Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day One Preview, Tips
After what has been as non-standard a run-up to the Festival as any in history, we are here, finally, and it is time for the talking to end and the racing to begin. Hallelujah.
Whether the micro of the constant buzzing of trainers who have "never had him better" or the macro media onslaught in light of the Elliott saga, racing fans have endured a put upon few weeks. But we're not here to talk about that; no, we're here to ponder the prospects of a pod of perfectly pristine quadruPeds. So let's get to that, pronto!
1.20 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)
Nothing is usual in 2021, not even the start time for the first roarless Supreme ever. Tune in at 1.30 and you'll likely be watching socially distanced post-race interviews, so that's perhaps the best tip you'll find in the following several thousand words: be ready at twenty-past-one!
Just eight go to post and, as is often the case in recent years, we've a strong favourite from the Willie Mullins stable to kick the week off. This time it is the seven-year-old Appreciate It, bidding to get the perma-champ off to a winning start. What? Seven years old, you say? Too old according to the trends. Erm, not really, no. You see, of the 17 seven-year-olds to run in the race since 2008, only four were priced at 14/1 or shorter: they finished first (17/2), third (4/5), fourth (14/1), fifth (14/1). Not bad at all.
It won't be age that beats Appreciate It. But it might be quicker turf, a theme which will apply to many runners this week. His entire career to date has been conducted on yielding or softer so good to soft is taken somewhat on trust. In fairness, the son of Jeremy's more visually impressive performances have come when the ground was less testing so there's a case to be made that he'll be better for less mud. I certainly am not looking to make a ground-based case against Appreciate It, whose dual Grade 1 scores in Irish novice hurdles are supported by running up in last season's Champion Bumper here: he has a rock solid chance for all that his price tells as much far more succinctly than I have.
His win in the Chanelle Pharma is probably the best piece of form coming into this, and the second there, Ballyadam, is a player here, too. He travelled up to within a length of Appreciate It but was then outstayed by the winner having bungled the final flight; but the way he travelled into contention suggests a sounder surface will be a plus to his chance. Ignoring a below par effort at Christmas, he is already a Grade 1 winning hurdler having taken the Royal Bond in late November. He's one of the Cheveley Park runners inherited by Henry de Bromhead from the Elliott yard.
The third from that Leopardstown Grade 1, Blue Lord, also lines up with a plausible chance. He was ridden 'cold' that day, making up a fair bit of ground but under heavy pressure to do so. That felt more of a staying performance, or else one where an all guns blazing early tempo over two miles would suit; this may not be that, and the County might have been a better option. What is worth saying is that if the Chanelle Pharma form works out here, Hook Up (fourth) will be an interesting contender in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle on Thursday.
One place behind Hook Up, in fifth, was Irascible. Beaten nine lengths by Appreciate It both here and in his previous start, in the Christmas Grade 1 over the same Leopardstown course and distance, he'd need to improve for the sounder surface to turn tables with that one. It's not impossible, but it does look unlikely.
The best of the British, on known form at least, looks to be Harry Fry's Metier. An easy winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle on heavy ground, he'll bid to replicate Summerville Boy's 2018 Tolworth-Supreme double. But it was heavy at Cheltenham in 2018, and Metier has yet to race on anything this quick over hurdles. His flat form was good but the pick of that was also when the wet was rife. For all that he's won his three hurdle races by five lengths-plus each time in the manner of one capable of more, I'm not convinced by the strength of his form and want to take him on at the price.
The second UK runner in the betting, Soaring Glory, is perhaps the more ascendant form wise. He won the Betfair Hurdle, a competitive 23-runner affair, by three easy lengths last month, travelling smoothly from mid-division and scampering clear. A very decent bumper horse last season, he took his time to get his jumping together as a novice hurdler this term, but is improving and might be one that needs a strong pace to run at. Whether he gets that in this short field is unclear, though For Pleasure and possibly Appreciate It and/or Grumpy Charley may make it a fair test.
Grumpy Charley and For Pleasure are both worthy entries in this representing smaller owners and trainers, and I hope they run creditably. But I can't see them winning even though I did back the latter for this on Boxing Day. He was 50/1 then and will be that price on the day!
Supreme Novices' Pace Projection
For Pleasure is the confirmed front runner in this field, but both Appreciate It and Grumpy Charley have led more often than not recently. It ought to be an even tempo given the smaller field and run style versatility of most participants.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection
I don't especially rate the home challenge in this - and might well be proven wrong on that - so it's all about the Chanelle Pharma form for me. Appreciate It is the right favourite and, if handling the quicker ground, ought to win. But I'm backing Ballyadam each way. He's a stronger traveller than the jolly, something likely to be more of a factor on good to soft than soft to heavy and, though his jumping is a slight concern - as is what he finds off the bridle - he looks quite hard to keep out of the frame.
Suggestion: The Supreme is the 'load up' race where all bookies want you to deposit to your betting accounts and play with them. To that end, offers abound and you should take advantage of any and all of them. It's worth putting some time into it because, honestly, nobody able to access concessions should lose on the Supreme. Read the T's & C's, caveat emptor, et cetera.
A few of note are Skybet's £10 max stake money back as cash if you lose (first bet only), MansionBet's paying out as a winner if your horse is second (£10 max stake, £250 max return), and Hill's £10 max stake money back as cash if second (first bet only).
I'm backing 11/2 Ballyadam, and may have a tiny e/w on 25/1 Irascible who probably did too much on the front last time.
1.55 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)
The Supreme looks a fascinating and classy race, but the Arkle looks a blinding screamer, or a screaming blinder if you prefer. Or 'looked'. Shishkin, unbeaten in seven completed starts under Rules, versus Energumene, unbeaten in his last five, versus Allmankind, unbeaten in three over fences. Throw in cameos from the likes of Captain Guinness and Franco De Port and it's a race to truly savour. But... the withdrawal of Energumene due to a minor setback has robbed this Arkle of a major part of its lustre.
In the absence of the pick of the Irish novice speed chasers this season, it looks a more straightforward cat and mouse affair between the pace horse, Allmankind, and the class horse, Shishkin.
Allmankind has got one way of racing and that's hard on the front end; if another horse tries to lock horns with him, the balance of probabilities is that the other horse, or both duellers, will be spent before the final climb to the jam stick. It would have been fascinating to see how Energumene, also a confirmed front-runner, would have handled that sort of a challenge.
In the revised line up, where just six go to post, what is most compelling about is that, if Allmankind gets an 'easy' on the lead, he may be more of a danger to Shishkin than if Energumene had been present and had taken him on; in that latter scenario, which I think was most likely - to some degree at least - the dial moved in favour of Shishkin, who will bide his time behind whatever speed plays out in front of him. But now Allmankind may get his way a little more easily up top and, as a result, will likely get closer to the winning line before getting overhauled, if indeed he is overhauled.
But still, I feel this sets up perfectly for Shishkin, who has shown he can take a position wherever and outclass his opposition. True, his Grade 1 form is over hurdles, but that was here in last season's Supreme; and he's yet to face more than three runners in three chase starts. But his form got a reasonable boost when Tamaroc Du Mathan, 13 lengths in his debt at Kempton at Christmas, won a Grade 2 last month.
And what of the rest? Captain Guinness and Franco De Port both add depth.
Captain Guinness has arguably run his best two races when failing to get round: first when brought down at the second last while still well in contention in last year's Supreme, and then when challenging Energumene for the lead and taking a soft fall - again at the second last - in the Irish Arkle last month. But there's also the pulled up effort when found to be clinically abnormal post-race on chasing debut, and that combination of misfortunes makes for a Scrabble rack of form: B-P12F and a growing list of excuses. Regardless, assuming he stands up, he has strong podium claims.
Franco De Port is the wise guy 'pieces play'. He got the whole lot when Felix Desjy and Benruben blasted off in front in the Leopardstown Grade 1 Novice Chase at Christmas, and he was good enough to come through for a respectful second to Energumene in another Grade 1 over the same course and distance last time. There was no pace collapse for him to run at there and his case is largely based on a searing early gallop, which looks less likely since the withdrawal of Energumene.
Eldorado Allen is interesting: as Colin Tizzard was confirming on Racing TV he was running in the Grand Annual, declarations closed and he'd been left in the Arkle. Oops. He was easily brushed aside by Shishkin at Doncaster last time and, though Tizzard claims the horse "was wrong" that day, it is very difficult to see a reversal of placings especially given this was apparently not the plan anyway.
Colin Tizzard literally just said on the TV that Eldorado Runs in the Grand Annual. Declared in the Arkle
— James (@jamesaknight) March 14, 2021
That leaves Numitor, who has a lot to find on form but who may have a part to play in the race as a confirmed front-runner. I'm not sure he can live with Allmankind given he's rated 32 pounds inferior to that one, but he might set the Skelton horse alight over the first couple of fences. Still, the likelihood is that Allmankind should be able to swat the attentions of that pace-pressing interloper without too much ado.
Arkle Pace Projection
It will be quick early but possibly not mega-quick. That depends on how long Numitor can lay up with Allmankind (or whether the former will be ridden more conservatively in a bid to finish his race off). Regardless, Shishkin and Captain Guinness will take a lead with Franco De Port and Eldorado Allen likely to be played later.
Arkle Chase Selection
It's quite possible that I've underrated Allmankind who does a lot early in his races but still has a bit left late on and who is a Grade 1 winner over fences. But I see this going readily to Shishkin and the exacta being completed by either Captain Guinness or Franco De Port, probably the Captain.
Suggestion: Back Shishkin to beat Captain Guinness in an exacta, or Captain Guinness without the favourite..
2.30 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)
The first of the Festival handicaps is historically one of the more predictable puzzles to unravel. Indeed, while Gold Chieftain, Chief Dan George and Joes Edge each returned between 28/1 and 50/1 when prevailing, the other 17 winners this century returned 14/1 or shorter, with 15 of them at 10/1 or shorter.
Tony Martin won this in 2006, Francois Doumen in 2005 and Christy Roche in 2003, but generally speaking this is for British-based trainers. Jonjo O'Neill and David Pipe have each won it thrice, Nicky Henderson twice.
Applying a few weighting factors (don't ask), my shortlist is Happygolucky, Aye Right, One For The Team and Nietzsche.
Kim Bailey trains Happygolucky. Bailey has saddled three runners in the Ultima since 1997, Bettys Boy winning in 1999 and Vinndication running fourth last year. Somewhere in between was an outsider that pulled up. This chap is lightly raced and has excellent track form including a Festival fourth of 23 in last year's Martin Pipe handicap hurdle. That ticks the big field, class and course boxes, and a novice chase win at this distance - on the New Course here, this is the Old Course - is another feather in his cap. He's a rubbish price but should go very well.
Aye Right is a better price, almost double Happygolucky's, and has excellent handicap form including seconds in the Ladbroke Trophy (Hennessy as was) and Sky Bet Chase this season. He's inched up the handicap eight pounds for not winning which seems harsh but he's earned those increments for nearly winning multiple times. He might nearly win again here - was a fair fifth of ten in last year's RSA at the track - and I backed him after my mate Gavin Priestley of nagnagnag and Festival Trends fame told me I ought to. Think I'll probably do the field to beat Aye Right exactas...
One For The Team is seemingly a bit less obvious, but he does represent the shrewd Festival handicap firm of Nick Williams. Four starts in chase company this term, three in novices/beginners' and last time in the Sky Bet mean he's an upwardly mobile novice. While his Sky Bet fifth was a touch underwhelming (sent off 5/1), all of his best form is on a sounder surface than the soft turf that day. Prior to Doncaster last time, he was close to top novices in Graded company.
Nietzsche is a lot more left field. He's never run over this trip and was last seen chasing home Sky Pirate at a distance in third over two miles. Clearly pacier than many in the field, he's the sort that if he stays could hit the board. He's a 25/1 shot which feels reasonable enough.
As always in the handicaps, though slightly less so this year given the smaller fields, plenty more with chances.
Ultima Pace Projection
A good even gallop looks likely. Aye Right, Happygolucky, Pym and The Wolf could be to the fore, so too possibly Milan Native and Vintage Clouds. But none of these is an out-and-out need the lead type so expect common sense to prevail. All the fancied runners should be in the front half of the field early to mid-race; some of them will still be there at the end!
Ultima Handicap Chase Selection
Suggestion: The prices have collapsed on the top few. Happygolucky, Aye Right and One For The Team are only about 11/10 combined but that's perhaps not a terrible price given they all come here with strong credentials and, in two cases, upside to boot. SkyBet are paying seven places - a fifth the odds - in this. Use them if they're price competitive and you're able to get a bet on there. Nietzsche is the seven places play.
3.05 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)
The day one highlight is the Champion Hurdle which, this year, features a shoot out between two top class mares who both won on this day last year and a five-year-old gelding who should have won by half the track a year ago last Friday. They are, respectively, reigning champ Epatante, Mares' Hurdle winner Honeysuckle, and the desperately unlucky Triumph Hurdle last flight faller, Goshen.
Since last March, the trio have taken divergent paths. Epatante was a facile scorer in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November but was then surprisingly beaten (at odds of 1/5) in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle in late December. She's not yet been seen in 2021. Trainer Nicky Henderson insists he has isolated whatever the issue was when she under-performed at Christmas and, if he has, Epatante remains the one to beat: she's a pure two-miler who handles good to soft well and she has bundles of class.
But she's not the favourite. That honour is Honeysuckle's, the Henry de Bromhead-trained mare's unbeaten career now extending to ten races, six of them in Grade 1's and five of them against males. If that's the good news - and it is very good - then the reservations are twofold: trip, and ground. Honeysuckle has only raced over the minimum three times, scoring by 3 1/2 lengths in a good ground Listed hurdle, by half a length from Darver Star in last year's Irish Champion Hurdle on yielding, and by ten lengths from Abacadabras on soft to heavy in this year's Irish Champion Hurdle.
So she's a dual Grade 1 scorer at two miles, what's the problem? The problem - if indeed it is one - is that she was entitled to win the Listed contest, she scraped home against Darver Star, and it was very deep ground when she won last time. The combination of quicker ground and the shorter trip might - only might - find her out. And, at 9/4 or so, that's enough to put me off a touch. On the flip side, this does look like being a proper test with three confirmed trailblazers in the field, and she has proven class and stamina.
Goshen has been both the Messiah and a very naughty boy in the past twelve months. Fate conspired horribly against him in the Triumph Hurdle last year when, with the race in bar-a-fall safekeeping, he got his hooves tangled together on the landing side of the final flight and came down. It was such a freak incident and devilishly unfortunate. After that, Gary Moore's stable star went missing in action for a while: beaten a couple of times on the flat when better was expected and then completely flunking in the International Hurdle in December.
He could have been backed at 25/1 after that minor catastrophe but was no bigger than 9/2 after romping away with the Kingwell Hurdle last month. So which Goshen will we see this time? It's hard to say, particularly as a literal reading of the 22-length margin at Wincanton seems ill-advised. I am a massive fan of this horse, but from a value perspective cannot bet him at his current price. An interesting side note is that Champion Hurdle day will be Goshen's fifth birthday.
One I did back, at 6/1 (current odds 8/1, sigh) shortly before he notably under-performed, was Abacadabras. Second to Shishkin by a small margin in the Supreme last season, he's since run second to Aspire Tower, beaten Saint Roi, clunked behind Sharjah, and finished those ten lengths behind Honeysuckle. In spite of all that, he's flirting with a single figure price as I write. Why? Well there's that course and distance run last year, and there is also the contention that he will prefer this better ground and, crucially, more pace to run at.
The under-rated horse in the field is Silver Streak. I am as guilty as anyone of picking holes in his form, but he just keeps on turning up and running with enormous credit. Third in Espoir D'Allen's 2019 Champion Hurdle, he was only sixth in the race last year (on soft); but to that he can add a win and a second in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle and third in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth. His best form appears to be on better ground and he ought to produce another bold effort.
Last year's runner up, Sharjah, tries again and the Willie Mullins-trained four-time Grade 1 winner has a squeak on his best form; but his best form is pretty much all at Leopardstown, ignoring that fine effort in this race a year ago. Naturally, we should not ignore that effort and he is yet another runner who cannot be discounted.
Mullins also saddles the unknown quantity, to British and Irish audiences at least, James Du Berlais. Second in two French Grade 1's, most recently when chinned by the width of a waffery-thin mint, the drop back to two miles on quickish ground is far more of a speed test than the two and a half on heavy he's been facing all season. Regardless, he has a high cruising speed and some class; whether he can lay up with these, I don't know, but he's probably about the right price if you wanted to invest in the answer to that question.
Aspire Tower's form ties in with Goshen, Abacadabras and Sharjah and, on those form lines he has a mountain to climb with an on-song Goshen but nothing at all to find with the other pair. I'm still generally wary of five-year-olds in the Champion Hurdle and he wouldn't be my idea of the winner.
Although a dual Grade 1 winner, Saldier is very hard to fancy off the back of two last place beaten out of sight efforts.
Not So Sleepy is occasionally not so fussed about being a racehorse but, on his day, he's pretty good. A front-runner normally, he adds to the pace of Goshen and Aspire Tower to ensure it will be a truly run affair. He was pulled up in this last year on soft ground and a similar outcome looks probable given the perceived early speed contention.
Champion Hurdle Pace Projection
Fast. Each of Goshen, Not So Sleepy and Aspire Tower has led in three of their prior four starts, and raced prominently on the other occasion. Silver Streak also led last time though is generally happy to be handy.
Champion Hurdle Selection
I love Goshen but I don't see him winning this. The mares at the head of the market deserve to be there and they may dominate. Which wins is tougher: I do harbour concerns about the trip on quickish ground for Honeysuckle whereas Epatante looked bombproof before her Christmas flunk. If she's back, she's definite value at north of 3/1 - obviously you have to factor that 'if' into the price. If there is one with which to take them on, it might be Abacadabras who ran his best race in the Supreme on the same day last year and for whom the strong pace will be a plus.
Suggestion: The bookies look to have this about right in the win market, but 8/1 Abacadabras is a reasonable each way or place only play. Epatante at 7/2 is perfectly fair enough as a win proposition although, as mentioned, there is little value to be had in this very mature market.
3.40 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)
The fact that this was won last year by Honeysuckle and that there is a perennial debate about the favourites ducking either the Stayers' or Champion Hurdles is a testament to the quality of mare who shows up here. As we know, Honey goes the Champion route this time, leaving last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle winner, Concertista, with an open goal. Or at least it might have been had not Roksana decided to swerve the Stayers' and, erm, Rok up in opposition.
That's good for the race, which has featured some terrific head-to-heads in recent years, including Honeysuckle versus Benie Des Dieux last term, and which was looking a little one-sided until Roksana routed here. Still, it remains a shallow enough heat and a shock is unlikely.
Concertista had been a fair but not great flat filly for Christophe Ferland in France, winning once in a ten furlong handicap, before changing hands at the Arqana summer sale for €75,000. Not a snip at the time but neither was it a king's ransom, especially with the benefit of hindsight as we now know that this is the game for which she was made. On her debut for Willie Mullins, after 620 days off the track, she ran a fantastic second in the inaugural Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at the 2019 Festival.
The plan after that was clearly to come back in 2020 for the same race, and she duly danced home by a dozen lengths in a field of 22! Since then she's won a couple of minor Graded stakes with this day in mind throughout. Willie Mullins is a peerless target trainer with his mares - see Quevega, Benie Des Dieux, Annie Power - and Concertista looks the next on that particular conveyor belt of female stars.
She's probably not achieved a lot in beating the same rival - Minella Melody - twice, although the well beaten third from the second of those wins, Black Tears, has won a Grade 3 since and re-opposes here. Black Tears herself has Festival back class having run second in the Coral Cup last season. She's a strong travelling sort who handles big fields well - a pity then that this is the third smallest field in the (short) history of the race.
Returning to Roksana, the Dan Skelton-trained mare has looked superb at three miles this season, improving her official rating, her Racing Post Ratings, and her Topspeed ratings. Strange that connections have opted for the two and a half mile Mares' rather than the three mile Stayers', and a bit of a shame in my view. Still it does make for an interesting battle: Concertista is arguably better at two miles, Roksana at three, and here they both are compromising at two and a half.
Black Tears is a two-and-a-half miler but not at the level of the other pair, a comment which applies equally to the failed chaser, Dame De Compagnie. Failed chaser is a little harsh as she won her first fencing start and was all but brought down on her only other attempt. Still, redirection into the Mares' Hurdle field looks a fair move given she won last year's Coral Cup, in which Black Tears was second, and she won it going away. Her Cheltenham record is three wins from five starts and she's trained by Nicky Henderson, who is Champions League class at the Festival. She may actually prove a more potent threat to Concertista than Roksana given her affection for the trip and her change of gear.
It is very difficult to make a case for the remainder, though Indefatigable also has great Cheltenham form including when winning the Martin Pipe last time under an inspired withering run from geegeez-sponsored jockey, Rex Dingle. She has little to find with Dame De Compagnie on an old line of form but she does have to overcome a lamentable effort last time. Minella Melody has, as mentioned, run second to Concertista twice this term so it wouldn't be a shock if she finished in the same parish for a third time; and Great White Shark has some excellent handicap form, both on the flat (three-length winner of the Cesarewitch) and over hurdles (won the Guinness Handicap Hurdle at the Galway Festival, third to Indefatigable in the the Martin Pipe last year).
Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection
A good even gallop looks most likely with Floressa and Minella Melody front rank, followed by My Sister Sarah and Black Tears. Concertista and Roksana are expected to be played late.
Mares' Hurdle Selection
Concertista looks the most likely winner by far, something a very quick glance at the betting would tell you. I liked the way Dame De Compagnie ran through the line over this trip at the Festival last year and, reverting to hurdles, she might be the each way thievery play. I've loved Roksana throughout her career but she has looked so good over three miles this term that it's a surprise she drops back down here, especially after getting beaten a dozen lengths in the race a year ago. You can't bet them all and she's the one I'd take on here (though I'd have backed her in the Stayers').
Suggestion: Bet Concertista to win if you like, she ought to at least nearly do that. Or play Dame De Compagnie each way or without the favourite.
4.15 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter, Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)
Wednesday's placepot nightcap is now Tuesday's placepot leg six and it's not easier for the change of day. I'm not going to get too stuck in to the form here. It's a guess up, plain and simple, a case of who can deceive the handicapper the best. Or, more politely, who has most scope to improve from their current mark. The sportsman in me wants Cabot Cliffs or Saint Sam to win as they've been campaigned with their light out front; the cynic in me sees something like Coltor going in.
But, in all seriousness, I haven't a clue. Tough race to close out the placepot.
Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection
Fast, frantic, furious, frenetic, ferocious and other adjectives beginning with 'f'. Doubtful stayers need not apply.
Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection
In the spirit of almost anything being capable of winning, I'll chuck a fiver at Longclaw, whose history is fascinating. A juvenile on the flat for Gordon Elliott, he ran third in a minor Stakes race at Keeneland, USA, worth a quarter of a million quid in August 2019. After one further run in the States, for Brad Cox, he shipped back to Elliott where he signed off his flat career with a six length maiden verdict. A few weeks later he recorded the first of back to back hurdle successes before a slightly disappointing effort in a Listed hurdle at Wetherby. That was in late October and he's not been seen since, now running for the John McConnell yard.
Interesting back story and some class make 33/1 worth that cheeky fiver for all that the French-bred's will probably run amok.
Suggestion: Ask Mr Felt Tippy.
4.50 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)
The closing line of the opening stanza of this year's Cheltenham Festival belongs to the National Hunt Chase. Two years ago, the race made headlines for all the wrong reasons; as a result of that, some sensible changes were introduced, most notably a reduction in distance by a quarter mile. This year, because of the pandemic, there will be no amateur riders either. A welcome relief in some cases, though most of those getting the leg up in recent years have been somewhere between competent and excellent horsemen and women.
The Gold Cup-bound Royale Pagaille had added some interest to the five-day entries but his absence leaves the door ajar for Galvin et al. Galvin, heretofore trained by Elliott, has moved to Ian Ferguson. "Who?", you might ask. Ferguson has trained a Festival winner for Galvin's owner, Ronnie Bartlett, Zemsky first past the post in the 2011 Foxhunters'. And, apparently, he also did the pre-training for this chap. Let's talk about Galvin's form.
A very good novice he was a regular visitor to Britain during his bumper and early novice hurdle days, before getting a chase mark by being beaten three times in Irish novice races. The handbrake was off in the final running of the Novices' Handicap Chase - gone but not forgotten, making way this year for the inaugural Mares' Chase - but he couldn't catch Imperial Aura up the hill. A non-winner in his first season over fences, then, he's since won four on the bounce, all in small fields at trips between two and a half and three miles, all on decent ground. The last of them was at Cheltenham in October, 144 days ago; so, while dodging the worst of the ground is understandable for one who likes it 'on top', fitness must be taken on trust. A positive to that end is that he'd been off for 105 days prior to the silver medal in the novices' handicap chase a year ago.
Next Destination, representing Paul Nicholls, was expected to line up in the RSA - sorry, Brown Advisory - but, wisely swerving Monkfish, lands in here. Galvin backers thrilled at the absence of Royale Pagaille will have been less pleased at the presence of this fellow. He's a nine-year-old, which is more a plus than a minus on recent evidence: two of the last three winners were aged ten, with Midnight Legend in 2014 aged nine. That's from a far smaller representation of runners than the younger age brackets.
Good enough to win a couple of Grade 1's for Willie Mullins in 2018, he switched to Nicholls after a protracted layoff and his new trainer has conditioned him to win consecutive Grade 2 novice events. The balance of his form is better than Galvin's and yet he is twice the price.
Another whose expected Festival target was different from his actual slot is Escaria Ten, hitherto presumed for a handicap. A progressive type he's yet to test his mettle in official Graded class but has run in beginners' and novice chases against established Grade 1 horses like Monkfish and Eklat De Rire. He has to show both that he can win in Graded class and that he handles quicker turf, and that combination is enough for me to think he's not excitingly priced.
Similarly, all of Lord Royal's Irish form to date is on very soft ground; but the Willie Mullins inmate did finish second in a mile and a half maiden on good ground on his sole flat run in France. He was a talking horse after putting up a massive effort on time figures at Clonmel in January last year, and was threatening to do the same when coming down late in his chase debut at Thurles. He was well enough beaten next time over a shorter trip but, upped to three miles last time, kept on best and just failed to reel in the leader. This longer trip looks sure to suit and, if his jumping holds together, he's a player.
David Pipe has a few live ones this Festival, and Remastered could be one of them. Unbeaten in three chases, most recently the three mile Reynoldstown, a Grade 2, he has performed almost exclusively in soft and heavy turf. While it may not be a prerequisite it remains hard to peg his ability on faster terrain given he's now had 16 races. He probably doesn't have the upside that some of these do for all that he'd not be a shock winner.
Snow Leopardess usually runs well, but usually in defeat and, in spite of her seven pound allowance, she is not for me. The rest look to have plenty on their plates.
National Hunt Chase Pace Projection
This should be run at an even to strong tempo, probably more even than strong, with Remastered and Lord Royal expected to be front rank. The Malcolm Denmark pair of Next Destination and Soldier Of Love may be close up along with Snow Leopardess. Galvin and Escaria Ten are typically waited with a little more.
National Hunt Chase Selection
Galvin looks to have a fair chance but the combination of his price, a five month layoff and a lack of Graded form put me off. Next Destination on the other hand has a run this year, strong Graded form and a nice profile - and he's double the odds of Galvin. He looks a bet.
Suggestion: Back Next Destination to win or each way if you prefer, at 4/1. Hills will refund up to £10 stake in cash if your pick finishes second (3/1+) so if you fear Galvin, or another, that might be worth considering.
A fascinating first day, light on numbers but not at all in terms of interest or class. It gets trickier as the week progresses and personally I'll have a fair idea of my four-day fate at the end of the first quarter.