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Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day One Preview, Tips

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.

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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)

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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!

Cheltenham Festival 2013: Day One Preview/Tips

Can Hurricane Fly regain the Champion Hurdle?

Can Hurricane Fly regain the Champion Hurdle?

Cheltenham Festival 2013: Day One Preview

It's here. It's finally here! Yes, race fans, Cheltenham Festival 2013 has arrived. And, at 13.30 on Tuesday afternoon, the roars from grandstand, pub and sofa will represent a huge collective exhalation after 361 days of holding our breath. Let it out. Let it all out. And now, let's bet!

Below are my Day One (Tuesday) thoughts.

1.30 WILLIAM HILL SUPREME NOVICES´ HURDLE GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (2m 1/2f)

The first of twenty-seven races, and traditionally a cracker to raise the curtain on day one.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Key Stats

13/15 won last time out

17/18 ran within ten weeks (70 days)

8/15 Irish-trained

1/31 horses rated above 142 in last fifteen years have won (highest, Cue Card, rated 159)

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Form Preview

The standout piece of form, and obvious starting point, is that of My Tent Or Yours' Betfair Hurdle win last time out. He sauntered clear there, to win by five lengths in the manner of a very high class animal.

The 'right' horses were close up there, implying that the form is very solid. Indeed, he gave seven pounds to the runner up, Cotton Mill, and he was in the betting for the Champion Hurdle (though now goes to the County Hurdle).

Quite simply, if he runs to that level of form - officially rated 162 - he WILL win. But. But... My Tent Or Yours has been beaten three times in his career already. Reasonable excuses could be made in each case, of course, but there can be no room for sick notes when pondering a 6/4 shot in the Supreme.

If you're not already on - I had a bit of 7/2 immediately after that Betfair romp - then you might be better advised to look for some each way value, especially as Skybet are offering four places and William Hill FIVE places. [Unless, of course you're using BetVictor's free bet if you lose offer].

Jezki leads the Irish challenge and, with the raiders having such a brilliant record in the race, he deserves a second glance. It's hard to crab the form of his three fairly easy wins in Ireland - two of them in Grade 1 contests - but I do have a few niggles.

Firstly, he's not run since Christmas, and that means he's bidding to defy the longest layoff since Captain Cee Bee won after four months off in 2008. Before him, you have to go back to Montelado in 1993 to find a winner which hadn't run in the same calendar year. (Cue Card was trying to overcome such a break when only fourth as 7/4 fav in 2011).

As well as the long absence, there is the fact that Jezki has also been beaten in both starts when there was a bigger field than twelve runners and, whilst that's too small a sample size to be conclusive, it suggests he might get bullied out of things in what will be a big turn out. For those reasons, as they say on Dragon's Den, I'm out.

Can My Tent Or Yours win the Supreme?

Can My Tent Or Yours win the Supreme?

Un Atout, Champagne Fever and Pique Sous are next in the Irish challenge, and all are trained by Willie Mullins. Un Atout could well be second favourite by tape rise, and this handsome son of Robin Des Champs is unbeaten in three starts outside of Graded company. All were on heavy ground and all were facile victories.

In fact, all three race comments from Racing Post conclude with the phrase "very easily". A Racing Post Rating for the last run of 153 is big (Jezki's best is 149), but he has yet to compete in this elevated company. More worrying perhaps, he has yet to race on quicker than heavy, though it is unlikely to be much less testing here.

He remains a horse of huge potential, and maybe he's the one to give My Tent Or Yours the most to think about. But he's short enough now, and again if you're not on already (I am, for interest money, at 16/1!), you may have missed the boat.

Pique Sous has run consistently well in nine races - five wins, a second and three thirds - but his best form is a stone shy of some of these, and he has far less scope to improve. He did run a cracker in the Champion Bumper last year, but even on that best piece of form, he has something to find with Champagne Fever. He is of mild interest if you're betting each way with William Hill, and their five places offer.

Champagne Fever is a horse I like a lot, and he's one which we know will go on any ground and we know will stay up the hill, because he did both in last year's Champion Bumper. His only really poor run was when stepped up to two and a half miles in heavy ground and, aside from that, he has lines of form to beat plenty of these.

Jezki beat him in a six runner race which would have played to that one's speed strengths. But Champagne Fever saw off that one - and Pique Sous - in the Cheltenham Bumper; and Melodic Rendezvous in the Punchestown Bumper. He'll try to make all, and will have plenty off the bridle turning for home.

Whether he's good enough to win is another matter, but under what ought to be optimal conditions, he's fair each way value.

The home defence is led by Dodging Bullets, Melodic Rendezvous and River Maigue. Dodging Bullets is one horse here which I find it hard to make a case for. I think he's been largely well placed, and well ridden, in small fields, and I believe his Christmas Hurdle rating flatters him.

Obviously, I might be wrong on that, and so be it. But on the balance of his form, I couldn't have him at the price. River Maigue was beaten a diminishing length and a half back in November and, in what will be a truer test of stamina, I'd be confident of him reversing placings this time around.

River Maigue was outsprinted last time, giving nine pounds to a younger (and very capable) rival in Far West, and he definitely needs a stiffer test like this will be.

Puffin Billy completes my ante-post portfolio on this race. I backed him at 12/1 and, after that defeat to Melodic Rendezvous, he was apparently lame. That news pushed his price out to 33/1, whereupon I had a 'just in case' fiver at 77.75 on Bet.fair, before support has moved him back in again.

If he was injured the last day, he ran pretty well. And if he is back to peak fitness, he's still over-priced.

I can't see anything else winning, though a quick word for the unraced over hurdles, Flying Cross. This nag is trained by David Pipe and is good enough to have a flat rating of 111. That rating was earned when a staying on third in the Irish St Leger, a Group 1, in soft ground. He's been off for almost two years and has never publicly jumped a hurdle, but given the ground, he could outclass many of these and maybe - only maybe - nab fourth or fifth at a monster price. Again, Skybet or William Hill with the deeper place markets are the places to go if that's a compelling enough case for you! (Caveat emptor, naturally).

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Tips

Most likely Supreme Novices' winner: My Tent Or Yours
Best each way: Champagne Fever
Other to consider: Puffin Billy
Monster outsider who might burgle a place: Flying Cross

Best Supreme Novices' Hurdle Bookmaker Offers

BetVictor will refund all losing bets on the race, up to £50.

Racebets will refund your day of race wagers on this race if My Tent Or Yours wins! And if you're a new customer, and enter 'geegeez' into the My Account > Bonus code box, they'll give you a completely free £10 bet. (Terms apply).

 

William Hill are offering FIVE places (quarter the odds) on this race, and they'll match you for £50.

William Hill Sports

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2.05 RACING POST ARKLE CHALLENGE TROPHY CHASE GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (2m)

We step onto the chase course for the first time, and it's the speedy young guns to the fore in the Arkle Challenge Trophy. Hold on to your hats!

Arkle Trophy Key Stats

Last 23 winners were aged five to eight years (20 of them 5, 6 or 7)

Eight of last ten winners had either won at Cheltenham before, or been placed at the Festival

15/15 11/1 or shorter

Arkle Trophy Form Preview

Simonsig - going for a 2nd Cheltenham Festival win

Simonsig going for a 2nd Festival win in Arkle

The Arkle is a thrilling two mile chase contested by the fastest novice chasers around. Because they are inexperienced horses, spills can occur as well as thrills, and it's a brave man who gets stuck in at very short odds. Of the five horses sent off 2/1 or shorter in the last fifteen years, only Azertyuiop and Sprinter Sacre were good enough on the day to win. They were priced at 5/4 and 8/11 respectively.

This year sees another odds on shot line up in the formidable frame of Simonsig. Now, whilst he's no Sprinter Sacre (which horse is?), he's clearly a very talented animal, as seven wins from eight rules runs testifies.

He's only had the two chases and the merit of those can be questioned, as a) only five other horses have finished in those races (and only eight lined up), and b) they've collectively managed to win just one subsequent race.

On the bright side, Simonsig was a very classy hurdler, rated 157 when winning at Aintree, having already won the Neptune at the Festival last year. Former classy hurdlers do have an exceptional record in the Arkle, and clearly the favourite owes his price to his finesse over the smaller obstacles.

On the downside, he's not run since late December, and his trainer has been consistently frustrated by the weather when trying to get a run and/or a racecourse gallop into him. He will be fit, but will he be race fit? Odds on leaves very little margin for error.

The second favourite and, to many people, the only (or at least the chief) threat is Overturn, a nine-year-old trained by Donald McCain. The last horse his age to win this race was Danish Flight back in 1988. True, only three short priced horses of that age have run in the last fifteen years, but 5/2 Captain Cee Bee (8th), 7/1 Adamant Approach (fell), and 9/2 Barton (7th) give little cause for optimism.

In fact, only 10/1 Nipper Reed in 1999 was good enough to make the frame, from twelve older horses to try during that decade and a half period.

Overturn did run second in the Champion Hurdle last year, but there was a feeling that he stole a march on all bar Rock On Ruby - at least, I have that feeling - and he'll be trying to steal a march again this year. His hurdle rating nevertheless is a whopping 164, but again, his chase form leaves much to the imagination.

Specifically, he's competed in three four runner chases, and beaten little, with the exception of a 'not off' (going for a novices' handicap chase) Tetlami the last day.

That form is reasonable, with the latter having won since against some fair types, but he (Tetlami) definitely improved from the Overturn run to his Huntingdon win.

He's an out and out front-runner, and will bid to get out and stay out on a testing track. The first part of that bid looks a certainty. Whether he can stay out is a much tougher question to answer.

If there is another challenger in the race, then it is the horse which has shown most already over fences, Arvika Ligeonniere. This fellow has already won two Grade 1's in Ireland, and had a penalty kick for the hat-trick last time before taking a soft fall.

'Only' rated 140 over hurdles, he's a fair bit to find with the first two in the betting on that score, but he does have more experience over fences than that pair, and he will undoubtedly stay every yard of the trip. Actually, the main problem with him is that there's a good chance this triple two-and-a-half mile winner will be outpaced, perhaps badly outpaced.

He will be staying on up the hill - as he was when fourth in the 2010 potato race (Albert Bartlett) - but the front pair could be away and gone.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Nevertheless, something has to finish third, and he's by far the most obvious choice.

Arkle Trophy Tips

It's a really shallow race and there's not much to go at from a betting perspective. The most likely winner is Simonsig, but he's been off a long time. The next most likely winner is Overturn, but he's quite old and will have to make all, which is not easy round here.

And then there's Arvika Ligeonniere, who looks a fair each way bet to nothing.

Most likely Arkle winner: Simonsig
Next Best: Overturn
Best each way
: Arvika Ligeonniere
Others to consider: none especially

Best Arkle Chase Bookmaker Offer

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2.40 JLT SPECIALTY HANDICAP CHASE GRADE 3 (CLASS 1) (5yo+) (3m 1/2f)

Race three, and the first of the handicaps. If the two shorties have obliged in the first two races, then this contest offers some respite for the bookies. It also offers punters a chance to make a big score and almost guarantee a profit from day one. Would that it was as easy as that!

JLT Handicap Chase Key Stats

Last 13 winners rated 143 or below

Last 14 winners aged 7-10

6/15 won last time out (10/15 1-2-3 last time out)

12/15 carried 10-12 or less (14/15 11-02 or less)

7/15 placed at Festival before

JLT Handicap Chase Form Preview

Although with most Festival handicaps, we're ideally looking for a horse with scope to post a new ratings high, the Festival Handicap Chase tends to be won by a horse with a good recent record, a nice weight and previous Cheltenham form (nine of the last fifteen winners had run at least three times at the track, and eleven at least once).

I'll use the historical bar to exclude any horse rated 143+, which takes out a few of the fancied horses, notably the favourite, Our Mick.

With the defection of my ante-post fancy, Duke Of Lucca, due to the ground, the first horse of interest is Fruity O’Rooney, who ran a cracker last year to claim silver off a notch of 140. This time he's one pound less to carry and a mark of 139. As a ten year old, he is the same age as recent winners, Chief Dan George and Joes Edge.

Clearly needing his seasonal debut this term, he improved considerably to finish a fair seventh of 19 in the Hennessy at Newbury. Since then, two placed efforts in similar class handicap chases at a respectful distance behind Katenko should have put him spot on for another crack at this pot.

If he can get maintain a prominent position in the early skirmishes, Fruity should give us a bold run for our money.

The Package has finished second and fourth in the last two renewals of the race, and has plenty of other track form. He was only beaten seven lengths last year off 139, but is now rated 146 which, with its commensurate weight-carrying requirement, looks likely to hold him.

Conversely, when Alfie Sherrin won this last year, he was off 129, and now has 135, which may not be enough to prevent another brave attempt. His main target this season is likely to be the Grand National however, and although Sunnyhillboy almost won the National having won here for the same connections last year, it's a rare feat and I'd bet against him being 100% tuned up for this. In any case, his best form is on quicker ground.

Merry King is a very interesting horse in this race. I was pretty sure he'd go for the National Hunt Chase, but now re-routed, he might run a big race. Sure, he's only six and they don't generally win the JLT, but he's got bags of stamina and comes from highly respected connections.

JLT Handicap Chase Tips

Super competitive, as almost all of the Festival handicaps are, and I'll be taking a couple against the field, mainly in hope rather than expectation.

Best each way value for JLT Handicap Chase winner: Fruity O'Rooney
Others to consider: Alfie Sherrin, Merry King

Best JLT Handicap Chase Bookmaker Offer

FIVE places with bet365, BetVictor, BetFred, Bluesq, Boylesport, SkyBet and totesport.

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3.20 STAN JAMES CHAMPION HURDLE CHALLENGE TROPHY GRADE 1 (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (2m 1/2f)

The highlight of day one, the Champion Hurdle, is one of THE great races in the year. The first single figure field for 33 years will tussle to win the Blue Riband of hurdling, and the last three winners - Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly, and Binocular - represent an imposing bar for the remainder. They're joined by pretenders such as Zarkandar, Cinders And Ashes and Countrywide Flame in a race which more than makes up for in quality what it lacks in quantity.

Champion Hurdle Key Stats

24 of the last 30 winners won last time out

All of the last 15 winners were placed 1-2-3 last time out

17 of the last 20 winners were aged 6-8

Champion Hurdle Form Preview

This is a really tricky race to assess, due to the prevailing soft and heavy ground all winter; the unsatisfactorily slow gallops in the trials; and, the fact that three previous Champion Hurdle winners lock horns. Nevertheless, we still need to take a view!

Let's start with the ante-post favourite since last March, Hurricane Fly, a horse which has been surprisingly weak in the betting in recent days. He won this in 2011 and was third last year when he was given a fair amount of ground to make up. He closed up well before the turn in but couldn't make up the remaining ground up the hill.

There are plenty who are prepared to forgive that, as they claim that the Mullins stable was under a cloud at the time, and the horse didn't look himself before the race. Possible, for sure.

Rock On Ruby: going for a repeat Champion Hurdle in 2013

Rock On Ruby: repeat Champion Hurdle in 2013?

But I take the view that - as a nine year old - the Fly's best days are likely behind him, and I'd be a bit surprised if he was able to regain the crown which slipped twelve months ago. Luckily for me, there are bookmakers who will refund losing bets if I'm wrong about that (thank you Paddy Power, see below), so there's little point in taking a chance on him in any case.

Zarkandar is next in, and it's far easier for me to make a case for him. Winner of a very well contested Triumph Hurdle in 2011, Zarkandar returned last year in the Champion Hurdle as a five year old. Historically, a very tricky age (physical immaturity/inexperience) at which to win the Champion, Zark ran with huge promise to be fifth, beaten only six and a three-quarter lengths.

He was staying on really well at the end there, and another fifty yards would have seen him collect the bronze medal. That, allied to the fact that I retain a suspicion that the front pair - Rock On Ruby and Overturn - stole a march on the rest, and the far quaggier underfoot this time, give him every chance in my book.

Since then, Zarkandar has won his three starts this term and done it in impressive fashion, including when readily seeing off Grandouet, and Khyber Kim. He's a much more experienced and physically mature specimen this time around, and I expect him to run a blinder.

The main danger to him may be his ex-stable mate - nominally at least - and now Harry Fry's flag bearer, Rock On Ruby. I say 'nominally' because officially Rock On Ruby was trained by Paul Nicholls last season. However, he was trained at Nicholls' then satellite yard in Seaborough, by... Harry Fry. Fry now trains out of Seaborough under his own name and, well, he's doing a fantastic job of it. Indeed, to date, he's recorded a level stakes profit of 59.46 units from his first 55 runners as a trainer! And, if you think that's good, since the turn of the year half of his 22 runners have won for a profit of 42.46 points!!!

Anyway, back to Rock On Ruby, and it's true he was given a brilliant ride by Noel Fehily to win last year. But there was little fluke about it: he was travelling well for longer than most and took ground out of a couple of the first five home in the last furlong. By the finish, he was almost four lengths better than the next best, and he's had a really good preparation since.

Third on unsuitably heavy ground behind Zarkandar in mid-December, he then waltzed away from Countrywide Flame at Doncaster last time. It has to be said that the fatal fall of Darlan there probably saved him from defeat, and that horse would have been favourite for this race if he'd not met such a horrific and untimely end.

If there's another horse in the race with the scope to improve into a Champion Hurdler, it is probably Cinders And Ashes rather than Countrywide Flame. The latter won the Triumph Hurdle and the former the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year, so both have an affinity with track and trip.

But Countrywide Flame is probably a little shy of Champion class, despite an extremely admirable battling attribute. Whilst he may prove me wrong, I'm sweeter on Cinders And Ashes chance.

There was a lot to like about the way C&A travelled when winning that race, off a fevered pace, and he was always holding Darlan, who finished best of the rest, just over a length behind. However, Cinders did walk through the last hurdle there and a repeat of that would make it very hard for him to go to the ball.

Since then, this season has been disappointing, ostensibly at least. A remote second to Countrywide Flame in the Fighting Fifth last December was put down to the heavy, heavy ground, as was a laboured fifth in the Christmas Hurdle on similarly sodden turf 25 days later.

Cinders And Ashes hasn't been seen since, but is alleged to have worked very well in a recent racecourse gallop at Bangor. I'm not a huge fan of horses coming to the Festival off extended breaks, but in the circumstances, another run on seriously deep ground could have finished him for the year.

He still doesn't have ideal ground conditions now, and looks set for a minor role (alas for another of my ante-post 16/1 vouchers.

Binocular is nine now, the same age as Hurricane Fly, and he too looks a bit on the long-toothed side to be taking the headlines here. Although he was a long way out of his ground in last year's Champion Hurdle, he was being closed down rapidly by Zarkandar, who had more to give there, and who will finish in front of him here.

Since then, Binocular was well beaten under tender handling in the Irish Champion Hurdle. He should have been second there, but wouldn't have challenged Hurricane Fly, who was a fitter rival on the day, and who holds a 3-0 head to head record.

Champion Hurdle Tips

As you can see, the form lines are fairly incestuous, and it's not that easy to take a view on who is most likely to come out in front this time. There are some reservations about what sort of pace there might be in the race, and it could become tactical. As such, we ought to look for a bit of value, and that's how I'll play.

Champion Hurdle best bet: Zarkandar (I backed him over the weekend with the 'money back if Fly wins' offer).

Champion Hurdle Best Bookie Offer

Paddy Power will refund all bets on the Champion Hurdle if Hurricane Fly wins. They'll also match new customers' first deposit up to £50 with a free bet.

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4.00 GLENFARCLAS HANDICAP CHASE (A Cross Country Chase) (CLASS 2) (5yo+) (3m7f)

A looooong race, and one for specialists. I covered this recently in my Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase preview, and haven't changed my mind since then.

In a nutshell, then, this is a specialists' race where weight is less important than experience.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Key Stats

7/8 winners have been Irish-trained (the one 'failure' was when A New Story failed by a head to win last year)

8/8 8-12yo

8/8 had experience of the cross country course

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Form Preview

Three horses vie for favouritism here: Arabella Boy, Outlaw Pete, and Uncle Junior. They're followed in close proximity in the market by Bostons Angel, Sizing Australia and Big Shu. But I don't make the race anywhere near as competitive as that! In fact, I reckon there are only four which can win, and only three which I think might win...

Last year's winner, Balthazar King, just clung on from the fourteen-year-old, A New Story, but is a late non-runner due to the soft ground. In my view, both of them benefited from the losses of Garde Champetre and Scotsirish, two classy horses who were almost certain to have played a hand in the finish.

He wasn't my idea of the winner, especially not on soft ground. Firstly, he hadn't run since mid-November and that had to be a concern. And secondly, he was beaten by the very slow Uncle Junior on that last run when he (Balthazar) was match fit. He'd had three months off prior to winning last year, so may go best fresh, but this is a long way to last out in the mud if you're only 98% ready. Anyway, he doesn't now go, so it's all immaterial.

The first of my trio of possibles is Outlaw Pete. He's really come to himself since trying cross country, and is a Festival virgin. Despite that, he's competed in both the course trials in November and December last year, finishing third on his first sight of the track and winning the other attempt by seven lengths from Bostons Angel (Uncle Junior and Arabella Boy both uncharacteristically unseated riders that day).

He's been kept on the boil since, with two runs in conventional handicap chases, where he's performed respectably, and I think he'll take a lot of beating on a course he now knows well enough. He looks nailed on for the frame, bar a fall or a 'wrong course' farce.

Arabella Boy is the latest off the Enda Bolger production line - Bolger's won this race four of the eight times it's been run - and as such is sure to have been extremely well drilled. The Boy has become something of a Punchestown cross country specialist, but unseated on his only attempt so far round Cheltenham's tied shoelace circuit. The ground has come right for him, as all his five career wins have been on soft or heavy going.

And the last one I'm drawn to is that old warhorse, A New Story. Yes, he's FIFTEEN years old. And what a story it would be if A New Story could win. If you think it's fanciful, then consider that he was beaten the length of a betting slip last year, and has a full record in this race of 34132. That's more impressive than any other runner, and though he could be regressive now, he's a big enough price to take a chance, off a similarly low profile build up to previous years.

Uncle Junior, Bostons Angel, and Sizing Australia are all too slow to win this; and Big Shu will be having only his second start outside of hunter chase/bumper fields, and his first sight of Cheltenham's track. That's enough for me to say 'no way'.

Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Tips

Arabella Boy will have everything to suit and looks the most likely winner, and at a fair price (around 5/1) as well. Outlaw Pete should also go very well. A New Story is a huge price and that - coupled with his race record - merits a throwaway investment.

Most likely Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase winner: Arabella Boy
Other strong contender: Outlaw Pete
Best each way bet: A New Story

Best Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Bookmaker Offer

If your horse is fifth, BetFred will refund the place part of each way bets as a free bet. (Not great, but better than nothing!)

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4.40 OLBG MARES´ HURDLE Grade 2 (CLASS 1) (4yo+) (2m4f)

OLBG Mares' Hurdle Key Stats

Quevega has won this race for the last four years, and there have only been five renewals.

OLBG Mares' Hurdle Form Preview

Quevega - on a Mares' Hurdle five-timer

Quevega - on a Mares' Hurdle five-timer

This is a race which, from a win perspective, is extremely Quevega-centric. Willie Mullins' fragile mare has been raced ever-so-sparingly in recent seasons. Indeed, for the past three years, she's had two runs per season: here and in the Punchestown stayers' hurdle. And she's won both races. All three times!

She bids for an impressive five-timer in this race and is about ten pounds clear on ratings. Without unnecessarily complicating the issue, Quevega will win barring accidents. She's a fair price at just north of 1-2, in my opinion (if you like trading two's to get one's).

So, the battle is for the places, and that's a much more open affair. Last year, although Quevega put four lengths between herself and the rest in the bunch sprint that concluded that race, the next nine home were separated by just three lengths!

The mare I like most to follow Quevega home is the one that got closest to her last time, Kentford Grey Lady. I really like this lass. She's a smashing sort and travelling well off a strong pace with a testing run for home suits her best, as she showed at the Festival last year.

She also demonstrated it when winning at Sandown, and when third behind Reve de Sivola and Oscar Whisky last time. Her two defeats - RdS/OW aside - this season were in slowly run small field contests which I don't believe play to her strengths.

In a race which seems always to have more quantity than quality, she's a rare mare with talent in there. And her battling attribute means she's a pretty decent bet for the places.

Une Artiste has been super-consistent and, with hindsight, was a knockout price when winning the Fred Winter last year at 40/1. She's won six of her eight hurdle races, and only a fourth against the boys in the Adonis Hurdle and a refused to race blot her copybook. Given that she's generally a reliable proposition to start her races, I'd not be unduly concerned by the latter incident and she looks sure to go close again.

One (fairly) lively outsider is Kauto Shiny. Obviously, any horse called Kauto gets a second look around here, and this French import is a typical Tom George type. He has a satellite yard out in France (I think), and only really brings the ones he believes could be Cheltenham prospects over. Why else would you travel when the prize money is generally so moderate in Britain?!

Anyway, Kauto Shiny ran a lovely prep race on her first UK start, when third to Ma Filleule, giving that one five pounds. She was staying on there, and that's something which must aid her on the more testing Cleeve Hill course.

OLBG Mares' Hurdle Tips

So, somewhat unspectacularly, I expect the first three in the betting to be the first three home, though I think the short favourite will win and I think Kentford Grey Lady offers better place value than Une Artiste. Kauto Shiny looks interesting at a big price to make the frame.

Obvious win selection: Quevega
Best each way/forecast option: Kentford Grey Lady
Lively outsiders: Kauto Shiny

********

5.15 REWARDS4RACING NOVICES´ HANDICAP CHASE (Listed Race) (CLASS 1) (5yo+ 0-140) (2m 4 1/2f)

Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase Key Stats

A fairly new race this, with just eight runnings so far.

8/8 finished first or second last time out.

7/8 beaten on first two chase starts

7/8 from top five in the betting

6/8 aged seven

Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase Form Preview

This is a plotters' paradise, with good horses improving on apparently moderate chase form prior to their third run, in general. Copper Bleu won from three pounds below his hurdle rating; Chapoturgeon within two pounds of his hurdle rating; and Finger Onthe Pulse from a whopping thirteen pounds below his hurdle figure;

Horses which look ahead of the handicapper based on hurdle ratings or form profile are Colour Squadron, Carlito Brigante, Ohio Gold, and Restless Harry.

Carlito Brigante has previously won the Coral Cup here, and also bagged a novice chase in October last year, proving his liking for good ground and this course. He's been rated 137 as opposed to a hurdles rating of 153 but, because he won't want conditions too sodden, he's off the shortlist.

Colour Squadron might just be better on this softer ground, and he definitely has a decent rating here, having been rated a few pounds higher over the smaller obstacles, and he's been pretty tenderly handled in his races so far, presumably with a big day like this in mind. I've backed him at 10/1 already (win only) but am not entirely sure his jumping will stand this test.

Ohio Gold is a maiden chaser, as was 2008 winner Finger Onthe Pulse, and comes from the wily and respected Tizzard connections. He's been third on all three chase runs to date, and will be fine whatever the going. He's generally run well in bigger fields and was only twelve lengths behind First Lieutenant in the 2011 Neptune.

Restless Harry is another with an outside chance, given a chase rating nine pounds lower than his hurdle mark. His winning has all been in single figure fields though, and he might just get crowded out of it here. If he doesn't, he's rated to run well on the sort of juicy turf he loves.

Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase Tips

This is a race which almost always goes to a plot horse.

Best win option: Colour Squadron
Each way at a price: Ohio Gold
Massive outsider with a squeak: Restless Harry

********

And that's Monday. However it goes for you, remember this is only day one of four. There is much still to go at, but there are some tempting prospects on this first afternoon of the spectacular 2013 Cheltenham Festival.

Arkle Chase 2013: Preview, Trends and Tips

Simonsig - top of the crop for Fair Mix

Simonsig - most likely winner if he shows up

Arkle Chase 2013: Preview, Trends and Tips

The Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival is my favourite day. It has the best racing, it is the day which sates a year long anticipation and, in my opinion, it is the day when winners are easiest to come by. (Note, that does not mean they are easy to come by: merely that they are easier to come by!)

The day gets off to a bang with the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and boasts the Champion Hurdle as its afternoon zenith. And, sandwiched in between those two lofty championship timber contests, is a meaty old filling - and I'm certainly not talking in the Findus sense of the phrase! (apologies)

Yes, the Arkle Challenge Trophy is a serious speed chasing event and one of the most watchable of even the Cheltenham Festival's majesty of riches. Mix inexperience with danger, liberally sprinkle tip top talent and add more than a soupçon of jockeys' desire to get on the scoresheet, and you have a recipe for thrills, spills and high class equine skills.

This year's Arkle seems / seemed to be at the mercy of a horse of Nicky Henderson's called Simonsig. I use the present and past tenses to reflect the fact that, at time of writing, Simonsig is due to miss his intended prep race for Cheltenham due to a tracheal wash which was "only 95%". This wonderfully open-ended, and typically Hendo-esque, sound bite gives hope both to short-priced money buyers and value hunters alike.

Those who have many fives which they're prepared to risk for the addition of fours (yes, he's a 4/5 shot) will be praying that all is well enough for the 'sig to make the stage still. Those who sniff around for a less likely winner at a more lively price will be sensing the propensity for profit in the prospective absence of one of jump racing's most ascendant stars.

In this post, I'll look at the trends, the form as it stands, and project my likeliest - and best value - options for wagering ante-post on the Arkle.

Let's first look at the trends...

Arkle Chase 2013: Trends

The first obvious thing to note is the shortness of Simonsig's price. If you're a fan of his, then you'd surely want to be betting 'with a run', in case he doesn't make it. Taking slightly shorter (8/11) to insure the position, in light of this week's news, is surely a no brainer.

But what of previous shorties in this race? Since 1997, eleven horses have been sent off 3/1 or shorter. Nine of them have been beaten, including 11/10 Mulligan, 7/4 Decoupage, and 7/4 Noland. The two winners in that price range were Azertyuiop at 5/4, and Sprinter Sacre at 8/11 last year.

Now it's my opinion that Simonsig is not the second coming of Sprinter. Of course, he might turn out to be as good, but at 4/5, there's a heck of a lot to be taken on trust, even assuming he shows up!

For all that, the Arkle is a good race for the top end of the market. In fact, only once in the last fifteen years has a horse outside of the top quintet in the wagering outsped his better fancied rivals. That was the wonderful Flagship Uberalles back in 1999, and that was in one of the most open Arkles in many a long year (4/1 the field that term!)

Indeed, only five of the 44 win and place positions in those fifteen years have been claimed by horses outside of the top six in the betting, so the message is clear: don't get too cute here.

Last time out winners have claimed ten of the last fifteen renewals, with those finishing second (three) and third (one) making up the number. Of course, that only tallies to fourteen and we need to mention the brilliant, but occasionally too risky, Moscow Flyer, who fell prior to winning here. He was an iffy horse in the sense that his form tended to be 1F1F1F. 😉

So, don't be prepared to forgive a poor last time out run: it's highly unlikely the offender will be able to turn over a new leaf here.

The Arkle is a young man's game. The last nine year old-plus winner was Danish Flight in 1988, and before that Sir Ken in 1956. Now it's true that not many horses of that age take their chances here, but some do and this year the 9yo Overturn looks set to try to, erm, overturn the tide of history. (Well you try and come up with a better finish, given that open goal!)

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To put a little perspective on that, only one 9yo+ even made the frame from twelve triers in the last decade and a half. That was Nipper Reed before we became 21st century boys (1999). He was a 10/1 chance that day, but shorter gold-plated oldies have failed to hit the board, including Barton (9/2) and Captain Cee Bee (5/2) as recently as 2010.

Given that Overturn is the second favourite, we have a situation where it's possible (though not probable) the favourite won't run, and where the second choice is too old in the context of history. It's then double figures the rest in a race which often produces short fields (just five horses took Sprinter Sacre on last year, though that could be because they were scared off).

Five to seven year olds have won nineteen of the last 21 renewals, and it makes sense to focus energies there. In that context, it may interest you to know that Arvika Ligeonniere is eight, and is the third favourite! Do you see where I'm going with this?

It seems obvious that in a race like the Arkle, where there's nowhere to hide, chasing experience is important. The statistics seem to bear that out, with twelve of the last fifteen winners having had three to five chase starts (three had three chase starts, eight had had four chase starts, and one had five chase starts).

Those with five or more chase starts are one for 64. Those with two or less chase starts are three for forty. Simonsig has had two chase starts... Fago, the fourth favourite, has had eight chase starts...

Mulligan (11/10), Decoupage (7/4), War Of Attrition (11/4), Noland (7/4), and Somersby (4/1) were all short-priced horses to try - and fail - to overcome relative inexperience here.

Well Chief, Tiutchev and Champleve did all defy relative inexperience and all were priced between 13/2 and 9/1, so I guess the summary is demand a fair price if you're chancing a rookie fencer.

Pulling all of this together implies we would be well served to look for a horse which is in the top five in the betting; won last time (or was at least second in Graded company); aged five to seven years; and had two to four chase starts.

The trends shortlist would thus be the Hendo pair, Simonsig and Captain Conan.

Is Arvika a viable alternative?

Is Arvika a viable alternative?

Arkle Chase 2013: Form Preview

Trends are interesting enough, and they clearly help to sharpen the pencil around certain aspects of a horse's prospects. But it's form in the book - or promised to the book - which will identify the champ in the chaff.

Let's start at the only sensible place: with market leader, Simonsig. As I've said, he's had a small setback and misses his intended prep race tomorrow. All too often for my tastes, horses from the Henderson yard become late scratches from big races. The news from Seven Barrows this week is a concern, but it doesn't stop there for odds-on players either.

As a novice hurdler last season, Simonsig's Cheltenham and Aintree championship wins were over 2m5f and 2m4f respectively. In his two chase starts, he won over 2m3f first time out, and then hacked up in a two miler at Kempton. That last run showed he has speed, but it was extremely testing there and he nicked a few lengths at the start putting all others under a bit of pressure from the outset.

Now, let's be clear: if he shows up, Simonsig is the horse to beat. On soft ground, where his stamina would come into play, he's the likely winner for me. But if the ground is faster, there are a few questions to be answered: is he quick enough in a two mile championship event? Can he jump fluently enough for one so inexperienced? Is he fit enough after nearly three months off the track? Those are questions to which odds-on backers should know answers before pulling on the betting boots, to my mind.

But there are chinks in the armour of most of his rivals too.

Firstly, Overturn is nine now. You've seen the statistics, and yet here he is, a 7/2 chance. He's beaten seven finishers in winning three four-runner races. Sure, he's beaten them senseless, in the manner that a robust front-running sort might be expected to.

And that brings me onto the likely pace scenario in the Arkle. Now, we don't yet know who will show up but, assuming Simonsig and Overturn both do, we already have a possible speed duel on the front end. Overturn is a front-runner through and through, while Simonsig is more versatile. But if Hendo decided to try to make use of 'sig's stamina, it could compromise the chance of both market protagonists.

In reality, that's unlikely to happen, but there's a decent chance that another horse will take Overturn on for the lead. I just can't see him winning, and I think 7/2 is very, very short about that eventuality. Lay material for those of that bent.

Fago is next, and he's a seasoned chaser. Seven French chase runs and only one win is not that impressive and, despite a career high effort on his first run for Paul Nicholls, this fellow has surely not got much room for improvement after so many goes over the big brutes. Pas pour moi, as they'd have said over la Manche.

Arvika Ligeonniere is interesting, assuming you can spell and/or pronounce his name. Yes, he's eight, which is older than ideal. And yes, he fell last time, which doesn't bode well (unless he's another Moscow Flyer: possible but unlikely). But his form in winning three novice chases in Ireland this term is the best from over there, I feel. He does tend to want to lead, which might be interesting in the context of the aforementioned Overturn pace scenario.

But he's a dual Grade 1 chase winner, and arguably sets the form standard. I like him, especially at around 10/1.

Captain Conan is three from three, and if he turned up and the ground was soft, he'd be a player. Surely he'll go the Jewson route though, after his narrow win in the Scilly Isles Novices Chase last time.

After those five, it's 25/1 the field, which means there's probably some value in there somewhere. Oscars Well finished sixth in the Champion Hurdle last year, and fourth in the Neptune the year before - both top class efforts on good ground - and if it came up boggy he'd have a place chance.

But this is a race where few look to hold realistic prospects, and as stated at the outset, it makes sense to concentrate on the top few.

Arkle Chase 2013: Tips

Usually in a race like this, it's fairly easy to make cases for the top several in the market. But I'm really struggling to present a compelling argument for Overturn, the second favourite; and the same comments apply to Fago, the third favourite. Simonsig has an obvious chance, and his price reflects that. He might be a horse to back on the day as a saver if you're that way inclined.

Otherwise, there looks to be tremendous each way value in the race if you share my contentions about the top trio.

Thus Arvika Ligeonniere (Arr-vee-kuh Lee-jee-on-ee-air), with Ruby Walsh likely to ride, looks a belting each way tickle. It was a soft slithering fall the last day, and he was yet to be asked for any effort (nor, in fairness, were his two rivals), and the 10/1 with Paddy Power and Stan James is value for me.

He's 8/1 with BetVictor, non runner free bet. And it might pay to go that route if you're a more cautious type. But I reckon he goes in the Arkle and, despite the presence of other pace pressers, and the probable presence of Simonsig, AL is the value alternative to the favourite.

Selection: Arvika Ligeonniere 10/1 (Paddy Power), 8/1 Non-Runner Free Bet (BetVictor)
(Obvious) danger: Simonsig