We’ve come to expect good to soft ground on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. But this year’s meeting looks sure to prove an exception, with recent heavy showers leaving the ground soft, heavy in places, as of last night.
At this time of the year conditions can change dramatically in a short space of time, but we look set for soft ground at best as the ‘Cheltenham Roar’ reverberates around Prestbury Park. With more rain forecast, it seems inevitable that testing conditions will prevail throughout this year’s Festival. Such news clearly has a bearing on the contenders we are likely to follow. I’ve looked at the opening day of the meeting and can nominate several runners that have a greater chance under these unfamiliar Festival conditions.
First Flow suddenly looks even more appealing in Tuesday’s opener, though punters have quickly cottoned on. Following a stunning success in the Haydock Supreme Trial, trainer Kim Bailey announced that the horse would skip Cheltenham, with the ground likely to prove unsuitable. However, the rain has brought about a rethink and this mud-lover will now take his chance. He was relentless at Haydock, maintaining a strong gallop during the second part of the race, before stretching clear of a useful looking field. The Cheltenham Hill should suit, and he looks a decent each-way prospect.
Similar can be said for Summerville Boy, who also takes in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. He was last seen beating Kalashnikov in a testing ground Tolworth at Sandown. Amy Murphy’s Betfair Hurdle winner was unable to land a blow that day. It’s a slight concern that prior to that impressive performance he’d twice been beaten at Cheltenham, though it’s thought that the horse needs a strong end to end gallop. The style of the race, and of course the conditions, should prove ideal on Tuesday. The Tom George-trained six-year-old is currently third best in the betting at 10s.
Only five go to post in the Arkle Chase with five-year-old Saint Calvados now all the rage with the punters. Harry Whittington’s French recruit has proved something of a beast in testing ground, winning his three chase starts by a combined distance of 40 lengths. Quicker ground was a complete unknown, but the team will no longer need to worry. He’ll be bounding along from the front, looking to run the opposition into the Cheltenham turf. He had a decent chance prior to all this rain, but now looks certain to go very close.
A competitive field of 18 go to post in the Ultima Handicap Chase, and there’s a pair that I fancy even more since the heavens opened. Vintage Clouds has run consistently well throughout the winter, especially when finishing fourth in the Welsh National. He was running a huge race in this 12 months ago, before coming down at the second last. A year older and with the ground more in his favour, I fancy this son of Cloudings will go close. He’s on an attractive handicap mark of 141 and is currently available at 14/1.
I am also hopeful of a huge run from Peter Bowen’s eight-year-old Minella Daddy. This son of Flemensfirth is out of an Old Vic mare, and was last seen running a blinder at Ascot. He’s had a year off the track through injury, but his last run shows that he retains plenty of ability. It’s likely that he’ll improve further for that run and may still be on a lenient mark at 139. Sean Bowen has become something of a young master in this type of staying handicap, and at 20s I have a good feeling about this fella.
I’m a big fan of De Plotting Shed in the opening day Close Bothers Novices’ Chase, especially as Festival favourite Davy Russell will be onboard. But, one that catches the eye in these testing conditions is Le Rocher for the Nick Williams yard. The horse isn’t the biggest and is prone to serious jumping errors, but he loves the mud. If Tom Scudamore can pick his way cautiously through the pack I fancy this fella will be charging up the famous hill. He’s currently 25/1, which seems fair enough to me.