Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day Two Preview, Trends, Tips
Day Two, Wednesday, at the Cheltenham Festival has a cast of stars, none bigger than last year's last minute absentee, Chacun Pour Soi, who, with Altior again an eleventh hour scratch, will have Champion Chase star billing to himself. Earlier on the card the ascendant star Monkfish will bid to enhance his stellar credentials in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase. We start, at the slightly earlier time of 1.20, with the Ballymore.
1.20 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)
Small fields are again a feature of the novice divisions, just seven lining up for the opening Ballymore Novices' Hurdle; despite that there are a few with chances. The Irish have their traditionally strong representation - they've won six of the last seven - headed by Bob Olinger.
Trained by Henry de Bromhead, Bob's sole defeat in four Rules starts (and a point to point race) was when a length second to the sidelined Ferny Hollow in a maiden hurdle last November. Since then, he has won his maiden and then easily beat Blue Lord in the Grade 1 Lawlor's of Naas Hurdle. That was two and a half on heavy, this will be less testing; but he won there very easily indeed. He has made the running in the past, but that last day setup of tracking the leader before making his bid might be optimal. There are a couple in the field who led last time so he ought to get his way.
Another Irish Grade 1 winner is in opposition, Gaillard Du Mesnil, who took the Nathaniel Lacy at the Dublin Racing Festival in good fashion. What struck me there was his galloping style: it was a performance more about stamina than speed, whereas Bob Olinger looks to have gears. Crucially, it seems probable the Ballymore will be at least somewhat tactical. That may not play to Gaillard's strength, assuming I have him right (a dangerous assumption at best!).
One feature of both of the Irish contenders is that all of their form has been recorded on deep surfaces. Compare that with Bravemansgame, whose form has largely been achieved on good turf. A close second to Betfair Hurdle winner and Supreme contender Soaring Glory on hurdling debut was followed by easy novice wins at Exeter and Newbury, the latter over this trip. Faced with soft ground in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle last time, he routed the closest of his four rivals by ten lengths.
Bravemansgame led pretty much throughout that contest and he may bid to make all again; the form has worked out okay, with a couple of rivals running 1-2 in a Listed hurdle subsequently. The British handicapper has taken a very positive view of the Challow form, giving the winner a mark of 150, the same mark he's awarded Bob Olinger, the pair a pound behind Gaillard Du Mesnil on BHA ratings. He might be right but I feel that this Paul Nicholls runner, who is spoken of in glowing terms by the yard, is definitely more of a stayer than a speed horse - and the epitome of the proverbial "chaser in the making". He could set things up perfectly for Bob (or Gaillard).
Bear Ghylls heads the remainder, betting wise at least, and this raw talent has found obstacles only a minor irritant on his way from start to finish in a trio of ungraded novice hurdles. He's not the slickest but he sure has an engine, the form of his Ffos Las beating of Gowel Road being well advertised by the two subsequent wins of that one. Still, he looks to have a fair bit to find with the three already mentioned and, if he replicates his careless jumping it won't help him bridge the gap.
Does He Know was a course and distance Grade 2 winner of the Hyde Novices' Hurdle in November but then ran out in the Challow and has since been whacked in handicap company. He's plenty to prove in this grade.
At prices, the most interesting might be Keskonrisk. A very expensive (£370,000) sales purchase after winning a non-descript bumper in grand style, he then just got up to win a two mile maiden having been hampered when trying to make ground in a big field. That's all no better than promising in the context of a race like this, but his third to Appreciate It in the Christmas Grade 1 at Leopardstown reads much better. Not seen since, this longer trip could bring out improvement and so, where some of these are pegged at their level, Keskonrisk remains in the improver camp.
Optimise Prime looks out of his depth after an eleven-length third in the Listed Sidney Banks.
Ballymore Pace Map
Expect Bob Olinger to be on or close to the lead; likewise Bravemansgame. Don't expect it to be frenetic, though.
Ballymore Novices' Hurdle Selection
A fascinating race which brings together as yet uncrossed form lines from both Britain and Ireland. As interestingly, it brings together relatively speedy types (Bob Olinger, Keskonrisk) with more stamina-laden types (Gaillard Du Mesnil, Bravemansgame). If they go at no faster than an even tempo, which must be the percentage projection, it ought to set up for speed. In that case, Bob Olinger looks the one. He's been impressive this season, jumps very well for a novice, and looks to have that crucial change of pace. It wouldn't surprise me if Keskonrisk was in the first three so he might be playable in extended place markets or without the favourite.
Suggestion: Back Bob Olinger to win; or have a look at Keskonrisk in the exotic markets.
1.55 Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m)
Formerly the RSA and, before that, the Broadway Novices' Chase, apparently. Now it's the Brown Advisory (registered as the Broadway) Novices' Chase. But I might just stick with RSA for a bit...
Anyway, for a good while it has looked like a cakewalk for the mighty Monkfish, last year's Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle winner, and this year's superstar staying novice chaser (with the possible exception of Royale Pagaille, in the same ownership and headed to the Gold Cup). And that may be how it pans out for the horse famously referred to by Nicky Henderson as Fishcake (in a further ironic twist, Henderson now has Monkfish's sister in training, and she has been named Fishcake!).
Monkfish, trained by Willie Mullins, has won his last six races and all three of his chase starts, most recently a brace of Grade 1's. He jumps well, travels powerfully, and looks the clear pick of the Irish contingent. If there's a potential Achilles heel - and I'm not remotely convinced there is - it could be quicker ground.
Best of the British might be The Big Breakaway. Trained by Colin Tizzard, he was impressive in defeat in the Kauto Star (formerly Feltham) Novices' Chase at Kempton last time; impressive inasmuch as he absolutely ploughed through a number of the fences - including a howler at the last - and yet still finished second. That sort of a speed test was clearly not his bag and it remains the case that no winner of the Kempton Grade 1 has gone on to win the RSA/Brown Advisory/Broadway while a number of beaten horses from Kempton have gone on to score in this, including Bobs Worth, Might Bite and Topofthegame since 2012.
The Big Breakaway was fourth in Envoi Allen's Ballymore Novices' Hurdle last year, and then returned to Cheltenham to win on chasing debut in November. Since then he's been second twice, and jumped really poorly on both occasions. That's obviously a worry for a race like this but it is also an opportunity to step forward if he can correct the mistakes. He handled the quicker ground better than the quicker tempo at Kempton last time, so any drying of the turf ought not to be an issue for him.
Eklat De Rire is another from the powerful de Bromhead squad, his form hard to gauge as it has been achieved at ungraded level. Nevertheless, he's beaten the likes of Escaria Ten and Pencilfulloflead readily enough in the manner of a highly progressive type. He looks to have a lot to find to trouble the favourite though he is unexposed so it's not impossible. All form to date has been on heavy ground.
Sporting John put a limp effort in an Exeter Beginners' Chase behind him when cutting down Shan Blue late in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles play: he benefitted from a strong meter there, something that could be reprised here if Monkfish and Eklat De Rire take each other on early. He looks a stayer, with his best form on muddy turf in a truly run race, so these three miles - while unknown territory - ought to suit.
We haven't seen a lot of Dickie Diver since his good fourth to Minella Indo in the 2019 Albert Bartlett. In fact, we've seen him just once, when running up in a decent novices' handicap chase at Newbury in late December. He's a mature horse, at eight the oldest in this field, has low mileage and class, and wouldn't be a total shock winner for all that he's not especially for me wagering-wise.
Nor is Fiddlerontheroof, an expensive flop in last year's Supreme when the Tizzard horses weren't right. The problem is that, since then, they've often not been right, a one year strike rate of below 9% not really acceptable given how many very expensive purchases they accommodate. Fiddler's chase form of 21222 is a touch misleading, too, as it has been achieved in fields of 3-6-3-5-3. I wish the Tizzard team luck but I won't be backing many of theirs this week.
RSA Chase Pace Map
Likely to be run at an honest, though probably not all out, gallop. Eklat De Rire may take them along with Monkfish and Fiddlerontheroof close up. The Big Breakaway may track from midfield with the McManus pair likely to be produced late.
RSA Chase Selection
Monkfish is a very strong favourite and deserves to be. There are a couple - Eklat De Rire and Sporting John - who can be considered unexposed, and The Big Breakaway is a possible improver if his jumping holds together. But, barring accidents, the jolly should win.
Suggestion: Put Monkfish in a double with anything else you fancy to add 50% to your winnings! [Terms and conditions apply, the main one being caveat emptor 😉 ]
2.30 Coral Cup (Handicap, Grade 3, 2m5f)
Oh heck. 26 runners in a handicap, many of the more fancied ones having at least partially hidden their best side in recent times. Even allowing for that sort of chicanery, four of the last ten Coral Cup winners also won their prior start and another two were second. And eight of the ten winners in that time shouldered 10-12 or more (seven lugged eleven stone-plus).
Incredibly, and highly satisfactorily for yours truly, that leaves just two: Grand Roi and Monte Cristo.
Grand Roi is the Elliott/Foster runner, the Cullentra House squad having won this in 2011 and 2016. Symmetrists will like this one for 2021, then, and his form chance is obvious. A very close fourth in a junior bumper at Cheltenham's New Year's Day 2020 fixture, he won a Grade 2 hurdle a year less two days later, and has peppered the target before and in one run since. Five-year-olds novices have a good record in the race, to which Grand Roi may add further.
Nicky Henderson will saddle Monte Cristo, bidding for his fifth Coral Cup triumph in total and third in a row. Have that, Gordie and co! Monte fair bolted up in a 15-runner Kempton handicap on Boxing Day, and has not run since. That 81-day layoff should be seen as a positive: Dame De Compagnie was off 88 days before her Coral Cup last year and William Henry absented for 77 days before winning the year before. This is the Henderson Coral Cup blueprint, and Monte Cristo is a box-ticker of the highest order.
Coral Cup Pace Map
A massive field but no out and out front runner. Grand Roi may be near the front, with most of the field not too far away in what could potentially be a muddling affair.
Coral Cup Suggestion: Obviously close to impossible, but Grand Roi and Monte Cristo represent the most established recent 'firms' in the race and both should go well. I will Count on Monte Cristo - see what I did there? 😀
3.05 Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)
Wednesday's headliner is the Champion Chase, a race that has crowned the likes of Moscow Flyer, Master Minded, Sprinter Sacre and Altior in recent years. Last term, the day of race withdrawals of both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi left Defi Du Seuil with what appeared to be a penalty kick; alas for Defi backers, he skied his effort from twelve years (extended metaphorically speaking), trailing home fourth of five at odds of 2/5.
Here we are a year later and, lo, there is no Defi Du Seuil but both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi are on the team sheet. Or were, before Altior's late defection. Here, too, is Politologue, who won the race twelve months ago, and Put The Kettle On, who scored in last year's Arkle Chase. Throw in Rouge Vif, Nube Negra, Notebook, Cilaos Emery and First Flow and you have the makings of a great race. If they all get to the start line. Which they didn't last year.
The odds on favourite, deservedly so, is Chacun Pour Soi. A winner of six of his seven starts for Willie Mullins, the now nine-year-old has been a little flaky in seasons past but seems the real deal this time around. Easy scores in the Grade 2 Hilly Way, and then a brace of Grade 1's at Leopardstown, have rendered him the undisputed champion of Ireland. But now he must come to Blighty and race, a task he only partially managed last year. On form, he has little to answer: a few have questioned his ability to get up the hill but I have no such reservations. He does so much squeezing of throats in the middle part of his races that he's entitled to not barrel through the line - it has recently always been the case that those behind have finished considerably more limply.
But he will have to handle Cheltenham as well as he's handled Leopardstown. Both have a climb to the finish, but the Irish Grade 1 track is a lot less undulating and rhythm there more easily found. Pace wise, CPS is normally handy but not on the speed. In a field including trailblazers like Politologue, Put The Kettle On and maybe First Flow, he should be able to find a position just off the keenest of those and raise the tempo when he's ready. If he actually gets to the start line, and stands up in the race (no reason to believe he won't), I think he will win.
The second favourite was eleven-year-old Altior. But, for the second year in succession, he's a very late no show. It's a sad way to bow out if that is what transpires but, aged twelve next year, it's hard to see him getting competitive, especially against either or both of Chacun and Shishkin. He wouldn't have been for me from a betting stance anyway, but I'd have loved to see him in the race - as I'm sure would everybody.
Altior was readily passed last time by Nube Negra, a good horse - and one of promise - but not a great one, at Kempton. Nube Negra didn't quite run away in the Kempton race like his transit through suggested he would. Tellingly, his official chase rating, which had gone from 135 to 142 to 146 to 153 in his career to that point, then leapt almost a stone to 165 for his win there. I just don't believe it. It remains fair to say that Nube Negra is progressive and, only recently turned seven, probably has more to offer yet; but I'm betting he was flattered by that run. In any case, I'd have taken NN in a match against the old master who I couldn't easily see being in the trifecta. So who else might be on the podium in this deep deep deep QMCC?
A slightly overlooked horse is the reigning champ, Politologue. It may be fair to suggest he took advantage of absence last year but, if that is true, he did what Defi Du Seuil should have done and didn't. Moreover, the Paul Nicholls-trained ten-year-old has previous in the race and at the Festival: no better than a back marker in the 2016 Coral Cup, fences saw him improve to fourth in the 2017 JLT, fourth in the 2018 Champion Chase, second (less than two lengths behind a near top form Altior) in the 2019 Champion Chase, and then that memorable win in the 2020 Champion Chase. He's knocking on a little but he knows this road very well indeed.
I do worry whether he might have left his best finishing effort at Ascot in late January; there, he and First Flow had a rare old tussle from a good way out. It was a brilliant spectacle - probably my favourite race of the season to date - but it wasn't an easy race for either of them. First Flow did well to prevail but the softer turf there was in his corner.
Henry de Bromhead has brought Put The Kettle On over to Cheltenham three times, and they have gone home winners three times including, as mentioned, in last year's Arkle. Each win was on soft ground and she was either tapped for toe or outclassed by Chacun Pour Soi on yielding last time. Whichever interpretation you have on that defeat, it is hard to see her reversing form with the favourite.
Henry also runs Notebook, second then third to CPS, at widening margins, in consecutive Grade 1's in Ireland. Notebook was a multiple Grade 1-winning novice on better ground, and it might be that drying good to soft will narrow the gap. He has slightly more of a chance than the market gives him credit, without especially exciting as a wagering proposition.
The interesting one at a price might be Rouge Vif. True, I backed him ages ago and am thus predisposed to his chance; but allow me to share the case. He won in the manner of a progressive horse on his seasonal debut at this track carrying 11-07 in an open handicap, putting more than seven lengths between himself and the second to whom he gave a stone and a half. Stepping back a touch, last season he'd beaten Nube Negra by seven lengths at Warwick on good to soft in the Kingmaker before running a game third to Put The Kettle On in the Arkle on soft ground. He then ran third to Politologue in the Tingle Creek and fourth to Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid, both on soft.
I was surprised he ran in both of those races given his trainer stated straight after Cheltenham that the key to him is good ground and that he wouldn't run on softer. Regardless of what has happened in between he now gets better ground for the first time since and may resume his trajectory as a result.
First Flow deserves another column inch: he's won seven of eleven over fences, including his last six. Though, in contrast to Rouge Vif, his key seems to be very deep turf. The six timer was achieved on heavy, heavy, heavy, soft, heavy, soft. Indeed, he's not even raced on quicker than soft since running fourth in a bumper 17 starts ago!
Sceau Royal has been busy, mixing hurdling and chasing with a large degree of success. To that end, he accumulated more than a hundred 'bags' (of sand, grand) in prize money this term, courtesy of G2 pots at Wincanton (hurdle) and Newbury (chase) as well as a G1 second in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle. Betwixt and between he came down early in the Nube Negra-Altior race at Christmas. He'd be an incredible horse to own - versatile and sound - but is expected to come up a touch short in this quality field of specialist two mile chasers.
In the longer grass, Greaneteen looked a horse of great promise a year or so ago, and was fourth in last season's Grand Annual. Two fair runs in Grade 1 and 2 events since, behind a number of today's rivals, have either put him spot on or demonstrated his level, depending on your perspective. My view is in line with most people's: that he has a bit to find.
And that leaves Cilaos Emery to round out ten fascinating runners in a top class Champion Chase. He should have run in this last year - pocket talk - but instead, bizarrely, went for the Champion Hurdle in which he finished a good fourth. This season he's been second to Bachasson and danced away from Daly Tiger in a Grade 2 and a Grade 3 respectively. That most recent effort was eye-catching for all that it was at a significantly lower plane to this. He has sometimes struggled with his fencing, any such frailties likely to be thoroughly exposed here, but he's a very talented horse.
Champion Chase Pace Map
Every chance Politologue goes forward, a fair chance Put The Kettle On and First Flow follow him closely, and not impossible that either or both of Notebook and Rouge Vif seek a piece of the action, too. Chacun Pour Soi is expected to be played from midfield.
Champion Chase Selection
What a race. Having previously felt this would be an open and shut case for Chacun Pour Soi - and with various ante post positions supporting that contention - I now fear pretty much all of his nine rivals to one degree or another! There will be little margin for error, and almost any horse putting together a perfect performance could win this. That said, if Chacun puts in a 95% performance he should win. His Irish form this season is peerless for all that it was achieved in softer turf. He needs to handle Cheltenham, and potentially tacky ground, and he has to jump.
Finding an each way alternative is hard because of the depth to the race.
Suggestion: I hope Chacun Pour Soi underlines his form this season by winning here, but he's only about the right price. After him, it's not difficult to make place claims for most and, as such, it's every man and woman for themselves. Gun to head, Notebook might be the best value each way/ without the favourite option. Should be a brilliant watch.
3.40 Glenfarclas Chase (Cross Country, Class 2, 3m6f)
Not for everyone is the Glenfarclas Chase, aka the Cross Country, but I'm a fan. It doesn't have quite the same predictability as in the good old Enda domination days but it remains a compelling spectacle and a welcome break from main course championship or big field handicap action. And it has advertised the claims of past Grand National winners (and maybe future Grand National winners) to boot.
The ante post market for the race has seen more shuffles than a Vegas black jack table with first the two French chevaux noirs and then the new Enda kid on the black, Shady Operator, skipping the gig this year. Meanwhile, at the head of affairs, Easysland and Tiger Roll, winners of the past three renewals between them, have been on the bookies' 'get' list as a combination of expected drying ground (Easysland) and bad juju vibes (Tiger Roll) have seemingly conspired against their optimal chances.
In spite of all that, Easysland is no bigger than 11/10 to record his own double in a race whose alumni includes three dual winners. When ambling away a year ago from a flailing Tiger Roll, 17 lengths in the French raider's debt, it looked as though David Cottin's then seven-year-old star was destined for a long reign over the kingdom inside the main tracks. He'd already emerged as a contender on his sole previous Cheltenham cross country run, and win, in December 2019.
But, on better ground and up a chunk in the weights, Easysland was unable to reduce much of the margin lent to pace-setters Kingswell Theatre and Beau Du Brizais here last November. That pair had enjoyed an unpestered time of it on the sharp end throughout and pressed on before the turn for home, catching a number of their pursuers a tad unawares. It was Potters Corner who got closest to smashing the cartel up front, but he had to settle for third. Meanwhile, Tiger Roll - never travelling - was pulled up.
All of these, bar Beau Du Brizais, will re-engage, the market predicting a notably different finishing order off level weights. But is that right? After all, the weight changes are often an irrelevance, or at least of diminished relevance, in the type of 'bimble then sprint' setup that characterizes most cross country races.
Easysland was sent off at 8/11 for the November handicap on this course. He closed quite well but never looked like reeling in the leaders. His trainer has expressly stated that the good ground was against him; so, if the forecast dry days manifest and given the fact that there is no capability to water the cross country track, he could be vulnerable. Add in an interrupted preparation, where he missed two intended engagements, and evens or so looks a potential opportunity to oppose. But with whom?
Tiger Roll is closest in the betting but, since winning this and the Grand National in that glorious 2019 pre-Covid spring, he's run 52P6. The '5' and the '6' were to some extent by design, both prep races in the last two Boyne Hurdles, the '2' was that 17L silver in this race last year, and the 'P' in the November handicap here. Are those runs forgivable in the context of the Tiger's overall form?
When he won this in 2019, he had finished a five length 4th of seven in the November handicap version and then won - albeit as a shock 25/1 shot - the Boyne Hurdle. When he won this in 2018, he'd been a well beaten (42L) fifth in the December handicap version and then trained up to the race. So the pattern in finishing position terms is the same, but he was pulled up never going in the November handicap and then 65L last of six in the Boyne Hurdle. His price requires a Grand Canyon-esque leap of faith off the back of recent efforts even when cognisant of the Tiger Roll blueprint. It is worth saying that, although 'only' eleven, he's danced a LOT of dances since winning the Triumph Hurdle in 2014.
A similar price is Potters Corner, who did best of the late runners in the November handicap. He is a Welsh National winner, on heavy ground, and all of his best runs do seem to be when it's hock deep and a test. This quicker ground and relative foot race probably isn't ideal for Christian Williams' stable star. Moreover, there is every likelihood his main target is the Aintree showpiece, for all that Tiger Roll has shown the two races are not mutually exclusive.
The December cross country handicap was won last year by Some Neck, who had preceded that victory with a third place in the Risk Of Thunder Chase on Punchestown's banks course. He'll handle the presumed quickish ground fine and has done well for a relatively inexperienced banks horse but this is a deeper and classier contest than either of his previous two for all that there are question marks against the top three in the wagering.
Balko Des Flos has not won since 2018. March 2018. In the Ryanair Chase. Since then, the ten-year-old has run occasionally with minor credit mainly in Grade 1 company. This is a big class drop, and it might be that the infield discipline rejuvenates him. The drying ground would also be in his favour but reservations are stamina - even in a typically tactical race such as this it's still most of four miles and 32 obstacles - and the dearth of encouraging efforts since the Ryanair.
A third Gigginstown wheel is provided by Alpha Des Obeaux, second in a Stayers' Hurdle and fourth in an RSA way back when. He's long in the tooth now so, while he has oodles of back class, he's probably too mature.
But there might be some interesting contenders in the long grass. Take Le Breuil, for instance: winner of that National Hunt Chase in 2019, he has twice been second in smaller field tactical affairs on good ground here. This looks a good race for him for all that he lacks cross country experience, and he ought to give his followers a run for their money as a prominent racer with more than a dash of grit and class.
Or what about the aforementioned Kingswell Theatre, twice a winner of handicaps over course and distance? He obviously handles conditions just fine, but a Glenfarclas record of 06P is less exciting. If it came up rattling quick (and I really hope it doesn't) he'd probably lead them a dance until at least the home turn but on good to soft or slower, he won't have the class.
And still there's one more I want to mention. Horses often get a sighter of the course in November or December prior to running much better in the March 'final'. Tiger Roll did it; Cause Of Causes did it; and, this season, both Potters Corner and Kings Temptation have done it.
The latter, in training with Ben 'Croco Bay' Case and wearing the same owner's silks as that late lamented Grand Annual legend, came home not far behind Potters and Easys in November having never been anywhere near the front rank throughout. He's won six of 18 chase starts, one on good to firm and the other five on good, so quick is how he rolls; and he rattled off a Uttoxeter hat-trick in that context last summer at between three and three and a quarter miles. Since the November sighter, he's had a spin in a jumpers' bumper and now here he is. I quite liked that quiet effort over course and distance and, though there's every likelihood he's simply nowhere near good enough, he looks very well suited to the conditions of the race.
I'm not much keen on the chances of the rest.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Pace Map
Odds on that Kingswell Theatre will lead. Easysland will probably be played from midfield, though connections may be mindful not to get too far back after the November episode (de Giles replaces Plouganou in the saddle). Hopefully Kings Temptation will be ridden in a much more 'interested' position this time.
Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase Selection
Backers of Easysland do have a few things to take on trust, fitness and ground being soft enough (can wait until nearer the time) principally. At around evens, I'd rather bet each way against him or without the favourite. Potters Corner ought to show up well if connections don't have one and a half eyes on the Grand National and, at a mad price, I've had a quid or two each way on Kings Temptation at 50/1. If you follow me in, don't whine if he's never even mentioned!
Suggestion: Back 6/1 Potters Corner each way. Hail Mary players might risk a shilling win and place on Kings Temptation at 50/1.
4.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (Grade 3, 2m)
Impossible stuff, and often attritional stuff, too, with the field tearing all guns blazing from the start. Mercifully, it looks on paper to be slightly less rapid early than is generally the case. This has been won by some massive prices including 66/1 shot Croco Bay two years ago, but that winner was sandwiched between 'obvious' 15/2 Le Prezien and 7/2 (!) Chosen Mate, both unexposed novice or second season chasers.
It makes sense to have a crack at a few against the field, and I'll take one novice and two more experienced. My first experienced guess is Us And Them, second in the 2019 Arkle and third in this race last year. He's been biding his time for the repeat bid and, for a few no shows, gets one pound back off the handicapper. This has been the plan, no question.
A second non-novice guess is Moonlighter for that shrewd Nick Williams team. Since 2017, the yard has had three winners from 15 Festival handicap runners - one a year from 2017 to 2019. Just two runners last year included the reigning champ, Siruh Du Lac, which fell two out when still in the lead. Moonlighter was fifth in the handicap on Scilly Isles day at Sandown responsible for five previous winners of the Grand Annual. Ibleo won that day and re-opposes on a stone worse terms. Ouch. It might not stop him of course, but it probably will.
Moonlighter followed up that fifth with a win over the same Sandown course and distance and has his first run at Cheltenham. He looks to have better than a 20/1 chance.
Of the unexposed novices at the top of the market, easily the most compelling to my eye is Embittered. The Joseph O'Brien-trained Gigginstown entry was third in the County Hurdle last season and has been running with credit in Grade 1 novice chases against the likes of Energumene and Franco De Port this time around. A mark of 146 should enable a bold showing granted the safe passage and luck in transit that all contestants will need.
Grand Annual Pace Map
Not as mad a gallop on the cards as is sometimes the case, though On The Slopes, Us And Them and Glen Forsa ought to be front rank from the start. Hopefully be a nice even tempo.
Grand Annual Selection
Your guess is very likely better than mine. I think each of Us And Them, Moonlighter and Embittered has its chance; but so, too, do 17 others!
Suggestion: Try 16/1 Us And Them, or 6/1 Embittered each way; and add in 20/1 Moonlighter if you are happy to take three against the field, with as many extra places as you can lay hands on. Then get the prayer mat out.
4.50 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, NH Flat, 2m 1/2f)
A great race in prospect, with many stars of the future in the field. But who knows which will further advertise their nascent ability against this particular examination? Not most people if the market is anything to go by. Mucklemeg, Liberman, Missed That, Moon Racer and Envoi Allen are the only five jollies to justify favouritism since the race was incepted in 1992. Crikey. Why do favourites have such a poor record? Simply because there are so many unexposed horses stepping into Grade 1 from lower level facile wins that nobody really knows which way to turn.
This year it's tight at the top between an established Mullins inmate and a recent arrival courtesy of the Cheveley Park axis of the Gordon Elliott fallout: by name, Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard.
Kilcruit is my pin up boy, the more so since he's been torched by some sections (word used advisedly) of the press. He's won his two races this year in impressive fashion, most recently in the Grade 2 Future Stars bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival. He was simply much too good for a field of theretofore upwardly mobile opponents that day. But they went hard and they walked home, say the timing boys. Well, guess what? They'll probably go hard here and walk home, relatively at least. More material may be that this is going to be run on a very different surface and Kilcruit's grinding style may be compromised by that. But he's a very high class grinder who deserves to be favourite on what he's achieved; whether that's a blessing or a curse given the history of the market leaders is moot.
Threatening to usurp Kilcruit atop the wagering tree is Sir Gerhard, whose winning Rules form was when trained by Elliott. His profile is quite different - more about style than substance at this point - but he, like all of this field, is doubtless capable of plenty more yet. That's the challenge in betting the Bumper: we have to project by how much each horse might improve. On the clock Sir Gerhard regressed from first to second bumper run, but the manner of his win knocked the eye out. Style or substance? You pays your money, your takes your choice.
This is never a two horse race, depth a perennial feature. Three Stripe Life lines up for Mrs Foster, Elliott's super sub, and he was an easy winner on heavy ground in his sole run. That form hasn't been especially well advertised but stable confidence is high, the same stable having recently claimed this prize with Envoi Allen and the sadly ill-fated Fayonagh.
Mr Mullins meanwhile also deploys Ramillies, who travelled like a high class horse in Kilcruit's race before failing to pick up in the very deep ground. It wouldn't be a huge shock if he turned tables on less punishing terrain.
It is harder to make cases for the rest, though the mare Elle Est Belle's form has been well advertised albeit at a relatively ordinary level in the frame of this Grade 1. And, though I don't like four-year-olds in the Champion Bumper, Super Six surprised at Chepstow last time, winning easily as an 11/2 chance. His sectionals reveal a very fast finish off a fair early pace that day so, if he can travel with these, he might have a little to offer at the business end. He'd perhaps need to be in the Cue Card ability range to prevail as a four-year-old, mind. Unlikely, perhaps, but not impossible. Little is, least of all at the Cheltenham Festival.
Champion Bumper Pace Map
Hard to know what might happen here. Based on recent form, Fine Casting might take them along, from the likes of Ramillies, Shearer and Sir Gerhard. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Champion Bumper selection
I'm into Kilcruit for a bit and, as time passes, I get more apprehensive. Usually there are any number of unexposed types in opposition, though this year - as with other races - it seems less deep. Still, the likes of Sir Gerhard and Three Stripe Life retain similar 'could be anything' potential, while Ramillies is worth another chance in a fascinating renewal.
Suggestion: The obvious pair are the class of Sir Gerhard and the relentlessness of Kilcruit, but at the available odds it could be worth chancing Three Stripe Life or Ramillies each way.
Some fantastic racing, most notably a vintage Champion Chase, bring us to the halfway stage. It's a long week, though, and we've still to do as much again before the weekend.