finally makes sense.

Invigorated by that exercise, then, this article will focus on entirely on the Triumph Hurdle, which kicks off proceedings on the final afternoon, Gold Cup Friday, of the four-day fixture.

Graded Race Form

My first port of call was to evaluate the paths that previous winners have trodden on the way to a place in the history books at the Festival. Below is a table documenting each winner dating back to 2010, containing all same season graded hurdle races with the associated finishing position and the winning horse name from the latest renewal.

The table has two clear pointers. Firstly, the market is broadly a good guide in establishing the name of the likely winner. Seven of the last ten winners have returned a single figure price (and Tiger Roll only just a double figure one at 10/1). Countrywide Flame and Pentland Hills bucked the trend with their more exotic 33/1 and 20/1 SP’s.

Secondly, as well as the market pathfinding for punters, Graded form looks to be important, with every single champ having cut their teeth at Graded level apart from the aforementioned Pentland Hills. I make it nine graded wins in total from 15 starts between the last ten Triumph winners.

The Pentland question is still important to acknowledge, with Nicky Henderson's charge either a trend-buster or a potential new trend-setter.  Last years’ champion prevailed following a single run (and win) over hurdles in a £4k Class 4 event at Plumpton after an only slightly ascendant flat career.

I’d be inclined to conclude that the Pentland way is more likely to be an irregular occurrence. Moreover, due consideration needs to be paid to the specifics regarding last year's renewal. It was a difficult affair, with the ill-fated Sir Erec going wrong in the early stages of the race. The market, vibes and form all pointed to the Joseph O’Brien starlet running a big race and his exit changed the complexion, and perhaps the result of the 2019 edition. All ifs, buts and maybes but I see very little reason to deviate from the tried and tested form and/or the market as the starting point.

In terms of specific staging posts en route to a Cheltenham coronation, it’s of little surprise that the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown is a key pointer to the Triumph. No less than five of the ten winners listed have taken in this (sort of) Dublin race on the Festival trail. That may be a tick in the box for A Wave of the Sea, Aspire Tower and Cerberus in terms of the key market fancies.

Taking the UK angle, the Adonis is interesting. It's a race which was won by Soldatino and Zarkandar in 2010 and 2011 respectively. For both, it was their only UK run prior to their triumphs in the Triumph: exactly the same set of circumstances apply to Solo of the 2020 vintage.

Expanding on this theme, the table below shows the chief protagonists for the 2020 renewal, with their graded form to date.  It’s sorted in current ante-post market order.

 

If graded form is a key then Solo, Allmankind, Aspire Tower, A Wave of the Sea, Cerberus and Burning Victory have the potential to unlock the Triumph Hurdle door. That spells bad news for Sir Psycho, potentially Mick Pastor (6th in the Prestbury Juvenile Trial) and, most strikingly, Goshen. The Gary Moore-trained horse has a lofty reputation and is currently a general 4/1 in the market after three bloodless wins in lesser company. There is no doubt that the Triumph will be a big step up in class, one which he may well be perfectly capable of taking, but he doesn't fit the recent mould of winners of this race. Luckily there are ratings available which present tangible data on how big a leap might be required to take the spoils back down to Moore's Sussex yard.

Rating the Triumph

To ascertain if Goshen and his rivals have displayed “good enough” credentials to indicate competitiveness in the Triumph, I thought it’d be of interest to compare ratings of their past performances against the historic winners dating back to 2010. For this comparison I’ve used Racing Post Ratings (RPR), which as far as I can tell have been generated using a consistent methodology over the ten-year period (I’m happy to be corrected if otherwise).

Only races over hurdles have been included. The RPR is helpfully part of the geegeez.co.uk toolkit so obtaining this intel is relatively straightforward, albeit manual in nature.

Prior to discussing the data, a quick explanation of the columns, in left to right order.

  • Win RPR – the Racing Post Rating given to the winner for their run in the Triumph
  • Price – Current Market Price for the 2020 Triumph contenders
  • 5LR to LR – 5th last run if applicable through to the last run (LR) RPR's
  • High – best RPR recorded over hurdles prior to the Triumph
  • Low – lowest RPR recorded over hurdles prior to the Triumph
  • Avg – the average RPR of all hurdle runs prior to the Triumph

It’s sorted by the last run (LR) column and I’ve signposted this year's crop with white rows, light blue relating to previous winners.

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Laid out in this manner the table gives some valuable clues as to the likely shake up of the Triumph. The general shape reflects well on the class of 2020, showing that most of the main players have been pitching at a sufficient level over the course of this season to indicate that they have the potential to develop into Triumph winners.

Based on average RPR, three of the 2020 crop rank in the top five (Solo, Goshen and Aspire Tower). Although, it could easily be argued that there is a partial picture here, as it only includes winners from previous renewals, not the whole field. For example, Sir Erec ran to an RPR of 146 on his final outing prior to Cheltenham last year and, as he didn’t win, this is not included. However, even accounting for this it does indicate a high-quality renewal this year if all prospective runners make it to the starting tape.

It’s also logical to conclude that some of the longer shots (Mick Pastor, Sir Psycho, Burning Victory and Fujimoto Flyer) will have to improve significantly to prevail on Gold Cup Friday. Our old mate Pentland Hills’ Plumpton run gleaned an RPR of 128, demonstrating that a relatively low rating in a last run is not necessarily a barrier to onward success; but, PH aside, all other winners ran to at least 136 on their previous outing.

The lowest Triumph-winning RPR in the dataset is 144, and it belongs to household name Tiger Roll for his 2014 victory. This puts into context how much the animals with ratings in the 120’s or low 130’s last time out will have to improve. Notably, four of this year's field have already delivered RPR’s on or around that Tiger Roll winning rating and might be expected to improve further on the 13th March. It’s hard to see the horses at the lower end of the table improving beyond them if any of the main four take a step forward.

Solo’s 145 RPR from the Adonis is also noteworthy. The race was run just over four seconds slower than the Kingwell over the same course and distance on the same card. Perhaps the relatively high rating is a surprise, at first glance anyway. However, the RPR allocated to the winner of the Kingwell (Song for Someone) was a meaty 152 which gives a relative feel to the performance. It was visually impressive from Solo, and the RPR backs it up.

Arguably, Goshen is the most interesting in the RPR context given his lack of graded form. His RPR performance has metronomic consistency at 142 or 143 over the trio of his hurdle runs to date, having barely seen a rival in those three outings prevailing by a combined 68 lengths! Given his lack of experience at the higher level it should be of some reassurance to Goshen backers and fans that his race ratings are right on the money in these lower-class affairs. Based on ratings alone he is a very serious contender.

 

The trainers

Reviewing the trainers' record with juvenile hurdlers may offer another clue to the eventual winner. Using horseracebase the below table shows their complete records in juvenile hurdle events in the UK and Ireland.  It only includes trainers of horses that are 20/1 or shorter in the Triumph Hurdle ante-post market currently.

 

The data confirms that Gary Moore is a superb handler of juvenile hurdlers. There must be a couple of nice angles hidden within this table, perhaps for another time/edition of Punting Angles. The Nicholls operation, too, is meritorious and deserves closer inspection on another occasion.

Overall, it’s a nice insight but in terms of significant pointers for Cheltenham it doesn’t really help, so evaluating performance at the track should be an interesting and logical next step.

 

 

There are some astonishing numbers in the table above, one in particular: Willie Mullins’ 0-from-41 in juvenile hurdles at Cheltenham is the most extraordinary stat of all, although Gary Moore’s 1-from-40 is also equally startling. We’re fishing in small pools of data and the degree of relevance can be argued. That said, data are data and, consequently, a certain degree of bravery and belligerence is required to back Burning Victory or Goshen once you’ve digested these numbers.

To micro-analyse a little further, the table below shows performance only in four-year-old hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival. This includes data from the Triumph and the Fred Winter/Boodles.

 

 

All of Mullins’ 41 runners have been at 'the Fez' and include luminaries such as Footpad and Apples Jade. Moore hasn’t notched in 17 appearances, hitting the place crossbar only twice from those runs. Paul Nicholls' horses are obviously serious propositions; and Skelton, O’Brien and de Bromhead only have a handful of representatives between them, although it is worth noting that whilst Aiden O’Brien was the trainer of 2016 winner Ivanovic Gorbatov, it is widely rumoured that Joseph had a significant role to play in that victory. Overall though, trainer data points to negatives for Goshen and Burning Victory.

Race Composition – Pace to Burn

I’ve attempted to build a pace map of the chief protagonists below: it is constructed in line with the methodology and numbers deployed within geegeez pace maps.

  • 4 – led
  • 3 – Prominent
  • 2 – Mid-Division
  • 1 – Held up

 

Above is the individual race profile of each of the contenders in numerate form and below is a graphical representation of their average pace preference based on their hurdle runs thus far.

 

A lot of talk regarding this race is in relation to a likely pace burn up. The data backs that up with bells on. The top three in the market have all pretty much only ever cut out the running in their recent hurdles starts, with Cerberus and Sir Psycho preferring to race near the head of affairs, too. The addition of the other less fancied runners may further spice to the already fiery pace platter. It would be very, very surprising if this race is run at anything other than a fast and honest gallop.

Based on visual evidence, Goshen and Allmankind appear to be the ones that are most likely bolt on when the flag is dropped. There is a definite possibility of those two damaging each other by over-racing and it’ll be fascinating to see how they react to a bit of competition for the lead, although Goshen can take back as he did between the third and fifth flights last time.

Perhaps Aspire Tower gives the impression of being slightly the least headstrong of the trio which may mean he could pick up the pieces, but that equally could apply to any of the others. Despite the RPR numbers appearing to downplay the prospects of Burning Victory and Mick Pastor, maybe the race composition brings them into play a little.

 

Summary and conclusions

If you’re after a tip then you’re probably reading the wrong article! However, after evaluating each horse's path to the Triumph, their RPR performance, trainer records and the likely pace composition it’s fair to say that there are a plethora of pros and cons to evaluate, many of them ostensibly contradictory.

Of the four market leaders I favour Goshen the least: his lack of Graded form, Moore’s record at Cheltenham with juveniles, and his want-the-lead run style are all negatives in my view. Further, he has jumped markedly to the right in all three of his hurdle races, which is obviously sub-optimal in a Championship race at left-handed Cheltenham, and I do wonder how he will react under pressure as for the first time he is unlikely to get it all his own way, as the ratings and pace profile demonstrate.

Of the four I’d side with Aspire Tower, a perspective that’s driven by current prices as much as anything else. Along with Solo he has the best RPR from a previous hurdle race and I think he could be a good value play, although he is not the most likely winner and does have to bounce back from a fall in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown.

The pace composition holds the key for me: a furious gallop could easily leave the door ajar for horses at the lower end of the pace profile, and maybe not the most fancied in the field. Based on evidence to date it’s likely to be a mega burn up, but if I know that then of course all the trainers, jockeys and pundits know it too. That makes it even more intriguing and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a change in tactics attempted by at least one of the main pace pushers. Good luck holding Goshen and Allmankind back though!

If I was putting my money down today based on this analysis, I would side with Aspire Tower and maybe A Wave Of The Sea all things considered. Along with Solo they tick more of the boxes and possibly have more versatility regarding how the tactics play out. The unappealing price for Solo leads me to the other two, though it will be far from a shock should Solo win as he is the likely favourite.

It would also be no surprise to see Goshen or Allmankind break the field apart! Whatever happens, it’s a genuinely fascinating race: the more I’ve looked at it the more I can’t wait to see how things shake down. I’ll be there to watch it in the flesh, and I haven’t looked forward to a single race as much in my life.

- JS

It's mid-February and high time for the very first ante post preview, of the Champion Hurdle, ahead of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is confirmed alive and kicking as runners head to the start for the first of the week's open championship races and, while this year's renewal looks lacking in star quality, it may be bulging with quantity... and that makes for a cracking betting race.

2020 Champion Hurdle Betting

From an ante post wagering perspective, significant further spice is added by the "will they / won't they" nature of a number of runners towards the pointy end of the market. Any/all of Honeysuckle, Envoi Allen, Benie Des Dieux, and Cilaos Emery could rock up here and go off a single figure price; but only the first two named are actually entered at this stage. We'll know more after the supplementary stage on 4th March, but so will everyone else so now is the time to take a view.

With 2017/18 champ Buveur D'Air out injured, Willie talking horse Klassical Dream out missing in action, and 2019 victor Espoir D'Allen sorely missed, the path is clear for a hitherto largely unheralded player to add their name to the illustrious roll of honour. Here's where the fun starts...

 

The above is a betting snapshot as at 8am on 14th February, with the starting prices for the race sure to be quite different. Before looking at the form, let's think about the shape of the market.

First up, if the four uncertain runners all turn up, Epatante is more likely to be nearer 5/1 than 5/2. Pentland Hills might be - arguably should be - nearer 10/1 than 5/1.

What is more likely to happen, I think - and don't quote me on this, is that Benie and Honey will swerve each other, with one going to the Mares' Hurdle (Honeysuckle?) and one to either the Champion (or Stayers') Hurdle (BdD?).

Benie Des Dieux has raced exclusively over two and a half to three miles and her trainer, Willie Mullins, has a number of other options for the Tuesday showpiece. In my view she's unlikely to run here, but would be the chief antagonist to Paisley Park if going to the longer Grade 1, a race in which she's actually entered.

Novice Envoi Allen has looked a Champion Hurdler in the making, his plan all season being the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, a kingmaker for the following year's Champion, for which he is not far north of even money. It wouldn't be the biggest surprise if he was re-routed to an ostensibly hollow renewal of the hurdling Blue Riband, but his non-runner no bet (NRNB) price is about right, so save nearer the time if required.

And then there's Cilaos Emery. I'm in for a few quid on this lad for the Champion Chase, so a first fence fall in his dress rehearsal at the Dublin Racing Festival - and subsequent plan revision from the Closutton schemers to potentially head this way - has been a disappointing dispatch to digest. We'll come back to his form chance shortly.

2020 Champion Hurdle Preview

All of the above means that my inclination is to clear out the noise and focus primarily on those believed likely to run at this stage. Primus inter punting pares currently is Epatante. The Nicky Henderson-trained / JP McManus-owned six-year-old mare has done little wrong albeit in lesser company. Since winning a French AQPS G1 bumper in November 2017 - her switch to Seven Barrows ensuing - she has run five times, winning four of them.

That quartet comprises a brace of novice hurdles where her closest pursuers are now rated 127 and 117; a Listed handicap hurdle where the next two home were stable mates at Chez Nicky, rated in the mid-130's; and the Grade 1 (in name at least) Christmas Hurdle, where she was five lengths too good for Silver Streak, himself third in last year's Champion Hurdle.

But last year's Champion Hurdle completely fell apart due to fallers and a pace collapse. Silver Streak, a 25/1 chance this year, was 80/1 last year. Moreover, he was beaten 15 lengths last year and subsequently duffed up royally at Aintree though over an extra half mile or so.

The sole blemish on Epatante's UK CV is a sizeable one. It came in last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle where she was 15/8 favourite in a big field of interesting though not necessarily exciting aspirants. Eight of them finished in front of her at the line for all that she was only beaten around ten lengths.

Whether it was the track, or the volume of rivals, or the occasion, it is hard to know. What I do know is that she'll be racing at the same track (old/new course notwithstanding), with quite possibly a similar number of rivals, and an even bigger occasion. That's a big question to remain unanswered for a 5/2 (10/3 in a place) chance, even taking into account her seven pound mares' allowance.

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If Epatante has questions to answer, what about Pentland Hills? Last season was fairytale stuff for his four billion owners in the Owners Group 031 club. A fairly exposed flat turfer for Chris Wall, rated 73 on the level, the journey from Newmarket to Lambourn clearly suited - as did, of course, the increase in racing distance and the presence of an octet of obstacles.

For where was this middling summer handicapper? After waltzing away from The Flying Sofa on his debut over timber as late as the end of February, he rocked up in the Triumph just 18 days later and bashed his 13 rivals up in style; though of course it should be remembered that rock solid favourite, Sir Erec, met a most untimely demise in the first half of the race.

However, Pentland was keen to show his Chelto success was no fluke and did just that in the Aintree equivalent where he took down another notable scalp in the form of Fakir D'Oudairies. A fearsome four-year-old was he last season, but this term has been less straightforward. Kicking off his campaign in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, he was no better than fifth as a 5/2 chance in a bunch finish.

He has since run in the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial, a Grade 2, where he was beaten a nose by Ballyandy, that one finishing second in the International and, therefore, having two verdicts over Pentland Hills this season yet still being offered at five times his price. To be clear, I don't like the form lines especially but the price disparity has to be wrong for all that the Hills has far more 'back class'.

A feature of Pentland Hills' races this term has been a propensity to over-race. His advocates will argue that in a bigger, and better, field they'll go quicker which will play to the Triumph victor's strengths. They may be right about that, but I still don't see him winning. At least I don't see me betting him at anything like his current price.

And, of course, everybody knows five-year-olds don't win the Champion Hurdle. Except Katchit in 2008. And, erm, Espoir D'Allen last year 😉

Benie Des Dieux has much better options than this. She'll surely go for either the Mares' Hurdle over an extra half mile, or the Stayers' Hurdle over a full mile more. A flat out speed test is something against which she's completely unproven. Back her on the day if you like, but she's a red herring in this book from where I'm sitting.

The Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle has similar destination uncertainties. She is at least entered in the race, where Benie is not currently; but her target has reputedly been the Mares' Hurdle all along. The form book relates that, although she won the G1 Irish Champion Hurdle last time, it was by the smallest margin - half a length - in her seven race unbeaten career to date. Closer inspection reveals that the next narrowest margin of victory was on the only other occasion she contested a race over two miles, a Naas novice 15 months ago.

She wants two and a half miles at least, maybe three, and she did very well to prevail at the shorter range last time. I'd be surprised if she was invited to go short next month.

The eight-year-old Darver Star was knocking around the places in novice hurdles before a handicap debut win off 106 in April last year. A year later and he's now rated 152 having won four in a row prior to running a four length third to Envoi Allen in the G1 Royal Bond in December and a half length second to Honeysuckle in the aforementioned Irish Champion Hurdle. He's tough, he's hardy, he's progressive for his age (lightly raced, too) and he could outrun odds of 20/1.

The heart-breaker in the herd, for this scribe at least, is Cilaos Emery. I  have him to win a nice four figure amount in the Champion Chase, but his jumping and his inexperience - intrinsically linked, no doubt - which led to a first fence fumble in the Dublin Chase have placed his participation in the Wednesday feature under a cloud of doubt.

Although he needs to be supplemented, he is a legit contender for the hurdles crown. Rated 165 over fences, that figure is higher than any in the current entries. Of course, he hasn't run over the smaller barriers since late 2017 when he was rated only 153; but even that level gives him a bit of a chance in this likely field. He's 8/1 NRNB and 12/1 all in run or not, and could easily end up being Mullins' first choice for a race where his expected contenders have evaporated as the season has worn on.

Of the Mullins horses actually entered, Sharjah is the most compelling. He has two ways of running, the better of them up to muster in this group. He evidenced that most recently when winning the Grade 1 Matheson (formerly Ryanair) Hurdle at New Year for the second year running. Last season, he also won the G1 Morgiana beating (an admittedly likely below peak) Faugheen, so he's capable of Grade 1 winning form.

Patrick Mullins is expected to keep the mount, and to ride a patient race. If he handles the ground - which will probably be on the soft side given the weather we've been having - he's a player.

So too is Envoi Allen if he is diverted to this gig. I don't think he will be and I don't think he should be, but clearly a horse unbeaten in seven Rules races and a point-to-point, including last season's Champion Bumper, cannot be completely dismissed. He's just not a betting proposition at this stage for all that he's a very exciting horse.

Then we step into the realm of the wannabe's - many of whom never will be, at this rarefied altitude at least - with the likes of Fusil Raffles, Thomas Darby, Coeur Sublime and Supasundae amongst others.

Fusil Raffles was a good four-year-old, beating Fakir D'Oudairies by two and a half lengths in a Punchestown Festival Grade 1 last May. A literal interpretation of that gives him the beating of second favourite, Pentland Hills; but since then, the Henderson inmate has had mixed fortunes, first scrambling home in a Grade 2 then pulling up as if something was amiss in the Christmas Hurdle. The news that he goes straight to Cheltenham offers no prior chance to redeem the reservation of that Kempton flunk.

Olly Murphy recently celebrated his maiden Grade 1 success, in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown. The winner there, Itchy Feet, finished a place behind stable companion Thomas Darby in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the latter taking his chance in the Champion Hurdle now. Since last March, however, Thomas has charted an uncertain passage, looking far from fluent over fences and reverting to hurdles last time where he did well to beat a field of Grade 3 handicappers off top weight. That was two and a half miles on heavy ground, a different test - in distance terms if not ground - to what he'll encounter here; but current evidence suggests he's a better hurdler than chaser.

Coeur Sublime simply doesn't look good enough, having finished a respectful distance behind a number of more credible Champion Hurdle candidates; but Supasundae is not without hope. Jessica Harrington would be one of the less feted of the top table of Irish trainers, and her Cheltenham Festival record is impressive: most notably she recorded a treble in 2017 which included Sizing John in the Gold Cup, and Supasundae himself.

In the intervening three years, Supasundae, now ten, has finished 23212212227124. His problems in the win market are well couched in that form string; but every single one of those runs was in Grade 1 company. He was disappointing in the Stayers' Hurdle last term - the sore thumb '7' in the sequence - and I have a suspicion that a fast run two, rather than a steadily run three, is what he wants.

He won the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle last April, where he beat Buveur D'Air, who would be no bigger than 5/1 in this field all other things being equal. Of course, that was two and a half miles, but he is a legitimate Grade 1 animal. His last day fourth in the Irish Champion Hurdle, where he was beaten less than five lengths on his first run for nine months, will doubtless have delighted connections, and he must improve plenty from there to Cheltenham.

Ballyandy is also worth a name check. The form of his last three runs ties in closely with both Epatante and Pentland Hills so, if you think they are correctly priced, this guy has to represent a bit of value in the place markets at least. His Cheltenham Festival record is strong: he won the Champion Bumper in 2016, was fourth in Labaik's Supreme a year later, and was third in the Coral Cup last year.

2020 Champion Hurdle Tips

It's a fabulously fraught Festival market with no horse holding anything like outstanding claims. As such, it can pay to take a couple of chances at bigger prices. Cilaos Emery would be interesting if getting supplemented but at this stage he is overlooked. So too are the hokey cokey possibles Honeysuckle, Benie Des Dieux and Envoi Allen.

Epatante is a dreadful price even if the above named quartet all abstain; her Cheltenham blot and the general balance of her form mark her as vulnerable for all that she'd not be a shock winner. Pentland Hills actually impressed me in the Triumph, and again at Aintree, last year; but he doesn't look the same model this season, five-year-old hurdlers often struggling to recapture the fizz of their first forays.

Thereafter it's wide open. A 'going day' Sharjah would be a player, for sure, as would Supasundae; and Darver Star and Ballyandy are not without hope from the long grass either.

With Sharjah's Cheltenham record patchy (if probably excusable - heavy ground and a brought down, respectively), and Ballyandy inexorably tied to Pentland Hills in form terms - which for some will be a boon, granted - I'll take a punt on the other pair.

Darver Star will be having his first start outside Ireland, though that didn't stop his trainer winning last year's race with a similar type, and is an eight-year-old who has emerged from absolutely nowhere in the last year. He's not had a huge amount of racing, stays the trip and more, and has arguably achieved more in defeat the last twice than a number of his rivals have done in winning.

And Supasundae, if routing this way - we'll go NRNB just in case - has class and consistency in his corner. Yes he is ten years old; yes, he finishes second a lot; but he does it in Grade 1 company, including at the Cheltenham Festival where his record since switching to his current trainer is 127. That first run of the season earlier in the month must have pleased connections, and I'm happy to chance him each way non-runner no bet.

Champion Hurdle 2020 Suggestion

Back Supasundae each way NRNB at 16/1 Skybet

Consider any of Darver Star 20/1, Ballyandy 20/1, and/or Sharjah 12/1 all NRNB

 

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Four Preview, Tips

And so to day 4, Friday, Gold Cup Day, the last of the quartet. If you're in front, well done; if you're behind, there's still time. Either way, the last day is traditionally the trickiest so keep that in mind as you peruse the prose below.

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)

The four-year-old hurdle championship is often a confused competitive affair. But this time it might just be a tad lop-sided. That is certainly how the market perceives things, with Sir Erec heading the betting at even money. Plenty of horses arrive at this race off the flat and/or after earlier starts to their hurdling careers in France. This fellow has an extremely high class flat profile, evidenced most obviously by a third place finish behind Stradivarius in the Group 2 Long Distance Cup on British Champions' Day last autumn. He was sent off just 5/1 that day suggesting there was no fluke to that run. He jumps proficiently, stays well and has oodles of class.

If there is a reason to take him on, and I'm not convinced there is, it might be in a faintly interrupted prep where he was the victim of a stone bruise. But the vibes - #thevibes - seem to be that he is completely over that and he's unlikely to have missed any work as a consequence. I think he will win and win well. But I cannot bet him at even money.

So where to from here? Betting without the favourite is our friend: it offers fair odds without having to do half the stake on an unlikely win prospect. Away from Sir Erec, it's a fascinating betting race. Fascinating, but not easily deciphered.

Tiger Tap Tap was very close to Sir Erec on their respective Irish hurdling debuts, but further back when they re-engaged last time. He may step forward for a more truly run race and represents the Mullins/Walsh axis.

Best of the Brits is probably the, erm, French horse, Quel Destin, who has experience aplenty and comes here unbeaten in five small field races. Although it's hard to crab a horse that just keeps winning, it feels to me as though the Irish juveniles are a cut above their British counterparts; if that's correct then the likes of Tiger and Gardens Of Babylon are worth a second glance in the without market. Gardens Of Babylon won a big field maiden hurdle before getting chinned on the line next time; he then got closest to Sir Erec at Leopardstown on his most recent outing.

The je ne sais quoi factor is brought to the race by Pic d'Orhy, a high class French import yet to race here. He was second in an Auteuil Grade 1 last November before being snapped up by owner Johnny de la Hey. Whilst it is often difficult to project how such horses will fare on their UK debuts, and this is hardly a quiet jog round in which to get started, new trainer Paul Nicholls has 'previous' for getting this job done: he has effected it at least twice, with Diego du Charmil and Aux Ptits Soins, in the Fred Winter and Coral Cup respectively.

Adjali looked to have limitations exposed first by Quel Destin and then by Fakir d'Oudairies, the latter a form line suggesting Irish primacy in these ranks. Pentland Hills won his only hurdle start but is rated more than two stone inferior to Sir Erec on the level.

Willie Mullins also runs French Made, and she could be better than a 40/1 shot. She won her only start for Mullins in a big field maiden hurdle where the second and third have both won since.

Triumph Hurdle Pace Map

 

Triumph Hurdle Selection

I think, and indeed hope, Sir Erec wins, because he's as classy a recruit to the juvenile hurdling division as we've seen in a long time. He's capable of winning this, the Ascot Gold Cup in June and maybe even a Champion Hurdle one day.

But evens is not generally my thing. The without market is a place to play, and in that context both Tiger Tap Tap and Pic d'Orhy appeal more than Quel Destin. French Made may go better than a 40/1 shot, too.

Suggestion: Back either Tiger Tap Tap (Victor 11/2 1/5 123) and/or Pic d'Orhy (Victor 11/2 1/5 123) each way without the favourite. And perhaps have a tiny each way in the same market on French Made (Victor 18/1 1/5 123).

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2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m1f)

Too difficult for me, so token thoughts only. But then I did manage to back 40/1 William Henry on Wednesday and I've tipped a 50/1 winner in this before (Silver Jaro - oh, the scenes..!). Small stakes obviously. Runners aged seven-plus have won six of the last 21 so it's hardly the death knell but the percentage play is to side with younger, less exposed types. Five year olds have an incredible record, and those a year older have also gone well.

My shortlist, which comprises those youths with Graded form, is We Have A Dream, Mr Adjudicator, and Due Reward.

Mr Adjudicator is the shortest of the three, at around 16/1. He has finished 11222 in hurdle races, including a victory in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle last season, beating subsequent Triumph winner, Farclas. Last time out he was beaten eleven lengths by Espoir d'Allen, a performance which would have got him closer to the subsequent Champion Hurdle winner than the runner-up in that race, Melon, if taken literally. Whilst one should not take that literally it was nevertheless a very good effort.

We Have A Dream is also a Grade 1 winner, in last year's Finale Hurdle at Chepstow, and also makes his handicap debut. He stays further and has obvious class, but whether he's quite battle hardened enough for a scrap like this, I don't know.

The trio is rounded out by Due Reward, an experienced handicapper who was found out in a small field G1 two starts back. Given a rehearsal ride at Leopardstown last time, this is gala night and Henry de Bromhead will have him ready to roll.

Whiskey Sour is the favourite and for good reason. He ran a tidy race when third in this last year on his first handicap spin, and has plenty of Grade 1 form, including a win in novice company last term. He's commensurately short in the betting but his case is easy to make.

County Hurdle Pace Map

County Hurdle Selection

Obviously impossible, so the guesses are as presented above. Whiskey Sour will surprise nobody if winning, but bigger prices are available about equally talented - if less handicap proven - alternatives in We Have A Dream and Mr Adjudicator. Due Reward is also interesting.

Suggestion: Small interest each way on any or all of We Have A Dream (25/1 general), Mr Adjudicator (16/1 general) and Due Reward (25/1 general)

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2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

The potato race. A war for relatively inexperienced horses where the ability to stay stay and stay is aforethought. The last five winners were all sent off at double figure prices, two of them at 33/1, so this is not a race in which to be all in on the jolly.

The thing here is that this big field slog is a far greater test than the five- and six-runner bimbles horses encounter earlier in the season, and it demands a tougher - often less classy - animal to see it out. Experience is a crucial factor with twelve of the 14 winners having had four or more (and as many as ten!) races in the previous year.

Your first 30 days for just £1

If we use that experience criterion we immediately remove three of the top five in the market and, while there's a fair chance we've lobbed the winner, I'm happier taking a flyer at a price in a race which has rewarded such ambition in recent years.

And I'm also focusing on those to have already won over at least three miles, as nine of the 14 winners had. That truncates the field from twenty to seven. Nice. Potentially.

The shortest of my remaining squad is the uneasy favourite, Lisnagar Oscar. Trained by Rebecca Curtis, whose At Fishers Cross won this in 2013, this son of - you know it, Oscar - was second over course and distance in December and has since won a big field novice hurdle at Chepstow and a three mile Grade 2 at Haydock. He deserves his position in the market and would certainly be shorter if trained by a more fashionable handler.

Derrinross is next on my list but his wins have come in a brace of six-runner fields and he's exactly the sort I want to be against. Doesn't mean he can't win - his soft ground score in a Grade 2 last time is obviously decent form - but this will be run at a very different clip, making 10/1 unattractive.

Gordon Elliott's Dinons ticks the experience box in spades - he's had ten runs, and five wins, in the last year - but he got whacked on his first step into Graded company last time and would prefer a sounder surface. That said, he did bolt up in a Class 2 novice hurdle over course and distance (on the other track) in October. Small field of six. He's not been seen for 110 days.

Nadaitak hacked up as outsider of four last time out in the Grade 2 River Don at Doncaster. That was on good ground as is most of his form, and it was in a small field - not what he'll encounter here. Ben Pauling is having a brilliant Festival (Le Breuil winning, Bright Forecast third in the Ballymore) so no worries on the stable form score, but I don't think he's quite shown enough mettle for this challenge.

And then we get to the interesting ones, from a price perspective at least. Noel Meade saddles Cap York, who got outpaced before staying on in Derrinross's Grade 2 two starts back. Last time out he raced in open handicap company in a bigger field over three miles, and won comfortably. That kind of race setup is far more akin to an average Albert Bartlett than the small field G2's which seem to abound, and I think this seven-year-old could go well. He does have slightly less experience than is ideal in terms of number of recent runs.

Colin Tizzard won this last year with Kilbricken Storm, and he has a similar profile type this term in Rockpoint. The six-year-old son of Shirocco has had a dozen hurdle starts, improving significantly in recent runs for the step up to three miles. He won the three mile Grade 2 over course and distance in which favourite Lisnagar Oscar was second, and yet he's 33/1 in places. True, he's since finished behind the same horse at Haydock, but that was on good ground and a flat track in a race run at a dawdle - this sort of attrition is much more his condition.

Plenty at the head of the market with proven class but unknown levels of fortitude, that latter attribute the primary requirement for the gig.

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle Selection

In a race where outsiders go well, I'm taking two against the field. Cap York could be the pick of the Irish, in terms of stamina and resolution at least; and Rockpoint, a Grade 2 winner over course and distance, looks a forgotten horse for last year's winning trainer. They'll do for me.

Suggestion: Back Rockpoint (33/1 Victor 1/5 1234) and/or Cap York (25/1 Victor 1/5 1234) each way

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3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2 1/2f)

The Blue Riband. I previewed the Cheltenham Gold Cup 2019 here, and nothing in my perspective has changed since.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Pace Map

 

Cheltenham Gold Cup Selection

I nominated Native River at 6/1 on 5th March in the above preview. He's now a top priced 9/2 which is still reasonable in my book, if not spectacular. Bellshill was my other suggestion: he was 14/1 and is still available to back at 12/1 in spite of Ruby Walsh riding. I'd imagine he'll shorten and is probably the bet if you're not on something already.

Suggestion: Think about Native River at 9/2 (888sport) and also Bellshill at 12/1 (Victor 1/5 1234)

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4.10 The Foxhunter Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2 1/2f)

We're into 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' territory now. If you're not in front, it will be pretty difficult to claw a result from here on out.

My handle on the point/hunter chase form is limited, but I was extremely taken by the performance of Hazel Hill when he routed a strong field at Warwick in late January. A prolific point winner, he is now three from three in hunter chases, nothing getting within ten lengths of him in that discipline. One firm went 25/1 about his chance here in the immediate aftermath; sadly, they only stood me £8.80, but still that was better than nothing and, in truth, will probably save me a quid or two when he runs a gallant second!

Two Irish horses head the market, Stand Up And Fight and Ucello Conti. They have very different profiles, the former being a lightly raced seven-year-old who placed in staying Graded novice hurdles two seasons ago; the latter a seasoned ex-handicap chaser who was second in the Paddy Power Handicap Chase at Leopardstown during their 2017 Christmas Festival. Ucello was running a bold race in last year's Grand National until unseating his rider four out and I'd be inclined to take that form over the class and youth of Enda Bolger's favourite. Young horses have won this race in the recent past - think Salsify and Cappa Bleu and Kingscliff - so don't let me put you off if you like the jolly.

Road To Rome is a winning machine. He's on a current streak of seven - three points and four hunter chases - but it has all been on flat tracks. He's an admirable horse, no doubt, though this looks a bridge too far.

And what of Pacha Du Polder? He's 20/1 having won this for the last two years. And if you think that price says he has no chance, keep in mind that those two wins in the race were returned at 16/1 and 25/1. His full record in the race is 511. No twelve-year-old-plus has won this since Earthmover in 2004, trained by... Pacha Du Polder's trainer, Paul Nicholls. Nicholls has won the Foxhunters a record-equalling four times and relies on Pacha in his bid for sole primacy.

Foxhunter Chase Pace Map

[Note that this pace map only features races run under Rules, i.e. no point to point pace figures are included]

 

Foxhunter Chase Selection

A fascinating race but, unless you're a bit of a judge of such things - I'm not - it's one to watch more than wager. Small interests on any of the top three in the market - Stand Up And Fight, Ucello Conti, Hazel Hill - should give you a run for your money. And if you want to cheer a big-priced story horse, Pacha du Polder is the one.

Suggestion: Back any of the top three and try a tiny each way on Pacha Du Polder (20/1 general)

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4.50 Grand Annual Chase (Grade 3 Handicap, 2m 1/2f)

The last two races are not really my thing. I'll be nicely inebriated by this point, in the Brown Bear on Leman Street as Gold Cup day tradition dictates. This was a very difficult watch last year with a number of equine fatalities as the riders went hell for leather from the outset. Moving it from the last to the penultimate race is unlikely to positively affect the early speed which will almost certainly be set by the rapid Gino Trail.

Kerry Lee's lightning bolt clung on valiantly for second in last year's Grand Annual and has the same mark this time around. It's a very big ask to go wire to wire in this, mind.

The horse to beat him in 2018 was Le Prezien, who again locks horns. He is a mere pound higher now and ought to again get on the premises granted safe passage. But Le Prezien's trainer, Paul Nicholls, has been making bullish noises about another of his runners, Magic Saint, throughout the preview circuit. This lad is only five, was formerly trained in France by Guillaume Macaire, and has progressive form here. He'll not have seen anything like this kind of set up previously, however, and is awfully short. Palarshan won as a five-year-old in 2003, and six of the dozen that age hit the frame.

Bun Doran could be suited to conditions though he's up a chunk in the weights for an easy win two back. Trainer Tom George has been quiet in the past fortnight, too.

This race is named in honour of Nicky Henderson's dad, so we can be sure that Whatswrongwithyou will be an emotional winner. He comes here on a hat-trick having beaten two rivals twice; this will be a somewhat different experience.

Gary Moore's progressive novice, Not Another Muddle, was impressive at Sandown last time and is likely not done improving yet. He has a nice light weight and appeals as the type to finish through a lot of tired horses. That sort of run style demands a ton of luck in the run, however, something which may not be fully factored in to a price of 8/1.

The Irish have out-performed their numerical representation in recent years, scoring three times and hitting the board with another five, from 28 runners. Only Mind's Eye lines up for the away team, Henry de Bromhead's seven-year-old bidding to replicate the feat of A Plus Tard in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase on the opening day. The son of Stowaway has been running in Grade 1 novice chases so is clearly considered capable of a classy performance.

Grand Annual Pace Map

 

Grand Annual Selection

Magic Saint has been well touted by his trainer who saddled last year's winner, Le Prezien. I prefer the latter at the prices, and I also quite like Not Another Muddle if he can get an untroubled trip - a big ask of any horse in this field. But perhaps the pick of the prices is the sole Irish entry, Mind's Eye, a novice who has been jogging round in small field Grade 1's and who might just find this more rapid tempo right up his street.

Suggestion: Try Mind's Eye each way at 14/1 (Victor 1/5 12345)

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5.30 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 4 1/2f)

A very difficult looking finale for the 'lucky last'. That said, recent renewals have been notable for the class their winners have subsequently shown over fences. Don Poli, Killultagh Vic, Ibis Du Rheu, Champage Classic and Blow By Blow all showed themselves to be Graded performers, most of them at Grade 1 level.

Thus I'm only interested in an unexposed potentially very high class horse. To that end, Dallas Des Pictons - who is priced at just 7/2 - looks just the man for the job. Winner of a Class B handicap hurdle last time, he was second off level weights to Ballymore Novices' Hurdle winner, City Island, prior to back-to-back big field wins. He may be a short price but he already has Grade 1 form on that City Island line.

Defi Bleu, Getareason, and Early Doors all fit the ascendant Graded class runner mould, though less snugly than Dallas. That is reflected in their prices, all of which are 8/1+.

But my Festival will be over by this point, and I'll simply be looking to identify the right cap colour on the favourite (it's the purple one).

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Pace Map

 

Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle Selection

Not a race in which to go mad. Keep your powder dry for the Midlands Nash on Saturday! I'll be having a bet on the obvious horse, Dallas Des Pictons, who looks the best animal in the race and can be supported at 7/2 to back up that contention. Unexciting, but we're in 'a winner is a winner' pub chat territory now...!

Suggestion: Back Dallas Des Pictons (7/2 general) and cheer it home with everybody else.

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day 3 Preview, Tips

And so to the second half, historically the trickier segment of the meeting. After two fiendishly trappy days on Tuesday and Wednesday, that does not bode well! Typically the weakest of the four days, though that of course is relative, Thursday brings us the Stayers' Hurdle, Ryanair and JLT Chases, as well as a trio of impossible handicaps and a mares' novice hurdle (all lower case) that has no place at the Festival in my opinion.

Finding winners should be faintly possible in the Grade 1's, and that is where the bulk of the words that follow will be focused.

1.30 JLT Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f)

A curious little contest which revolves in large part around the form of the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, a Grade 1 over this sort of trip run at Sandown in early February. That day, Defi Du Seuil beat Lostintranslation and Vinndication, the trio now comprising 60% of the top five in the betting and 100% of the top two.

Defi was a very good winner of the Triumph Hurdle, or so it seemed at the time, but he subsequently got stuck in the mire of Philip Hobbs' stable virus last season. This campaign has been better, highlighted by that Scilly Isles win and also featuring a defeat of Topofthegame (though that one had excuses). Moreover, the record of the winner of the Sandown race in this contest is 35F222, beaten the last thrice by an Irish runner.

Lostintranslation is closely pegged to Defi Du Seuil on his last two runs. He's a consistent horse with second placed efforts in two Grade 1's, but is a bit of a bridesmaid. Contrast him with Vinndication, who was expected to miss the Festival due to injury but has apparently been working the house down in recent days. Kim Bailey's Vinnie Roe gelding had won all six career starts prior to his close third in the Scilly Isles and he is entitled to improve a little more still.

The front three at Sandown were close together and I'm prepared to take a chance that the Irish will prevail again: they've already shown their two mile brigade is best, with a 1-2-3 in an eventful Arkle. They have a four-pronged attack with which to fork the home team, the highest rated of which is Real Steel. He's won his last two, in ungraded company, and wasn't good enough as a hurdler to make the frame in four attempts at G1 company.

Stablemate at the Willie Mullins yard, Voix Du Reve, interests me: he was third to Le Richebourg and Us And Them in the Racing Post Novice Chase, form advertised in the absence of the winner by the second who filled the same spot in the Arkle on Tuesday. He was in the process of running a bigger race than that, Us And Them and Mengli Khan behind, when tipping up at the last in the Irish Arkle: that form looks decent in this context. His jumping is a bit of a worry but he also has a Grade 2 verdict over beaten Arkle favourite, Hardline, to his name so is clearly near the head of the Irish chasing ranks. He's an appealing price.

Mengli Khan has been good enough to win a Grade 1 novice hurdle and to place in last year's Supreme on heavy ground; but he's not shown enough in three chase starts to suggest he can be the best of the Irish. As a son of Lope De Vega, he also has to demonstrate the requisite stamina having never raced beyond seventeen furlongs in twelve National Hunt starts. Pravalaguna, a third string to Willie's bow, rounds out Team Ireland (not that they're a team at all, obviously). She comes here on a hat-trick, her two chase wins achieved in Listed grade or lower, and looks to have a bit to find.

I'm struggling to see the appeal of classy handicapper Kildisart. He was getting weight from the second and (errant-running) third in a novices' handicap chase on Trials Day and that looks below what is required.

JLT Chase Pace Map

JLT Chase Selection

This boils down to whether you like the British or Irish form, and I like the Irish based on Tuesday's Arkle. On that basis, I'm siding with Voix Du Reve to add to Willie Mullins' tally (he's won four of the eight renewals to date). He has experience, he has classy chase form and, though he fell last time, he looks a very big price at 14/1 (or 20/1 if you can get on with Boyle).

Suggestion: Back Voix Du Reve each way at 14/1

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2.10 Pertemps Final (Grade 3 handicap, 3m)

Another impossible handicap which will probably be won by an Irish novice that has run in a Grade 1 or 2 earlier in the season. Using that lazy man's route in - well, I could do the work and find a loser, too? - brings me to a shortlist of ... none.

Do some work I must, as yoda might say. A slightly different tack is to look for the 'not off' horse from the Leopardstown qualifier. That angle screams the chance of the Gordon Elliott-trained Sire Du Berlais, who jogged around before picking off enough of the beaten horses to bag sixth place and thus qualification for this final.

The lightly raced seven-year-old was fourth in the Martin Pipe last season off a mark of 144 and races here off just a pound higher. 6/1 is a horrible price in a race like this but his case is easily made.

Ian Williams' First Assignment has been consistent and progressive this season, including when winning a three mile handicap hurdle at the track in November. He's since given Paisley Park a race and will not be fazed by soft ground. Arguably more exposed than some, his conditioner is a wonderful target trainer. Again, though, he's well found in the betting.

At a massive price is Coole Cody. Michael Blake is unfashionable, but his runner has a Cheltenham handicap win on soft ground in a big field to his name. Just three pounds higher here, and coming in off the back of a fine second in a big field soft ground Grade 3 handicap hurdle, 50/1 is bigbigbig for smallsmallsmall money. He may try to make all, a trick which has proved surprisingly effective in such races: I can immediately recall Buena Vista doing that here, and Fountains Windfall doing it at Aintree.

If you like something else, fair play. I'll be going 20 deep in the placepot.

Pertemps Final Pace Map

Pertemps Final Selection

The favourite, Sire du Berlais, has his chance on the form of his fourth place in a handicap at last year's Festival; and I'd love to see Ian Williams win with First Assignment. I'll have a tiny tickle on that one and also on Coole Cody, who is over-priced even if he is probably also over-faced.

Suggestion: Back First Assignment (10/1 general) and Coole Cody (50/1 general) each way for very small money.

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2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4 1/2f)

Lots of old friends line up for what should be an enthralling renewal of the Ryanair Chase where they bet 4/1 the field. Clinging on to favouritism is last year's Arkle winner, Footpad. He was the beneficiary of some bonkers riding up top that day and shouldn't have been beaten by the capable old stick Simply Ned last time. Even given the form Willie is enjoying, I can't have him on my mind against a deep field although he's likely to be suited by softish turf.

Monalee is one of a group challenging for market primacy, and looks a more reliable place play at least. He beat stout stayer Anibale Fly last time and has form with the likes of Kemboy, Presenting Percy and Al Boum Photo that would put him close to the Gold Cup picture. I like him but I think he might just lack a gear.

Un De Sceaux is eleven now, and that's a big 'x' in my book. 11 year olds just don't win Festival races (Moscow Flyer in 2005 is the only horse older than ten to win a Grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival, from 75 to try, since at least 1997), and this is very far from a penalty kick. The going, trip and track are all in his favour, but age is significantly against him. He'd be a tremendous winner but I can't see it in spite of some high class form as a ten-year-old last year.

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The gallant and superb Frodon also lines up. He produced one of the weight-carrying performances of recent times when lugging 11-12 off a mark of 164 in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup and even managed to win over a trip-too-far extended three miles last time. His Cheltenham record reads 3801150211. That said, he was well beaten in last year's Ryanair and also on his only other Festival appearance, in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle.

The one I like - actually, the one I love - is ROAD TO RESPECT. He travelled off a fast pace like the winner in the Gold Cup last year before failing to stay so this shorter trip looks spot on. Soft ground will suit him better than the quicker surfaces he's been racing on which, allied to a Grade 1 win at the trip, and a pace setup that looks tailor-made, and a price of 5/1, makes him just about nap material.

It's 20/1 bar this group, a price which brings in last year's winner, Balko Des Flos, and the Brown Advisory winner, The Storyteller. The latter gets his ground which might make him more competitive than he's been most of the season, but he's probably a touch shy of what's needed to lift this pot; the former has been AWOL all campaign but may again be at least partially revived by wetter turf. Neither are for me, mind.

Ryanair Chase Pace Map

Ryanair Chase Selection

I got a bit carried away when wagering this race and have convinced myself that Road To Respect is one of the bets of the meeting. It's a race which will define my Cheltenham, so here's hoping Noel Meade's eight-year-old brings his A game. If he does, he'll take all the beating in what is a competitive race for the places.

Suggestion: Back Road To Respect at 5/1 (bet365, Boyle)

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3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)

I previewed this race here.

To that I'll add the pace map, which shows Faugheen may get some contention from Sam Spinner but perhaps not much else and might just be able to dictate the fractions:

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4.10 Festival Plate (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 4 1/2f)

The Plate. Any chance of gravy? Not really, no...

Although not saddling a winner in the last four years, Venetia Williams, David (and before him, Martin) Pipe, and Nicky Henderson have excellent records in this race. Between them they run five this time: Eamon An Cnoic (Pipe), Gardefort, Didero Vallis (both Venetia), Janika and River Wylde (both Henderson).

Eamon An Cnoic - Eamon hereafter - was ninth in last year's Ultima. That's typically a better race than this and it is run over a longer trip, one which he appeared to fail to see out. Back in distance, with a win last time out over two miles and a prior course spin this season he'll be on plenty of tickets.

The six-year-old Didero Vallis has snuck in at the very bottom of the weights and comes here looking for a third win of the campaign, having prevailed twice at this range on soft before coming unstuck over further and on quicker last time. Perfect preparation in many respects. This ex-Willie Mullins-trained chap has plenty of upside, no weight and comes from the right trainer.

La Williams also runs Gardefort, whose mark has been moving in the opposite direction thanks to a Scrabble rack of form figures this term. 0PU is hardly the sort of sequence to get the pulse racing, and it's not the sort with which Venetia has got it done previously either, but a rummage a little deeper into Gardefort's profile reveals that he was second in the 2017 Grand Annual (two miles) at the Festival. Very lightly raced since, he was 142 then and is 137 now. Back class is the angle if you want to make a case for him.

Then there's Nicky's pair. Janika is just about favourite, the six-year-old running second on both UK starts since notching a hat-trick at Pau and Auteuil. He looks a pretty classy sort though he'll need to be to lug top weight and at least six pounds more than the rest. Obviously he wouldn't be a surprise winner but 6/1 is tight enough.

Second in the weights is the other Hendo horse, River Wylde. He's been plying his trade in Grade 1 and 2 hurdle and chase company and makes his handicap debut here. Third in Labaik's Supreme (2017), he was leading when coming down at the last in a graduation chase over a little further than this at Haydock last time. Good to soft would be fine for him though I don't think he'd want it too wet; with the ground drying out currently he could be interesting at twice the price of his stablemate.

The Irish have won the last three renewals, from very few entries, after an extremely long drought previously. They bring just two ten-year-olds to the table this time: Valseur Lido and Polidam. The former gets a drop in Festival grade having run third in the 2015 JLT and second in the 2016 Ryanair, both at around this trip. A mark of 145 is 16lb lower than his career top, though it's more than two years since he won. He represents the A Plus Tard connections of de Bromhead and Blackmore.

Polidam is a Willie Mullins runner that has been rattling around his current mark for a couple of years. He doesn't obviously have anything in hand of the 'capper though he's been fairly consistently in defeat.

Festival Plate Pace Map

Festival Plate Selection

It's another deep handicap where I've probably failed to mention the winner. Janika will go close if able to carry his big weight, but at the prices I'm more drawn to the chances of Eamon An Cnoic and River Wylde, as well as perhaps Didero Vallis. All represent savvy connections.

Suggestion: Take your each way pick of Eamon An Cnoic (20/1 Hills), River Wylde (14/1 Hills), and/or Didero Vallis (25/1 general).

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4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 1f)

A more competitive renewal this year, but not a race I believe should feature at the Festival. Personal prejudices aside, it is a decent wagering heat.

For the first time since its inception Willie Mullins doesn't have the favourite this year. That honour goes to Epatante, a French import trained by Nicky Henderson. She's bolted up on her two UK starts and won an AQPS Grade 1 bumper in France, though quite what that means in the context of this race is anybody's guess. It was a super-impressive victory, however, and she's not been troubled by anything to this point. She might just be a superstar.

Others have done more on the track and deserve a mention, most notably Posh Trish. She's had five runs this term, winning four of them, but this is a fair step up in grade; she was found out a little in Grade 2 bumper company last spring but had had a long season by then. Similar comments could apply this term.

Mullins may not saddle the favourite, but he is represented by SEVEN mares, the most prominent in the betting being My Sister Sarah. Winner of three of her four starts in ordinary company, she has a stone to find on ratings. But these are highly progressive youngsters and one has to respect the trainer. Pick of his septet at the prices might be Sancta Simona, who chased home Aramon in a Grade 1 against the boys last time. She was 5/2 there and is 16/1 here - that looks too big about a Grade 3 winner that handles any ground.

Second to Posh Trish at Newbury, having beaten her over the same course the time before, is Lust For Glory. She looks above average but may have a little to find against some of these. For fans of chat, her owners, Grech and Parkin, were talking her up as their best horse at the start of the season. She's not done much wrong.

In the same yard as Lust For Glory and Epatante is Elusive Belle. She has a tendency to find one too good but has posted some decent time figures. And Stuart Edmunds' Queenofhearts was a good winner of a Grade 2 at Sandown last time. She has been racing over further but, if they go quickly (and they probably will), she might not be out of it; she handles any ground.

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Pace Map

Mares' Novices' Hurdle Selection

In spite of myself I am drawn to the favourite, Epatante, on potential more than track performance. It is the manner of her victories that takes the eye. Her French G1 score was achieved with panache, nonchalance and other words which have been adopted into the British idiom, and I suspect this lass is going to be one about whom we speak in revered terms in future. Her name translates as 'amazing', though in an old-fashioned context (there's a French journo sitting next to me!), so perhaps more like 'spiffing', and she is probably just that. I'll take a rare chance at the top of the market on her.

Suggestion: Back Epatante to show that she's the real deal at 2/1 general

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5.30 Kim Muir Challenge Cup Chase (Class 2 Handicap, 3m2f)

Amateur riders. Three and a quarter miles. Two dozen horses. Fences. Yikes.

The best jockeys tend to fare best, a cause and effect symbiosis where success breeds success. Jamie Codd has won this four times, and he rides Gordon Elliott's Measureofmydreams. Supported from 33/1 into about 5/1 now, the connections certainly wouldn't put you off; his three prior Festival jaunts have ended 830, the 3 recorded in the National Hunt Chase. A stout stayer who has had plenty of time off - just one run since spring 2017 - he is ten pounds below his peak rating and will get the ice cold Codd patient ride.

Only one of the last ten winners has been sent off bigger than 16/1 so it's not a race in which to get too gung ho. Others at the head of the market include the aptly named It's All Guesswork, Any Second Now, No Comment and Sky Pirate. Dealing with the Guesswork first, he's a second string to the Elliott bow who has been consistent all season but perhaps isn't as well handicapped as some as a consequence.

Any Second Now is quite interesting. He seemed to be outpaced in the Close Brothers last season and has been staying on in his three mile races this term. The extra range here and the booking of the excellent Derek O'Connor looks a beneficial combination.

No Comment has been very lightly raced though has run creditably at the last two Festivals, finishing seventh in the Martin Pipe in 2017 and sixth in the National Hunt Chase last year. Clearly seen as a stayer, this will be his first handicap chase spin.

Sky Pirate was travelling like the winner when coming down over a similarly extended three miles here at the November meeting. A warm up spin at Exeter last month will have put him spot on for this main challenge, and he's another that is interesting if not missed in the market.

At bigger prices, Se Mo Laoch would appeal if getting a run. The second reserve has been first or second in each of his last six races, and in the first three in each of his last nine. Incredibly, he's elevated from a mark of 82 (!) to 130 and seems to handle big fields and long distances with aplomb.

And there's just room for an honourable mention for Squouateur, perhaps the unluckiest horse in training, certainly in terms of his Festival performances. With a name made for Scrabble, his form figures of BPP0F also fit that bill. But he was (an unlucky in running) 3rd in this race last year off a 3lb lower mark, and was just getting into it when unseating three out in the Kim Muir of 2017. With a clear round, something that, granted, seems fairly unlikely, he might be a 'forgotten' horse. Faller insurance would be a smart concession to avail of if you otherwise like his chance.

Kim Muir Pace Map

 

Kim Muir Selection

As with all the handicaps, it's no more than a token pick in another deep deep heat. I'll plump for Any Second Now, for whom the trip might be ideal.

Suggestion: Back Any Second Now each way at 10/1 (1/5 12345 Hills, Victor, Unibet)

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That's the shape of Day 3, Thursday. My fate for the day, and maybe the week, will be sealed by the Ryanair Chase; so please think of me regardless of the result of there!

Good luck

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day Two Preview, Tips

On to Day 2, Wednesday, and another septet of teasers the highlight of which is the Queen Mother Champion Chase and that lad, Altior. That is but one of four Grade 1 shemozzles, those four tiptop treats supported by two impossible handicaps and the good old Cross Country Chase.

1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)

The intermediate novices' hurdle but one where speed is usually at more of a premium than stamina. Naturally, class remains a prerequisite.

The favourite and top rated horse is Champ, who brings a most progressive profile to the party. Winning at Perth in May last year hardly hinted at what was to follow, as Nicky Henderson's McManus-owned novice rattled off a four-timer most recently by strolling to victory in the Grade 1 Challow Novices' Hurdle. Prior to that he'd put a big field of high class handicappers to the sword off a mark of 139 and now has a perch of 152, the best in the field by fully five pounds.

He hurdles well, travels well and clearly has an abundance of class. With all his winning at around the two and a half mile range, however, there's a slight niggle as to whether he quite has the speed for this. Yes, I do know the distance of the Ballymore but it tends to go to a horse with a bit of two mile form. He's not run at the shorter trip so it's unfair to say he doesn't have the toe for it. He's a worthy favourite.

The pick of the Irish is presumed to be Battleoverdoyen, Gordon Elliott's unbeaten son of, you guessed it, Doyen. He was good in a Grade 1 novice hurdle over two and a half miles at Naas last time and, after just three starts, retains plenty of upside. He's rated 146, joint third best.

Interestingly, given how good a guide official ratings have been in this race, the second top-rated, on 147, is City Island. Martin Brassil may be a somewhat unfashionable trainer but he's a very good one, and his four time winner (including a disqualification for a banned substance, arsenic, apparently present in a seaweed-based supplement the horse was taking) has been achieved from two miles to this trip. He's yet to face Graded company but that's the sort of thing, allied to his 'no name' connections - though his trainer has saddled a Grand National winner - that makes for a price.

Brewin'upastorm rounds out the single figure odds horses. Olly Murphy's inmate looked set to perhaps get the better of a duel with Birchdale when taking a heavy tumble at the last here on Trials Day. The trainer is convinced Brewin' is not the sort to dwell on such a pearler, but he also has to reverse Challow form with Champ. There he was beaten four lengths, though again Murphy feels he gave the wrong instructions to his jockey on the day. That's a lot of what Lydia Hislop would call 'yak' (i.e. chat or conjecture) but Olly knows the horse better than anyone else and he will have the tactics spot on this time. He has speed and class and might just be his fledgling trainer's best chance of a Festival winner this season, assuming he hasn't already bagged the Supreme by the time you read this!

Elliott runs Galvin as well, a horse which has been running exclusively at two miles and is unbeaten in five bumpers and novices hurdles both sides of the Irish Sea. The form has worked out quite well despite the lesser courses at which it's been achieved; this son of Gold Well could improve for the extra distance and might have sailed under the radar a little hitherto.

The rest have a stone or so to find on ratings but there are a couple who could be better than their current marks. The first is Ben Pauling's Bright Forecast, who made a striking impression on his debut when running on through a field of twenty to win going away. That was a deep-looking Newbury heat which has worked out well and he followed up at Leicester before finding only Supreme-bound Mister Fisher too good in the Rossington Main at Haydock. The longer trip looks sure to be in his favour though I'd not want him to adopt his recent front-running tactics. A more conservative ride early could see him on the premises up the hill. I like him, regardless of the result here.

The other to catch the eye is Sams Profile for Mouse Morris. Winner of a two mile maiden hurdle early in the season, he's since been second in a Grade 3 over three miles and then in a Grade 1 over two and a half behind Battleoverdoyen. There was sufficiently little between the pair to make Sams Profile of interest at 12/1 if you like the winner that day at 3/1 this day.

Ballymore Pace Map

Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection

It's a trappy betting heat where most of the field still have improvement to come, and where some of the marks allocated at this stage could be awry. Champ looks best of the British, and he's a worthy favourite who looks sure to give backers a run for their money if not getting too far back.

At a bigger price, both City Island and Bright Forecast look capable of getting involved. The former has plenty of speed and no little class, the latter looks a horse with a future.

Suggestion: Back City Island (10/1 Coral) each way. A small nibble on Bright Forecast (33/1 Betfred) could reward Hail Mary players.

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2.10 RSA Chase (Grade 1, 3m)

Almost always a terrific spectacle, the RSA Chase is the race for next season's Gold Cup aspirants. The top of the market had long looked sewn up between Delta Work, Santini and Topofthegame but all three are suddenly surprisingly easy to back.

Clear jolly remains Delta Work, the Gordon Elliott-trained son of Network that won the Pertemps Final at last year's Festival. He then stepped into Grade 1 company to run second at Punchestown. This season has been about fences and, after scoring in the obligatory beginners' chase, he's added back-to-back Grade 1 victories to his impressive CV.

The form of his Drinmore win (2m4f) looks very decent, more so than his three mile chase win last time, but he continues to offer cause for concern with some sticky leaps. He has little - nothing, in fact - to spare on ratings so, while he can win (of course), he's skinny enough and it is easy to see why bookies want to 'get' him.

The flip-flopping pick of the Brits is Topofthegame, Paul Nicholls' Kauto Star Novices' Chase runner up. A maiden over fences after a brace of silver medals, he was also second in the Coral Cup at the Festival last term. He doesn't seem to lack resolution in spite of that string of 2's, his jumping is accurate and he stays well. But he does always seem to bump into one...

My long range fancy for this was Santini. Third in the Albert Bartlett last season and a fine winner at Grade 1 level at Aintree subsequently, he won a Grade 2 chase on his fencing bow before getting predictably outpaced on the speed strip that is Kempton. He rallied best of all from the last there, suggesting the stronger test of the RSA was bang on for him.

Alas, since then it's all gone wrong. First he missed his intended prep in the Reynoldstown due to having to get a booster jab, and then he got a foot problem which wasn't immediately poulticed and took a day or two longer to repair. It probably leaves him under-cooked for this big gig, though his price has drifted from 5/2 to 4/1 and that may overstate his preparation problems. On the other hand, it may not!

Nicky Henderson saddles Santini and he also runs On The Blind Side, a dual Grade 2 scorer over hurdles but found out when upped to G1 company. He was last of four in the Dipper at this track, but has since beaten a 145 chaser three lengths in receipt of six pounds at Kempton. That doesn't add up to an RSA winner in my book.

If the top of the market is to be taken down, then perhaps Tom George's The Worlds End might surprise. He was making a potentially race-winning move in the 2017 Albert Bartlett before coming down at the second last, and that seemed to have left a mark on him in open staying hurdle company last term. But, now chasing, he's looked classy if inconsistent in winning twice and losing twice. First the good: he turned the tables on Ibis Du Rheu two runs back over this course and distance (but on the other, New, track) by some margin, making all and easing clear. Now the not so good: he made mistakes aplenty when taken off his feet in the Kauto Star at Kempton.

That race has famously not yet produced a winner to double up in Cheltenham's RSA. Equally well known is how many beaten horses at Sunbury have prevailed at Cheltenham, the slower tempo and stronger emphasis on stamina allowing horses to get into a better jumping rhythm and grind it out. Though he'd perhaps not want it too heavy, and though he's a Jekyll and Hyde performer, if the good The Worlds End shows up, he's going to look an enormous price at 25/1.

Drovers Lane has had a wind op since winning over 2m5f here and he's won three of his four chase starts. It would be fantastic for Rebecca Curtis, whose yard have had a few seasons in the doldrums since the At Fishers Cross days, if he ran well; he doesn't have a heap to find on official ratings.

RSA Chase Pace Map

RSA Chase Selection

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It's a tricky race in which a clear round would probably see Delta Work go close; but that's only what the market is saying. I'd be worried about Topofthegame's propensity to bump into one for all that I don't think he's ungenuine; and Santini's interrupted prep is very far from ideal. No wonder the bookies are looking to get a result here!

I'm going to roll with that theory and take a pony (25/1) punt on The Worlds End who might be considered unlucky not to already be a Cheltenham Festival winner. He probably wouldn't want it too soft but if the worst of the rain misses the course he'll look overpriced come post time.

Suggestion: take a chance each way on The Worlds End (25/1 Unibet, Coral; 22/1 1/5 1234 Victor)

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2.50 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)

26 runners. In a handicap hurdle. Sponsored by a bookmaker. Seriously? You want to bet in this?

I'm not going to pretend I've ever backed the winner of this race or ever expect to. However, I'm told classier unexposed horses do best, so what about the long absent Diamond Cauchois? He had a little spin round Punchestown in a non-rules race in November and has otherwise been kept away from the track. But a G2 score at this trip last season says he's got the class for the gig if fit enough. Noel Fehily, with the best hands in the business, steps in to ride. The 20/1 will be gone before you read this, and I can't get it anyway (thanks, Fred), but perhaps 14s is still worth a small passing interest.

Brio Conti is another without too many miles on the clock and he will have come on for the run, and win, last time at Ascot. 12/1 is worth a dabble perhaps. And William Henry bids to improve on last season's fourth place off the same mark. He's had a wind op since last seen (Nicky Henderson 12 from 32, +12.92 with W1's according to Query Tool) and seems to love the hurly-burly of a big field. 40/1 looks massive.

But, honestly, I don't profess to have any 'in' to this race whatsoever.

Coral Cup Pace Map

Coral Cup Suggestion: leave well alone, or back your own judgement! Diamond Cauchois (16/1) and William Henry (40/1) are my guesses. And, let's be clear, that's all they are. Maybe we'll be lucky...

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3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

And so to the Royal Procession that looks likely to be the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Altior, a perfect 17 from 17 over hurdles and fences, is solid odds on to make it 18. Until a couple of weeks ago, when he was usurped by an upstart called Cyrname, he was the highest rated chaser in training. There are many unhappy about Altior's deposing and it might be that impressive victory here returns the Nicky Henderson superstar to his golden plinth.

Be all that as it may, this is a horse race and we must consider the merit of the favourite in the context of his field as well as the race conditions. Dealing with the latter first, it will be two miles at Cheltenham on rain softened ground, exactly the medicine he drank so stoically at the Festival last year. There, after an interrupted preparation, he looked momentarily in trouble before rattling home in trademark fashion from the high class Min.

So, no dramas on the race conditions score; what about the field? The truth is, with the exception of the re-opposing Min and the unpredictable Politologue, he is miles clear of the others. In another year, a year when Altior didn't show up, Min would have been an eleven length winner last year. His margin over God's Own, Politologue a further five back lengths back in fourth - of five finishers - was decisive. He again looks set to do battle with the 2018 also rans for the honour of runner-up, a performance he is odds on to reprise.

Champion Chase Pace Map

Champion Chase Selection

In truth, it looks a shallow contest, notwithstanding the sumptuous cherry on top of the somewhat flimsy cake; and those looking for a bet might do worse than Saint Calvados each way without Altior. He was utterly compromised last year in the Arkle when taking on Petit Mouchoir for the lead, both of them collapsing to the rear of the field and allowing Footpad to saunter home in his own time.

But here he might get his favoured solo on the front. God's Own is eleven now, Politologue is deeply unreliable and Sceau Royal, the other in front of him in the market aside from Min, was behind him on soft ground in the Tingle Creek.

Suggestion: Try Saint Calvados at 16/1 without Altior each way (1/4 123 bet365)

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4.10 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)

The 'marmite' race. Some people love it, some hate it. Me? I'm a fan: it's something different, it often showcases some of the old warriors, and it's a damn fine prep for the Grand National to boot. It is a race dominated by the Irish - only Philip Hobbs' Balthazar King, twice, has wrested the prize from the Emerald Isle since its inception in 2005 - and they again have a strong hand this term, spearheaded by last year's winner, Tiger Roll.

The Tiger's palmarès is one of the most brilliantly eclectic in racing. A winner on his juvenile hurdle debut for Nigel Hawke in 2013, he was snapped up at the sale that December for £80,000 and sent to Gordon Elliott. With Elliott, Tiger Roll has since won a Triumph Hurdle, a Munster National, a National Hunt Chase, a Cross Country Chase, a Grand National, and a Boyne Hurdle. I mean, just, WOW!

He's still only nine and could have this in the palm of his hand if in the same form as he was when winning the race last year. That day he had two lengths to spare over the French cross country expert, Urgent De Gregaine, now eleven and returning for another crack. Emmanuel Clayeux's veteran has run three times over course and distance, adding a win and a third in handicaps to that silver medal last March. He's been very lightly raced in recent seasons making the 144 day layoff less of a concern; but I want to be against him I think, even though older horses had a decent record in the race in its formative years.

More likely are the Enda Bolger contingent of Auvergnat and Josies Orders. Auvergnat was fourth in this last year before winning the Le Touche Cup at Punchestown, and is a banks specialist. He's rated within a pound of Tiger Roll in this discipline, and comes here in great form off the back of a valuable big field handicap chase win at Leopardstown at Christmas.

Josies Orders is eleven now, but seems to have found a new lease of life this season, winning the cross country race here in November and the PP Hogan at Punchestown, a major trial for the Glenfarclas. He's a four time winner over course and distance, including the 2016 renewal of the Festival race and his full record over these banks reads 1113613, the bold figures representing Festival races. Granted, he was a little out of form last term when finishing only sixth, but he looks close to his best again now.

Jamie Snowden saddles Fact Of The Matter, winner of the December handicap and second in the November handicap both over course and distance. He's far worse off at level weights with a number of these but handicap ratings have been no sort of indicator down the years and, as a horse proven to relish this unique test, he looks a reasonable each way play. He's had a wind op since that December victory.

Hurricane Darwin, twice closest to Josies Orders in the past year, most recently in the PP Hogan, is worthy of mention, as perhaps is the other French entry, Amazing Comedy, fourth in the December handicap here and fifth in this race last year. 40/1 may marginally downplay his place prospects.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection

A cracking renewal - deeper than normal - so, whilst I thoroughly respect Tiger Roll (what a horse!), I have to look elsewhere for a bet. Auvergnat and Josies Orders should both go well and maybe dutching the pair at around 3/1 is a way to go. Fact Of The Matter is tempting each way at 16/1.

Suggestion: Split your stake 60/40 between Auvergnat (6/1 general) and Josies Orders (9/1 Paddy) for an approximately 3/1 dutch.

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4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

The Fred Winter as was. My crikey - this is not my jurisdiction! Last year, Gordon Elliott won with a 33/1 shot. He's won it before, too, but Paul Nicholls' three wins - and six further places - from 18 runners is exceptional: 50% placed horses in a ferocious handicap.

Nicholls saddles just one, the 25/1 shot Dogon, whose profile deserves closer inspection. Experienced in France, he actually won a two and a quarter mile 3yo chase at Fontainebleu in November, prior to pulling up in the Triumph Hurdle trial at this track in January. Since then he's run an eye-catching second at Wincanton, pulling hard and giving the impression that this stiffer test of stamina and faster pace will suit better. He's not an obvious contender, but then neither was Veneer Of Charm or Flying Tiger or Qualando or Flaxen Flare or Hawk High or Une Artiste, all of whom won this race at 25/1 or bigger in the last ten years.

Clearly, then, this is a race in which to take a small chance at a big price. Elliott runs three, two of which are single figure prices and they can beat me if they're able; but the other is Coko Beach, available at 20/1 in a place. He won a French hurdle race before running down the field in Grade 2 company at Leopardstown at Christmas and then receiving a tender enough ride in a novice hurdle last month. Ex-French runners have a great record in the race, a note in support of both Dogon and Coko Beach.

Obviously, a score more with chances, including three more ex-French that have yet to race in Britain, one of them - Fox Pro - trained by the Nick/Jane Williams axis, successful in 2017 with Flying Tiger and with 3rd and 5th places as well from just seven runners.

Boodles / Fred Winter Pace Map

[Gaps represent runners yet to race in UK or Ireland]

Boodles / Fred Winter Selection

I could analyse this contest in great detail but I'd likely be unable to add much to the above. It's a race which generally hasn't gone to the head of the market and in which I'll take a little punt on the three named above.

Suggestion: Back any or all of Dogon (25/1 bet365), Coko Beach (16/1 Hills 1/5 12345) and/or Fox Pro (25/1 general)

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5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)

Really tricky, and I don't have any idea what might win. Gordon Elliott talks about Envoi Allen as a future Gold Cup winner, the unbeaten five year old finding plenty for pressure in a Grade 2 last time. He's top rated on official figures, an angle which has been a good predictor of Champion Bumper winners, and he's also favourite.

The value against him might just be Abracadabras, who almost clipped heels with Envoi Allen inside the final furlong before running through the rail. That incident demonstrates how close to the favourite he'd got, and he looked to still have a bit more to give. With the wide open spaces of Cheltenham sure to preclude a repeat sob story, and perhaps a little less greenness as a result of that run, the Gigginstown-owned stablemate can turn the tables at three times the price.

Most of these are unexposed and can/will step forward markedly on what they've shown so far, most notably perhaps the four-year-olds Blue Sari and Cascova.

Champion Bumper selection

An interesting race to watch rather than wager, though Envoi Allen had little in hand of Meticulous, Abracadabras, and a couple of others last time. In the circumstances, my interest wager will be the unlucky one from Leopardstown and his rider Lisa O'Neill.

Suggestion: Try Abracadabras each way at 10/1 (1/5 1234 Victor)

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And that concludes a somewhat briefer (relatively, at least) spin through Wednesday's Day 2 action. Plenty of races in which it's hard to take a strong view, and where we may have to be both good and lucky to come out in front I feel.

Good luck!

Matt

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day One Preview, Tips

The waiting is over and it's showtime for the 2019 Cheltenham Festival: four days and 28 top class races split evenly from Tuesday to Friday. Day One, Tuesday, is set to be run on soft ground and features a cracking renewal of the Champion Hurdle as well as three further Grade 1's, a Grade 2 and - of course - two impossible handicaps. What a start!

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

A race which has been won by some very good horses in recent years. But, as things stand, the 2019 renewal doesn't look the strongest as we head into the Supreme; of course, that is not to say that we won't be hailing an emergent powerhouse at around 1.35pm on Tuesday. Regardless, there will be a winner and it is the job of this post to try to find it.

There are a few common threads in recent Supreme winners, including last day triumph, not ex-flat, not unbeaten over hurdles, and bringing experience of at least four hurdles races to the party.

That narrows things down nicely to a shortlist of six: Elixir De Nutz, Felix Desjy, Grand Sancy, Klassical Dream, Thomas Darby, and Fakir d'Oudairies. Naturally, it won't preclude another winning but, in a year where the race looks absolutely wide open, one needs to take any route in one can...

Klassical Dream may be considered the 'now' horse: he's won his two starts for Willie Mullins and is the chosen mount of Ruby Walsh, who could have plumped for stablemate Aramon. There was a head between the pair in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) last time and that historically strong trial suggests both should be taken seriously. That race was run on good ground and none of Klassical Dream's winning form to date, including in France, has been on anything slower than good to soft (P324P on softer). It is perfectly possible that Mullins has improved the horse out of all recognition but that lack of soft ground winning form makes him too short for me.

The deserted Aramon has finished 312 in Grade 1's this season and won a handicap on the flat in Germany on soft. Whilst this hasn't been a race for ex-flat horses in recent seasons, he brings proven top tier hurdles form to the table and has shown he handles cut. Ruby rarely chooses incorrectly, but the discrepancy between the two horses' price - 9/2 vs 16/1 - is bonkers based on that last day form if nothing else.

Another Irish player on the shortlist is Fakir d'Oudairies, a four-year-old not required for the Triumph Hurdle due to his owner's and trainer's Sir Erec lining up in that Friday curtain-raiser. This fellow fair romped his Cheltenham prep over the distance on the other track (the New Course, Supreme run on the Old), though that form looks only OK, as does his maiden hurdle win previously. The eight pound weight-for-age allowance will help but I don't see him being good enough.

Felix Desjy rounds out the raiding party om the shortlist. A winning pointer, he also scored twice in bumpers before a decent sixth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival. He's shown mixed form over hurdles with his prominent run style leaving him out there to be shot at.

Of the British challenge, Elixir De Nutz and Thomas Darby have collateral form. They clashed in a maiden hurdle at the course in October with Olly Murphy's runner coming out on top. Since then, however, the Colin Tizzard-trained Elixir has rattled off a hat-trick culminating in a soft ground verdict in the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown, where he beat Grand Sancy half a length. Each of that hat-trick was achieved in five runner fields where he made all, and that pace-setting approach may be harder to replicate in a field of 18, especially given the presence of possible contention for that position from Brandon Castle and Felix Desjy.

Thomas Darby will be ridden more patiently and he, like the rest of the field, will be trying to pass the trailblazers up the hill. His form is on good ground and outside of Pattern company making it a stretch to envisage him being good enough. In a sub-par year, however, who knows?

Also from the Murphy stable is Itchy Feet, another to have raced exclusively on good ground. He had a verdict over Grand Sancy before running Elixir De Nutz closest in the November Supreme trial at the course. If he handles the ground, he might surprise and 28/1 (SEVEN places with Hills) is a price about which taking the chance is tempting.

Back to the trendy shortlist and the remaining name is Grand Sancy. As will already be evident, his form ties in with others towards the head of the market, with the Paul Nicholls inmate already having run a remarkable eleven times over hurdles. He'll not lack for experience, then, and has faced open handicap company as well as fellow novices. His fourth in a Grade 3 handicap hurdle represents solid form but it also potentially pegs the level at which he can be competitive: he was beaten six lengths off a mark of 136 that day. A win in a slowly run Kingwell ought not to be taken too literally, though he looks quite likely to be in the first seven for those availing of the generous place terms offered by Hills.

Meanwhile, away from the 'trends' list are others with prospects, notably a couple of 'A' teams, Al Dancer and Angels Breath. The first named has been progressive in winning two novice hurdles and two handicap hurdles, most recently the re-scheduled Betfair at Ascot. He has form on soft and looks as though he stays further than two miles, which is a good indicator to winning a Supreme. There are few chinks in his armour aside from the absence of Graded hurdle competition on his CV. He's clearly ready for the step up in grade but whether he's able remains to be seen.

Angels Breath is both lightly raced (i.e. inexperienced) and was beaten last time. Given the Seven Barrows connections it is easy to make excuses on both counts - too easy, perhaps. Even if only 90% he should still have beaten Southfield Stone, a horse without pretensions of being at this level, last time even allowing for spotting that one five pounds. And even though he was considered good enough to be lobbed into Grade 2 company on his hurdling bow, a race which he won readily, he'll find the depth and breadth of this field another game entirely.

Mister Fisher has been winning well enough on flat tracks and in small fields, form which doesn't entitle him to be a single figure price in places to my eye. His Boxing Day win at Kempton ties in with Thomas Darby but he's a good few pounds off the best of these on official ratings at least. Whoever wins will need to improve, but he has to find more improvement than many.

If there's to be a shock on the cards it could come from Gordon Elliott, and Vision d'Honneur. Elliott won this with 25/1 Labaik a couple of years ago and this lad, tongue tied for the first time, could be interesting. On the face of a six length defeat by Klassical Dream and Aramon, he's a bit to find - though not a huge bit - but the case is made due to the difference in underfoot conditions.

In Ireland, Vision d'Honneur has run three times, all on good (good/yielding once). Having finished around six lengths behind Klassical Dream in a maiden hurdle on Irish debut, he won a similar 21 runner event at Punchestown next time, before chasing home Klassical and Aramon in the ex-Deloitte.  But before that, in France, his sole run there was on soft ground in an 18 runner bumper. A fairly well run race by French standards, he came off the bridle relatively early but kept finding and looks to have plenty of stamina. He's tempting.

The rest are probably not good enough, though there could be a shock in the opener.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

A very open and trappy first act of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, and one where it makes sense to shop around for the pick of the bookie offers which prevail on the race. Hills' seven places is an obvious contender, as is Skybet's money back as cash if you lose in this race (first bet, up to £20, check terms!).

The Chanelle Pharma Grade 1 run last month could hold the key here so, while Ruby has sided with Klassical Dream, the 5/1 tops there looks tight for a horse that had nothing to spare over Aramon in second, and little to spare over Vision d'Honneur in an eased off third. The change in going could eke out a change in the finishing order making both the placed horses - each of whom has winning soft ground form - more tempting at longer odds than the winner there.

Suggestion: back Aramon 16/1 betfred (14/1 Hills 7 places) and/or Vision d'Honneur 16/1 bet365 (12/1 Hills 7 places) each way

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The first chase of the meeting, a two mile novice Grade 1, and again it looks a touch below standard, with a number of runners missing the gig due to injury or illness. That lack of star quality has made for a greater quantity of runners than usual and thus for a competitive race where they may bet 5/1 the field on the morning of the race.

The last ten winners all finished in the first two on all completed chase starts; the last nine winners all won last time out; and the last eight were aged six or seven. But then, an odds on favourite has won six of the last seven Arkle's and there's nothing of that relative degree of certainty hereabouts.

The highest rated horse in the field, Hardline, was only third last time. But that was over the JLT trip of two miles five and on good ground; the drop in trip and softer turf are positives for Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown contender, as is his previous Grade 1 score over Getabird at Limerick. Rated only 140 over hurdles, he has a bit to find with some on that measure but he has achieved more over fences so far than most of his rivals.

The best of these over timber was Kalashnikov, second in last year's Supreme on heavy, and a horse crying out for softer ground than he's raced on most of this season. He may, however, also be crying out for a longer trip though my judgement is clouded on that point having backed him for the JLT as early as last November: dough done.

That said, the easier turf will help, and he wasn't as bad as he appeared at Sandown where I'm convinced he was unable to jump out of the very sticky ground there.

It is another example of why we need a 'holding' going description to separate proper wet ground (i.e. when it has been raining) from drying ground which is like trying to pull a welly out of squelchy gluepot turf. These two goings are markedly different and yet both are called soft, sometimes heavy. The only way to tell them apart is to be aware of the weather in the lead up to each race and to mark your own copy of the form accordingly. That's inadequate in my book, though achieving change on that one is likely to take years if indeed it ever happens. Rant over.

Getting back to the Kalash, it's possible he was outpaced at Kempton in the Grade 2 he contested at Christmas; whilst making excuses for horses in Grade 1 races is not a smart idea, there is a credible case to be made for this stiffer test on wetter ground suiting far better. He's gone out of fashion pretty quickly and 10/1 looks big.

The horse to beat him last time was Glen Forsa, a seriously progressive beast but likely flattered by that form line for reasons expounded upon above. Prior to that rinsing of a Grade 1 stick he'd hosed up in a brace of novice handicaps, an unconventional route to favouritism for an Arkle. That's mainly because he failed to break maiden in three novice hurdle starts and never faced Graded company until the last day in what was the re-scheduled Kingmaker. I really like the horse but I don't believe my eyes from that Sandown spin and can't have him at 7/2.

Lalor was a few pounds behind Kalashnikov on hurdling form, though still good enough to win a Grade 1 at Aintree. He's a story horse, and it's impossible not to root for Kayley Woollacott and her team but, absent since early December where he was beaten into third, he too looks plenty short enough.

Paloma Blue was rated a few pounds in front of Duc Des Genievres over hurdles, and he looks a little bit of a forgotten horse in here. In fact, he was around the same level as Lalor but comes here nearly three times the price. Fourth in the Supreme, close up behind Kalashnikov, he has had just two ungraded starts over fences, winning the most recent of them. While that was only a beginners' chase, it featured the JLT 3rd fav, Real Steel (a faller at the last when upsides) as well as a couple of rock solid 135-ish hurdlers beaten further back. It was a Grade 2 strength race and I reckon if it had been called that, Paloma Blue would be no more than 7/1. He's 11/1 in a couple of places.

Duc Des Genievres was rated 146 over hurdles and is felt to be a 151 horse over fences at this stage. That's on the basis of a 15 length win from a 'not off' Tower Bridge, who heads to the Close Brothers with a good chance, and a previous six length defeat by the sadly (because I backed him without NRNB) absent Cilaos Emery. He handles soft ground, he represents last year's winning stable of Willie Mullins, and he has a fair chance.

I couldn't bet Knocknanuss without a faller refund concession: he's a headcase, albeit an extremely talented one. The Irish 'also rans', Us And Them and Ornua, are not without a squeak. The former has run second in small fields on good ground the last thrice, beaten only by the absent former ante post favourite, Le Richebourg, the last twice. On that basis, 20/1 looks pretty big, particularly given his form on deep ground. A mauling in the Supreme last season tempers enthusiasm but even so he's likely over-priced relative to some in the field.

I had a beer with the owner of Ornua earlier in the week, and I confess to not having been aware of his horse's form credentials at the time. A chase debut at Killarney followed by wins at Wexford and Newton Abbot can be viewed as non-standard Arkle preps though Henry de Bromhead has taken a more conventional passage since, winning a Grade 3 and running second in two more, as well as splitting Dynamite Dollars and Lalor in the Grade 1 Henry VIII last time. That's a long absence (early December) to overcome, however, and others have more scope. All the same, he'd not be a shock winner and I wish his connections the very best of luck.

Arkle Chase Selection

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It's a wide open affair. I've backed Hardline at 9's but I think he's short enough at 6/1 now. Glen Forsa is likeable but surely limited, Lalor would be one of the stories of the week but has big challenges to overcome, and Duc Des Genievres looks susceptible to one of the better hurdlers showing a similar level of form over fences.

All of which leads me to Kalashnikov (10/1 general), Paloma Blue (11/1 Coral) and Us And Them (20/1 Hills). I think they're all over-priced in a wide open race, though picking between them is tricky.

Suggestion: back your choice of Kalashnikov (10/1 Victor 1/5 1234), Paloma Blue (11/1 Coral) and Us And Them (20/1 Hills) each way.

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2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

I may sometimes appear clueless when poring over the form of the conditions races at the Cheltenham Festival, but there are no such doubts when it comes to the handicaps. I am guessing, plain and simple. So please take anything scribbled in the handicap race sections with that note foremost in mind.

A bit of trendage relates that 8 of the last 10 were 7 to 9 years old; 8 of the last ten had won over three miles or more; previous Festival form is a plus as is a prep over hurdles. Notable trainer performances emerge from David Pipe, Jonjo O'Neill and Alan King.

Horses of interest thus include Minella Rocco (trained by Jonjo), Beware The Bear, Coo Star Sivola, Royal Vacation, and Vintage Clouds. I'll add to that list three whose hurdle marks suggest their chase marks are workable: Give Me A Copper, Flying Angel and Shantou Village.

There having not been a repeat winner of the race in living memory until Un Temps Pour Tout doubled up in 2016/17, Coo Star Sivola returns with credible claims of making it back-to-back back-to-back wins, if you see what I mean. Only three pounds higher than last term, it's safe to ignore all of his form since, though the absence since mid-December is probably sub-optimal.

The likes of Shantou Village and Royal Vacation are probably too exposed to be able to win a Festival handicap, where those who have hidden at least some of their light under a bushel tend to fare best, though the latter is tough and consistent and feels like one of the better 33/1 shots.

The third and fourth from last year, Vintage Clouds and Beware The Bear, re-oppose with Vintage on identical terms with the winner while the Bear is two pounds better off for nine lengths. At 25/1 and 20/1 respectively they ought to again offers runs for the pennies.

Higher up the market rank is Minella Rocco, whose Festival credentials are impeccable. He beat reigning Gold Cup champ, Native River, in the 2016 National Hunt Chase (the 'four miler') and then ran second in the Gold Cup of 2017. Lightly raced since, a perch of 152 is a full stone below his peak rating and this will surely have been the plan for a long time. Trip, track, and ground hold no fears and the under-rated Richie McLernon keeps the ride. I'm indebted to Matt Tombs - doubtless not for the last time this week - in relating that horses which prepped over hurdles are 4/19 in the last eight years, for a 21 point profit. Minella Rocco was last seen jogging round Exeter in a Pertemps Hurdle qualifier. He'll do for me.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll be keeping stakes small in the handicaps but I've talked myself into backing Minella Rocco each way at 8/1 (1/5 six places Skybet).

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3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

A belting renewal of the Champion Hurdle, and one where the dual Champion, Buveur d'Air, faces his strongest challenge yet from a brace of extremely talented mares in receipt of a seven pound weight allowance. Such is the prowess of the top two in the market - Buveur and Apple's Jade - let alone third in, Laurina, that it is extremely difficult to envisage anything else winning. At least, that's how the words which follow will present it.

Let's talk about the champ: Buveur d'Air has a record befitting of a dual Champion Hurdler, a second in a prep and third in the 2016 Supreme the sole blemishes in a 14 race timber-topping career. His Festival record is 311, and he handles any ground. True, he was unimpressive last season but he still managed to win when looking beaten - that's a sign of grit as well as class.

He's likely to be waited with, which will make for a fascinating clash with Apple's Jade whose run style is to go out front and try to stay out front. She's a versatile and top class mare, as ten Grade 1 wins between two and three miles attests. Her recent form has earned her a UK official rating of 166, six pounds below Buveur d'Air's. But... when you factor in the mares' allowance, she comes out a pound in front. Interesting.

There are a couple of potential flies on the Apple's Jade ointment. First, she's not the only one who likes to get on with things: Ben Pauling's Global Citizen is a confirmed front-runner, too, and Laurina can also race handily. In all probability Laurina will stalk Apple's but the Citizen might very well ask Jade to do a little more than she'd wish to in the first half of the race.

And then there's the JP McManus second string, Espoir d'Allen. Now I'm sure that Mr McManus is far too much of a sportsman to use his eight-from-nine lifetime beast as a 'spoiler' but, who knows?, maybe Mark Walsh takes it upon himself to lay up alongside Apple's Jade early doors. It probably won't happen, but it might. You know what I'm saying?

The other question mark about Apple's Jade is that she has been beaten in two of her three visits to Cheltenham and the Festival. First she was runner-up to Ivanovich Gorbatov in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle, a run which preceded her absolutely blitzing her field in the Aintree equivalent. In fact, she turned the tables on her Triumph vanquisher by the small matter of 41 lengths - and he was still good enough to be second in that rematch!

She then scrambled home from Vroum Vroum Mag in the 2017 Mares' Hurdle before being beaten not only by Benie Des Dieux, but also by Midnight Tour in the same race last year. The word was that she was in season at the time of the race last year, and that may be correct. But the balance of her Cheltenham form is simply not as good as elsewhere. I love her, like just about everyone else, but I couldn't back her at 2/1 to overcome the pace and track questions.

So what of Laurina? She's six from six since moving to Willie Mullins, a sequence which includes facile victory in last season's Mares' Novices' Hurdle. She 'could be anything' and hasn't been seriously tested yet; but therein lies the problem: she WILL be tested here and who knows what she will find? A beating of 145 and 130-odd rated horses last time was only what she ought to have done, and the race was set up for her by stablemate, Stormy Ireland; prior to that she won a match, and before that she won a ridiculously soft Grade 1 beating 120-something fillies. The second there has run five times since, and the third three times since, collectively without making the frame. I'm ready to be wowed but I'm not wagering that outcome at 7/2.

Is anything lurking in the long grass? Almost certainly not, but if you have a bookmaker paying four places or you want to bet without the top two then Sharjah has a progressive profile. His ultimately quite dominant win in a Galway handicap hurdle off 145 in a field of 20 is rock solid, and a literal interpretation of subsequent defeats of Faugheen and then Supasundae, both in Grade 1 races, puts him near the front pair. He'll be patiently ridden so any shenanigans on the front end should play in his favour and he's easily the pick of the each way prices to my eye, notwithstanding that this doesn't look a terrific each way race.

Champion Hurdle Selection

This has some fantastic racehorses lining up, but whether it works out a fantastic horse race I'm not convinced. If Apple's Jade brings her A game and is largely unpestered on the lead, she'll prove an elusive hare for the whippets, Buveur d'Air and Sharjah, to chase down. It obviously wouldn't be a surprise if Laurina featured, too, but she's the worst value in my book, so if she wins, I'll have to suck it up.

I think Buveur d'Air will probably win, and I hope he does because he's almost certainly not received the credit he deserves - and I say that as someone who has not historically given him enough credit! He's no price in a race where the bookies have it sewn up so, unless you can find an exotic route in - perhaps Sharjah place only - it's a race to watch and enjoy. Saying that, if his price touched 3/1 Buveur would have to be a bet.

Suggestion: Watch the market and back Buveur d'Air if any fools offer 3/1 about the dual Champ defending. Sharjah at 3/1 or better for a top 3 finish is also playable.

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4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

Little more than a slow puncture after the helium-filled Montgolfier flight of the previous race, the Mares' Hurdle has singularly failed to capture my imagination and has more typically been accused of stealing a leading lady from the Champion or Stayers' Hurdle than providing a highlight in its own right. Still, it is now here and it is here to be won.

The man who does the winning is wily winning Willie, Mr Mullins of Closutton. Indeed he has held an almost monopolistic grasp on the Mares' mantle since its inception in 2008. Donald McCain actually won the inaugural running, Willie unrepresented, and Gordon Elliott won the 2017 renewal with Apple's Jade. The other nine have all gone Willie's way: a preposterous SIX of them went to Quevega - so good she now has a bar named after her at the course - and there has been one each for Glens Melody, Vroum Vroum Mag and Benie Des Dieux.

The last named bids to double up having, in true Quevega style, not been seen since winning at the Punchestown Festival a month after Cheltenham 2018. Her fitness has to be taken on trust, but if we can trust one thing it is that Willie Mullins knows how to get this won off a layoff. Benie may be no Quevega - yet - but she ground it out well last term, having been campaigned over fences up to that point. She's a shade of odds on - 10/11 - virtually across the board, testament perhaps to how little the bookies know and how much safety there is in numbers.

What I find interesting in a race that I generally don't find interesting is that this year Willie saddles not one, not two or three, but five of the fifteen runners. He couldn't have won that first running of the Mares' Hurdle because he didn't have a runner; since then he's saddled the following number of runners: 1112122222 - and now FIVE.

There are any number of ways to interpret this, including perfectly plausible ones like the owners want to run (not that WPM has ever been a man to kowtow to his owners). The conspiracy theory I like is that Benie Des Dieux is not Quevega and, if that is the case, it's 9/1 bar one. Game on!

Adding ballast to that contention is her UK rating of 151, within three pounds of which are four other mares. They look the ones on which to focus our snide each way assault, especially given Mullins himself trains three of the four (Alan King rounds out the quartet).

Stormy Ireland was the hare for Laurina to catch last time, and she's been consistent in defeat in recent starts. She looks a legitimate 145 or so, something some of these may not lay claim to being. She is likely to be afforded a largely uncontested lead, not that it is easy to lead here, still less in a big field.

Against her from the same squad is Good Thyne Tara, most of whose winning form is on quick ground but whose best form is arguably on softer (five length third to Shattered Love, half length second to Samcro in a pair of bumpers). She's been aggressively campaigned by Willie and has won a nice few quid for her owners, but it's hard to peg her optimal conditions. It's possible two and a half on soft might stretch her.

Limini, who can hardly have been said to have lost her way given she won a £78k heritage handicap on the level last autumn, has nevertheless not been winning under National Hunt rules. But she's run well in defeat all three times, against solid opposition. First there was a third place behind Apple's Jade. Respectfully behind Apple's Jade. Then there was a closer third to Good Thyne Tara; and most recently she was two lengths fourth to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy Hurdle. I can't decide whether she's slightly lost her form or her fight in recent spins but, either way, it doesn't seem to be quite all there at the moment over hurdles.

Britain won that 2008 opening version of the Mares' Hurdle but has not been atop the podium since. Probably the best of the somewhat piecemeal home challenge this time is Mia's Storm. She's won eight of her last ten completed starts, two chasing tumbles last season bringing about a reversion to the smaller obstacles. Alan King's nine-year-old has won both races this term, the second of which was in late November. That's a heck of a spell on the sidelines, somewhat mitigated by her excellent record fresh. She is a high 140's mare but comes with risk attached off the layoff.

Looking further down the ratings, all the while trying to retain a credible leap of improvement, is difficult. Both Jester Jet and Lady Buttons have been mixing hurdles and fences to good effect this season, but it is hard to see either of these likeable nine-year-olds finding the step forward required.

The one that vaguely interests me is Roksana. Only rated 142, to Benie's 151, she ostensibly has a mountain to climb. But she was highly progressive last term, elevating from 120 to 142, and she was entitled to need the run on her seasonal bow last month. There she was eleven lengths behind Buveur d'Air over a trip short of her best (she was second to Santini in a Grade 1 novice at Aintree over three miles against the boys last April), and I can see her improving seven pounds to around 150. That would put her bang in the mix.

She's a strong-travelling uncomplicated mare and has less miles on the clock than most of her rivals as a second season hurdler.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

A race which revolves around the defending champion, Benie Des Dieux. But her trainer, who has never saddled more than two in the race, lines up five this time, which could imply he is not that strong on the champ. Of course she can win, and she may well do, but at 10/11 it's a pass from me. Instead, I'll take Roksana each way at a double figure price.

I've seen worse 33/1 pokes than Good Thyne Tara, too: she's danced a lot of dances and stayed up late in most of them. She might just do so again.

Suggestion: Back Roksana each way at 10/1 general.

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4.50 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f)

Not my thing, though I do have an ante post bet in the race this year and a half decent ticket at that. Go me! Tower Bridge was never put into the race behind Duc Des Genievres in a beginners' chase last time, staying on when it was all over to be second of 17 (a few decent sorts behind). Rated 142 over hurdles, he's a pound lower over fences at this stage and, while hardly a bargain, he looks to have a decent chance in a wide open race.

Others whose chase mark is below their hurdle perch are The Russian Doyen (-3) and Solomn Grundy (-4). Both are interesting.

Last time out winners have a pretty good record, which brings in Lough Derg Spirit (been winning on flat tracks), the fully exposed Militarian, the experienced Walt, that lad The Russian Doyen again, good ground specialist Roaring Bull, favourite and (well beaten) third in a Grade 1 Riders Onthe Storm, and the exposed Huntsmans Son and Quamino.

Looking at Graded form as a hurdler would draw one to the claims of Tower Bridge and Riders Onthe Storm.

The big name handlers have a poor record in here, so it might be that Tom Taaffe's Riders Onthe Storm or Joseph O'Brien's Tower Bridge could give their trainers a timely fillip: Taaffe has had three Fez winners including Gold Cup scorer Kicking King and Finger Onthe Pulse in this race but not since 2010, Joseph is still looking for the first (though he was apparently training Ivanovich Gorbatov in all but name).

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

The top of the market tends to fare well in this race, and it will be no surprise if Riders Onthe Storm prevails. Having backed Tower Bridge at 20's, I'm happy though I still think there's a squeak of juice in his 9/1 quote. But maybe The Russian Doyen will give those chase specialists Tizzard and Cobden a day one win. He looks to have been expertly campaigned for his mark, with two and a half miles on soft ground expected to be a potent combination. At 25/1 in a place, he's too big.

Suggestion: Back The Russian Doyen at 25/1 each way (1/5 12345 Hills). Or if you want something more probable side with either 7/1 Rider Onthe Storm or 9/1 Tower Bridge.

*

5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 7 1/2f)

A long race and, these days, a classy one. A number of changes to the race conditions in the last twenty years have increased the quality and reduced the randomness such that it now often goes to the highest-rated runner in the field. Those with demonstrable experience, stamina and class are the ones upon which to focus. They tend to inhabit the top of the betting lists for obvious reasons.

The favourite, however, is one to field against in my view. OK Corral is a nine-year-old who has won his two chase starts. Two chase starts. That's inexperience right there. He looked a strong stayer over hurdles but he's only raced in four-runner fields over fences so the 18 who line up here will be a significantly different test. At 3/1, he's a nothankyou, even if he is the highest rated in the field.

Ballyward has also had just two chase starts and hails from a stable where, allegedly, schooling over fences is considered optional. Be that as it may, if it's not enough experience for the jolly it's not enough experience for the second in either.

Chef Des Obeaux is s-l-o-w, but this might be his kind of thing. He's high class slow and, though his jumping isn't brilliant, that has been when he's been out of his comfort zone at a mile shorter. With a faller concession he might be worth a small play.

The wise guy horse is Atlanta Ablaze. On ratings, she's exposed as not good enough; but she has the experience - ten chase starts, four wins. She drew me to her, but then I noticed all her best form is on a sound surface, which it is very unlikely to be. If I've got her ground predilection wrong she could go well but I don't think I have.

Discorama is another short one in the betting with whom I struggle. He's got class, but his stamina and experience are both open to question - or at least have yet to be shown. Jamie Codd has been snapped up to ride Le Breuil, a horse yet to race at three miles let alone four; but he does have plenty of experience, he has a touch of class and he will be ridden as cold as ice by the chef de lanterne rouge, Mr C. Even so he's not for me. Another wise guy play, I'd say. Good luck to the wise guys.

Impulsive Star has had six chase starts, including when not quite getting home in this race last year, eventually finishing 24 lengths fourth. He may again not quite have the stamina for the gig but equally should give the galloping dentist, Mr Samuel Waley-Cohen, a great spin round. Less interesting is Jerrysback, in spite of the money around for him. He's a son of Jeremy for crying out loud, who took four goes to get off the mark in point to points and who's never raced under rules beyond 2m5f. The sire's progeny are 0 from 33 beyond 2m6f.

Gordon Elliott saddles Gun Digger, a horse with at least a modicum of stamina, class and experience. Not much more than a modicum but in a race where I'm really struggling to find a contender that ticks those three boxes, this one comes closest.

But wait, what about Whisperinthebreeze? Six chase starts, a win and three further places, goes on most ground, seemed to stay well when second over 3m1f, and a mark of 146 puts him within hailing distance of the pick of these. Definitely one of the more appealing prospects.

National Hunt Chase Selection

There are reasons to swerve most of these one way or another, and it might be that one last trip to the bar is a better call than a final first day wager. That said, if we think the top of the market is there to be taken on, should we not tilt at a windmill or two? I feel we probably should.

Two at prices with fine riders are Gun Digger, ridden by Lisa O'Neill, and Whisperinthebreeze, steered by Fin Maguire. Both have hinted at the  trinity of requirements - class, stamina, experience - and in a race where most fall down (hopefully not literally) to some degree on one or more of the three, they're worth a go at decent double digits. Chef Des Obeaux wouldn't be the worst play at a price either.

Suggestion: Back Gun Digger (16/1 1/4 123 bet365, 14/1 1/5 1234 Skybet) and/or Whisperinthebreeze (20/1 1/4 123 bet365, 16/1 1/5 1234 Skybet)

*

Nobody said this would be easy. Though the Tuesday usually has a more straightforward look to it than the rest of the week, this Day One card feels fraught with danger and, therefore, opportunity. Go well, and remember to save some powder for the following three days!

Champion Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips: Cheltenham Festival 2018

It's now just two months until the tapes rise on the 2018 Cheltenham Festival, so it's high time we had a look for some betting value in the antepost markets. The feature race on Day One, Tuesday, is the Unibet Champion Hurdle, a Grade 1 run over just beyond two miles. Lasy year's Champion Hurdler, Buveur D'Air, is a strong favourite to retain his crown, but is his odds-on quote justified? Let's take a look...

Champion Hurdle 2018 Trends

Age

Five-year-old Katchit in 2008 was the first of his age group to win this race since See You Then in 1985. None has won since, from 27 to try, though Celestial Halo and Binocular did round out the trifecta behind Punjabi the following year. Another year later, Zaynar ran third for the five-year-olds but, since 2010, just Countrywide Flame has hit the board.

Defi De Seuil, sixth in the betting, is the most high profile five-year-old in the antepost lists, though his participation is subject to an improved performance after flopping on his sole start this season (stable was in poor form at the time).

At the other end of the spectrum, those aged in double digits are 0 from 21 since 1997, though venerable veterans Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours made the frame since 2015. The last double-digit aged winner was Sea Pigeon, whose second victory, aged eleven, came in 1981. That was 37 years ago, which is hardly a boon if you like either Faugheen, the second favourite, or My Tent Or Yours, fifth market choice.

A focus on six- to nine-year-olds would have found all bar one of the winners in the last thirty years, but is a statistic which eliminates three of the top six in the current betting.

 

Last Time Out

Champion Hurdlers tend to be winners. Obvious, right? Indeed, 16 of the last 20 winners also triumphed on their previous racecourse appearance, from 106 runners. There were 269 horses line up in those twenty renewals, meaning 39.4% of all runners won last time. And yet they accounted for 80% of the winners, and 60% of the placed horses.

If you want to go off road a little, look also to those who finished second last time. They accounted for two of the remaining four victories since 1997 (10% of the wins) from 20% of the runners. Not so hot, but the winning pair were 11/1 Rock On Ruby and 33/1 Hardy Eustace, which would have squirreled the bank out even at Betfair Starting Price.

Still, it's best to focus exclusively on last day winners. As things stand, of the remaining three in the top six of the betting, only Buveur D'Air won last time. This can, and probably will, change between now and March, so tread carefully.

 

Key Trials

The Ryanair Hurdle, run over Christmas at Leopardstown, has been a key trial in recent seasons, seven Champion Hurdle winners emerging from the race since 2000 to take Festival honours at Cheltenham. This season, with Faugheen pulling up, it was left to Mick Jazz to see off Cilaos Emery.

Kempton's Christmas Hurdle has been a solid pointer too, with this season's festive showpiece falling to Buveur D'air who saw off The New One.

The other kingmaker race is the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will be run at the beginning of next month. Most of that race's Champion Hurdle highlighting lustre comes from Brave Inca and especially Hurricane Fly in recent times.  Faugheen is slated for a bid to redeem his reputation in the race so it will make for interesting viewing and can be expected to have a bearing on the Champion Hurdle market.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Form Preview

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So much for the trends, which seem to put a line through all of Buveur D'air's main market rivals leaving him home free on paper. But, of course, the Champion Hurdle isn't run on paper, and thank the moon and the stars for that. Still, let's consider the compelling case for the jolly before engaging in the potential folly of trying to get him beaten.

Buveur D'Air is unbeaten in most of two years, since running third to Altior and Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He's won eight on the bounce now, including last year's Champion Hurdle, and he's not been seriously tested. His official mark of 169 is clear of all bar the historical perch of Faugheen, a figure that one hasn't run to for two years. The seven year old is in the prime of his life, has seemingly had an uninterrupted preparation and, while a mooted trip to Ireland for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the beginning of February may be wide of the mark, he could have another spin before the Festival.

Trying to find reasons to oppose Buveur D'Air is tricky, still more so if taking slightly shorter with the Non Runner No Bet (NRNB) concession. If he gets to the starting line without a hiccup, he is by far the most likely winner. If I was picking holes - or trying to, at least - you could argue his rider asked for a very bold leap at the last in the Christmas Hurdle, a risky tactic. The converse is that the horse responded gamely and cruised away from standing dish, The New One.

It is probably unfair to measure Nicky Henderson's hotpot by the horses in his immediate aftermath - you can only beat what shows up, after all. And B d'Air has mocked not just The New One but also My Tent Or Yours (twice) and Irving in four back-to-back Grade 1 wins. That trio are all card-carrying veterans and are surely susceptible to a younger, more upwardly mobile racer albeit that such a type would be mobilizing from a lower ability base.

I want to be against Faugheen. Another of the double-digit brigade, he's been seen on the track just twice in the last two years, most recently when pulling up for no obvious reason. True, prior to that he hinted at the retention of the terrific talent he formerly possessed; but that was in duffing up a couple of 155 horses, both of whose marks may be considered slightly dubious at that level.

He just has a heck of a lot to prove, and at a top price of 5/1 is no value to do so. It would be genuinely fantastic to see him back to his best but it is very hard to imagine that he's a tight single figure chance of winning the Champion Hurdle in two months time. 3/1 NRNB could be excusable, depending on what shows up for the Leopardstown race. If it's a decent field and Faugheen wins, he'll be shorter and deservedly so. If he gets beaten, that will very likely be that and money back. Although it's hardly romantic, I fear the latter outcome. Either way, he's too risky a proposition at the price at this stage.

A couple of Mullins subs are next in the market. Melon is a weird one. I can only imagine he works like an absolute tank at home, because his form simply does nothing to vindicate a quote of 8/1 best. The only race he's won since a maiden hurdle this time last year was a weak Grade 2 at Down Royal, where he was roughly the same distance in front of Coquin Mans as Jezki was the time before. And he was in receipt of three pounds!

In three defeats around that hollow triumph he's run behind Labaik, Cilaos Emery and My Tent Or Yours (and The New One). I genuinely honestly for the life of me cannot fathom how that is possibly the profile of a single figure chance in a Champion Hurdle, even as shallow a heat as this looks.

If he dots up, fair enough, but it would have to be a major step forward from a rating of 159, which looks generous already.

More interesting, much more interesting, is Yorkhill. 12/1 in the all in run or not books, he's as short as 4/1 NRNB. That differential is explained by the fact he's been chasing for the last season and a bit. As unconvincing over a fence as he can be, he's still managed to win the JLT Novices' Chase at last year's Cheltenham Festival and, before that, the Neptune at the previous year's Festival.

If Faugheen was withdrawn from consideration, Yorkhill is a rock solid deputy, assuming he can still make a hurdling shape. Actually, thinking about it, that's what he's done over plenty of the steeplechase fences he's traversed! Again here, NRNB is the only route in. 5/1 with that money back concession is as close to an each way bet to nothing as is conceivable. Unsexy in the extreme, and probably the sort of play that gets your account restricted, it is very difficult to see him out of the frame if he turns up. But do not be suckered into the 12/1 on offer. He's more likely than not to run in a different race: 12/1 on an un-refunded non-runner won't get the pulse racing!

My Tent Or Yours is 16/1, 12/1 NRNB, and to be honest that's fair enough. Now eleven, he can't possibly win the race, but it's such a weak field that he could sneak into the frame. His form is closely tied in with The New One, another whose overall profile is the same: cannot win, probably runs with merit in defeat. Nigel Twiston-Davies' unfairly maligned warrior - he is a millionaire, after all - may take a different path this term in any case.

A horse I took a punt on in the early part of the season, before he flunked badly, was Defi De Seuil. He was the lad whose form lines were not already demonstrably below those of Buveur D'Air, and who could have conceivably developed into a genuine contender. But then he ran as flat as a pancake on his first and only run so far this season. Very little has come to light since, except the poor form of the Philip Hobbs yard during that part of the season.

He'd probably need to win the Irish Champion Hurdle to book his Chelto ticket and, assuming Buveur D'Air no shows, he has his chance. I've not given up all hope yet. Just most of it!

Wicklow Brave was only seventh in last year's Champion and has been globetrotting on the flat largely since, though his final hurdle run was a defeat of My Tent Or Yours in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle last April. He won't be winning at Cheltenham first time up though, and hasn't got any entries at this stage.

Min is quite interesting. As big a Supreme hype horse as Melon a year before, he ran a better race than that one to split the peerless Altior and Buveur D'air. He's won three of his four chase starts since then, but it was a big shock when he got turned over by Simply Ned at Leopardstown at Christmas. In the same ownership as Faugheen, he's another Mullins horse that could be diverted to this race. As such, he's another where the 16/1 NRNB is disproportionately more attractive than the 25/1 all in quote. After all, he's one of only two horses to beat Buveur D'Air. Moreover, the reverting from fences to hurdles route has been taken by both Rock On Ruby and Buveur D'Air himself since 2012.

Apple's Jade would be interesting if she came this route, but is far more likely for the Mares' Hurdle; Mick Jazz was the main beneficiary of Faugheen's flop last time but his overall form isn't in the same parish; Ch'Tibello wasn't too far behind My Tent but gets a bit outpaced on quicker ground; and before you know it, it's 50/1 your choice.

 

Champion Hurdle 2018 Tips

There are still a number of trials to be run, time enough for horses to shine a light on their credentials. But, as things stand, it is very (very!) hard to see past BUVEUR D'AIR. I can also confirm that night should follow day later, and that it will be February after January... So far, so bleedin' obvious.

Where, then, is the leftfield play? Well, this looks a superb 'without the favourite' race, and I'll be paying close heed to that market when it's eventually priced up. For now, however, we can do no better than muck about with the the Non Runner No Bet concessions.

In that context, Yorkhill is bombproof each way. He is unlikely to show up here if either Faugheen or Min do, in which case it's cash back in time for some 'without the fav' action. In the same vein, Min looks over-priced NRNB. Again, the likelihood is that we'll merely get our quids back; but, should he get the go ahead, he'll surely be a single figure price on the day.

Most likely winner (by a country mile) -

Buveur D'Air 8/13 NRNB Skybet

Best NRNB each way alternatives -

Yorkhill 5/1, Min 16/1 both Skybet (1/5 1-2-3)

 

2017 was a weird Festival, writes Tony Keenan. It began with Gordon Elliott winning novice races with Labaik and Tiger Roll, the former one refusal away from a lengthy ban on his previous start, the latter landing a National Hunt Chase run over nearly twice as far as his previous major win in the Triumph Hurdle. It ended with Paul Nicholls seemingly ecstatic at breaking his duck for the week in the Foxhunter with Pacha Du Polder, a far cry from his previous multiple Grade 1-winning Festivals. In between we had Willie Mullins draw a blank on Tuesday and Wednesday, his yard apparently out of form and his gallops all wrong, only for him to storm back with six winners across the final two days.

There are always things to be learned from these major meetings and while it’s important not to overreact to the evidence of just four days, there were certainly a few takeaways.

 

  1. Relative Sanity in the Betting Markets

By the standards of recent Cheltenhams, the offer culture among the big bookmakers wasn’t as prevalent; there was nothing close to the each-way five places offered by William Hill back in the 2013 Supreme. There were extra places on offer in obvious races like the Coral Cup, Pertemps Final and County Hurdle but not so much in the shoulder races; judging on the Pricewise tables from the Racing Post, there were just two firms that offered extended place terms in the Foxhunter as opposed to six in 2016.

The extra place concession is fine as a once-off – Coral going six places in the Coral Cup, say – but in the main it’s a losing proposition for bookmakers, where they are putting the maths in favour of the punter and conceding that they are willing to lose money in the race, all things being equal.

There were also reduced terms in the graded races from a long way out: where once these races were all a quarter the odds a place, now the universal terms seem to be a fifth. That’s clearly a negative for punters looking to bet each-way and find a solid horse to hit the frame and while there were a number of races during the week that set up well as ‘bad each-way’ events like the Arkle, Champion Chase and JLT, they would have been all the more appealing if it were a quarter the odds a place. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be the wild push to be a standout top price everything on the odds comparison sites that there had been previously. The likes of Native River and Cue Card may have drifted on the morning of the Gold Cup to their biggest price in a few weeks, but that was more due to support for Djakadam than their weakness, and nor did price pushes on the Supreme favourites Ballyandy and Melon come to pass.

It’s difficult to say what the reasons for this might be. Last year’s results when one favourite after another went in clearly played their part; the firms didn’t get away with overly-generous offers then and may have learned from it. On the whole, this is good for racing as it is hardly ideal that the sport’s banner meeting be used as a loss leader for other betting products; the firms would be unlikely to do the same for a major football tournament. Hopefully such a sensible approach will continue next year.

 

  1. Competitive Irish Scene leads to Green-wash?

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Michael O’Leary talked a whole lot of rubbish in the run-up to Cheltenham and it continued last week with his comments about the Irish/English rivalry and his dismissal of Martin Pipe winner Champagne Classic as ‘probably the worst horse I have.’ It seems he is just as successful at winding racing people up as he is with government ministers! Those at the top of Irish racing might want to drop him a little thank you card for his contribution to the record week for Irish trainers at the meeting however as his decision to move his horses from Willie Mullins (along with some rotten injury luck for that trainer) could well have played a part in Irish trainers doing so well.

It’s been the most competitive Irish national hunt season since the Mullins hegemony began but while the betting beforehand suggested Ireland would struggle at the meeting – Ireland were priced up at a general 7/2 for the BetBright Cup having been more like 7/4 last year – the opposite proved to be case. Gordon Elliott basically continued to do what he’s been doing at home all season while both Henry De Bromhead and Noel Meade backed up excellent home campaigns with Festival winners. Jessica Harrington had been quietly having a good run in Ireland all season but there was nothing quiet about her Festival where she had three winners. There was certainly a sense of what might have been with Willie Mullins however; to manage six winners off the back of the season he’s had was a deeply impressive effort.

 

  1. Slipping Standards in Championship Races, Handicaps more Competitive than ever

The rash of injuries among the top jumpers lowered the standard of the championship races and while these races were a spectacle – the Festival always is – it is doubtful that Buveur D’Air, Special Tiara, Nichols Canyon and Sizing John will echo down the halls of history in the same manner of Istabraq, Big Buck’s or Best Mate. I’m biased but Sizing John might prove about the best of those as he’s just a different horse this season, his sole defeat coming to Douvan when conceding fitness to that one on his first run of 2016/17, and I wonder if he might even give a healthy version of that horse something to think about over a strongly-run twenty furlongs now.

The handicaps were a different story entirely, proving ultra-competitive and over-subscribed in a season where races like the Betfair Hurdle and Imperial Cup struggled to attract decent fields. Unsurprisingly, they took plenty of winning with horses like Un Temps Pour Tout (Racing Post Rating of 164 in winning), Supasundae (RPR 155), Presenting Percy (RPR 155) and Arctic Fire (RPR 160) all looking like they could make an impact at Grade 1 level sooner rather than later.

 

  1. Riding their Luck

I wrote about luck, good and bad, in this space prior to the meeting and it’s worth briefly revisiting those figures for trainers over this year’s meeting.

 

Trainer Winners Seconds Places (2nd, 3rd and 4th) Places to Winners Ratio Sub-2.0 Trades
G. Elliott 6 3 7 1.16 0
W. Mullins 6 2 7 1.15 4
N. Henderson 3 6 13 4.33 2
J. Harrington 3 0 0 0.00 0
H. De Bromhead 1 2 4 4.00 0
P. Hobbs 1 1 2 2.00 1
N. Meade 1 0 2 2.00 0
J. O’Neill 0 2 2 0.00 0
H. Fry 0 1 3 0.00 2
A. King 0 0 4 0.00 0

 

Jessica Harrington looks to have benefitted from the perfect storm of things falling right though it would be hard to say that any of Supasundae, Sizing John and Rock The World were anything other than deserving winners and she did have Champion Bumper fancy Someday ruled out on the morning of the race. Her close friend Nicky Henderson was the unlucky one in terms of places to winners ratio, allowing that one of his seconds (Whisper) came in a race he won anyway. The in-running trades point to Harry Fry being a bit unlucky too.

 

  1. Excuse Obvious ‘Excuse Horses’

Plenty of us will have backed a horse that will have run terribly last week [I didn’t back many who didn’t run terribly – Ed.] and in the main Cheltenham is one of those unique tracks where you can probably forgive a bad run. There were a number of horses that stood out as obvious ‘excuse horses’ with bona fide reasons for not being able to run to form and if you liked them going into the meeting, it could be worth sticking with them for the rest of the spring.

That list includes but is not limited to: Ballyandy (troubled trip), Bacardys (badly hampered), Bon Papa (lost his action), Automated (found to be lame), Mister Miyagi (troubled trip), Douvan (injured) Linger (lame), Flying Angel (badly hampered), Potters Legend (jumped like his feet were tied together), Ex Patriot (got loose beforehand), and Constantine Bay (run stopped at a crucial time).

I’m not saying I like all these horses to win in the near-term – in fact I don’t – but they all had very legitimate reasons for not running to their best. I won’t do all the hard work for you however so get reviewing those replays and start trawling through the BHA post-race reports, painful though they may be!

- Tony Keenan

And so to the final day of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, Gold Cup day, and the last chance to emerge victorious from the bruising punting encounters. It's traditionally a tough day as evidenced by some stratospheric placepot dividends - remember the £91,774.50 just two years ago? - so caution is advised on the staking front, though one correct swipe can nullify a week of losses. We start as usual at 1.30 with the...

1.30 Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 179yds)

Not the competitive race it was before the introduction of the Fred Winter in 2005, it tends to be won by a horse towards the top of the market. Indeed, the three winners pre-2005 were returned at 20/1 twice and 16/1, whereas since that inaugural year only 33/1 Countrywide Flame has returned greater than 10/1. Still, 16 are scheduled to go to post.

The JP McManus-owned pair, Defi Du Seuil and Charlie Parcs, had a stranglehold on the top of the market for most of the winter, but a fall at Kempton in the Adonis - a traditionally strong Triumph trial - has pushed Charlie out to a more backable price. Of course, that's as a result of his newly discovered fallibility and, in any case, initial concerns appear to have dissipated in a market where punters are keen to be with horses trained by Nicky Henderson. Having been 8/1 post-Adonis, he's now into a top offer of 4/1.

Charlie Parcs had won in France before a debut defeat of Master Blueyes in a Kempton novice that has worked out very well. Importantly, that race was on good ground, as was the Adonis, so he's proven his affinity for quicker surfaces. But in the latter race he was going no better than Master Blueyes, the eventual winner, and arguably not as well. The stronger test of stamina of Cheltenham's New course could suit but the track remains an unknown.

Master Blueyes is battle hardened - he had ten runs on the flat and has now had five over hurdles - and progressive at the Winter game. Having taken four runs to get off the hurdling mark, he's now unbeaten in his last two, including in that Grade 2 Adonis, winning by an aggregate 29 lengths. I'd be concerned that all his form is on flat tracks and don't want to back him at 6/1.

Meanwhile, Defi Du Seuil, whose preparations were completed at Cheltenham on Trials Day with an emphatic but largely meaningless victory, comes here as favourite off the back of an unbroken five race winning streak. That sequence includes three victories at this track as well as a Grade 1 score in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow. He has won on ground ranging from soft to good and will prove hard to beat.

The pick of the Irish challenge is expected to be Mega Fortune. Trained by Gordon Elliott and ridden by Davy Russell is a brace of positives before even considering the horse's form, and that also stands scrutiny. Five runs over timber have resulted in two wins, culminating in an assertive verdict over re-opposing Bapaume in the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle.

That was on soft ground and, despite winning a weak novice on good at Down Royal, there is a reservation about how Mega Fortune will perform on a sounder surface in top company. Similar comments apply to the runner up. An Irish runner who will appreciate faster underfoot is Landofhopeandglory. A winner of a Grade 3 on good to yielding when completing an initial hat-trick over hurdles, he's been beaten twice since on softer, including when sunk in heavy ground last time. He has a not dissimilar profile to stablemate, Ivanovich Gorbatov, who won last year's Triumph having been whacked on heavy on his previous outing.

There are three fillies in the race, the pick of which looks to be Gordon Elliott's Dinaria Des Obeaux. A winner of three of her four starts to date, she was beaten ten lengths by Mega Fortune in the G1 Spring Juvenile, which gives her a bit to find on the face of it. But she's won again since, and the faster ground might just enable her to get closer to her stablemate.

At the prices, while Defi Du Seuil looks solid, I'm tempted to side each way with Joseph O'Brien's runner, who can flip flop form with Bapaume on the expected sounder lawn.

Solid enough win bet:
Defi Du Seuil 9/4 Paddy, Betfair Sports

Each way play:
Landofhopeandglory 16/1 Ladbrokes, Coral

Skybet

SKYBET are MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF YOU LOSE ON THIS RACE (£20 MAX)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.10 County Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 179yds)

A handicap for older horses over the same course and distance as the Triumph offers an immediate comparison of the merit of the former heat. It is, as are all Festival handicaps, a ferociously competitive affair where - as with most of the Festival handicaps - it may pay to side with the Irish raiders, who have won seven of the last ten County Hurdles.

The shortest priced Irish horse is Mick Jazz, trained by that man Elliott. He won a Listed novices' hurdle last time, having run very well in third in a big field Grade A handicap the time before. A mark of 143 might not stop him but it will make things difficult.

Five year olds have an incredible record in this race, winning ten times and hitting the board 25 times since 1997 from 120 runners. As such, last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Ivanovich Gorbatov, demands even closer scrutiny. He's dropped four pounds from his peak rating of 154, and the drying ground on a course he has shown he loves propel him towards the top of my shortlist. He will find this easier than the Grade 1 company he's kept in his last four starts.

The 2016 Fred Winter winner, Diego Du Charmil, also lines up here, but he's only a pound inferior on current ratings and will struggle to beat Ivan G on very close to equal terms. More appealing is the very lightly raced over hurdles Mohaayed, trained by Dan Skelton. Rated around 100 on the flat when with Kevin Prendergast, this son of Intikhab was second on his debut behind Elgin. He followed that up with a fair fourth to Neon Wolf in the Rossington Main at Haydock, the winner advertising that form when all but winning again in the Neptune on Wednesday.

And he was off the mark at the third time of asking when waltzing away with a soft ground Taunton novices' hurdle five weeks ago. His best form on the flat was on good ground so, while he's inexperienced for a gig like this, 25/1 looks very big about his chance.

Karl Thornton's Wakea is another worth noting at a price. He was beaten behind Supreme winner, Labaik, last time but before that he'd won his prior three hurdle races, all on good ground. He was disqualified from the first of those, a 20 runner maiden hurdle, but showed he could handle the hustle and bustle of a big field in being first past the post that day. Trip, ground and likely fast pace are all in his favour making 33/1 appealing.

Favourite and stable mate of Mohaayed, North Hill Harvey, is well regarded, and it's easy to see why on his fourth to Champion Hurdle winner, Buveur D'Air, two starts back. He's since won his only race this season, the Greatwood over course and distance. That formline reads well enough, with second placed Modus winning the Lanzarote Hurdle since, and dual subsequent handicap winner, Brain Power, down the field. But the layoff is a bit of a niggle for me, as is the additional imposition of eight pounds in weight for that last day success.

The most fascinating runner in the field might be the other Gordy horse, Tell Us More. This lightly raced eight year old has been chasing in his last six starts but, prior to that, he was sixth in Douvan's Supreme Novices' Hurdle win on his final hurdles outing. He gets in here off a mark of 142 and could be well handicapped.

It's an obviously trappy race where I'm happy to hurl a couple of darts at big prices.

Three tiny tickles off the tee:
Tell Us More 16/1 Hills, Paddy
Mohaayed 28/1 Ladbrokes
Wakea 33/1 Victor (five places)

bet365, BetVictor, Ladbrokes, Coral all 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

Skybet, Paddy 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6

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**

2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)

Unlike the shorter Neptune Hurdle, which is often run at a relatively sedate pace - as evidenced by Willoughby Court's controlled front-running display on Wednesday, the 'potato race' is normally a war of attrition where horses that have been lobbing round in small fields before getting outpaced can suddenly blossom under the sterner examination they face here.

There is little doubt that Death Duty brings the best Irish form to the race, but it is form achieved in those bimbling heavy ground contests which typically contrast so dramatically with the Albert Bartlett. That's not to say Death Duty cannot win. Of course not. His form is rock solid, and so is that of his trainer, Gordon Elliott. But he'll probably be running on ground quicker and in a race run faster than he's previously encountered. At 2/1 or so, I'll probably let him beat me.

Wholestone looks good in many ways: he's won over the trip, at the track, and on good ground. His last day trial, though not the biggest field, was a true run race meaning he ticks plenty of boxes coming into this. That was a Grade 2 that is working out well and the only negative is the form of his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies. Nige has had just one winner from 57 runners in the last 30 days, and his seven Tuesday/Wednesday Cheltenham runners collectively failed to make the frame.

I'm preying for signs of a revival in stable form on Thursday because I really want to back this lad. But the cloud above Hollow Bottom appears large and pervasive just now.

The horse Elliott admitted to fearing at a recent preview night was Monalee, who finished a close second the Death Duty in a Grade 2 two starts ago. He's since won a Grade 3 on heavy and, by Milan, is expected to improve for better ground. He looks a strong staying type, and I've backed him ante-post at 10/1. Again demonstrating what a judge I am (ahem), the horse is still available at 8/1 generally. There are no such negative stable vibes with Henry de Bromhead's team and I'm hopeful of a big run from this one.

Tom George is due a change of luck after Singlefarmpayment added to his Cheltenham Festival near miss showreel on Tuesday, and he could just get it courtesy of The Worlds End. Unbeaten in three since a debut third over hurdles, he ran away with a Haydock Grade 2 on this sort of ground and over this sort of trip last time. He's been brought expertly to the boil and looks another player in what may be a more open race than the betting implies.

This might be too far for promising mare, Augusta Kate, though connections are naturally respected.

Most Likely Winner:
Death Duty 9/4 bet365

Two sporting alternatives:
Monalee 8/1 general
The Worlds End 10/1 general

Paddy 1/5 1-2-3-4

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**

3.30 Cheltenham Gold Cup (Grade 1, 3m 2f 70yds)

See separate Gold Cup preview here...

 

**

4.10 Foxhunters' Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f 70yds)

The "Amateurs' Gold Cup", so called because it is run over the same distance directly after the Blue Riband, it bears little other resemblance to that great event. Still, it's a decent betting race, pitting as it does the ex-Graded racers on the wane against the rising stars between the flags. The Foxhunters' has been dominated in the last couple of seasons by the brilliant On The Fringe, who has achieved back-to-back Cheltenham/Aintree/Punchestown Champion Hunter victories.

That is unmatched in the history of the sport and is testament to the talents of trainer Enda Bolger - mainly known for his banks exploits - as much as those of the horse. On The Fringe comes here off the back of a narrow defeat in the same Leopardstown hunter chase in which he was beaten the two years he went on to record those auspicious trebles and, now twelve, he shows little signs of regression. He is far and away the most likely winner.

Wonderful Charm, second in a Grade 2 two years ago, looks a typically over-rated ex-Rules runner from the Paul Nicholls stable. His course record is largely uninspiring and, though he wouldn't be a shock winner, he looks a rubbish price.

More interesting, especially if there's any juice in the ground, is Ask The Weatherman. He was making his Rules debut in a warm Wincanton hunter when barrelling away from established stick, Rebel Rebellion. That was on heavy ground, however, and his liking for faster is taken on trust.

Paint The Clouds is twelve now but he loves to hear his hooves rattle, as the cliche goes. Only a length behind On The Fringe in this last year, he went on to win the Stratford Champion Hunter on good ground. That was his last Rules run prior to a warm-up at Doncaster last month - again on good - where he saw the 3m2f trip out well. He looks as though time has yet to catch up and is playable each way.

Outside of the favourite, the most eye-catching Irish runner could be point-to-point machine, Anseanachai Cliste. Don't ask me to pronounce it but the buzz is that this lad is useful and could shake up the more established Rules players. To offer some objective balance to those subjective whispers, he will have had to have improved enormously on his hunter chasing form from last season to be involved at the sharp end against these hardened old pro's. Still only nine, maybe he has.

Sam Waley-Cohen, Paint The Clouds' regular pilot, defects to his father's Black Thunder. His mount, a son of Malinas, suffered a shock defeat at Kelso last time when sent off the 1/8 favourite. More worrying than that - it was a prep after all - is that all six of his career wins have come on soft or heavy. He'll need to get his toe in to be a player.

Dolatulo is ten now, and bids to be a second winner on the week for Ben Pauling. A twenty length win in a Class 4 Hunter Chase last time show he's in excellent fettle, though that was on soft ground. He has plenty of good form on quicker, mind, and the 25/1 in a place is probably too big.

Solid favourite:
On The Fringe 6/4 general

Small each way pair:
Paint The Clouds 12/1 bet365
Dolatulo 25/1 Betfair Sports

BetVictor, Padd 1/5 1-2-3-4

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**

4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (Class 2, 2m 4f 56yds)

If you're not in front by now, it's going to be difficult and, in truth, I have little to offer in the last two races, both of which are impossible looking handicaps. We start with the two and a half mile handicap hurdle for conditional jockeys.

Geegeez blogger, and champion conditional elect, Harry Cobden, rides Tim Vaughan's hat-trick-seeking Dadsintrouble. He was going well when falling in a course and distance handicap in the autumn and has moved 19 pounds up the handicap since then. How much progression he retains is the big question, with conditions likely to suit and one of the best - perhaps the best - jockey in the race.

I backed Willie Mullins' Battleford for the Albert Bartlett, figuring he needed a stiffer test. But they'll go fast here and that should suit. With the Mullins team back in the winners' enclosure on Thursday, he's a player.

Nick Williams had the Fred Winter winner with a handicap debutant earlier in the week and Coo Star Sivola - third in that race last year on his only prior handicap start - could make it a memorable week for the yard. They have a solid recent Cheltenham record too.

But, honestly, there's barely a horse in here you couldn't make a case for.

Partially sighted poke in the Pipe:
Coo Star Sivola 16/1 bet365 (five places)

bet365 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

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**

5.30 Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 62 yds)

The 'lucky last'? You have to be kidding. Two things I know about this:

  1. They will go pretty fast and you need a strong travelling sort
  2. There will be a huge amount of bad luck in running

That's the way it is in the Grand Annual. So, hoping we're lucky as much as good, a few that catch the eye are:

Le Prezien is a novice with more to come. He's normally ridden off the main speed and if his jumping holds up he should be on the premises. Croco Bay was third in this two years ago off an eight pound higher mark (fell last year) so is well in this time. Fourth in the Arkle last year, The Game Changer is five pounds below that rating now. Rock The World was third in this last year and has just a pound more to carry this time.

Last year's winner, Solar Impulse, is actually three pounds lower this time. He has also changed stables, from Paul Nicholls to Chris Kellett, and shown very little in four starts for his new yard. Granted two of those were over further and on softer turf, and we know he'll be suited by the setup if the fire still burns. It's a big if but he's 40/1.

And Pairofbrowneyes ran well over course and distance in November, beaten a neck. He's a strong travelling sort who handles quick ground and goes well in big fields. 25/1 is not bad then.

Loads of chances, take your pick.

Three win only 'guesses':
Le Prezien 8/1 Hills, Victor
Croco Bay 33/1 general
Pairofbrowneyes 25/1 general

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**

Phew. So that will be that. 28 races of Cheltenham Festival 2017 will have been run by quarter-to-six on Friday, and I'll be in the pub for the afternoon. Don't try to call after four o'clock! 😉

I hope you've had a great week, best of luck with your Friday bets, and stay safe this St. Patrick's Day.

Matt

A quick cup of tea, or metaphorical suck on an orange segment, as we change ends - or courses - for the second half of the Festival: it's out with the Old Course and in with the New for Thursday and Friday.

Thursday's highlight is the Stayers' Hurdle, supported by the Ryanair Chase, and it is a tough punting card. We commence proceedings with a novice chase, the...

1.30 JLT Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 2m 3f 198 yds)

This intermediate trip novices' chase has rather diluted the fields for the shorter Arkle and the longer RSA, but is beginning to establish itself as a quality race in its own right. Inaugurated as recently as 2011, the Irish have so far claimed five of the first six renewals and again have a strong hand.

Their main hope will be 2016 Neptune winner, Yorkhill, who bids to give Willie Mullins a third straight win and a fourth in all. Yorkhill was a very good hurdler, as shown not just by that G1 Neptune score but also by victory in the G1 Mersey Novices' Hurdle at the Aintree Festival. Over the top (that is, had too many hard races) when beaten at Punchestown he has returned this season with back-to-back novice chase wins, most recently in a Grade 3.

A record of eight from nine and an undefeated chase CV is impressive, but it doesn't quite tell the full story. You see, Yorkhill has a bit of a problem: he's not a very natural jumper. Clearly he's effective, as attested to by his record, but this will be a big step up into Grade 1 chasing territory. At odds around 6/4, I'm keen to take him on mindful that if he jumps proficiently he will probably win.

Top Notch is apparently not very big but he is well named as evidenced by a Grade 1 win on his most recent start in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown over this sort of trip. Fifth in last year's Champion Hurdle was the pinnacle of a very good hurdling career, and he's now unbeaten in his last four over fences. With a versatile run style and, to date, an efficient jumping style he looks very hard to keep out of the frame granted a clear run.

Paul Nicholls' Politologue has the same chase rating, 152, as Top Notch. But whereas the latter has yet to 'grow into' his hurdle peak of 158, the former has already surpassed his timber-topping figure. Preference is for Top Notch.

Ireland's second choice, according to the market at least, is Noel Meade's Disko. His Grade 1 Flogas Chase win is high class form and probably makes him the highest rated chaser in the field. I say 'probably' because he doesn't have a published Irish mark despite being rated 151 going into that contest. If he handles good ground as well as he does the soft turf on which he's been plying his trade, he has a very strong place chance at least.

Flying Angel swerved the Arkle in favour of this but the form of the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard - just one win from 57 runners in the past 30 days - is a real concern.

If N T-D is in poor form, Nicky Henderson is bouncing after an excellent start to his Cheltenham. In such context, Kilcrea Vale can be expected to run at least to form. Outpaced in a three horse race at Fontwell over two miles he stayed on well to see off the questionable resolution of As De Mee. But it is his December defeat of Zamdy Man, by 19 lengths, that catches the eye. That horse has gone on to score twice more since, having also won his prior start so, while Zamdy Man may have run out of stamina (all wins at two miles, defeat at half a mile further), it is still a solid piece of form.

In truth, it's a stone or so below that of the best of these so it is more the price that makes him of interest. He's currently around a 25/1 chance. But five of the six winners of this race have come from the top four in the betting and I'd expect that 'trend' to continue this year.

Selection against Yorkhill:
Disko e/w 5/1 general

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**

2.10 Pertemps Final (Listed Handicap, 2m 7f 213yds)

A huge field of handicappers, most of whom will step forward today for one reason or another. Yikes. I'll not pretend I know what's going to happen except to say that Gordon Elliott is in great form and has a strong team.

Jury Duty may be the pick of the Elliott runners. He contested the Chepstow qualifier, where he was well enough beaten to only rise two pounds in the handicap. He was second in a similar race at the Punchestown Festival last April and, though 25 pounds higher now, he's obviously progressive and more will be expected here than the last day.

Debra Hamer's wonderful Tobefair heads the market. He comes here on a remarkable EIGHT-timer, having stormed up the weights from 81 to 143. And if you saw the way he fought back when challenged last time you'd be reckless to dismiss him. It's a terrific story and the romantic in me hopes he wins again. The hard-nosed punter in me cannot get involved at 7/1.

Second in the Exeter qualifier, and in his last three starts - and five of his last seven - was Rocklander. That's consistent form if not a great win record, and his handicap mark has predictably suffered as a result. At the start of the septet of ones and twos, Tom George's runner was rated 113. He is now rated 140. He is clearly still improving and travelling strongly off a quick pace might allow him to finally get his neck in front again. 16/1 is interesting.

Golden Doyen was value for more than the head by which he beat For Good Measure in the Cheltenham qualifier, showing his ability to handle track, trip and ground in the process. Still only six, this former Cheltenham Grade 2 winner should go well again.

And last year's winning connections bid to repeat the feat with Presenting Percy. I backed this a while back at 10/1, which is barely more than the price he's currently available at. His win last time was highly impressive, sauntering clear on heavy ground. Before that he'd run fourth in the Punchestown qualifier, but he's been shoved up sixteen pounds by the handicapper since. That's a lot and might just do for him in spite of a probable preference for the faster conditions he'll encounter here and a progressive profile.

Loads more to consider, as always.

Hopeful pair at prices against the field:
Rocklander 16/1 e/w
Golden Doyen 16/1 e/w

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**

2.50 Ryanair Chase (Grade 1, 2m 4f 166yds)

The 'dead eight' for this intermediate Grade 1. Un De Sceaux has long been favoured, but while the expected fast ground will be less of a challenge to his stamina, the expected fast ground will not suit him as well as softer. In truth, though he may win, he is crying out to be taken on. (I know I've said that a lot but seriously, this is not the Williefest it normally is. Hmm, that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean..!)

I quite like Uxizandre as a horse with a versatile run style and a former winner, but I don't like a top offer of 4/1 with questions to answer about how much ability he retains after almost two years off the track. He ran well to pick up the pieces last time behind Un De Sceaux but whether he's flattered by that, or whether the form is as good as first glance, or whether he will 'bounce' are imponderables not sufficiently factored into his price.

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Between the pair in the market is the highly likeable Empire Of Dirt. Winner of the Festival Plate last term, he's stepped up into Grade 1 company since when a staying on second in the Irish Gold Cup. That was over three miles but was very much a sprint finish after they lolloped around for two and three quarters miles. The stiffer test here, on a circuit he knows and loves, ought to be perfect and I'm not concerned about the drop back in trip even though I would have loved him to take his chance in the Gold Cup itself.

I think a lot of the grief Josses Hill gets for his jumping is a little harsh. It's true that in his novice season he generally deserved his 'snooker table' monicker, but he still managed to finish third in the Arkle. Disappointing in two of his three starts last season, he's looked back to his best this term winning twice at around this range. Even his fifth of five last time is a fair effort, given that his stamina in that race - the King George over three miles at Kempton - ran out, and he was only beaten seven lengths.

Whilst I don't want to back him, I also don't think he's the wrong price. He has a decent chance of making the frame.

Sub Lieutenant is a key collateral player in the Gold Cup picture. He's beaten Outlander, and finished close up to both Djakadam and Sizing John in his last three starts. Effective on good ground, he'll stay all right but his liking for the track is an unknown. This will be only the second time Henry de Bromhead's 8yo has left Ireland, having finished fourth in a Grade 1 at Aintree two years ago.

The other three have plenty to prove just now.

Selection:
Empire Of Dirt 10/3 general

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**

3.30 Stayers' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 7f 213yds)

I previewed this a week or so ago, and those thoughts - including trends, pace and tips - can be found here:

Stayers' Hurdle 2017 Preview, Trends, Tips

 

**

4.10 Festival Plate Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m 4f 166yds)

The Plate is the race that refuses to be pigeonholed. Winners have been aged from five to eleven in the last 20 years, and from the top of the weights to out of the handicap. Most notable, perhaps, is that ten winners this century were returned at 16/1 or bigger and only one since 1999 was returned in single figures. Don't be afraid to have a swipe at a price, and tread carefully if you want to get stuck into a shortie. After that, I'm afraid I have little further to offer.

The one they're expected to come for is Gordon Elliott's Diamond King. A winner at the Festival over hurdles last year, he's been novice chasing this campaign including in Grade 1 company. With 158-rated Village Vic in the line up, and anchoring the weights, Diamond King has a 'racing weight' of 11-04 and will relish the fast ground. But he'll need luck in running and to progress to his hurdle mark to prevail again. He's a short price but probably not the wrong price.

Venetia Williams is a trainer to keep an eye on in this. She's won it three times since Idole First notched a 12/1 success a decade again, with the other two scorers being extremely punter-friendly prices (33/1 and 50/1). Venetia is doubly represented this time around, with a pair of French imports, Tango De Juilley and Cold March.

The former added further lustre to La Williams' Plate palmarès when running a game second last year (at 33/1) behind Empire Of Dirt. The winner there heads for the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase, for which he is second favourite, but Tango has not been sighted since. Only a pound higher than a year ago, he has an obvious chance of making the frame given reservations about the long absence are mitigated by his eleven month hiatus before that silver last term.

Cold March loves fast ground, and comes here off the back of a win at this sort of range in a Class 2 Musselburgh handicap chase. That flat right-handed track is nothing like Cheltenham's undulating left-leaner and, on the face of it at least, there is little in Cold March's form to suggest he'll be better suited to this test. Indeed, three prior visits to the Cotswolds have produced a form string of P65.

As unpromising as that might appear, he's actually stayed on well the last twice over two miles. The extended range then is very much in his favour and he might be worth a small chance at a big price.

Last year's winner was the first for a very long time - more than 25 years - to be trained in Ireland, so it may pay to remain apprehensive when considering one from that side of the Sea, particularly at shorter prices. Empire Of Dirt at least had the safety net of a 16/1 quote, a similar price to Road To Respect, in the same ownership. Still only six, Noel Meade's son of Gamut seems to have been around for a long time, and has contested a couple of Grade 1 chases this season.

Fourth to Coney Island and third to Min, beaten less than ten lengths both times, reads well enough in the context of a handicap from a mark of 145 and at 20/1. This will be his first trip outside Ireland, which is a question mark, and I'm also not completely sure he wants fast ground, but the price justifies the penny play.

The Pipes, father Martin and son David, have a peerless record in this - Martin won it four times and David has already scored thrice - so obviously anything they run must be respected. What is surprising is that only two of their collective septet were strongly fancied: 7/4 Majadou and 9/2 Salut Flo supported by winners at 25/1, 20/1, 18/1, 14/1, and 12/1. To this year, and Pipe Jr. saddles Starchitect, a lightly raced novice having only his fourth spin over fences.

He won his last hurdle race, a handicap, off his Plate perch of 143, and he looks capable of stepping forward on that. Ground and trip will be fine for a fellow that finisher fifth and fourth in handicaps at the last two Festivals, and he seems sure to go well granted luck in running. The team already have a handicap chase on the board this week, courtesy of repeat Ultima hero, Un Temps Pour Tout.

Many, many more with chances...

One from the top:
Starchitect 8/1 general

Two from anywhere else:
Tango De Juilley 20/1 general
Road To Respect 20/1 general

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**

4.50 Mares' Novices' Hurdle (Grade 2, 2m 179yds)

The newest and, perhaps, least welcome race at the Festival, this for many will be an excuse to get a beer or a bun. It's not my thing, as you may have gathered, but I might change my mind if I can find the winner. That man Mullins won the inaugural running last year with Mares' Hurdle third, Limini, and he again has a strong hand. Pick of his three entries looks to be the very talented Let's Dance, as reflected by a market price of 6/4.

She has a perfectly progressive profile, with wins in maiden, Listed, Grade 3 and most recently Grade 2 company, and comes here the choice of Ruby Walsh. He very rarely makes the wrong call, which is as much a vote of confidence for this mare as it is a negative for stable mates, Airlie Beach and Asthuria.

Let's Dance gets the extended two mile trip well - stays further in fact - and has form on top of the ground. She's been impressive the last twice and it will take a good one to beat her.

Airlie Beach has run up her own sequence of seven straight wins in an unbeaten start to her career. That magnificent seven is headlined by her most recent victory, against the boys in the Grade 1 Royal Bond. She's proven on good ground and will probably try to make all, something that will require her shaking off the early attentions of a couple of other habitual trailblazers. That's a knock against her otherwise very sound place credentials.

The trio is completed by Asthuria, who might just have had the better of a protracted battle with Shattered Love (ran poorly in Wednesday's Neptune) when taking a nasty looking fall at the final flight last time. That was a second fall in a row and, talented though she unquestionably is, her propensity to impersonate Eden Hazard when getting any sort of pressure 'inside the box' - or at the business end of a race if you prefer - is sub-optimal in the cauldron of a Festival heat.

Forge Meadow was 13 lengths behind Shattered Love in the above race so, while her jumping is better, you'd have to question whether she has as much raw talent even if she did pick up an average-looking Grade 2 last time.

The best of the home team might be Warren Greatrex's La Bague Au Roi. She's won six of her seven races to date, and is proven on fast ground and going left-handed. It's simply whether she's good enough. Actually, there is a second question: she likes to get on with things which, as previously mentioned, is a trait seen in a number of her rivals. It could be pretty quick on the front end.

Gordy's Barra has some interesting form, including an eight length fifth of ten in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novices' Hurdle. Racing against the boys there, she showed plenty before weakening out of things from the back of the last. The quicker turf and furlong shorter trip are in her favour, and we know her trainer is in great form.

Probable winner:
Let's Dance 6/4 general

Each way at a price:
Barra 16/1 Hills, BetVictor

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

5.30 Kim Muir Handicap Chase (Class 2, 3m 2f)

We close day three with an amateur riders' handicap chase over three and a quarter miles. The usual comments apply about siding with an experienced jockey: Jamie Codd has won four of the last eight Kim Muir's (!), as well as yesterday's Cross Country Chase against the pro's, and only two claiming jockeys have won since 2005.

Last year's Pertemps Final winner, Mall Dini, will find this much more to his liking than the two and a half mile heats he's contested, and his trainer looks to have set him up with every chance off a mark just four pounds higher than that big Festival handicap victory twelve months ago.

Another that was 'jobbed up' last year is Squouateur (almost as difficult to type as to pronounce). He was sent off at the preposterous odds of 9/4 in last year's Martin Pipe in a field of 24. Trouble in running means his final position of seventh can be marked up a bit, but shame on you if you backed him at that price.

He's been brought to the boil quietly again this term and gets the first time services of that man, the Codd-father. A patient ride looks assured with his current price affording some cushion against poor luck in running.

At (much) bigger prices, Ian Williams' Forgotten Gold ticks plenty of boxes. A lover of rattling conditions - he won on firm last time - he's been second on three of his four visits to the course, including twice over course and distance. Sure he has plenty of weight, and yes, he's not hidden himself from the handicapper. But he's 33/1 and ought to run his race again for a trainer, Tom George, in great nick.

This is another race in which the Pipes have looked to get a gamble landed, and they have hit their mark enough times to pay for the losers. In 2003, 2004, 2011, and 2015, a Pipe-trained horse prevailed, the first two at huge prices. This time they're triple-handed with La Vaticane, Father Edward and Doctor Harper. The good Doctor was sent off 4/1 favourite last year but showed little before decanting his pilot two out. He's returned a couple of times since, including when second on New Year's Day, and is five pounds higher now than then. Crack amateur, Lisa O'Neill, who was seen to impressive effect when guiding Tiger Roll home earlier in the week, gets the leg up.

Father Edward is a conundrum: a winner on his stable debut four starts ago he has shown zero since. Clearly capable in the right circumstances I can't even bring myself to back him at 40/1.

The lightly raced mare, La Vaticane, is the third string to the Pipe bow. She's also good on her day, and less bad than Father Edward when it's not her day, but she does have a lot of weight to carry.

The local plot in the race is surely Neil Mulholland's Southfield Royale. Fourth in last year's National Hunt Chase when already awarded a rating of 147, he gets in here off just 141. This has been the target all along so, while he has to prove his fitness after just one (poor) run since last April, he is likely to go close.

Loads of others doubtless lined up for this day...

One from the top:
Squouateur 7/1 Skybet, Coral

Two bigger prices:
Doctor Harper 16/1 Coral
Forgotten Gold 33/1 general

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

Three down, and just one to go after this hopefully lucky seven races. It's Gold Cup day next!

Matt

p.s. what are your Day 3 fancies? Leave a comment below and share your wisdom

Day 2 of the greatest show on turf, the Cheltenham Festival, is expected to feature a Royal Procession as its centrepiece. Douvan, long odds-on in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, will take some stopping but there are six other races where win betting may offer more appealing - if less secure - propositions.

1.30 Neptune Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 5f 26yds)

An intermediate distance Grade 1 novices' hurdle features horses considered not to have the requisite speed for the Supreme or the necessary stamina for the Albert Bartlett. That is probably an unfair way to describe a race which has proven a pretty reliable barometer to the following season's Champion Hurdle.

This season's field is spearheaded by the exciting Neon Wolf, trained by Harry Fry. He's unbeaten in a point, a bumper and two hurdle races, the most recent of which was the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle at Haydock. There he beat Elgin by nine lengths, pouring on the pressure from the top of the straight and eventually drawing clear.

That form looks fair, with runner up Elgin filling the same position behind River Wylde in another G2, and scheduled to run in Tuesday's opener, the Supreme.

Good ground, which it may be by post time, is an unknown for a horse that has raced exclusively on soft or good to soft, and if there is a chink in the Wolf's armour, it could be his ability to handle - and quicken - on faster turf. Still,  he's comfortably the most likely winner.

The leading man in the Irish challenge will be Bacardys, who stayed on well to run down stablemate Bunk Off Early in the Grade 1 Deloitte over two and a quarter miles last time. This extra three furlongs should suit and, as with Neon Wolf, the Supreme - Bunk Off Early's Festival target - will give us a line to the merit of the form.

Bacardys has previous Festival form, having been a two length third in the Champion Bumper last season and would likely be unbeaten over hurdles if not falling on his timber-topping debut.

Messire Des Obeaux is, like Bacardys, a Grade 1 winner, having scored in the Challow at Newbury on New Year's Eve. He's since found Keeper Hill a neck too good when collared close home in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon. It's possible he was dossing in front that day, and/or that trainer Alan King had left a bit to work on, so MDO is a definite place player.

Keeper Hill, for his part, is progressing apace and was completing a hat-trick of novice hurdle wins in the aforementioned Sidney Banks, in receipt of eight pounds. He's quite stoutly bred so it wouldn't be any surprise if he continued his upward trajectory with a bold showing. 20/1 will be attractive to some.

Ben Pauling is a trainer quietly making a name for himself, and he has a couple of nice novices here this week. High Bridge runs in the Supreme on Tuesday before Willoughby Court, impressive winner of the Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick last time, lines up here.

Fifth to Bacardys in the Aintree Bumper last April, he's two from three at this trip, the defeat coming on hurdles debut at Market Rasen. Even allowing for lack of fitness that day, he probably should have still got it done, and I have it in my mind that it may have been the quicker ground there which prevented him.

His form on soft reads 1151, while on quicker it is 321. That may just be coincidence but it's a niggle as is any horse being beaten at Market Rasen winning a Grade 1 novice race at the Cheltenham Festival.

The mare, Shattered Love, was only a half length behind win machine Airlie Beach in a good ground Grade 3 earlier in the season. More recently, had the well-regarded Forge Meadow some way behind over two and a quarter miles on soft, form that may flatter her given Asthuria would probably have beaten her but for tipping up at the last.

One general point, which I've touched on specifically a number of times above: look at the Supreme on Tuesday for a line on some of the horses who may have run just in front or behind them in the Festival opener; and consider runners in the Albert Bartlett in light of the performance of runners in this race. As Tony Keenan has written elsewhere on this site, these collateral form lines often work out very well.

Most Likely Winner:
Neon Wolf 2/1 Coral

Each way value play:
Keeper Hill 20/1 Hills

Skybet

SKYBET are MONEY BACK AS A FREE BET IF YOU LOSE ON THIS RACE (£20 MAX)

BetVictor

NEW customers: Bet £10, and get a free £2 bet on EVERY race at the Festival (21 of them remaining)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.10 RSA Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m 80yds)

A race which has been pilfered from somewhat by the rise to prominence of the 'four miler', the National Hunt Chase, the RSA has nevertheless historically proved a good pointer to Gold Cup aspirants of the future.

Clear favourite, though not at a short price in a confused market, is Might Bite. There is little doubt that this horse has demonstrated the best level of ability in the field, but that was when failing to complete in the Feltham at Kempton on Boxing Day. 'Failing to complete' demands a little additional clarity: a known nutcase, he was gunned into the final fence by Daryl Jacob and just belly flopped into it. Asked for a big one, he declined the request.

Jacob probably took more flak than was merited for the tumble: sure, he didn't need to roust Might Bite between the last two; but his conveyance almost tried to refuse such was the flimsiness of his attempted leap. He has 'previous' according to his trainer, and simply cannot be countenanced as a bet for all that he might run away with the race. If you want to be with him, look for a book offering faller insurance.

Second choice is last year's World Hurdle runner-up, Alpha Des Obeaux. He was clear second choice behind Thistlecrack that day but has had issues since. Those issues came to a head when a burst blood vessel led to him pulling up at Leopardstown's Christmas meeting. It was, so the rumour mill has it, a bad bleed and may have left an emotional scar. However, freshened up since, Mouse Morris has few peers when it comes to training a horse for a target, so that fact this lad boarded the ferry offers hope to his backers.

I don't like his patchy form or that last day incident so he won't be for me.

Likewise, Acapella Bourgeois is not for me. Even allowing for more talent than that with which he's been credited after Roger Loughran rode his rivals to sleep in a Grade 2 at Navan, he won't get a soft lead in this RSA. Any of Flintham, Marinero, Might Bite, As De Mee, and Delusionofgrandeur may take him on in what seems likely to be a stern test of stamina.

One who will appreciate the stamina test and who acts on good ground as well as softer, is Whisper. This is his second attempt at chasing after an abortive mission two seasons ago where he ultimately reverted to hurdles. Last term was a damp squib, his three winless efforts concluded with a drubbing in the World Hurdle.

He may have been rejuvenated by a second stint over the birch. His December win over 2m5f at this track has worked out well, with runner up, Baron Alco, winning a novice chase on his next start before claiming silver in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles, and other subsequent winners in behind. But I just wonder whether he's quite good enough these days, having had twenty career starts already. If he could match his hurdle rating of this time two seasons ago, in the low 160's, he'd be a penalty kick. But he's looked a stone below that form since.

Royal Vacation looked a plodder in the Feltham, but was the main beneficiary of Might Bite's purler. Elevated most of a stone to 143 after that fortuitous win, he proved it no fluke by winning a decent novices' handicap chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham. He's now on a mark of 152 with a progressive profile and grinder's attitude, just the sort to run well in this. He'd be the first Feltham winner to land the RSA, but then if Might Bite had stood up he'd have been beaten a dozen lengths in second there, and plenty of Feltham placed horses have won the RSA.

Of the rest, Bellshill could be interesting if lining up. Beaten out of sight in the Supreme last season, he's shown that a truer test of stamina suits better with a second placing in the Grade 1 Sefton at Aintree and a win in the Grade 1 staying novice hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, and over fences with a brace of two and a half mile victories. The latter was in Grade 2 company, but Bellshill was struggling when coming down behind Disko in the Grade 1 Flogas Novice Chase over 2m5f.

It might be that he needs more of a stamina test and, if that's right, he comes here fresh and proven as a spring horse, that Supreme disaster notwithstanding.

Two rags that I thought could outrun their odds in the four miler look like showing up here instead. Marinero was being backed for that National Hunt Chase before swerving that contest, and he'll love the combination of a trip and fast ground.

Aurillac has been doing all his best work late and with a bit more runway might have won three of his last four (ignoring a pulled up effort in the standing water at Hereford last time). In what looks set to be a searching examination of heart and lungs, he is no 80/1 poke, though he may still struggle to make the first four. I'd still expect plenty of others to cry enough before him.

It's an open race and I have no really strong opinions but there are a few worth consideration as value options.

Two against the field:
Royal Vacation 12/1 boylesports
Bellshill 9/1 general

Massive priced crackpot play:
Aurillac 66/1 Skybet [1/5 1-2-3-4]

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Your first 30 days for just £1

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

2.50 Coral Cup (Grade 3 handicap, 2m 5f 26yds)

This is not my idea of a betting race. Tombstone is very short but has obvious claims, being classy enough to finish fourth in last year's Supreme. A defeat of Jezki last time reads well enough regardless of which Jezki turned up that day, but you just can't be betting a 4/1 in 26 runner handicaps. Well I can't anyway.

I'd rather have a look at the next trio, all lurking around the 10/1 mark. Automated has been shoved up a lot for a last-to-first win in a Grade B handicap hurdle last time. Only a length in front of Scoir Mear, they pulled twenty clear of the third in what should have been a competitive handicap. Trained, like Tombstone, by Gordon Elliott, this strong-travelling closer should be fun to watch.

The novice Peregrine Run will relish this return to terra firmer after running very well in defeat in the Grade 2 Leamington Novices' Hurdle last time. It was soft bordering on heavy there, the Peregrine having flown home on his previous four starts on good ground. Trained by Pat Fahy, whose Morning Assembly - his first Festival handicap runner for a decade - ran fourth in the Ultima last year, Peregrine Run has a verdict over Albert Bartlett second favourite, Wholestone, in the Grade 2 Hyde Novices' Hurdle over course and distance.

And at bigger prices, Scoir Mear might go well. Automated looked set to swoop by this chap that last day but made heavy weather of it, and a return to faster conditions might be in Tony Mullins' horse's favour. He's two pounds better off with his vanquisher there, and two and a half times the price.

Not a race to get stuck into - not for me at any rate - but I'll take a small piece of...

One who could run well:
Peregrine Run 10/1 [check for extra place concessions, possibly first six]

Coral are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5-6

Skybet, Paddy are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6

bet365 are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4-5

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

3.30 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 1m 7f 199yds)

I've previewed this race in depth, here.

 

**

4.10 Cross Country Chase (Class 2, 3m 6f 37yds)

A race in which I traditionally have a strong opinion and in which this season I did not. Until about six weeks ago... I wrote then that I thought Cause Of Causes was a very big price at 12/1 NRNB in this post. He's now 4/1 top so I was right about the price at least. Regarding his chance, it depends on how well he's responded to the reported 'extensive schooling' he has undertaken since a listless sortie over the quirky course in January.

That he finished fifth that day was remarkable because, for most of the near four mile race, he was unsighted. That said, fifth was 42 lengths behind first. His Festival record in the last three seasons is 211, beating 59 of the 60 rivals he's faced in the process, and he loves quick ground. There is a niggle about his hold up run style and 4/1 barely factors that in, but rumours of an extended sabbatical at trainer Enda Bolger's yard offer hope, especially for those of us already on at the bigger prices (soz!).

First that day was Urgent De Gregaine, extremely confidently ridden by Felix de Giles despite his 50/1 quote that day. He's a late scratch for the Festival version leaving second home, Cantlow, as a slightly stronger jolly than before the French raider's confirmed absence.

Cantlow is not the sort to be relying on. He has won over course and distance, in the December handicap version, but has been beaten twice on these pistes, narrowly as mentioned last time but more heavily in the Festival renewal last term. As a pupil at Bolgers' famous banks academy he has every chance of going well, and as he eases out towards the 3/1 mark, he becomes worth the risk. But he's not there yet. Watching brief.

Any Currency is probably a bit long in the tooth now meaning the each way value might now lie with Auvergnat. Almost certain to be in the frame when unseating Rachel Blackmore at the 26th obstacle on Trials Day, Enda Bolger's seven-year-old was third in the Risk Of Thunder Chase last November and won the PP Hogan last month, both over Punchestown's banks course.

The PP Hogan has historically been the best trial for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, and 8/1 in a couple of places is perfectly fair.

Yet another from the Bolger battalion is Quantitiveeasing, a horse which makes Cantlow look like German engineering-reliable. Third in the race last year, he then won the La Touche Cup at the Punchestown Festival and wheeled back two days later to finish second, both over the banks fences. Not seen since trailing his field in a Galway handicap hurdle in late October, 12/1 doesn't offer enough meat on his pretty flaky bone.

A better play might be Usuel Smurfer. He didn't look the most genuine at Punchestown last time, lugging in and then resisting Katie Walsh's urgings to go by Auvergnat, but the way he closed on the home turn was eye-catching and he's a 16/1 poke. That was his first run for Alan Fleming and his first for a year and a half, so perhaps he just ran a bit green. Either way, if he brings a similar level of form he could get on the premises.

Sausalito Sunrise is the highest rated British horse in the race but has no form over the fences, while Bless The Wings has been highly consistent in racking up a course and distance string of 3422. The latter is twelve now and will do well to hit the board again.

In summary, I like the chances of Cantlow and Cause Of Causes but the former's price is currently too short (would be interested at 3/1) and the latter's has truncated too much to be played. Auvergnat looks very solid each way, and Usuel Smurfer is the most interesting of the bigger prices.

Most likely winner:
Cantlow or Cause Of Causes

Value play:
Auvergnat 15/2 e/w Coral

Bigger price hopeful:
Usuel Smurfer 18/1 Skybet

bet365, Ladbrokes, Coral 1/4 1-2-3 (most others are 1/5 1-2-3)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Paddy

Money back as a free bet if you finish second (max £20/race)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

4.50 Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m 87yds)

You don't seriously want a tip from me in this, do you? A ream of ex-French and ex-flat four-year-olds, most of whose ability lights have been hidden under bushels, in a big field Cheltenham cauldron. Yuk.

Nobody can possibly know the exact, or even approximate, merit of a majority of the field so anyone finding the winner is more lucky than good. In my opinion. Still, it's the last leg of the placepot, and I did fluke the winner last year. Good old Diego du Charmil.

Divin Bere's form has been boosted by Master Blueyes and, curiously, his rating has not been reassessed in light of that one's Adonis victory. That is his first and only run in Britain to date, having previously raced in France where he was second in a couple of Auteuil three-year-old hurdles. Presumably off for two months since to protect his mark (139), he is an obvious candidate.

Dolos is another ex-Frenchie and though his UK form is a little more patchy, he was thought highly enough of to run in the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow. A strong pace could be just what this Paul Nicholls-trained runner needs, his handler having won the race the last twice and three times since 2010.

Pick of the Irish is Tony Martin's Long Call, according to the betting at least. Whilst obviously deeply respecting money from such an uber-shrewd yard, I'm really struggling to see the case for this one.

There used to be an angle here in backing the highest rated flat horse. If that's to cop this year it will be Nicky Henderson's Percy Street, a general 25/1 shot. Rated 98 on the level, he's only 124 over hurdles which could allow for some upward expansion. Hendo won this with his second choice, Une Artiste, at 40/1 in 2010 so perhaps lightning can strike twice. Penny plays only if you fancy betting on it!

Impossible race.

One from the top:
Divin Bere 13/2 Betfair Sports

Two from anywhere else:
Dolos 12/1 general
Percy Street 28/1 Skybet

Betbright are 1/4 1-2-3-4-5 (if you can get more than 23p on with them)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

5.30 Champion Bumper (Grade 1, 2m 87yds)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire... If the Fred Winter field have generally declined the chance to show their hand to the 'capper, the Champion Bumper field have generally not progressed sufficiently in public to form a reliable hierarchy.

Historically this was an Irish benefit, the raiding party taking 14 of the first 17 renewals. But, since Cue Card's triumph in 2010, the score is 4-3 to the home team. This is most likely a product of the exorbitant fees British owners are prepared to pay for maiden point winners, but the fact is that things are a lot more equal these days. Thus, simply working through the Irish form, still less searching for Willie Mullins' best fancied runner, is no longer the shortcut it once was.

So let's start with the new vogue for the British players, principle among them perhaps being Western Ryder. Although beaten on his fourth and most recent start in National Hunt races, Warren Greatrex's five-year-old son of Westerner was giving the highly-touted runner up a stone and a half. There's a lot to like about this lad: he's game and he finds plenty off the bridle. Against that is that he's been beaten twice (soft ground both times, unbeaten on quicker) and he's not the kindest traveller. For what it's worth, only one of the 63 horses to finish second last time managed to win, 2/1 favourite, Liberman, way back in 2003. Since then, 42 last day runners-up have tried and failed to claim this prize.

That would count as a knock for Nicky Henderson's Claimantakinforgan too. Only sixth behind Western Ryder in a Listed Ascot bumper, he was then beaten by Black Op, giving that one seven pounds. And the same applies to Imperial Eloquence, in front of Claimantakinforgan when runner up to Western Ryder in that Ascot race.

A less fashionable runner but one boasting an unbeaten hat-trick is Peter Atkinson's Irish Roe. Owned by the trainer, this lass followed up easy wins at Perth and Sedgefield with a dead heat over course and distance in a Listed mares' bumper. That was a steadily run encounter and I expect she'll be better suited by the truer test of the Champion Bumper. Whether she's good enough is another question, but there was a lot to like about the way she forced herself into the photo that last day. She's been absent four months but, in receipt of seven pounds from the boys, she could give a run for your pennies at around 25/1.

So, after all that, the balance of probabilities is that the prize will be won by the Irish, but with which horse?

Carter McKay has long been favourite and is presumed to be the pick of the Willie Mullins pair. In winning his two bumpers to date, at Naas and Leopardstown, he has not impressed me particularly. He didn't seem to find a huge amount off the bridle having travelled much better than the re-opposing runner-up, Bakmaj.

That one has since franked the form, and bolstered his own credentials, with a comfortable five length win on good ground at Leopardstown. He won hands and heels that day, too, so was value for more than the official margin. 16/1, four times the price of Carter McKay, seems fair enough with more to come likely.

The likes of Someday and Fayonagh have won their bumpers impressively, though what the form is worth is hard to know. They both come here as unexposed and potentially top class.

Guesswork really but I'll take a small piece of some of the bigger priced unexposed ones.

Three unexposed at reasonable prices:
Someday 8/1 general
Fayonagh 12/1 Betway
Irish Roe 25/1 general

bet365, Coral, Ladbrokes are paying 1/4 1-2-3-4

Paddy, Skybet are paying 1/5 1-2-3-4

Ladbrokes

MULLINS Money Back: Money back as a free bet if Willie's Carter McKay or Next Destination wins (£25 max)

Betfair Sports

Back a winner where the SP is 3/1+ and get a free bet to the same stake (max free bet £25)

bet365

Back any single winner at 4/1 or more on ITV race and get risk-free bet to same stake on next ITV race (max stake £50)

Coral

Money back as a free bet on fallers (stake between £10 and £25)

**

And so ends the first half. The second half is usually tougher so hopefully we're a pound or two ahead of the game at this stage. If not, a good winner on Thursday or Friday will paper over plenty of cracks!

Matt

p.s. what are your day two picks?